Thursday, December 31, 2009

Study No. 9: The Anti-Abolitionist Riots in the 1830's and 1840's

Often we or I or you find ourselves (or self) writing or talking about movies in terms of music. But once we've done that, we can go the other way around -- because when we can talk about, say, directing in terms of composition or performance, then we can talk about composition or performance in terms of directing. If we can think of the musical aspects of an image, then we can think about the image-like qualities of music.

Recent Failures

From an unfinished review of The Hurt Locker for The Auteurs' Notebook, June:

The Hurt Locker is a good suspense movie. 50 years ago, it would've been set in backlot Morocco, and we would've had fezzes, hookah smoke, misunderstandings, marketplaces. Now it's built-on-location Iraq (built, in this case, in Jordan), and we have the dusty browns and greens, the grim stares, the menacing locals, the distant minarets. There's even a chase down an alley. Some good shots, very cleverly done: the sapper engulfed in smoke as he slowly falls; the man who, pulling on a wire, discovers that he is surrounded by explosives that had been hidden beneath a thin layer of sand; two soldiers imagining, in grisly detail, their comrade's death as he goes to retrieve his gloves from the site of a controlled explosion; the rifle that jams because the bullets are covered in blood; a fly landing on a sniper's unblinking eye; a spent cartridge tumbling to the ground, the slow motion giving it a deathly weight. But what else?

Well, a good-natured jackass (Jeremy Renner) comes to lead a three-man bomb squad after the death of his predecessor (Guy Pearce, homoncular as ever). He's one of director Kathryn Bigelow's beloved hotheads, and of course there's a cool ex-intelligence officer (Anthony Mackie) to oppose him. It's all "apolitical," which is a nice way of saying that it's the same old "look at how Our Boys are suffering" nonesense, the same final shot -- walking towards the camera to some generic hard rock -- as every military recruitment video. Between that set-up and that ending, The Hurt Locker has neither sympathy nor empathy -- just psychology. A little case study made with those hand-held Super 16mm cameras familiar to anyone who's seen an American film about Iraq (we no longer even need to preface that word with "the war in;" in America, the only Iraq that exists is the one where bombs go off on the roadside). There are those images that flutter, as if trying to get away from the Big Issue: war.

Some Images, 2000 - 2009

Ablinger's Echoes

Listing (cont'd)

US Theatrical Releases, 2008:

1. In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerín)
2. Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood)
3. Boarding Gate (Olivier Assayas)
4. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
5. Don't Touch the Axe (Jacques Rivette)
6. Romance of Astree and Celadon (Eric Rohmer)
7. The Last Mistress (Catherine Breillat)
8. JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri)
9. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh)
10. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu) / Hunger (Steve McQueen)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

This is Birth's notorious image -- Nicole Kidman in a bathtub with a little boy, her bony back to the camera, half of her face turned away from us. What's it about the body that makes a person seem more naked when their eyes are turned away? Maybe because when they face us, they're exposing -- there's some complicitness here, and the body is still theirs. When they're not fully unaware of our eyes, we feel more like we're peeking, sneaking a glance. Even on standard-definition video, the grain of the image is noticeable. It's as though the film stock is getting goosebumps. "Like pins and needles," you think. You almost want to run my hand over the screen and see if you feel a pinprick.

Presented with this image, there's, of course, the first question: "How did this happen?" The set-up is simple: a woman meets a boy who claims to be the reincarnation of her dead husband. There are two conceits integral to Jean-Claude Carriere's scenario: the boy is not her husband, just a boy, and Kidman isn't crazy. If her reaction came out of madness or desperation, Birth would be a largely psychological film; the implications of her sanity is that the film is in fact sociological. It becomes as obvious to the boy's working class parents that he's a liar as it does to Kidman's upper-class circle that they are having a semi-mystical experience. To the setting -- Claude Chabrol in milky colors -- we can add the movie's final image, a moment of resignation like the one at the end of This Man Must Die. A newly married couple, Kidman and her fiancee from the beginning of the film, walk away from the camera along the beach, and all I can think of is the boat alone in the rippling ocean at the end of Chabrol film.

Against Imagination

Terry Gilliam has always been too sincere to be a Surrealist and his willingness to depict the fantastic, sometimes in excruciating detail, is proof of his disinterest in it as a phenomenon. Like Verhoeven, he's got no qualms about showing the monster. The monster's existence is always certain. The viewers, no longer burdened with imagination, with looking a crooked shadows, are forced instead to feel. That is, Gilliam is a filmmaker who uses his imagination as a weapon: a bomb that obliterates our capacity to imagine, replacing whatever we might have thought up with his own detailed special effects, more meticulously photographed than Michael Bay's. Gilliam's point: "There are things more important than fantasy."

Which brings us again to Verhoeven, who, always and without shame, gives us the violence, the sex, the disgusting monsters. With his detailed "bugs" in Starship Troopers, Verhoeven guarantees that the movie isn't about them -- the question of the aliens and what they're like is no longer something that the audience has to think about very much. We are goaded into thinking about the humans instead, who are much more ambiguous. The lurid sex of Katie Tippel de-eroticizes her struggle.

Similarly, the careful realization of Sam Lowry's fantasies in Brazil is proof that it isn't a film about imagination, but cold, harsh reality. This is also the essence of Gilliam's sad Munchhausen.

Revision 1 / An Observation

How'd I forget about it? A cinephile's memory is always bad. We remember so much, but never enough. In turn, for what's remembered, a sacrifice has gotta be made

1. We Own the Night (James Gray)
2. In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerín)
3. Go Go Tales (Abel Ferrara)
4. The Witnesses (Andre Techine)
5. Boarding Gate (Olivier Assayas)
6. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
7. The Last Mistress (Catherine Breillat)
8. Zodiac (David Fincher)
9. The Duchess of Langeias (Jacques Rivette)
10. Mad Detective (Johnnie To) / The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson)

[revision of this list]


In 2007, we all listened to "Heart of Glass."

Friday, December 25, 2009

Image of the Sound

[page of the score to Jenůfa]

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Red Pallets

One of the most beautiful colors I've seen in any movie made in the last few years is the red of the pallets in Dernier Maquis. It isn't a deep red, but a brilliant crabshell color, one that looks equally good in bright sunlight and under electric lights. The stacks of pallets form winding red mazes for the characters to make their way through and ersatz backdrops for the action of Ameur-Zaïmeche's little drama. Men lift them, lean against them, sit on them. In their ordinariness, they're better than any stage.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Year of Madness

2007 was a sleazy year, a year when screens were full of ugly nightclub colors and Asia Argento's (and Eva Mendes') thighs and shoulders. A year full of self-important films and important films that we didn't want to see. A year of madness, a year when we could make idiots of ourselves, a year of magnificent obsessions, films that'd make you seem half-crazy when you tried to describe them to your friends. A year of blinding darkness punctuated with little respites of gentle daylight courtesy of Hou and Anderson. The daylight was good, it set us right, but the dark, the murk, the confusion was better. Andre Techine struck a balance with his twilight, but I still prefer Gray or Ferrara's neon to his fading sunset. As beautiful as an evening shadow is passing over a young man's face, I prefer the stark and dark hallways of those imagined New Yorks -- one constructed in Cinecitta, as artificial and nightmarishly nostalgic as the city of Eyes Wide Shut, the other doubling for its past self with minimal set dressing.

Nylon stockings, sunglasses, mirrored ceilings and booming bass. It was Asia Argento's year. She's even better at making images than her father -- he has to try, set up lights, pick lenses, while she just contorts her body to fit any frame. She is the model who controls the picture. So 2007 mostly happened in Nighttown. You could smell the spilled beer and cigarette smoke in the images, pick up traces of sweat and cologne in the parks where The Witnesses would go cruising. Almost everyone worth watching was made up like a whore or carried himself like a hustler.

1. We Own the Night (James Gray)
2. Go Go Tales (Abel Ferrara)
3. The Witnesses (Andre Techine)
4. Boarding Gate (Olivier Assayas)
5. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
6. The Last Mistress (Catherine Breillat)
7. Zodiac (David Fincher)
8. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg)
9. The Duchess of Langeias (Jacques Rivette)
10. Mad Detective (Johnnie To) / The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Dreyer & Griffith

The Bride of Glomdal could've been a D.W. Griffith film -- but, then again, Dreyer and Griffith were often attracted to the same subject matter anyway. You get this sense that, had Joan of Arc been a man, D.W. Griffith would've made a film about her. She's a Griffithian character, but not a Griffithian woman.

Both men adapted Marie Corelli's novel The Sorrows of Satan (Griffith under its original title, Dreyer as Leaves from Satan's Book), and Griffith could've directed Master of the House or Day of Wrath (as a silent with a happy ending), just as Dreyer could've directed Abraham Lincoln or True Heart Susie (as a sound film that doesn't end happily). Dreyer's late films, with the physicality, the weight, the concreteness they give each synchronized-sound take, sometimes feel like descendants of Griffith's two talkies, films whose technique is so singular than they can only be described in terms and through references that would've appear until decades later. You can't compare them to Josef von Sternberg or Rouben Mamoulian, but to Straub & Huillet or John Cassavetes, much the same way as one has to go past Dreyer to find a reference point for describing Ordet or Gertrud. (The same is true of Pal Fejos -- just as good as Murnau or Vidor, but completely unlike them. Fassbinder, Tati, Rouch and Jia seem like better reference points).

Playing Nosferatu

Il Divo's not much of a movie -- a good lazy afternoon watch if you catch it on TV, though it'll probably never play on TV in this country. Politics, as Guy Ritchie would describe them to you. It's worth it, though, for Toni Servillo, who plays Giulio Andreotti as a cross between Max Schreck's Nosferatu and one of Richard Barthelmess' Chinamen. Hunchbacked and heartbroken, but also eternally calm like one of Barthelmess' cyphers, who were too Expressionist to be ethnic caricatures -- to be accused of that, they'd have to seem like human beings first. Servillo neither humanizes nor villifies Andreotti -- instead, he finds, within the likeness of a public figure, a strange creature, someone who casually walked in from some netherworld into ours and simply hasn't found the time to leave.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

from China Gate