Monday, August 25, 2008

Manny Farber, In Memoriam

First, a big thanks to David Hudson for attentively and patiently gathering links to a variety of Manny Farber tributes this week.

If I might wax personal for a second, Farber happened to provide a turning point for this blog. A little over two years ago, I did a post on termite art and white elephant art. In the process of writing it and in discussing Farber in the comments with others, primarily Zach, I discovered that my film-blogging interests lay not simply in films but in discourse about films: reading, writing, talking about them. For occasioning this turn in the road for the blog, among many other reasons, I'm grateful to Farber and his essay.

Let me offer, as a small homage, ten reasons why I like Manny Farber.

(1) His great gift for describing the surfaces of films. Donald Phelps, in an essential essay on him called "Critic Going Everywhere," wrote that Farber is often trying to convince readers and spectators that the 'depths' of art lie in its surfaces. And Farber's writing is itself composed of surfaces that are one-of-a-kind, thick, and "all-over" as in an abstract expressionist painting.

(2) The Phelps essay is collected in a terrific book by him, now out of print, called Covering Ground (1969). The title might well stand for Farber's own writing practice. Phelps opens his essay like this:

Manny Farber's criticism is an extension of his painting, of his talk. Extension is the theme of his work. The fretful energy which births his virtues and sometimes faults, is an energy through which work covers ground: the terrain existing only to be covered, not occupied, not (for too long a time) staked out. Thus, the work, painting or movie criticism or art criticism, advances horizontally, in all possible directions, never seeming to exist for a simple progress from A to B; and getting away as far as possible from any pivot, any centripetal force.

(3) One of my favorite Jonathan Rosenbaum essays is "They Drive By Night: The Criticism of Manny Farber" (1993). It can be found in his collection Placing Movies, and last week he put it up on his website. I find this piece moving because it tracks, with an acute sense of personal vulnerability, the vicissitudes of Rosenbaum's personal relationship with the volatile Farber. The entire piece is a must-read, but let me excerpt this bit on Farber's prescient mode of viewing:

Discontinuous viewing was his preferred way of watching a movie, a method he shared with Godard; if a movie he really liked such as ORDET was being shown several times in the campus screening room over a given week, he’d turn up each time for a different reel or two—maybe even for the same reels, whatever happened to be on.

(4) I like the deep ambivalence that Farber feels for a certain relentlessly evaluative critical impulse that he describes below. It's ironic that Farber himself was sometimes guilty of exercising this impulse.

It's terrible that a certain language and capacity to make judgments come so easily. It should be hard to write on these films. Whatever the film, we are told endlessly, shot by shot, scene by scene, what's good or bad. It's crazy, totally crazy. I'd like to see that mode of criticism applied to Cezanne or Mozart, saying what does and doesn't work at every step [...] In short, the resistance posed to artistic criticism has vanished; it's turned into a pie that critics quickly slice into pieces.

(5) Farber is rare among critics in attempting to de-emphasize the place of meaning in the criticism of an artwork:

I don't see how or why anyone should be expected to get the meaning of an event in a movie or a painting. That's a place where criticism goes wrong: it keeps trying for a complete solution. I think the point of criticism is to build up the mystery. And the point is to find movies which have a lot of puzzle in them.

(6) Starting in the late '60s, many of Farber's pieces were written in collaboration with Patricia Patterson. It's interesting to contrast the earlier and later Farber essays and speculate about the nature of Patterson's influence. He puts it thus:

Patricia's got a photographic ear; she remembers conversations from a movie. She is a fierce anti-solutions person, against identifying a movie as a single thing, period. She is also an antagonist of value judgments. What does she replace it with? Relating a movie to other sources, getting the plot, the idea behind a movie--getting the abstract idea out of it. She brings that into the writing and takes the assertiveness out.

(7) Bill Krohn, in an another essential piece called "My Budd by Manny Farber," wonderfully characterizes Farber's criticism as being all-inclusive without being systematic:

[I]t's often impossible to tell from the beginning of an essay on a film or a filmmaker where it is going to end up: There is no thesis, no antithesis, no possibility of synthesis, in part because the need to "get it all in" works against the more traditional critical ambition to "say everything" about a work by constructing a microcosmic model that includes by definition, everything that can be said. Farber works against that idea of system by creating a microcosm whose powers of control over the object of its discourse are seriously handicapped by playful gestures which deny its internal coherence.

(8) The expanded (1998) edition of Negative Space concludes with a list by Farber and Patterson of their seven critical precepts. One of them is: "Willingness to put in a great deal of time and discomfort: long drives to see films again and again; nonstop writing sessions." Farber says:

I'm unable to write at all without extraordinary amounts of rewriting. The "Underground Movies" piece took several years to write. An article on bit players was stolen from the car--a funny thing to steal on Second Avenue and Second Street, but it was stored in the lid of an Underwood at about the fifth year of its evolution. I'm not a work-ethic nut, but the surface-tone-composition in everything I do--painting, carpentering, writing, teaching--comes from working and reworking the material.

(9) The carefulness of his observation--not just of a movie's details but more importantly of the world at large--can be a great inspiration to us to open our eyes a little wider and pay a little more attention to the world around us.

It's a silly thing to say, but it's very important to me that people know exactly the way our house looked, and where it was situated; that there was the Lyric Theatre across the street from us, and at what angle, and how dark it was inside, and what kind of candy they sold, that it was next to a pool hall--that's an icon of my memory, that street.

(10) There are a handful of Farber essays, like "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art" or "Underground Films," that get cited over and over again (and of course, they're great). But one of the relatively lesser-known pieces I like a lot is "Cartooned Hip Acting" (1967). Here's an excerpt from it in an older post; it's on John Boorman's Point Blank.

Notes: In the '60s, Donald Phelps put together a Farber collection for his magazine For Now. It's available here. The Bill Krohn essay first appeared as an afterword in Charles Tatum Jr.'s Ride Lonesome (Belgium: Editions Yellow Now, 1988). All of Manny Farber's own words above are from his interview with Richard Thompson and Patricia Patterson that appears in Negative Space, save his remarks on the evaluative impulse which are from Jean-Pierre Gorin et al.'s essay in Framework's special Manny Farber issue (1999). However, I took this latter quotation not from the Framework issue but from Adrian Martin's Movie Mutations letter exchange with James Naremore. I've searched far and wide but have not been able to lay my hands on this Framework special issue--any tips or help will be hugely appreciated!

And now it's over to you all: Your thoughts and sentiments on anything and everything to do with Manny Farber? Please feel welcome to share.

pic: Delphine Seyrig in Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, the subject of Farber and Patterson's famous "Kitchen Without Kitsch" essay. Recently I read Jonathan Rosenbaum's piece on his favorite non-region-1 box sets at DVD Beaver, and ordered his #2 pick, the Akerman 5-disc set from the Belgian Cinéart label. It's a beaut.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

TIFF 2008 Film-List

Here is the Toronto International Film Festival film-list at Darren's TIFF blog, 1st Thursday.

The festival runs for 10 days starting September 4th, and I plan to be there for 8 of those 10 days. I'll drive back once mid-festival to teach my classes.

Here are some films I expect to get tickets for, although I suspect the list will look a bit different when the festival schedule is announced. I'm listing them by program.

-- Special Presentations: 35 Rhums (Claire Denis); Ashes of Time Redux (Wong Kar-wai); Che: parts 1 and 2 (Stephen Soderbergh); Un conte de Noël (Arnaud Desplechin); Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater); Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman); Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman); Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone); Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda); Un Barrage Contre le Pacifique (Rithy Panh); Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist (Peter Sollett).

-- Masters: Les Plages d'Agnès (Agnès Varda); Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa); Nuit de chien (Werner Schroeter); 24 City (Jia Zhang-ke); Four Nights with Anna (Jerzy Skolimowski); Of Time and the City (Terence Davies); Le Silence de Lorna (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne); Three Monkeys (Nuri Bilge Ceylan).

-- Wavelengths (avant-garde): Films by James Benning, Jean-Marie Straub, Nathaniel Dorsky, Jim Jennings, Jennifer Reeves, Pat O'Neill, David Gatten, and others.

-- Visions: Birdsong (Albert Serra); Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso); Service (Brillante Mendoza); The Sky Crawlers (Mamoru Oshii); Uncertainty (Scott McGehee & David Siegel).

-- Contemporary World Cinema: L’Heure d’été (Olivier Assayas); Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt); Sugar (Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden); Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim); Two-Legged Horse (Samira Makhmalbaf).

-- Dialogues: Agnes Varda discussing La Pointe courte, and Terence Davies his trilogy, Children, Madonna and Child, and Transfiguration.

-- Discovery: Hunger (Steve McQueen).

* * *

I'll be looking to see the Denis film twice if I can. Soderbergh's Che films are also high on my list--who knows what theatrical fate awaits them? I've longed to see a Werner Schroeter movie, and this will be a good chance. Of the lesser-known filmmakers, I enjoyed Peter Sollett's Cannes award-winning short Five Feet High & Rising and the follow-up feature Raising Victor Vargas; I wish there were more good teen films in this vein. Similarly, So Young Kim's strong first film In Between Days has me curious to check out her new one.

Two big disappointments: no Lucretia Martel or Hong Sang-soo.

Here are some filmmakers on the list I've seen absolutely nothing by: Albert Serra, Mika Kaurismäki, Christian Petzold, Ramin Bahrani, Pablo Trapero, Kristian Levring, Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Philippe Falardeau, Paolo Sorrentino.

Any thoughts, suggestions or recommendations of films or filmmakers on the TIFF film-list? They're all welcome.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Creative Geography in Cinema

The question I've been rolling around in my head all week is: How do real and imaginary geographies interact in the movies? But before we go there, let me back up and set the stage for a second.

There's a fascinating difference between the arts of painting and cinema, specifically the way in which they capture physical reality.

In painting it takes talent, hard work, and craft knowledge in order to reproduce reality with great detail and fidelity. Thus, realism is not something that comes easily or naturally in painting. Instead, what is overtly present in most paintings--all but the most 'realistic' ones--is unmistakable artifice.

In cinema, the opposite is true. The camera has a realistic urge: Capturing physical reality with great, detailed fidelity is easy. Turn on the camera and physical reality rushes in, automatically, with its excess of detail in tact. In this sense, realism comes naturally to cinema. No special talent, hard work and craft are required to turn on a camera. It is this 'automatism', Andre Bazin claimed, that is the reason for cinema's special vocation: that of realism. Bazin felt that in relation to all the other arts, this bestowed upon cinema a special responsibility--to capture reality.

But even if the camera is particularly suited--more so than the paintbrush--to perfectly capturing physical reality in all its detail, not all cinema embraces this vocation of realism and commits itself exclusively to it. Most cinema, as we all know, combines its raw material of images gleaned from physical reality with significant applications of artifice.

So now we can circle back to our starting point with the question: How do reality and artifice interact in one very specific case, that of geography? In other words: How do real and imaginary geographies co-exist in a film?

There's a great story about MGM producer Irving Thalberg who once decided to stage a scene that showed Paris with a moonlit ocean in the background. His art director, the famous Cedric Gibbons, objected. Thalberg replied:

We can't cater to a handful of people who know Paris. Audiences only see about ten percent of what's on screen, anyway, and if they're watching your background instead of my actors, the scene will be useless. Whatever you put there, they'll believe that's how it is. [1]

Whatever you put there, they'll believe that's how it is. Take Monument Valley: a very real place, and an iconic presence in the films of John Ford. He shot seven films there and it's said that filmmakers have shied away from using it as a location because he forged such a personal association with it. Not only its presence but even its absence (e.g. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) draws special attention and comment.

In Ford's The Searchers, Ethan and Marty spend seven years looking for Debbie. They ride through summer and snow, covering vast distances....but without ever leaving Monument Valley! In Stagecoach, the first Ford film to be set there, the coach spends most of the duration of the film traveling from Tonto to Lordsburg. But Monument Valley is clearly visible at both the place of origin and the destination. Finally, in Cheyenne Autumn, the Cheyenne journey a thousand miles, but amazingly, we as viewers never really lose sight of the Valley. [2]

More examples. In S. Ramanathan's Bombay to Goa (1972), real space and diegetic space are brought together in an interesting way (see this old post on rear projections). Most of the film takes place on a bus. When we're inside, we see Bombay and then the countryside speed by on rear projections. But each time the passengers disembark and the narrative events move outdoors, they do so at actual locations along the Bombay-Goa highway.

The subject of Thom Andersen's wonderful documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) is the manner in which that city has been represented in hundreds of films. "Silly geography makes for silly movies," says Andersen, and therein lies my one small complaint about his movie: its overly insistent protestations about how films have played fast and loose with the city's geography. While this is undeniably true, the movie's steady and enduring tone is one of disappointment with a long tradition of films that forsake realism in depicting the city.

Peter Wollen poses a contrasting view in an excellent piece on films about the twentieth-century city called "Delirious Projections". (It was published in Sight & Sound in 1992 but remains, to my knowledge, unanthologized.) In it he tries to show with a broad variety of examples that although it's been argued that films with social relevance and political critique should hew to a realist style (a problematic notion), some of the best 'city films' in history owe as much if not more to studio artifice as they do to the respect they accord the integrity of real urban spaces.

Let me provide one example of creative geography from his article. The 1920s saw a flowering of the 'city symphony' genre with films like Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler's Manhatta, Alberto Cavalcanti's Rien que les heures and Walter Ruttmann's Berlin: A Metropolitan Symphony, the form culminating in Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera. But the Vertov film, I was surprised to learn, actually depicts not a real city but a 'compilation city' made up of urban areas in the Ukraine in addition to parts of Moscow.

So I'm wondering: Can we think of some interesting examples of the way real and imaginary geographies come together in films? Or the varied ways--both realistic and artificial--in which films approach geography? Any thoughts on the subject are welcome.

Notes: [1] The Irving Thalberg story originally appeared in Samuel Marx's Mayer and Thalberg: The Make-Believe Saints (1975). I discovered it through Robert B. Ray's The ABCs of Classic Hollywood (2008). [2] Edward Buscombe's BFI monograph on Stagecoach makes these points about Monument Valley.

* * *

Some links:

-- At Moving Image Source, Andrew Tracy on the films of Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet, which are part of the Cinematheque Ontario retrospective "Memory/Montage/Modernism".

-- Also at the site: Livia Bloom on Malle, Varda, Akerman, Vigo, and the philosophy of the flâneur film; and Martin Rubin on economics and sex in a Depression-era Busby Berkeley musical.

-- Good news: the Notes section at Jonathan Rosenbaum's site has been outfitted with an RSS feed, so we can track those posts in addition to the main, featured writings. Recent posts at the site include: "Potential Perils of the Director's Cut," as well as notes on Ousmane Sembene, Charles Fort and Vladimir Mayakovsky.

-- At Strictly Film School: Acquarello posts a review of Randal Johnson's recent book on the films of Manoel de Oliveira; and a selected list of recent and upcoming DVD releases both US and worldwide.

-- DK Holm at the Vancouver Voice on the films of Powell/Pressburger.

-- At Culturemonkey: The Dark Knight.

-- At Michael J. Anderson's blog Tativille: pieces on "Rossellini and Sainthood" and Renoir's The Southerner.

Square Rock at Monument Valley (The Searchers). Comanche in the background--hugging the landscape--and white men in the foreground.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Double Bills

The new issue of Sight & Sound has a fun feature on double bills. (Here's the pdf.) A number of writers propose their own, for example:

Geoff Andrew -- Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg and Terence Davies' Of Time and the City, along with Victor Erice's short film La Morte Rouge. All 'city films'.

Michael Atkinson -- William Klein's Mr. Freedom and Trey Parker's Team America: World Police. ("The two most merciless, sophomoric films ever, made 35 years apart but during identically idiotic imperialist wars.")

Ian Christie -- Ken Jacobs' Tom Tom The Piper's Son and Douglas Sirk's Imitation Of Life.

Roger Clarke -- Wang Xiaoshuai's Frozen and Robert Bresson's The Devil, Probably.

Kieron Corless -- Alexander Kluge's Strongman Ferdinand and Chris Petit's Unrequited Love. ("Both Petit and Kluge are thorns in their respective film cultures; a marriage of inconvenients.")

Mark Cousins -- Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Gods Of The Plague and Djibril Diop Mambety's Hyenas. ("in the spirit of surrealism and the chance encounter, and because I think there are affinities between the directors I don't quite understand.")

Chris Darke -- Chris Petit's Radio On and Bruce Robinson's Withnail & I. ("One film sings, the other doesn't--Petit can't get a word in over Robinson's gargling.")

Graham Fuller -- Werner Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath Of God and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. ("Herzog's and Coppola's odysseys seem like episodes from the same demented dream. They share the river, the jungle, the mythic quest and wonderfully portentous rock music.")

Maria Delgado -- Juan Antonio Bardem's Main Street and Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men. ("Both films offer a brilliant commentary on the sadistic excesses of a competitive culture that fails to respect ethical boundaries.")

Charlotte Garson -- David O. Russell's I ♥ Huckabees and Jean-Luc Godard's Two Or Three Things I Know About Her. ("focusing alternately on the face and on the landscape, with the same mania for transforming ideas into objects.")

Alexander Horwath -- Carl-Theodor Dreyer's Ordet and Larry Cohen's God Told Me To.

Mark Le Fanu -- Elan Kolirin's The Band's Visit and Ivan Passer's Intimate Lighting. ("Some of the best and most endurable films turn out to be those little 'unambitious' comedies that nonetheless capture the hopes and disappointments of ordinary life with miraculous accuracy.")

Tim Lucas -- Georges Franju's Les yeux sans visage and George P. Breakston & Kenneth G. Crane's The Manster.

Adrian Martin -- Mark L. Lester's The Ex and Alan Rudolph's Remember My Name. ("When it comes to intriguing stories about menacing ex-spouses, there's a lot more on the ground than the Fatal Attraction (1987) misogynist thriller formula.")

Peter Matthews -- "To illustrate the decline of an authentic cinéma de scandale, I propose the coupling of Makavejev's abominable, lyrical Sweet Movie with its milder epigone, The Idiots."

Olaf Moller -- Hanns Springer & Rolf von Sonjewski-Jamrowski's Ewiger Wald and Reinhard Kahn & Michel Leiner's Waldi. ("Everything you'll ever need to know about Germany in a double feature that'll never make it to a cinema near you.")

Kim Newman -- Peter Sykes' Demons of the Mind and Jim O'Connolly's Tower of Evil. ("Part of the surreal wonder of 1970s British horror was the use of well-spoken actors we knew from bland TV sitcoms and adventure shows in demented settings.")

James Quandt -- Frank Borzage's Three Comrades and Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale. ("Both are wartime accounts of a trio of friends whose lives are transformed by a fourth figure.")

Jonathan Rosenbaum -- Gordon Douglas' The Iron Mistress and Fritz Lang's Clash By Night. ("[S]ometimes, from a business angle, one film becomes the hook to lure audiences to see another. In my Friday evening film series at college, I once showed The Wild One (1953) + Orphée, two motorcycle movies, back to back with that rationale.")

Brad Stevens -- David Lynch's Inland Empire and Jacques Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating. (""Nothing analyses a film better than another film," wrote French critic Nicole Brenez.")

David Thomson -- Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped and Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel. ("[M]y favourite double bills are secret, thematic pairings, films where deep below the surface one picture is speaking to another.")

Noel Vera -- Ishmael Bernal's At the Top and Mario O'Hara's Woman on a Tin Roof. ("a pair of lovely bookends for the dawning and passing of an era.")

Linda Ruth Williams -- Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits and Bruce Robinson's Withnail & I. ("Clever, quotable scripts, flawless performances, intelligent direction--can British cinema boast a more resoundingly entertaining pairing?")

* * *

Now let me toss in my proposal for a double bill: 3 Godfathers (John Ford, 1948) and Amar Akbar Anthony (Manmohan Desai, 1977).

They're both, in a way, 'masala movies' that combine many flavors--drama, adventure, comedy, and pathos. They're both mythic tales: Biblical in the Ford, secular-nationalist in the Desai.

In the Ford film, three men (including John Wayne) find the course of their lives drastically changed when they unexpectedly take on godfatherly (actually, step-motherly) duties for a baby. In the Desai film, three boys are abandoned by their father under a statue of Mahatma Gandhi (!), and get separated. They are then discovered, adopted, and raised in, respectively, Hindu, Muslim and Christian families; thus their names and the name of the film.

And now, your turn: one (or more) double bill(s) you might program if you had the chance?

* * *

Some links:

-- Ryland and Mubarak present their double bills.

-- At The House Next Door, Man On Wire director James Marsh responds to Godfrey Cheshire's criticisms of his film, more specifically its use of Michael Nyman's music from Peter Greenaway's films.

-- via One-Way Street: Walter Benjamin's "1940 Survey of French Literature" is published for the first time in English, in the New Left Review.

-- Michael Newman at Zigzigger: "Notes on Cult Films and New Media Technology".

-- Ed Howard on Stephanie Zacharek's review of Richard Brody's Godard biography.

-- Steven Shaviro on Grace Jones' new "Corporate Cannibal" video.

Pics: (1) Rattle, baby Pedrito and gun in 3 Godfathers (John Ford, 1948); and (2) Shabana Azmi (at right) is a modern Indian art-film icon, what Jeanne Moreau was to the nouvelle vague. Here she moonlights in the thoroughly 'commercial' Amar Akbar Anthony (Manmohan Desai, 1977).