Monday, March 19, 2007

La Ronde / Private Fears in Public Places: The Theatre

I followed up the EU Fest screening of of Alain Resnais's Private Fears in Public Places with a VHS copy of Max Ophüls's La Ronde. Both films are based on plays, and neither attempts to hide the theatricality inherent--but at the same time the way it's handled and used in the two is radically different.

1. First, Ophüls's film: several vignettes, linked by a narrator who pops in bit parts, costumed, and returns us to the visual metaphor of the merry-go-round (ronde) as a linking set. The stories transition from one another slowly, spending as much time in between as it would take the stage hands to move new set pieces out behind the curtain in a live production. It's an element of the theatre, that live fluidity, that Resnais's film disposes of by linking its stories with a cross-dissolve to falling snow, therefore suggesting a white and icy Paris while managing to show the city itself once--and even that evokes a theatrical trick, some choice lighting and a backdrop.
But here things go in an odd direction: Ophüls, whose film is meant to replicate the feeling of attending a performance, right down to timing, lack the immediacy of seeing something performed. After all, popular theatre (including opera and ballet) derives its power from being immediate--from the fact that the sets are being changed in a room with us, or that the singers or dancers are on an immobile stage, performing for us. Watching someone sing in a movie and seeing them do in real life is not the same thing, and Ophüls circumvents the problem by replacing every theatrical trick with a cinematic one--scenes that rely on the presence of live actors in a play are reinforced by camera movements, long takes that by their very nature seem more impressive than the long take of real life.

2. Resnais, on the other hand, transposes and footnotes. In La Ronde, cinema is substituted for theatre, but in Public Fears in Private Places, theatrical performance is presented in its true form with cinema as a form of commentary. The sets are sets, with some photographed from up above with a transparent ceiling; most are only ever shown from one side, like the bartender's cozy kitchen, framed so as to never show his bed-ridden father yelling from the next room. Even the detail is used theatrically--objects and details are never lingered on (as they would be only specks to a live audience), and on close inspection one realizes that a TV in one of the main sets is not plugged into anything.
For the most part, the film evokes a European television project from the 1960s/1970s in its two-medium-shot set-ups and waist-level camera--it's something that put me off at first, but you have to fight that aesthetic fascism within yourself and see whether it's genuine dislike or simply prejudice. But occasionally a cut or a camera placement radically alters the (theatrical) space, re-describing in ways that can only be done in the aftermath of a live performance. And it's not just the acting that is altered by cinema: by cutting between differently lit versions of the same set, Resnais is able to use lighting both theatrically (as drama) and cinematically (as expression). In one sequence, a warmly lit room becomes a cold and foreboding interior during a minute's worth of difficult conversation; in another, the garish hotel bar, whose purples now seem intertwined with the film in memory, is re-lit with a single spot-light, suddenly showing it as a place no different from any other fashionable bar--not the comforting Technicolor lounge the characters hang around.

The Vague and The Painstaking

A still from Kenneth MacPherson's 1929 film Borderline

Borderline is an action movie. Kenneth MacPherson's only feature takes place in a universe of reactions--in fact, the movie seems overtaken, distracted by them, like someone trying to tell a story all the while following a tennis ball with their eyes, back and forth. The plot is reduced a series of title card interjections, the movements at the heart of it so fetishized, so examined that we no longer recognize what they are: climbing a staircase, opening a door--simple actions become so alien through the emphasis placed on them. It's like looking at the world through binoculars--we identify individual parts, but they become so fascinating that we can no longer grasp the whole. It's a re-examination that would make Francis Ponge proud, one where a new object seems to be created simply by describing an old one. The door knobs and coffee cups in MacPherson's film are not the same as their analogues in our world, all thanks to the miracle of transformation at the heart of cinema's alchemical side.
It's a terrifying world sometimes, too--the sheer interconnectedness the editing suggests, cutting to "reaction shots" of motionless objects, creates a sense of constant consequences. The film's small town is so tangled with the reaction a chair has to someone sitting down on it that we miss the melodramatic story that supposedly forms the film center, with Paul Robeson and his wife as two black outsiders in a community vaguely defined but painstakingly described, more vivid as a set of sensations than a set of buildings and people (a feat considering the small cast and repeated use of recognizable exteriors and interiors). So perhaps it isn't just Ponge that the film evokes, but Kafka as well.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Cinema as a Revue

The Gene Siskel just concluded the first half of Jacqueline Stewart's excellent African American Auteurs series, which focuses on two race film directors (Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams) and two middle-aged, contemporary black directors (Spike Lee and Charles Burnett).
I wrote this down in my notebook after the screening of Spencer Williams' Juke Joint (shown as a double feature with the Dirty Gertie From Harlem, which is probably the best way to see Williams' films):

Juke Joint don't seem to come from a cinematic source--rather, it seems like an attempt to film "performance" and put it on the screen.
You've got to think of all the wide shots as performances--every edit within a set-up, every close-up, is not as much a cut as a digression. The cutaways feel awkward because they are canned inserts into what is essentially documentary (the documentary of how these actors and musicians perform fiction). Scenes with several characters seem jarring because every character is performing their "routine," their vaudeville act, without seemingly any cooperation. The film feels most natural when an "audience" is present--such as the extras in the juke joint scene, who react and laugh at the dialogue.

The film's juke joint sequence, which inspired these notes, is standard race film fare--a few dance teams, a band--the kind of number you find in any Micheaux or Williams film. At the start of the scene, a pair of dancers--Mack and Ace--perform several a lengthy routine. The female dancer has thighs out of an R. Crumb comic. At one point, she does a handstand while the male dancer pretends to mimes the bass part of the backing band on her leg, transforming her body into an upright bass. Suddenly, you can hear some snickering, and realize that there is a live audience behind the camera (Williams' films use one-track sound, so the soundtrack is always either direct, or completely post-synced; more on that later).
After another, less impressive duo performs (with a much shorter routine), the film's featured band, Red Calhoun's Orchestra, begins to play. Extras wander into the shot and dance naturally--the feeling is of total documentary, perhaps even a tad voyeuristic. The microphones have been placed near the band, so we can't hear the dancers talking, but we can see their lips move as they flirt and joke around.
Occasionally, cutaways of the band (possibly the only angled shots in a film full of room-encompassing wide shots and above-the-waist medium framings) are inserted, but they feel like interruptions--not only because they are clearly shot at a different time, but because they seem to break the flow of the "performance." Which is what Juke Joint essentially is--a revue, a set of performances, broad comic acts and beauty pageants. In Juke Joint (and in Dirty Gertie), Williams builds films out of neither the tradition of sound nor image nor narrative nor even acting, but out of the simple idea of watching people "perform"--the idea of a stage rather than a theater, if you will.
The film's strongest scenes therefore all occur towards the end, in the titular juke joint, where the actors, with their clashing talents and acting styles, have a real audience to perform to. Extras turn and laugh to each other in the foreground as Inez Newell attacks Leonard Duncan, playing the part of her philandering, lazy husband. At one point, Katherine Moore, playing the black sheep daughter who wants to run away with the juke joint owner to Chicago, almost swears, but the take is kept (no doubt due to budget constraints). It's almost like everyone is waiting for their number: tap dancer Howard Galloway, who plays the aforementioned juke joint owner, stumbles over dialogue, but in a scene where he has to introduce the band and attract the (real) audience's attention, he shines as only a showman would.

In the more visually dynamic Dirtie Gertie from Harlem, which features many of the same actors (including Spencer Williams himself in drag), it the sound and not the cutaway that creates digressions from the performance. The film's island setting requires effects to be added to the soundtrack (such as the sound of steam ship announcing its arrival), and these drown out all dialogue. The acting in the film is also more traditional, more caricaturish than archetypal. The film also features a dance number, featuring Howard Galloway as one of the lead tap dancers--his routine is fantastic, but the sound has been replaced by a crisper recording of the band, therefore leaving us with the eerie result of a tap number with no clicking-and-clacking sounds.
Dirty Gertie does feature the most astounding single "performance," though: a non-actor, a servant playing a servant, whose single line, "Yes, ma'am," is said in a way that more instinctual and automatic than any actor could ever manage. It takes more than a lifetime to perfect it: it takes generations.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Eugène Atget's Parisian Reflections

The George Eastman House has a large archive of Atget photographs online.

"Street Song," by Cesare Pavese

Why be ashamed? When one has done time,
if they let one out, it's because like everybody else
who belongs to the streets, one has been in prison.

From morning till evening we wander the avenues
whether it's raining or a beautiful sun's showing its face.
It's a joy to meet on the avenues people who talk
and talking among ourselves, bump into girls.
It's a joy to wait and whistle at girls from doorways,
hug them on the streets and take them to movies
and smoking in secret, lean on their beautiful knees.
It's a joy to talk and finger them laughing,
and at night in bed, feeling flung on one's neck
their two arms pulling you down, thinking of morning
when one is released from prison in the fresh sunlight.

From morning till evening wandering drunk
and watching laughing passersby enjoying everybody
—even ugly people—just to feel themselves on the streets.
From morning till evening singing drunkenly
and meeting drunkards and starting discussions
that last a long time and make us thirsty.
All these characters who go talking among themselves,
we want them with us at night, down in the trough,
and to hound them with our guitar
that skips drunkenly and cannot stay confined
but throws the doors wide open to echo in the air—
outside water or stars may rain down. It doesn't matter
if on the avenues at this hour no beautiful girls are strolling:
among us is one who laughs to himself
because he has also been released from prison tonight,
and with him, raising a ruckus and singing, we'll make it to morning.
--translated from Italian by Linh Dinh
(more of Dinh's translations can be found at Milk Magazine)

Monday, March 5, 2007

Two Brief Notes on Neon Bible

the cover art of the Arcade Fire's album Neon Bible
  • I felt ready to write about the new Arcade Fire album a long time ago. Maybe before I'd even heard the whole thing. But I had to wait, not only until after I been listening to it for a month, but until others had listened to it as well. (The) Arcade Fire is a pop band, not in the sense of format or style, but in the sense of scope: their music gains its power and context by finding its way into popular culture in the same way an artwork gains its power from being hung in a gallery--their popularity is in many ways their statement, possibly even their subconscious concept. So listening to it earlier only gave me a preview, as the actual meaning could only be derived once I'd talked to other people who'd listened to the album: their popularity with a certain sub-set makes the release a small cultural event, and the event cannot be understood until it transpires. Until then it can only be predicted.
  • It didn't seem like much at first: in fact, Neon Bible is a bit of letdown on the first listen. But the horns at the end of "Windowsill" stick in the back of the mind stronger than the disco strings of "Crown of Love" or even the first appearance of Regine Chassagne's voice in "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)" ever could. It's a harder album to approach because it's more earnest, more heavy-handed, but these weaknesses also make it more endearing.