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.

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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.


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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...

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Monday, May 25, 2009

Roberto Rossellini's "India: Matri Bhumi" (1959)


A rhythmic voyage of our psyche like no other...

A film about the individual, the civilisation, and the "communal multitude" with the animals, the plants, and cosmos, "the big mother".



It's a mirror of our primitive nature, our internal, biologic fears, and the rituals imposed on us by the society.



An ode to work, to symbiosis... The film viewer has never been so close to death, to the horrors of life...



India: Matri Bhumi is a celebration of human consciousness, of nature, the unpredictable, the unwritten future, the perpetual now, the moment...



We need artists such as Rossellini to remind us that creation is still in process...





Fred Camper cites India: Matri Bhumi among his three favorite films of all time, calling it "mystical" and "expansive".

I find his description of the earlier prints of the film very valuable since, unfortunately, all the existing prints have deteriorated (slightly or immensely, depending on where you draw your lines):
'About "India" prints: was the one that those who saw it found "serviceable" harsh and high contrast, sort of like Kodachrome printed onto Kodachrome? Because the film in 1970 had very gentle, very sensuous, very supple colors, which seemed crucial to its nature as a kind of inventory of the sensual pleasures of what virtual all tourists call an extremely colorful country. The prints I saw might seem OK to someone who hadn't seen the earlier print, in that the color at least wasn't tinted one way or the other. But the colors and surfaces lacked detail and texture.'

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Film-Makers' Cooperative faces eviction


"We don't want rosy films -- we want them the color of blood" it says, on the home page of The Film-Makers' Cooperative, an institution that is now in danger of being evicted from the small place it has in New York. The Coop, as it's known to most of us, is, as Fred Camper puts it, "one of the world's few pillars of genuine film art." Evicting the Coop isn't much different than evicting the Louvre Museum, or the Museum of Modern Art.

You can read Fred's words on the issue here. And here is the New York Times article.

Just reading the history of the Coop, written by Jonas Mekas, is bound to inspire anyone who deeply cares about moving images:
After looking into the existing film distribution organizations, and seeing how few of them were interested in our work, I came to the conclusion that the only thing to do was to create our own cooperative film distribution center, run by ourselves. When Cinema 16, at that time the most advanced avant-garde/independent film distribution organization, rejected Stan Brakhage's film Anticipation of the Night—an eye-opener and the beginning of a totally new, subjective cinema—this was the signal that something had to be done. On January 7th, 1962, I invited some 20 avant-garde/independent filmmakers to my Manhattan loft to discuss the creation of our own distribution center.



I worked at the Coop for two years and all that time I considered myself lucky to be a part of history. Inspecting, cleaning, repairing all those masterpieces by Robert Breer, Bruce Baillie, Stan Brakhage, Larry Jordan, Jonas Mekas, Hollis Frampton, Christopher Maclaine, Sidney Peterson, Michael Snow, Peter Kubelka, Peter Gidal, Joyce Wieland, Harry Smith (What a list, oh God!) and many many others, was a privilege. Again using Fred Camper's words, "the kinds of films the Coop distributes tend to base their art in the particular properties of celluloid, rather than simply as a conveyor of pictures, and thus must be seen on film."



I don't want to imagine a world without the Coop, and I wish good luck to everybody working to save it! And, to anyone who has a chance to work there, I strongly recommend it. Trust me, it will change your life!

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