Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Formative Film Writing

The new issue of Sight & Sound magazine contains a large feature in which film critics choose works of criticism that had an inspirational or formative impact on them. It's a captivating read, and I'd like to use it as a springboard to offer a brief response and also ask you for your examples and stories.

I have a somewhat unusual tale to recount here. The first piece of cinema writing that grabbed me by the lapels was a book I discovered in my engineering college library when I was seventeen: James Monaco's The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette (1976). At the time--well before India threw its doors open to full-blown free enterprise via its 'economic liberalization' program in 1991--imports of goods were severely restricted.

The New Wave was the first film book I ever read cover to cover, and I thought about it often over the next few years. The only problem was: because of lack of availability, I hadn't seen a single film in the book! Over the course of several years, I built up elaborate fantasies of these films from Monaco's plot descriptions and analyses, not aided much by the sparse collection of B&W stills, all of which I nevertheless memorized right down to the last gesture, glance and sartorial detail.

Years later, after I moved to the States, I finally caught up with most of the films on videotape. But to this day a tension remains, never completely resolved, between the films as the edifices I constructed in my mind sight unseen and the way they really, actually, turned out to be.

The book was formative for me in some very deep, fundamental ways. For example, Monaco wrote about New Wave filmmakers as having a certain unique shared attitude: they valorized the importance of ideas in cinema.

Having held apprenticeships as critics, all of them see film essentially as a phenomenon of intelligence. This is not to suggest that their films are devoid of feeling; on the contrary, they are often invested with profound emotional significance. But always we are led back to a basic structure of ideas. There is an underlying logic, no matter how passionately it is developed. Film is, for them, a fascinating way to discover the world and to develop an understanding of its politics, its psychology, its structure, its language.

Monaco's book is also driven by a view of cinema (and of art in general) as being essentially dialectical. This was a revelation to me at the time. He holds dear Godard's summarizing phrase "method and sentiment." (The word "sentiment" in French, Monaco points out, has a broader meaning: it "encompasses the English senses of affection and feeling, but it also has connotations of perception, sense, consciousness, and sensibility".)

I remember the following simple passage burning itself into my head:

When one image is juxtaposed with another, one sound with another, an image with a sound, it is almost impossible not to think dialectically. It is not always the artist who works this way; sometimes it is only the observer.

Even today it seems to me a wise, succinct lesson on both filmmaking practice and viewing practice.

And now, I'm very eager to know: what were some of your early, formative encounters with cinema writing--reviews, essays, books, magazines, etc?

* * *

What strikes me as amazing about the current financial crisis is this: there's not a great deal of talk about the underlying causes of the crisis and how to uproot them. The proposed bailout plan will do zilch to address the reasons why we got into this mess. In the long view, it's an emergency band-aid, no more. Also striking: the plan is brazenly free of oversight and arrogantly skimpy on details (a three-pager demanding $700 billion).

The key elements of this horror story--subprime mortgages, the derivative financial instruments known as credit default swaps, the AAA credit ratings awarded to these instruments, the mostly young sales-force that aggressively sold these worthless 'assets'--exist thanks mainly to outrageous deregulation. But there's been little discussion so far of the kinds of structural changes the American economic model will desperately need moving forward. Paulson is right about exactly one thing: "Raw capitalism is dead." To dream for a second: What the presidential candidates should be doing is calling up some of the best economic minds in the country and having them suggest detailed, realistic plans for systematic, across-the-board de-deregulation. There are fundamental conceptual changes that our model of capitalism needs, and the 'good thing' about this crisis, its potential, is that it might perhaps lead to widespread public conversation--and education--about what these changes might or should look like. No?

* * *

Some links:

-- Naomi Klein at Democracy Now!: “Now Is the Time to Resist Wall Street’s Shock Doctrine.”

-- At Film of the Month Club, Chris Cagle kicks off discussion of Claire Denis' The Intruder with a fascinating post on the film's narrational strategies.

-- Inspired choice: The new issue of Reverse Shot focuses on Hou Hsiao-hsien.

-- My favorite Vinyl is Heavy invention: a conjunction of quotations, the latest edition.

-- How I wish I knew Spanish: Adrian Martin has a lengthy essay in the language on Hitchcock's Notorious at Miradas de Cine.

-- Rob Davis at Daily Plastic has a valuable post that compares and contrasts "Apple TV and Netflix Player: Internet Video for Your TV".

-- Richard Prouty at One-Way Street has two posts on critic James Wood's book, How Fiction Works.

-- JD Copp at My Gleanings: Jean-Pierre Gorin on being present at Manny Farber's side when he died.

-- Andrew Osmond in The Guardian on Tezuka's X-rated manga.

-- Barbara Ehrenreich's op-ed in the NYT on the 'optimism' that fueled our current crisis: "Americans did not start out as deluded optimists. The original ethos, at least of white Protestant settlers and their descendants, was a grim Calvinism that offered wealth only through hard work and savings, and even then made no promises at all. You might work hard and still fail; you certainly wouldn’t get anywhere by adjusting your attitude or dreamily “visualizing” success. Calvinists thought “negatively,” as we would say today, carrying a weight of guilt and foreboding that sometimes broke their spirits. It was in response to this harsh attitude that positive thinking arose — among mystics, lay healers and transcendentalists — in the 19th century, with its crowd-pleasing message that God, or the universe, is really on your side, that you can actually have whatever you want, if the wanting is focused enough."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Toronto '08: The Round-Up

So, I'm back from a week in Toronto, where I took in a couple of dozen screenings. Here's how the films stacked up.

Flat-Out, Holy-Cow Masterpiece:

RR (James Benning, USA)

Top-Of-The-Heap Favorites:

35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis, France)
Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, USA)
Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina)
A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, France)
Jerichow (Christian Petzold, Germany)
Lorna's Silence (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium)


Birdsong (Albert Serra, Spain)
Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)
Le Genou d'Artemide (Jean-Marie Straub, France)
Winter and Saraband (Nathaniel Dorsky, USA)
Horizontal Boundaries (Pat O'Neill, USA)
Public Domain (Jim Jennings, USA)

Strong, Fascinating:

The Beaches of Agnes (Agnes Varda, France)
Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim, S. Korea)
Garden/ing (Eriko Sonoda, Japan)

Still Pondering:

24 City (Jia Zhang-ke, China)
Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)


La Mémoire des Anges (Luc Bourdon, Canada)


Three Monkeys (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
Four Nights with Anna (Jerzy Skolimowski, Poland)
One Day You'll Understand (Amos Gitai, France)
Dioses (Josué Méndez, Peru)

I Regret Not Being Able To Schedule:

When It Was Blue (Jennifer Reeves, USA)
Revanche (Gotz Spielmann, Austria)
Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, France)

* * *

I have a brief piece at Artforum on four of the films. This was my tenth straight TIFF, and I was reminded of how much a film festival experience resembles an endurance event. To 'perform' well--both in terms of number of films seen and the quality of alertness and attention given to each--means eating well, getting enough sleep, avoiding alcohol, and so on. All the things I was somewhat negligent with this year. I ended up skipping a few films, then felt a twinge of regret.

Darren at Long Pauses and Rob at Daily Plastic have posted their TIFF round-ups. One of the highlights of my festival this year was being able to spend time with them. Darren and Rob are my models, my exemplars, for 'festivalling'. They frequently took in 4-5 films a day, did multiple filmmaker interviews, made time for socializing, and blogged from the festival--amazing! Next year I'll be looking to take a lesson or two from their playbooks to up my 'festival productivity'.

Finally, this can't go unmentioned: The avant-garde program ("Wavelengths"), curated by Andréa Picard, hit an all-time high this year. For this more than any other reason, I'm looking forward to TIFF '09.

Your comments on any of the above films or current festivals (e.g. TIFF, NYFF)? They're most welcome.

* * *

Some links:

-- First: Michael Sicinski's invaluable coverage at his site, including links to his Greencine dispatches.

-- Adam Nayman, Jason Anderson, and other critics at TIFF on video at Eye Weekly.

-- Craig Keller (with links to Andy Rector) on current events at Cahiers du cinéma.

-- via Dave Kehr: Godard's first movie since 2006 is the trailer for the Viennale, viewable here.

-- via Chris Cagle: A big film book sale at University of California Press.

-- David Bordwell on film titles.

-- New at Moving Image Source: essays by Chris Fujiwara, Dennis Lim, Richard Porton, Ed Halter, and others.

pic: Christian Petzold's Jerichow.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Cineaste, Toronto

The new issue of Cineaste features a large symposium called "Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet." Along with about 20 other writers, I was asked to contribute a piece to it. Participants included: Zach Campbell, Robert Cashill, Mike D'Angelo, Steve Erickson, Andrew Grant, J. Hoberman, Kent Jones, Glenn Kenny, Robert Koehler, Kevin Lee, Karina Longworth, Adrian Martin, Adam Nayman, Theo Panayides, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Dan Sallitt, Richard Schickel, Campaspe (Self-Styled Siren), Michael Sicinski, Amy Taubin, Andrew Tracy, and Stephanie Zacharek.

We were responding to questions posed by the editors about the Internet: its contributions to film culture; comparisons with print media criticism; strengths and weaknesses of blogs; professional vs. amateur cinephiles; the participatory potential of the Net, etc. A wide variety of perspectives emerges in the pieces; they make for a fun read.

The Cineaste issue kicks off with two great Chris Marker pieces: one by Adrian Martin and the other by Marker himself. The issue is in the newsstands but I'm not sure how much of it will be available to read online at the magazine's site. [UPDATE: I have just received word from the editors that the symposium will indeed appear online soon. I will post a link to it when it does.][UPDATE 2: It's online now.]

* * *

In a couple of days, I'll head out to Toronto for the film festival. I've picked up tickets for about 30 films including those by: Claire Denis, Nathaniel Dorsky, Jean-Marie Straub, Lisandro Alonso, Jia Zhang-ke, Arnaud Desplechin, James Benning, the Dardennes, Agnes Varda, Mamoru Oshii, Werner Schroeter, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Albert Serra, Jerzy Skolimowski, Kelly Reichardt, Rithy Panh, and others.

I'll be filing a piece at Artforum at festival's end, and may not get a chance to work up a post here for a couple of weeks. As always, you're most welcome to chat and post links in the comments. I'll pop up here occasionally too.

* * *

Some links:

-- Have you been following David Cairns' marvelous blog, Shadowplay? The posts and discussions are a lot of fun, and what's more, he currently has a Julien Duvivier giveaway.

-- Adrian's new column at Filmkrant is on "unknown cinephiles." It opens:

"Modern historians have turned an old surrealist saying - 'Even the empty perches of history are eloquent' - into an impassioned ethical creed. History is increasingly full of empty perches: lost cities, shredded documents, ordinary lives with no testament left behind. Filmmakers including Chris Marker, Harun Farocki and Edgardo Cozarinsky have devoted themselves to the eloquence of everything that is missing in time and place - absences that, in their muteness and invisibility, somehow express so much. The internet can turn us all into historians of the forgotten, the lost, the ephemeral. A cinephile sometimes stumbles upon a lonely monument, somewhere on-line, to someone whose life intersected, for a long or short time, with a passion for film. These are people whose names are scarcely recorded in the official annals of cinema culture; usually, it is a friend, student or partner who has taken the trouble to post a tiny reminder of their fleeting existence."

-- David Bordwell's new post is on films from the year 1913. It begins with this Martin Scorsese quote: "Each film is interlocked with so many other films. You can’t get away. Whatever you do now that you think is new was already done in 1913."

-- Chris Cagle announces his pick for September at Film of the Month Club: Claire Denis' The Intruder.

-- At Films in Review, a wonderful piece by Jean Renoir from Cahiers du Cinema, March 1952.

-- via David Hudson: At Artforum, Richard Deming on P. Adams Sitney's Eyes Upside Down.

-- At Frieze: Babette Mangolte on two films that "literally changed my life."

-- Recent blog discovery: Catherine Grant's film studies blog, Directing Cinema.