Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Filmmaker Affinities

Are there filmmakers, scattered around the world, who nevertheless seem to share certain close affinities? One example might be the trio of Jim Jarmusch, Aki Kaurismäki, and Wim Wenders.

Fundamentally, all three have cinephile sensibilities. Jarmusch and Wenders both lived in Paris for a spell and haunted the Cinematheque there. The three also share broad areas of common taste in filmmakers.

Samuel Fuller appeared in films by Wenders (The State of Things, The American Friend) and Aki Kaurismäki (La Vie de Boheme). In the early '90s, Jarmusch and Fuller made a trip to the Amazon, returning to locations Fuller had scouted for his 1955 film Tigrero, which was to star John Wayne and Ava Gardner. The insurance company refused coverage for the stars if the film was made on location in South America, and the film was abandoned. Aki Kaurismäki's brother Mika accompanied Jarmusch and Fuller on the trip and made a documentary about it.

Nicholas Ray constitutes another common bond. A poster of The Savage Innocents appears in Jarmusch's student film, Permanent Vacation. The film was made with raw stock given to Jarmusch by Wenders and Straub/Huillet. Jarmusch was Nick Ray's assistant when Ray was a visiting faculty member at NYU. Wenders famously chronicled Ray's dying days in the documentary Lightning Over Water. Like Fuller, Ray appears in The American Friend.

Ozu is also a key influence. We can see this especially in Kaurismäki's films, which often feature fastidiously designed domestic interiors carefully composed and captured by a stationary camera. Wenders traveled to Japan to revisit the settings of Ozu films; the result was his documentary, Tokyo-Ga. In Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise, Eddie (Richard Edson) reads off names of horses from a newspaper--Late Spring, Passing Fancy, etc.

Certain European modernist filmmakers are also particularly important: Bresson for Kaurismäki; and Antonioni for Wenders and Jarmusch. The trio also shares a globalist sensibility: they have all made films in--and are marked by the influence of--countries and cultures other than their own.

An important thread that runs through their films is a deep love and keen understanding of popular musical forms. There are countless examples to choose from: the rockabilly and Finnish tango bands that are filmed with great musical fidelity by Kaurismäki (watch for the punctiliously correct fingerings during the frequent live musical performances); Jarmusch's casting of musicians in his films (John Lurie, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, etc); and the great variety of musical acts that Wenders has documented or employed (Nick Cave, Buena Vista Social Club, U2, etc). And jukeboxes make an appearance in The Man Without A Past, The Match Factory Girl, and Alice in the Cities. (Although I can't seem to recall a Jarmusch film with a jukebox in it.)

I'm wondering: Any other ideas or examples of filmmakers who share affinities despite being separated by national borders?

* * *

An interesting excerpt from an interview Jarmusch did with Jonathan Rosenbaum in 1994. Jarmusch is responding to a question about why he likes Ozu:

I have kind of contradictory tastes. I like things that are very pure. Ozu's films or the films of Carl Dreyer or things by Joseph Cornell or Cy Twombly or music by Anton Webern. Or the Ramones, for that matter. Things that are very pure appeal to me strongly. I also like very messy things, though. Like Blue Cheer or paintings by Jackson Pollock or de Kooning. I like King of New York, Detour, films like that. Things that are messy appeal to me as well, but my own aesthetics tends to go toward a more kind of pure form of things.

* * *

Some links:

-- David Bordwell on Hollywood market segmentation and Baby Box Office.

-- New blog discovery, thanks to Matthew Flanagan: Spectacular Attractions, run by Dan North, who teaches cinema at the University of Exeter in the UK.

-- Two new posts at Dan Sallitt's place: a letter to a fellow filmmaker about her new film; and on Hong Sang-soo's Night and Day.

-- How useful: Catherine Grant posts a list of links to film studies books that are available for free on the web. Also, she points us to two posts by Henry Jenkins, "Why Universities Shouldn't Create "Something like YouTube"": parts One and Two.

-- Kevin Lee posts video of Kent Jones' Q & A with Arnaud Desplechin at the New York Film Festival.

-- The second issue of the journal Experimental Conversations is up. It's devoted to Spanish avant-garde cinema.

-- A half-dozen essays by Richard T. Jameson are now available online at Parallax View.

-- For those within easy striking distance: James Benning's great RR is playing at George Eastman House in Rochester on November 19.

-- Michael Sicinski's page for October includes reviews of Steve McQueen's Hunger, Johnnie To's Sparrow, Joe Swanberg & Greta Gerwig's Nights and Weekends, and Errol Morris' Standard Operating Procedure.

Here's an excerpt from the Morris review: "While watching SOP, I had a bit of a mini-revelation about Mr. Morris, and why he so often irks me. From his extended interview-cum-handjob with Robert McNamara, to his series of unaired Kerry ads featuring Bush voters who switched allegiance, even way back to his time as a student at Berkeley, where, he's always quick to point out, he studied analytic philosophy of mind, and dedicated himself to the pursuit of Objective Truth, abjuring all that Nietzsche / Heidegger / Derrida / Foucault nonsense that was swirling around at the time, the guy fits a particular profile that I've never really liked. He's the "reasonable" lefty, wherein reason is equated with a propensity to identify not only with the other guy's point of view, but with the other guy's characterization of your point of view as loony, irrational, and out of touch. Morris has to be the liberal Democrat who can show that he's just making good plain old Common Sense, and does so by bending over backwards to let right wingers have their say. The object of the game, of course, is to display civility and humanism, to allow for the fact that even those with whom we disagree are almost always behaving out of pure motives, and to simply impugn those motives tout court is to allow oneself to be blinkered by ideology. But there is something to be said for Robert Frost's old joke about liberals being too broad-minded to take their own side in an argument. Too much recent Morris exhibits this tendency to a crippling fault, and SOP is no exception."

pic: courtesy The Wind In The Trees.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This could easily turn into "Six Degrees of Ozu", especially when I add Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-Hsien to that circuit of influences.

I was trying to think of another series of film-makers who are connected by "affinity" rather than being young film-makers influenced by older ones. Gus van Sant clearly swallowed a Bela Tarr pill at some point, but I get the feeling that's a one-way street in terms of influence. Carlos Reygadas is also a fan of Tarr, as he's said several times in interviews.

Luckily, Bertolucci crawled out from under the weight of Godard's influence after Il Sosia. That's one of the most blatant examples I can think of of a film-maker mistaking admiration for affinity.

October 23, 2008 6:35 AM  
Anonymous David T. Johnson said...

Hey Girish,

Thanks for the great post--I love all three of these filmmakers. I was thinking of your Jarmusch jukebox question--what about the scene in _Down by Law_, when Benigni's character puts a song on the jukebox and dances with that woman in the diner (after they've escaped)? Incredible long take--I absolutely love that scene. Thanks for making me think of it this morning.

October 23, 2008 8:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's worth remembering that Jarmusch's 'Night on Earth' displays that "globalist sensibility" by paying stylistic and tonal hommage to Kaurismaki himself in the final section.

October 23, 2008 9:16 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Yes, great points, Dan and David!

Dan, there's a moment in Kaurismaki's Drifting Clouds that I've always thought of as a 'returned homage' to the Helsinki episode of Jarmusch's film. Early in the film, Lauri loses his job but doesn't tell his wife. They go to a Hollywood action movie, and he storms out, heading to the cashier to ask for his money back. As he crosses the lobby, he walks past three movie posters: L'Atalante, L'Argent and Night on Earth.

David, you've nailed the jukebox moment, of course. I'd forogtten all about it!

October 23, 2008 9:32 AM  
Blogger Matt Zoller Seitz said...

Michael Mann, Terrence Malick and Wong Kar-Wai all seem to have a similar sense of priorities -- it's all about the moments, the feelings. The hypnotic pull of "Last of the Mohicans" would flow seamlessly into the "Song of Myself" introverted history of "The New World." "2046" with its ruminative hero and dreamy time-and-space shifting seems like a film that Malick probably would have enjoyed, and there are stretches of "Miami Vice" (particularly the Colin Farrell-Gong Li early courtship/sex stuff) that feel as though Wong in "The Hand" mode stepped in to guest-direct. (Interesting that Mann and Malick have both hired Farrell to play an outsider-scoundrel type falling hopelessly in love with a beautiful woman he can't have.)

October 23, 2008 1:17 PM  
Anonymous Kimberly said...

Music is central to Jarmusch's Mystery Train. The whole film is really built around the King of Rock aka Elvis and the if my memory serves me right, Clash frontman Joe Strummer has a memorable scene with a jukebox in that film.

As for other "examples of filmmakers who share affinities despite being separated by national borders?" I'll have to do some serious thinking about that question!

October 23, 2008 6:23 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

I collect of stories of "filmmakers who have affinities with other filmmakers before even knowing it":

1. I met Lisandro Alonso early in his stellar career as a cinema minimalist. I must have been the 1000th annoying person to say to him: "Hey, your films are a lot like Chantal Akerman's", because when I did, he exploded: "I have never heard of this Chantal Akerman and certainly never seen any of her films!!"

2. Raúl Ruiz tells the amusing story of, after having been compared by many learned critics to Edgar G. Ulmer, he thought he better watch a VHS of one of his films. He chose THE BLACK CAT. Before it was over, Raúl says, he fell to his knees ("like in a Soviet melodrama of the '30s"), crying out "My Father!", and Ulmer appeared from out of the screen to reply: "My son!"

3. I met George Miller before the first MAD MAX was completed; his main topic of conversation/point of reference at that moment was Ridley Scott and ALIEN. When the film came out, people arpund the world compared him to Kurosawa. And that was when he started watching Kurosawa films and developing his theories of "the universal heroic mythology we all share" ... !

October 23, 2008 7:49 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Matt, I'm looking forward to finally seeing the original release version of The New World (even if it's just on DVD).

Kimberly, I'm reminded that Strummer is also in Kaurismaki's only English-language film, I Hired A Contract Killer.

Adrian, that's a great idea for a list. If I'm remembering right: I think Hou had made several films before he saw his first Ozu.

October 23, 2008 9:39 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Great topic! The first thing that comes to mind is one of my favorite issues of Reverse Shot: the East Meets West issue which compares Hou Hsiao-hsien to F.W Murnau, Jia Zhang-Ke to Steven Spielberg, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul to Richard Linklater and David Lynch, among other interesting comparisons.

Notions of transnational connections between filmmakers can come up when least suspected. I'm a little shy about mentioning some of the ones that have popped into my head since I haven't fleshed them out very carefully, but one affinity that I'm particularly curious about is the apparent one between the late Bruce Conner and the Soviet "distance montage" inventor Artavazd Peleshian. Did Peleshian see (or maybe even just read about) a Movie before making the Beginning and Inhabitants?

October 24, 2008 5:35 AM  
Anonymous Matthew Flanagan said...

Re: "filmmakers who have affinities with other filmmakers before even knowing it". I find it quite staggering that Varda claimed not to have seen (and be completely ignorant of) any Italian neorealist cinema or, say, Viaggio in Italia before making La Pointe Courte - a quite remarkable case of stylistic convergence if so, but I suspect that she must have read about the style & subject matter of the other films at some point. On a related note: in a Q&A earlier this year, Jancsó revealed that the sequence with the low-flying aeroplane in My Way Home was directly inspired by stills of the crop duster scene in North by Northwest - he had not actually seen the film at the time! He also took inspiration for the long take style in his 1960s work from reading about Rope or Under Capricorn, only seeing Hitchcock's films much later in his career.

Re: Gus Van Sant. Add Clarke, Akerman & Garrel to the list of influences, and you probably have an almost perfect summation of his (recent) style.

Incidentally, I met Albert Serra last week, and a conversation about affinities went from Alonso to Warhol to Richard Fleischer. There's clearly no science to this!

October 24, 2008 7:05 AM  
Blogger C. Mason Wells said...

Girish, piggybacking off your last comment about Hou's unwitting Ozu influence, Kiarostami's recent forays into Warholian extreme long take cinema (cf FIVE) come without him having a direct familiarity with Mr. Warhola's work.

Sometimes I actually think unseen influences can be the most evocative, and why I believe great critics and film scholars are as influential on filmmakers as other directors. A vivid description of a film you haven't seen can sometimes be just as inspiring as watching the film itself.

October 24, 2008 1:16 PM  
Anonymous Marilyn said...

I should probably make this comment at Academic Hack (and probably will), but Errol Morris may be many things - including a somewhat sloppy thinker - but he is not "fair and balanced." When I interviewed him, I noted that his films frequently try to put a human face on the monster, and he smiled broadly and said, "That is correct." He's not interested in right-wing points of view, and in SOP he firmly (and I believe rightly) pointed out that the MPs who took the photos and their CO were made scapegoats to thwart a larger investigation. I don't think his film accomplished his intentions, but that was the impulse that drove him.

As for MacNamara, I think Morris was used in MacNamara's publicity tour/rehabilitation scheme. What you could accuse Morris of is being naive. Everyone's human, yes, but not everyone is truly good at heart, including MacNamara.

October 24, 2008 3:28 PM  
Anonymous Marilyn said...

Ah, I see I can't comment on that site. Having read the entire review, I'd have to say that is one of the most thorough and unfair hatchet jobs I've ever read!

October 24, 2008 3:31 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Brian, Matthew, Chris, and Marilyn!

"A vivid description of a film you haven't seen can sometimes be just as inspiring as watching the film itself."

A wonderful point!

Marilyn, I haven't seen SOP yet. I would encourage you to drop Sicinski a line; I'm sure he will respond to your objections.

I'd just like to say a word: I've been reading Sicinski regularly for the last few years--I check his site daily. I think he's one of America's best film critics. Even when I don't agree with his evaluation of a film, I find his comments interesting and thought-provoking. I'm now doubly curious to see the Morris film.

October 25, 2008 6:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shimizu Hiroshi and John Ford seem to be two of a kind, though I doubt they were very aware of each other (Shimizu's style seems to have evolved his own way before Ford's pictures became big in Japan, at least I think so). But both are primarily concerned with rich, multi-faceted interactions within a community. Both love their characters though they're aware of their limits, and both excell at filming people of different age groups. Both are absolute masters at filming characters within landscapes (as opposed to, say, Antonioni and Jia Zhang-ke, who are masters at filming incompatibilities between a character and an (often artificial) landscape). And both are The Greatest Director Ever.
On a side note, weren't we supposed to get a new issue of Rouge soon? Not that I'm feverishly waiting :-).

October 26, 2008 8:22 AM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Nathan - and everybody else who has been asking me - the new ROUGE is coming, it's coming !!! (No rude replies, please!)

In the meantime, everybody should check out Harry T's great manifesto-like list about 'Internet-era criticism' over at SCREENVILLE. Stirring stuff!

Man, I just saw (at last) WE OWN THE NIGHT. What a magnificently directed film! This really puts THE DEPARTED and MIAMI VICE to shame. I cannot wait to see TWO LOVERS - somehow!

October 26, 2008 8:50 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Nathan, those are fascinating connections between Ford and Shimizu. I'll be doing a Shimizu immersion with my parents this winter break, and coincidentally, I did a Ford immersion a couple of months ago (about 25 of his films). Inadvertent good timing.

Adrian, here's a clickable link to Harry's rousing manifesto.

I love the only two Gray films I've seen, The Yards and We Own The Night, and need to see Little Odessa. I heard that Two Lovers is opening January?

October 26, 2008 9:08 AM  
Anonymous Marilyn said...

Girish - I respect your opinion immensely, but this is completely unworthy of any review, especially one by a director as accomplished as Errol Morris:

"Morris's biggest failure, however, is in his fascination / repulsion with Sabrina Harman, with whom his Interrotronic libido is clearly smitten. (You don't have to read too far between the lines on this one.) "

Actually, you do have to read pretty far between the lines. Sabrina Harman was the only Abu Ghraib MP who left a written record, and Morris quotes verbatim her letters. As such, she's the most valuable source of all the participants and deserves the lion's share of the camera time.

I agree with a number of Sicinski's criticisms, but he hardly presents them in rational manner, calling another human being brain-dead (Lynndie England) does not good film criticism make. I believe Morris' film did exactly the opposite of what he hoped it would do. You can argue that a film should stand on its own two feet without explanation, but I always prefer giving the benefit of the doubt to a director who has created some truly great films. I don't like linking to my own stuff, but I really think Morris says it better himself.

October 26, 2008 10:24 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Marilyn, I want to thank you for your thoughts and for providing that link; I remember your interview when you first posted it, and I was going to do a search for it at your site after I saw the film--which I'm now itching to do!

October 26, 2008 10:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Man, I just saw (at last) WE OWN THE NIGHT. What a magnificently directed film! This really puts THE DEPARTED and MIAMI VICE to shame. I cannot wait to see TWO LOVERS - somehow!

I liked WOTN better than all those films too. It might be better than Heat. It's too bad it didn't get much attention, and whatever attention it got, at least from what I read, was over the car chase sequence (which was admittedly cool). I'm definitely looking forward to whatever else Gray is doing.

October 26, 2008 3:09 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

I draw a through line between the films of Tsai Ming-liang, Jacques Nolot and Brillante Mendoza. Their narratives wander through delapidated structures, frequently enshadowed with queer indiscretions, coping and groping for both comic and pathetic effect.

October 27, 2008 2:45 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Can't resist sharing this one: just looked at in on the strange internet Mailbag of Ray Carney, who once declared "I love Chantel Ackerman' [sic], and in a recent note he goes one better, as he exhorts one of his correspondents to: "Look at Chantel Akerman's Jeanne Diehlmann" !!! I hope the guy can find his way to the DVD under that spelling !!!

As usual, the page is illustrated with several pics of ... Ray Carney!

October 28, 2008 6:35 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh that's hilarious.

I think my #1 spelling pet peeve of them all is probably... Ghandi!

October 28, 2008 7:35 AM  
Blogger Catherine Grant said...

Howdy. Thanks for the nod, Girish. And a really interesting discussion - so thanks for that, too. Just been posting some Atom Egoyan links (inlcuing to your Senses of Cinema article), and in the process came across a good interview about his affinities, originally by Cineaste, but online through The Free Library ( - worth checking out.

October 28, 2008 8:16 AM  
Blogger weepingsam said...

It can be confusing parsing out the differences between filmmakers influenced by one another, or with shared influences - or with "family trees" - Kurosawa, John Ford, all influenced so many people, that it's easy to take a Leone influence for a Kurosawa influence...

Anyway... one that's struck me a few times is the similarity between Oshima and Antonioni. I noticed it when I got to see Edward Yang's films - films like Terroriser are full of things that could come from either one of them. I don't know if they were aware of one another in the 60s, but films like The Man Who Left His Will on Film seem to pick up on Antonioni's interest in landscape, photography (and film), disappearing subjects, etc... And then Zabriskie Point almost seems to return the favor - picking up on the radical politics in Oshima, and so on. There seem to be quite a few of these parallels.

The biggest problem with this is that my knowledge of Oshima is very limited: his films are just too hard to see in this country, and he was very prolific in the 60s. Which is another reason to say, God bless James Quandt! December at the HFA is devoted to his Oshima retrospective...

October 28, 2008 10:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone read at Greecine/MCI about Bela Tarr's latest project?

...a new movie from Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr that will use the story of a farmer and his horse as an existential metaphor.

I was hoping he would do a Hollywood blockbuster or maybe a film about two people falling in love. Oh well. =)

October 28, 2008 10:48 PM  
Blogger craig keller. said...

In an interview in Cahiers du cinéma, I believe two issues ago, Tarr announces that the forthcoming film will be his final film — after The Turin Horse, he's through.


October 29, 2008 12:32 AM  
Blogger Sachin said...

Hey Girish,

regarding your #1 spelling pet peeve. I have had to live with that misspelled version for more than a decade now and even after all these years, I still get people spelling it wrong despite giving them proper ID with the right spelling. Once a nurse looked at my ID and still wrote it wrong and when I corrected her, she asked "is it not the same thing?" :)

October 29, 2008 1:00 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Thanks for the publicity, Adrian. :)

re: Tarr's last film. Yeah it's sad to hear that. Cahiers just accepted this announcement like if it was normal that one of the greatest filmmaker working today would put an end to his career... They don't even ask him why!
We should open an online petition to show some love to the master. We can't let this kind of underexposed "artfilm" die out without a fight.

October 29, 2008 10:38 AM  
Blogger C. Mason Wells said...

Michael, that's an excellent thread. You could add that all three (like Lisandro Alonso -- here we go again!) have made films set in abandoned/rundown movie theaters.

October 29, 2008 5:26 PM  
Blogger Filipe Furtado said...

Mason is not really fair to claim the theater used in Fantasma is abandoned/rundown. I know the actual screening in the film is nearly empty, but that is actually very well known repertory theater. The empty screening has more to do with Alonso feelings about his position in Argentine cinema.

October 29, 2008 8:11 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

I draw another throughline between Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With A Zombie, Pedro Costa's Casa de Lava, John Duigan's Wide Sargasso Sea, and Chris Marker's Sans Soleil wherein islands are not only setting but necessary mise-en-scene to stage antiocolonial concerns.

October 30, 2008 11:55 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

...and speaking of Wim Wenders, his most recent and much-maligned film is rumored to be the opening night entry at SF's Berlin & Beyond come January. Can anyone recommend it?

October 30, 2008 2:45 PM  
Blogger C. Mason Wells said...

Thank you for that important correction, Filipe.

October 30, 2008 3:14 PM  
Blogger Michael Kerpan said...

Ford's work would certainly have been generally known in Japan by the early 30s. Apparently Sadao Yamanaka (Humanity and Paper Balloons) was a fan. So was Ozu. I haven't ever read anything specifically about Shimizu's acquaintance with Ford's film -- but not much has been written about Shimizu (uin English).

October 30, 2008 9:48 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hello there, all!

The semester has me pretty much submerged for the moment, but I'm hoping to break free for a little while and put up a post here either tomorrow (if all goes well) or over the weekend. Cheers.

October 31, 2008 12:10 AM  
Blogger Gareth said...

I've been struck recently by some of the affinities between Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Claire Denis (in her less narrative-minded films); a willingness to let the camera linger much longer than is the norm these days; a focus on mood/atmosphere rather than story; a fascination with the way the human body moves; a frank eroticism (sometimes homo-eroticism).

November 03, 2008 10:37 PM  

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