Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Online Program Notes

I’ve embarked on a small project: to add to my blogroll a new category of links to film screening venues like cinematheques, museums, repertory theaters, and the like. My objective is not to provide a service that informs viewers of screening times and details. Instead, I want it to be an educational and film-critical resource that collects links to program notes and capsules written to accompany screenings and retrospectives.

A few months ago I wrote a post on program notes, an ephemeral and often overlooked outlet of information and writing in film culture. Perhaps an online resource that focuses on program notes might contribute to making such writing more visible and useful for cinephiles at large.

Here are some websites I’ve gathered so far. Any other suggestions would be greatly appreciated. For the moment, I’m collecting links only to English-language sites, but I hope to make the resource global in time.

-- TIFF Cinematheque, Toronto
-- Harvard Film Archive, Boston
-- Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York
-- Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York
-- Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley
-- George Eastman House, Rochester
-- Cinema Texas Notes, Austin
-- MoMA, New York
-- BFI, London
-- Melbourne Cinematheque, Melbourne
-- Anthology Film Archives, New York
-- Block Museum, Chicago
-- Facets Cinematheque, Chicago
-- Film Forum, New York
-- IFC Center, New York
-- Museum of the Moving Image, New York

A complaint: is it just my imagination or is the TIFF Cinematheque website poorly designed? For example, from their homepage, I can't seem to get to the individual pages for the various series showing this season. There are icons for each series, but they're not clickable. And the only way to get to the series pages (which often contain good essays) is circuitously through pages for individual films.

Since I live in New York state, my starting list above is mostly NY-centric. But I'd love to learn of other screening venues with strong web content. And any comments on the user-friendliness and navigability of the websites would also be appreciated. Thank you!

* * *


-- Jim Emerson's post on all the recent "death of movie culture" talk.

-- On Bresson: Kent Jones at Film Comment; and David Bordwell's video essay on constructive editing and Pickpocket.

-- I urge you to sign Jon Jost's petition against Ray Carney on behalf of Mark Rappaport.

-- Adrian Martin's new book "Last Day Every Day: Figural Thinking from Auerbach and Kracauer to Agamben and Brenez" (from Punctum Books) is now available for free download and for purchase.

-- The World Picture conference is in Brighton, UK, this weekend. See this page for program details. Scholars making presentations include Catherine Grant, Rosalind Galt, John David Rhodes, Elena Gorfinkel, Mark Betz, Karl Schoonover, and others. Related: a conversation between Rhodes and Schoonover on "rethinking Michelangelo Antonioni's modernism" at the University of Minnesota Press blog. Also: the new Global Queer Cinema website is led by an editorial collective made up of Galt, Schoonover and Grant.

-- At MUBI: Danny Kasman interviews Christian Petzold and Abbas Kiarostami; and Adam Cook talks to Fabrice Aragno, a cinematographer on Godard's Film Socialism.

-- A review of Cloud Atlas by Michael Sicinski at Cinema Scope.

-- Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has a piece on Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea.

-- University of Edinburgh film scholar Pasquale Iannone on the writings of Italian film critic Aldo Tassone, "a constant source of inspiration and insight".

-- Recently discovered website: scholar Kevin L. Ferguson's Typecast. The most recent post features Dario Argento on giallo. 

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum has a page at CriticWire where you can find his ratings of several films.

-- Catherine Grant collects video studies of the Western; and horror film "final girl" studies.

-- Zach Campbell puts up an appreciation of Brian De Palma's Redacted.

-- Ehsan Khoshbakht on the links between Brakhage's films and Iran's classical arts.

-- A formidable list of the best films of the '70s by Olivier Père.

-- David Davidson at Toronto Film Review has several posts on Brian De Palma and Cahiers du Cinéma: here; and here; and here.

-- Recent essays at Criterion include Graham Petrie on Paul Fejos; and Ed Park on Rosemary's Baby.

-- The new issue of Interiors focuses on the use of architecture and space in Psycho.

-- A Chris Marker obituary essay by Finn Brunton at the UK journal Radical Philosophy. (via Catherine Grant)

-- Rick Poynor at Design Observer on David Byrne's True Stories.

-- At Film Quarterly, Mark Sinker and Rob White discuss Chris Marker's A Grin Without a Cat (1976, 1993).

-- "Jean Epstein's Documentary Cinephilia": an essay by Sarah Keller in the new issue of Studies in French Cinema. (via Neil McGlone)

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum on Howard Hawks: "The main impression I had of him was that he was what my older brother in Alabama would have called a good ol’ boy — the sort of cocky, amiable jock who hung around locker rooms and spent his time recounting anecdotes of one-upmanship in which he was always right and everyone else was always wrong. The threads of desperation laced through such a pose are of course endemic to such a personality. [Todd] McCarthy reports in his introduction that Hawks “felt so insecure as a director on his first few pictures that he regularly had to pull his car over on his way to work in order to vomit.” Yet if it weren’t for such desperation, I doubt he’d be remembered as the great director he was: it’s the darker, more nihilistic side of his cockiness — his perception of the void — that gives his best work its metaphysical weight. (Is there any filmmaker who conveys a sharper sense of naked fear?)"

pic: Werner Schroeter's The Kingdom of Naples (1978). Click here and scroll down to read James Quandt's essay on Schroeter's films.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

On "Room 237", Criticism and Theory

Jonathan Rosenbaum and I caught a screening of the documentary Room 237 in Toronto, but we had to dash off to separate engagements soon after, and didn’t get a chance to talk about it. I found the film fascinating but troubling. The next day I discovered that he had put up a post that spoke to some of my concerns. I highly recommend reading it.

As is now well known, the subject of Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). It gathers a half-dozen people obsessed with the film, and interweaves their analyses and commentaries. They propose many theories: The Shining is about the Holocaust; or the genocide of American Indians; or a faked moon landing engineered by Kubrick; or the “impossible architecture” of the Overlook Hotel; and so on. Ascher himself never intervenes to pass any kind of judgment on which of these theories is ingenious or plausible or unlikely or ridiculous.

Here’s what disconcerts me about the movie: It is a disturbing representation of the practice of film criticism. Not only do the commentators in Room 237 advance theories about The Shining; they use techniques of close analysis; and they offer “readings” by drawing upon evidence from the film. So, what is wrong with this detailed depiction of film criticism in action? And what is the relationship between the practice of film analysis depicted in the film and “good” film analysis, by which I mean the kind of film analysis we as critics want to convince the public is worthy?

There are at least two problems with Room 237’s depiction of criticism. First, it is an activity that often comes across as outré, freakish or crackpot. (Witness the range of theories proposed.) Second, and more important, film criticism here is a largely apolitical, hermetic activity that moves inwards, carving out a self-enclosed space, the space of a cognitive puzzle, a puzzle to be solved based on clues well hidden by a genius filmmaker. (Prominent mention is made of Kubrick’s 200 IQ and his prowess at chess.)

Spotting hidden references to the Holocaust or to the genocide of Native Americans is not in itself a critically or politically reflective activity. The Shining (while being a wonderful film, for many reasons) simply does not engage with these weighty historical traumas. It is not “about” them in any meaningful way. And neither does it have to be in order to be a great film. But when Room 237 represents film analysis in a manner that treats it as little more than a clever puzzle-solving exercise, it gives no hint as to the social value and political/aesthetic worth of this public activity. It never intuits what is truly at stake in the activity of paying close, analytical attention to films.

The movie makes one radical suggestion: viewing The Shining simultaneously on two screens, one projected forwards and the other backwards. A brief and striking commentary follows on a few uncanny correspondences and deeply evocative juxtapositions that result. I’m captivated by this experiment because, for once, it pulls The Shining away from Kubrick’s intentionality into a larger realm of accident, chance and poetry that radiates outward into the world from the sealed inner space of a game.

* * *

What is a “theory”? One could say: a theory is an account of how something works. Every field of study has its theories. For example, three important theories in physics are Newton’s gravitational law, relativity, and the “Big Bang”. This is the sense in which we are using the word when we discuss Room 237.

But there is another sense in which the word has been used in the humanities in the last few decades: let’s call it capital-T “Theory,” a large umbrella that includes feminism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, structuralism, post-structrualism, queer theory, post-colonialism, and more. “Theory” in this sense is a kind of speculative thinking that is broad-ranging (meaning: its effects have been felt across multiple disciplines) and, crucially, it is a political and critical activity. “Theory” in this sense is motivated by an impulse to question “common sense” and “the natural,” note inequalities and injustices, unmask relations of power, show how ideology works -- basically, to critique our world in some way.

The philosopher Richard Rorty traces the origins of this activity back to the mid-19th century (I’m quoting from Jonathan Culler’s book Literary Theory):

Beginning in the days of Goethe and Macaulay and Carlyle and Emerson, a new kind of writing has developed which is neither the evaluation of relative merits of literary productions, nor intellectual history, nor moral philosophy, nor social prophecy, but all of these mingled together in a new genre.

In Room 237, we have several “theories” to account for the film but what I miss is any whiff of “Theory,” in however casual or informal or un-academic a form.

* * *


-- I was honored to be asked to join the editorial advisory board of REFRAME, edited by the indefatigable Catherine Grant. At the blog for REFRAME, Catherine has launched a new feature, a "weekly roundup of international news and links in media, film and music research."  At Film Studies for Free, she rounds up the new issue of Jump Cut and pays tribute to recently deceased filmmaker Octavio Getino, who helped create both the theory and the practice of "Third Cinema". Also, via Catherine: Pedro Almodóvar on the Spain protests.

-- Danny Kasman interviews Brian De Palma at MUBI.

-- A 1971 interview with Jean Eustache translated by Ted Fendt at  MUBI.

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum: "Nazis are fun! Jesus is fun! Arthurian legends are fun! Third world countries are fun! Caves are fun! The Holy Grail is fun! Lots of snakes and rats and skeletons are fun! Chases are fun! Narrow escapes are fun! Explosions are fun! Indiana Jones is fun! Indiana Jones’s father is fun! Put them all together and you get the third panel in Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’s Indiana Jones triptych..."

-- In a few weeks I'm driving down to the University of Pittsburgh to attend the Cinephilia/Cinephobia conference.

-- New issues of La Furia Umana and Desistfilm; the latter includes a page that collects Top 50 lists from the members of the editorial board.

-- Recent additions at Hulu+ include (all in HD): Rossellini's India: Matri Bhumi, Stromboli, L'Amore and Voyage to Italy; Oshima's Boy; Ozu's The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice, Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family and Walk Cheerfully; and Rivette's Le Coup du Berger.

-- Why is it that films, more than other art-forms like literature, need explicit patterning, repetition of action, and restatement? See David Bordwell's interesting post, which calls upon Hong Sang-soo's In Another Country. Also: David on the long take.

-- Adrian Martin on images of "hand-holding" in movies: "The recent explosion of Internet-based film analyses — using screenshots, short clips, audio samples, gifs, image-collages, and much else — has been training us to notice what, once upon a time, we might never have noticed in movies." Also: Adrian on the best Australian film of 2012.

-- The blog Godard Montage accompanies the graduate seminar “Jean-Luc Godard: Art/Politics/Theory” taught by Sam Ishii-Gonzales at The New School.

-- Eric Rentschler at Artforum on the 50th anniversary of the Oberhausen Manifesto.

-- This recently held conference on the films of Werner Schroeter at Boston University has me looking me forward to the retrospective of his films in Toronto next month.

-- Marcel Hanoun, 1929-2012.

-- Michael Sicinski's coverage of TIFF.

-- Several tributes to the late Tom Milne are collected here.

-- This sounds fascinating: a series in Toronto called "Indian Expressionism" featuring Josef von Sternberg, V. Shantaram, Fritz Lang, Kamal Amrohi and Franz Osten, curated by Meenakshi Shedde.

-- Mark Rappaport on "the double life of Paul Henreid".

-- David Davidson translates three early Cahiers pieces by Serge Daney on Mark Donskoy, Douglas Sirk and Jerry Lewis. Laurent Kretzschmar comments at his blog Serge Daney in English.

-- Cinema Guild is releasing three good Sokurov films: Whispering Pages, Stone, and Save and Protect. Also, their Twitter page hints that the work of British artist/filmmaker Ben Rivers may finally be appearing on DVD. Here's a Dennis Lim article on Rivers in the NYT.

-- The AV Club has released its list of top 50 films of the '90s. The dominance of English-language films on this list is appalling.