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

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 ode 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.

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.

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.

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.

Wednesday, December 9, 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.


Tuesday, December 8, 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...

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Cinemateca Portuguesa & Monte Hellman

I was in Portugal last week and had the chance to visit the Portuguese Cinematheque: Cinemateca Portuguesa.



In December, they're showing some sublime films such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, An Affair to Remember, Stromboli, Anatomy of a Murder, The Birds and works by directors like Fritz Lang, King Vidor, George Cukor, Vincente Minnelli, F. W. Murnau, Claude Chabrol...

Their November program included experimental films too. There were screenings of films by Gregory Markopoulos and Andy Warhol. You can go to their website to see the calender.

Apart from all this, there were a wonderful-looking Monte Hellman retrospective. The only evening I had some time in Lisbon I went to see his Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out!. As you can tell from the title, it's a B-Horror movie, but what the title can't tell is how great the film actually is. Wonderfully lit, with an amazing framing that constantly emanates an awareness of the off-screen world.

The off-screen space is always important in a horror movie as you always wait for the evil to come inside the frame the main characters inhabit, but I've never seen it done with such exactitude and such tension. (Confession: I watched very few horror films.)

Narrative-wise, there is no real evil in the film, certainly not a clear line between the good & evil, which makes Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! all the more terrifying and disturbing. The evil resides in memories, all human beings have some frightening images lying in their (sub or not) consciousness.

When I went out of the theatre, the beautiful Lisbon seemed to reveal the fright within...

According to Wikipedia:
"At a screening at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas in July 2008, Hellman introduced the film, saying he thought it was his best work (though not his best film). His esteem for the work was partly due, he said, to the speed at which the entire project was put together. The original script was thrown out and rewritten in one week, starting in March. By the end of April, principal photography was done, editing was done in May (with Hellman taking time out to go to the Cannes Film Festival), and by July 1989 there was an answer print screened at a film festival."


And again according to Wikipedia, the film was a direct-to-video release but I've seen it on a 35mm print, as it was originally intended.

Needless to say, I don't have a clue about the first two, or the last two films of the series. If anybody who reads this has seen any of them, please do comment.

100 Greatest Films Beyond the Canon

I wrote here before that I participated in a poll for The 50 Greatest Films of all times. The following is my contribution for Iain Stott's new project, Beyond the Canon, together with my introductory note:




This is my list of 100 greatest films "Beyond the Canon". Since it is impossible to decide/define what is "the canon", I decided to strictly follow the rules below:
  1. The films in Iain Stott's "canon" list are not allowed (because the main purpose is to go beyond the accepted canon).
  2. The films already on my 50 greatest films list are not allowed (because it would be too repetitive otherwise).
  3. One film per filmmaker (because I'd like to leave room for less known filmmakers).
This list tells nothing about which directors I like more since it depended a lot on the two lists mentioned above. I tried to order the films according to their own value and not the overall quality of the director's work. For example, Mizoguchi is one of my five favorite directors but here his film is sixteenth. When I wasn't so sure between two films by the same filmmaker, I tried to choose the film that's less well known (i.e. "The Family Plot" over "Marnie", or "Man in a Bubble" over "The Lead Shoes", or "Mouse Wreckers" over "Duck Amuck").

Some incredible directors such as Carl Dreyer, D.W. Griffith, Joseph Mankiewicz, Leo McCarey, Dziga Vertov and Louis Feuillade are not listed, I assume because I haven't seen their non-cannonized works.

My list of 50 Greatest Films, along with its introduction, lists all the filmmakers I consider to be truly great.

A comment I'd like to make about "the canon" and its worst myth:
I firmly disagree that Orson Welles had his artistic climax with "Citizen Kane". "Citizen Kane" is a very great film, that's true, but all of the films I've seen that he made after that, starting from "The Magnificent Ambersons", are better works. I can think of nine films directed by this great genius, all of them being better than "Citizen Kane". My personal favorite is "Chimes at Midnight" but there are many I haven't seen.

I think all the movies below are better than "The Godfather" (or many other much-acclaimed and cannonized movies I don't want to list).

The order is more or less arbitrary. I compiled the list on September 2009.
    1. L'età di Cosimo de Medici (1973) - Roberto Rossellini
    2. Rubber Cement (1976) - Robert Breer
    3. Faustfilm: An Opera: Part I (1987) - Stan Brakhage
    4. Colorado Territory (1949) - Raoul Walsh
    5. Finances of the Grand Duke (1924) - F.W. Murnau
    6. Heaven and Earth Magic (1962) - Harry Smith
    7. Lancelot du Lac (1974) - Robert Bresson
    8. La sortie des usines Lumière (1895) - Louis Lumière
    9. Mr. Arkadin (1955) - Orson Welles
    10. As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000) - Jonas Mekas
    11. Le voyage du ballon rouge (2007) - Hou Hsiao-hsien
    12. I Was a Male War Bride (1949) - Howard Hawks
    13. Mogambo (1953) - John Ford
    14. Un Lac (2009) - Philippe Grandrieux
    15. Le Tempestaire (1947) - Jean Epstein
    16. Gubijinso (1935) - Kenji Mizoguchi
    17. Film About a Woman Who... (1974) - Yvonne Rainer
    18. Screen Tests (1966) - Andy Warhol
    19. States (1967) - Hollis Frampton
    20. L'amour par terre (1984) - Jacques Rivette
    21. Le fond de l'air est rouge (1977) - Chris Marker
    22. Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) - Vincente Minnelli
    23. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1977) - Larry Jordan
    24. We Can't Go Home Again (1976) - Nicholas Ray
    25. The Cameraman (1928) - Buster Keaton
    26. War and Peace (1956) - King Vidor
    27. The Man Who Invented Gold (1957) - Christopher Maclaine
    28. Man in a Bubble (1981) - Sidney Peterson
    29. Written on the Wind (1956) - Douglas Sirk
    30. Serene Velocity (1970) - Ernie Gehr
    31. The Scarlet Empress (1934) - Josef von Sternberg
    32. Men in War (1957) - Anthony Mann
    33. Rameau's Nephew by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen (1974) - Michael Snow
    34. Eniaios (1990) - Gregory Markopoulos
    35. Mouse Wreckers (1949) - Chuck Jones
    36. Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965) - Otto Preminger
    37. Poetry and Truth (2003) - Peter Kubelka
    38. Spies (1928) - Fritz Lang
    39. Holiday (1938) - George Cukor
    40. Mortal Storm (1940) - Frank Borzage
    41. Quixote (1965) - Bruce Baillie
    42. Miami Vice (2006) - Michael Mann
    43. 'R Xmas (2001) - Abel Ferrara
    44. Worldly Desires (2005) - Apichatpong Weerasethakul
    45. Hart of London (1970) - Jack Chambers
    46. La ronde (1950) - Max Ophuls
    47. Strange Illusion (1945) - Edgar G. Ulmer
    48. Naked Kiss (1964) - Samuel Fuller
    49. 10 (1979) - Blake Edwards
    50. Family Plot (1976) - Alfred Hitchcock
    51. Room Film 1973 (1973) - Peter Gidal
    52. La Raison Avant la Passion (1969) - Joyce Wieland
    53. Two Lovers (2008) - James Gray
    54. Um Filme Falado (2003) - Manoel de Oliveira
    55. Ten Videos: 3 (2006) - Kyle Canterbury
    56. Sobibor, 14 octobre 1943, 16 heures (2001) - Claude Lanzmann
    57. October (1928) - Sergei M. Eisenstein
    58. Yi Yi (2000) - Edward Yang
    59. The Virgin Spring (1960) - Ingmar Bergman
    60. The Patsy (1964) - Jerry Lewis
    61. Comanche Station (1960) - Budd Boetticher
    62. Le silence de Lorna (2008) - Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
    63. Rose Hobart (1936) - Joseph Cornell
    64. Mavi Sürgün (1993) - Erden Kıral
    65. Ten (2002) - Abbas Kiarostami
    66. Jaguar (1967) - Jean Rouch
    67. Film (1964) - Samuel Beckett
    68. Kadosh (1999) - Amos Gitai
    69. La Ceremonie (1995) - Claude Chabrol
    70. Schweitzer and Bach (1965) - Jerome Hill
    71. The Decay of Fiction (2003) - Pat O'Neill
    72. The Tree (1974) - Chris Welsby
    73. Süt (2008) - Semih Kaplanoğlu
    74. Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) - Monte Hellman
    75. Lachrymae (2000) - Brian Frye
    76. Traité de bave et d'éternité (1951) - Isidore Isou
    77. Le Temps Qui Reste (2005) - Francois Ozon
    78. Still Life (2006) - Jia Zhang Ke
    79. İklimler (2006) - Nuri Bilge Ceylan
    80. Legend of Nile (2009) - Eytan İpeker
    81. Breaking News (2004) - Johnnie To
    82. EVO (2002) - Oliver Hockenhull
    83. Very Nice, Very Nice (1961) - Arthur Lipsett
    84. Songs from the Second Floor (2000) - Roy Andersson
    85. I Walked with a Zombie (1943) - Jacques Tourneur
    86. The Host (2006) - Bong Joon-ho
    87. 30 Days of Night (2007) - David Slade
    88. Flaming Creatures (1963) - Jack Smith
    89. Ohio Postcard (2009) - Ekrem Serdar
    90. The Disorderly Orderly (1964) - Frank Tashlin
    91. Zodiac (2007) - David Fincher
    92. Chumlum (1964) - Ron Rice
    93. Come September (1961) - Robert Mulligan
    94. Tom, Tom, The Piper's Son (1969) - Ken Jacobs
    95. Pony Glass (1997) - Lewis Klahr
    96. Pan of the Landscape (2005) - Christopher Becks
    97. Crash (1996) - David Cronenberg
    98. Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc. (1966) - Owen Land
    99. I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (2006) - Tsai Ming-liang
    100. La frontière de l'aube (2008) - Philippe Garrel

    The image is from Roberto Rossellini's sublime masterpiece L'età di Cosimo de Medici.

    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.


    Thursday, October 8, 2009

    Nicole Brenez & Adrian Martin on Stan Brakhage

    This is a great article on Stan Brakhage by Nicole Brenez and Adrian Martin. It appeared in Rouge on June 2003.




    Brenez and Martin argue that "Brakhage’s films propose a tutoring of the eye, a rapturous attentiveness to the tiniest visual fluctuations and effects."

    Somewhere in the article, they quote Brakhage himself:
    "This eye is a jelly, and it’s quivering continually, with our heartbeat, with our walking, with our breathing, with anything that happens, any movement we make. And what I did was to make an articulate dance with that possibility, with this lens."

    The image is from Cat's Cradle.

    Saturday, October 3, 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.


    Thursday, October 1, 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."

    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.



    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.


    Adam Rokhsar's videos


    Adam Rokhsar has been producing some of the most inspiring experimental videos I've seen in the last few years...



    Rokshar's works incorporate information processing techniques, programming, file conversion, etc. to question how the computer technology stores and processes images & sounds. This questioning - achieved with great taste, a sense of integrity, and an unmistakable aesthetics - push the boundaries of video as we know it. I know of no other person who uses these "new" programmes to create new rhythms, new textures, and a unique harmony.

    There's no doubt Rokshar controls the processes with precision, and care, but he also allows and embraces a great deal of randomness, which is what makes these works so lively, and which, at moments, cracks open the gateways to see, to grasp, how the information has been processed. What he makes "transparent" is not only himself (through the use of face-detection software), it is also the whole technology behind the final works produced. Somewhere on Vimeo, he mentions "videos that function both as a video and also as a way to visualize information about that video." Which only proves he knows exactly what's happening...



    READ Adam Rokhsar's descriptions of his videos; they show a great attention the the process. He talks about his works as a scientist would talk about his experiments. The descriptions may even seem cold, but art comes rarely without an exciting process. Here is the seemingly "artless" description of his The story I am trying to tell you...:

    "I took pictures of myself using my Canon digital camera using a very slow shutter speed. The pictures were processed with OpenGL and converted in Max to a movie, which I then hacked with avidemux2 to add static and the compression error effects.

    I recorded myself speaking a short text and loaded the audio into Max. By extracting the amount of motion from the video using frame differencing, I could map that number inversely to the sampling rate of the audio, so that my voice could only be heard in fragments of visual motion."

    Repeat: "so that my voice could only be heard in fragments of visual motion." Rokhsar takes the "outside world", a "reality" (and sometimes the "reality" is home movies - videos - from his childhood, or his own face), which he abstracts, without losing the first connection. When you look closely, the works are not so impersonal after all. They are consciously expressive.



    Especially in the videos after Ontology (I'm not a big fan of his works before that), this skipping between different techniques somehow produces unexpected rhythms, beautiful colors, elusive sounds and a constant dynamism. What strikes me first about Adam Rokhsar's videos is their impeccable beauty. The rest comes much later, while I continously care about what's on my computer screen. His best videos offer deep layers of meaninglessness, video-textures that captivate the eye, and constantly shifting centers of gravity. On the Internet, there are few things more worth your time. I think my favorites, in an arbitrary order of preference, are: Engulfment (3), What's on TV?, Closure (4), Memory.

    His blog, where he uploads his finished works, is titled Make Yourself Transparent. There's a nice biography of his here.



    Adam Rokshar's own description of Engulfment (3):
    "When I was a therapist, my supervisor taught me that engulfment was the experience of feeling absorbed or swallowed up by another person.

    Here is an exploration of engulfment by a machine: watch as the computer finds my face using automatic face detection, and then recursively averages it until each pixel becomes entirely white.

    As the amount of whiteness increases, the sampling rate and bit depth of the audio decreases– this means that fewer and fewer samples of sound are taken, and that each sample is increasingly constrained to fewer values.

    The original audio is the sound of an empty room, and the air conditioning."

    Thursday, July 16, 2009

    The 50 Greatest Films

    Iain Stott of The One-Line Review kindly asked me to participate in a poll for The 50 Greatest Films of all times. After giving it some thought, and working on the list for a while, this is what I came up with, together with my introductory note:





    This is an arbitrary selection of my fifty favorite movies... As a result of not limiting myself to one film per filmmaker, other great artists such as Harry Smith, Jonas Mekas, King Vidor, Vincente Minnelli, Robert Aldrich, Carl Dreyer, Jacques Rivette, Chris Marker, Bruce Baillie, Ernie Gehr, Christopher Maclaine, Louis Lumière, Buster Keaton, Jean Epstein, Raoul Walsh, Josef von Sternberg, Jack Chambers, etc. were left out. This is more or less where things stand for me as of June 30th 2009:

    1. Il messia (1975) - Roberto Rossellini
    2. India: Matri Bhumi (1959) - Roberto Rossellini
    3. What goes up (2003) - Robert Breer
    4. Socrate (1971) - Roberto Rossellini
    5. Cartesius (1974) - Roberto Rossellini
    6. Viva l'Italia! (1961) - Roberto Rossellini
    7. Bang! (1986) - Robert Breer
    8. LMNO (1979) - Robert Breer
    9. Viaggio in Italia (1954) - Roberto Rossellini
    10. Faust (1926) - F.W. Murnau
    11. Ugetsu monogatari (1953) - Kenji Mizoguchi
    12. Au hasard Balthazar (1966) - Robert Bresson
    13. La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV (1966) - Roberto Rossellini
    14. Intolerance (1916) - D.W. Griffith
    15. Sophie's Place (1986) - Larry Jordan
    16. The Art of Vision (1965) - Stan Brakhage
    17. Swiss Army Knife with Rats and Pigeons (1980) - Robert Breer
    18. El Dorado (1966) - Howard Hawks
    19. Life of Oharu (1952) - Kenji Mizoguchi
    20. L'argent (1983) - Robert Bresson
    21. Rio Bravo (1959) - Howard Hawks
    22. Donovan's Reef (1963) - John Ford
    23. Beaubourg, centre d'art et de culture Georges Pompidou (1977) - Roberto Rossellini
    24. Francesco, giullare di Dio (1950) - Roberto Rossellini
    25. I... (1995) - Stan Brakhage
    26. Visions in Meditation #2: Mesa Verde (1989) - Stan Brakhage
    27. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) - John Ford
    28. Agostino d'Ippona (1972) - Roberto Rossellini
    29. The Tarnished Angels (1958) - Douglas Sirk
    30. Miss Oyu (1951) - Kenji Mizoguchi
    31. Gulls and Buoys (1972) - Robert Breer
    32. Three Times (2005) - Hou Hsiao Hsien
    33. Mr. Frenhofer and the Minotaur (1949) - Sidney Peterson
    34. Chimes at Midnight (1965) - Orson Welles
    35. The Petrified Dog (1948) - Sidney Peterson
    36. Our Lady of the Sphere (1969) - Larry Jordan
    37. 69 (1968) - Robert Breer
    38. ...Reel Three (1998) - Stan Brakhage
    39. Blow Job (1963) - Andy Warhol
    40. In Harm's Way (1965) - Otto Preminger
    41. The God of Day Had Gone Down Upon Him (2000) - Stan Brakhage
    42. The Lion and the Zebra Make God's Raw Jewels (1999) - Stan Brakhage
    43. The Loom (1986) - Stan Brakhage
    44. Arnulf Rainer (1960) - Peter Kubelka
    45. Millennium Mambo (2001) - Hou Hsiao Hsien
    46. Fantômas (1913) - Louis Feuillade
    47. The Last Laugh (1924) - F.W. Murnau
    48. The Potted Psalm (1946) - Sidney Peterson
    49. The Horse Soldiers (1959) - John Ford
    50. Zorns Lemma (1970) - Hollis Frampton


    There are four lists I find inspiring: Edo Choi, Jack Angstreich, Mike Grost, Dan Sallitt

    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."