Friday, February 26, 2010

Each one serves on her own fashion...


I'm not a big fan of Maya Deren as a film-maker, but this quote from her Author's Preface to Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti is very inspiring. It can also be taken as a comment on the avant-garde cinema movement she pioneered:
"At the time of my first trip to Haiti there was virtually no precedent for the filming of ceremonies; photographing them was altogether a delicate undertaking, for many reasons. When the time came, I broached the subject to a Voudoun priest whose ceremonies I had attended and who had come to know me well. I spoke to him of my desire to capture the beauty and the significance of the ceremonies, so that the rest of the world might become aware. He understood virtually nothing of cinema and I was uncertain of his reaction, since his own standing in the community could be jeopardized by such a permission. Besides, in his culture, the artist as a singular individual did not exist. Could he possibly understand and sympathize with my motivations? He hesitated but a moment. Then, offering his hand as one would a colleague or collaborator, he said: 'Each one serves in his own fashion.' "

The idea of the artist as an intermediary between nature/spirituality and his/her own community (certainly not limited to avant-garde film) fits very well with the approaches of Stan Brakhage and Sidney Peterson, among many others.

The thanks goes to David Baker for posting the above paragraph on Frameworks. The image is from EM Arts's page about Maya Deren's documentary.

Labels:

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Jacques Rivette's "La Bande des quatre" (1988)


Not only a "double inconstance" ("double inconsistency") but infinite of them. "Il y a des choses derrière les choses" ("There are things behind things") in Jacques Rivette's La Bande des Quatre (English title: Gang of Four).


Consciously and wisely artificial, the line between acting and reality is never even drawn. There are no clear meanings, not a theme you can put your finger on, but a simple question such as "Coffee?" has such infinite weight that it can easily bring tears, tears coming from somewhere I didn't even know existed.


There is a sense of magic, of something supernatural, even though what we see is very realistic and rational... Is art, or existence itself, a sorcery?


Just as in theatre, in cinema, or in life, it's impossible to know where the truth, or the beauty, lies. But in La Bande des quatre the answer is given by Constance (first in original French, then my English translation):
"La démolition. C'est avec ça que vous avez à faire. Tout le temps. La démolition et le doute... C'est avec ça que vous devez construire, créer, inventer..."

"Demolition. That's what you have to do with. All the time. Demolition and doubt... It's with these that you have to build, create, invent..."


In Rivette's case, what results is a free cinema, liberating the mind, and the eyes, forcing the viewer (the participant) to understand a new way of composing the world, a whole new restructuring...


La Bande des quatre might easily be the most wonderfully acted film I've ever seen, each actress (or actor) constantly creating wonders, certainly helped by Rivette's free mind.

Labels: ,

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Some pictures of (and Tag Gallagher on) John Ford


Here is how Tag Gallagher begins his book on John Ford:
"John Ford's career — from 1914 to 1970 — spanned almost the entire history of the motion picture industry, and for most of that time he was recognized as America's finest moviemaker. His movies told good stories, had vivid characters, provoked thought, kindled down-home charms; and his own personality was apparent in them. His compositional eloquence made dialogue virtually unnecessary — scarcely for dearth of scripted richness, but because literary structure was only a single aspect of the intricate formal beauty and intelligence of his cinema.

It is this immense intelligence that critics have largely ignored. Ford's apologists laud his instincts and emotions, as though he were an artist unconsciously, unintentionally. His detractors decry his sentiment and slapstick, label him racist, militarist and reactionary, ignoring the subtleties between extremes, the double leveled discourses, the oeuvre’s obsessive plea for tolerance."

The images are from "home movies" on the DVD of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

Labels: ,

Thursday, December 31, 2009

50 greatest films & videos of the 2000's

frame enlargements from Robert Breer's What Goes Up

Here is my favorite 50 films made between 2000-2010.

One film per film-maker. In a very arbitrary order of preference:

  1. What Goes Up (2003) - Robert Breer
  2. Three Times (2005) - Hou Hsiao-hsien
  3. The God of Day Had Gone Down Upon Him (2000) - Stan Brakhage
  4. Un Lac (2009) - Philippe Grandrieux
  5. As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000) - Jonas Mekas
  6. Poetry and Truth (2003) - Peter Kubelka
  7. Glider (2001) - Ernie Gehr
  8. Corpus Callosum (2002) - Michael Snow
  9. Miami Vice (2006) - Michael Mann
  10. Worldly Desires (2005) - Apichatpong Weerasethakul
  11. 'R Xmas (2001) - Abel Ferrara
  12. Yi Yi (2000) - Edward Yang
  13. Chats perchés (2004) - Chris Marker
  14. Ten Videos: 3 (2006) - Kyle Canterbury
  15. Le silence de Lorna (2008) - Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
  16. Va savoir (2001) - Jacques Rivette
  17. The Decay of Fiction (2002) - Pat O'Neill
  18. The Legend of Nile (2009) - Eytan Ipeker
  19. L'arrotino (2001) - Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub
  20. Two Lovers (2008) - James Gray
  21. Sobibór, 14 octobre 1943, 16 heures (2001) - Claude Lanzmann
  22. Kedma (2002) - Amos Gitai
  23. A Talking Picture (2003) - Manoel de Oliveira
  24. Süt (2008) - Semih Kaplanoğlu
  25. İklimler (2006) - Nuri Bilge Ceylan
  26. Le Temps Qui Reste (2005) - François Ozon
  27. Still Life (2006) - Jia Zhang Ke
  28. Zodiac (2007) - David Fincher
  29. 30 Days of Night (2007) - David Slade
  30. Grizzly Man (2005) - Werner Herzog
  31. Ohio Postcard (2009) - Ekrem Serdar
  32. The Host (2006) - Bong Joon-ho
  33. Lachrymae (2000) - Brian Frye
  34. Eureka (2000) - Shinji Aoyama
  35. Breaking News (2004) - Johnnie To
  36. Vicdan (2008) - Erden Kıral
  37. Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (2001) - Pedro Costa
  38. Songs from the Second Floor (2000) - Roy Andersson
  39. EVO (2002) - Oliver Hockenhull
  40. La fille coupée en deux (2007) - Claude Chabrol
  41. Ten (2002) - Abbas Kiarostami
  42. The New World (2005) - Terrence Malick
  43. The Edge of Love (2008) - John Maybury
  44. Engulfment (3) (2009) - Adam Rokhsar
  45. Russian Ark (2002) - Alexander Sokurov
  46. I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (2006) - Tsai Ming-liang
  47. La frontière de l'aube (2008) - Philippe Garrel
  48. Tatil Kitabı (2008) - Seyfi Teoman
  49. Buffalo Postcard (for Ekrem) (2009) - Can Eskinazi
  50. Orchard (2004) - Julie Murray

Labels: , , , , ,

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Hou Hsiao-hsien's "The Green, Green Grass of Home" (1983)



The Green, Green Grass of Home is Hou's third feature and his cinema is already sublime.

A story that oscillates between love and hopelessness, it tells lots of unrelated things in the life of a school teacher in a remote village. At first look there is no narrative in a usual sense, like many other great Hou films, but somehow every scene follows the previous one organically, gradually building up an expanding view of life, and culminating in an odd to nature, to empathy, and to the human symbiosis with other living beings around. The clearly symbolic shots of humans releasing fish back to the river (as opposed to killing them by electricity) are near climactic, while the film ends with the shots of a train running, a departure, open-ended...

If there is one film whose politics I agree with wholeheartedly, it is this one.





Compared to Hou's later masterpieces, The Green, Green Grass of Home is a lesser work for sure. Hou doesn't seem as free with his camera (not much play with focus, for example) and the plot isn't as ambiguous, as "narrativeless", as his best work.

Labels:

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Fred Camper on Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Millennium Mambo"

I saw Hou Hsiao-hsien's sublime Millenium Mambo a couple of times recently. I'm trying to write a post about it but meanwhile please read Fred Camper's very inspiring a_film_by post about the film. With some comments below.



Thanks to Doc Film at the University of Chicago for showing Hou Hsiao-Hsien's great great "Millennium Mambo."

Something I have been reminded of in recent years, in part through my former participation in the group a_film_by, is the extent to which many or most auteurists, rather than being open to any possible use of cinema, and any possible worldview, in fact adhere to a particular brand of humanism. A film is respected for preserving some Bazinian sense of "reality," and for reflecting warmth and "generosity" toward its characters. A film that appears, even superficially, to regard its characters with some degree of dislike or contempt is somehow judged inferior. What many auteurists look for is warm, wonderful, human dramas in which an interesting and engaging story is enhanced by fine acting and sensitive direction. This is a particular view of the value of human beings and human emotions, one that I don't even necessarily agree with. Nor do I think of empathetic (or, one might say, "escapist") involvement with characters and stories is necessarily in and of itself a good thing.

I have always been opposed to the imposition of any particular bias or taste on cinema. What makes a film great is not whether one agrees with its vision. In my view, this perspective is ultimately a narcissistic one, looking for art to mirror the self, and one that disregards the real power of art to imbue an artist's particular vision with "truth." A major point of art to is to allow us to see visions other than one's own.

All of this leads me to Hou's "Millennium Mambo," which can hardly be said to show warmth and generosity toward its characters. No, it doesn't treat them with contempt either. But what seemed most amazing to me about this film is the way the particular and unique qualities of Hou's close, cramped spaces (which includes snow surrounding a road outdoors) undercut our "natural" perceptions of characters as complex beings with autonomous emotional lives, seemingly rendering the humanist notions of the individual and of individual freedom irrelevant. It is as if for Hou the turn of the millennium also announces the death of the self, at least in the old sense. Humans are not spirits free to make wise decisions or tragic cases when they make poor ones; we are shadows, encased by culture and by thumping music. This is not a Langian trap, one that allows for some nobility (as in Bannion's quest in "The Big Heat"), but a more postmodern one.

But there's more. Hou's cramped spaces don't simply entrap; they also expand. That's perhaps the most amazing and beautiful effect of the film, the way that small areas seem to lead outward, sprawling, spreading, connecting to everything else as if making a continuous ether, creating a vastness that itself prevents characters from becoming focal points. Indeed, neither "entrap" nor "expand" are especially useful concepts here.

I thought of Dreyer, and I thought of Mizoguchi, as being vaguely related, but in those more humanist filmmakers, characters' bodies can at times be emotional and moral loci (the close-up of the father speaking to his young son just before departure in "Sansho Dayu"; O'Haru's receding shadow at the end of "The Life of O'Haru"), however qualified. Not so in Hou. His characters are "mere" points of light within a much larger context in which "even" an out of focus background area seems of equal importance. In fact, I can recall no film that uses those out of focus backgrounds that result from certain kinds of tight closeups so actively, so poetically. But it's not just the "backgrounds." What I'm trying to get at with "expand" is a kind of "spreading" effect in which every object that seems as if it might be a point of interest seems connected to every other part of a frame in a way that spreads "defuses" the power of any one point throughout the whole. Individual actions and feelings and quests are thus curiously devalued, and the film's elegiac feeling seems to be in part an acknowledgement of that.

"Humanist" values are hinted at only in the narration, and in the film's two times - which imply a loss of the autonomous self.

Fred Camper


There are lots of things here that can't be stated any better than Fred does but I think it should be noted that Millennium Mambo is one of the darkest Hou films. There is the possibility of an escape, a possibility of an individual self, together with shared mutual love in many of his other films, from The Green, Green Grass of Home (1983) to Le voyage du ballon rouge (2007).

While Jack in Millennium Mambo wears a shirt saying, horrifyingly, "Extinction is Forever - Las Vegas", Simon in ballon rouge wears a shirt saying "CHANGE THE WORLD", in capitals.

Labels: ,

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Robin Wood on Howard Hawks's "El Dorado"

Robin Wood, the author of two great books on Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, has passed away.

Wood didn't like Hawks's El Dorado as much as I do but he had great things to say about it:
"Yet there is a way in which it all makes artistic sense-though it is not quite the sense of a self-sufficient work. Hawks is now in his seventies. W. B. Yeats was a few years younger when he wrote
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal stress.
The words and imagery suggest at once the need to recapture a childlike, unselfconscious spontaneity, and the contradictory fact that with advancing age attempts to do so will have to be more and more deliberate. In El Dorado Hawks is 'singing louder'; there is exactly that balance of recaptured spontaneity and the contradictory sense of deliberateness that Yeats's lines define. And when one realises this, one realises the real subject of the film - a subject virtually all-pervading, yet never stated explicitly: age."

Keith Uhlich wrote a short post about Robin Wood, with some links. You can find more info on Robin Wood here.

Labels: , , , ,

twitter.waysofseeing.org

I started using Twitter. It's very useful for sharing links & small bits of information.

I've recently posted a link to Orson Welles' last interview (2 hours before he died), and to a video of Alfred Hitchcock working on the set. If you'd like to check my page, click here.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Sidney Peterson's "The Potted Psalm" (1947)


To interpret The Potted Psalm is beyond my capacity. I'll just try to react to it.

In Visionary Film, P. Adams Sitney uses the title of this specific film as the title of a whole chapter. And there is a quote by Sidney Peterson over there:
"The connections may or may not be rational. In an intentionally realistic work the question of rationality is not a consideration. What is being stated has its roots in myth and strives through the chaos of the commonplace data toward the kind of inconstant allegory which is the only substitute for myth in a world too lacking in such symbolic formulations. And the statement itself is at least as important as what is being stated."


Vertical pans, rhythmic movements, fetishes, but more importantly, freedom, the liberty to see what happens... A film that grows organically, without any rational connections, always human... Using a phrase from Peterson's Mr. Frenhofer and the Minotaur: "Something that is perfectly natural, but beyond anatomy".

I don't have the book at hand but in Film at wit's end: eight avant-garde filmmakers, Stan Brakhage has detailed comments about the film, and Peterson's art in general.



As Fred Camper writes: "The truly silent cinema of avant-gardists requires no accompaniment—silence deepens the viewer's imaginative involvement."



And one of my favorite quotes on art, by Sidney Peterson:
"These images are meant to play not on our rational senses, but on the infinite universe of ambiguity within us."


In my opinion, the title itself describes Peterson's definition of film as art: Great films are sacred songs that have, unlike ancient songs, a definite form, but they are also like plants, capable of growing in time. According to Merriam-Webster: "Potted" also means "drunk" in slang. I don't if the word was used in this sense at the time, but if it was, then "Potted Psalm" might also mean a sacred but possibly irrational, debauched song. I think all of these interpretations, and others I can't think of, can be true at the same time.


Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

about waysofseeing.org

I've added an About page to waysofseeing.org.

It talks briefly about who I am, about this website, and about the name "ways of seeing".

I was strongly influenced by John Berger's famous book Ways of Seeing when I was a kid but when I was naming this website I didn't want to specifically refer to Berger's book. The phrase at the time meant, and still means something closer to the way Fred Camper uses it in his writings.

Here are some examples from Fred's website:

Permutations 4: The Tower, All Views 13 (2008), by Fred Camper

About his own art:
"I am trying to use multiple images to suggest a traveler's journey of discovery. Cinema is one of several influences, in the many ways that a cut between two different angles of the same scene can open up, or close down, the space, or that camera movement can reshape an entire locale. In film or on paper, images can construct a visual architecture, new ways of seeing space and objects. Presenting an object or locale through multiple images is also a way of undercutting any single view, creating, for the viewer, a voyage through different levels of awareness. Multiple views can also suggest, by extrapolation, an infinitely large number of different ways of seeing an object."

About Gerhard Richter:
"If we learn only one lesson from the last century, it's that artists are constantly redefining what art is, and that each redefinition requires new criteria, new ways of seeing — indeed, that's often the point of the redefinitions."

About Stan Brakhage:
"Part of Brakhage's goal is to enrich viewers' seeing of things in the ordinary world, to help each viewer uncover unique and imaginative ways of seeing."

About Roberto Rossellini:
"There are some zooms in pre-1967 Rossellinis -- there's even one or two in "Generale Della Rovere" -- but starting with "La Prise du Pouvoir par Louis XIV," Rossellini used the zoom pretty continuously. At one point he even had a remote control device built so that he could zoom without looking through the camera, during shooting. The zoom is constantly reframing, going to wider or closer views, and his use of it I think is crucial to the style and ideas of the films: it places every moment of them, every image, at a potential transition point between two or more perspectives, suggesting that at any instant there are other, and in a sense always "wider," possible ways of seeing the situation. Rossellini's late films tend to center around "pivot points" in history, such as the beginning of the Renaissance in "The Age of the Medici," which is consistent with his way of seeing, in which whatever is happening is always on the brink of some momentous change."

My definition of the phrase changes with every new artwork I encounter, which is exactly the point...

Labels: , , , , ,