Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Teen Films

I can trace my enduring fascination with teen films back to a specific moment in my personal history: when I moved to the U.S. in my early twenties to go to graduate school. When I arrived here, I had seen almost no teen movies, in any language, but as soon as I encountered my first examples of the genre (Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Jonathan Kaplan’s Over the Edge, Penelope Spheeris’ Suburbia, Brian De Palma’s Carrie), I was instantly captivated. As a young immigrant fashioning a new life in a land whose strangeness and otherness simultaneously attracted and disoriented me on a daily basis, I resonated deeply with the doubt, anxiety and excitement of teenage life as represented in these films.

But the factor that played the biggest role in the deep affinity I developed with teen movies had to do with my cinephilia: specifically, the continuity I felt, on multiple levels, between American teen films and the movies that gave birth to my passion for cinema in the first place—1970s Hindi popular cinema.

Two quick clarifications. I will use 1970s here to designate a period spanning the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s. Further, I will not use the word “Bollywood” — I’m with those who use this term to refer only to contemporary Hindi popular cinema, and not all Hindi popular cinema from all periods of film history.

Now, what makes the continuity between the two very different cinemas particularly interesting is that the genre of the “teen movie” is non-existent in ‘70s Hindi cinema. Nevertheless, a close look reveals that American teen movies and ‘70s Hindi popular cinema are fundamentally similar in at least three ways.

1. They deeply value the principles of energy, speed, and moment-to-moment invention. Ironically, it wasn’t until I read the critic Manny Farber, later in life, that the shared traits of the two cinemas began to emerge for me. In a wonderful tribute paid by one critic to another, Donald Phelps wrote of Farber’s writing that it “advances horizontally, in all possible directions, never seeming to exist for a simple progress from A to B […] What really, valuably alarms about his writing is […] its wildness.”

What strikes me as curious about Phelps’ essay is how similar his characterization of Farber’s writing is to Farber’s own idea of “termite art,” which prizes movement, vigor, and constant invention, but without ambitions or aspirations to ‘importance’. I’m reminded immediately of the rich and unceasing inventiveness of films as ostensibly dissimilar as Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995) and Amar Akbar Anthony (Manmohan Desai, 1977).

The material that forms the basis of Clueless’ constant creativity is that of pop-cultural knowledge: fashion, dating practices, music, even the construction, in one scene, of an anthropological classification of the various communities in high school. For Lesley Stern, Clueless creates an entire “fictional ethnography” that includes, among many things, an imaginative lexicon. (The Jane Austen Society of Australia maintains a page that catalogs all the slang and neologisms in the film.)

Amar Akbar Anthony, set a world away, is, if anything, even more fast and furious in its inventiveness than Clueless. This is one of the great unclassifiable films in cinema, but while it does lie at the outer limits of imagination and zaniness, it is not atypical in Hindi popular cinema. This ‘masala’ classic is many things: a family melodrama, a slapstick comedy, an action film, an ethnic farce, a gangster film — and let’s not forget its many great song and dance sequences. Philip Lutgendorf provides a packed description of it; he begins with tragedy and intrigue, and passes through decades of time to what appears to be a great climax — only to then confess to us that we have only arrived at the opening credit sequence, after a 25-minute prologue!

2. A passionate embrace of ‘low’ culture, fearlessly combining it with ‘high’ themes of social critique and commentary, but doing so without aiming for cultural prestige or respectability. Years before Slumdog Millionaire’s opportunistic and superficial portrayal of the poverty-ridden Bombay slum known as Dharavi, Yash Chopra’s Deewaar (1975), one of the canonical Hindi films, shows us great, powerful, documentary images of this site. The film is set in motion by the struggles of a workers' union against greedy and murderous capitalist factory owners. Poor people – their way of life, their folk customs, their music and dance – are everywhere in Hindi popular cinema of this period. It is extremely common for protagonists to belong to the working class in these films, so much that films with predominantly middle-class characters were tagged by critics as a separate genre, “middle cinema”.

Something similar can be seen in American teen movies. In Abel Ferrara’s modern-day Romeo-and-Juliet teen drama, China Girl (1987), the Italian boy and the Chinese girl meet while dancing in a crowded disco. But earlier, the hard-hitting opening of the film (like the fiery union demonstrations that open Deewaar) quietly lays out the terrain of bitter rivalry and ethnic hatred: a series of close-ups of Italians watching impassively as the first Chinese business hoists its sign on their street in Little Italy.

Another example: Pretty in Pink (Howard Deutch, 1986) is driven by a wonderful pop music soundtrack, but it is also very seriously a film about class difference. The vitality of ‘low’, DIY culture (Molly Ringwald's colorful clothes are self-designed and self-made) is opposed to the bloodless enervation of the rich (James Spader and Andrew McCarthy most frequently wear white, pale blue, light gray and beige). Like the opening (political, materialist) images of Deewaar and China Girl, Pretty in Pink’s first shot is of a street sweeping machine moving through Ringwald’s working class neighborhood at sunrise. The camera pans to show us train tracks, thus underlining the part of town in which she lives (the ‘wrong side of the tracks’).

3. A pervasive use of – and devotion to – popular music. I particularly love the way that music is present so powerfully in both cinemas that its use extends actively into both the diegetic and non-diegetic realms. Music is part of the story world of Pretty in Pink (the scenes in Trax, the record store; and a live performance by the Pittsburgh punk-pop group The Rave-Ups) but also comprises its extremely popular soundtrack. A different and particularly intriguing instance of this diegetic/non-diegetic mix can be found in a scene from Allan Moyle’s Times Square (1980), in which Robin Johnson is striding down the sidewalk of a busy New York street, dragging a cart behind her, with Roxy Music’s “Same Old Scene” playing on the soundtrack. She turns into a dark alley, pulls out an electric guitar and amp from the cart, and begins flailing away at the guitar … to the song on the soundtrack! She goes in and out of tune and rhythm with the song, furthering our confusion (where is that song actually coming from?), until we see, in a corner of the frame, a boom box in her cart. Times Square also boasts a marvelous double-LP soundtrack.

The ubiquity of singing and dancing in Hindi popular cinema is, of course, legendary. The reason the “musical” genre doesn’t formally exist in India is precisely because nearly all popular films of the ‘70s, de rigueur, contain song and dance sequences.

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Teen films don’t get nearly as much serious attention and thought from cinephiles, critics and scholars as they should. And so I invite you all to name a few of your favorite lesser-known teen films. (Please define “lesser-known” as loosely as you like.) I would love to get acquainted with some good teen films I've not seen. Thank you!

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Along with about twenty writers, I contributed a piece to a new bilingual dossier called "Teen Moments" in the Spanish film magazine Transit . The pieces appear in two sections, as marked. The dossier opens with Adrian Martin's introductory essay, "Live to Tell".

Part One:

Sergi Sánchez on Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)
Girish Shambu on Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982)
Daniel de Partearroyo on L’âge atomique (Hélena Klotz, 2012)
Cristina Álvarez López on The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985)
Toni Junyent on Happy Campers (Daniel Waters, 2001)
Adrian Martin on Never Been Kissed (Raja Gosnell, 1999)
Albert Elduque on Love in the Afternoon (Billy Wilder, 1957)
Stephanie Van Schilt on Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001)
Pablo Vázquez on Lemon Popsicle (Boaz Davidson, 1978) / The Last American Virgin (Boaz Davidson, 1982)

Part Two:

Ricardo Adalia Martín on Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007)
Yusef Sayed on The Legend of Billie Jean (Matthew Robbins, 1985)
Carlos Losilla on El sur (Víctor Erice, 1983)
Óscar Navales on Wild Boys of the Road (William A. Wellman, 1933)
Sarinah Masukor on Stealing Beauty (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1996)
Carles Matamoros Balasch on Back to Stay (Milagros Mumenthaler, 2011)
Covadonga G. Lahera on Confessions (Kokuhaku, Tetsuya Nakashima, 2010)
Sergio Morera on Whip It (Drew Barrymore, 2009)
Laura Ellen Joyce on Snowtown (Justin Kurzel, 2011)
Antoni Peris i Grao on The Aviator’s Wife (Éric Rohmer, 1981)

Monday, February 04, 2013

On Thickness and Thinness in Cinema

It is a long acknowledged axiom, vividly demonstrated as early as the films of the Lumières in the late nineteenth century, that the documentary element of cinema is a crucially important source of its power. “Every film,” Godard said famously, “is a documentary of its actors.” But the significance of the documentary qualities of fiction films goes beyond actors, indeed beyond human beings photographed by the camera. Places, landscapes, cities, dwellings, objects, clothes, animals – the unimaginably rich and varied non-human world – form a wonderful source and resource not only of images, but also of knowledge. Fiction films can acquire special, unique value when they draw from this resource, when they build into their images and sounds the details of the physical reality of the world at large.

When I was in India recently, I sought out a new thriller-drama that’s been getting a lot of national attention: Kahaani, directed by Sujoy Ghosh. One key reason why it has been praised as something special is that it was shot mostly on location in the streets of Kolkata, taking place in various neighborhoods of this remarkable city that have rarely been captured in a fiction film. To put it in perspective, the geographic diversities of cities like New York, Paris, London and Hong Kong have been vastly better represented in cinema, and Kolkata is undoubtedly in their league both in terms of size and its urban, architectural and human richness. So, for me, a film such as Kahaani represents a rare and wonderful opportunity. In addition to working as a genre film, it strives to give us a great variety of little-seen images of one of the world’s most vibrant cities.

But Kahaani – which does not exist in isolation but is part of a trend in filmmaking today – disappoints deeply on this count, for one reason: its maddeningly quick editing. A shot rarely lasts more than a couple of seconds, and no sooner than we get a bare sense of a fresh, intriguing urban image, the film cuts to a different shot – for no discernible rhyme or reason except the terror of allowing the audience to concentrate on the image, of giving it time to think. I’m not being hyperbolic here. An interview with the editor of the film confirms that the objective of the editing was to keep the audience from solving the narrative mystery on its own, and thus to rush it from one image to the next in order to guarantee a surprise ending.

Kahaani’s rapid editing and its close framings (especially in dialogue scenes) are very much in keeping with the practice that David Bordwell has named “intensified continuity.” But what do we lose of cinema’s documentary value – despite the extensive presence of actual locations – with the use of fast cutting?

One way to begin thinking about this question can be found in Lesley Stern’s terrific new monograph-book, Dead and Alive: The Body as Cinematic Thing. The book is devoted to the depiction of dead bodies in cinema – specifically, in three films: The Reckless Moment (Max Ophüls, 1949), Japanese Story (Sue Brooks, 2003) and Vagabond (Agnès Varda, 1985). She analyzes in detail the scenes in which a dead body appears in each film, and captures the effects that this body has upon the temporality of the film. For Stern, when life escapes from the body, a certain kind of time enters the body – and the film. Diegetically, the characters are dead, but their bodies persist, often in extended scenes. Due to their presence, and because of the films’ use of duration, these shots and scenes slowly “fill up” with time.

The problem with Kahaani is that, by using quick cuts, the film does the opposite: it thins out the profilmic reality of Kolkata. Shots are never allowed to build up a ‘documentary strength’, to fill up with time, to thicken.

The enormously successful Slumdog Millionaire (2009) suffers from a similar problem. The horrific (but complex) reality of Dharavi, the large slum that served as a key location and setting for the film, is thinned out not just by fast editing but also the use of hand-held camera, which produces an unstable image, making it impossible for the viewer to absorb its full detail in the brief instant for which the image appears. The documentary feebleness of the images that results from this fast and restless shooting style is only reinforced when accompanied by A.R. Rahman’s effervescent music. These formal qualities are absolutely of a piece with the other problems of the film, including its valorizing of individualism and chance, and its lack of interest in hinting at any larger, structural reasons for the material inequalities of the world in which it is set. (Mitu Sengupta’s pieces are essential reading for those interested in the film.)

When films such as Kahaani and Slumdog Millionaire tout their ‘realism’ of setting, it comes off as opportunism, especially when everything about the style of these films actively works against the viewer’s full registration of their onscreen reality. Such films squander the immanent power of this reality, reducing it to thin and weak documentary decoration.

Any thoughts or suggestions on fiction films in contemporary cinema that strongly capture a sense of place? I'd love to hear them.

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Some links:

-- FYI, a couple of my pieces have appeared online since my last post: Sam Roggen interviewed me on the topic of cinephilia at the Photogénie website run by the Flemish Film Culture Service; Dennis Lim invited me to contribute to the Museum of the Moving Image "moments of the year" collection (part one; and part two); and I wrote my first long-form essay for LOLA – on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) 2012. All of LOLA 3 is now up.

-- Adrian Martin's essay on teen movies kicks off Teen Movie Week at the Spanish cinema magazine Transit. Pieces will be appearing throughout the week, in both Spanish and English versions.

-- (via Joe McElhaney) A 2007 Cahiers du cinéma list of the 100 essential films for an "ideal cinema library".

-- (via Ehsan Khoshbakht) A great tribute to the way the sky has been rendered in cinema, at the blog Matte Shot, which is devoted to the work of matte painters of the Classic Hollywood era.

-- Ignatiy Vishnevetsky on "workflow" in contemporary filmmaking.

-- Several new posts at Zach Campbell's blog Elusive Lucidity.

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum on Michael Roemer, "the best Jewish director you've never heard of". Also: Jonathan's DVDs and Blu-rays of the year. Finally: Serge Daney's 1982 text "Too Early, Too Late," translated by him.

-- A couple of dozen critics construct their fantasy double bills at MUBI.

-- Richard Brody: "The December issue of Cahiers du Cinéma has a terrific dossier in which a group of critics sketch out “the ten pitfalls of the auteur cinema.” It’s a fun read and a trenchant—and, for the most part, well-aimed—critique." 

-- De Filmkrant's Slow Criticism 2013 dossier, including pieces by Adrian Martin, Richard Porton, Dana Linssen, and others.

-- At Photogénie, Tom Paulus' piece "Olivier Assayas: Global Cinephilia and Operational Aesthetics".

-- David Bordwell rounds up some of the books he's read recently.