Wednesday, February 01, 2017

The Disenchantments of "La La Land"

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land has turned out to be a fascinatingly divisive film. It has enchanted thousands and swept up a record 14 Oscar nominations. It is – I will readily admit – not without its pleasures. But I nevertheless found myself troubled by it in many ways. My “issues” with it fall into six broad categories. (Sorry – this movie pushed several of my buttons!)

These categories, some of which overlap, are: the movie’s masculinism; its view of jazz; the way jazz intersects with race; the movie’s conspicuously individualist view of art-making and success; Chazelle’s directorial personality; and the movie’s nostalgia.

Not all movies are equally stimulating for critics to write about – either for or against – but La La Land has ignited a remarkable number and range of responses. I'd like to enlist writings by ten or so fellow critics here, and weave their voices into this post. I will forego all narrative exposition, and assume that readers have seen the film.

To begin with gender: there is a stark difference in how the movie depicts its male and female protagonists, Sebastian and Mia. In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Morgan Leigh Davies writes:

[Sebastian] is the author of their relationship: he comes to ask her out at work; he introduces her to jazz; he takes her to see Rebel Without a Cause for research (despite the fact that she is the actor and supposed cinephile); he suggests that she write something herself since she can’t get a part, prompting her to write a one-woman play and quit her job … later, when Mia’s play has failed and she has retreated home to Nevada, it is Sebastian who gets the call from a casting agency about a major audition, and drives out to find her and implores her to give acting one last go … the movie is not hers. It is Sebastian’s.

In Chazelle’s cinema, it is consistently men who are teachers, guides, and owners of knowledge, while women are their students – vessels whose own personalities and histories are often ill-defined or relatively insubstantial. Davies notes:

[Chazelle] is particularly attached to scenes in which men teach women how to play musical instruments, explain music to them, or play music for them: [in Guy and Madeleine on a Park Bench] Guy (Jason Palmer) teaches his mother to play the piano and Madeline (Desiree Garcia) gets a lesson from a male drummer; Guy plays for both his girlfriend Madeline and Elena (Sandha Khin), the girl that he leaves her for; later, Madeline dates another older musician. Andrew [in Whiplash] rattles off information about the music playing in the pizza to his girlfriend, Nicole (Melissa Benoist). Sebastian, of course, plays for Mia and teaches her to appreciate jazz. Music, then, effectively serves as both an emotional conduit and a subtle affirmation of power: where Fletcher [in Whiplash] uses his status as Andrew’s teacher as a cudgel to assert his dominance, Guy and Sebastian — and, indeed, Andrew — maintain their status as the more worldly, dominant partner in a subtler way, through the assertion of their artistic skill and cultural knowledge. With the exception of Mia, the women on the receiving end of this treatment are directionless and therefore ideal counterparts: Madeline’s field in graduate school is never specified, Nicole doesn’t even know her major, and all we know about Elena is that she is so incompetent that she has to have a man show her how to boil water.

It must also be admitted: the scene of Sebastian whitemansplaining jazz to Mia is high cringe. In his post "White Jazz Narrative" at MTV, Ira Madison III observes sarcastically:

Early on, after a few chance run-ins lead to a burgeoning flirtation, Mia makes a damning confession: She doesn’t like jazz. This is a big mistake. Only tell a Male Music Nerd that you do not like their preferred music if you have at least four free hours on your schedule to be taught exactly why you’re wrong. Seb responds by dragging Mia to a jazz club in the middle of the day. “It’s conflict and compromise,” explains Seb, talking loudly over the live band that they came to see. “It’s new every time … and it’s dying.” … Mia is ultimately convinced, seemingly not by the music itself (which Seb keeps talking over) but by the passion and enthusiasm with which he presents it to her. “People love what people are passionate about,” she concedes.

Jazz is famously and primarily an ensemble art form, but Chazelle’s view of it is problematically individualistic – and uninterested in any details of what it is or what it feels like to actually learn or make jazz. Writing about Whiplash in the New Yorker, Richard Brody called Chazelle’s vision of jazz “a grotesque and ludicrous caricature”:

Andrew isn’t in a band or a combo, doesn’t get together with his fellow-students and jam … He doesn’t study music theory, not alone and not … with his peers. There’s no obsessive comparing of recordings and styles, no sense of a wide-ranging appreciation of jazz history … In short, the musician’s life is about pure competitive ambition—the concert band and the exposure it provides—and nothing else.

In fact, in La La Land, both protagonists are resolute individualists whose art involves only themselves. Brody notes:

Mia … tries to make a name for herself by writing, self-financing, and performing a one-woman show—and her biggest audition involves her solo performance of a monologue of her own making, for a starring role in a movie that has no script and will, a casting agent says, be “built around” her. Sebastian wants to open a jazz club and wants to play jazz (“pure jazz,” he says), but his pianistic ideal, and the setting in which he shines, is solo.

The couple of times we see Sebastian play with others – in Keith’s (John Legend’s) band or the ‘80s pop cover group – it is clearly signaled by the film that the music is somehow beneath him, and he is “selling out”.

Brody also points out the film's lack of interest in detailing Mia's character or her work:

Mia writes and produces and stages her one-woman show at a theatre, but Chazelle has no interest in the vitality and conflict and fascinating details of that process—there’s nothing about her working with others on it, whether a stage director or a lighting technician. Nothing about the making of sets, nothing about rehearsing, nothing about the concrete details of the business. When Mia visits her family in Boulder City, there’s no family life whatsoever on view. Chazelle is interested in Mia not as a character or as a person but as an ornament, a symbol of a kind of dream and a kind of success.

A simple-minded nostalgia pervades the film, whose constant refrain, Michael Koresky writes, is "to remind viewers of lost things—real musicals, real jazz, real romance, real movies.” Nick Pinkerton adds:

Ever since the movie musical’s decline as a popular form, there have been periodic attempts to revive it. Some of these have been artistically successful, others have been Les Misérables (2012), but almost all have conceded to the fact that they don’t make them like they used to because you can’t make them like they used to, and that the musical needs to exploit new forms, new technologies, and new subject matter in order to reach a new public. In this La La Land is an exception—it doesn’t want to bridge the last sixty-odd years so much as pretend they never happened, to return to an imagined Eden of old-fashioned razzle-dazzle and audience innocence.

Jazz is an important subject of this movie — Sebastian’s passion to “preserve” it defines his character. This, I believe, gives us the permission to be exacting and attentive to the way the movie views and depicts jazz. Brody points out that it is, specifically, classic jazz (from the 1920s to the 1950s) that is valorized by the film “as if nothing of importance has happened since the nineteen-sixties—the age when artists overturned conventions and shattered the bonds of classicism. [Chazelle] venerates and celebrates bygone methods and mannerisms because he applies them like formulas …”

Chazelle is smart and knows exactly what he’s doing here – and so we get the scene in which Keith (John Legend) asks Sebastian, “How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You’re holding on to the past but jazz is about the future.” But this gesture from Chazelle is pure disingenuousness. He simply tosses in the question – thus pretending to significance – but the film does absolutely nothing to pursue it or play it out. If Keith’s band is one of the “futures” of jazz – as the movie clearly seems to imply – we are unambiguously asked to view contemporary jazz as watered-down and inferior to the classic jazz that Jeb fetishizes.

And so it is with movies too. La La Land looks back at a small, select history of cinema – 1950s Hollywood musicals like Singin’ in the Rain, Jacques Demy, Rebel Without A Cause – and raids them for its inspirations. Justin Hurwitz’s songs – their melodies, harmonies, and arrangements – lean too heavily on Michel Legrand, and (for me) struggle to distinguish themselves. They sound blandly pleasant, but evaporated from my ears the moment the end credits rolled.

According to Michael Sicinski:

The songs are trite when they aren't outright unmemorable, and Seb's piano theme just seemed like sad random tinkling. This is a problem, given that Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) has no real personality apart from his love of jazz. There's an awkward pull here between the actual quality on display and the almost art-frat aggression with which the viewer is relentlessly pummeled with the whole Romanticist, never-give-up-on-your-dreams business. The fact that John Legend is positioned as the sellout option here (to say nothing of "I Ran," one of the greatest 80s synth-pop hits this side of Gary Numan) just adds to the sense that something about this world is way out of whack.

I must also confess that I was irritated by Chazelle’s overall approach in this movie, his attack. Fernando Croce, whose account of the film from Toronto was one of the earliest critiques of it, pointed out its “bellicose approach to music and dance” and its “relentlessly aggressive touch”:

Why have the introductory highway hoedown just unfold in one take, when you can also include Matrix-style camera swivels to capture bicycle pirouettes in mid-air? [The film is] designed to not so much seduce audiences as pummel them into submission. Swoon, goddamnit, swoon!

Finally, it’s impossible to look away from the fact that Sebastian is a “white savior” for jazz, a profoundly black music. Madison is snarky but persuasive here:

[Sebastian/Gosling] eventually opens up his own jazz club that’s wildly successful and gains him a black apprentice who’s pretty good on the piano himself, but not too good, otherwise he’d own Gosling’s club himself! The nightclub audience laughs at this joke, but in the film audience, it lands with a thud, because you know what? If you’re gonna make a film about an artist staying true to the roots of jazz against the odds and against modern reinventions of the genre (from white musicians like, say, Mayer Hawthorne), you'd think that artist would be black […] Positioning Ryan Gosling as jazz’s white savior while relegating black musicians to the background left a sour taste in my mouth.

Adam Nayman adds:

In La La Land, African-American musicians are rendered (as in Whiplash) as measuring sticks for an ascendant white performer’s monomaniacal notions of “purity,” while African-American actors are either used as benign props—as when Sebastian encounters a sweet (and totally mute) old couple while singing to himself at the end of a pier—or else as signifiers of authenticity (Gosling’s exuberant club-land buddies) or a lack thereof (John Legend’s smoothie sell-out, who may not be the villain of the piece but doesn’t make much sense as a character anyway).

To close, let me point to (and excerpt from) Will Brooker’s sharp and funny piece on the movie:

La La Land deserves its nominations and more: it deserves to win Best Picture. Because it isn’t escapism, it’s a story for our age. Ryan Gosling, who pluckily spent three months learning piano to play the protagonist, is the perfect hero in a year when the new president of the United States can take over with no training. His reality-show-standard song and dance routines are perfectly suited to this new era, when a mediocre businessman and second-rate television celebrity can become Commander-in-Chief. If Trump’s Education Secretary can’t write grammatically or answer questions on basic policy, how can we criticise an actor for less-than-perfect performances? Our current culture doesn’t just excuse amateurs, it elevates them to the highest roles.

Some have claimed that La La Land appropriates the black art form of jazz, with Gosling in the white saviour role as its purist champion. But what could be more 2017 than a movie that celebrates mansplaining and whitewashing, that has Gosling talking loudly over older, African American musicians to impress his date, and then shows them nodding appreciatively, grateful for his support? […]

Meanwhile, John Legend’s marginalised appearance as Gosling’s one black friend, who begs him to join a band then sells out the genre with his tacky commercialism, perfectly suits an Academy Awards list that congratulates itself on avoiding “Oscars So White” controversy, yet [overwhelmingly] nominates white men and women over people of colour …

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

TIFF 2016: "Paterson" and "The Human Surge"

Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson — about a bus driver/poet (Adam Driver) named Paterson who lives in Paterson, New Jersey — is a film about amateurism. And thus, an answer to the films of Howard Hawks.

There are few auteurs, especially in popular cinema, who have the powerful legibility of Hawks. His signature themes are so clear, so insistently invoked and reworked over a filmography that spans nearly 50 years, that it is instantly obvious why he became an exemplary case study for auteurism. Famously, one of Hawks’s key themes is “professionalism”: the unwavering dedication and commitment of his (mostly male) characters to their work, their vocation.

But it is avocation that is the focus of Jarmusch’s film. Paterson steals moments out of his working day to write poetry on his lunch break or in the minutes before beginning his bus route of the day. This struck a chord with me. In today’s world, when more and more people work alienating or semi-alienating jobs while pursuing their passions on the side, the notions of “professionalism” and “amateurism” take on a special poignancy.

More than the specific act of writing poetry, the film observes everyday life seen and experienced through a poetic sensibility: the way this sensibility transforms the way one looks at reality. Poetry sharpens Paterson’s everyday perception, his quotidian curiosity. For example: the attention he pays to examining a book of Ohio Blue Tip matches while he is eating his breakfast cereal; or the way he listens in on conversations between passengers on the bus; or the interest he takes in the notebook of a little girl who happens to be waiting for her mother by the side of the road. Paterson’s amateurism infuses his entire life, pervades his days and nights, thus going far beyond what we think of as professionalism.

I find it moving that the everyday is not only the subject of this film, but also deeply embedded in its structure. We witness a week in the life of Paterson, each day returning to certain activities, repeating them with variations. As David Bordwell writes, “Paterson’s routines create a rhythmic matrix that we quickly learn … A poetic principle of verse and refrain gets built into the film’s structure.” Jarmusch himself has called the film “a metaphor for daily life … every day is a variation on the day before or the day coming up.” A productive tension results between this resolute attention to the small-scale, the ordinary — and the artificial, highly deliberate and wrought (albeit with a light and experienced touch) structure and rhythm of the film.

Interviews with Jarmusch repeatedly reveal a curious, outward-directed sensibility: he wears on his sleeve an openness to the work of artists across a range of media (not just movies but also music, literature, visual art, poetry). Similar to the gallery of inspirational figures on Tom Hiddleston’s wall in Only Lovers Left Alive, there is a gallery of Paterson, New Jersey natives on the wall of the neighborhood bar in his new movie. Jarmusch has also told the story of arriving in New York City from Akron, Ohio in the 1970s, and becoming immersed in the study of New York School poetry. His teachers included the poets Kenneth Koch and David Shapiro; the latter co-edited, with Ron Padgett, the influential "An Anthology of New York Poets” in 1970, a book that became a “bible” for the filmmaker. Padgett also penned all of Paterson’s poems in the movie.

Jarmusch points out that the non-commercial status of poetry has meant that its practitioners have not been able to make a living from it, thus resulting (one might say) in “an art of amateurs”: for example, William Carlos Williams was a doctor, Charles Bukowski worked at the post office, and Frank O’Hara was a museum curator. This made me think about the parallels between poetry and cinephilia, arts and avocations often practiced in the interstices of the everyday.

Let me note a reservation. Like Jonathan Rosenbaum, I was a little irritated by the difference between the way the film approaches the work of Paterson and that of his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). Laura shares Paterson's unflagging creativity, exercising it daily, but the film views her work — paintings, curtains, garments, cupcakes, all featuring a comically consistent aesthetic of graphic black and white — with a certain bemusement. If the movie ennobles Paterson’s work, it renders Laura’s slightly kooky. Which is really unfortunate….

The most strikingly new and unfamiliar film I saw at TIFF was Eduardo Williams’s The Human Surge. This avant-garde first feature by the Argentine-born Williams won the Locarno Film Festival’s “Filmmakers of the Present” award.

Movement lies at the heart of cinema — and at the heart of this film. The Human Surge comprises three sections, filmed in Argentina, Mozambique and the Philippines, in which we see people, mostly in their 20s, walking through landscapes urban and rural while a hand-held camera follows them and records their actions and social interactions. The Internet is an important presence in this film — but glancingly, intermittently, and not at all depicted in a way that might be familiar to us from existing cinematic representations. (This freshness of approach is itself some kind of feat.)

Leo Goldsmith’s essay in Cinema Scope is an essential read. He proposes that if

21st-century cinema effectively began with a camera floating dreamily after Shu Qi along a fluorescent-lit Taiwanese overpass at the start of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Millennium Mambo (2001), or with the Steadicam fluidity of similar shots of the back of characters’ heads in films by the Dardenne brothers, The Human Surge seems to offer an important update, multiplying its wayward pathways and unmoored characters, randomizing their points of intersection, and permanently detaching the camera from its place of stability and control.

He explains Williams’s cinema as being

one of vectors: across borders, networks, and states of being […] these milieus are rendered by Williams as a set of unfolding landscapes, alternately distinct and alien in their local particularity and flattened by the similarity of their socio-economic backdrops: bland technocapitalism, precarious employment, or rural spaces in the process of becoming urban, if not falling back into entropy

And here he is again on the film’s up-to-the-minute depiction of work:

Unstructured downtime seems to fill up the cracks of the film’s many forms of labour: webcam sex work, industrial labour, desk-jockeying, manufacturing. And all of these types of work seem to bear an ambivalent relationship to the networked digital spaces that the film’s characters on all continents are constantly (and usually unsuccessfully) trying to access. The Human Surge creates a sense of continuity across widely disparate places, a continuous unrolling of geographic space held together by an ambivalent sense of interconnectedness through technology.

Williams himself is wonderfully articulate: I recommend reading his interviews with Gustavo Beck at MUBI Notebook; Ela Bittencourt at Film Comment; and Steve Macfarlane at Remezcla.

pic: The Human Surge.

Monday, October 10, 2016

TIFF 2016: "Toni Erdmann" and "Aquarius"

Cinephile culture tends to be suspicious of bigness. For example: big budgets; or an endlessly extending series franchise; or an actor’s larger-than-life performance that makes a bid to impress; or something as simple as the length of a film.

When Manny Farber made the enduringly fascinating distinction between “white elephant art” and “termite art” nearly 60 years ago, he was incarnating cinephilia’s skepticism of bigness — and targeting a specific form of it. Farber attacked the ambition (or, more precisely, the ambitiousness) of a work, its propensity for big and broad gestures, its claim to Significance. At their expense, he advocated a moment-to-moment inventiveness that seeks neither to astonish nor to garner prestige. This modesty of disposition as a temperament was an important value for Farber, and has been so for the large swath of film culture that has resonated with his essay in the decades since.

Two of the best films I saw in Toronto — Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius — were thrilling partly because they worked to scramble Farber’s dichotomy between white elephant art and termite art. Both were long, openly ambitious films (with running times of 163 and 145 minutes respectively) but their ambition gave no hint of self-aggrandizement or precious self-regard. In other words, despite their boldness and reach, they embodied a sensibility that was modest.

Berlin School filmmaker Maren Ade’s first two films, The Forest for the Trees (2003) and Everyone Else (2009), were received with enthusiasm, but her third, Toni Erdmann, is something rare and special — a work that has been embraced and celebrated by an unnervingly broad range of critics and viewers. It is a film about the relationship between a father and daughter (courageous, committed performances by Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller), “a drama with funny moments,” as the director modestly characterizes it. David Bordwell places it in the tradition of screwball comedy: “a mischievous madcap disrupts the staid life of an uptight character s/he loves.” Adam Nayman connects the film to that 21st c. genre, “the comedy of awkwardness,” while noting that it differs from other exemplars of this group by never placing the viewer in a position of superiority over its characters. I will refrain from disclosing any more of the film’s narrative because the foundational element of this work is surprise.

On the one hand, Toni Erdmann works broadly in a classical-realist mode. This sets it apart from — and ostensibly renders it more “conventional” than — so much festival/art-house cinema which frequently tends to wear its modernism on its sleeve (specifically, the downplaying of elements such as character development, psychological realism, and clear temporal continuity). And yet, while embracing certain “traditional” values, the film also pushes them so far that they emerge into a space that is qualitatively different from what we encounter in 99% of realist cinema. Call it a revelatory supra-reality that feels genuinely bizarre and dangerous — and yet carries a potent ring of truth.

Central to this effect is the fact that this is an actors’ film, a “behavioral suspense story” (as Kent Jones calls it). Dennis Lim elaborates upon this aspect when he calls Ade “an unsentimental humanist [who] shares with Cassavetes an alertness to the role of performance in the theater of everyday life and a belief that the most revealing human behavior takes place on the edge of social acceptability.” It is this risky, high-wire “experimental realism” shared by Ade and Cassavetes that (one suspects) leads Lim to propose that the film has a kinship with Love Streams.

The above approach may sound superlatively ambitious, but it is brought into existence in classic “termite art” fashion, details accumulating one moment to the next, slowly forming a thick, textured weave of behavior and situation. This moment-to-moment unfolding is the true heart of the movie’s work. Consequently, the nearly-three-hour film contains a surprisingly small number of scenes: Ade takes her time in building each scene up, one emerging, surprising detail at a time. For a movie that works as a forceful satire of gender dynamics and the global-capitalist workplace, its insights come not in big, broad strokes but precisely through this dense layering of social-behavioral detail.

Mark Peranson’s interview with Ade is invaluable: it reveals a number of intriguing details such as her month spent researching the anarchic comedian Andy Kaufman on the Internet; how she intertwined the processes of writing and location scouting in Romania, allowing each process to bleed over and influence the other; and the fact that the idea for the most unusual prop of the year (a set of false teeth) has its origins in a gift given away at the premiere of the first Austin Powers film — an event that Ade attended with her father.

Ironically, Robert Koehler’s (equally valuable) interview with Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho is titled “Termite Art”. While this is primarily a narrative reference, Aquarius constructs, like Toni Erdmann, an entire universe of little details, here to portray the life and world of Clara (Sonia Braga), a widowed former music critic who is the last resident holding out in an apartment building that has been targeted by profit-hungry real estate developers.

It takes at least two data points to begin building the picture of an auteur — and viewing Aquarius in light of Mendonça Filho’s previous film (and debut feature) Neighboring Sounds (2012) is very illuminating. Taken together, both movies reveal “big” themes that clearly carry urgency for the director: the way urban space is threatened, surveilled, invaded — and how class dynamics play out in a city (in this case his hometown of Recife). Mendonça Filho is a 47-year-old former film critic who has come to feature filmmaking a little later than most, but this delay shows itself to be a virtue. Interviews with him are a pleasure to read: they convey a sense of wisdom, life experience, and broader political engagement, but they also openly reveal a lack of pretension (to his being a “political filmmaker,” for instance) and an unapologetic and unfashionable commitment to a largely realist, character-driven, narrative-interested cinema.

Despite the serious themes it takes up, the seeds of the film lie in something small: a series of solicitation calls the director received on his phone. Already sensitive to the theme of “home invasion” (an event that occurred more than a half dozen times in Neighboring Sounds), he built an elaborate script for a “siege movie” that became Aquarius. Clara’s everyday life is fleshed out in detail that includes activities such as swimming, exercise, naps in her hammock, music-listening, and interactions with her housekeeper, family and other visitors. (In this way, Aquarius is similar to Paul Verhoeven’s Elle: both films are about middle-aged women who live alone, exercise a powerful sexual agency, and are besieged in their home by men, their predicament portrayed within a thick social context of friends, family, and untrustworthy business-people.)

The emergence of the film’s weighty themes through a forest of small details finds particularly good expression in its use of widescreen. When Koehler tells the filmmaker that he can’t think of another filmmaker save Paul Thomas Anderson “who uses the wide frame so generously and intensively,” he replies:

I thought for a long time if this one should be shot 1.85, for all the usual reasons (one character, intimate story, etc.). I photographed the locations with my still camera and edited pictures for 1.85 and 2.39:1 for us to see, with my cinematographers Pedro Sotero and Fabricio Tadeu. But who was I kidding? I love widescreen. I realized it should be shot like a widescreen film from the ’70s. I love De Palma, Altman, Cimino, Lumet, Siegel, Eastwood, Spielberg, Carpenter, Szigmond, Fraker, Alonzo, Semler—I grew up with their films, these filmmakers are in there somewhere, maybe not visible, but they are there, for myself to see […] I should also point out that the use of widescreen today has been clearly lost on many films, because technology has made it so easy to choose an aspect ratio. I’ve even seen filmmakers deciding, “Let’s have it widescreen!” after they shot the film. You can export video from an iPhone on widescreen and DCP projectors just show a film any way you want. In the old days, shooting widescreen was a very technical and aesthetic decision, involving labs, lights, and lenses.

When Aquarius showed at Cannes, political turmoil erupted coincidencentally in Brazil. In the months that followed, its first female President, Dilma Rousseff of the leftist Workers’ Party, was deposed, and an interim government hostile to the arts came to power. The attack against Rousseff, which the cast and crew of the film likened to a coup d’état and protested in spectacular fashion at Cannes, echoed aspects of the film’s own narrative, reality catching up to a film that been shot a couple of years earlier. Mendonça Filho has cited precedents such as Lindsay Anderson’s if.... (1968) and Glauber Rocha’s Terra em Transe (1967) that enact the phenomenon of films foretelling reality.

In recent news, a prominent right-wing film critic who has openly criticized the makers of the film (for “ridiculing” Brazil at Cannes) has now been appointed to the committee that selects the country’s official submission for the Oscars. This will guarantee (it is believed) that Aquarius will not be allowed to represent Brazil at the Oscars….

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

TIFF 2016: A Round-Up

Here's a run-down of the notable films I caught in Toronto. I'll be writing about some of these in the weeks to come.


Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, Germany)
Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, USA)
A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies, UK)
Elle (Paul Verhoeven, France)


Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho, Brazil)
Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello, France)
The Death of Louis XIV (Albert Serra, Spain)
Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, USA)
The Dreamed Path (Angela Schanelec, Germany)
The Ornithologist (João Pedro Rodrigues, Portugal)
The Unknown Girl (Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium)
I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, USA)


Yourself and Yours (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi, Italy)
The Rehearsal (Alison Maclean, New Zealand)
Kékszakállú (Gaston Solnicki, Argentina)
Austerlitz (Sergei Loznitsa, Ukraine)

Discovery Of The Fest:

The Human Surge (Eduardo Williams, Argentina)

A Small Glimpse Made Me Super-Eager To See More:

Six short films by Ana Mendieta

Others Appreciated These Films More Than I Did:

Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, USA)
The Dreamed Ones (Ruth Beckermann, Germany)
Mimosas (Oliver Laxe, Morocco)
General Report II: The New Abduction of Europe (Pere Portabella, Portugal)

How to Electrify an Audience of Hundreds:

I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, USA)

Cinema = Bodies Moving Through Space:

Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello, France)
The Human Surge (Eduardo Williams, Argentina)

A Festival Of Great Performances By Women:

Isabelle Huppert (Elle); Sandra Hüller (Toni Erdmann); Sonia Braga (Aquarius); Cynthia Nixon (A Quiet Passion); and the cast of Certain Women.

Best Q&A:

Maren Ade (Toni Erdmann); and João Pedro Rodrigues (The Ornithologist)

Film That Generated The Best Conversations:

Elle (Paul Verhoeven)

Film With The Best Soundtrack Music:

Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho)

pic: Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello, France)

Monday, July 25, 2016

Links: Victor Perkins, Richard Dyer, SCMS Fieldnotes, etc.

-- A wonderful tribute post to the late Victor Perkins by Catherine Grant, including short videos produced in his memory by her, Chris Keathley, Hoi Lun Law, and Patrick Keating. Also included are links to writing by and about Victor -- and a 12-part video interview with him.

-- From a superb interview with Richard Dyer by Catherine Grant and Jaap Kooijman in NECSUS journal: "My dream was always to do things that showed that the aesthetic and political were not different. The article I wrote about Blaxploitation came the nearest to saying ‘actually the politics is in the aesthetic, not in the films’ overt politics’ ... What is driving a project for me is always politics and pleasure, but sometimes it is more pleasure and sometimes it is more politics. So when it was about the pleasure, I had to think of the politics; when it was about the politics, I had to think about the pleasure. White was very much a political project. Most of what I wrote about in that was not what I particularly liked or disliked, but I thought I must do some case studies on things that I do really like..."

-- A great archive is growing here: SCMS Fieldnotes, a project of in-depth interviews with film scholars including Dyer, Tom Gunning, Laura Mulvey, Jim Naremore, Scott MacDonald, Linda Williams, Dudley Andrew, and others. Most are video interviews, a few are audio, and some are available in transcript form. My favorite aspect of these interviews is that the scholars narrate in parallel both their personal history and a history of the discipline over the last few decades. Something fascinating emerges: a sort of "cubist portrait" of the film studies discipline as it has evolved over the last five decades.

-- An invaluable resource: The Black Film Critic Syllabus, compiled by Fanta Sylla.

-- Some interesting lists of favorite movies at Grasshopper Film: Matías Piñeiro; Pedro Costa; and Thom Andersen.

-- From a few months ago: on the occasion of its going open-access, the journal Film Criticism devoted its first issue in its new reincarnation to (of course) the topic of film criticism. Contributors include Catherine Grant, Adrian Martin, Tom Gunning, Steven Shaviro, and many others.

-- The Metrograph website has a section called Edition, which collects specially commissioned writings on films and cinephilia, and filmmaker interviews.

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum on Kiarostami (in a post that includes a conversation between Jonathan and Ehsan Khoshbakht about the filmmaker): "... some of the memories of him [Kiarostami] that I treasure most include going shopping with him in Chicago for CDs by John Coltrane for one of his sons, getting stoned with him on home-grown joints at a party in Tehran, seeing The House is Black for the first time a few rows in front of him in Locarno, and hearing him say jokingly on a panel that we were both on at Stanford University that my objections to his removing the final scene of Taste of Cherry from some of the prints shown in Italy was like the commands of a mullah."

-- Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan's striking film For The Plasma (I wrote on it in a post on US micro-budget cinema a couple of months ago) has now received is theatrical premiere at Anthology Film Archives. Here's a smart and thoughtful interview with the filmmakers by Nicholas Elliott at BOMB magazine. Also: Bryant on Helene Surgère, B-actress in the films of France's Diagonale directors.

-- In the new issue of The Cine-Files, Corey Creekmur has an essay on "affective videographic criticism" in which he writes: "Laura Mulvey’s bracing call for feminist film criticism to “destroy” pleasure and beauty – what she summarized as the “ease and plenitude of the narrative fiction film” — is perhaps itself now regularly challenged by the desire of some practitioners of affect theory (as well as creators of video essays) to maintain the emotions experienced by spectators of the original work, even as they still seek to mount a feminist (or queer) critique ... In many instances, it appears, video essays embrace the pleasures (and other affects) that an earlier generation of film theorists was determined to keep at arm’s length."

-- In the journal Visible Language, Holly Willis proposes four modes of critical analysis that use cinematic tools, making a case for "the cinematic humanities, or humanistic inquiry enhanced through the practices and modes of cinema."

-- Filmmaker Edwin Martinez: "The brutal truth is that the history of documentary filmmaking is rooted explicitly in cultural, racial, gender and class-based colonialism. For decades upon decades, Western filmmakers—almost exclusively white men—traveled to other countries and cultures to extract resources (footage), which they would exploit (edit) for the benefit of their home culture (theaters, film festivals, PBS, etc.). This flow of power, and along with it the control over these stories, historically traveled in one direction—from those without it to those with it."

-- On the occasion of David Bordwell's 69th birthday, he contrasts movie-watching in 1947 and 2016. Also: Bordwell on King Hu's A Touch of Zen at Criterion. Related: notes on the making of the film by King Hu himself, published as part of a press kit in 1975.

-- In the new, loaded issue of Senses of Cinema, a valuable essay by Daniel Fairfax on Rivette's less-examined late-1960s writing for Cahiers du Cinéma: "A second period of critical activity [well after his more widely known 1950s criticism] ensued between 1968 and 1969, as Rivette made a return to writing for the journal. He lent his name to 15 pieces within a roughly 18-month period, a body of work which included interviews (with Rivette on both sides of the microphone), short critical pieces, and participation in a round table on the topic of montage."

-- Dan Sallitt's book on the films of Mikio Naruse is now online.

-- Over 40 essays by the scholar Laura Marks are available at her website.

-- Big news: Robert Bresson's Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971) comes out on blu-ray in Japan. (Via David Jenkins on Twitter.)

-- An epic 2013 interview with Peter Kubelka (with Jonas Mekas chiming in occasionally) by Andrew Lampert in The Brooklyn Rail: part 1 and part 2.

-- Thomas Beard in Artforum [subscription required] on programming the film series "Queer Cinema Before Stonewall": "As I began to assemble the lineup, I recalled a film critic friend complaining about suffering from a sort of auteur fatigue. And I understood exactly what he meant, because the dominant model of repertory film programming has largely been, and continues to be, single director surveys. Though he said it half-jokingly, it made me think about what that model leaves out. It made me realize that you would never have a Barbara Loden retrospective or a Jean Genet series, because even though both of those filmmakers made extraordinary contributions to the history of cinema, they essentially made only one film each. It's also no mere coincidence that the filmmakers who make one or a couple of remarkable films and then fall silent happen to be disproportionately women and people of color."

Friday, April 08, 2016

U.S. Micro-Budget Indie Cinema

(This one's for Matthew.)

Last summer, Dan Sallitt posted this startling tweet: “Wondering if it's just a blip or whether low-budget US indies are the most exciting thing in world cinema now.”

Sure, I had seen a handful of recent U.S. indies in the last couple of years, but I had no idea if a larger phenomenon was afoot. Since then, struck by Dan’s tweet, I’ve sought out and watched about 50 of these films. While I did not stumble upon a trove of “hidden masterpieces” (that would be an unreasonable expectation), I was nevertheless surprised to discover an awful lot of good, worthy, solid – and occasionally excellent — cinema.

Here, to start, is a list of 15 or so filmmaker discoveries I made during my immersion. For each, I note what struck me as their strongest work — and thus, highly recommended. All films below were made in the last 5 years or so.

Josephine Decker: Butter on the Latch; Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Gina Telaroli: Traveling Light
Khalik Allah: Field Niggas
Jenni Olson: The Royal Road
Amanda Rose Wilder: Approaching the Elephant
Joanna Arnow: Bad at Dancing
Bingham Bryant & Kyle Molzan: For the Plasma
Joe Swanberg: Marriage Material
John Magary: The Mend
Kentucker Audley: Open Five; Open Five 2
Stephen Cone: The Wise Kids
Nathan Silver: Exit Elena
Amy Seimetz: The Sun Don’t Shine
Charles Poekel: Christmas, Again
Joel Potrykus: Buzzard
Sean Baker: Starlet

Let me add a second, smaller list of directors to whose work I’ve had only limited exposure — but what I’ve seen by them has strongly sparked my interest. I file them, like Andrew Sarris once did, under “Subjects for Further Research”.

Robert Greene: Actress
Matt Porterfield: Take What You Can Carry
Paul Harrill: Something, Anything
Frank V. Ross: Tiger Tail in Blue

A note of disclosure. I’ve left out two filmmakers I admire — and whose work I strongly recommend! — because they are friends I have known for almost a decade: Dan himself (The Unspeakable Act) and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (Ellie Lumme).

Finally, I’m not sure what level of budget qualifies as “micro”. I have simply followed the usage of the word as it has attached itself, in Internet film culture, to the work of a certain, ever-expanding group of filmmakers. I have also used “low-budget,” “small-budget” and “micro-budget” interchangeably.

Below are brief observations on approximately 10 filmmakers — followed by some general comments.

* * *

1. Josephine Decker

Decker makes intense, visionary films. Her two features, Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, are lyrical, but this is not a calm, contemplative, conventionally “poetic” cinema. Instead, it is full of disorientation and surprise — narrative, formal, stylistic. Every single element of film form seems to get a playful workout in her hands. Both movies are driven by female characters, and are strikingly shot by her regular cinematographer Ashley Connor, who makes free and exhilarating use of out-of-focus images. Sound, similarly, gets distributed between onscreen and offscreen in unpredictable ways. Both films imaginatively draw upon the natural environment: Butter is mostly set in a Balkan music camp in the California mountains, and Mild and Lovely is a black-comic take on the Southern gothic genre that takes place at an isolated farm. Butter is sprinkled with thrilling moments that erupt into mystery, oneirism and plain opaqueness; this disruptive quality is integrated wholly and completely into Mild and Lovely, into its every moment, making it (for me) the slightly greater film.

2. Gina Telaroli

Telaroli is a protean and fascinating figure in film culture; I wrote about her recently, including links to several pieces by or about her. Her Traveling Light is a non-narrative film that documents a train trip from New York City to Pittsburgh. Initially conceiving it in narrative terms, Telaroli decided, in the aftermath of a snowstorm that disrupted and altered the train journey, to strip the film of its narrative elements. This resulted in a more abstract and avant-garde version of the intended movie. Her thoughtful comments on “train films” are worth quoting here:

… trains are the perfect, preassembled set. You don’t need to light them, they’re already decorated, and because they’re moving, they’re always interesting … It’s like my love of courtroom movies, this miniature mockup of society as a movie set, with everyone playing the roles they’ve been assigned from outside, even though they’re in a self-contained world … For research, I was watching movies like Human Desire, Class Relations, and Mission: Impossible, and it’s always the same thing: every seat carries a token citizen of a different class, and the train is this collective space where they have to confront each other and reestablish their roles through the simplest gestures …

3. Khalik Allah

Allah’s hypnotic Field Niggas is an hour-long work of documentary portraiture. Its subjects are the poor people, mostly of color, many of them drug addicts, who hang out near the intersection of Lexington and 125th in New York City. It is said that there are 8 methadone clinics within a 5-block radius of this spot; the iconic Velvet Underground song “Waiting for the Man” is set at this location. Over the images we hear the voices of the subjects — but they are out of sync with the images, which are in slow motion. As Ashley Clark writes of these unfortunates, many of them are addicted to K2, a monstrously debilitating synthetic weed, an epidemic of which is now sweeping the city. The title of the film refers to the distinction Malcolm X once pointed out between the “house Negro” and the “field Negro” during the time of slavery: the former lived in the house with the master and largely identified with him, while the latter was part of the majority of slaves who lived and worked in difficult conditions outside. Allah says that he chose the film’s title as a deliberate act of insurgency: “I kind of wanted to come into the industry and get blackballed from the beginning, and the title Field Niggas would be a shortcut to that. However, the opposite happened: I was accepted, and loved! … The people that I am documenting are the unrepresented; these are the field slaves of today.”

4. Jenni Olson

Containing gorgeous landscape photography and shot on 16mm by cinematographer Sophie Constatinou, Jenni Olson’s essay film The Royal Road mixes documentary with personal narrative and an experimental impulse. Like nearly every good model in its genre, this is a digressive, associative work that is driven by reflection — in this case, on history, romantic desire, the landscape, nostalgia, and even the lives of libertines. Olson’s big subject here is California’s colonial past; the film’s title is a translation of El Camino Real, the highway that stretches from Sonoma in northern California to San Diego in the south. In Olson’s words, “Practically everything [in California] has a Spanish name. San Francisco. Los Angeles. And yet people tend to be either unaware of or not deeply aware of the fact that this all did belong to Mexico for a long time and was forcibly taken in a war that was very clearly not an honorable war.”

Melissa Anderson writes in the Village Voice: “Though Uninvited [Patricia White’s book on classical Hollywood cinema and lesbian representation] isn't mentioned in The Royal Road, Olson's film shares a deep affinity with White's book in that both are invested in mapping out lesbian cinephilia.” Olson is lesbian, and has been married for 20 years and has 2 children. But the layer of the movie that forms its first-person, romantic-seducer narrative has a remarkable convincing “autobiographical” feel. In interviews, she has spoken of how she consciously created a “persona” for what feels like a direct, confessional story. This speaks to an interesting aspect of her film: there is an unadorned, unfussy, prosaic, matter-of-factness about her voiceover delivery that is at odds with many of her forebears in the essay film genre (like, most prominently, Marker). This directness has led to some unfair criticism of her film as patronizing and “talking down” to her audience. Instead, I see her tone as pedagogical and anti-mystificatory — and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It just seems unusual because it adopts an approach that is not closely derived from the films which have now come to define the “essay film canon”.

5. Amanda Rose Wilder

Wilder’s documentary Approaching the Elephant chronicles a year at a radically anti-hierarchical “free school” in New Jersey where all children and adults get an equal vote on how to spend each day. The first such school was founded in 1901 by a group of anarchists in Barcelona. Today, there are over 200 of them around the world; among the most famous is Summerhill in the UK, which Wilder visited as a child. The director shot her documentary solo, operating both camera and sound.

I've always thought of cinema that foregrounds the body (like Cassavetes, Pialat, Ferrara, etc. — all those totemic figures of the "Movie Mutations" canon) as a thoroughly adult cinema, so it comes as a shock to see those same qualities erupt with visceral effect in this documentary about children. (Cassavetes first leapt to mind as I was watching — and then I learned in interviews that he was an explicit inspiration, along with the Dardennes’ The Son.)

It is also a film that yokes together disparate elements: corporeality but also ideas; formal intelligence but also nonstop, narrative micro-incident; immersiveness but also distance (the latter helped by B&W). Robert Greene edited the film, and it was shot on digital video, but I was almost fooled because it looked very film-like in B&W in its 4:3 aspect ratio.

The intersection of poetry and cinema was a formative interest for Wilder. She cites a love of William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore because they wrote

about real life, but through a subjective, artful eye … Williams was a neighborhood doctor, and he’d go into people’s homes and then write about that, so to me William Carlos Williams and the Maysles had a lot in common. I immediately took to the idea of being able to have an intuitive, poetic eye behind a camera, and using it handheld, so when you’re watching the film, you’re almost watching my thought process or you really feel like you’re in my body as I go through the school…

She places her work in a lineage not of “school films” but of “those about children in other situations where they’re able to make real decisions for themselves, which tends to happen for the most part outside of school environments. Films [about kids who are “free” on the streets] such as Pixote, Streetwise, Children Underground.” She also suggests viewing it in a different but productive context: films about alternative communities such as Warrendale and Asylum which document mixed, uneven results for the methods of care employed.

6. Joanna Arnow

Arnow’s feature I Hate Myself :) is an uncomfortably candid first-person documentary in the tradition of Caveh Zahedi and Ross McElwee (Sherman’s March) — but goes further in its frankness and transgression. Dan Sallitt has a perceptive take on it here that I recommend reading. As much as I admire this film’s bravery, I’m a bigger fan of her most recent work, the 15-minute short Bad at Dancing, a stylized, surrealist-absurdist comedy in B&W. Two women share an apartment, and one of them has a male lover; the other one, played by Arnow, walks in repeatedly on the couple having sex. This recurring device becomes a way to lay bare the tensions in the relationship between the two women. Arnow has cited distant, by no means obvious (and thus, intriguing) influences: Fosse’s All That Jazz and Tsai’s Vive L’Amour respectively for her two films. I can't wait to see what she makes next.

7. Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan

A “digital-pastoral”: this is how Bryant and Molzan describe their enigmatic feature For the Plasma, which is set in a cabin and the woods around a seaside town in Maine. A woman watches a forest with closed-circuit TV cameras, looking for fires, and hires an assistant to help her; she also uses her surveillance data to (mysteriously) help make stock market projections.

There are lovely touches of the Rivettian here: a mood of low-key but constant paranoia; strange or fantastical moments that erupt in the midst of a firmly “documentary” context and setting; the predominantly female presence (the actresses Anabelle LeMieux and Rosalie Lowe); striking images that are sometimes uncanny in their emptiness (e.g. cameras arranged in precise configurations in the middle of a forest); the warm and inimitable feel of celluloid (it was shot on Super 16mm); the verdant images (this is a memorable landscape film); and the fact that it never succumbs to demystifying its enigmas.

Bryant says in an interview: “[There were] innumerable inspirations, but three models: Raúl Ruiz’s The Territory, Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Charisma, and Ermanno Olmi’s The Scavengers. Very different films that have their individual significance to us, but all ones that move modernism out of the cities and into settings usually monopolized by naturalism.”

8. Joe Swanberg

Swanberg’s history as a key figure of “mumblecore” now dates back to almost a dozen years. I will admit that I’m not a fan of the earlier work — such as Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends — that many Swanberg fans think of as high points of the period. But his more recent output has made me sit up and take notice. Of this (and there’s a lot of it since he’s so prolific), my clear favorite is Marriage Material. Happy Christmas and All the Light in the Sky are also well worth seeing.

In Marriage Material, a couple (played by actor/director Kentucker Audley and his real-life partner Caroline White) spend a day babysitting, and this causes them to take stock of their future. The film’s centerpiece is a riveting, 15-minute scene in which they talk in bed. Shot mostly with a static camera and long takes, there is a patience and attentiveness here that is not attenuated by the restlessness of handheld camera or by a surfeit of characters. (The latter is a problem for me with some of Nathan Silver’s work, like Stinking Heaven or Soft in the Head.)

Swanberg’s career and methods are worth studying because of their creative response to financial constraint. This interview with him at Filmmaker magazine is a useful case study on the financial life of a micro-budget filmmaker. He tells a story about discovering in 2010 that he and his wife, the filmmaker Kris Swanberg, were going to have a child — and throwing himself into shooting six (!) films during that year, so that he could edit those films while he was home with the baby once it was born. On the special difficulties of making a living as a micro-budget filmmaker, he says

It’s unfathomable to imagine any other industry where the lag time between when you do the work and when you get paid for the work is three, four, six or 18 months … For Kris and I, our dream right now is just to get out of debt — the hundreds of dollars a month in credit card debt from movies that I put on a credit card years ago. And that doesn’t even start to tackle student loans and stuff like that. Our family debt is $80,000 or $90,000. If we got to a point where we were at zero, that would feel like a major accomplishment.

9. Kentucker Audley

Audley is a versatile and boundary-spanning figure in US micro-budget cinema — actor, director, writer, online distributor/exhibitor (he runs the site No-Budge), and social media voice. But he’s also underappreciated in these roles. He doesn’t have the visibility of Joe Swanberg or Alex Ross Perry but instead – and his performances are the most notable site of this quality – there is a mystery to his presence, the sense that he is holding things back that might be interesting to discover. His dry presence also comes through in a great satirical manifesto/petition he authored a couple of years ago, in which he called on mediocre filmmakers to stop making films (he was the first to sign up) so that the problem of small-budget movie “overproduction” could be brought under control.

His Open Five and Open Five 2 (an hour long each and available to watch for free at Vimeo) are lovely films: narratively loose but with formal intelligence and a documentary weight that comes from an attentiveness to people and place. What a shame that the New York Times dismissed Open Five in a brief and clueless review.

10. Stephen Cone

The Wise Kids (2011) is a genuinely sweet and warm ensemble film that, like Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, Cone’s most recent work, nicely splits its time between teens and adults, male and female. One of its protagonists is a 14-year-old boy who is coming to the realization that he is gay; he is played by Tyler Ross, in a lovely, open performance; we vividly see a new identity being born over the course of the film, the changes manifesting on his face and body. Both in this and Henry Gamble, Cone depicts ensembles of Evangelical Christian characters with great sympathy and generosity — something rarely if ever seen in cinema. According to Cone, the latter film has resonated with non-Christian audiences — especially Jewish cinema-goers — more than the former, and he wonders if it is because The Wise Kids shows the church itself while in the latter film it’s offscreen; it's an intriguing theory.

Cone is prolific (unlike most of other filmmakers here, he already has 7 features behind him), and his next project sounds fascinating: a film about cinephilia, inspired by Arnaud Desplechin’s Esther Kahn, about a young woman who is a projectionist in a small town in the North Carolina mountains.

11. Nathan Silver

Exit Elena, for me, is far and away Silver’s best film, mainly because of the way it handles a vital and timely subject: the challenges of “emotional labor.” The transition from a manufacturing to service economy has meant that many Western workers today don’t produce goods but instead (in large part) “produce” emotions. In other words, they are charged both with “displaying” positive feelings and also inducing such feelings in their customers. If manufacturing work invades and occupies only a part of the worker — the physical body — service work seems to take over the worker completely, both physically and emotionally. Arlie Hochschild, in The Managed Heart (1983), was one of the first scholars to study “emotional labor” and analyze the resulting “commercialization of feeling.” Her work — and the stream of research she has since inspired — speaks urgently to our present moment.

Exit Elena is about a young woman (played by co-writer Kia Davis) who, as a nurse aide, moves into the house of a suburban Boston family. Her ostensible assignment is take care of an elderly relative, but she soon — against her will — becomes intimately embroiled in the everyday lives of her neurotic and demanding employers. Invisibly hovering over every scene is the differential power relation between her and everyone else in the family, young or old. For fear of being fired, she finds herself acceding to escalating daily demands coming from every direction. There is a precise, comic absurdism at work here that is worthy of Buñuel. Silver’s own mother Cindy — not a professional actor — turns in an indelible performance, and the director plays her son.

* * *

And now, a personal confession: I’ve grown a little weary of films that immerse themselves with great relish in detailing “male bad behavior”. Cinema has so overwhelmingly and disproportionately been by and about men that it feels like I’ve seen, by this point in my cinephile life, far too many films on this subject. Now, few subjects are exhaustible in art, I understand this, but nevertheless my level of interest in this one has never been lower. Thus my slight impatience when approaching a film such as The Mend (John Magary) or Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry).

That said, The Mend is impressive. Its abrupt, chaotic movement has been compared usefully to that of Arnaud Desplechin, and it consistently foregrounds the vulnerable human body in a way that few contemporary, American non-genre films do. But Listen Up Philip is more than I can handle. Philip has received rapturous reviews; I’m glad it has found a wide audience for micro-budget cinema; I admit: the film gives the sense of a demonic intelligence behind it. But it makes me uncomfortable that it dives with such undisguised glee into the relentless, everyday cruelties perpetrated by two men who are pure, unadulterated pricks. It is this glee — this strong enjoyment of their pathology on the part of the film — that I cannot abide. Perry’s follow-up, Queen of Earth, is for me a better movie: it places its focus on women’s experience, and it doesn’t use close-ups as insistently as Philip, thus better showcasing Sean Price Williams’ stunning and versatile cinematography. But it is still too beholden to the Perry formula of fetishistically constructing a spectacle of educated, privileged people being assholes to each other.

Let me now conclude by singling out an element that is common to most of these US micro-budget films — and is a not inconsiderable source of their power. I am referring, very broadly, to documentary presence — of various natures and degrees — that is crucial to their effects. The best of these films lean on, and draw nourishment from, something large in the world, something weightier than a single individual’s perspective or experience. In addition to the fictional worlds that they elaborate, they also contain a wide “documentary channel” through which the world at large manifests itself to us — movingly.

To cite a few examples: Wilder’s Approaching the Elephant and Allah’s Field Niggas are explicitly documentaries. Most of Decker’s Butter on the Latch takes place at an actual, non-recreated Balkan cultural festival in Mendocino, California; the music and dance in the film, along with most of the non-actors who happened to be attending the festival, provide an authentic and compelling context within which the drama unfolds (the film would be unthinkable without its setting). Telaroli’s Traveling Light started out in conception as a fiction film but the finished product is an avant-garde documentary — of a train, views of the world through its windows, and the weather. Bryant and Molzan’s For the Plasma and Olson’s The Royal Road tell stories and have characters (of a sort) — but are, equally, vivid records of landscapes urban and pastoral imprinted upon celluloid. Charles Poekel’s Christmas, Again is an unambiguously fictional work, but the attentiveness to labor (the selling of Christmas trees on a sidewalk) is so careful and detailed that it transcends the function of “workplace context”: it is most of the movie. (In fact, the set doubled as a real-life Christmas tree business to raise some money: now, that’s a micro-budget cinema story!) And every time I think of Sean Baker’s Starlet, which is a strongly narrative- and character-oriented work, what I picture first in my mind is the California sunshine that floods its images. In the words of Matthew Flanagan: it’s prime “Vitamin D cinema” ...

* * *

Any thoughts on or recommendations of micro-budget cinema, American or otherwise? I would love to hear them!

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

TIFF 2015: Jerzy Skolimowski; Tsai Ming-liang

I’ve long heard good things about Jerzy Skolimowski; particularly esteemed are the four features he made in the 1960s, including Le Départ. I’ve seen only Deep End (1970) – which is stunning: enough to warrant a look at his entire filmography – and The Shout (1978; strange, recommended). The little-known but valuable essay collection Second Wave (1970), edited by Ian Cameron, contains an essay on Skolimowski (by Michael Walker) that first sparked my interest in his work.

I felt that his new film, 11 Minutes, deserved better than the cool critical reception it received at the festival. Two strands of cinema meet here. The first is the multi-character “network narrative”: a kind of film that has historically possessed a tendency toward middlebrow preciosity or inflatedness (not just in Iñárritu’s Babel or 21 Grams but also in its prototypes by vastly better filmmakers like Kieslowski [Three Colors: Blue]). The second strand here turns out to be the antidote to the first: the satirical thriller, a form favored by masters such as Hitchcock, De Palma, Chabrol and Verhoeven (I have a special weakness for this kind of cinema). Skolimowski’s sardonic humor is the overlay, the governing sensibility that pulls these two strains together. The ending of Christian Petzold’s Phoenix has been much praised, but 11 Minutes has a finish that is almost as exhilarating and unexpected. Skolimowski has said that he began by dreaming the final image (“frame-by-frame”), then reverse-designed the film from that image. “Is there a stranger, more provocative late-career renaissance in recent memory?” asks Fernando Croce in one of the few sympathetic reviews of the film from the festival.

Here are a couple of interesting things we learn about the director from recent interviews, such as the one he did with Danny Kasman at MUBI Notebook: he’s not a cinephile – and watches less than 10 films a year; he made a self-admittedly “bad movie” (30 Door Key, 1991), then quit cinema to paint for the next 17 years; and he still sees himself first and foremost as a painter.

He draws this contrast between filmmaking and painting:

Painting is zen. Filming is chaos […] I’m a different person when I paint. I’m alone, I listen to music, I have plenty of time, I’m not in a hurry. Every movement is important, sometimes it takes a long time, sometimes it’s spontaneous. In a film, I’m one of those with a huge group of people just behind my back and I feel it ...

* * *

Since I began attending TIFF in 1999, I’ve been fortunate to see Tsai Ming-liang and Lee Kang-sheng on multiple occasions at Q&As. This period has also coincided with my getting to know and love Tsai’s work. Especially because he likes to return to similar characters, themes, motifs and locales in his films, his audience experiences a growing familiarity with the Tsai universe with each new work. But this has also resulted (at least for me) in a growing curiosity about Tsai’s own, personal universe – something he doesn’t talk too much about in interviews.

Because of this, Afternoon holds immediate interest for Tsai fans – and for few others. It records a conversation between Tsai and Lee, runs 2 hours and 20 minutes, and contains just 4 shots, all from the same camera position. The setting is a dilapidated rooftop room; two big windows behind them contain a gorgeous view of the greenery outside.

We learn lots of personal details about Tsai and Lee’s life. They are close friends who’ve bought a house together in the country (it is also the movie's setting). Tsai is a constant worrier and a bit of a control freak. He likes to advise, be maternal, micromanage – however benignly or gently. They often share a hotel room (for example, when they travel to film festivals); and an utter everyday familiarity with each other (for example, being unclothed in each other’s presence).

As Ignatiy Vishnevetsky points out, Tsai takes this opportunity to ask Lee questions that he’s been wanting to for a long time, such as: “‘Will you cry when I die?,’ ‘Do you ever hate me?,’ ‘My sexual orientation: Has it ever bothered you?,’ ‘How do you like my cooking?’)”. Tsai discloses that he likes to frequent gay saunas because they “give me a sense of belonging … even if nothing happens inside, my feeling of restlessness subsides.” Lee says that he frequently accompanies Tsai to these saunas and waits outside, ready to call the police if he doesn’t come out after a while.

Their friendship is very touching. Michael Sicinski calls the film “a rare and lovely cinematic expression of gratitude” in which Tsai attempts to thank Lee for everything he has brought to his life and films. Tsai praises Lee’s acting: “You may be the strangest actor ever: no one is sure if you are acting or not acting.” He declares that good acting means “don’t express anything; just deal with the situation.” He confesses the reason why he makes films: “People need something to help them … we need things to help us understand life … it could be scriptures or it could be cinema.”

It is sad to hear that in recent years, Tsai has been ill because of persistent side effects from blood pressure medications. He now seeks natural remedies for his ailments. Even though he appears to be an extraordinarily disciplined and industrious person, he drolly characterizes all his films as “ruins.” He discloses that he has one brother – who doesn’t like his films. He jokes that he received an Oxford University Press book on “slow cinema” in the mail the day before, but can’t read it because of his poor facility with English.

Towards the end of the film they stop talking, and simply share each other’s silent company. But the camera doesn’t stop recording. Taking charge of each situation, as he is apparently impelled to do, Tsai says: “Let’s wait for the light to disappear” – and so we do (along with Lee and the crew behind the camera) …

* * *


-- Adrian Martin and I have begun rolling out LOLA 6. We now do one issue a year, and the theme of this one is "Distances". In her latest post, Catherine Grant very generously rounds up the issue -- along with new issues of MOVIE, in[Transition], Film-Philosophy, Senses of Cinema, and more.

-- David Hudson has a post at Fandor on his "Highlights of 2015": a huge thank-you to him for his kind words about The New Cinephilia. Also at Fandor: the most anticipated films of 2016.

-- I wrote a piece at the Criterion Collection website on Buffalo film culture and recent screenings of the Apu Trilogy here in town.

-- A collection of best-films-of-the-year lists at Desistfilm that includes Nicole Brenez, Cristina Álvarez López, Adrian Martin, and many others.

-- At Toronto Film Review, David Davidson similarly collects many end-of-year lists of films.

-- Catherine Grant's roundup of "Favourite Film and Media Studies Gifts of 2015 Galore!" Also: a podcast interview with Catherine at The Cinematologists.

-- Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell on "the best films of 1925".

-- At MUBI Notebook: "Fantasy Double Features of 2015".

-- Katie Kilkenny at The Atlantic: "Why Are So Few Film Critics Female?"

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum's "Global Discoveries on DVD" column in the latest issue of Cinema Scope.

-- Collections of tributes at Keyframe Daily: RIP, Haskell Wexler and Vilmos Zsigmond.

-- Leo Goldsmith on Manuel Mozos' film João Bénard da Costa: Others Will Love the Things I Have Loved. Also: Miguel Gomes on Mozos ("Ghosts and Phantoms").

-- Violet Lucca on black independent film-making in New York over the years.

-- The scholar Aaron Gerow maintains a Japanese film website called Tangemania.

-- "The Male Gaze in Retrospect": a collection of pieces commemorating the 40th anniversary of Laura Mulvey's classic essay, at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

-- Los Angeles-based critic Jordan Cronk has founded a new microcinema named Acropolis. It will focus on experimental cinema and undistributed films.

-- Kevin B. Lee: "77 Video Essays (and 30 Standouts) of 2015".

-- Babette Mangolte on Chantal Akerman at Artforum.

-- There's a new issue of the journal Cinema Comparat(ive) Cinema, and it's devoted to Portuguese cinema.

-- Filmmaker Paul Harrill's post, "Freeware, Shareware, and Cheap Mac Software for Filmmakers".

-- Adam Curtis' films are available to see here. (Via Jonathan Thomas.)

-- I'm looking forward to spending a weekend in Rochester in the spring, attending The Nitrate Picture Show at the George Eastman Museum.

Monday, December 07, 2015

TIFF 2015: Films and their Paratext

Two films at TIFF, both by filmmakers who exhibit their work in museums and galleries, raised for me some interesting questions about the role that “para-textual knowledge” plays in film criticism. Here, the paratext in question was detailed information about context and intentionality provided by the artists, stated outside of the films themselves. Let me first begin by describing what the films are doing — and then air my questions.

One of my festival favorites, Invention is the first feature by the Canadian artist Mark Lewis; it is a stately and ambitious work designed to function on multiple levels. Some of these levels are easier to intuit and unpack than others. Most overtly, it is an homage to the city symphony films of the 1920s such as Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) or Sheeler/Strand’s Manhatta (1921). Lewis spent two years shooting in three cities: Paris, São Paolo and Toronto.

But the similarities to those earlier forebears are ultimately less than they might appear. Beyond the fact that they are all interested in exploration of urban space, the differences outweigh the family resemblances. Invention contains just 14 shots, and throughout its 80-minute running time, the camera is almost always in slow, steady and deliberate motion. This combination of long takes and camera movement has the effect of conferring a truly autonomous curiosity upon the “kino-eye”.

Not all aspects of the city, however, are of equal interest here. City streets, modernist buildings — for example, by Oscar Niemeyer in São Paolo, Mies van der Rohe in Toronto — and art museums become the film’s privileged objects of curiosity. The camera is especially drawn to glass and reflective surfaces, and to spaces in which light and shadow are at play. The film is silent except for the opening, which features solo piano as the camera slowly encircles a sculpture at the Louvre, and the final frames, which are accompanied by explosive rock music. All in all, Invention makes for a spellbinding viewing experience, unspooling a nonstop stream of sensations and a non-narrative suspense.

But once the movie ended, I read the “artist’s statement” in the presskit and learned a great deal about Lewis’s conceptual framework for the film — almost none of which, I should say here, was evident from “simply” watching Invention.

Lewis means for the film to have an entire background narrative: A camera is “born” into a world without cinema, and proceeds to “learn” about this world by moving through the space of cities — through modernity itself. There is a historical backstory to this choice: Lewis believes that 17th century baroque architecture marked the beginnings of the modern, and when people first moved through its architecture (he cites the buildings of Francesco Borromini as an example), they experienced “cinema” for the first time. So, not only was the experience of the modern city that of cinema “avant la lettre,” it also provided new “lessons in perception” for the city’s inhabitants — similar to avant-garde cinema’s capacity to “remake perception” in its viewers. (We might recall Stan Brakhage famously imagining an eye “which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception”.)

Lewis also singles out a specific inspiration for his work:

Jacques Tati’s Playtime is a sublime consideration of the city in relationship to its ideological representations. At the same time, Playtime insists, with great humour and strange precision, that the modern city is simply an invention of the cinema, but also that cinema is only the imagination of that very same city. Tati’s Playtime produces a kind of indeterminate either/or in this regard, refusing to privilege one over the other. This is its brilliance, I believe, and this is why I watch the film over and over again. I, too, cannot decide whether my films, for instance, depict the city or if they are helplessly produced by the city.

The title of Lewis’s film is a nod to Louis Lumière’s well-known line about cinema being “an invention without a future”. Lewis is trying to imagine the inverse: a future without an invention. Or rather, a future where the invention of cinema is just beginning to take place …

Artist Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc’s first fiction film, Sector IX B, is 40 minutes long, and begins with an epigraph that is a brief quote from French surrealist Michel Leiris. It proceeds to narrate the journey, in elliptical fashion, of Betty, a scholar who travels to museums in Dakar and Paris to do anthropological work. We occasionally see her ingest pills and have hallucinatory experiences; and we watch her linger over old photographs that might be from a personal album. The film closes with an enigmatic sequence, atmospherically reminiscent of Apichatpong, in which workers come upon what might be some kind of lost or hidden artifact in the basement of a museum. I enjoyed this mysterious, carefully composed, beautifully paced movie while having only the most rudimentary idea (outside of its barebones narrative) of “what it was all about.”

It turned out, when I chatted with the filmmaker backstage after the screening and read his “artist’s statement,” that there is a rich contextual backdrop without which the work is almost impossible to decode. I learned that the protagonist Betty is trying to recreate the state of mind and body of researchers who traveled in the 1930s to Africa as part of the Dakar-Djibouti ethnographic expedition. The primary inspiration here was Leiris, who was part of this expedition, and who wrote an account about it called L’Afrique Fantome (Ghost Diary).

What drew Abonnenc to the subject was the fact that Leiris’ field notes do not pretend to “scientific objectivity”. Instead they foreground his psychological state (he had been in analysis in Paris prior to leaving on his trip), and interweave multiple genres (including erotic stories and literary criticism). The result is a highly subjective account of Africa that implicitly critiques the way scientific research renders invisible the inner psychological and physical states of the researchers themselves.

I also learned from my conversation with the director that members of the original expedition took powerful drugs in order to strengthen their defenses against African illnesses (such as those transmitted by tsetse flies), which significantly altered their perceptions, thus further undermining claims of “scientific objectivity”. In the film (I learned later), Betty recreates the medical prescription box given to members of the expedition, and tests the effects of the drugs upon herself. The film’s final scene, in which workers unearth an unknown object in the museum’s basement, was intended by the director to question the status of each artifact in a museum’s collection: which items are chosen to be exhibited — and which are deemed less worthy of display, and why.

Suffice it to say: my experience of these films would have been unimaginably impoverished without my extended encounter with all this artist-provided background – and the resulting knowledge about how these works need to be approached.

* * *

The term “paratext” originated in literary theory and interpretation, and refers to the material that surrounds the main text, such as the preface and foreword, and also including such things as formatting, typography, and author portraits. Interviews and commentaries by the author also belong in this category.

The theorist Gérard Genette thinks of paratext as a gray area, not exactly the text but not exactly outside of it either. He calls it “a threshold … a zone between text and off-text”. It is a place, Genette writes, “of an influence on the public … an influence that is at the service of a better reception of the text and a more pertinent reading of it.” Paratext thus becomes “a fringe of the printed text which in reality controls one’s whole reading of the text.”

Artist’s statements are, of course, an important kind of paratext. When I first encountered avant-garde films that came with such “instructions for interpretation,” I remember being a bit skeptical. An artwork, I then believed, must enact its themes and intentions within the work, rather than impose or announce them from outside. But reading Genette made me reconsider this hard distinction between text and not-text. Our interpretations of a work never emerge completely from within a work and its details anyway; we routinely bring outside knowledge to bear upon the work when we interpret it. So, over the years, I’ve come to value statements of the artist’s intentions and commentaries, regarding them as always potentially useful.

I’m curious to know: If we were to think of paratext as a “genre,” are there particularly good examples of them in the history of avant-garde cinema? Also: I tend to think of artist’s statements in the experimental film world as a recent phenomenon — perhaps spurred by artists being forced to “commodify” and “sell” their work in the art marketplace to grants organizations, art galleries, and the like. Have avant-garde filmmakers always accompanied their work with written or spoken aids to interpretation? I suspect there is an interesting history, waiting to be written, of artist’s statements in avant-garde cinema.

* * *


-- At Sight & Sound, "best films of the year" lists by over 150 critics worldwide.

-- At caboose: Catherine Grant's audiovisual essay "Dissolves of Passion," which forms an integral part of her contribution to the upcoming caboose volume "The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound and Image," whose primary authors are Christian Keathley and Jason Mittell.

-- Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin's reflection on making audiovisual essays in Frames Cinema Journal begins: "Not only is the work we do para-textual in relation to the usual academic work on film; we ourselves are para-academics ..." Also: Three audiovisual essays by Cristina on Luis Buñuel, commissioned by ICA on the occasion of their Buñuel retrospective.

-- The new issue of cléo: a journal of film and feminism is on the theme of "grace".

-- A conversation between Jonathan Rosenbaum, Raymond Durgnat and David Ehrenstein, "Obscure Objects of Desire: A Jam Session on Non-Narrative," that appeared in Film Comment in 1978.

-- Alex Ross: "A Hundred Years of Orson Welles" in The New Yorker.

-- Jonas Mekas interviewed by Peter Bogdanovich in Interview magazine. (Via Will Stephenson.)

-- Best of the year lists at Artforum: by John Waters; and J. Hoberman.

-- An interview at Film Comment with the poet Susan Howe, who recently introduced a screening of Tarkovsky's The Mirror in New York City.

-- The theme of the new issue of NECSUS European Journal of Media Studies is "Vintage".

-- Lesley Stern's lecture (in her charismatic voice and delivery), "How does (the) Cinema Feel About (the) Animal?" at SoundCloud. (Via Catherine.)

-- I've been enjoying Kelley Conway's new book on the films of Agnès Varda; David Bordwell has put up a post on the book.

-- On the occasion of its 30th anniversary, the journal Australian Feminist Studies has put up 30 articles from its history for free download. (Via Adrian.)

pic: The hallucination of a scientist in Sector IX B.