Archive for August, 2009

Quotes of quotes of quotes of quotes, 8/31

August 31, 2009

Just a quick one on this, the final day of our beloved month of August. I’m taking a class on Soviet Cinema this semester, and suffice it to say, I’m very excited about it. I’ve always fallen into the minority camp when it comes to the most famous Soviet director of all-time, Sergei Eisenstein: I love his films, sure, but I love his theoretical writings even more. Of course, what makes this position so peculiar is the fact that many seem to find his writings stylistically opaque if not intellectually incoherent. Personally, I’ve always found Eisenstein’s writings to be kind of awkwardly composed but philosophically potent as all-get-out. Indeed, any critic or scholar who has tried to come to grips with what a film is and what a film does is indebted to Eisenstein’s theoretical work; that his ideas have seamlessly carried over into other fields, like architectural theory, is a testament to the conceptual effectiveness of Eisenstein’s philosophy of montage.

sergei-eisenstein-editing-film-october

image

But I’d like to see more attention devoted to the philosophical affinities between Eisenstein’s theory/practice and that of another director who articulated his own vision for what cinema was and what a film ought to be: Robert Bresson. Today’s Quotes of quotes of… will be dedicated to demonstrating just how similar these two thinkers/artists really were, at least when it came to expressing how they conceived of cinema. All of the Bresson quotes are taken from his book Notes sur le Cinématographe (English: Notes on the Cinematographer), while the Eisenstein quotes (you guessed it, in red) can be found in various essays from Film Form: Essays in Film Theory.

The film-frame can never be an inflexible letter of the alphabet, but must always remain a multiple-meaning ideogram. And it can be read only in juxtaposition, just as an ideogram acquires its specific significance, meaning, and even pronunciation (occasionally in diametric opposition to one another) only when combined with a separably indicated reading or tiny meaning–an indicator for the exact reading—placed alongside the basic hieroglyph.

(Eisenstein, “The Filmic Fourth Dimension”)

An image must be transformed by contact with other images as is a color by contact with other colors. A blue is not the same blue beside a green, a yellow, a red. No art without transformation.

Cinematographer’s film where the images, like the words in the dictionary, have no power and value except through their position and relation.

(Bresson)

And yet we cannot reduce aural and visual perceptions to a common denominator. They are values of different dimensions. But the visual overtone and the sound overtone are values of a singly measured substance. Because, if the frame is a visual perception, and the tone is an aural perception, visual as well as aural overtones are a totally physiological sensation. And, consequently, they are of one and the same kind, outside the sound or aural categories that serve as guides, conductors to its achievement.

For the musical overtone (a throb) it is not strictly fitting to say: ‘I hear.’

Nor for the visual overtone: ‘I see.’

For both, a new uniform formula must enter our vocabulary: ‘I feel.’

(Eisenstein, “The Filmic Fourth Dimension”)

If an image, looked at by itself, expresses something sharply, if it involves an interpretation, it will not be transformed on contact with other images. The other images have no power over it, and it will have no power over the other images. Neither action, nor reaction. It is definitive and unusable in the cinematographer’s system. (A system does not regulate everything. It is a bait for something.)

(Bresson)

Now why should the cinema follow the forms of theater and painting rather than the methodology of language, which allows wholly new concepts of ideas to arise from the combination of two concrete objects? Language is much closer to film than painting is. For example, in painting the form arises from abstract elements of line and color, while in cinema the material concreteness of the image within the frame presents-as an element-the greatest difficulty in manipulation. So why not lean towards the system of language, which is forced to use the same mechanics in inventing words and word-complexes?

(Eisenstein, “A Dialectical Approach to Film Form”)

Because you do not have to imitate, like painters, sculptors, novelists, the appearance of persons and objects (machines do that for you), your creation or invention confines itself to the ties you knot between the various bits of reality caught. There is also the choice of the bits. Your flair decides.

(Bresson)

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Essential rental: ‘Jeanne Dielman…’

August 31, 2009

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Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) is widely regarded as one of the all-time greatest cinematic challenges. The film is, in part, an interrogation of cinema as a medium, and the intensity and rigor of that interrogation is unmatched except perhaps in the films of those other masterful analytic provocateurs: Bresson, Warhol, Varda, Straub-Huillet, Godard, Snow, von Trier, etc.

But all of this has already been well-established. What really sets Jeanne Dielman… apart, at least for me, is the experience that the film unleashes upon its viewer: 201 unflinching minutes of pure investigation, yielding an almost effortless dissection of domestic automation, the discreet hegemony of gender roles and daily rituals, and the physical act of shooting a film. There’s nothing quite like Jeanne Dielman…: it’s the least boring 3+ hours of nearly dialogue-free cinema you’ll ever see.

The Criterion Collection’s new DVD release of the film is obviously exceptional. Four Star Video Heaven is now carrying the two-disc set, and having rented it just the other day, I feel compelled to recommend it very, very highly. The set also contains Akerman’s No-Wave-y cinematic finger-painting (and directorial debut) Saute ma ville (1968), which is something of a must-see in its own right.

As far as background literature on Jeanne Dielman… is concerned, there’s a very helpful essay on Criterion’s website by Akerman scholar Ivone Margulies (whose book, Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday, sounds like a must-read). Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson’s collaborative analysis of the film, a short piece entitled “Kitchen Without Kitsch” (which can be found in the Farber collection Negative Space), is also worthy of a look. But the authoritative breakdown of the film is an extremely comprehensive paper written by UW-Madison professor Ben Singer, entitled “Jeanne Dielman…: Cinematic Interrogation and ‘Amplification'”, which can be found in the Winter 1989/Spring 1990 issue of Millenium Film Journal; a volume of Millenium Film Journals from 1989 is available at Memorial Library, so check it out.

You may find the prospect of a 201-minute time commitment more than slightly repellent, but trust me: You’ll never feel the same way about cinema, or about your apartment.

Today’s assignment: ‘Wavelength’

August 31, 2009

Breaking News: Class begins on Wednesday for most folks here at UW-Madison. Upsetting, I know. The idea of being assigned anything strikes me, at the moment, as an entirely alien concept. What better way is there of once more becoming accustomed to the feeling of having something assigned to you than by having something assigned to you? With that in mind, class, here’s your assignment (and yes, there’s going to be a quiz): Watch this wonderfully crackly, slightly pixelated version of Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967), one of the most hypnotic and revelatory films ever made. Wavelength will test your attention span (obviously beneficial with all those power lectures just around the corner); it’ll calibrate your sensitivity to the sheer there-ness of space and time (never a bad thing); it’ll rouse your curiosity in unexpected ways, driving you actively to seek out banal micro-mysteries and larger-scale investigations whenever such things present themselves to you (or at least I think it’ll do this, but I’m not 100% certain).

With the recent proliferation of Flip/Kodak iPod-sized camcorders, might we see a resurgence of so-called “structuralist”-style filmmaking? (I hate that application of the word “structuralist,” by the way. If anything, what Snow and Co. were engaged in was a materialist cinema or, to borrow and mutate the language of David Bordwell and Noel Burch, a parametric-interrogatory cinema; but I digress.)

Meet Me in Rochefort

August 28, 2009
 
or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Appreciate Musicals
 
Well, sort of.

meet_me_in

In anticipation of the first screening of the Cinematheque’s Fall season, Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), I figured I ought to warm myself up to the cinematic genre with which I share the sourest of relationships: the musical.

I’ve never had much patience for musicals; I’ve always found them grating and/or ridiculous. I admit that this position is kind of fundamentally snobby, but I can’t help it: whenever I watch a musical, I find myself counting seconds and thinking about other things. Maybe I’m too generally pessimistic to see the appeal of films in which characters break into song at the drop of a dime and dance through the streets as if any situation would be considerably improved by putting on a grand ol’ show. Singin’ in the Rain annoys me, though by no fault of Gene Kelly’s.

But close-minded I am not, and so I’ve always been in the habit of subjecting myself to musicals on the off-chance that I’ll see one which really wins me over. I took the same approach with westerns, which I’d grown up thinking were racist and comically ahistorical; now I count two westerns (Anthony Mann’s Man of the West and Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo) among my absolute favorite films.

If anyone finds themselves struggling with a similar predisposition, the remedy just may be the work of Jacques Demy. Until recently I’d always thought of Demy as Agnès Varda’s deceased husband and little more, but this summer I took the time to see his three most well-known films: Lola (1960), Les parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) and Les demoiselles de Rochefort (1967). Viewing this de facto trilogy in chronological succession, I found myself easing into the rhythms and mentality of musical appreciation.

demoiselles_de_rochefort

Les demoiselles de Rochefort, which I saw for the first time last night (and is available at, you’d never believe it, Four Star Video Heaven), is relentlessly cheery, optimistic as all-get-out, overloaded with pep and marked by some of the most overdetermined choreography I’ve ever seen on the screen. The transition from spoken dialogue to singing is rendered nearly imperceptible, and the film’s overall flamboyance is more endearing than ridiculous. Any absurdity seems self-conscious and too deliberate to take issue with. At 125 minutes in length, Les demoiselles is certainly on the epic side, but it breaks down nicely into more digestible chunks thanks to the ‘pause’ button. I’ve got two or three songs from the film stuck on repeat in my mind as I’m writing this. And the color design is, as anyone who has seen the film could tell you, otherworldly in every sense of the word. Having seen and appreciated this film, I’m definitely more inclined to give musicals a try than I was only a few months ago.
 
The point is that even I can be won over by one of the genres I loathe most. If you’re on the fence about coming out to see Meet Me in St. Louis (which obviously has a great deal in common with Les demoiselles de Rochefort), seriously consider watching some Jacques Demy this week. If you do, I’m pretty certain that I’ll be seeing you at the Cinematheque a week from tonight.

The architecture of basketball

August 28, 2009

This isn’t exactly local or explicitly arts-related, but here’s a link to a fascinating post by ESPN NBA blogger Kevin Arnovitz on a subject which marries two of my pet interests/passions, architecture and pro basketball: the efforts to preserve Madison Square Garden.

A more meaningful pursuit?

August 28, 2009

In awarding this blog a measure of sincerely appreciated praise, Kyle Szarzynski of Forward Thinking in Madison and the Daily Cardinal articulates a thesis which he’s proposed to me in the past but which I’ve never quite known how to respond to: Art (and by extension, art criticism and art theory) is a more meaningful pursuit than politics.

I understand and sympathize with Kyle’s position: Politics is a loser’s game in the sense that, depending on how pronounced one’s personal messianism is, one must endure ten defeats for every victory, and often those victories prove only to be defeats in disguise. In politics we encounter figures who strike us as being real live villains, while in art we can breath a sigh of relief upon realizing that Mephistopheles or Jason Compson or Maldoror or whoever are beings confined to the world of fiction and can’t literally ruin your life.

But I disagree with Kyle on the matter of whether one domain, art or politics, is more meaningful than the other. In fact, I don’t think the two domains are any more segregated than are nature and culture, society and the individual, psychology and technology, and so on. Both art and politics are systems of theories and practices which change the world by filling it with objects, whether those objects be works of art, laws, ideologies, etc. Moreover, an artistic gesture seldom has as immediate and decisive an effect as does a political act, while a political act is seldom as rich with significance and metaphysical profundity as is an artistic gesture.

Rather than asserting the superiority of one pursuit over the other, perhaps it’s more constructive to stress the differences and similarities between the two in a non-hierarchical manner. Reality wouldn’t be what it is without either of them, and one wouldn’t be as effective without the existence of the other (the Republican congressional resurgence of the mid-1990s needed the transgressions of modern art in order to ignite the culture wars; French cinema of the late 1960s and early 1970s needed the psychological and political scars of May ’68 in order to develop its disillusioned sensibility; etc.).

So rather than championing art at the expense of politics or politics at the expense of art, what we really need is for local artists, art critics, political activists and political commentators alike to carry out a more rigorous, intensive fusion of art and politics. We have no shortage of grassroots political organizing here in Madison, but rarely do we see any of these movements recruiting and mobilizing local artists or critics to help transmit their message; likewise, if local artists are concerned with politics, it’s often with vague national and/or global matters, like ecological negligence or racial and sexual intolerance. In Madison we have an art scene and a politics scene, but not a politics-savvy arts scene or an art-savvy politics scene; this division is ridiculous given that, as I said before, art and politics are by no means isolated worlds: they are equally important elements of this world, equally significant pieces of a single puzzle.

I tend to agree with Serge Daney when he says that all films are militant films of a sort, that is to say, all art is agit-prop, and likewise, all politics is founded partly upon a clash of sensibilities, a conflict of aesthetics manifested through the conflict of ideals.

These thoughts are vague and melodramatic as hell, I realize; but in a sense, they must be.

Now playing at Sundance Cinemas: ‘Summer Hours’

August 28, 2009

So, it looks as though it’s actually possible for one of the year’s best-regarded contemporary European films to play in Madison: Olivier Assayas’s latest, L’heure d’été (Summer Hours) opens today at the Sundance Cinemas on N. Midvale. While I can’t recommend it with any sort of immediacy to those of you who haven’t yet seen the cinematic elephant in the room (begins with an I, ends with a Basterds), I will say that it’s well-composed, extremely agreeable and at times genuinely touching. Summer Hours is by no means a manifestation of the Kino-Fist, nor is it a descendant/zombie of cinematic modernism; its intentions are straightforward and its swagger suggests a cinema before alienation techniques and deconstructive gestures (not that such a cinema ever truly existed, but it’s nice to think so, isn’t it?).

One of my roommates said something about fictional cinema the other day that I found very interesting. I was explaining (poorly) the self-effacing, non-narrative approach to storytelling taken by Alains Resnais and Robbe-Grillet in Last Year at Marienbad (which will be playing at the Cinematheque on December 11th), and he mentioned that he tends to disregard plot for the most part, instead devoting his attention to the way that a film develops its characters. Now, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, strictly speaking, character development and plot development are two faces of the same beast; but his statement made me wonder whether there are films which subordinate narrative progression in favor of constructing a more complete portrait of the characters who endure the chain of events that constitutes the plot.

If ever there were such a film, it’s Summer Hours, whose dramatic ambitions are overly familiar, slightly melodramatic and more than a little bit predictable. Yet, these qualities don’t diminish the film’s effectiveness: instead, I came to know the film’s trio of protagonists all too well, to the point that when the film concluded in the best long take I’ve seen all year, I felt sort of like I’d been forced to part ways with some old friends without being able to say “adios” to them properly. The psychology of Summer Hours isn’t concerned with the perverse, the fetishistic, the neurotic or the hysteric; instead, the film attempts, rather metaphysically, to assemble a precise  image of restrained mourning, of modest disappointment, of losing something that had always been there. The concluding long take expresses it better than I can: You can’t go home again because there’s always a next generation to whom Home truly belongs and everyone else is comfortably lost.

Meeting V.M.

August 27, 2009

A week from tomorrow (September 4th) the Cinematheque will kick off its nine-film Vincente Minnelli retrospective with his iconic Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), starring Judy Garland, which the great James Agee once described as “a musical that even the deaf should enjoy.” Minnelli is an undisputed giant of classical Hollywood, a status which he self-consciously interrogated in his outstanding industry micro-epic The Bad and the Beautiful (1952; playing at the Cinematheque on September 26th). Here, via the invaluable online film journal Senses of Cinema, is a relatively comprehensive profile of Minnelli, loaded with biographical and textual detail.

As far as Meet Me in St. Louis is concerned, I’m going to defer to Agee once again:

Technicolor has seldom been more affectionately used than in its registrations of the sober mahoganies and tender muslins and benign gaslights of the period. […] To the degree that this exciting little episode fails, it is because the Halloween setup, like the film as a whole, is too sumptuously, calculatedly handsome to be quite mistakable for the truth.

In the above quote we get shades of Andrew Sarris’s claim, made many years afterward, that Minnelli, an alleged auteur, “believes more in beauty than in art.” More to come.

Quotes of quotes of quotes of quotes, 8/26

August 26, 2009

Alright comrades, I realize that Quotes of quotes of… has been pretty theory-heavy these past few days; moreover, I recognize that a substantial portion of my readership (I’m [irrationally] presuming that such a thing exists) doesn’t have much of a taste for theory, which is an acquired taste to say the least. With that in mind, I’ll spare y’all the Martin Heidegger quote I had lined up for today and instead post some quotes which actually live up to the Quotes of quotes of… moniker (by this I simply mean that I’ve been posting regular quotes rather than quotes-of-quotes).

In the past I’ve cited Walter Benjamin and Jean-Luc Godard as being masters of quotation; today I present to you a real mistress of quotation, Sonic Youth (and Free Kitten) singer/guitarist Kim Gordon. Gordon’s lyrics have consistently employed quotation, appropriating and juxtaposing bits from cultural sources as disparate as Alfred Hitchcock and Madonna. The results of this technique are works of art that are both scattered and erudite. Sonic Youth’s discography could hypothetically serve as a strange yet insightful textbook on the recent history of art. OK, maybe I’m reaching here. Take it away, Kim:

1.

The drama of my consciousness is that, having lost the world, I try to recover myself, but in this moment, I am lost. It’s always blood, fear, politics and money… I don’t know how to stop vomiting since I’ve been working in office.

(“The Ineffable Me” by Sonic Youth, from A Thousand Leaves; originally uttered by Paula Nelson [Anna Karina] in Godard’s Made in U.S.A. [1966])

2.

Going back to these origins. The city is a natural scape. Order in the details. Confusion uproar in the whole. In nature, reality is selection, the tool of critical intervention. Fragmentation is the rule. Unity is not taught in school. You are an unnatural growth on a funny sunny street. The city has forgotten you, its symbols of the past, the meaning of its state, its order of decay. Stand now in a column and make the nature scene… There is no resistance to the signs along the way.

(“Making the Nature Scene” by Sonic Youth, from Confusion is Sex; originally written by 18th-century Italian artist/architectural theorist Giovanni Battista Piranesi)

3.

Beauty lies in the eyes of another’s dreams. Beauty lies lost in another’s dream.

(“Beauty Lies in the Eye” by Sonic Youth, from Sister)

P.S. For your enjoyment: A kind of weird cover of Sonic Youth’s “Shadow of a Doubt” (from EVOL), courtesy of the FADER (are the caps really necessary?)

Something else hath arriveth!

August 26, 2009

The wait, once again, is over: the UW Cinematheque has announced its schedule for the Fall 2009 season. I honestly don’t where to begin in breaking down the various programs, but as a visit to the Cinematheque’s website quickly reveals, the schedule is absolutely loaded. We’ll be getting retrospectives devoted to the directors Vincente Minelli (nine of his most well-known films), Alain Resnais (including his collaborations with Chris Marker AND what I believe is the newly restored print of L’année dernière à Marienbad [!]) and Grigori Alexandrov (a major “whoa” for those of us who are severely interested in Soviet cinema); a thematic series about border politics (including Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three and Chantal Akerman’s De l’autre côté [!]); Luis Buñuel’s The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz on my birthday; and these are just the films which immediately jump out at me. Stay tuned for more analysis of the schedule when I have time to digest it and research the films themselves. But let there be no doubt: We lucked out in a big way. This schedule looks outstanding.