Wednesday, February 28, 2007
But in recent years, they have taken their obsession with control a little too far. When a high-ranking officer of NBC can say, with a straight face, that people with TIVO or VCRs who fast-forward past commercials are "stealing" from the network, things are a little out of hand. (It might be nice if someone pointed out to the whoremasters -- excuse me, the gentlemen -- from the networks that the airwaves are, in fact, a publicly held commons and their access is based on a license from the government on behalf of the people.)
As you probably know, in the name of fighting piracy the studios and their minions in Washington would like to make it impossible for you to copy movies and television programs for your own private use. To that end, they passed and enacted draconian legislation, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which severely curtails the fair use doctrine. I won't bore you with the details of this act, but I refer you to the most excellent people of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and their support for a bill currently being offered in the House, H.R. 1201, the Freedom And Innovation Revitalizing U.S. Entrepreneurship Act (FAIR USE Act).
If you go here, you can send a letter to your Representative urging support for this bill, which would undo some of the most onerous sections of the DMCA.
Do it now.
The videotape you save may be your own.
And consider joining or donating to EFF. They are doing good work in areas that will have an impact on what and how you see electronic media for decades to come. (I'm a dues-paying member but this is a completely unsolicited plug.)
Friday, February 23, 2007
What made this story come to mind today is the existence of a new website devoted to the work of Jacques Rivette, perhaps the most overlooked of all the nouvelle vague directors and, after Godard, the most important. Order of the Exile: About the Films of Jacques Rivette is labor of love by two film by Daniel Stuyck and Ross Wilbanks, and it includes literally hundreds of pages of difficult to obtain writings on and by Rivette. The site is a black-and-white minimalist epic in the mode of L'Amour Fou, but without the razor blades, and it is a treasure trove. Now if only someone would bring out all his films on disk and arrange more consistent releases for his upcoming work(s) . . . .
Friday, February 16, 2007
(Let me state immediately that I mean filmmakers whose works are difficult to understand, assimilate, respond to, rather than filmmakers whose work is so loathesome that they are nearly impossible to tolerate. I mean Straub-Huillet, not Tony Scott. Clear?)
But what is it about their work that is difficult? What is a difficult film? If I read him correctly, I would agree with Steve that Brakhage and Snow are not inherently difficult; if you go to one of their films expecting a conventional narrative, yeah, you'll be disconcerted, maybe baffled. If you go with a firmer sense of what you are about to see, the result should be somewhat different. I suspect that the closer to pure abstraction a non-narrative film comes, the easier it is for a viewer to absorb and even enjoy it. Just on the simple level of presenting visually appealing or stimulating images, non-narrative films are probably somewhat easier to assimilate. That's my gut feeling and I may very well be wrong. I would hope that someone with a greater familiarity with experimental film -- Daryl, are you listening? -- wold step in and rescue me here.
Nope, I think an audience finds a film difficult when it comes with a set of expectations conditioned by years of moviegoing and familiarity with genre, narrative conventions, etc., and is faced with a film that seems to have no relation whatsoever to those expectations. And if they come to a film with no particular expectations, then they are unwittingly carrying with them the expectations ingrained by years of watching films made in the style of Classical Hollywood discourse (or whatever label you choose to give it), which is, to borrow a phrase from Roland Barthes, Cinema Degree Zero. Not so much an absence of style -- quite the contrary -- but a baseline from which everything else ascends/descends. The storytelling method is derived in large part from the 19th-century novel, with an especially keen affinity with naturalism and realism.
With that paradigm as the point of departure, audiences are naturally going to be overwhelmed/bored/irritated/confused by filmmakers like Straub-Huillet who interject lengthy takes of landscape, or Tarkovsky whose approach to narrative is more like that of a lyric poet than a 19th-century novelist, or Bresson whose approach to actors is so utterly stripped of conventional "psychology." And so on and so on.
By the same token, such an audience is unprepared for the work of a documentary filmmaker like Johan van der Keuken, who makes unusual demands on their powers of concentration and memory, or Chris Marker who refuses to tell them what the "correct" answer is to the questions his films pose. (It's a lot easier to allow yourself to be manipulated by someone like Michael Moore who has all the answers and all the questions and whose films function primarily as appeals to the self-righteousness of their audiences.)
It might be said, then, that "difficulty" is in the eye of the beholder, dependent on one's ability to step away from the traditions of film storytelling (both non-fiction and fiction) and to be open to something radically different.
Now I have to admit that after writing on film for almost 36 years (my first published film piece dates from March 1971), I long since exceeded my threshhold of endurance for conventional narrative unless it is very, very good. So I eagerly seek out films that other people might, justifiably, find "difficult." (It's also part of the same perversity that led me to wear the uniform number 13 on my softball team for over a dozen seasons.) Several years ago I was watching Kieslowski's Blue and I came to a startling realization: it is possible to make a good film in which there are long stretches in which nothing "happens" and that "nothing" may be the most telling and powerful event in the entire movie. Obviously, as a long-time enthusiast for Straub-Huillet (among others), this wasn't really that big a surprise, but something about the way Kieslowski manipulates screen time and the relationships between his characters struck me more directly and deeply than ever before.
So who are "difficult" filmmakers? There are, I think, some names that will turn up on any such list. I would agree with Steve that there are some Straub-Huillet films that are easier to respond to immediately than others; Class Relations may not be to some people's tastes, but I think its virtues are apparent, likewise Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach. But I think even the smartest of us had trouble with their first viewing of Not Reconciled, and I will happily admit that, although I really like These Encounters, I know that I would need to see it a few more times (and read the Pavese) to begin to come to grips with its structure. Similarly, I love Bresson, but I certainly can understand people who don't.
My list of "difficult" filmmakers, in no particular order:
Straub-Huillet, Godard (from the Dziga Vertov films on), van der Keuken, Bresson (particularly the later films), Marker, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Tsai Ming-Liang, Amos Gitai, Sokurov, Ken Jacobs, Stan Brakhage, Philippe Garrel, Marguerite Duras, Dziga Vertov . . . .
That's off the top of my head. The one thing I notice, looking at the list, is that this is also a list that includes several of my favorite filmmakers.
Make of that what you will.
Thursday, February 15, 2007
Avenue Montaigne unfolds and concludes under the sign of the
The film itself has a certain clockwork inevitability, from its opening montage of the city moving from night to the workday but, to Thompson’s credit, that inevitability never becomes predictability and she never yields to the temptations of melodrama or – for the most part – broad farce. The latter is rather surprising, given the presence of Valerie Lemercier in one of the central roles, a TV soap star playing in a Feydeau farce while desperately trying to get cast in an American megaproduction on the lives of Sartre and de Beauvoir.
That is one of four major plotlines the film juggles with pleasing deftness. Claude Brasseur (still looking like a ladykiller 51 years after his film debut, albeit a bit more rumpled) is a self-made millionaire who is unloading a lifetime’s worth of great art while struggling with his estranged son (Christopher Thompson, who co-wrote the film with his mother Daniéle); Albert Dupontel is a famous concert pianist who has reached a crossroads in his career and his marriage. What ties the film together, gently, is the presence of a young waitress recently hired in the bar tabac that all the characters frequent. Cécile De France who plays Jessica, the young lady in question, at first struck me as a competitor with Audrey Tatou in the “horrifyingly perky” contest, but unlike the irksome Ms. Tatou, she has more than two expressions and actually brings a nice native, naïve intelligence to the character.
The result is a thoroughly pleasant blend of gentle comedy and gentle melodrama, a decidedly charming couple of hours in the theater. (The theaters in question in New York City are the Lincoln Plaza and the Angelika.)
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
If I were asked to name the most difficult great filmmaker(s) in the world, the team of the late Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub would undoubtedly top my list. (In fact, that might make in interesting exercise, so you can probably expect to see such a list posted here soon.) At the beginning of their shared career, the husband-wife team were making severe, austere black-and-white films with dark, brooding political content. The best of these early films, Not Reconciled or Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules, boiled down Heinrich Böll’s novel Billiards at Half Past Nine, to a jagged 45 minutes in which the book’s multiple plot lines were jumbled and its chronology obliterated. It is a stunning film that rewards multiple viewings. It is a film that requires multiple viewings.
Only their second film, Not Reconciled was made 42 years ago. Sixteen films later, Huillet is dead from cancer and their penultimate film together, These Encounters of Theirs, is playing in the “Film Comments Selects” series at
And you should see it. When Straub-Huillet (she is billed first in the film’s credits, but rhythmically I think it sounds slightly better the other way ‘round) began working in color, a certain lyricism worked its way into their films, perhaps the product of their long collaboration with cinematographer Renato Berta, who shot nine of their films. This lyricism, built around warm natural color and verdant landscapes tempers the minimalist rigor of their staging, with its emphasis on hieratic gesture, denaturalized line readings and stationery camera. (Actually, Berta is co-cinematographer on the new film, with Jean-Paul Toraille and Marion Befve.)
These Encounters is an unofficial sequel to Straub and Huillet’s 1979 film From a Cloud to the Resistance; like its predecessor the film’s text is drawn from Cesare Pavese’s Dialogues with Leucó. And like the earlier film, the driving force at work here is the blend of Pavese’s elaborately poetic meditations on a primeval pre-Abrahamic religiosity and the beauty of the Italian hillside country. (It has been more than twenty years since I saw Cloud and I have very little memory of it, beyond that basic structuring device.)
These Encounters has a relatively simple structure itself. The film consists of five dialogues between ancient gods and/or humans. Each takes place outdoors in bright sunlight or in a shadowed valley by a creek. The dialogues describe a progression. The first is between two humans pondering the behavior of one of “the lords;” the second involves two gods worrying about the sadness of the humans and their need for gods; the third is between two gods (and involves the film’s first camera movement, a beautiful pan of the landscape as the sunlight begins to flood the valley); the fourth is a dialogue between a goddess and Hesiod who discuss the importance of his storytelling; the fifth and final dialogue is between two mortal men, the first and only scene between two males, discussing the loss of the gods and “those encounters of theirs” with humans. The film ends with a shot of a modern Italian village perched on the side of a mountain, and a slow pan up to the sky, which is bifurcated by a power line, undoubtedly connected in some labyrinthine way to the high-tension power lines that festoon the distant mountaintop.
The use of natural settings underlines the film’s central concern, the cycles of life and death that humanity endures, and the importance of stories “to give meaning to their lives,” as the goddess Deo says in the second dialogue. The disappearance of the gods, intimated in the first scene, stated directly by Deo in the second, is integrally related to the ability of mankind to tell stories, to recapture and reconfigure the relationship to nature and deity. It is a fitting final theme for the last feature film that Huillet and Straub completed together. (There is one more collaboration, a short, “Europa 2005 – 27 Octubre,” that they made for a political project addressing the rioting in the banlieues last year. This twelve-minute short can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EGU06JQ92lc. Straub-Huillet on YouTube? Imagine that.)
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
The Decomposition of the Soul, which opens today at Film Forum, is an exceptionally intelligent documentary about the East German secret police, the Stasi, and their nasty little habits. It's one of those documentaries that eschews some of the conventions of the talking-heads doc for something a bit more formally adventurous, a concentration on the interior landscape of the infamous Stasi headquarters at Hohenshouhausen.
The film focuses on two former prisoners, who recount their own horrific experiences at the hands of the Stasi. But the real protagonist of “Decomposition” is the building itself, an Alphaville-like succession of door-lined corridors through which passed both prisoners and keepers. Fuchs invokes Franz Kafka and it’s an astute choice; at once dreamlike and yet terribly ordinary, Hohenschauhausen is the perfect Kafkaesque world, a compound consisting of equal parts bureaucratic insensitivity, vicious cruelty and a certain dogged stupidity. Toussaint and Iannetta have made a striking and unique film that demands to be seen.
My review of the film, which I recommend unreservedly, will appear along with reviews of The Lives of Others, a new fiction film about the Stasi, and a program of films by Frank Beyer, a talented East German director, in Jewish Week tomorrow.
Second, when I saw the comment regarding my attack on Mel Gibson, my first thought was that it was a guy who I ran into on the street 20 years ago -- we were both berating some idiots tabling for Lyndon LaRouche -- who told me that "Spotlight" and Willis Carto weren't anti-Semites. (Carto is the guy who once offered a large reward -- I think it was $10K -- to anyone who could prove the Holocaust actually occurred. A survivor took him up on the challenge and eventually dragged the bastard to court and was awarded a considerable settlement.)
Okay, I just got the latest issue of Intelligence Report, an excellent and disturbing magazine put out by the Southern Poverty Law Center, with an article on anti-Semitism in the "radical Traditionalist" movement. The drop head makes it very clear that my respondent was absolutely correct. It reads: "Traditionalist Catholic groups are scattered around America and the world. But only a handful preach anti-Semitic hatred."
Clearly I owe somebody -- probably many people -- an apology for strongly implying that it is the entire Traditionalist movement that is responsible for what turns out to be a very small minority of hate-mongers. I'm genuinely sorry for the mistake.
If you want to see the article, which clearly identifies the real offenders, go here.
Finally, returning to more pleasant matters -- and more film-related ones -- I want to heartily recommend another blog, Observations on film art and FILM ART, written by Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell. Thompson and Bordwell are the authors of what I consider to be the single best introductory textbook on film, one that I used frequently during my teaching days. More than that, Bordwell has written several of the best books of film analysis in English, and is a very, very smart gent.
The current posting is about recent films from Denmark that have impressed DB. I find the "new Danish cinema" a mixed bag myself, but there is an undeniable ferment in the air there (might be the gravlax).
Tuesday, February 06, 2007
"Steig, you may be a crackpot, but you're also a genius."
--Michael Granger in The Creature with the Atom Brain
Why in the name of all that is holy am I watching this massive hunk of spoiled limburger?
Because the crackpot-genius in question is supposed to be a runaway Nazi, so I need to see it for my next book, Wounded Images: How Hollywood Failed the Holocaust. I decided that to do the book properly, I would see anything and everything that touched upon the Shoah. I want this book to be the most inclusive one on this topic, even if I don't ever talk about films like this (and what can one say?!).
I would add, though, that even by the standards of Edward L. Cahn, a director of such unsurpassing lousiness that he makes Ed Wood Jr. look positively Bressonian, this film is a monumental piece of crap. Hey, it stars Richard Denning -- what did you expect, art?
Of course, there are also those films you try to forget. But that's a different thing altogether. (Another category that belongs with those titles are the movies you discover you have screeners for that you wouldn't keep on a bet.
I have promised to withhold my ten-best list until the Iras, which will be held at my humble home towards the end of March (our latest date ever, almost absurdly so). And I gave a list of the better stuff from last year a few weeks ago. But there are still more movies to see and forget. For me 2006 may never end. (Now there is a truly ghastly thought.)
I also see that Daryl Chin mentions me among others in his blog today. As he notes, we were both at the screening of the Straub-Huillet (although the film's credits reverse that order) These Encounters of Theirs, which is part of the upcoming Film Comment Selects series at the Walter Reade. I will talk about the film later today (it's 5:32 and I've been kept up all night by a devilish head cold and sore throat), or in a day or two. I'd like to write this one up while my notes still makes some kind of sense.
What I will say, on one foot, as the rabbinical saying goes, is that this is one of their most sublime films in many years, gracefully composed, with vibrant, verdant landscapes and color from Renato Berta, whose recent filmography is quite remarkable -- several films for Gitai, Straub-Huillet, Chabrol, Oliveira and Resnais. Although I doubt that Huillet knew how sick she was the film has a strangely valedictory feeling that extends to its content and a remarkable final shot.
Monday, February 05, 2007
they have a huge library of avant-garde film on-line and have now made it available in streaming format, so if you don't want to wait around to download stuff you can watch it on the computer, a la YouTube. They have over 300 films on the site, including some real rarities -- films from Group Medvedkine, the '70s workers film group that Chris Marker helped found, a huge selection of Shuji Terayama, Haroun Farocki, Jack Smith, Marcel Duchamp ( I didn't know he had made films).
Also a great collection of poets and music that is downloadable.
Saturday, February 03, 2007
In the past 25 years or so, there has developed an entire approach to filmmaking that some critics are calling, for want of a better label, “contemplative cinema.” (In the past month this group of films has been the subject of an absolutely terrific blog-a-thon, which can be found here.) It is sort of an outgrowth of the austere and rigorous style of Robert Bresson and Carl Dreyer, among others, and is characterized by long takes, miminal soundtracks with an emphasis on natural sound, and the pre-eminence of landscape as a way of establishing mood (sometimes to the exclusion of the human presence). As a way of making fiction films, it has proven extraordinarily fruitful, with directors as varied as Wong Kar-Wai, Andrei Tarkovsky and Carlos Reygadas as exemplars.
It would seem, on the other hand, an unlikely style for documentary film. But “In Search of Happiness,” a new Russian documentary that will playing the documentary fortnight, proves that assumption wrong, and delightfully so. Alexander Gutman, the film’s director, decided to profile the surviving members of the Waldheim collective farm in Birobidzhan, once the “Jewish Autonomous Region” set aside by Stalin as an ostensibly Jewish homeland. Of course, Birobidzhan was a poisoned chalice. The land was swampy, mosquito-infested and incredibly remote. Yet many Jewish communists took Stalin at his word, including Boris Rak, who is at the center of Gutman’s film. Rak is a tough old bird, a farmer and a diehard Communist who still owns and works the land around Waldheim.
Gutman structures the film around a dialectical tension between the inhabitants in the midst of their daily lives – a violin teacher with her pupil, another teacher showing her students relics of the early days of the collective farm, Rak bantering with his wife, reminiscing with his grandson, arguing with a labor contractor – and the landscape that surrounds them. The result is an unusual film in which mood trumps reportage, and the mood is a strange sort of mellow despair, a gentle melancholy that feels entirely appropriate to its subject.
Sonia, a new documentary directed by Lucy Kostelanetz, is a look at a fairly underexplored moment in Jewish history, the role of artists in the Russian Revolution and after. Sonia Dymshitz-Tolstaya was a gifted painter who turned her back on her family’s wealth (and Jewishness) to throw herself into the artistic avant-garde of pre- and post-Revolutionary Russia. Her stubborn commitment to artistic experimentation made for an uneasy marriage with her equally powerful attachment to the ideals of the Revolution. Needless to say, she soon found herself on the outs with Stalin, although she managed to stay out of the gulag. Kostelanetz tells her story in a laborious, exhausting manner, reluctant to omit anything yet unwilling to make the overall significance of her protagonist clear. The result is 45 minutes worth of material rattling around inside a 90-minute film.
To see the whole schedule of the Documentary Fortnight, go here.
Friday, February 02, 2007
There is a wonderfully poignant moment in Studs Terkel's Working when a construction worker says that he wishes they would put the names of guys like him on the buildings they worked on. Then, he explains, he could show it to his son someday and say, "See, I built this." (The musical version of the show turns this moment into a powerfully resonating climax, thanks in no small part to the music and lyrics of the painfully underrated Craig Carnelia.) Someone must have been listening, because there is a large plaque in the lobby of the Citicorp Center that lists the names of all the men and women who worked on the building. Whenever I see that list of names, it moves me as much as the display on the Vietnam War Memorial.
It is impossible not to think of that plaque while watching Into the Pit, a new documentary by Juan Carlos Rulfo. Rulfo, whose father Juan Rulfo was one of Mexico's greatest 20th-century novelists, took a film crew to the middle of Mexico City where construction workers are building a huge superhighway, called the Second Deck, that soars above the poverty of the Mexican capital. He follows a handful of the men (and one woman) who work in the sky above the city and in the mud below it as they complete one small portion of this massively ambitious project, which stretches for over ten miles across the city.
On the simplest level, In the Pit is a movie for every boy (or girl) who ever had an erector set. Just watching the laborious process by which anything is accomplished on the work site is breathtaking and fascinating. By the middle of this all-too-brief film (84 minutes), one has a new appreciation for the sheer "thingness" of a city's infrastructure and, needless to say, for the ordinary people who build and staff it.
Rulfo is more interested, though, in the interplay of the men and their attitude towards the project that is disrupting the lives of millions of working-class residents of the city. There is the usual horseplay and macho prankishness that one finds in an all-male workplace. And there is certainly an expected level of blunt talk. As one of the high-steel guys says of the dangers of his work, "We're more scared of not having anything to eat on Saturday." But in the main these men view their world with a strangely good-natured resignation, accepting things as they are, acknowledging the unfairness of it all but expecting nothing better. The one person who seems to yearn for something more is the only woman, a night-shift security guard with a firm religious faith to bolster her.
One wants to get closer to these men but, regrettably, In the Pit is too brief for that. As a result, the film is on safest ground when it just sits back and lets us watch the nuts-and-bolts work. Perhaps the greatest strength of the film is the hugely inventive musical score, created from the sounds of the actual work by Leonardo Heiblum, which gives a wonderfully concrete (no pun intended) quality to whole project.
The film ends with its most exhilarating moment, a long, long soaring helicopter shot of the entire highway, still under construction, that is a vivid reminder of how small a part of the entire puzzle we have been watching (sort of like the stunning pullback shot at the end of Don Siegal's Hell Is for Heroes, when we suddenly realize that all the lives we have seen destroyed were the cost for an advance that amounts to a few hundred feet of ground).
Early in the film one of the workmen says to Rulfo, "You break your back, and who gets the glory?" In the Pit is the plaque that these workers deserve and won't get, their little piece of the glory. It opened today and is playing at the Cinema Village in Manhattan.
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