Saturday, February 21, 2009

Strombolian Films

I'm curious to hear about your experiences with films that you weren't ready for when you first encountered them--films that required considerable effort before you could understand and love them. Nicole Brenez calls these Strombolian films; for her, Roberto Rossellini's Stromboli (1949) was such a work. She writes in Movie Mutations: "These are films that resist, that one must surmount just as Ingrid Bergman scaled her volcano, and that change you forever..."

Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express (1994) was, for me, a key Strombolian film. The first time I watched it, I remember this: I reached for a pillow and hurled it at the screen! It was at the very moment that Faye Wong put on the Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreamin'" for the umpteenth time. The film seemed to be caught in an infinite loop, uninterested in moving forward. At the time I had been discovering the pleasures of character-driven cinema--like Howard Hawks and Eric Rohmer--and in comparison, Wong's film seemed to care not a whit about 'advancing' plot or character. The reigning mood was one of stasis.

A few years later, when I revisited the film, I was led to an important self-realization: that I had privileged and held as 'natural' a certain economy between form and content in a film work. According to this economy, matters of form and style--composition, cutting, rhythm, color, texture, movement, mood--had a specific function. They served something 'higher': narrative and character. Of course, this classicist criterion for judging an artwork seems embarrassingly restrictive to me today--but there was a time when I applied its yardstick to every film that came along. In fact, I suspect that such an economy between form and content is widely held as the norm by the viewing public at large today.

The content of Chungking Express might be about stasis, but its form--I realized upon second viewing--is all about movement! The film burns with stylistic bravura, most remarkably Wong's signature stretch printing of action which smears colors and shapes voluptuously across the screen. The French critic Jean-Marc Lalanne has written:

In cutting and recomposition through editing each movement of the actors, the mise-en-scène invents a kind of 'ballet mécanique' of human movements, a choreography in which each gesture becomes abstract, loses its functionality in favor of a purely musical value.

Brenez's notion of Strombolian films holds at least three lessons: (1) A viewing experience is often contingent upon where we happen to be situated--in our lives at a certain point in time--in relation to a work and its aesthetic; (2) It is important to revisit films that frustrated or disappointed us the first time around, and do so with a willingness--even eagerness--to struggle with the work while we simultaneously de-emphasize evaluative judgment for a little while; and (3) The resistance we encounter from an artwork can be put to great and productive use.

I'm wondering: What are your experiences of films that you weren't ready for when you first encountered them? Please feel free to share.

pic: Faye Wong, in pink cleaning gloves, plunges a toy United Airlines plane into Tony Leung's aquarium.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Teenage Flashback

It's a delight for me to present here the debut publication of a precocious teenage Adrian Martin. Enjoy! -- Girish.

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This was my first published piece, in the Australian magazine Cinema Papers no. 19 (January-February 1979) – a review of the book Authorship and Narrative in the Cinema by William Luhr and Peter Lehman (who later became specialists of Blake Edwards). I was 19, and had just dropped out of university education; I got the gig through my teacher-mentor (and eventually friend), Tom Ryan. Although the tone of the piece is somewhat righteous and finger-wagging – a typical ’get with the program’ rhetorical pose of the time – it raises at least one issue in film aesthetics that, thirty years later, I am still trying to resolve: the gap between thematic and formalist approaches (one can easily read my own ambivalence, poised as I was between ‘traditionalist’ and ‘progressive’ identifications). As for the book under discussion (I still have my review copy), published in 1977, it makes for instructive reading today as a ‘transitional’ text, although it has been little referenced in the intervening years; its context of aesthetic theory is one I did not exactly appreciate or give a decent account of in this review, because it did not look like anything that was new or radical in the late ‘70s. But the book is also of its time, in a very charming way: its ‘frame captures’ are meticulous, finely-textured pencil drawings! (30/01/09).

Authorship and Narrative in the Cinema: Issues in Contemporary Aesthetics and Criticism by William Luhr and Peter Lehman (Capricorn Books, New York: GP Putnam’s Sons, 1977)

Review by Adrian Martin

In the past ten years, film criticism has undergone major changes. Each new approach has ushered in another, each one bringing with it considerable theoretical material from other disciplines: semiotics, psychoanalysis, linguistics, etc. The result, particularly evident in Screen journal, is that every approach ideally needs to be integrated with those related to it. Thus Stephen Heath, for instance, calls for a grand synthesis of all the radical criticism so far developed, a system he titles the cinematic machine. The super-intellectual effort required for such a task is daunting – if indeed such a synthesis is desirable, or even possible.

It is, therefore, hardly surprising that some critics have felt the need to specialise. William Luhr and Peter Lehman provide such a specialisation. Indeed, they see their aesthetic analysis as the necessary prerequisite to any other critical work: “Only when the nature of the object itself has been precisely established can it be fruitfully related to larger constructs […] other constructs – social, political, psychological, and so on – are worthwhile, but beyond the specifically aesthetic concern of this work”.

Luhr and Lehman work in the traditional area of mise en scène analysis, a minute discussion of how the various elements of cinematic style – composition, lighting, décor, movement of camera and actors, etc – cohere into a unified expression of the film’s fictional world.

The long chapters on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Searchers painstakingly trace the recurring motifs in John Ford’s direction: the use of doorways, association of characters with certain times of day, changing positions of characters in the frame to indicate spatially the change in their relationships, etc. For those who have any regard for these films, the analyses provide fascinating insights into their seemingly inexhaustible complexities.

Similarly, the auteurist account of Ford’s developing concerns as revealed in the body of his work will be of interest to Ford admirers, though Luhr and Lehman insist – rightly I believe – that deciphering patterns of coherence between different works by the same author is only a secondary aesthetic concern.

However, anyone coming to the book without a prior regard for Ford is likely to find it somewhat puzzling. In their introduction, the authors explain that they picked these films for analysis simply because they provide examples of “effective” films in the narrative tradition. The analysis seems to imply a great deal more – that the films are in fact masterpieces.

Presumably, within the area of traditional criticism, that evaluation would be worth stating and then being put under scrutiny by the analysis – as Robin Wood does, brilliantly, in his piece on Letter from an Unknown Woman in Personal Views. This is eloquent of a central confusion in the book’s method. Luhr and Lehman appear to find it enough merely to outline the precise symmetry of motifs and associations in the films – “how the work functions as an artistic unit”.

But a doorway is just a doorway, no matter how many times it appears, or whichever director decided to put it there in the shot. The point is precisely what that motif expresses, and how well or badly it achieves this end.

This is Wood’s great strength as a critic: the way he constantly strives to evaluate the worth of a film’s realisation, the way it works itself out. Luhr and Lehman’s chapter on The Searchers is better than the one on Liberty Valance in this respect, because their description of the film’s pattern of ellipses directly entails a discussion of how we can – or cannot – read the psychology of Ethan’s character.

The authors are shy when it comes to identifying theme. Yet if one is committed to working in a traditional mode of criticism, that is always the foremost question: what is this film about? This leads to: how does it say it? How well is it said?

In the classical narrative cinema, formal operations always stand for something else – they represent an idea; the world of the fiction embodies something and is charged with meaning.

An alternative critical approach radically counterposes to this idea the notion that form – the material construction of the film – is important in itself, leading to a new revaluation of the output of independent filmmakers that focuses on the ‘film work’ itself. This is a direct challenge to – often a dismantling of – traditional narrative cinema. Luhr and Lehman try to sit astride both worlds:

The non-narrative challenge should ultimately lead to a more precise evaluation of the narrative cinema. Both, ultimately, share the same formal attributes (mise en scène, editing, sound, and so on) and skill in both lies in the configuration of these attributes, for whatever purpose. Such an evaluation cannot help but highlight the genius of men like Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, and their peers.

The phrase “for whatever purpose” ignores the fact that the purposes are opposed to each other: in narrative cinema, form (ideally) disappears under the illusion mounted by the fictional world; while in alternative films, however we wish to label them, form moves to the foreground and works against the production of a fixed, coherent, readable meaning (or theme in the traditional sense).

Even if we choose, as critics, to work in the familiar world of evaluative criticism, this book brings up problems that cannot be easily ignored. The analysis in the book restructures films, in Barthes’ phrase, into “blocks of meaning”; i.e., patterns of coherence are carefully described as they are seen to be at work in the film. The result of this and all mise en scène criticism is that it picks out the ‘striking images’ (and sounds) from a film, makes a case around them, and then conveniently forgets the dross. For, as Raymond Bellour has observed, the most profound tendency in the classical narrative film is towards repetition.

Mise en scène critics have a field day with low/high angles or elaborate crane shots. But what can they say about that most common figure of film language, namely the dreary old reverse shot that cuts from actor A speaking in mid-shot to actor B speaking in mid-shot? Which is not to say that the reverse shot structure is never complex or expressive (quite the contrary), but in the majority of cases it is the moment when cinematic style shrinks to zero.

Why is this technique so prominent in narrative film? A theory needs to be evolved that reaches beyond traditional criticism. If this is not the task Luhr and Lehman set themselves, then they might reasonably be expected to recognise and refer to the problem.

The second half of the book, on narrative, is naïve and disappointing. The authors appear dismayed over the “much needless controversy” around the subject. Their solution, in line with the book’s first half, is to argue that the story is simply one formal element that the director may use to communicate his or her ‘vision’ – although, as noted, they are reluctant to speak of an auteur’s thematic viewpoint and discuss instead the “elaborate formal patterns … [that have] much more to do with the film’s aesthetic than the ostensible narrative”. Hitchcock, for instance, is seen to:

… provide a film that works expertly as narrative and thus ensure his ability to finance films, while at the same time produce cinematic masterworks whose impact far exceeds that of the narrative elements within them.

Luhr and Lehman, in order to make such statements, have managed to ignore most of the interesting and important work done on narrative. The writing of Barthes, Propp, Metz, Genette, Bellour and others goes unnoticed. This is not to say that a critic has to refer to everyone who has previously discussed the same topic (an impossibility, certainly in this instance). But in this case it means that the key questions are not explored: what are the ‘rules’ of narrative? How does a narrative situate the viewer in a certain position of knowledge and pleasure (or unpleasure)?

The long comparison of various versions of the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde story on film with the original novel serves to point out that significant changes can be wrought upon a similar storyline – “extensive and essential differences”. The aim is finally to eulogise the “creative process” – the ways in which different artists, whatever their worth, will necessarily produce individual variations on the pre-existing plot line.

The study of narrative carried out by others has aimed precisely to see what structures and effects exist in the act of narrative irrespective of the particular narrator, be it John Ford or Tex Avery. What makes this part of the book so shallow is that the authors see narrative as something utterly unproblematic – merely the events of a story – and ignore the real theoretical issues. Any book that subtitles itself “issues in contemporary criticism” needs to involve itself with those issues.

© Adrian Martin January 1979.

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-- The current issue of Filmkrant has a special section called "Slow Criticism" featuring, among others Jonathan Rosenbaum, Olaf Möller, Kent Jones, and Adrian, who also has a column on one of America's "very worst film critics," Ben Lyons.

-- At The Auteurs, a round-table of conversations called "The Epilogue" with Andrew Grant, Harry Tuttle, Kevin Lee, Edwin Mak, Alexis Tioseco and Nitesh Rohit.

-- There's a new issue of Senses of Cinema.

-- Recent pieces posted at Jonathan Rosenbaum's place: on undistributed films, The Godfather, and Ritwik Ghatak.

-- Some new posts and pieces from: Mubarak Ali, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Doug Cummings, and Walter at Quiet Bubble.

pic: Pencil drawing of a shot from a Freudian sequence in Victor Fleming's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) from the William Luhr-Peter Lehman book.