Thursday, July 21, 2011

DVD Booklets

Booklets that accompany DVDs are one of the less visible and accessible outlets of film writing. I’ve spent the last week with a stack of DVDs and booklets borrowed from my college library. Let me share a couple of interesting excerpts from them here. Any favorite DVD booklets to recommend? Perhaps we could collect all your suggestions in the comments section.

(1) Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (Criterion).

Sergio Leone was sixteen, in high school, and happened to be present when the film was being shot. He describes the experience:

All of a sudden [De Sica] said: “Well, here I would like to see a group of ten, fifteen red priests, those who do the Catholic propaganda.” […] The next day we shot the scene—beautiful also from a choreographic perspective—in which these red priests, caught in the thunderstorm, take shelter under the eaves of a building. Two of them are speaking in German to each other, so that the child, fascinated by the strange language, gets distracted and lingers on, listening to them. I was one of the two red priests involved in the conversation, which in reality consisted of saying some numbers, because we didn’t speak German. The rest of the group was formed by my classmates, whom I had recruited after De Sica said he had no idea how he could come up with fifteen teenagers.

(2) Maurice Pialat’s L’Enfance-nue (Masters of Cinema).

Kent Jones writes:

Pialat, much more than Michael Bay or Tsui Hark, was an action director. Which is to say that his films give us the actions of his characters within their environments, without any discernible master idea governing their every move. In each Pialat film, and L’Enfance-nue is no exception, continuity as we know it is deliberately and continually thwarted if not smashed, in order to expunge just such master-planning. One never knows when a scene will end, or indeed what will constitute a scene, and our tracking of time as some kind of guide (an unconscious procedure in any movie) is thrown out the window — as in a Terrence Malick film, any given scene could be taking place minutes, hours, days or months after the preceding scene, and crucial moments occur off-camera. There is no time for the film to build up any sort of thematic repository to which the viewer can return for psychic re-orientation, beyond the specifics of these people, as they are seen in this place at this time of year under these skies, and in this light […] we become genuinely attuned to the film as a series of precious moments, passing before our eyes at 24 frames per second. Many filmmakers before and after Pialat tried to reach this absolute level of proximity between fiction and documentary, actor and character, setting and place. For most, it happened only fitfully. Only Pialat, with his mixture of sublime sensitivity, brute force and a furious resentment that kept his creative machinery perpetually stoked, was able to sustain such a balance throughout an entire film.

(3) Hiroshi Teshigahara films (Criterion).

James Quandt on The Face of Another (the entire essay can be found here):

The confluence of artistic forces — West with East, Europe with Japan, traditional with experimental — is readily apparent in the sinister, glittering waltz Takemitsu composed as the signature music for the credit sequence of The Face of Another. More unsettling than the composer’s nerve-scraping electronic music, which is more conventionally ominous, the strangely “inappropriate” waltz not only emphasizes Takemitsu’s and Teshigahara’s respective debts to Western culture but also introduces an important, largely unremarked incongruity in the film’s visual strategies. By employing a traditional, even antique, form — the triple-time Viennese ballroom dance, popular for more than two centuries — for modernist ends, Takemitsu inadvertently evokes a formal tension in the film between its strangely outmoded aspect ratio (the squarish Academy ratio) and its arsenal of visual innovation: freeze-frames, defamiliarizing close-ups, wild zooms, wash-away wipes, X-rayed imagery, stuttered editing, surrealist tropes, swish pans, jump cuts, rear projection, montaged stills, edge framing, and canted, fragmented, and otherwise stylized compositions. Since the late fifties, most Japanese films (though not Ozu’s) had been made in widescreen, and a mania for the Scope format was widespread, so Teshigahara’s adherence to the old-fashioned ratio, emphasized by the black-and-white cinematography, is especially striking.

(4) Georges Franju’s Judex/Nuits rouges (Masters of Cinema).

Franju speaking about Nuits rouges to Tom Milne in 1975:

I have always been attracted by emanations of strangeness; in other words, by the insolite. I suppose this is why my films so often belong to the genre formally but somewhat loosely categorized by the term ‘cinéma fantastique’. Within this rather nebulous area, I distinguish three zones: le cinéma fantastique, properly speaking; le cinéma de l’insolite; and le cinéma de l’angoisse. The fantastique lies in the form; the insolite, in the atmosphere; the anguish, in the uncertainty, the unknown. The fantastique must be created; the insolite should emerge; and the anguish, be felt […] Then how does the insolite manifest itself in the film? It springs, surely, from elements calculated to clash with each other — action and oneirism, divertissement and drama […] The cinematic image is gifted with twin powers: the power of psychological insight and the power of attraction or fascination. As a spectacle, Nuits rouges exercises the latter, and should therefore be approached rather like those carnival sideshows which require you to rediscover your innocence.

* * *

A few links:

-- David Hudson has a tumblr page called Transatlantic.

-- (via Zach Campbell) Geoffrey O'Brien on Malick's The Tree of Life; and a terrific post and discussion ("Cases Closed / Problems Opened") inspired by the film at Zach's place.

-- (via Walter Biggins) At "5 Annoying Trends That Make Every Movie Look The Same".

-- Catherine Grant collects links to "Terrence Malick Studies" in a post.

-- The welcome return of Jonathan Rosenbaum's "Global Discoveries" DVD column in the new issue of Cinema Scope magazine. An excerpt, on a new Edgar Ulmer 6-DVD box set: "It seems weirdly appropriate (yet also uniquely frustrating) that the box itself should be hard to open, the individual discs hard to pry loose from the container and almost equally hard to put back securely..."

-- Film Comment has a handy collection of Cannes Top 10 lists from various critics on a single page.

-- Recent website discoveries: The Film Doctor blog; Trevor L.'s tumblr page, Occupied Territories, and his blog Journey by Frame.

-- Michael Sicinski at Moving Image Source: "Cinephile fashions and the hybrid films of Nicolás Pereda".

-- (via the Cinetrix): Two pieces by Mark Rappaport at the journal Requited, "The Gong Show," and "Black Bra, White Bra".

-- At Sight & Sound: an interview with filmmaker Pere Portabella.

pic: Maurice Pialat's L'Enfance-nue (1968).


Tuesday, July 05, 2011

On Lists

In the last couple of years, the Criterion label Eclipse has released several multi-DVD sets of world cinema. I hereby offer a wish list — born of an idle fantasy — of ten DVD collections I would most love to see released by the label:

-- Jacques Rivette: L’Amour Fou (1968), Duelle (1976), Noroît (1976), Haut Bas Fragile (1995).
-- Ritwik Ghatak: Ajantrik (1958), Komal Gandhar (1961), Subarnarekha (1962), Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (1974).
-- Anne-Marie Miéville: 2 x 50 Years of French Cinema (1995), We’re Still Here (1997), After the Reconciliation (2000).
-- Hou Hsiao-hsien: Daughter of the Nile (1987), City of Sadness (1989), The Puppetmaster (1993).
-- Marguerite Duras: Destroy She Said (1969), India Song (1976), Le Camion (1978).
-- Edward Yang: Taipei Story (1985), A Brighter Summer Day (1991), Mahjong (1996).
-- Mark Rappaport: Local Color (1977), The Scenic Route (1978), Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992), The Journals of Jean Seberg (1995).
-- Jonas Mekas: Walden: Diaries, Notes and Sketches (1969), Reminiscences of Journey Through Lithuania (1972); Lost, Lost, Lost (1976).
-- Kumar Shahani: Maya Darpan (1972), Tarang (1984), Kasba (1990).
-- Abbas Kiarostami: Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987), Homework (1989), Life and Nothing More… (1992), Through The Olive Trees (1994).

Any candidates of your own for Eclipse sets?

* * *

A few weeks ago, using the appendix of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Essential Cinema as a guide, I made a list of about a hundred films to see this summer. On it were both classic titles that had slipped through the cracks of my viewing and lesser-known films I’d never seen. For example:

Greed (Erich von Stroheim); Nathalie Granger (Marguerite Duras); Bird (Clint Eastwood); Venom and Eternity (Isidore Isou); Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey); The Gold Diggers (Sally Potter); Senso (Luchino Visconti); The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson/Val Lewton); The Mouth Agape (Maurice Pialat); The Unknown Chaplin (Kevin Brownlow); Occasional Work of a Female Slave (Alexander Kluge); Citizen’s Band (Jonathan Demme); Mister Freedom (William Klein); Sherman’s March (Ross McElwee); David Holzman’s Diary (Jim McBride); The Shooting (Monte Hellman); Limlelight (Charlie Chaplin); Panic in the Streets (Elia Kazan); Spring in a Small City (Fei Mu); Our Daily Bread (King Vidor); Avanti! (Billy Wilder); Day of the Dead (George Romero); Walker (Alex Cox); The Window (Ted Tatzlaff); and Executive Suite (Robert Wise).

Any particular titles from the Rosenbaum 1000 (either available or unavailable on DVD) that you most want to see?

* * *

Just as writing about cinema has exploded on the Internet in the last decade, so has the activity of list-making. We are acutely reminded of this at the end of each year, when it becomes obligatory for film blogs, websites, and magazines (and even journals housed in academe such as Film Quarterly) to publish lists that pronounce and rank the best cinema of the year. But even apart from this end-of-year exercise, the making of lists is an activity that seems to exert a powerful attraction on the cinephile — note, for example, the popularity of sites such as They Shoot Pictures.

What purpose do lists serve? More importantly: What can lists accomplish? We can think about this in two ways: let’s call them the macro and the micro levels.

At the macro level, lists can help elevate certain films and filmmakers to broader consciousness, and render them worthy of attention, importance, and study. This usually occurs because of the efforts of a group or community: think of the Hitchcocko-Hawksians at Cahiers du cinéma in the 1950s. Sometimes, in rare cases, a single individual can have the same effect — as Andrew Sarris did with his list-filled book The American Cinema in the 1970s. In the tribute essay collection Citizen Sarris: American Film Critic (edited by Emanuel Levy), a number of film critics and scholars testify to the impact of the book. One of them is Dave Kehr, who was part of Doc Films at the University of Chicago, the oldest student-run film society in the US:

Every Doc Filmser carried a paperback copy of The American Cinema, usually wrapped with rubber bands to compensate for the Dutton edition’s notoriously flimsy binding, with titles one had seen underlined in each biographical entry. This dedication to a sacred text made us resemble, a bit too closely for comfort, some of the other cultists then proliferating on the proudly radical campus — namely, the junior Maoists with their Little Red Books.

For Jonathan Rosenbaum, it was a different collection of lists — the results of the 1962 Sight and Sound world cinema poll — that proved consequential. He writes in the introductory essay to Essential Cinema:

I vowed to see as many films on the list as I could, and for the next several years proceeded like a butterfly collector, dutifully underlining each title in that issue of Sight and Sound as soon as I’d seen the film. It was a better way of surveying the lay of the land, I quickly discovered, than the indexes of [Arthur] Knight or of [Paul] Rotha and [Richard] Griffith, because it guided me toward objects of critical veneration more than historical markers — objects that would eventually be joined by those found in Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema and Noël Burch’s Theory of Film Practice, among other essential guidebooks — and because, as I used the list to make my own discoveries, it involved me more directly in the process of forming my own values and tastes. Some critical favorites on the list proved to be disappointments, others were greater than I had even hoped for, but in both cases these responses represented not so much end points as the beginnings of evaluations and reevaluations that would continue over decades and that are still taking place.

By influencing tastes and helping to form unofficial canons, such lists have a macro-level political impact on film culture. We can see an example of this political activity in the dissemination of lists and counter-lists — like Zach Campbell’s "Counter-Canon" in response to Paul Schrader’s “Canon Fodder” essay in Film Comment [pdf] from a few years ago.

I’m equally interested in the micro-level potential of lists — specifically the way in which, for a moment, they help dislodge the agency of the viewer. Cinephiles are deeply and notoriously attached to their personal taste; they often defend it militantly. The lesser critics might simply assert their taste; the better ones might provide well-argued reasons why the frontiers of their taste mark and enclose the only “good” cinema. Evaluation is (rightly) a key aspect of film criticism, but we must guard against our personal taste freezing into something static. Sometimes we must resist the bonds — the straitjacket — of our own taste.

When we design some of our viewing around a list, we hand over our agency to it. If the list contains filmmakers or performers we don’t much care for, we set our prejudices aside for the moment in favor of the project of seeing every title on the list. We open ourselves up to surprise, to the continuous “evaluations and reevaluations” that Jonathan invokes. The result is more valuable than we usually acknowledge: it keeps us learning, growing, moving — forever “becoming” — in our role as cinephiles and critics.

Your ideas on lists and the purposes they can serve? Any significant list-making projects — either by individuals or groups — that particularly stand out in the history of film culture? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

* * *

Some links:

-- Press Play, a new blog started by Matt Zoller Seitz, that will focus on video essays.

-- The new issue of La Furia Umana features a Max Ophuls dossier and many well-known critics.

-- There's a new issue of Film Comment.

-- Matthew Flanagan at Landscape Suicide on Godard and Greece.

-- At Andy Rector's place: A piece by Luc Moullet and an interview with Straub/Huillet (scroll down a bit).

-- At Cinema Scope: a round table on Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.

-- At MUBI, Ben Sachs and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky interview Jerzy Skolimowski.

-- Srikanth Srinivasan at The Seventh Art on the films of Mani Kaul.

-- The captivatingly designed new Italian journal FilmIdee.

-- Leah Churner at Moving Image Source on "What happened to the Hollywood musical?"

-- A large post on Jacques Rivette by David Ehrenstein at Dennis Cooper's blog.

-- In Sight and Sound: "Lena Bergman remembers the viewing habits of her father Ingmar Bergman in his unique private cinema, a converted barn on Fårö, the Baltic island where he lived until his death in 2007."

pic: Marguerite Duras