Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Difficult Cinema

Congratulations to Marilyn Ferdinand (Ferdy on Films) and Farran Smith Nehme (Self-Styled Siren) for the just-concluded Film Preservation Blogathon. The event's aim was to raise money to preserve blacklisted filmmaker Cy Endfield's noir The Sound of Fury (1950). There is still time to donate to this cause: Please see the Facebook page of For the Love of Film. Marilyn and Farran, thank you!

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I've been wondering: What does it mean for a film to be difficult? Are there multiple ways in which films can be difficult? To put the question to myself in a more personal and subjective way: What are some films or filmmakers that I find difficult? And why?

I recently watched Andrei Rublev (1966), a remarkable and quintessential work of cinematic modernism. It can be called difficult for many reasons: it's three and a half hours long; the narrative is episodic and discontinuous; the film is structured in the form of chapters but often there is little idea of how much time has elapsed between them; there are dozens of characters, and the relationships between them are not always clear; to complicate matters, the same actors turn up in multiple roles through the film; Tarkovsky frequently drops narrative and character in order to focus on the elements (earth, air, water, fire) in an immersive, tactile way. In and beyond matters of plot, action, character and psychology, Tarkovsky poses challenges to interpretation, especially given the central theme of the spiritual -- the non-material, the intangible -- that runs through the film.

Robin Wood has a wonderful passage on the subject of difficult cinema in a 2004 essay on Claire Denis' I Can't Sleep. It appears in a section he titles "Confessions of an Incompetent Film Critic." Let me quote it at some length:

For people of my generation, who grew up in the 1940s/50s on an exclusive diet of classical Hollywood cinema (with the occasional British movie), the European ‘arthouse’ cinema always presented problems which linger on even today, a simple basic one being that of following the plot. This is not because the plot is necessarily complex or obscure, but, frequently, because of the way in which the characters are introduced and the action presented. When I grew up there was remarkably little serious criticism available (not much beyond the weekly reviews), and film studies courses in schools or universities were not even thought of. I was seventeen when I saw my first foreign language film (Torment/Frenzy [Hets, 1944], by Alf Sjöberg, from an early but already characteristic screenplay by Ingmar Bergman). I knew from the reviews that it would carry me far beyond anything I had seen previously, both in style and subject-matter, and my hand was trembling when I bought my ticket. I believe I had great difficulty following it (my first subtitles, not to mention extreme psychological disturbance). Fifty-five years later I still have the same problem when confronted with the films of Claire Denis (or Michael Haneke, or Hou Hsiao-Hsien…). The habits acquired during one’s formative years are never quite cast off; when I showed I Can’t Sleep to a graduate film group last year, my students corrected me over a number of details and pointed out many things I hadn’t noticed, although this was their first viewing of the film and I had already watched it three times. A classical Hollywood film – however intelligent and complex – is dependent on its surface level upon ‘popular’ appeal and its action must be fully comprehensible to a general audience at one viewing, covering all levels of educatedness from the illiterate to the university professor. (The same was of course true of the Elizabethan theatre – see, for example, the conventions of the soliloquy and the aside, wherein a character explains his/her motivation, reactions or thoughts to the audience). One of the cardinal rules was that every plot point must be doubly articulated, in both the action and the dialogue; another was the use of the cut to close-up that tells us ‘This character is important’; yet another, the presence of instantly recognizable stars or character actors. All of these Denis systematically denies us. It is a part of her great distinction that her films (and especially I Can’t Sleep, arguably her masterpiece to date) demand intense and continuous mental activity from the spectator: we are not to miss a single detail or to pass over a gesture or facial expression, even if it is shown in long shot within an ensemble, with no ‘helpful’ underlining and no 'spelling out' in dialogue.

It is the particular distinction of Denis’ cinema that sets it apart from – almost, indeed, in opposition to – the work of many of our most celebrated ‘arthouse’ directors: Bergman, for example, or Fellini or Antonioni. Their films are rooted in autobiography – not necessarily in any literal sense, but in terms of personal introspection – whereas Denis left autobiography behind with Chocolat, and even that film is notable for its poise and critical distance, its objectivity. Where Bergman or Fellini seems to be saying to us ‘Come with me and I’ll tell you my secrets, share my experiences – how I feel about things, my thoughts about existence’, Denis issues a very different invitation to the spectator: ‘Come with me and we’ll play a game, albeit a serious one. Let’s see how much you can notice in what I decide to show you, how you interpret what you see and hear, what connections you can make, how much can be explained and how much remains mysterious and uncertain, as so much in our lives remains unclear. I’ll allow you a certain leeway of interpretation, because I don’t always understand everything myself, not even my own creations, though I’ll be as precise as possible…’

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On the one hand, I agree with Wood that filmmakers such as Denis and Hou are difficult. In comparison to (say) popular cinema, the demands they place on us are sometimes of a different order. And yet, when I experience each new work by these filmmakers, the difficulty I feel in making sense of them is counterweighed by the feeling of deep pleasure I take in the very ambiguities, uncertainties and mysteries that make the work difficult. In the end, the overriding impression that lingers is not one of the work's difficulty but of its rewards, and the pleasures it brings.

But there is another, more personal and subjective sense in which cinema can be difficult -- when certain films or filmmakers pose problems especially for us as individual viewers, problems that don't seem universally shared by other film-lovers. For example, even though they strike me as very interesting, I find that I have to work hard to grapple with and 'tune into' the few films I've seen by Jacques Rivette. (Confession: I haven't seen Celine and Julie yet.) Many of the cinephiles and critics I admire are devotees of his films, and this leads me to believe that I've not yet found the secret 'key' to, the 'way into' his work. The films hold me at arm's length; I've not discovered how to 'align' with -- and resonate with them yet.

I recently read Jonathan Rosenbaum's essay on Rivette's films, "Work and Play in the House of Fiction." It helpfully begins with this epigraph from Whitney Balliett:

[Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz] causes earache the first time through, especially for those new to Coleman's music. The second time, its cacophony lessens and its complex balances and counter-balances begin to take effect. The third time, layer upon layer of pleasing configurations -- rhythmic, melodic, contrapuntal, tonal -- becomes visible. The fourth or fifth listening, one swims readily along, about ten feet down, breathing the music like air.

Jonathan adds:

Apart from the brief ensemble passages written by Coleman, there is no composer behind Free Jazz, hence no composition; the primary role of Coleman as leader is to assemble players and establish a point of departure for their improvising.

Rivette's role in Spectre is similar, with the crucial difference that he edits and rearranges the material afterward, assembling shots as well as players. And the assembly is one that works against the notion of continuity: sustained meaning, the province of an auteur, is deliberately withheld -- from the audience as well as the actors. [...] We watch actors playing at identity and meaning the way that children do, with many of the games leading to dead ends or stalemates, some exhausting themselves before they arrive anywhere, and still others creating solid roles and actions that dance briefly in the theater of the mind before dissolving into something else. Nothing remains fixed, and everything becomes ominous.

Although I haven't seen Spectre or Out 1, there are many interesting observations and insights here. I think I may have gathered some clues to help me with my next Rivette encounter.

I'm curious to hear from you: What do you think are some ways in which films can be "difficult"? And, subjectively speaking, are there certain films or filmmakers that you find difficult? And why? I'd love to hear your thoughts on anything related to this large subject.

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A few links:

-- Zach Campbell recalls an Andy Rector post on Joseph Losey's The Lawless (1950) and uses it to comment on the film. Also: Dave Kehr has an interesting review of the newly released Losey noir The Prowler (1951).

-- Jeffrey Sconce brings Christian Metz's film theory to Ida Lupino's Not Wanted (1949) in his post on the "quasi-diegetic insert".

-- From Ignatiy: the new episode of Ebert Presents; and his post "Cabinetry," on the Liam Neeson Euro-thriller genre.

-- Two Jonathan Rosenbaum-related items: a podcast of an interview he did with Colin Marshall; and a newly written introduction to his book on Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man.

pic: Claire Denis' I Can't Sleep (1994)

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Rediscoveries on Blu-ray

Exciting news: Hearty congratulations to Ignatiy Vishnevetsky for being selected to co-host the new TV show, "Ebert Presents: At The Movies." The show is on PBS but my local affiliate in Buffalo doesn't carry it. Fortunately, the show has a nicely designed, regularly updated website where I was able to catch up with the episodes so far. My best wishes to Ignatiy with the show: here's to hoping he becomes a household name before too long!

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I have a piece called "The 21-st Century Cinephile" in the latest issue of the Dutch film magazine Filmkrant. It's part of their "Slow Criticism" dossier, with pieces by Adrian Martin, Gabe Klinger, Dana Linssen, Neil Young, and others. In my piece, I discuss the need for a dialectical engagement with cinema discourse in this age of social media. The fragmented mode of cinema conversation on Facebook and Twitter is both invaluable (because of its dizzying stream of ideas, insights and stimulation) and challenging (because of its addictive allure). I find that these days I have to work hard to carve out time for engagement with long-form criticism in books or essays. Both modes of engaging with cinema discourse are important; it's a daily balancing act to be able to spend one time's wisely and well. I have a question for cinephiles: Do social media like Facebook and Twitter enhance and fuel your cinephilia? Do you find these social media valuable in your life, specifically your cinephilic life? I'm curious to know what you think.

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I've seen Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978) in nearly every format: the first time on the big screen when I was a teenager, and then, years later, on both VHS and DVD. I watched it on Blu-ray recently, and it suddenly struck me, with great vividness and force, as one of the great works of cinema.

Reading Vlada Petric's review in Film Quarterly, published when the film came out, I was surprised by its negative critical reception:

Everybody is fascinated by its visual (as well as auditory) qualities, yet many find its characters "unconvincing both as people and as symbols" (Joy Gould Boyum), "its drama deficient, and its psychology obscure" (Andrew Sarris); others claim that "most of its events take place abruptly, lacking adequate preparation or a dramatic payoff" (Arthur Knight); while some discard it completely as an "overwrought artifact" (Pauline Kael), or "a test case of pretension" (David Thomson), and "one of the most perversely undramatic, uninvolving and senseless movies ever made" (David Denby).

I can't fathom these criticisms. The drama in Days of Heaven issues only partially from the tragic love triangle at the film's center. For me, the main drama playing out in this film has to do with the way it stages confrontations between polar opposite ideas of what cinema is, what cinema can do. First, Days of Heaven's avant-garde impulses are as strong as those that drive its narrative. The film tells a compelling tragic-epic story, but at least as striking is its formal beauty, the way in which one stand-alone image after another stops you in your tracks. Malick often gives things -- both living and non-living -- their own shot, often unmotivated by the act of any particular characters looking at them. The conflagration, the locusts, the farm at the "magic hour," the broken wine glass at the bottom of the lake, the flying circus, the rooftop wind generator, the lone mansion: these images are indelible, their beauty and force far exceeding their merely functional requirement in the narrative.

The film embodies another primal opposition of cinema -- between the modes of documentary and fiction. Not only does the film capture and document nature better than most films, the credit sequence signals, with subtlety and imagination, the tension between the two modes. A montage of twenty-four sepia-toned archival photographs, the sequence introduces us to the time period in which the film is set. (In his book on Malick, Lloyd Michaels makes a case that every single photograph in this sequence bears a sly, glancing allusion to the narrative of the film itself.) Following these twenty-four historical photographs, the twenty-fifth, in the style of the preceding pictures, shows Linda Manz, playing the character of a poor urban kid. In one quiet, fleeting moment, the film has moved from its documentary opening into its fictional world. It is during such moments -- and they are many in Days of Heaven -- that I find this film profoundly "dramatic."

I'm wondering: Have you had the good fortune of rediscovering any older films -- and renewing or expanding your appreciation of them -- on Blu-ray? I'd love to hear about your experiences.

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A few links:

-- A Blake Edwards special issue (plus other bonus pieces) in the new issue of Undercurrent.

-- The Senses of Cinema 2010 World Poll.

-- Cinema Scope now has a brand new online section with essays and a top 10 list.

-- Ignatiy has started a Tumblr site called Direct Transmission.

-- Videos at Catherine Grant's: "Fifteen Film Studies Guest Lectures at the University of Chicago."

-- Doug Dibbern at MUBI: "Cinephilia, the Science of Hope, and the Sacred Ground Beneath the Grapeland Heights Police Substation in Miami, Florida."

-- On the occasion of the new edition of his book Planet Hong Kong, David Bordwell gives us "25 Classics: A Cheat Sheet."

-- "Moments of 2010" by various writers at Moving Image Source.