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.

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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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Monday, October 26, 2009

Johnnie To's "Vengeance" (2009)

Vengeance was my first Johnnie To in 35mm.

If you take things for granted, it is a mechanical film that drives its plot to more and more action scenes. But if you look carefully, there's something about the obsessive way everybody in the film is obsessed. "What do your primary instincts mean when you've lost all your memory?" is a question To asks, but doesn't delve on much. Vengeance doesn't delve on anything much except the consistently imaginative frames, compositions and the puzzling lighting.

There are many hints of a great vision, but I have to say the film isn't consistent in this. Which is why it's not ranked so highly in my best of 2009 list.

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Saturday, October 03, 2009

Philippe Grandrieux's "Sombre" (1998)

Philippe Grandrieux is one of my favorite filmmakers alive. His films are a new voice, almost a shriek, that could have only been expressed through a rediscovery of the medium it's using. Every new vision, like Sombre, requires its own form of expression, and therefore redefines, and expands the cinematic language. It frees thinking, embellishes our experience of the world.

Here's what Adrian Martin says in his article about La Vie Nouvelle:
"The films of Philippe Grandrieux pulsate. They pulsate microcosmically: in the images, the camera trembles and flickers so violently that, even within a single, continuous shot, no photogram resembles another. And they pulsate macrocosmically: the soundtrack is constructed globally upon unidentifiable, layered, synthesised, ambient noises of breath or wind, sucked in and expelled, which underlie the entire film and constitute its disturbed heartbeat, returning to our ear when all other sounds have disappeared."

Sombre, as Grandrieux's first feature film, establishes some of the important characteristics of his art: An insistence on vision, with characters beyond psychologies, driven by biology or metaphysical forces.

Love (a mix of brotherly and sexual Love, a true awareness of the other, a communion) mostly overrules all, and its discovery by Jean creates waves that emanate in every shot, every cut and every sound in the rest of Sombre.

While the movement in Un Lac is from perfect love (a paradise communion) to the loss of innocence, here the movement is reversed, not in the sense that the film has a happy ending, there are no clear conclusions (nor clear beginnings) in Grandrieux... The discovery of the other (an other?) disturbs the existing rules of behaviour.

This is also true for Claire, who have a face to face conversation with a stranger, something completely unexpected in a film of such few words. A scene that would have been ordinary in another film (except the abusively frontal camera) acquires a huge force by its contrast to the rest of the work.

What is truly impossible to describe in words is the sense of rhythm, and Grandrieux's Brakhage-like belief in the transformative powers of vision and perception. It's a sombre film alright, content-wise, but Grandrieux also shoots in extremely low-light situations, abstracting bodies, faces, expressions. He teaches us to care less about what's happening, and this increases in every new film of his. Instead, we learn to care about the how, and the way, the feeling, the sense of the presence, not of the actual happenings, because the films are not realistic, but the presence of the director, filtering, flirting and dancing with the events that are taking place.

Important to note that he is the cameraman in all his films, he says there wouldn't be a point making films otherwise. Here's something from an interview with him in Balthazar (first in original French, then my English translation):
"Je ne pourrais pas imaginer, même avec le plus grand cadreur du monde avec qui je m’entendrais parfaitement bien… C’est le regard, c’est la vision… C’est le regard : comment moi je vous regarde là maintenant, je ne peux le dire à personne. C’est vraiment une question sur l’altérité, c’est la limite."
"I could not imagine, even with the greatest cameraman in the world with whom I get on very well... It's the look, it's the vision... It's the look: how I look at you here and now, I cannot describe anyone. It's really a question of otherness, it's the limit."

The art of cinema only speaks strongly when every cut matters. In Sombre, every cut is an event, a comment about the rest of the film. Every formal choice, or everything that happens storywise have meanings that constantly expand. Grandrieux never chews on the same idea, the same feeling, he constantly looks for new ways to perceive the rest. And he doesn't stop doing it even after everything is over.

It's unfortunate that I had to see it in a terrible .avi version, but I would call Sombre sublime simply because I felt missing so much by not experiencing it in its true medium. It's a film that asks us to be aware of the film grain. There lies the true expression in Un Lac. And seemingly in Sombre.

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Thursday, October 01, 2009

Roberto Rossellini's "Blaise Pascal" (1971)

"The vacuum, the void, is the face of the infinite. If I seek the void in nature, it's to discover its mirror in the heart of man" declares Rossellini's Blaise Pascal... He also talks about "la mesure infinie du vide", "the infinite measure of the void"...

This is possibly Rossellini's darkest film. Let's hear what Tag Gallagher says:
"Thus Blaise Pascal is a horror movie, like Dreyer's Dies irae (Day of Wrath) (1943). Everything is drenched in suffering, torture, fear, superstition, blood and penance, masses of black, white and scarlet; everyone is writhing in desperate faith, self-mortification and pain. "

The void Pascal Blaise is looking for in nature, is consistently with him, and with others. Everybody seems to have their souls vacuumed out. People talk about joy, but we never see any of it. I think this sense of the void is the key to the film. But there are also many other levels at work...

It's a film where everything is a ritual (even waking up, even death). The trial scenes summarizes all the injustices in the world (and how there are always people who rationalize other people's sufferings). The cause-consequence in the universe is one of the main subjects.

Using Tag Gallagher's words, Blaise Pascal is "a direct experience."

In his wonderful blog post, Dennis Grunes writes that
Blaise Pascal "begins matter-of-factly, in the middle of a conversation in the street, and ends on the threshold of eternity." And he describes Pascal’s death scene as "a sober, stunning, luminous passage."

Tag on Rossellini's late period (which is, for me, the greatest period of the greatest filmmaker):
"To say, as many have, that these movies lack acting, psychoanalysis, Murnau-like expressionism, overwhelming emotions and the richest possible cinematic art is like closing one's eyes at high noon and claiming the sun no longer exists."

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Howard Hawks' "I Was a Male War Bride" (1951)

Describing a Howard Hawks movie with stills is truly impossible. Every one of his films are odes to movement, whether it is the movements of humans, animals, or vehicles. And there is the always-attentive camera, slightly following each movement, emphasizing every happening within (and without) the frame.

All the great writers-on-film (I hate the word "critic"!) underline Hawks' dance with biology. Perhaps the main key to appreciating Hawks is watching, carefully, the very tiny, and partly improvised, camera moves... Almost invisible, sometimes to a little left, and a little to the right, etc. reacting to the movements of the characters. Some movements can't be noticed without paying attention to the borders of the frame. And great stuff always happen at the very corners...

It is true that all these moves always refer back to things that happen in the frame, so re-direct our attention to the movements of the main characters. But this does not mean that someone who wants to get the highest pleasures should stay unaware of what is happening. What Tag Gallagher wrote about the so-called "invisible cuts" is also true about "invisible movements":

"One is certainly not less involved with music by being conscious of the rhythm, the meter, the phrase structures, the harmonic motion, the contrapuntal lines, which instrument is playing, how the instrumentalist chooses to phrase and articulate. Quite the contrary, the more we are consciously aware of these elements, the more we shall become engulfed in the emotions, in the world, of the music.

So too with movies. Not being aware of cuts is just being oblivious, cutting oneself off from actual sensual contact with cinema. It's a denial of pleasure, of experience. It's stupid.

I don't think it's true that things affect us without our being aware of it. Experiencing art is not like being etherized for an operation. It's above all a physical and emotional awareness. If you're not intelligent, you're not aware."

If you really want to see Hawks, pay attention to the tiniest camera moves. I would say his camera moves are not so far below Stan Brakhage's methods in training our eyes to see more, and more.

Here is one great example, which, by definition, might look inconsequential until one knows everything that happens before (or after, for that matter) in the sublime film called I Was a Male War Bride.

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Monday, August 31, 2009

Roberto Rossellini's "Viva L'Italia" (1961)

In 1964, Rossellini exclaimed: "Of all my films, I'm proudest of Viva L'Italia."

About one and a half hours into the film, a singer meets Garibaldi and expresses his joy as follows, describing perfectly Rossellini's own cinema (French translation of the Italian original):
"Devant toutes ces beautés rares, je suis venu ici, et ce soir je veux chanter quantité des chansons. Des chants sans apprêts, écrits comme ils venaient, sans style, ni prétention, qui font parler le coeur."

My English translation:
"Before all these rare beauties, I came here, and tonight I want to sing many songs. Songs without preparations, written as they came, without style, or pretension... Songs which make the heart speak."

In his book, Tag Gallagher writes the following about the war scenes in Viva L'Italia, where the camera constantly zooms in and out, pans around, telling the story of the battle with extraordinary precision, and beauty: "... a new era in cinema: never before has a camera done anything like this, never before have we seen anything so vast." And later in the book: "... Viva L'Italia erupts into a crescendo of liberation across an ever-expending space."

Zach Campbell also wrote beautifully about the war scenes in his own blog.

Talking about Viva L'Italia, Andrew Sarris mentions Rossellini's camera that "keeps its cosmic distance." And later in the same paragraph, he states: "Where Buñuel's ideas sometimes transcend his images, and where Chaplin's images sometimes transcend his ideas, there is in Rossellini little or no separation between style and substance. If there be such a thing as a cinematographic language, and I firmly believe there is, Rossellini requires the least translation..."

One of the things I like the most about the film is its courage to emphatize with history, and its characters (notwithstanding the "cosmic distance" that Sarris talks about). The chants and hymns on the soundtrack or the ideological exclamations might feel naive to many but Rossellini only makes movies about the things he feels, and by feeling Garibaldi's followers, he makes us understand a very important point in recent history: the formation of nation-states. As Tag Gallagher says, what interests Rossellini "is always the moment when one cycle of history is dying, another is born." At the very beginning of Viva L'Italia there's an important emphasis on telegrams, and later, on mass printing of newspapers. Without the changes in mass communication, history would have happened very differently. Rossellini allows determinism, understands the forces that drive history, but also embraces the human beings who drove it, Rosa being a great and heroic example.

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Monday, July 13, 2009

Michael Mann's "Public Enemies" (2009)

"There must be mutation, swifter than iridescence, haste, not rest, come-and-go, not fixity, inconclusiveness, immediacy, the quality of life itself, without denouement or close. There must be the rapid momentaneous association of things which meet and pass on the forever incalculable journey of creation: everything left in its own rapid, fluid relationship with the rest of things.
This is the unrestful, ungraspable poetry of the sheer present, poetry whose very permanency lies in its wind-like transit."
- D.H. Lawrence talking about Walt Whitman in his intro to the New Poems, 1918

Michael Mann's Public Enemies is liquid, ephemeral and present. Every moment happens "all of a sudden". It's not the past or the future but the perpetual now we care about, ever-changing, dynamic, and through the eyes of Michael Mann, the greatest living Hollywood filmmaker, gorgeous, intricate, LOVEly. You care, honestly care, about his images, it's a love-affair in a way, physical and tactile. Nevertheless, the images, and the vision behind each image, changes so quickly, you can't hold on to it. The unstoppable forward motion, like in life, leaves you unaware of the moment, because it's replaced by something else as soon as possible.

The movie ends with a shot of a door closing, inconclusive. None of the bank robberies or the prison escapes are as operatic as in some other works by Michael Mann. The finale leaves us with no meanings, nothing to hold on to, no grand narratives to explain it all. Compared to Miami Vice, Public Enemies feels unworked, incomplete. This, I think, is a great direction for Michael Mann, fitting perfectly with his style. Life offers, or promises, no human conclusions, but only a perpetual moment. It's a "curve, which flows on, pointless" as D. H. Lawrence once wrote.

Have I been describing the life of John Dillinger, or the movie called Public Enemies, I do not know... There are all these concepts floating around in my mind, all these things I'd like to write about, but after seeing the movie twice, it's hard for me to try to make any "unifying" comments. The movie is too vast, and too alive for me. So I'd like to share some things other people wrote:

"It's the way these events occurred in this unique life that was so short but so dynamic, and so intense, dedicated just to living right now for the moment is really what kind of fascinated me in doing it." says Michael Mann in a video interview on Screen Rush. There's another interview with him you can see at ITN and one at the Guardian site (where he says he doesn't "look backwards very much").

Talking about the shooting of Public Enemies, at The Auteurs, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky quotes D.W. Griffith: "What's missing from movies nowadays is the beauty of the moving wind in the trees." And he argues that Mann recently "left behind grammar for expression." I agree, and this is why I think the last three films, Collateral, Miami Vice, and Public Enemies are his greatest, a whole new direction...

Here is how Manohla Dargis begins her review in New York Times:

"Michael Mann’s Public Enemies is a grave and beautiful work of art. Shot in high-definition digital by a filmmaker who’s helping change the way movies look, it revisits with meticulous detail and convulsions of violence a short, frantic period in the life and bank-robbing times of John Dillinger, an Indiana farm boy turned Depression outlaw, played by a low-voltage Johnny Depp."

And Keith Uclich of Time Out New York commits the perfect commentary:
"It might sound damning to say that the film resembles a bullet-riddled carcass just barely clinging to life, but it’s exactly this ephemeral sensation, which Mann sustains for the entire two hours plus, that distinguishes Public Enemies."

Roger Ebert talks about "compulsions" (a beautiful word to pick, to talk about a Michael Mann movie) but then explains "why it is not quite a great film" by adding: "I think it may be because it deprives me of some stubborn need for closure." At least he's honest! Art has moved away from that need for closure years or centuries ago...

Scott Foundas, in the best review I read about Public Enemies, writes:

"Visually, Public Enemies seems like the summation of something Mann has been steadily building toward ever since he first incorporated video-shot footage into the dynamic opening training montage of Ali in 2001. Where digital methods have gradually become the industry standard by simulating the dense, luxuriant textures of film, Mann embraces video precisely for the ways in which it is unlike film: for the hyper-real clarity of its images, for the way the lightweight cameras move through space, and for its ability to see sharper and more deeply into his beloved night. At every turn, Mann rejects classical notions of cinematic "beauty" and formulates new ones. The sounds and images rush at you, headlong, and before you can fully get a handle on them, something else takes their place. (...) those robberies are brisk, expedient affairs rarely lasting more than two minutes each. Where Mann staged the heist sequences at the center of Thief and Heat as a kind of grand opera, Dillinger's are closer to proletariat street theater."

Zach Campbell also sees what is happening, and desribes it with extraordinary ability:

'...people as apparitions moving around, or as nodes in, a network "in the air." The figural dimensions of human beings in Mann are phantasmatic, mysterious, he doesn't much strike me as a corporeal (or perhaps more precisely: a kinesthetic) filmmaker. These are not characters who have psychologies, they are psychologies. They are not bodies, they have bodies. Maybe.'

And again D.H. Lawrence: "The quick of the universe is the pulsating, carnal self, mysterious and palpable. So it is always."

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