Thursday, April 23, 2015

Michael Mann's "Blackhat": Vanishing into the Air

You can click here to read what I wrote about Blackhat for Lorenzo Esposito's new online journal Film Parlato.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Wang Bing's "'Til Madness Do Us Part" (2013)

Tag Gallagher mentions that Rossellini once said, "from a very humble position you can revise the whole conception of the universe." I think one could even go further, and claim that one can change the conception of the universe only through a humble position.

In his interview with Michael Guarneri for La Furia Umana (one of the best film journals around), Wang Bing says: 'In my view, the most important thing to keep in mind is that a film is not a still image. Beauty in cinema is not something that you can stop and "immortalize"; it is not something forever frozen into one single exposure. Beauty in cinema is the perception of an ongoing process. As a filmmaker, I am interested in movement, in moving images, in the "evolution" of the real that is so difficult to capture and make visible.'

No doubt, his 'Til Madness Do Us Part is a case in point. It's hard to find beauty in a Wang Bing film, unless you start to accept, and work (as an active participant) with their limitations. One floor in a mental hospital, the walls, the bars, a camera with a slightly wide lens, slightly rounding everything. The camera shakes, sometimes it's dirty, sometimes contre-jour, emphasizing the dirt. But it doesn't matter, almost, since the cameraperson (or the editor) doesn't seem to care, there are higher stakes. And then, the form, seemingly unimportant, helped by the editing which does not rest on a specific narrative, or an identifiable thread, allows an openness where everything becomes of equal value, all elevated. Camera is a tool which records a shape of the reality. Through editing one can go beyond the real, let it evolve like Bing says, make the invisible visible. Even the mediocre music coming from the television can become ominous.

And then, when the camera leaves the place, it's both liberating, for the eye and the mind (especially that shot with the mountain far behind), but one also sees that there's no difference. In 'Til Madness Do Us Part, before we left the hospital, we have already learned, to quote William Blake, "To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour." Well, maybe in 3 hours and 47 minutes, and in this case it's tangerines instead of flowers... When we're out, we're still in a "prison", doesn't matter whether there are walls to keep us in. There are walls we can't get rid of, no matter how long we walk...

Then near the end, one begins to see surreal images, such as symmetrical bodies with two heads, or the light blue of the sky begins to have metaphysical aspects, almost out of the blue, so to speak. The hospital, which is at points a metaphor for the society, becomes a cosmos. How do we get there, I do not know. The film is so unpretentious and noncategorical that there are some narrative closures even, the two lovers embrace, despite the bars in between. Pickpocket?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

George Griffin on Robert Breer

The film-strip above is from Breer's T.Z., thanks to the Anthology Film Archives collection. Here's what George Griffin said about Breer on Frameworks:

'Breer's genius lay in, among other things, his casual approach to craft. He didn't work at; he played animation. As soon as I saw his paintings from the Paris years — so hard-edged, ordered, Olympian — I could see how film, as a vehicle of synthetic performance, pushed him off the cliff. He learned to fly by the seat of his pants, re-inventing our art with every new, effortless stroke. Lucky for us. Through him we got Arp's random discontinuities, Klee's indexical card miniature scale, Cage's not so silent silence, and all that modernist wit, irony, nonchalance. His work was always flavored by jolts of sly fun. It spilled beyond media into concrete, tangible objects: parodies of machines, propelled by the viewer's hand, or set in motion as snail-paced automata.

Breer was the prolific, generous form-giver: movement was his medium.

I will miss him.'

Sunday, August 14, 2011

thoughts and memories after Robert Breer's death...

When I first saw on Fred Camper's Senses of Cinema top tens list a movie called Swiss Army Knife with Rats and Pigeons by a guy I had never heard of, I thought Fred must be kidding... He was just trying to be eccentric or something...

A few years later, Fred projected five or six films of Breer's to me in Chicago. My first reaction was 'IMPOSSIBLE!'. These films were not humanly probable... I remember being unarmed by 69, and then lost watching 77.

I don't remember where I saw What Goes Up?, it had to be in Chicago, maybe Onion City or maybe it was Fred who screened it for me? I know I saw it again somewhere...

After 2004, in New York, I was working at the Film-makers' Cooperative (co-founded by Breer in the 70's), where part of my job was inspecting films, frame by frame. I was happy, happy, whenever I had to inspect a film by Breer, sometimes taking my time to do it very slowly, inhaling genius.

One day, I was working at the Coop, alone in the office. The phone rang. The voice said:
- Hello, this is Bob Breer.
- Robert Breer! You are my favorite film-maker!
- You must be exaggerating, young man...
- Oh, I don't know how to say how much I love your films, how can I help you?

This was my first, and only contact with him. He is still one of my two favorite film-makers, along with Rossellini.
That same day, I started writing a letter to him, but it didn't feel strong enough, so I never sent it. Now, I feel extremely disappointed with myself for not having the courage to share it with him at the time. I'm pasting it below, without any corrections:

Dear Robert Breer,

After talking to you on the phone today, I felt very bad since there was so much more that I could have and should have told you. It was such a great pleasure to talk to someone who is a real hero, someone who means much more to me than most other things in the world.

When I first saw “69”, the first film of yours I ever saw, my first reaction was: “IMPOSSIBLE, how can a human being have such sensitivity?”. After seeing many other films of yours, and having had the chance to look at many of them frame by frame at the Coop, I still believe that is completely true. Your films are beyond human consciousness.

In my website, I make comments about every filmmaker I like or love, but about you I only wrote the following: “Robert Breer might be my favorite filmmaker, I seriously lack the words to describe his work” THAT is very true, because your work, more than anybody else’s, are so cinematic, so much tied to the nature of cinema itself, that it is senseless to try to make sense of them in words, or any other different kind of expression. They are complete in what they are, they mean things that could only be meant in cinema, no other medium could translate it, and that is exactly why they mean so much. I cannot not admire the person behind those films...

I wish there was a way to express how much you have added to my life, how much you improved my sense of life and art, but there isn’t. I know it, I feel it, it’s THERE for those who would be able to see it and that’s all.

Unfortunately, I didn’t see any of your works other than film, but just reading about them was overwhelming enough. Can’t imagine what it would be like to experience them in reality.

Anyway, IF you ever need anyone to help you with making art, I would be more than happy to, I can’t imagine anything else more worthwhile to do with my time, and with my life. And if not, I hope you go on making, creating art, trust me they are expanding the consciousness of those who really can see what there is in them.

You might be one of the greatest people ever lived, and that is a fact you should keep in mind at any given second,

With Love,
Yoel Meranda

A few years later, I attended the Robert Breer Essential Cinema screening at Anthology in 2006. I wrote some things again but never posted anywhere. Again, it didn't feel strong enough. Here it is, edited and updated for this post:

'If I had to pick one filmmaker to send his/her films to outer space, it would be Robert Breer.

Anthology does an amazing job showing these films every year; That such a small number of people attend is a tragedy. I wish there was also a program of his later films, which are only better.

Breer's films reflect the thought-process as well as any other work of art, and simply by forcing us to concentrate on the tiniest, in terms of time and space, they push the boundaries of our imagination. But then, what happens in any tiny detail is overwhelmingly intense, the thought-flight is unlike anything there was before Breer, the scattered rhythms are so revolutionary that they change what we define as beautiful.

The surreality of Pat's Birthday, the solemn look on those faces while the most absurd things are happening, the animals at the end... It feels as if there is no rhythm in it, as if the person cutting them is beyond human consciousness, while also being perfectly personal.

What about the bar in 69 that enters in and out of the frame, revolving, a joke on the imagined three-dimensionality of the screen, acknowledging it, using it to make rhythms, while showing something so absurd I cannot help laughing silently?

It is said that for Breer the basic unit of cinema is frame. But that would be underappreciating his real achievement, because what happens between the frames is very crucial too, so in some way he denies any possibility of any concept of 'unit' in cinema, his films prove that the cinematic time is continuous if the filmmaker makes use of the moments between the frames.

One of his films is called Breathing. It does not show anyone really breathing, but that film and all of his other films are very close to the complicated rhythms of breathing, which can be taken as a metaphor for any other happening in the universe, which happens with no sense of symmetry or order.

Robert Breer also uses the sound better than anyone else, his seemingly moody sounds vary all the time and a small change in pitch or tone seriously changes the way the image or the rhythm is conceived. Scientists will have to work for centuries to understand how the images and sounds are interrelated in our minds, but they will never be able to create experiences that make us aware of our weird nervous system that we think and feel with. Being intensely aware is one of the points of Breer's art.'

Since 2006, I've been in Istanbul, where I never had a chance to see a Breer film ON FILM, but I have a number of his films on good quality video.

Recently, on a trip to U.K., I stopped by in Newcastle to see the Breer exhibit at the Baltic, my first experience of his floats, and his paintings... It was a joy, an inspiration so great I didn't even know what to do with it... There were two films being projected on film at the exhibit: Fuji and REcreation. Saw both more than 5-6 times during the same day, never tired of discovering...

I wrote very little about Breer, because I have very little to say... His art speaks too forcefully, moves me from a place that's too deep within. For a long time, only thing I could say was what I wrote for my own Senses of Cinema top tens list: 'If frame is the unit of cinema, what happens between frames deserves higher attention.' I elaborated on this here.

Although I try to imitate Breer's rhythms in all of my videos, I made one that I believe somehow resembles Breer's films, it's titled moonalphabet, but honestly I don't think it's good enough to even deserve to be dedicated to Breer... Oh also, there's an unfinished animation I attempted, completely inspired by Breer.

The image above is from Breer's 69.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Robert Breer 1926-2011

Here's the note Pip Chodorov wrote on Frameworks. The image is from Breer's Blazes.

Dear FrameWorkers,

Very sad to relate that Bob Breer passed away yesterday.

He was a good friend, a very funny man, and a great artist.
He chose film, at a time when his painting career was taking off.
He lived in Paris for ten years and showed at Denise René's gallery - big abstract paintings.
Then he made a flipbook and got interested in abstract animation.
He felt that his abstract compositions were maybe just steps in a continual flow of motion from one to another.
In the 1950s, gallery artists didn't show films. (I guess that changed in 1966 when Warhol made Chelsea Girls).
His fellow painters became big: Oldenberg, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg...
But Breer loved movement.
He made sculptures that move v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y.
He made films that move very fast.
He was ahead of his time.
His films were not popular...
He was an inventor.
His father made cars (his father made the first streamlined car for Chrysler after having demonstrated, in the Wright brothers' wind tunnel, that their cars were designed to go faster backwards than forwards!)
And his father also made home movies - in 3D - with a Bolex.
Breer moved back to America and made experimental films that pushed film art into new directions.
He was one of the founding filmmakers of the New York Filmmakers' Cooperative.
He also made big sculptures that would creep around the art space, for example at Expo '70 in Osaka.
He taught at Cooper Union for many years and sensitized a new generation of artists to experimental film.
Over the last 15 years, many museum shows combined his paintings, moving sculptures ("floats"), and films. He felt that finally he could have a career as an artist and as a filmmaker.

We will miss Bob Breer.

-Pip Chodorov

Monday, July 11, 2011

Sidney Peterson's book: The Dark of the Screen

Sidney Peterson, one of my ten favorite film-makers, published a book in 1980 titled The Dark of the Screen. It starts with the following haiku by Shikisha Fumei (or so it says in the book, Peterson constantly makes up facts throughout, following his surrealistic urges):
At a single match
     The darkness

I really love the hilarious and imaginative title of the first chapter: "A Movie House is an enlarged camera Obscura for the sale of popcorn, a Darkroom for star-gazing right side up"

In the chapter titled "The Anxious Subject", Peterson also talks about how his idea of art was formed. Here are two paragraphs from there, written in his very idiosyncratic style. The emphases are mine.

'It happened so slowly, the dawning of the idea that film could be an art. One had the experience but not the idea. I vaguely recall an Oliver Twist in twelve reels (It had to be the Pathé 1909 version, if not the 1910 Vitagraph treatment, or, conceivably, the 1912 independent production with Nat C. Goodwin as Fagin) that was so grim it had to be something more than entertainment. When Birth of a Nation was being roadshown around the country, an uncle took me to see it in a theatre in Oakland, California, and it cost a dollar. I was impressed. The racism was water off the duck's back. I think it was the first time I had ever seen sheets used for anything but sleeping between or Halloween. A year later, at the Panama Pacific International Exposition, I saw Chaplin making something and the seeds of future improvisation were firmly planted. Rather later, I had a friend whose father, a Unitarian minister, was a friend of Vachel Lindsey, from whom we had caught a, to me incomprehensible, passion for movies as something more than they seemed to be. And then, in the early 'twenties, I remember being vaguely affected by Elie Faure's Art of Cineplastics in The Freeman (re-encountered more than a quarter century later in the San Francisco Museum of Art's Art in Cinema Symposium) with its vision of things to come;"what the art of the cinemimic may presume to become if, instead of permitting itself to be dragged by theatrical processes through a desolating sentimental fiction, it is able to concentrate itself on plastic processes, around a sensuous and passionate action in which we can all recognize our own personal virtues." I'm no longer sure that I know what he was talking about but at the time Faure was an enormously impressive figure. If he chose to pontificate about movies, who was I not to listen? It was a curious period. A lot of Americans were feeling the need for a little rhetorical hyping to compensate for the lack of excitement in their own aesthetic preperceptions. It was part of an alleged national coming of age and if Frenchman wanted to extend our illusions by envisaging an art of film that was not only "lively" but plastique, we were ready for it, whatever it might mean and however it might be understood by an art industry preoccupied with the need to straddle the gap between art and the imperatives of mass amusement, the need "to be dragged by theatrical processes through a desolating sentimental fiction."'

And a few paragraphs later:

'"In his mind unfolds the whole story." To which should be added the cry of Beaumont and Fletcher: "Plot me no plots!" Imagine a psychology based on the need for a narrative continuity as absolute as that of most film, in which a dénouement has the obligatory significance of a categorical imperative, becomes, in effect, the ground of knowledge, in which "how's your second act?" becomes a more important consideration than your family romance or lack of ego development. The idea is not unthinkable. It is implied in the ancient metaphor of the God-directed theatrum mundi and was explored by Burke in his Philosophy of Literary Form. I am not suggesting that babies be disposed of with their baths, merely that there are continuities and continuities and that the dash to unscramble the egg and put Humpty Dumpty together again should be contained. The Elizabethan sensibility did just that with its fusing of the arts of painting and poetry. Ut pictura poesis. In Shakespeare what emerged was the stage-clearance scene as his structural unit, with scenes symmetrically grouped around a central scene, as in a triptych. The influence of emblem books, "talking pictures," enabled him to present characters as in a series of snapshots rather than, as in film, in constant motion. Scenes were formally related by "mirroring" and other such emblematic devices. Whereby it became possible to emphasize the thematic material at the expense of a narrative continuity. The whole process is eloquently set forth by Mark Rose in his Shakespearean Design and I wish I could have seen it thirty years before he published it. I might have stumbled a little less in groping for a rational structure, conceiving of sequences as clumps of material with reflection repetitions and such, serving, at least formally, the purpose of the stage-clearance.'

For more info, here is Canyon Cinema's page for Sidney Peterson. The image is from Peterson's Clinic of Stumble, which I have not seen.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Fred Camper on Chris Welsby

Chris Welsby is one of the underrated artists of cinema. His approach is revolutionary: he lets the rhythm of the film be truly shaped by the rhythms in nature. The following is Welsby's own description of his great film Tree; all of his films approach cinema in a similar way:

'The camera was placed on the flexible branch of a tree in a strong wind. The composition included both stationary and moving trees (a wooded landscape). The relationship of this landscape to the vertical and horizontal plane was maintained as much as possible. The camera ran continuously until all the film was exposed. The world is seen from the point of view of a tree as its branches sway to the rhythm of the wind.'

The following are excerpts from Fred Camper's article on Chris Welsby: Blowin' in the Wind.

'Chris Welsby's approach is less physical: he makes landscape films whose framing, camera angles, or edits are triggered by the sun, wind, or tides. The resulting images and rhythms are often quite beautiful but never smooth or predictable, lacking the predigested quality found not only in Hollywood movies but in many poetic films. These are not about getting sucked into a story or being captivated by artist-made abstractions. Instead his films not only contemplate nature — watching the clouds or the tides — but reflect on cinematic mechanisms as a metaphor for industrial civilization. Can our machine-made world enhance our experience of nature? Or are we irretrievably alienated from it by our own creations?'


'Later he saw "the task of sailing from A to B, which you can only do by working with the winds and tides, as a metaphor for a film."'


'For Tree (1974), Welsby tied his camera to a tree branch during a strong wind; he'd planned an 11-minute film, but the camera malfunctioned and the usable portion was 4 minutes. The wobbles of the frame as the branch moves dominate the movements of grass and branches within the frame: the viewer becomes profoundly aware of how much the act of framing conveys dominance and control — though here the agent is the wind.

In the 20-minute Seven Days (1974) Welsby finds his mature voice, offering a tour de force unlike anything cinema had yet seen. He took one frame of a Welsh landscape every ten seconds for a week, with the camera anchored to the same spot — though it did swivel. Placed on an equatorial mount (used in astronomy for photos of stars), it followed the sun across the sky. Moreover the camera flipped back and forth between two positions governed by the sun's visibility: when it was out, the camera turned 180 degrees from the sun (and the frame includes the camera's shadow moving across the land), and when the sun was behind clouds, it pointed straight at the sun.

What might sound like a gentle observational film seems to me quite violent. The wind roars on the sound track; clouds streak by almost apocalyptically; the camera flips back and forth for no obvious reason. On close observation, though, one can usually anticipate these changes by noticing a hint of sun behind the clouds or the land darkening: it's possible to see the natural "cause" of each cut in the preceding shot. This is a film that rejects the long tradition of landscape painting (and much subsequent landscape filmmaking) in which images serve as metaphors for the artist's emotions. Instead viewers are invited to bring their own responses to this enjambment of nature and the machine.

The camera's movement in Seven Days reveals a tiny stream, a group of flowers, some distant ridges. This is not a landscaped garden but a random assemblage of natural objects with an unordered beauty, a beauty the viewer must discover. (Welsby counts John Cage as another influence.) The film's rough edges and jittery, speeded-up rhythms seem calculated to express both the protean side of nature (the changing weather is apparent not only in clouds but in raindrops on the Plexiglas Welsby placed in front of the lens to protect it) and the violent, mechanical motion of the mechanized tripod. Just as sailing involves learning to work with the tides and the wind, the mechanisms of filmmaking can be brought into sync with nature's forces. Ethics and aesthetics come together here, as Welsby suggests that filmmakers let the clouds do a little editing.'

The image is from Welsby's film Colour Separation, which I haven't seen...

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Adrian Martin on Roberto Rossellini

Here are the last two paragraphs of Adrian Martin's review of Tag Gallagher's illuminating book Adventures Of Roberto Rossellini - His Life And Films. The emphases are mine.

The image is from Rossellini's Il Messia, possibly the greatest film ever. The guy on the right, struggling with the fishing net, is the son of God; and the slightly pensive guy on the left is Judas, but we don't know his name yet in the movie. I find this image to be a good example of the 'present tense' Adrian Martin is talking about.

"Rossellini's films, at their best, occur in this saturated, voluptuous present tense in which everything is always on the point of transforming itself. And as such, they grab us here and now, in our present tense of viewing, no matter our socio-political or historical context. The "miracles" that Rossellini shows are scarcely mystical (he refused to include the depiction of miracles in Acts of the Apostles), and the "grace" they bestow is not exactly in the hands of a God who alights when and where he wills it (which is the kind of line critics like to lazily indulge in relation to other religious cinéastes, like Bresson, von Trier or Dreyer). We can hardly know - and the characters seem to hardly know - when the miracle has actually occurred in Voyage in Italy or Stromboli, let alone be able to instantly comprehend or absorb its dimensions, implications and consequences.

Maybe this is the authentically Rossellinian aspect of some great, contemporary films: when they build to that strange, mysterious instant which leaves both the characters and us stunned, reeling - transformed but not yet able to articulate the structure and sense of that transformation. It is enough to live this miracle, however confusedly, enough to feel the power of the wave, to know at last that you, and the world around you, has begun to change. Rossellini's cinema is about the moment of revitalisation, on every conceivable level, personal as well as social. That moment of potential rebirth - and the need for it - will never be over for any of us living creatures."

Saturday, March 12, 2011

John Ford's "3 Godfathers" (1948)

Three close friends are on a desert. One of them is on the ground, dying of thirst. Another one is kneeling next to him, trying to help. The third one seems slightly out-of-touch but his simple gesture is as grand as it gets: He shadows his friend's face with his hat. There's acceptance, distance, but also profound care, and a sense of community.

For those who have doubts that this simple gesture has such great implications, Ford makes his near-cosmic intentions very clear. When his friend is already dead, and Robert is going to lower his hand, ending the gesture, we are left face-to-face with the sun for a very brief moment. Watching this, I remembered the last line of Rossellini's Louis XIV, 'neither the sun, nor death, can be looked at directly'.

When at the end of the film the same gesture is repeated, without the sun, or the death, but a profound joy and a possibility of love (and again, a sense of community), the film comes full circle, from Death to Life. Tag Gallagher talks about 'magic moments', 'especially the finale, when sparkling cutting and framing rhyme swingy girls singing'.

Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub's "Une visite au Louvre" (2004)

Here is the voice-over we listen to over the image above (Paolo Veronese's Marriage at Cana) in Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub's Une visite au Louvre. The text, titled Le Louvre, is from Joachim Gasquet's monograph Cézanne. It is based on a visit Gasquet made to the Louvre Museum with his friend Cézanne. So, more or less, this is Gasquet's reminiscences of what Cézanne had to say about the painting. First the English translation (thanks to Sally Shafto), then my French transcription (hopefully as read in the film). The French sounds much more musical, and prophetic:

"But here we have painting. There’s painting for you. Detail, ensemble, volumes, values, composition, excitement, it’s all there . . . Believe me, it’s amazing! . . . What’s happening? . . . Shut your eyes, wait, don’t you think of anything. Now open them . . . What about that? . . . One sees only a great coloured undulation, isn’t that right? A rainbow effect, colours, a wealth of colours. That’s the first thing a picture should give us, a harmonious warmth, an abyss into which the eye plunges, something dimly forming. A state of grace induced by colour. You can feel all these shades of colour running in your blood, don’t you agree? You feel reinvigorated. You are born into the true world. You become yourself, you become part of painting . . . To love a painting you need first to have drunk it in like this, in long draughts. You must lose consciousness. Go down with the painter to the dark, tangled roots of things and rise up again from them with the colours, open up with them in the light. Learn how to see. To feel [ . . . ] My word, there was a happy man. And he brings happiness to everyone who understands him. [ . . . ] People and things pass into his consciousness through the sun, with nothing in him separating them from the light, without a sketch, without abstractions, everything in colour. In time they emerge, still the same but somehow clothed in a gentle glory. Happy as if they had inhaled a mysterious music."

"Mais voila de la peinture, voila de la peinture! Le morceau, l'ensemble, les volumes, les valeurs, la composition, le frisson, tout y est. Ecoutez un peu, c'est épatant. Qu'est-ce que nous sommes? Fermez les yeux, attendez, ne pensez plus à rien. Ouvrez-les. N'est-ce pas, on n’aperçoit qu’une grande ondulation colorée, une irisation... Des couleurs, une richesse de couleurs. C'est ça que doit nous donner d'abord le tableau, une chaleur harmonieuse. Un abime où l'œil s'enfonce, une sourde germination, un état de grâce coloré. Tous ces tons vous coulent dans le sang, n'est-ce pas? On se sent ravigoté. On est au monde vrai, on devient soi-même, on devient de la peinture. Pour aimer un tableau il faut d'abord l'avoir bu, ainsi, à longs traits, perdre conscience. Descendre avec le peintre aux racines sombres enchevêtrées des choses. En remonter avec les couleurs, s'épanouir à la lumière, avec elle. Savoir voir, sentir. Celui-là il était heureux, et tous ceux qui le comprennent il les rend heureux. Les choses, les êtres lui entraient dans l'âme avec le soleil sans rien qui les lui sépare de la lumière. Sans desseins, sans abstractions, tout en couleur. Ils en sortaient un jour les mêmes mais on ne sait pourquoi habillé d'une gloire douce tout heureux. Comme s'ils avaient respiré une mystérieuse musique."

Sally Shafto 's full English transcription of the film can be found here. And her article about the film is here. Here is the painting in better resolution.