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.