Sunday, April 10, 2011

Dave Kehr's Book

Dave Kehr’s first book has just appeared. Published by University of Chicago Press, it’s titled “When Movies Mattered,” and collects his criticism from a ten-year period spanning the mid-‘70s to the mid-‘80s, when he worked at the Chicago Reader. It’s a wonderful read.

I admire Kehr for many reasons. He’s a marvelous writer with a clear and elegant prose style and a bone-dry wit. He also has the all-too-rare talent of gathering the insights of cinema scholarship (especially in film history and film style) and bringing them in a lucid and stimulating fashion to a large non-specialist readership. Without announcing it as such, he performs an invaluable pedagogical activity in the New York Times DVD column each week — and in the pages of this collection.

To give you a flavor for the pieces in the book, let me excerpt a few favorite passages. The first is from a review of Cassavetes’ Love Streams:

The history of film is in some ways also a history of the repression of emotion. The actors in silent films used the whole of the body as an expression of feeling: gestures were large, movements broad and rhythmic, the eyes and mouth were exaggerated by makeup and by the orthochromatic photography into emotional signs of a startling directness. Sound films diminished the importance of the body, focusing expressiveness on the voice. And when, after the war, the first modernist films appeared—those of Bresson, Tati and Antonioni—the voice lost its primacy, too: emotion eluded words; it became concentrated in the actor’s regard, in the silent exchange of looks. The refinement and repressiveness of modernism continues to define the dominant film styles—it’s our generation’s index of realism, just as extravagance was “real” for the filmgoers of the teens and early 20s. Pop melodramas like Kramer vs. Kramer fake the placid surfaces of L’Avventura; comedies—notably Ghostbusters—are built on a hip detachment carried to an absurd degree.

John Cassavetes stands outside this history. His actors are full-bodied, demonstrative, and his camera doesn’t back off from them: there is an emotional intensity in his films, a readiness always to go too far, that can be embarrassing, intimidating, for some audiences. And because Cassavetes couches his emotional extravagance within the traditional signs of realism—location shooting, long takes, a grainy documentary quality to the image—many audiences feel betrayed by his films: they present themselves as “real,” but this isn’t the reality of other movies. Cassavetes is compelled to expose, expand, to apotheosize emotion; it is no wonder then that he is consistently drawn to themes of breakdown and madness—the only way the contemporary cinema can assimilate emotions of Cassavetes’ size is to characterize them as insanity.

On the way in which Blake Edwards’ Victor/Victoria “answers” his earlier film 10 in terms of theme and style:

The difference between the two films is registered in Edwards’ choice of lenses. 10 was a long-lens movie, using a telescopic compression of space to express the essence of romantic fantasy: in Dudley Moore’s subjective gaze, equated with the long lens, Bo Derek was always brought closer to him, made larger than life and isolated against a shallow, fuzzy background. The long lens emphasizes the authority of objects and individuals over the environment; it picks things out from a context, giving them an artificial size and an artificial independence. But the long lens is limited by its inability to grasp anything other than surfaces—it has no depth, no penetrating power, but only a worshipful abjection before the glittering face of things. It imposes a closeness that isn’t there, closing gaps mechanically. But it can only bring surface close to surface; it can’t describe the deeper attractions between characters, can’t sound their harmonies.

Victor/Victoria is a short-lens movie; it uses the wide-angle viewpoint to place the characters in a physical setting, describing their precise spatial relations to the people and décor around them. The short lens makes connections where connections exist, photographing the ways people position themselves and react to each other. And where there aren’t any connections, only the short lens can show the emptiness between characters, the psychological spaces that separate them. With a sensitive director, the composition in depth made possible by short lenses is a way of seeing in depth; spatial arrangements become emotional, moral, philosophical constellations.

The opening paragraph from his review of Oliveira’s Francisca:

I no longer try to reconcile my love for Hollywood with my taste for the structuralist-minimalist-materialist avant-garde, though for a long time it struck me as schizophrenic that I could be deeply moved by the high Hollywood illusionism of a Frank Borzage melodrama one evening and transported just as far the next night by Jean-Marie Straub’s endless pans in Too Early, Too Late. There is a lot of aesthetic ground between Borzage’s glowing, soft-focus close-ups of Margaret Sullavan and Straub’s decision to mount a camera on the dashboard of a Citroën and drive around the Place de la Bastille for 20 minutes without a cut. Yet as time passes these contradictions don’t seem quite as contradictory. In the politicized atmosphere of film criticism in the 70s, it was too often a question of making a choice: you could be a modernist or a classicist, an innovator or a preservationist, a materialist or an idealist, but never both. In the exhausted 80s, however, the points of contact seem more visible, the battle much less heated. Straub, for example is a great admirer of John Ford’s Donovan’s Reef, a film that stands stylistically, thematically, and ideologically at the other end of the spectrum from Too Early, Too Late. What we have been missing is a classically trained director who can admit his points of contact with the modern cinema. With the emergence of the 75-year-old Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira we have one at last.

On Raúl Ruiz's City of Pirates:

I read in the papers that we’re living in a great period of fantasy films, made possible by the tremendous breakthroughs in special effects technology and the soaring imaginations of a new generation of American filmmakers. But scratch a Star Wars or a Close Encounters and what you find is the same old realism: a linear, cause-and-effect story line, characters defined by perfectly conventional psychologies, a visual style still based on the Renaissance norms of “natural” perspective. In their story-telling techniques, these films couldn’t be more naturalistic; the fantastic intrudes only at the level of content, in the more or less standardized form of slobbering monsters, super-powered heroes, and sleek spaceships. If this is fantasy, it looks awfully familiar.

The only real maker of fantasy films I know is the Chilean-born director Raul Ruiz, who now lives in France as a political exile and makes his movies in a bewildering number of countries and languages. He makes them quickly, too—an average of two or three features a year, plus half a dozen short films and documentaries. Though Ruiz’s films are full of ghosts and mysterious happenings (all executed, charmingly and effectively, through essentially the same range of camera tricks that Georges Méliès invented at the turn of the century), what makes them fantastic isn’t their content, but their style. His fantasies take off from the narrative conventions that most filmmakers (and audiences) accept instinctively. Where a Spielberg will ask, “What would happen if a spaceman came to earth?” Ruiz’s “what ifs” are predicated on forms; they are at once more bold, more fundamental to the medium, and more elusive. There is a moment in City of Pirates […] when a character complains of a toothache. As he points out the afflicted area, the camera moves to a position inside his mouth, shooting out from between his open jaws. The shot is a joke on the Hollywood convention of impossible camera angles, the archetypal example being the camera that peers out at a pair of lovers from within the depths of a fireplace. This kind of shot is disturbing, even in its cliché form, because of the attention it draws to the bulk—the physical fact—of the camera. In a conventional realist style, the fact of the camera is always hidden; we are not supposed to feel it there, but to identify its point of view with a sort of free-floating omnipotence—a mysterious, unseen, almost godlike presence. The fireplace shot violates a taboo: it points to the profane physicality of the sacred object that is the camera by denying it too ostentatiously. Obviously, the camera could not be where it is if this were a real fireplace and the actors were real people. The shot comes dangerously close to overturning the naturalistic code of narration that the Hollywood cinema is built on, but for some reason we accept it—perhaps because the space the camera is violating is only a physical space. Ruiz’s shot is shocking—and shockingly funny—because it violates a spiritual, psychological space: the space of the human head, where the mind and the soul are supposed to reside. The Exorcist notwithstanding, Ruiz’s shot is the most vivid image of possession I’ve ever encountered. A foreign presence is, very literally, occupying a human body, and in the act of penetrating the flesh, the camera is transformed from benign, invisible sprite to rampaging demon. The shot is a throwaway, over in a second. But as the story unfolds, we encounter other possessed characters: two policemen who can swap spirits (and voices) by kissing each other on the cheek, a man living alone on a rocky island who is occupied by the half dozen personalities of his mysteriously missing family.

A whole series of transformations is involved here, and the way in which it progresses is a vivid illustration of the workings of Ruiz’s imagination. A narrative event (the toothache) produces a formal event (the shot). The shot is then analyzed for the story elements it might contain, producing the idea of possession. Finally, the theme of possession is incorporated into the overall narrative, producing a plot—a plot of which the toothache is a part. This interpenetration of form and content—this endless circulation, really, of form into story into form into story—is the basis of Ruiz’s cinema. As nonlinear as his narratives are, they unfold smoothly and continuously—and, in a sense, coherently—because they are bound together by this underlying network of transformations and associations.

* * *

A few links to recent reading:

-- Dave has an essay on Raoul Walsh in the book; it is now available at Moving Image Source. At MUBI, David Phelps and Danny Kasman sit down with him for a podcast conversation. Also: Dave talks at some length about Walsh in this recent interview with Miriam Bale.

-- Several pieces by Robin Wood at Film International including "Against and For Irreversible" and "Claire Denis: Cinema of Transgression": part one; and part two, which I linked to a few weeks ago in the post on "Difficult Cinema."

-- Along with several others, Farran Smith Nehme will be taking part in Northwestern University's Film Criticism conference this month.

-- At Andy Rector's: a 1978 interview with Serge Daney.

-- The brand-new NYC-based film website Alt Screen, founded by Paul Brunick. Among the contributing editors are Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Jim Emerson, and Nathan Lee.

-- Zach Campbell: "The Lights".

-- Michael Guillen interviews Todd Haynes about Mildred Pierce (2011).

-- At MUBI: David Phelps on films by Claude Lanzmann, Thomas Harlan and Robert Kramer.

-- Links to several recent pieces at Chris Fujiwara's website--on Takamine Hideo, Nina Menkes, and the Viennale.

-- At the website for the Visible Evidence conference, to be held at NYU in August, Brian Winston has a memorial post to Richard Leacock.

pic: Raúl Ruiz's City of Pirates (1983)