Sunday, July 27, 2008

Analyses To Sink Your Teeth Into

At the beginning of this year I embarked on a personal project: revisiting a film and then, immediately afterwards, reading a detailed, lengthy, meaty analysis of it. I've tried to do this with at least 1-2 films a week.

My objective is to target films that are (1) either well-reputed, or (2) ones for which I have a special affinity. My hope is that this will help me construct and 'fix' in my memory, however sparse and skeletal, a small matrix of details about each film.

There has been another, unanticipated benefit to this exercise: a reminder that no close analysis is 'objective' or 'neutral'. Every reading occurs from a certain reading position, and employs a certain methodology. Thus, it's been a great, practical way to be exposed, on an ongoing basis, to a broad range of interpretative approaches: e.g., mise-en-scene analysis (V.F. Perkins on The Magnificent Ambersons), structuralism (Peter Wollen on Ford and Hawks), feminism (Tania Modleski on Hitchcock), psychoanalysis (Laura Mulvey on Citizen Kane), urbanism and cultural studies (Edward Dimendberg on Phantom Lady), liberal humanism (Robin Wood on Hawks), textual analysis (Raymond Bellour on The Birds), ideological analysis (Robert B. Ray on Casablanca and Taxi Driver), Marxist critique of postmodernism (Fredric Jameson on The Terrorizer), etc.

It has also resulted in my having to read a wide variety of writers, much greater than a few years ago when nearly all my movie-related reading was journalistic and I read the same writers (the ones I gravitated towards) all the time. Suddenly, the horizon of writing models available to learn from has opened up considerably.

I went about the project in two ways: either (a) working backwards from books or essays I identified, or (b) working forwards from films I felt were important to see and read about in depth. Here are some examples of the books and films:

(a) Books/Essays:

-- The James Quandt-edited Bresson anthology.

-- Style and Meaning: Studies in the Detailed Analysis of Film, edited by John Gibbs and Douglas Pye. La Ceremonie (Deborah Thomas), Letter from an Unknown Woman (Steve Neale), Bonjour Tristesse (Gibbs/Pye), etc.

-- Gilberto Perez's The Material Ghost: Films and their Medium. Rules of the Game, Earth, Nosferatu, L'Eclisse, A Day in the Country, etc.

-- Adrian Martin's books on the Mad Max series and Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In America.

-- Joe McElhaney's The Death of Classical Cinema: a full-length book devoted to three films, Lang's The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, Hitchcock's Marnie and Minnelli's Two Weeks in Another Town.

-- David Bordwell's book on Ozu (available online).

-- The Cinema of Victor Erice, edited by Linda Ehrlich.

-- Narration in Light: Studies in Cinematic Point of View by George M. Wilson. You Only Live Once, North by Northwest, Letter from an Unknown Woman, The Devil is a Woman, Rebel Without a Cause.

-- James Naremore's books on Kubrick and Minnelli.

-- Robert B. Ray's The ABCs of Classic Hollywood. (A post I wrote on it.)

-- Dudley Andrew's Film in the Aura of Art. Broken Blossoms, Sunrise, L'Atalante, Meet John Doe, La Symphonie Pastorale, Diary of a Country Priest.

-- Film Analysis: A Norton Reader (ed. Geiger and Rutsky), with over forty essays.

-- Jim Kitses's Horizons West. Ford, Mann, Boetticher, Peckinpah, Leone, Eastwood.

(b) Films:

-- Rules of the Game: Perez, Andre Bazin, Peter Wollen, Raymond Durgnat, Leo Braudy, Alexander Sesonske.

-- Passion: Peter Wollen, Harun Farocki and Kaja Silverman, Fredric Jameson.

-- Marnie: Robin Wood, Murray Pomerance, Joe McElhaney.

-- The Searchers: Edward Buscombe, Tag Gallagher, Brian Henderson, Douglas Pye, Peter Lehman.

-- Blade Runner: I didn't realize that an army of people have written about this film!

-- The Scarlet Empress: Robin Wood, George Toles, Andrew Sarris, Carole Zucker.

-- Brokeback Mountain (which I just saw for the first time): Film Quarterly special issue in 2007 with D.A. Miller (this essay is a tour de force--highly recommended), Jim Kitses, Chris Berry, B. Ruby Rich, etc.

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I realize this is a vast topic, but I thought we'd try to turn this post into a modest little resource that others might find helpful. So, let me ask you: Would you like to share any examples of your favorite film analyses (either books or essays)? And/or any good analyses you might've read recently that you'd like to recommend?

Many of the examples I've listed above are probably known to the cinephile or cinema student. Any off-the-beaten-path or under-appreciated pieces of analysis that you'd like to turn us on to? Your suggestions are welcome.

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-- Adam Nayman at Reverse Shot on The Dark Knight.

-- At Errata, Rob Davis and J. Robert Parks have a discussion, on podcast, of Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep.

-- Phillip Lopate has a piece at Film in Focus called "Critics in Crisis."

-- via David at Greencine, the Stanley Kubrick site has loads of material: interviews, essays, reviews, etc.

-- Youssef Chahine has died. He was 82.

John Ford has said that he made it plenty clear in The Searchers that Ethan and his sister-in-law Martha were in love. Here they share an intimate moment, and Clayton (Ward Bond) pretends not to notice.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

San Francisco Silent Film Festival

I must begin with a word of gratitude to the wonderfully generous Michael ("Maya") Guillen of The Evening Class, who invited me to the festival, offered his fabulous pad for me to stay in, and arranged for my press credentials.

A highlight of my trip was meeting up and spending time with Darren, who flew in from Tennessee. Michael threw us a party and invited the San Francisco film/cinephile community to it (thanks again, Michael!). It was fun to meet and hang out with fellow film-bloggers like Brian Darr of Hell On Frisco Bay, Ryland Walker Knight of Vinyl Is Heavy, The House Next Door, and Free Nikes, Shahn of Six Martinis and the Seventh Art, Michael Hawley of The Evening Class, Miljenko Skoknic, and Adam Hartzell.

I was startled by the high level of quality of the films at the festival (both the terrific prints and the films themselves). My favorites were: Dreyer's Mikael (rich, delicious mise-en-scene, and a knockout, transcendent ending); Kinugasa's Jujiro (expressionist avant-garde Japanese film packed with nonstop formal experimentation); William Desmond Taylor's The Soul of Youth (a moving social problem melodrama that is included in the DVD box set Treasures III, Social Issues in American Film, 1900–1934); Harold Lloyd's The Kid Brother (a good analysis might be written about the imaginative way in which geometric thinking not only drives the film's gags but also becomes fused with its mise-en-scene and camera movement); Tod Browning's The Unknown (while containing no overtly 'fancy' composition or cutting, every frame of this film is imbued with an audacious perversity); Rene Clair's Les Deux Timides (all those wonderful split screens and speculative flashbacks); and H.P. Carver's The Silent Enemy (save Nanook, the only silent ethnographic film I've seen--it makes me want to go exploring about in this genre).

I should make particular mention of the festival program book, which contains a specially commissioned scholarly essay for each film. (In a perfect film-world, every festival would do this.) Brian Darr's piece on Jujiro, for instance, enormously helped my appreciation of this movie.

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Some links:

-- At The House Next Door, Ryland writes in detail about his festival experience and also helpfully collects links to other coverage.

-- I reecently realized that Jonathan Rosenbaum's website has an entire section called "Notes" that I'd been unaware of: lots of good reading there. Also, he has an informative report from the Bologna Ritrovato at Moving Image Source.

-- David Bordwell has a terrific, must-read post that begins with this 1927 H.L. Mencken quote: "The first moving-pictures, as I remember them thirty years ago, presented more or less continuous scenes. They were played like ordinary plays, and so one could follow them lazily and at ease. But the modern movie is no such organic whole; it is simply a maddening chaos of discrete fragments. The average scene, if the two shows I attempted were typical, cannot run for more than six or seven seconds. Many are far shorter, and very few are appreciably longer. The result is confusion horribly confounded. How can one work up any rational interest in a fable that changes its locale and its characters ten times a minute?"

-- Andrew Tracy opens his Reverse Shot piece on Hellboy II thus: "Talking faux-seriously about juvenilia has become a marvelous way to avoid talking seriously about the serious."

-- Exciting news from the Toronto International Film Festival: the avant-garde program will include work by Jean-Marie Straub, Nathaniel Dorsky, James Benning, Jim Jennings, Jennifer Reeves, and Pat O'Neill, among others.

-- Craig Keller: "If we have to classify the films of Louis Feuillade — and we don't, because there are no rules in cinema or criticism (love or war) — ...we'd do well to stop deferring to the contemporary marketing that announced them as adventure serials, and start referring to these (un-/)determinedly recursive five-plus-hour sagas by what they really are, which are extended psychodramas — dangerous, occult, quasi-cathartic manipulations of the spectating psyche."

-- A commenter at Dan's place indicates that a Murnau/Borzage DVD box is imminent from Fox. (Wow.)

pic: The Danish director Benjamin Christensen (of Haxan and The Mysterious X) plays a painter in Dreyer's Mikael.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Paul Schrader/Dead Magazines

I have a piece at Artforum on Paul Schrader's Mishima (1985) and Mishima's only film as director, Patriotism (1966).

Not all of Schrader's films work for me, but in addition to Mishima and Affliction, I like his insomniac night-worker cycle: American Gigolo, Light Sleeper, Scorsese's Taxi Driver. There's a lengthy and interesting interview with him in the most recent issue of Rouge that's worth reading. Schrader is often open-minded and un-defensive about evaluating his own films and the choices he made in them. Here are two examples of things I've had trouble with in his films: (1) The bombast of Michael Been's songs in Light Sleeper and the over-insistent Philip Glass score in Mishima (although Giorgio Moroder's synth-rock score for American Gigolo works beautifully); and (2) The easy reaching for redemptive endings in Gigolo and Sleeper by pasting the ending of Bresson's Pickpocket on to them. But even this repeated Bresson gesture--I hear Patty Hearst also ends this way--bothers me less than it used to, and is even a bit touching in its slightly awkward doggedness.

I recently discovered to my surprise that one of Schrader's formative influences was the architect-inventor-filmmaker Charles Eames. Schrader wrote a lengthy essay on Eames for Film Quarterly in 1970 called "Poetry of Ideas"; it's available on his site in pdf form. In an interview in Schrader on Schrader, he speaks about his own strict Calvinist upbringing and how Eames introduced him to something new:

I had been raised in an environment that believed that ideas were the province of language, and that if you had something to say you used words to say it, and that if you wanted to speak of beauty or of spirituality you used words. This is what Calvin had used,, this is what Luther had used, this is what Knox had used. What Charles taught me, and taught me with great patience and dilgence, was that an image or an object can also be an idea.

So, for example, you have the word 'wineglass', a nine-letter linguistic concept, and you have this object, a wineglass, which is related to the word by a semantic code but which is not the same idea. And if you have a different wineglass, you have a different idea again, and again; and only when you appreciate that those ideas have as much validity as the word 'wineglass' will you be visually literate.

Eames taught me that there is a visual logic in life and that to be a poet, or a poet of ideas (which is what I called my piece), doesn't mean you have to use language. I was like Paul on the road to Damascus when I heard this. I had always believed that people who thought visually were inferior thinkers, and that painting was essentially an illustration of ideas, which is how it was taught at Calvin, rather than an idea in its own right. Whenever any truly powerful idea hits you it overwhelms you, and that just knocked me out and I was changed permanently.

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Adrian's new column at Filmkrant is on "dead magazines":

[W]e must recognise the spectre of mortality which looms over Internet magazines - not to mention even more ephemeral sites such as blogs and 'listserv' discussions. How many of us print out the entire contents of the film pages we read on-line? One day, that may be the only trace left of them...On the other hand, the Internet gives us the spectacle of something that is just as ghostly but nonetheless gratifying: magazines that have reached their final issue, perhaps years ago, but still remain on-line, thanks to the good graces of whoever pays the archive bill.

In the comments to the previous post, Andy Rector wondered about the André Bazin unofficial tribute site, which seems to have vanished. A couple of years ago, I remember stumbling upon an interesting magazine called Cinemad and returning to it later to discover that it had gone poof, archives and all. And I've never manually archived the contents of this blog, simply assuming that nothing could possibly happen to it: a foolish assumption, perhaps?

Here's my nomination for archival resurrection of a "dead magazine": the CinemaTexas Notes archives that collect, in pdf form, hundreds of detailed program note/essays written in the 1970s at the University of Texas at Austin.

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-- Dan Sallitt at Auteurs' Notebook: "I can’t think of too many current directors of Hiroki Ryuichi’s stature and skill who work almost exclusively from scripts written by others. Is he a modern-day Jacques Tourneur, submitting to random collaboration in order to explore the dimensions of his personality? Or does he have the clout to work with writers to develop material that is meaningful to him? He was unknown on the international scene before his excellent 2003 Vibrator - but the IMDb gives him 44 directing credits, and 33 of them are before Vibrator. Many of these are allegedly “pink films,” soft-core pornography. At what point did he turn into an important filmmaker?"

-- via Jim Emerson and David Hudson: At Test Pattern, Kathleen Murphy on Last Year at Marienbad and Jay Kuehner on James Benning.

-- Zach asks: "What Is Cinema (For)?"

-- David Hudson rounds up the new issue of Film Comment.

-- In that new issue, the following Marco Ferreri films have been announced for DVD release here: El Cochito, The Seed of Man, La Grande Bouffe, Don't Touch the White Woman, Bye Bye Monkey, Seeking Asylum, Tales of Ordinary Madness, The House of Smiles. For those, unlike me, who are familiar with Ferreri: might you have any specific recommendations among these films?

-- Blog discovery of the week, via David Cairns: Unsung Joe ("Where bit-part actors go when they die").

-- At The Evening Class, Michael Guillen posts a 2-part interview with Stephen Salmons, director of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which I'll be heading out West to attend in a couple of days.

Two hands, one pulling back, the other hanging on: Dana Delany and Willem Dafoe in the cafeteria scene in Light Sleeper.