Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Best of the Decade

Just as they did ten years ago, James Quandt and TIFF Cinematheque (née Cinematheque Ontario) have conducted a worldwide poll of film curators, archivists, historians and programmers for best ("most important") films of the decade (scroll down for the compiled list). It's a heady and wonderful list that militates unashamedly and polemically for film as art. There are 54 films on the list, and four of the top 5 are Asian. Here's the top 10:

1. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)
2. Platform (Jia Zhang-ke, China)
3. Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke, China)
4. Beau Travail (Claire Denis, France)
5. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong, China)
6. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)
7. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, Romania); and Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, Hungary).
8. Éloge de l'amour (Jean-Luc Godard, France)
9. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu)
10. Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico)

One of the purposes of such a list is to stimulate conversation and debate. So, let me make a few comments about it; I invite you to do the same.

-- Just 5 of the 54 are women-made films: Beau Travail and L'Intrus (Claire Denis); The Gleaners and I (Agnes Varda); The Headless Woman (Lucretia Martel); and Longing (Valeska Grisebach). Missing women filmmakers include Chantal Akerman, Catherine Breillat, and Jennifer Reeves (among many others).

-- The list privileges narrative, feature-length films. Avant-garde/experimental cinema is almost wholly absent (save Ken Jacobs, and Apichatpong, whose work straddles narrative and avant-garde modes). Thus, for instance: no James Benning, Peter Tscherkassky, Nathaniel Dorsky, Michael Robinson, or (again) Jennifer Reeves. Also: no short films except Guy Maddin's The Heart of the World.

-- The decade was marked by an explosion of the documentary form, which had a profound influence on fiction filmmaking and even made great incursions into the mainstream. But documentaries (except the Varda) go missing on the list.

-- By explicitly advancing the cause of art cinema, a poll such as this automatically marginalizes the aesthetic merits of commercial cinema. So, from Hollwyood to Bollywood, popular cinema barely registers here.

-- A personal aside: My own cinephilia peaked during this time. I attended TIFF throughout the decade, and caught most of the films on the list at the festival. There's exactly one film here that I didn't care for at the time: Roy Andersson's Songs from the Second Floor (2000). Time to give it a second look.

-- I wonder: are all filmmakers represented here by their most worthy work of this decade? There are two Tsai Ming-Liang films on this list but not What Time is it There? (2001), which, to my mind, is a key film in his oeuvre, a kind of summation of his themes and a compendium of his style. I have no quarrel whatsoever with Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth or In Vanda's Room (astounding films, both!) but I miss the inclusion of his Straub/Huillet documentary, Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? Finally, I wonder: is Lucretia Martel's The Headless Woman her best film--better than The Holy Girl or La Cienaga?

Let me conclude by adding a handful of personal choices that are not on the list: La Captive (Chantal Akerman, France), RR (James Benning, USA), Remembrance of Things to Come (Chris Marker, France), Man Without a Past (Aki Kaurismaki, Finland), and Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (Peter Tscherkassky, Austria).

I'd love to hear your reactions to the Cinematheque list--and your ideas for "best films of the decade" that don't appear on it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Handful of Reads

-- Cinematheque Ontario is doing a series, curated by Jean-Pierre Gorin, on essay films. Also: Andrew Tracy on essay films at Moving Image Source.

-- Glenn Kenny on Cinemascope at the Auteurs Notebook; David Bordwell is among those who weigh in after the post.

-- Bordwell: on the sexual use of bedposts in movies; on Shaw Brothers widescreen cinema; and on four little-known but interesting Hollywood films from 1933.

-- Dave Kehr in the NYT: two horror film articles (one and two); on new Sirk and Buñuel DVDs; and on Robert Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol. (Also: Dan North on the Zemeckis.)

-- From the Viennale, Gabe Klinger reflects on film festivals. Also: Gabe on the AFI Fest.

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum: on "recycled cinema" (Rivette's Divertimento and Stone's Natural Born Killers); a dialogue between Jonathan and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa on Kiarostami's Shirin; on Resnais and Marker's Statues Don't Die; and on his favorite Ford film, The Sun Shines Bright (1953), which I've never seen but just found online in a used VHS copy.

-- An autodidact's joy: "250 Free Courses from Top Universities," all online.

-- Catherine Grant: links to some introductions to film studies; a collection of studies of the close-up; and writings in phenomenological film and media studies.

-- Chris Cagle evaluates several currently used film history textbooks.

-- Michael Guillen assembles a large post of Robert Beavers' comments to audiences during the filmmaker's recent 2-week residency in San Francisco.

-- Ben Sachs relates Michael Mann to 19th century painting at The Auteurs Notebook.

-- Michael Anderson at Tativille offers an essay on the "taxonomy of the 360-degree panorama."

-- Michael Byrne at The Nation on the films of Dusan Makavejev.

-- Pedro Costa discusses his Jeanne Balibar documentary, Ne Change Rien, with Scott Foundas: “When the Lumière brothers did a shot, the movement inside the shot is almost impossible to re-create today [...] I am always very afraid when I see a little dog crossing the street in a Lumière brothers film, afraid it’s going to be crushed by a Model T. It’s something very concrete, this menace. Then Chaplin did the same thing consciously, and Stroheim took it further. We could see so many things in those films that, today, you only see in some Filipino or Chinese films, or sometimes on TV, in some documentaries. Everything beautiful and everything dangerous and everything that has to do with society disappeared a little bit from films. I’m becoming very reactionary, but Straub would say you have to go back to the past to push things forward.”

-- Newly discovered blog: Matthew Holtmeier's Cinema Without Organs.

pic: Chris Marker's Sans Soleil (1983), in Jean-Pierre Gorin and Cinematheque Ontario's essay film series.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Lines of Inspiration: Popular Cinema to Art Cinema

One of the best and most fascinating things about cinema is the tension between its status as art and its status as industry. There is nothing new about this idea. But the way we construct the categories of 'popular cinema' and 'art cinema'--in starkly opposing fashion--holds them further apart than they really are or should be. It's good to be reminded of this on a regular basis.

So, my ears always perk up when I hear art filmmakers claim popular filmmakers as inspirations and influences. Let me relate a recent instance. Last month, of the 25 or so films I caught at the Toronto International Film Festival, the most memorable was To Die Like A Man, by Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues.

To Die Like A Man is a rich but challenging film about an aging drag queen/cabaret singer on the brink of a sex change operation. She has volatile and difficult relationships with both her junkie lover and her young, psychologically unstable son. The film is challenging because it never settles into a single comfortable narrative mode; it's forever shape-shifting. At various points, it becomes: melodrama, "queer realism," a musical with songs (but frequently without musical accompaniment!), a Wizard-of-Ozian fantasy, a breathtaking ode to silent cinema, and (in one brilliant moment) a medical documentary in which a doctor demonstrates a sex change operation using origami.

But here's the important thing: These shifts don't resemble the collage and pastiche practices that we sometimes associate with a certain kind of popular "postmodern cinema". To Die Like A Man presents itself to us, with no confusion, as an art film.

In the Q&A after the screening, someone asked Rodrigues about the film's unusual opening, resembling a war movie, in which a squad of soldiers moves through a forest in the darkness. It was inspired, he answered to everyone's surprise, by Raoul Walsh's Objective, Burma! He added that he screened Douglas Sirk films for the cast during production. I would not have dreamed, without being told, that this film held classic Hollywood as an important forebear.

This isn't an isolated, freak example. In 1995 the journal Projections, in collaboration with Positif, devoted an issue ("Film-makers on Film-making") to mark the one-hundredth anniversary of cinema. In this issue, each filmmaker contributes an essay, big or small, devoted to her or his signal inspirations in cinema. The number of art filmmakers choosing to speak about popular films or filmmakers is eye-opening.

Chris Marker turns in an impassioned 8-page essay on his all-time favorite film, Vertigo. Catherine Breillat performs an insightful analysis of Elia Kazan's Baby Doll, which affected her powerfully and spurred her to write 36 Fillette. And arch-modernist Greek director Theo Angelopoulos writes of growing older and refashioning his personal history of cinema in the form of fragments: a few faces, gestures, shots, and words. Turns out they all belong to popular cinema:

The cry 'I don't want to die!' in Michael Curtiz's Angels With Dirty Faces; Orson Welles' damaged face in Touch of Evil; the young Irish girl dancing with Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine; Ingrid Bergman's face full of love in Notorious; Peter Lorre's monotonous whistling in M; these short moments, shots cut out of the films they belong to, make up the one film which marked me, the film which still does.

One the best accounts comes from Raul Rúiz. He tells the story of seeing Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat for the first time, and experiencing an utter revelation: here was a film that was an unconscious inspiration, a proto-Rúizian narrative unbeknownst to him.

Several times I had been linked with Edgar G. Ulmer and I usually disagreed [...] People as different as Jérôme Prieur, John Zorn and J. Rosenbaum had compared me to him. Now at last recognition came to me, and as in an old melodrama, I exclaimed: "Father!' and he replied 'My son!'

For at least twenty of my films find their source in The Black Cat. Each scene in the film is transformed, and completed, into one of mine.

A couple more examples. Jonathan Rosenbaum writes about Straub's admiration for Chaplin:

Over a decade ago, Jean-Marie Straub made this startling observation: “A lot of people think that Eisenstein is the greatest editor, because he has some theories about it, but this is not true. Chaplin was greater, I think, in editing, only it is not so obvious. Chaplin was more precise than Eisenstein, and the man after Chaplin who is the most precise is surely Rivette.”

What Straub had in mind, I think, is Chaplin’s and Rivette’s ability to edit in relation to content: emotional content, narrative content, performance content. For both directors, editing is a precise answer to the question of what a particular shot’s meaning is–where this meaning begins and where it ends.

Finally, Pedro Costa's love for Jacques Tourneur is well-known, and is also evident in his first feature, O Sangue.

So, I wonder: can we collect some examples here of art filmmakers who have held up popular cinema as an important inspiration or influence?

pic: Boris Karloff in Edgar Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934). Also: here are two valuable interviews with João Pedro Rodrigues, by Michael Guillen and Dennis Lim.