Sunday, June 29, 2008

André Bazin's Writings

Dudley Andrew's essay on Bazin and Sartre in the new Film Quarterly opens with a shocking fact:

Stacked nearly a meter high in my attic are photocopies of all--or nearly all--Bazin's published writings. This amounts to over 2600 items, of which, scandalously, less than seven per cent are available in French or English.

To which Andrew appends this uncertain note: "Cahiers du Cinéma has rights to all Bazin's published writings. They hope to bring out a complete works some day." For someone who is often thought to be cinema's best-known theorist and critic, and who further was instrumental in the eventual creation of the film studies discipline, this seems baffling.

I've been doing a Bazin immersion the last few weeks, and I'm amazed especially by two things. First, his writings are not about developing a "theory of cinema" in an abstract and 'systematic' manner. Instead, he puts in motion a process of continual exchange between film criticism and film theory. He begins with the films themselves, and their details--formal, stylistic, thematic, etc. His theoretical reflections then arise from a scrutiny of these details. Second, it's striking to see how he did all his theory and criticism work in full public view. As Bert Cardullo points out, Bazin's writings were produced for a range of publications that were variously aligned: liberal (L'Écran Francais); socialist (France-Observateur); left-wing Catholic (Esprit and Radio-Cinéma-Télévision, now Télérama); non-religious and state-run (L'Education Nationale); and conservative (Le Parisien libéré). In addition, of course, he co-founded and wrote for Cahiers du Cinéma. It's staggering to be reminded of how much he accomplished before he contracted leukemia at 36 and died at 40 in 1958.

Today I've been inventorying all the English-language translations of Bazin's writings on my shelves:

-- The two volumes of What is Cinema? (1967, 1971), translated by Hugh Gray. They contain many of his best-known pieces like "The Ontology of the Photographic Image," "The Evolution of the Language of Cinema," "The Virtues and Limitations of Montage," "In Defense of Mixed Cinema," and his essays on Italian neo-realism, the Western, Rossellini, Chaplin, Bresson, De Sica, and so on. (I wonder: do these two volumes of translations contain all the essays from the original 4-volume set of Qu'est-ce que le cinéma?)

-- Bazin at Work (1997), edited by Bert Cardullo, with essays on Wyler, Pagnol, adaptation, cinema and theology, Citizen Kane, etc.

-- Jean Renoir (1973), edited by Truffaut.

-- Orson Welles (1978), translated by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

-- The Cinema of Cruelty (1982), with separate sections on: von Stroheim, Dreyer, Sturges, Buñuel, Hitchcock and Kurosawa.

I'm curious: Am I missing any of Bazin's writings available in English?

Starting in the late '60s, the rise of a certain brand of theory--ideological, psychoanalytic, semiotic--was inhospitable and downright hostile to Bazin and his theories of realism inflected by Catholicism and existentialism. In retrospect this was understandable but since the 1980's cinema studies has witnessed the rise of a 'historical turn'. I'm wondering: Has the discipline seen a consequent return to and recuperation of Bazin? Are there signs this might come to pass?

Any ideas you may have on Bazin are welcome.

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And now ... fashion? There's a side of me that doesn't get out too much on this blog: a 'foreigner' who's lived in America for two decades but still finds its culture endlessly fascinating (and 'other'). The new issue of Entertainment Weekly has a list of pop culture moments of the last 25 years that influenced fashion. I've gathered here some of the interesting items on it:

Early Madonna (fingerless gloves, lingerie-styled wedding dress, crucifixes); Michael Jackson circa Thriller (Jheri curls, loafers with white socks); Ally McBeal (microminis); Miami Vice (roomy linen suits, sockless loafers); mid-'80s mall pop like Tiffany and Debbie Gibson (biker shorts, skorts, scrunchies); Jennifer Beals in Flashdance (scissored sweatshirts); Gwen Stefani circa No Doubt (white tanks, studded bra straps, bondage pants); Kanye West (those sunglasses); Rihanna (the bob); Janet Jackson circa Rhythm Nation (the military look--epaulets, cadet caps); Pretty in Pink (Molly Ringwald's DIY prom-dress, Duckie's bolo tie); Reality Bites (Lisa Loeb's cat-eye frames); Mr. T in The A-Team (a sort of proto-bling); The Golden Girls (shoulder pads, sequins); early Shania Twain (bare midriffs enter Nashville music culture); Puff Daddy and Mase's "Mo Money Mo Problems" (bright, baggy tracksuits); and Beverly Hills 90210 (sideburns).

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-- Jonathan Rosenbaum on Pedro Costa: "I found that, even though I simultaneously loved and had to struggle in diverse ways with all of Costa’s films, Casa de Lava, his only landscape film, was the one that blew me away the most."

-- Two fascinating interviews by Michael Guillen: Catherine Breillat and Elvis Mitchell.

-- David Phelps has been on a roll. At his blog Videoarcadia, he has a post with some reflections and links to his writings including his new piece on Ken Jacobs's Razzle Dazzle at Auteurs' Notebook.

-- Glenn Kenny: "Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Brasillach, and Anti-Semitism: Some observations."

-- At his site Jigsaw Lounge, Neil Young on the Edinburgh film festival.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Received Ideas in Cinema

You may remember Christian Keathley from his stimulating guest post on "Uncanny Overlaps" a few months ago. In an e-mail last week, Chris was musing about "received ideas" in cinema, and I'd like to share his thought-provoking words here for us to read and talk about. -- Girish.

Jean-Marie Straub once remarked: “People think Eisenstein was the best editor because he had some theories about it. But the greatest and most precise editor was Chaplin, and Jacques Rivette is a close second.”

I love the way this remark turns upside down certain received ideas that we think are set in stone. The received idea here has to do less with Eisenstein than with Chaplin. The established line is that Chaplin was the great humanist filmmaker, and maybe the greatest movie actor of all time; but when it comes to “cinematic” qualities, Keaton is the one who shines. Apparently, Straub sees things differently.

I read this remark of Straub’s years ago, but was reminded of it when my friend Prakash Younger told me about Robert Bresson’s contribution to one of the Sight & Sound Top Ten polls.

1. City Lights
2. City Lights
3. The Gold Rush

In addition to being funny (indeed, Prakash described this as Bresson’s version of a Chaplinesque gag), this list reinforces something of Straub’s point: clearly, the modernists Straub and Bresson see in Chaplin a formal rigor that the general line does not account for. Even when the rest of us acknowledge the general line on Chaplin as a “received idea,” with all the limitations that term implies, that line still holds an influence that can blind us to these other virtues.

Similarly, there are possibly qualities in Eisenstein that the general line on him overlooks as well. Another of my favorite quotes comes from him: “Suppose some truant good fairy were to ask me … ‘Is there some American film you’d like me to make you the author of – with a wave of my wand?’ I would not hesitate to accept the offer, and I would at once name the film that I wish I had made. It would be Young Mr. Lincoln directed by John Ford.” This remark makes me want to re-watch Potemkin more than Young Mr. Lincoln. Are there common qualities, especially qualities in the Eisenstein, that I hadn’t seen before in these films that seem so obviously to contrast one another in so many ways? Those critics who have typically fawned over Eisenstein, Straub, and Bresson (I’m thinking here of the likes of Michelson, Burch, Sontag) never alerted me to any such correspondence.

A key part of the pleasure of these quotes is that each involves a filmmaker of the highest rank speaking candidly (and unexpectedly) about the work of another. None of this nonsense of a director saying what he thinks he's supposed to say. (In the 1952 Belgian Cinematheque poll, both Elia Kazan and Billy Wilder picked Potemkin as the greatest film of all time. I don’t believe it for a second.) A great example of a director speaking candidly about others is the fabulous interview with Jacques Rivette in Senses Of Cinema. It’s filled with great remarks about other directors. Two of my favorites: “Here's a good definition of mise en scène - it's what's lacking in the films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz.” And on Michael Haneke’s Funny Games: “What a disgrace, just a complete piece of shit!” The second remark is just funny, while the first raises a pretty important issue.

* * *

A word of thanks to Chris for those reflections. They've got me thinking. Sometimes received ideas become reinforced and cemented by being brought up repeatedly as critical short-hand. For example: Samuel Fuller's films are "primitive"; Lang is all about fate; Ozu celebrates quiet resignation, and keeps his camera low and static; Chabrol makes Hitchcockian films that are bourgeois satires; Bresson is austere and minimalist; Peckinpah's films revel in ultraviolence, etc, etc. Now, these pronouncements aren't exactly false, but by no means are they the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The problem is that they 'fix' filmmakers too easily and quickly, thus constraining our thinking about them to certain pre-determined pathways.

I'd enjoy hearing from you: What do you think are some "received ideas" in cinema, some too-familar wisdoms that might need questioning or doubting? And are there (like in Chris' examples above) filmmakers who might help us do this by expressing unexpected affinities for certain films or directors we wouldn't normally associate with them?

* * *


-- At Auteurs' Notebook, David Phelps has an epic, image-filled post on Rivette and Celine and Julie.

-- New articles at the Moving Image Source: Adam Nayman on Peter Lynch; Jonathan Rosenbaum on Marcel L'Herbier; Mark Asch on Tomu Uchida; and Tom Charity on the Chris Fujiwara-edited Defining Moments in Movies.

-- The debut issue of Experimental Conversations ("Cork Film Centre's online journal of experimental film, art cinema and video art"). via Albert Alcoz at Visionary Film.

-- Kevin Lee posts two enjoyable video essays: C. Mason Wells on Truffaut's Les deux anglaises et le continent; and Chris Fujiwara on Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon.

-- Michael Sicinski has me curious to check out Definitely, Maybe and The Invisible Circus ("I'm ready to conclude that this Adam Brooks fellow may well be a severely underrated pop filmmaker.")

-- On my list to track down at the library: the new issue of Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, which is devoted to Hou Hsiao-hsien and includes pieces by Hou, Adrian Martin, Paul Willemen, Shigehiko Hasumi, Kumar Shahani, and others.

-- Kristin Thompson on types and characteristics of "turning points" in Hollywood storytelling.

-- At his blog The Cine File, Andrew Schenker reviews Richard Brody's new biography of Godard.

-- New DVD releases that I've just added to my 'queue': Derek Jarman's Caravaggio, Wittgenstein, and Blue; Andre Techine's The Witnesses; Adam Curtis' The Power of Nightmares; Anthony Mann's The Furies; and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis.

pic: Rivette from the interview: "Starship Troopers doesn't mock the American military or the clichés of war - that's just something Verhoeven says in interviews to appear politically correct. In fact, he loves clichés, and there's a comic strip side to Verhoeven, very close to Lichtenstein. And his bugs are wonderful and very funny, so much better than Spielberg's dinosaurs. I always defend Verhoeven, just as I've been defending Altman for the past twenty years."

Monday, June 16, 2008

A Blog-Pause

I'm scribbling away to meet three deadlines and need to take a brief blog break. I should be back within a week or two. Take care, all.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


-- The newly redesigned Artforum site now features a film column that is updated with new pieces a couple of times a week. Currently up: James Quandt on Sokurov's Alexandra; Brian Sholis on Derek Jarman; Jason Anderson on Steve McQueen's Hunger; Andrew Hultkrans on Godard; Cécile Whiting on the art documentary The Cool School, etc.

-- A trove of good reading at the Moving Image Source, including: Dan Sallitt on late Hawks; Jonathan Rosenbaum on William Klein; Chris Fujiwara on Naruse actor Tatsuya Nakadai; B. Kite on the new Richard Brody biography of Godard, etc.

-- Zach writes about Jonas Mekas and Hollis Frampton.

-- Dan in a post about Nakahira, Vadim, and composition: "When I watch a movie and think, “These images are intrinsically beautiful – this director really knows how to compose,” and then try to analyze the visual style, I often conclude that the compositions are balanced between two functions: showing the figure in the foreground, and showing the world. The balance is always managed in such a way that the shot can still function in the mind of the viewer as a depiction of the foreground figure; and yet the room or landscape is presented with some spatial integrity.

"And every time I watch a movie and think, “These images are dull and conventional,” I conclude upon further analysis that the compositions are framed as if they are trying to present only one object, or one idea, and that the image reduces in my mind to a concept."

-- The new issue of Cineaste has over a dozen essays available online, including several Web exclusives.

-- Two recently discovered blogs: Scarlett Cinema ("Women in Film Criticism"); and DinaView, run by Dina Iordanova, one of the contributors to the Chris Fujiwara-edited book, "Defining Moments in Movies".

-- via Keith Uhlich: Maxim Gorky in 1896 on seeing some Lumière films.

-- In the DVD Panache interview with David Hudson, we learn that one of his favorite film books is Geoffrey O'Brien's The Phantom Empire.

-- David points to the online publication Triple Canopy. The new issue features works by Michael Robinson and Keren Cytter.

-- Lots of good reading in the Kino Fist work issue, including pieces on Akerman and Godard.

-- via Mubarak: Jon Jost's blog.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Cinema & Revulsion

I have a conflicted relationship with modern horror cinema because, to be honest, I’m a bit squeamish. Maybe this has something to do with my cinema upbringing—in Indian film history, horror has never been a strong presence.

The Indian film market as a whole is composed of three categories: ‘A’ (large cities, where I grew up); ‘B’ (towns); and ‘C’ (rural areas, where the majority of the Indian population lives). In my teen years, the ‘70s and ‘80s, horror films did exist, but they were low-budget films made mostly for the C market. These were films marked by a double disreputability: not only did they contain explicit violence (although nowhere near the extent that their low-budget Western counterparts of the period did), they also had strong sexual overtones. Overt sexuality in Indian films was taboo for a long time; even kissing on the lips didn’t appear on Indian screens until the mid-‘80s. For these reasons, horror films didn't circulate much in A and B markets because producers were nervous about provoking widespread middle-class moral outrage in urban centers with high concentrations of educated bourgeois.

So, being barely familiar with the genre, when I moved to America as an adult and wandered innocently into The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the first time, the damn thing hit me like a truck. It took me 10 years to return to it, gingerly, and then I quickly recognized its genius.

I find that sometimes I need more than one exposure to such a film in order to surmount my revulsions, to try and push back the limits of my squeamishness. Cinema can be a source of rarefied emotions and spiritual edification but ultimately it’s much more than those things: it deals with the entire gamut of human experience and sensation. To be truly curious about art in all its variety also means opening oneself up to that wide range of experience and sensation. This is the rationale, the mantra I repeat to myself when trying to work on my squeamishness problem.

And sometimes it can be hard. Horror films make special demands on us, even if they ‘reward’ us with special sensations. In her famous, much-anthologized essay “Film Bodies” (1991), Linda Williams speaks of the three genres that have never attained respectability: horror, melodrama, and porn. All three deviate from the norms and economy of classical realist narrative cinema with displays of excess. They strike audiences as gratuitous, viscerally manipulative, and unseemly. Importantly, they collapse the ‘aesthetic distance’ that makes the spectator feel comfortable and safe.

Williams points out that there’s something else these three ‘body genres’ have in common: they create a spectacle of excess that is enacted in the film upon the human body (violence in horror; emotion in melodrama; and orgasm in porn) but they also induce in the spectator a mimicry of these effects (fear for horror; tears for melodrama; arousal/orgasm for porn). In other words, these films brush ‘aesthetic distance’ out of the way and act viscerally upon the spectator’s body. The spectator doesn’t watch these films calmly, but instead convulses with them. Which can result in a certain hesitancy, a squeamishness on the part of the viewer due to the excess of physical and emotional investment these films demand.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject. Are there certain films or filmmakers you will not watch because they gross you out or disturb you too much? Over the years, has your tolerance/threshold for graphic horror gone up or down? What, in your opinion, are the difficult-to-watch films that are nevertheless rewarding and valuable? And what has been the effect of time: do you approach or process horror films any differently now than you did when you were younger?

* * *


-- Adrian Martin at Filmkrant on Armond White's piece in the New York Press, "What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Movies": "In the field of film criticism, White is against everyone: reviewers, promoters, bloggers, cinephiles. They are not merely myopic, in White's estimation, but 'wilfully blind' to the truth before them on the screen and in the world, because of ideological bias, or their desperate need to flee reality. But what is that truth, this reality? In his essay, White spontaneously offers 'ten current film culture fallacies' - ranging from 'Gus Van Sant is the new Visconti when he's really the new Fagin, a jailbait artful dodger', to 'Only non-pop Asian cinema from J-horror to Hou Hsiao Hsien counts, while Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou and Stephen Chow are rejected'. That list is Armond White in a nutshell: it's all dubious assertion (only 'non-pop' Asian cinema is acclaimed?) and even more aggressive counter-assertion (Van Sant is a phony), in a non-stop, strident loop. There is no argument, no development, no depth in this writing - for the simple reason that White is always dancing on the surface of ideas, a polemical 'moving target'. His modus operandi is confusion, as in this thumbnail account of Apichatpong Weerasethakul: all critics (except White) apparently ignore the 'fundamental terms', 'the facts of his Asianness, his sexual outlawry and his retreat into artistic and intellectual arrogance that evades social categorisation'. So is he for or against the filmmaker? Who can tell?"

-- In Artforum, a tribute by several writers to Alain Robbe-Grillet.

-- The summer season at Cinematheque Ontario features the following series: Robbe-Grillet & Alain Resnais; Jean Eustache; Luchino Visconti; Marcello Mastroianni; 24 Japanese Classics; Peter Lynch.

-- Michael Sicinski takes up Serge Bozon's La France, Craig Baldwin's Mock Up on Mu, Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues and Nanouk Leopold's Wolfsbergen.

-- Filmblog discovery of the week: Max Goldberg's Text of Light.

-- David Phelps (previously David Pratt-Robson) on "returns, escapes" in Rivette and Feuillade.

-- Michael Guillen on Joseph Campbell.

-- Danny Kasman's Cannes wrap-up piece with links to his reviews, at The Auteurs' Notebook.

-- via Joe Bowman at Fin de Cinema comes news of upcoming region-1 DVD releases: Demy's The Pied Piper and Jayasundara's The Forsaken Land. Also, picked up from Cannes were the new films by: Lucretia Martel, Arnaud Desplechin, the Dardennes, Leos Carax, Olivier Assayas, Steve McQueen, and Ari Folman.

-- Michael Wood in the London Review of Books on three Bresson films.

pic: Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977).