Sunday, December 21, 2008

Robert Mulligan; Links

The filmmaker Robert Mulligan has died. Here's David Hudson's entry at Greencine. John Belton had an essay in the special Mulligan issue of The Film Journal a couple of years ago:

Mulligan is clearly not the author of his films in the same way that Ingmar Bergman is; he does not create his own characters or stories or write the dialogue. But Mulligan is a storyteller, interpreting the stories of others. As Mulligan describes his role, “Things have to sift through me. That’s me up there on the screen. The shooting, the editing, the use of music—all that represents my attitude toward the material.” In his role as storyteller, Mulligan interposes his personality and sensitivity between the tale and the audience; he makes the story his own by supplying attitude. It is this attitude or tone that becomes the true subject of a Mulligan film, not character or plot. Thus in a Mulligan film, no single individual—director, screenwriter, producer, or actor—stamps the film with his personality; the feelings generated by Mulligan’s view of specific characters in specific situations and settings are what count most.

Mulligan, as interpreter, chooses preexisting plots and characters for the stories of his films. His best films have been based on best-selling novels that have in common strong subjective narrations and settings that are inseparable from character and plot.

I know he's much admired but I've seen only two of Mulligan's films, To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) and Summer of '42 (1971). The former has been forever transfigured in my memory since I encountered Austrian filmmaker Martin Arnold's appropriation and deformation of it in his avant-garde classic Passage À L’Acte (1993).

I'm wondering: Do you have any favorites among Mulligan's films? Perhaps we can collect some ideas and recommendations here?

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Adrian Martin has a new essay--on William Klein. Here is an excerpt:

William Klein is a remarkable figure in film history, a law unto himself, ultimately beyond (while overlapping with) many movements and trends. To look at the 1964 footage that constitutes the first half of Muhammad Ali, The Greatest (1974) - with its lack of voice-over narration and its relentlessly energetic 'in the moment' reportage - one might imagine him to have issued from the American cinéma-vérité school of Leacock, Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers. But, crucially, there is no spurious objectivity in Klein: just one look at the deliberately ugly way he frames the boxer's Southern white 'owners' (another lateral 'defilement') in contrast to the open, generous way he films Ali and his intimate entourage, is enough to palpably convey who the filmmaker is for and against, who he likes and dislikes. So, there is an aspect of Klein that anticipates the cooler, more analytical - although still indirect - gaze of Frederick Wiseman's documentaries about every kind of social institution (prison, school, office, abattoir, monastery ... ) as well as the more loquacious essay-films of Chris Marker, who first encouraged Klein to turn his photographic eye into a cinematographic eye in the (literally) dazzling short Broadway by Light (1958).

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More links:

-- Michael Newman at Zigzigger has one of my favorite 'end-of-the-year favorites' posts.

-- The latest (#3) in Ry Knight's wonderful series of 'quotation collage' posts.

-- A recent blog discovery: Some Landscapes, devoted to "landscapes evoked or depicted in the arts: painting, literature, music, film etc. and [...] the creation or alteration of landscapes by architects, artists and garden designers."

-- Beaucoup reading at The Auteurs Notebook including David Phelps (on Oshima--lots!), Danny Kasman, David Cairns, Andrew Tracy, and Glenn Kenny.

-- Michael Sicinski's December page has a number of interesting reviews including: Iron Man, Trouble the Water, Encounters at the Edge of the World, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, W., Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Frost/Nixon, and Slumdog Millionaire.

-- Several new and interesting posts at Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's blog, Sounds, Images, including a Bazinian entry called "The Ontology of the Recorded Sound."

-- Also, Ignatiy kicks off the newest Film of the Month, Julien Temple's Absolute Beginners (1986).

-- A sneak peek at the top 20 released and unreleased films of the year in the Film Comment poll at the FilmLinc blog.

-- Two recent and useful end-of-year posts at Joe Bowman's place, Fin de Cinema: on region-1 DVD releases, and the best and worst of television.

-- Catherine Grant has a links-filled post on Daniel Frampton's Filmosophy.

-- Ed Howard is hosting an Early Hawks blog-a-thon next month.

-- At his blog Remains of the Day, Harmanjit Singh has an interesting entry that begins thus: "The practice of Actualism is to minimize, and finally remove, malice and sorrow in oneself, so that one may live happily and harmlessly. There is usually little argument on the happiness aspect, but there can be a lot of confusion about being harmless."

-- Dave Kehr in the NYT on the Murnau/Borzage box set, which, he writes, "also functions as a miniature history of the transition from silent films to sound. The free-floating camera and dramatic fluidity of the silents seem to screech to a halt with Borzage’s first all-talking picture, the 1929 Will Rogers vehicle “They Had to See Paris.” He recovers a bit of his camera mobility with the interesting 1930 “Song o’ My Heart,” a musical starring the hugely popular Irish tenor John McCormack, in which Borzage experiments for the first time with sound to create a bridge between lovers separated by space. But sound also constrains Borzage’s gossamer romanticism, and his films take on the straightforward, slightly embittered social realism that was beginning to dominate over at Warner Brothers."

-- David Bordwell: "Like many Hong Kong movies, nearly every one of Wong Kar-wai’s films went through multiple versions. But unlike many directors he seems to enjoy tweaking and rethinking his work. In production he shoots scenes, watches them, reshoots them, recuts them, and reshoots again. Editing and mixing involve the same play with variants. He adds different shots, juggles the order, adds or subtracts music at will. [...] His drive to redo his films seems to go beyond indecision or commercial calculation. Wong seems to have taken to heart his central theme of the transient moment, the fact that love can be extinguished at any instant. So why not change your films to match your mood today? Further, like Warhol, he seems to enjoy prodigality for its own sake. He enjoys conjuring up one variation after another, multiplying just barely different avatars, and draping in mist the notion of any original text. His films’ basic constructive principle—the constant repetitions that create parallels and slight differences, loops of vaguely familiar images and sounds and situations—gets enacted in his very mode of production."

-- Steven Shaviro on presses (in this case, Continuum) with extremely restrictive agreements that prohibit authors from disseminating their own work, thus limiting their readership. He writes: "Some of the best theory books of the last decade have received far less notice than they deserved, all because they have been caught in the limbo of this sort of publishing arrangement. [...] There obviously needs to be some sort of open access policy for scholarship in the humanities, as there already is to a great extent in the sciences. We don’t really get paid for our writing, except very indirectly in the sense that a scholarly reputation increases your “marketability” and hence the kind of salary you can get as a professor. In these cases, the policies of presses like Continuum (which I am singling out here only because of my own dealings with them; many other academic presses are just as bad) serve the interests neither of writers nor of readers. I don’t have a blueprint of how to get there (open access) from here (restrictive copyright arrangements), but a first step would be for those academics who, like me, can afford to forgo the lines on their vitas, to refuse to publish with presses that have such policies."

Friday, December 05, 2008

Recent Reading

The last couple of weeks have brought an explosion of new film reading material, both on and off the Net. We all know the merciless law of currency that holds sway in the blogosphere, so before all this great new reading disappears like dust trails in our rear-view, I'll try to grab and affix some of it here.

To begin with: the first heavyweight year-end top 10 list I've seen, by James Quandt in Artforum. It's not online, alas, so I'm reproducing excerpts from it here:

1 & 2. Itinéraire de Jean Bricard (Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet) and Le Genou d'Artémide (Jean-Marie Straub).

3. The Headless Woman (Lucretia Martel). "Martel returns to the terrain of oblique unease among the rural bourgeoisie of Argentina in a trance film that leaves its audience as unmoored as its sleepwalking heroine."

4. Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso). "One expects formal precision from Alonso, here completing his trilogy about intractable men journeying solo through hinterland, but the film's emotional amplitude is new and welcome."

5. Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain). "...Alfredo Castro gives the year's male performance as a Travolta-obsessed psycho, fixated on Saturday Night Fever but living out Vengeance is Mine in Pinochet's Chile."

6. 24 City (Jia Zhang-ke). "The extent of Jia's nostalgia for pre-free market China becomes troublingly apparent in his latest bardic contemplation of the country's recent past."

7. United Red Army (Koji Wakamatsu). "In a resurgence of Japanese cinema, Wakamatsu's ferocious three-hour chronicle of Maoist student cadres in the 1960s vies with Hirokazu Kore-eda's lovely home drama, Still Walking. As a firsthand account of leftist infighting and auto-immolation, United Red Army readily joins Oshima's Night and Fog in Japan and Godard's La Chinoise."

8. Wonderful Town (Aditya Assarat) "...Thailand provided the year's best feature-fiction debut, Assarat's melancholy portrait of a young architect from Bangkok supervising reconstruction in a tsunami-afflicted town where occluded anguish quickly turns murderous."

9. Cleopatra (Julio Bressane). "Werner Schroeter's gorgeous but oddly impersonal requiem, Nuit de Chien, aside, Bressane's ultranutty vision of the Egyptian queen was the film maudit of 2008."

10. Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas).

In a very different list, also at Artforum, John Waters ties two films for first place: "(A) Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen) Does anybody not think this is the best American movie of the year (even though it was made in Spain)? Come on, it’s got a great script, the actors look like real movie stars, and Woody Allen films Scarlett Johansson with the same obsession Paul Morrissey had for Joe Dallesandro. Gives heterosexuality a good name! (B) Love Songs (Christophe Honoré) I may be the only person who would pick this as the best foreign-language movie of the year, but what do I care if you don’t like this hipper-than-thou bisexual French musical? When the sexy, smart-ass characters burst into songs about brain tumors, saliva, and human sandwiches, I get all teary inside and realize that this is the only romantic comedy I’ve ever really loved."

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Adrian Martin's new column at Filmkrant takes up an issue that is being hotly debated in film studies: should films be studied as self-sufficient artworks or as objects that possess meaning only when examined within their social and historical context? The former approach is used by textualists or formalists. In Hilary Radner's words: "The formalist tendency is grounded in a desire to describe in as much detail as possible the processes and gestures of the film itself as an object and a medium... it seeks to isolate and to understand the specificity of film as art - to capture the weight and the portence of that art - of that which only cinema can do."

The focus of the latter approach, according to Richard Maltby, is on "the economic, political and institutional histories of distribution and exhibition, and on social histories of cinema's audiences."

Adrian reconciles the two vantage points: "The big question, at the end of the day, is surely: why should we have to choose between these two extremes? Has there ever been an aesthetic critic who truly believed that 'the world' played no part in determining the sense of a film? And has there ever been a historian-philosopher who entirely stopped watching and enjoying films as objects in themselves?"

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The film reading trove of the week is the new issue of Screening The Past. There are two main sections to look at: a huge collection of review essays and a main section of featured articles.

Here's an excerpt from Adrian's review of a new book on Brian De Palma:

Eyal Peretz’s frequently stimulating, occasionally baffling exploration of ‘De Palma’s cinematic education of the senses’ (the book’s subtitle) looks not at the entire oeuvre – not even a standard approximation of the entire oeuvre (for many major works do not rate a mention) – but mainly three key films, Carrie (USA 1976), The Fury (USA 1978) and Blow Out (USA 1981), with a Coda devoted to Femme Fatale (France 2002). In those films, it looks at very few, usually short passages (from Carrie, for example, hardly the first two minutes). De Palma is consistently conjured, in a manner that surpasses even the most excessive auteurism, as a kind of Godhead – a visionary, indeed – in that the book eschews any information about the films’ production circumstances, and fails to meaningfully discuss any of his contributors from either cast or crew. Apart from a brief note on paranoid cinema and an obligatory (but original) consideration of the Hitchcock legacy, Peretz does not compare De Palma’s films with other films of their time, or with films by other directors. In terms of its dialogue with the traditions of film criticism – in particular, the many hundreds of articles, in many languages, devoted to De Palma – the book is a startling tabula rasa: in 55 pages – 55 pages! – of densely detailed notes, there is not a single reference to any previous writing on the director. [...]

However [...] I found myself (almost despite myself) very engaged with this book; this successful diversion of a reader’s preconception is the mark of a good and interesting critical/theoretical work. (Why read something that merely confirms what I already think I know about De Palma, in the language that has already confirmed it?) [...]

To Peretz, nothing that happens in a De Palma film – no gesture, line of dialogue, bit of behaviour, camera angle or scene transition – is natural, obvious or common-sensical; on the contrary, all is ‘strange’, bizarre, in urgent need of interpretation. The word strange appears multiple times on many pages; indeed, this book could have been subtitled (with a nod to Raymond Durgnat) The strange case of Brian De Palma. Becoming Visionary launches itself from where the best De Palma criticism wisely begins: from the sense that everything in these films is grandly unreal, illogical, unbelievable, risible, grotesque, a live-action cartoon. So much for the stuffy old business of character psychologies (and believable performances), dramatic/comic themes and coherent, and fictive-world meanings!

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More reading:

-- Campaspe, the Self-Styled Siren, is interviewed at Film in Focus.

-- At Sight & Sound, critics pick their favorite DVDs of 2008.

-- Dave Kehr in the NYT on the just-released Douglas Fairbanks DVDs.

-- David Bordwell on films of the 1980s.

-- New at Jonathan Rosenbaum's place: pieces on Chris Marker's Sans Soleil and Elizabeth Subrin's Shulie.

-- Jon Jost has a new post that begins: "Thomas Friedman, columnist for the Gray Lady of New York, who pontificates twice weekly in the Times “opinion pages,” is, by any accounting, almost always wrong."

-- Matt Zoller Seitz on Budd Boetticher at Moving Image Source.

-- Dan Sallitt on Jean-Daniel Pollet at Auteurs' Notebook; and on Jean-Gabriel Albicocco's 1961 debut feature La Fille aux yeux d'or ("The Girl with the Golden Eyes"), at Thanks for the Use of the Hall, which now has a new URL.

-- Catherine Grant collects "Online Film Audio-Commentaries and Video Essays Of Note."

-- A flurry of new posts (including on Bazin) at Harry Tuttle's place, Screenville.

-- The latest Serge Daney essay to be translated and added to Steve Erickson's site: "For a cine-demography".

-- Chris Cagle on TCM cinephilia.

-- Ian Thomson on Pasolini in the Times Literary Supplement.

-- There's a new issue of Criticine.

-- In City Journal, by Kay S. Hymowitz: "Love in the Time of Darwinism: A report from the chaotic postfeminist dating scene, where only the strong survive."

pic: "Telekinesis: Thought to be the ability to move or to cause changes in objects by force of the mind." From Brian De Palma's Carrie.