Monday, April 30, 2012

Real Musicians in Fiction Films

It's a special pleasure to have friend, super-cinephile, and editorial comrade Adrian Martin visit me in Buffalo for a few days this week. I'm enjoying every minute of the non-stop movie talk. Adrian and I will head to Northwestern University in Chicago later in the week for a panel discussion on "film criticism and its relationship to academia." — G.

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Having been an amateur musician all my adult life, I’m always intrigued when films — specifically fiction films — feature real musicians.

I’m especially interested by films that take the documentary presence of real musicians — and their music-making abilities — and put it into interaction with the fiction. When done imaginatively this documentary charge can accomplish things — can be used to signify — in certain special, resonant ways that wouldn’t quite be possible otherwise. Let me give you a couple of examples to indicate what I mean.

(1) In 1980, Paul Simon wrote and starred in a little-known film called One-Trick Pony, directed by Robert M. Young (Nothing But a Man, The Plot Against Harry). Simon plays a down-on-his-luck musician, once successful during the 1960s counterculture era, but now reduced to touring with his band in a beat-up van, playing small gigs or opening for newer, younger acts. His band, on both the record and in the film, contains several gifted 70s jazz/rock musicians like Tony Levin, Steve Gadd, and Eric Gale.

As the film opens, Simon and his band perform the title song at the Agora Ballroom in Cleveland. The mise en scène studiously captures both the vocal and instrumental labors of the group (there's a significance to this dual attention), with close views of the kick drum and guitar fretboards: this is a group with musical talent. Also, when the scene begins, we are mid-set, and every band member is in full concentration, dripping with sweat: this is a serious, industrious group.

They finish the tune to a lukewarm reception and file off stage into the dressing room. The audience begins to chant, and the headliner, the band it really came to see — the B-52’s — bounds on stage and opens the set immediately with the ebullient "Rock Lobster". Simon briefly watches from the wings, then turns away. As we will learn, he and his band feel only contempt and resentment for all the “new stuff” of that musical moment — punk, new wave, and disco — all of which they throw together into the same commercial, novelty-seeking category.

But here's the revelation of the scene: While we hear Simon's song performed in its entirety, the B-52’s only get a minute or so in the film. The camera focuses on no instrument players, we see brief medium shots of only the singers, Fred Schneider in his eye-catching and "feminine" bright yellow pants and purple T-shirt (Simon has on good old-fashioned "masculine" American blue jeans), and the two women in beehive do’s. But there’s something, thanks to the unique powers of cinema, that all of Simon’s intentionality as writer and performer can’t erase: the irrepressible, explosive, punkish energy of the B-52’s in performance, evident instantaneously from the visible, documentary evidence captured automatically by the camera.

(2) Straub/Huillet’s The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968) is surely one of the richest, most thought-provoking fiction-documentary hybrids in the history of cinema. The film documents by means of documents — notated scores, letters, engravings, drawings, maps — not all of them “authentic” (e.g. Anna’s diary, which forms the core of the voiceover narration). The documentary quality is enhanced by the way in which the filmmakers respect the wholeness and integrity of the musical performances by recording and filming them in their entirety, without cuts, a practice that defies industry norms in both cinema and music.

The result of these sustained, single-take musical performances by actual musicians — prime among them the recently deceased Dutch harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt, who plays Bach — is the way in which our concentration becomes sharpened and focused on the smallest details of music-making: its labors, its gestures, its accidents.

Straub commented on this in a 1968 interview with Filmkritik magazine:

They say when people saw Le déjeuner de bébé or L’arroseur arrosé by Lumière, they didn’t cry out: Oh! bébé is moving, or l’arroseur is moving. They said, the leaves are moving in the trees. The bébé who moved they had already seen in the magic lantern. What was new for them was precisely that the leaves were moving. The “leaves” in the Bach film are the fingers and hands of the musicians and the unbelievable gestures of Leonhardt…

I also see echoes of this respect accorded the work of music-making in the films of Aki Kaurismäki. Recall the bands that perform in The Man Without a Past or The Match Factory Girl, for instance. Their performances are not recorded in single, unbroken takes but he uses real musicians and records them live, so their fingerings, movements and gestures match the music that issues from the screen. Why is this important? Not because we desire some kind of literalism, but because it recognizes the activity of musical performance as something that is important, worthy of attention in itself. In other words, at these moments, music doesn’t exist to serve the images or the narrative, but becomes something truly autonomous.

(3) There is a 5-minute musical sequence in Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire (1942) that gives us a striking contrast between ‘theatrical’ and ‘non-theatrical’ modes of cinema.

The Gene Krupa Orchestra, featuring Krupa on drums, performs its signature tune “Drum Boogie” with Barbara Stanwyck singing. (Her voice is dubbed by Martha Tilton, who comes remarkably close to the actual singer in the band at the time, Anita O’Day.) The orchestra is on a nightclub stage, and we see the performance from afar, with a large audience. But after the song concludes, Stanwyck calls Krupa up from behind his drum kit way up on top of the bandstand, and they both come down into the audience. She pulls up a table; Stanwyck and Krupa sit down; she gives quick instructions to the audience, now crowded around the table, on what vocal parts they should sing. She counts off, and, as the camera watches from a mere foot away, Krupa plays the tune again, this time on a matchbox with two matchsticks. He spins intricate syncopated rhythms, all the while, miraculously, not letting the matches catch fire until the very end, when he climaxes the performance with a little burst of flame.

By staging the same tune in two arrangements — one theatrical and the other non- or anti-theatrical — we find ourselves witnessing a lesson in the powers of intimacy of the cinema, bolstered by the documentary event of Krupa's presence and performance experienced at impossibly close quarters.

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Any examples of the use of real musicians in fiction films that you find interesting? I'd love to hear them.

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Some recent reads:

-- Amos Vogel has died at 92.

-- Cinema Scope's 50th issue has a special feature called "50 Filmmakers Under 50," with a capsule essay on each by a different film critic. Also in the issue: an interview with J. Hoberman; and Jonathan Rosenbaum's "Global Discoveries on DVD" column. Related: Hoberman on Luis Buñuel in The Nation.

-- "How To Rip DVD Clips": Jason Mittell at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

-- Ignatiy Vishnevetsky on Hong Sang-soo's use of space.

-- Adrian's column at Filmkrant: "Across the Great Divide".

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum has a post on Straub/Huillet's Écrits.

-- Catherine Grant rounds up four issues of the journal Image [&] Narrative.

-- Zach Campbell: "Workers, Potters," part one; part two; and part three.

-- Srikanth Srinivasan on Alec Guinness' white suit, one of his "records of material objects in the cinema."

-- Three recent pieces on Carmelo Bene: Nick Pinkerton at Moving Image Source; Celluloid Liberation Front at MUBI; and Ara H. Merjian at Artforum.

-- Recent discoveries: Nicholas Rombes' The Happiness Engine; and Fredrik Gustafsson's Fredrik on Film.

Monday, April 16, 2012


Perhaps it’s my vocation that makes me interested in this question, but I’m wondering: In the history of film culture, are there accounts of filmmakers who were also great teachers and mentors?

At the SCMS conference last month, I heard a fascinating paper by Eric Rentschler on “The German Prehistory of the Berlin School.” In it he identified several key influences upon the School, among which was the Berlin Film Academy (dffb), where both teachers and students shared a common cinephilic culture, kept alive and energized by regular group screenings.

Important and influential faculty at dffb included filmmakers like Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky. Rentschler noted that the “technological lyricism” of their films had a profound impact on the films of students such as Christian Petzold. (“Technological lyricism” is Christoph Hochhäusler’s term for the aesthetic allure of capitalist landscapes and environments in Petzold’s films. See Marco Abel’s essay on the DVD of Yella for more.)

Rentschler added:

Another lesson Petzold learned from Farocki has to do with the importance of body language. In German film, argues Petzold, there has always been too much “facial expression, eyebrow play, and theatrical language.” (His commentary brings to mind Michael Klier’s astute critique of acting styles in the New German Cinema, the 2001 short film Gesten und Gesichter/Gestures and Faces.) [Petzold recalls that] while working on his dffb diploma film (Pilotinnen/Pilots, 1995), his mentor Farocki was completing the film essay Ausdruck der Hände/The Expression of Hands (1997). As a result, Petzold found himself very interested in the creative capacity of human hands and acutely aware of how much physicality is lost in most German films, where the dialogue and actor’s visage dominate so strongly that they, quite literally, efface the rest of the human body. German actors do not need to visit New York for lessons in method acting, Farocki quipped; rather, they should go to Switzerland and have their face muscles surgically altered.

In Marco Abel’s Cineaste interview with Christian Petzold, “The Cinema of Identification Gets on my Nerves,” there is an interesting bit that speaks to the challenge faced by every student: how to absorb the lessons and examples of a teacher and, at the same time, discover how to navigate an original path that will require the student to depart from the initially inspirational model of the teacher.

Cineaste: You were taught by filmmakers who cannot be said to make narrative cinema, yet your films qualify as narrative cinema. Was following Farocki and Bitomsky into the avant-garde or documentary tradition never really an option for you?

Petzold: Only briefly. During my time of crisis I made two shorts, which were more or less 'essay' films. But I quickly realized that I could not work that way. In this kind of filmmaking the editing bay is like a desk; you essentially collect material to work on it later, in isolation. The loneliness of Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Marie Straub, Farocki, and Bitomsky—which in many ways is self-imposed by them—that was not the kind of work environment I desired. I cannot work this way. I did this for five years as a literary scholar; I did not start making films to emulate this experience. But it should be noted that both Farocki and Bitomsky love narrative film. If you look closely at their films you see that theirs are films that actually desire narrative cinema, while perhaps simultaneously being about the impossibility or crisis of narrative cinema. But I did not want to pursue their path. I still learned more about the art of narrative from them than from people who are so-called storytellers, but do not interrogate themselves.

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British film director Alexander Mackendrick (The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers, The Sweet Smell of Success) retired from the industry in the late 60s and spent almost 25 years as a faculty member teaching filmmaking at the California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts). The book On Film-Making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director collects his writings — mostly handouts he prepared for his students — and it makes for great, insightful reading. (For more on his teaching strategies, see this page.)

Martin Scorsese writes about Mackendrick’s credo as a teacher:

“Process, not product” was his mantra to his students. The creative process — not the creative method, or the creative system […] I’m not implying that he was an anti-intellectual Hollywood pro — all you have to do is leaf through this book, with its references to Ibsen and Sophocles and Beckett and Levi-Strauss, to dispel that notion. This book takes on everything from Dramatic Irony to Mental Geography, the relationship between the director and his actors to the structural soundness of Last Year at Marienbad. But on almost every page, Mackendrick lets the reader know that all of it, from the lessons about crossing the axis and the condensation of screen time to the techniques for cultivating ideas […] is worth nothing without practice.

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The Harvard Film Archive recently announced a fascinating retrospective titled “The Films and Legacy of António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro.” Reis was an influential Portuguese filmmaker-teacher who co-directed, with his wife Margarida Cordeiro, a psychologist, four poetic-ethnographic works that are held in high regard. Here’s an excerpt from the program notes:

Admired by the likes of Joris Ivens, Jean Rouch and Jean-Marie Straub, the films of Reis and Cordeiro invented a poetically liberated and hypnotically cinematographic film language, a style and sensibility that set the course of Portugal’s lasting tradition of radical cinema, exerting a formative influence, for example, upon João Cesar Monteiro. Yet equally important was Reis’ career and legacy as a long-time senior professor of film production and aesthetics at Lisbon’s Escola Superior de Teatro e Cinema. As a tribute to Reis’ inspiration of the most important talents in contemporary Portuguese cinema, this retrospective includes a selection of works by Reis’ students including Pedro Costa, João Pedro Rodrigues and Joaquim Saphino.

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I wonder: Are there accounts in film culture of filmmakers who were also good teachers and mentors? Do any former students have experiences to share about being in classes taught by filmmakers? Also: We would have to include in this discussion directors who were teachers or mentors outside a classroom setting, on film projects. Any thoughts — or stories? I'd love to hear them.

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Some links:

-- There's a Jerry Lewis dossier in the new issue of La Furia Umana, with pieces by many notable critics and cinephiles. Also: Zach Campbell, who is part of the dossier, reviews, at MUBI, the new edition of the Bresson book edited by James Quandt. Finally: in a MUBI post, David Phelps pairs images from Godard and Jerry Lewis.

-- At Catherine Grant's place: Studies of cinematic pastiche; a round-up of the new issue of Vertigo, which focuses on Godard; and a collection of Godard links.

-- "How to account for the intensity of feeling this film inspires?" asks Dennis Lim on Bresson's The Devil, Probably in Artforum.

-- (via David Hudson) Iris Veysey's "Costume and Identity in Hitchcock's Vertigo"; and at Cine Europa: a story on Ingmar Bergman's huge VHS collection, which included The Blues Brothers and other unlikely titles.

-- An interview with Terence Davies I found unsettling: "Being Gay Has Ruined My Life," in The Irish Times. Please also see: Michael Guillen's interview with Davies, "Memory as Mise-en-scène"; and Michael Sicinski on The Deep Blue Sea at Cinema Scope.

-- Andy Rector posts an account of a John Ford interview with Colin Young in Film Quarterly (1959). Via Andy: an interview with Jacques Ranciere about (and around) his recent book Les écarts du cinéma. Also: A post at Diagonal Thoughts about this book.

-- Rowena Santos Aquino's introduction to the Czechoslovak New Wave at Next Projection.

-- At e-flux, Irmgard Emmelhainz on Godard's 1969-1974 period of militant filmmaking.

-- Since I put up my last post 2 weeks ago, a discussion has sprung up in the comments section [scroll down] on topics such as "philosophy" vs. "theory" and the recent "philosophical turn" in cinema/media studies.

pic: Aleander Mackendrick

Monday, April 02, 2012

Some Thoughts on SCMS

A personal note about the blog: I’d like to try a new experiment. I’m giving myself a deadline to post regularly every 2 weeks — on every other Monday. No matter how much or how little material I’ve accumulated each time, I’d like to stick to this magazine-style posting schedule and put up what I have. We'll see how it goes!

I recently returned from an energizing four days at the SCMS (Society for Cinema and Media Studies) conference in Boston. The highlight of the trip was spending time in extended conversations with fellow cinephiles — friends both old and new such as Chris Keathley, Catherine Grant, Zach Campbell, Joe McElhaney, Victor Perkins, Nico Baumbach, Steve Shaviro, Dave Johnson, Michael Talbott, and Jenna Ng. (I thank them all for the long, fun conversations!) I participated in two panels: one on film criticism and cinephilia put together by Steve Rybin, and the other on the “video essay” spearheaded by Chris and Catherine.

I was struck by the sheer size of the conference: it was common for as many as twenty-five panels to be taking place at the same time. The cinema/media studies field has expanded promiscuously over the last couple of decades, and the topics for the panels included such areas as TV studies, gaming, radio studies, production histories, reception studies, technological histories, fan cultures and practices, historical research methodologies, early cinema, global media industries and infrastructures, digital media, and more.

This was my second trip to SCMS — the first was to New Orleans last year — and I am eager to return to the conference each year. The conversations and social aspect alone make the trip eminently worthwhile.

But I can’t get away from the fact that I have a slightly peculiar relation to SCMS. I’m not a research professional within the cinema/media studies field. Instead, I approach the conference as a cinephile who is passionate about two broad strands of activity: (1) Individual films themselves, their concrete details, their analysis and interpretation, their evaluation, extending then to filmmakers, performers, genres, etc., and (2) Theory, by which I mean film theory but also, more broadly, philosophical thinking that is on some level politically motivated (structuralism, Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis, and so on, and the broad field one loosely labels post-structuralism). Thinking about cinephilia and film criticism is also, for me, part of this theoretical curiosity.

(1) and (2) are crucially related in that the former is primarily criticism and the latter is primarily a speculative, philosophical kind of activity we call theory: each feeds and responds to the other, and each activity sharpens and deepens the practice of the other. Doing either criticism or theory exclusively, without close and constant relation to the other, seems insufficient and unappealing to me.

Given the vast scope of the cinema/media studies field today, the majority of the panels weren’t directly related to my two primary areas of interest. But it was easy to find, in each time slot at the conference, at least two or three strongly interesting sessions.

The field has been through its share of upheavals since its establishment in the 1960s: auteurism, the “Screen theory” of the 1970s, the turn to history in the last couple of decades, and two developments that I personally find especially interesting: the emergence of cinephilia and film criticism as itself an object of close study in the last 10 years; and a “philosophical turn” which is surveyed by recent books like John Mullarkey’s Philosophy and the Moving Image: Reflections of Reality and Robert Sinnerbrink’s New Philosophies of Film: Thinking Images. The fact that this “film-philosophy” project has reached a certain critical threshold of interest is signaled by the fact that Sinnerbrink’s book aims to effect a sort of synthesis of two broad philosophical traditions — analytic and Continental — within film studies, and proposes a kind of pluralist film-philosophy that tries to draw together what is best and most useful from both traditions in order to do so.

I’m very curious to hear from those working in the field: Are there certain areas within cinema studies which are seeing an increase in interest? And in terms of the two broad areas of cinephilia/criticism and film-philosophy, are there certain directions that appear to hold particular promise? Any speculations or predictions about the future of the field? Or the future of SCMS? I’d love to hear them.

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Links to recent reading:

-- Caboose has announced the release of Jean-Luc Godard's Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television, translated by Timothy Barnard, and has made available a sample chapter for download.

-- Nicole Brenez in Sight & Sound on the revolutionary, activist film The Hour of the Furnaces: "Taking the Marxist concept of praxis seriously, The Hours of the Furnaces wages its battle not only on the Argentinian political front but also on the aesthetic and theoretical fronts [...] As Jean-Luc Godard once said about Solzhenitsyn: “We already knew all about what he wrote, but he was listened to because he had style.”"

-- At Film Quarterly, Jonathan Rosenbaum reconsiders A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

-- Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin exchange letters in Spanish on the Rotterdam film festival at Cine Transit. Also: Adrian on Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin. Via Adrian: an issue of the journal New Readings with the theme "Truth Claims in Fiction Film"; and "10 Photographers You Should Ignore" at Wired magazine.

-- In the new Senses of Cinema, two interesting pieces by Daniel Fairfax: an interview with Jean-Louis Comolli; and an essay on director Artavazd Pelechian. Also, an article by Comolli, "Ginette Lavigne’s La belle journée," which first appeared in Trafic, now translated into English by Fairfax.

-- A recent blog discovery: Steve Rybin's Cinephile Papers. Also, via David Hudson, the cinephile Tumblr site This Must Be The Place. Related: I notice that Steve has put out a call for essays for the book project "Cine-aesthetics: New Directions in Film and Philosophy."

-- After having followed her blog for almost 10 years, it was a treat to meet Amy Monaghan in person at SCMS.

-- Steven Shaviro's SCMS paper, "Post-Continuity," is now available at his blog.

-- Via Catherine Grant: A 7-minute video essay by Omar Ahmed on the representations of Naxalism in Indian cinema.

-- Trevor Link whets our appetite for Abel Ferrara's new film, 4:44 Last Day On Earth. At Fangoria: an interview with Ferrara.

-- Good news: friend, cinephile and filmmaker Dan Sallitt's latest, The Unspeakable Act, has been chosen to play the BAM Cinemafest in NYC.

-- Michael Sicinski on Derek Jarman's Wittgenstein at Fandor.

-- I've been checking in regularly on Nicholas Rombes' terrific "Blue Vevet Project": he posts 3 times a week, spurred each time by a frame from the film.

-- Owen Hatherley at The Guardian on "How Patrick Keiller is mapping the 21st-century landscape".

-- I've heard through the grapevine that a North American Werner Schroeter retrospective is in the offing. Does anyone have additional information to share? I'd love to know more.