Sunday, November 14, 2010

Lee Marvin on John Ford

I heard that Pedro Costa screened the following at the Anthology Film Archives last week. Here is more information about the event.

It's Lee Marvin talking about two transcendent John Ford films he acted in: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Donovan's Reef.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" (2010)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul's new film is like a surprisingly natural, free-wheeling train of thought. Watching it the second time at the filmekimi in Istanbul, I felt the line between me and the film disappear, it became a light-dance that mimics ‘the inner workings of the mind’ (as the director himself puts it), while challenging us constantly, a reel at a time.

In this post I’m going to try to share with you some of the best things I found written about the film on the web. I have nothing to say that’s too original, so this post is mainly for the unconverted: I hope to share some clues with people who don’t know what they think of the film. If you already love the film, you’re most probably a beautiful soul anyway, don’t read the rest, go do something good for the universe!

Here is what Apichatpong himself says about the film in Mark Peranson and Kong Rithdee’s Cinema Scope interview:
‘More than my other films, Uncle Boonmee is very much about cinema, that’s also why it’s personal. If you care to look, each reel of the film has a different style—acting style, lighting style, or cinematic references—but most of them reflect movies. I think that when you make a film about recollection and death, you have to consider that cinema is also dying—at least this kind of old cinema that nobody makes anymore.


I think Uncle Boonmee will be one of the last films that will be shot on film, as everything is moving to the Red or Sony or whatever, so it’s a tribute, and a lamentation, in a way, for celluloid. The first reel is really like my way of filming: you see the animal in the forest, a long take with the kidney dialysis, and the driving scene. And the second reel is very much like old cinema with stiff acting, no camera movement, and a very classical stage, like Thai TV drama, with monsters and ghosts. The third reel becomes like a documentary, shot in the exteriors on the tamarind farm—and also French, in a way, this kind of relaxing film. The fourth reel, with the princess and the catfish, is a costume drama, a Thai cinema of the past. So even though there is a continuity, the time reference always shifts… The fifth reel is the jungle, but it’s not the same jungle as Tropical Malady because it’s a cinema jungle—a day-for-night drama that we shot with a blue filter, like very old films. You put this old actor into a cinema jungle, and the cave refers to those old adventure novels or comic books. (In the scene with the ghost we also used a mirror, another allusion to the cinema of the past.) And the sixth reel, in the hotel, the time is slowed down, the time has become seemingly documentary. Again it’s like my films, with the long takes, but at the same time in the end when it splits, when you see the doubles of the two characters, Jen and Tong, I wanted to suggest the idea of time disruption, that the movie isn’t dealing with one reality, there are multiple planes…’

In other interviews, he claims that the ‘film is about love and relationships’, that it’s ‘a personal diary’, and that the whole Primitive Project is ‘about going back to the roots of things, what we have in our bodies, the primitive energy’. He also says the following about Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives:
‘I wanted this to be like a children’s film or a children’s book, to retain that feeling of innocence. For me the interesting challenge was how to make a film that talks about death — this universal issue that’s been done a lot — and at the same time make it abstract enough to give the audience the freedom to use their imagination.’
From an Apichatpong interview by Kong Rithdee at Bangkok Post:
'Uncle Boonmee is a film about transformation, about objects and people that transform or hybridise. You can explain with scientific belief that nothing exists, nothing is really solid and everything is just a moving particle.’

Dennis Lim, who also did a wonderfully easy-going interview with Apichatpong at the Toronto Film Festival (which I shot and made a video out of, it's titled apichatportrait), also wrote one of the best reviews at the Artforum:
‘I saw Uncle Boonmee twice in Cannes (despite Apichatpong’s objections: “Better to leave it all jumbled,” he told me when I interviewed him), and it strikes me as both his simplest work to date and a step forward in his ongoing project to change the way we experience movies. For the receptive viewer, Apichatpong’s sensory immersions induce a state of simultaneous relaxation and watchfulness. This time, despite a few enigmatic detours, there are no midmovie reboots. The title spells out the premise, which crystallizes the sly paradox at the heart of the film. We watch a movie about a terminally ill man (Boonmee, a farmer suffering from kidney failure, tended to by loved ones, including the ghost of his wife) ever alert to signs of life. A water buffalo freeing itself from its tether, a disfigured princess who sees her reflection by an idyllic waterfall, the talking catfish that performs underwater cunnilingus on her, the insects whose chirps and buzzes engulf the nighttime jungle scenes: Might these be Boonmee’s past (or future) incarnations?


An otherworldly fable, Uncle Boonmee often alights on earthly sensations (the taste of raw honey, a lingering embrace) and political realities (the violent history of Thailand’s poor, rural northeast and, at a remove, the current clashes in Bangkok). Much like another high point of the festival, Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica, it’s both a radiant ghost story and a tale of cinema itself, concerned with the act of perception and the mysterious conjuring of alternate worlds. Both films are by artists who defy most existing categories. At 101, Oliveira is a man out of time or, perhaps, of multiple times. No less an outsider, equally at ease in a variety of idioms and registers, Apichatpong synthesizes the Western avant-garde tradition with Buddhist thought, animist belief, and Thai pop culture. As Uncle Boonmee confirms, his vision is above all a generous one. In the threat of extinction—a dying man, a disintegrating country, a disappearing medium—Apichatpong sees the possibility of regeneration.’

Daniel Kasman also does well summarizing the non-summarizable at MUBI:
‘The film is full of life, dead and alive, and suffuse with gentleness. Boonmee and his family greet the dead with smiles and love, and the film emits a luminescence as tactile as the milky forest chiaroscuro of its 16mm photography and as ambient as the tender embrace between Boonmee and his dead wife, the netted, soft rainbow pastels that paint the dead woman's view of her sleeping sister, and Tong’s silent willingness to follow the family into the deepest forest and emerge a changed man. The natural, unexplained and unexplainable flow of reincarnation that pulses through the film—which diverts to tell the story of a water buffalo, of a scarred princess and her catfish lover, of a magic cave of chalky silver, strange shapes and blind fish hidden in the woods, of briefly stepping away from a troubled, mournful life—calms everyone, and the film itself. The Ghost Monkeys look like frightful beasts, eyes like red bulbs as they creep and swing through the trees, but Boonmee creates a world where there may be anxiety over the unknown but there is no fear, only acceptance and care. A richness of time, a human time. Passings and returns ebb out of human life into the unexplained, into the myth and folklore, where sharing fresh honey on a sunny day is as beautiful as embracing a ghost, the dark life of the jungle, or the simple heartbreak of the final draining of Boonmee’s beleaguered kidney. It is probably as simple a film as Apichatpong, whose cinema is lovingly cryptic, can get, as if a human radiance humbly simplifies everything, from the mysteries of death and melancholy, to the origin of the world and friendship, family, and the dead gathering over a night’s dinner.’

Michael Koresky is very correct in reminding us (at Reverse Shot) the clue to Apichatpong’s art: the audiovisual sensory experience the films are offering. Acquiring this particular attentiveness is the only way you’ll enjoy the films from beginning to the end, and the only way you’ll follow the “train of thought” Uncle Boonmee is:
What should be mentioned first is the quiet. But when discussing Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives many will undoubtedly initially gravitate towards the monkey ghosts, the talking catfish, the materializing spirits. Yet it’s the hushed beauty of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films that perhaps most unites them, and which helps make his latest—the surprise Palme d’or winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival—what it is, atmospherically, temperamentally, spiritually. The natural wonder of Apichatpong’s Northern Thailand, the swaying branches and grasses of its restive jungles and fields, its crickets and birds, breezes and hums, are all-encompassing on screen, thanks to the filmmaker’s immersive, simple yet forceful sound design, itself a gentle Buddhist gesture. Watching and listening, we are united with every living thing on screen, and we become aware of our place in the cosmos. It’s what separates him from most of today’s acclaimed art-house formalists: he offers long takes, but not exclusively or even meticulously. His pace is unhurried but he’ll stop a scene if necessary; his cutting is intuitive and impulsive, rather than overdetermined, resulting in a cinema that more effectively mirrors a dream state than that of any filmmaker outside of David Lynch. His tone is solemn yet he’s not above deflating the mood with a smile, so good-natured is he. He’s political yet focused on the smallest gestures between people—or between humans and animals. The silence and the silly song, together—two chambers of the same open heart.


That we never know for sure is part of the film’s poetic miracle: the title might be misleading (we’re never told whether Uncle Boonmee can recall his past lives or not), but the possibility of soul transmigration seems to exist within every person and animal we meet, from that sprightly ox to the hairy Boonsong to the insects that bring this world to buzzing life—even those flies that Jen casually zaps with an electric swatter on her porch.


And in this tenderhearted vision, these forces never come into conflict. They merge into one joyous, mournful entity—like the harmony created by that exquisite silence and that buoyant karaoke tune.’

In the second half of the film, the film journeys into the jungle... About this Apichatpong says:
‘In terms of my intention, it was more about going back to the jungle and seeing it as a different place–a place that we feel alienated from, which is different than maybe when our ancestors encountered the jungle. But it is still our home. I always take my characters home.’

Then it journeys into a cave... Wendy Ide at Times tries to explain why that might be:
‘The film’s enchantment is at its most potent during a pilgrimage by Boonmee and his family to a cave high in the hills – the throbbing growl on the soundtrack creates a kind of aural architecture for the dying man’s gateway from this life to the next. It’s spine-tingling stuff. Directly afterwards we are returned to the mundane reality of life after Boonmee’s death – a place where prosaic funeral arrangements are discussed in featureless hotel rooms, and the ghosts have retreated to the forests. But by this time, the film’s spell has taken effect and its curious magic is evident everywhere from the saffron of a monk’s robes to the gaudy fairy lights of a low-rent karaoke bar.’

Apichatpong more or less agrees at New York Times:
‘There’s the scene in “Boonmee” where they go into a cave, which is like a womb and also like going back home, when we were in caves.’

So, if I tried to put it all together:
Uncle Boonmee is a disarming & gentle lovesong "where the past, the present and the future (and the multiple universes) blur, mingle and interact", where "nothing is solid", and "there are moving particles" everywhere, so much so that Death is Home. That’s why “gradually becoming” is the whole purpose of the movie, where "transmigration of the soul" allows a new symbiosis of all living (and dead) creatures, where fables are taken seriously as a nearly forgotten memory of past wisdoms. Film (as light projected through moving celluloid) is a metaphor for all this, and all this is a metaphor for Film.

I just love the following sentence by Kong Rithdee (at Bangkok Post) who has found a beautiful metaphor for the last film of a “conceiver” who defines editing as “a disruption of space”:
‘With your eyes wide open it's also a dream alchemy that fuses into the memory of a place where time and space fold into each other like the soft petals of an eccentric flower, or like proof of quantum physics, or _ why not? _ both.’

Monday, October 18, 2010


Unable to find the right words to describe Apichatpong's films (other than this), I'm posting this silent video I finished today. It's a reaction to his spiritually joyful art.

Both the footage of Apichatpong AND the horizontal colors were shot during a conversation between Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Dennis Lim at the Toronto Film Festival 2010, a day or two after I saw Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives for the first time.

Please try to see it full-screen...

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Let the Light Shine Through: an interview with Adam Rokhsar

This is the first of (what I hope will be) a series of conversations/interviews with artists I like. I am proud to begin with Adam Rokhsar, who has been making some of the most inspiring videos I know (and uploading them on the web) since March 2009.

I wrote about Adam Rokhsar’s art about a year ago; you can read my post (which I still agree with wholeheartedly) here. Since then, Adam has continued making videos that proved my initial suspicion that he was a true artist. This is the link to his Vimeo profile.

I did no edits to his answers without his approval and had his final confirmation before posting this. Hope you’ll enjoy reading Adam’s answers as much as I did...

How would you introduce yourself?

I think of myself as an artist-scientist. This is a recent realization, that I could possibly be a synthesis of both and not forced to approach my work from one perspective at the exclusion of the other.

I have been going back-and-forth about what to write, if anything, to explain my work. As an artist, I want to create a space for people to experience the piece without my text intruding into their thoughts. I try to never intentionally create work that "ought" to be understood in any particular way; if I do, I throw that stuff out. I can't learn anything about myself or the world when I make work that has a meaning I know consciously.

However, as a scientist, I want to share what I learn from my investigations into the invisible structures of the world. If a visual effect is created by exploring some hidden pattern buried within a digital signal of music, I want people to know that. I want them to know they are seeing some relationship that I found, not made. It doesn't so much change what the work means -- it changes what the work is.

I struggle with these two perspectives. I created a piece recently in which the video content was pulled from the wall off the killers' apartment in the Hitchcock film "Rope." I took the digital video of a painting on their wall while I watched the movie, and then cracked open the video file. I broke the compression algorithm several times over. The video starting to look very slippy, liquid-like, but I could still see the figure inside the painting. Then I wrote software that analyzed a music track I wrote months ago, fed the results to a very simple learning algorithm, and that algorithm in turn chopped up the video even more. I wondered, should I share all that when I share the piece? I decided not to. I am still unsure of how to reconcile these approaches, and I think that speaks to an uncertainty about what I am still.

Which video is that?

I called that video Spirit is a Bone, Heaven is a Truck. Half Hegel, half Steve Malkmus.

Do you edit your videos?

I try not to edit the videos. If I do, it's just to cut off a little at the beginning or end, or if something really ruins the rhythm. I don't like to edit videos or music for that matter. When I try I tend to get compulsive about it unless I enforce a strict "first thought best thought" policy -- I might do an edit wherever the mouse happens to land me on the track. I trust accidents of my hand more than conscious editing decisions. I do my best to honor my errors as hidden intentions.

How do you think your past as "a therapist and behavioral science specialist" affect your videos?

When I was getting my graduate degree in counseling psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, my professor John Fantuzzo told my class that the job of the therapist was to "make the toxic invisible visible." I find myself obsessed with the same task as an artist -- to make invisible things become visible.

The other ways that being a therapist informs my current work are very hard to trace. During the six years I worked in mental health services, I met many people, saw many things, and encountered a variety of situations many people don't get to experience. It was a privilege, to be let into strangers' lives. I have counseled homeless families, runaway kids, juvenile sex offenders, addicts, pedophiles, victims of sexual abuse, developmentally disabled adults... It effected who I am profoundly, and must effect my work in ways I can't yet imagine.

There is a dark side to your videos, as if the discovery of the “toxic invisible” is bound to be horrifying at moments... Maybe that’s one of the answers? But it’s unlikely that your experience as a therapist is the only cause of this...

I don't think about my work in terms dark or light. It makes me so happy to make it, that's all I experience -- it's a wonderful feeling. After I finish a piece, sometimes I think, well, that was dark. I don't do it intentionally. I don't like to work when I know the conclusion ahead of time.

Whether the darkness you see is related to the traumatic material I encountered as a therapist -- of which there was plenty, especially when working with juvenile sex offenders and child victims of sexual abuse-- I'm not sure. I am interested in trauma, whether it's a force that pokes holes in our lives or whether its the part of reality our lives haven't covered, like the Lacanian Real traumatizing us with science and its hidden structures. I hope to make work that returns those structures back to the realm of human thinking, where they can become pure potentiality instead of a brutally unmovable pattern.

I notice that you use the word invisible a lot: “Invisible structures of the world”, “toxic invisible”, “invisible things”... You’re not the first at all but I find it interesting for a visual artist. In Joyce’s Ulysses there is a short poem:

I am the boy
That can enjoy

Anyway, the “toxic invisible” is a way of looking at human psyche, while the “invisible structures of the world” sounds more metaphysical... These two aren’t necessarily related. Or are they?

I think you are right, that the toxic invisible and the hidden structures of the world are related. I like reading Zizek. He says, there are unknown unknowns, and there are unknown knowns. Things we don’t know we don’t know, and things we don’t know we do know. That’s the toxic invisible and the hidden structuring of things right there.

I never heard that poem, but I like it. Thanks for sharing it. I used to read Joyce a lot when I was a kid. My dad is a big fan.

On your website you talk about "augmenting our humanity with technology". How do you think we can go about doing that?

Right now I am really interested in neural networks. I don't like calling them that. How can you say something works like the brain when the materials are so radically different? A neuron is nothing like the set of computer instructions that make up an artificial neural network. The morphology of the two are fundamentally unlike.

That said, I am fascinated by what machine learning algorithms can do, and the way they are transforming our world. We have seen only the very beginning of it -- computer vision, natural language processing... where these things lead us are going to change what it means to be human, and I want to start using them right now to create art. So far the work I make with machine intelligence that isn't very different from other kinds of art. I am still making videos, images, and music. But I think there is potential for machine learning to allow for a radical shift in what kind of art is possible, in what art means. It is hard to imagine right now, but I am trying to imagine it. I want to make that happen.

It's important to me that artists get their hands on these tools. They are hard to reach. They require knowing programming, and math, and not so easy math at that. Plus they're mostly created by scientists and engineers who are not necessarily thinking of artists when they instruct others how to build machine learning algorithms. I would very much like to see these tools stolen and re-purposed to make art. Some artists do it now, but I know from my work as an art educator that to many people it feels out of reach. This is a problem. The new kinds of art are going to be very important for all of us, if we are to make sense of what it means to be human in the face of a new kind of intelligence.

I worry that we look at the machines around us and try to be more like them. I worry that we end up meeting the machines where they are and not the other way around. I think of the film "The Big Lebowski", when The Dude says, "Jackie Treehorn treats objects like women, man." I love that line. It gets to the heart of the issue: how we treat objects and people. I am not talking about intelligent robots. Look at the iPhone. It contains assumptions and rules encoded in it about what it means to relate to something. We push it, it does what we want. Clifford Nass and Bryon Reeves showed that people treat computers and machines as social agents, even if they know better. Their book came out nine years ago. Now I watch little kids flying through iPhones and games and wonder, what are they learning from these objects they treat as friends? Are they learning how to participate in mutually fulfilling, respectful relationships? What kind of relationship are these machine-human relationships modeling for us?

I’d like to hear more about the relationship between the “machine learning algorithms”, the “new kind of intelligence” and your videos... Can you be more specific? Please feel free to be technical...

I remember when I first watched the self-organized map (SOM) I programmed, well, organize itself. I had given it pictures of faces of my family, going back four generations. It was important to me when deciding how to program the SOM that I could see its learning process. I guess I wanted to get to know it, and I did -- I watched as the it learned what we all look like. It found the features that linked our faces in those particular photographs, I watched it move from its fantasy of my mom's face to my sister's, to my great-grandfather's. Strange but true: some researchers call the data that neural networks generate "fantasies." The way it moved made me immediately realize the accuracy of the term "Artificial Intelligence."

Since then I have become curious about what other learning models look like. I want to see the different kinds of intelligences people have been making. Right now, I am very interested in deep belief networks, and am getting a lot out of Geoff Hinton's research on them. Building a generative model is infinitely more interesting to me than building a model that only classifies, which I encoutered a lot in the Music and Audio Research Lab at NYU. Back then I was drawn to the hidden Markov model for exactly that reason; though it classified, you could always generate a state sequence and from there sample the gaussians to get new input data. The deep belief nets are more beautiful to me. I am eager to try and implement then in Max, which is where I built the SOM.

Can you tell us more about the programs you’re using? I downloaded the demo versions of some of them and tried to use but got lost very soon. I would have loved to join the course you’re teaching in New York. How can videomakers learn more about these? Any suggestions? Books?

I’ve been building everything myself in Max. My plan is to make the software I use free for anyone to download. Videomakers, musicians, people with no experience or interest in the technical side of AI -- this is my target audience. I really believe that no matter how complex these tools are, they should always be available to everyone and explained in such a way that people can understand what they are. Often I think programmers lose sight of how foreign their work is to non-programmers. I put a lot of time into making the software accessible, which often comes to do lots of visualization tools to make it clear what the algorithm is doing. When I finish the SOM library, I plan on posting in on my website and in the Cycling 74 forums.

As for books or courses, it’s hard to find a non-technical introduction to machine learning and AI. I can tell you, learning this stuff was slow going for me. I was always playing catch-up: with the math, the programming skills, the theory... it took a while and lot of work. I got good at reading articles I didn’t understand at all, and not letting that discourage me. I’m not above looking up every single word in a journal paper that I don’t understand, even if it takes a month to get through it.

I’m trying to address the lack of educational resources on AI for artists at Harvestworks, which is a non-profit arts center where I work as technical director. Within the next two months, I plan on running a course called AI for Artists, which will be designed to get people’s hands on new machine intelligence tools and give them an understanding on how the tools work without requiring four years of college math.

You talk a lot about technology but you use home videos and other personal things from your childhood as your starting points... Are they "starting points"? How do they affect the form of the videos? Is that part of the process of being transparent? One of your videos is called "The story I am trying to tell you..." Is there a story you're trying to tell us?

Family is definitely a starting point, that’s a good way of putting it. I have a lot of video material of my parents and sisters. They are very important to me and I think a lot of my work -- and who I am -- really has its roots in what it was like to grow up in my family. Our particular dynamics. I’ve noticed whenever I make a new program, the first thing I usually to do try it out is give it images of my family.

As I get older, I can’t help but feel a strange mix of wonder and sadness when I see the video footage of my sisters and I as kids. Computers make it easy to think that we can store the past in fixed form and bring it with us, but they can do nothing to address the fact that we cannot really cross back in time to become those memories. We can only have them. The tension between being and having is something a former therapy supervisor of mine taught me about. He believes that art is an attempt to reach back against the losses that come with time, the way your identity goes fractured, and make yourself whole again.

Why is your blog titled "Make Yourself Transparent"?

When I created Make Yourself Transparent, my goal was to make a place for my friends and I to share all the work we weren't finished with, wasn't quite ready to let out, etc... this is part of the idea behind the title. I decided to not wait until I was proud of my work. I wanted to just get it out there, in the hopes that I would spend less time thinking about how it would be perceived and more time making it.

A "part of the idea"... What’s the rest of the idea? And by the way, I’m not a big fan of your videos before Ontology...

I definitely agree with you -- the work before a certain point is simply not interesting to me. I don't think it feels like art. I only really felt like I started to hit a stride very recently. Maybe I will always feel like I am finally getting started. I think Faulkner said, you have to murder your darlings. Well, it's hard. I get attached to my work. So I try to put it out there and turn away. That's how I murder them. The less tightly I hold on, the more I realize I'm not really responsible for the work anyway. Then it's not such an ego boost. It's more about a way of living. I want to be transparent to the mystery -- that's what Joseph Campbell says. Be transparent to the transcendent. You don't make yourself into a light by trying to shine. You try to be very clear, don't be grabby, don't hold on to things. The light isn't mine. I am doing my best to let it through.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Director's Statement for "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" (2010)

I saw Apichatpong's huge masterpiece Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives a few days ago and can't get it out of my head. I think there's nothing like it in the history of cinema, or in Apichatpong's own filmography.

I hope I'll write a lot about the film in this blog, but for that I'll need to see it a couple more times. The first experience was too visceral, too sensuous, too overwhelming for me to actually start writing about it. Luckily, it will play in Istanbul at the Film Ekimi festival on October. Soon, that is! Can't wait!

Meanwhile, here's something we can begin with to start analyzing this irreplaceable masterpiece. Apichatpong's Director's Statement, from the Press Kit:

"Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is an homage to my home, and to a certain kind of cinema I grew up with.

I believe in the transmigration of souls between humans, plants, animals, and ghosts. Uncle Boonmeeʼs story shows the relationship between man and animal and at the same time destroys the line dividing them. When the events are represented through cinema, they become shared memories of the crew, the cast, and the public. A new layer of (simulated) memory is augmented in the audienceʼs experience. In this regard, filmmaking is not unlike creating synthetic past lives.

I am interested in exploring the innards of this time machine. There might be some mysterious forces waiting to be revealed just as certain things that used to be called black magic have been shown to be scientific facts.

For me, filmmaking remains a source all of whose energy we havenʼt properly utilized. In the same way that we have not thoroughly explained the inner workings of the mind. Additionally, I have become interested in the destruction and extinction processes of cultures and of species.

For the past few years in Thailand, nationalism, fueled by the military coups, brought about a confrontation of ideologies. There is now a state agency that acts as a moral policeman to ban ʻinappropriateʼ activities and to destroy their contents. It is impossible not to relate the story of Uncle Boonmee and his belief to this.

He is an emblem of something that is about to disappear, something that erodes like the old kind of cinemas, theatres, the old acting styles that have no place in our contemporary landscape."

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Philippe Grandrieux's "La Vie Nouvelle" (2002)

Let me begin by quoting a part of the lyrics of the famous French song sung by a client of Melania: Jean Ferrat's Aimer à perdre la raison, from a poem by Louis Aragon. I don't find the poem, or the song, that beautiful in themselves, but they mean a lot to me as an element of La Vie Nouvelle:

Aimer à perdre la raison
Aimer à n'en savoir que dire
A n'avoir que toi d'horizon
Et ne connaître de saisons
Que par la douleur du partir
Aimer à perdre la raison

Ah, c'est toujours toi que l'on blesse
C'est toujours ton miroir brisé,
Mon pauvre bonheur ma faiblesse
Toi qu'on insulte et qu'on délaisse
Dans toute chair martyrisée.

In short, the first part talks about loving someone so much that you lose your mind, so much that the only thing on the horizon seems to be the loved one. The second part, not sung in the movie, describes the person being loved, who turns out to be broken, injured, insulted and martyrized by the society.

Perhaps the heart of La Vie Nouvelle, and the sublime art of Philippe Grandrieux can be explained by the two verses above. Broken, painful existences in search of love, seeking some form of communion with the other, who have their own miseries. Many people mistake La Vie Nouvelle for a sick porn movie, which it certainly looks like at points, I admit I had to struggle with it a long time. The violence on the screen is near unacceptable, especially because the director is flirting with it. But in fact, and this is clear to me as sunlight, the violence and the abuses in Grandrieux's films are always confessions, exorcisms. The "New Life" being talked about here begins after the discovery of love, or, maybe a phrase that can be used interchangably with love in Grandrieux's cinema, the discovery of an other. The harsh reality that came before only makes this "new life" more meaningful.

As Grandrieux says himself in the wonderful Nicole Brenez interview on Rouge:

"...always this story of what it is to be human, i.e. confronted with alterity, with the Other who is infinitely possible and yet infinitely closed and inaccessible, no matter what one does. And it’s from there that one journeys, works, loves, fucks…"

By the way, "La Vie Nouvelle" is the official French translation of Dante's text "La Vita Nuova", a collection of gorgeous love poems. The hommage seems unmistakable.

Human beings are animals, dogs in La Vie Nouvelle, with potential for extremely elevated feelings. But the lack of these in daily life is the cause of the suffering. This animality, corporality, and the biology that drives it finds its perfect expression in a scene shot with a THERMAL CAMERA, nothing less, so what is recorded on celluloid isn't light, but the heat of human (and/or animal?) bodies. Here's what Grandrieux says about the scene, again from the Brenez interview:

"(...) the principle is that it is no longer light which makes an impression. With infrared photography, you must use an infrared light, a beaming light that illuminates the bodies, and the reflection of that registers on the celluloid. But here, there is no light. It is the animal warmth of the bodies which imprints itself on the celluloid. The scene was shot in total darkness; no one could see anything except me through the camera. All the participants were in an absolute blackout, and they moved around in a deranged state."

Adrian Martin's incredible article at Kinoeye touches at the heart of the matter. Reading the following paragraph the first time brought tears to my eyes, because it is so accurate, and reminds moments at the very extremes of my cinematic experience. The "French client" he talks about in the last sentence is the one singing the song Aimer à perdre la raison:

"Mise en scène—the art of bodies in space—is always, subtly or overtly, a dance, but this is the dance of death, the living death of everyday power relations. The two scenes of Mélania's prostitution, one placed directly after the other in Grandrieux's cinema of cruelty, provide an inventory of bodily postures figuring fright, uncertainty, panic and stress, a primal, physical language of animals under threat: Seymour's instant post-coital blues, Mélania's vulnerable nakedness, and the icy upper-body stress of the French client, who finally withdraws into himself and away from the Other in order to masturbate in a fuzzy, atomised blur."

Here's Grandrieux talking about the making of La Vie Nouvelle (Brenez interview):

"The film was made under the sign of enormous heat, vital energy, the blazing sun. That surpasses desire, it is even more archaic and formative; it comes from the sun itself, from a star beyond us that we aspire to, in a totally chaotic way. This aspiration towards great energy and happiness, it infused the film, which we made in a wild state of joy, six weeks of shooting like a single stroke, without a second thought [arrière-pensée]."

And finally, and again from the same interview, here's a quote by Grandrieux you might have encountered elsewhere on this blog, one of the finest ideals ever set for art:

"Not a film like a tree, with a trunk and branches, but like a field of sunflowers, a field of grass growing everywhere."

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Claire Denis on narrative in cinema

This is something Eytan sent me this morning, it's one of the best descriptions of how I approach narrative in cinema. From Jonathan Romney's interview with Claire Denis (bold emphases are mine):

Jonathan Romney: But the way you tell stories, you don't make it easy for the audience. I saw Nénette et Boni the other night, and what's amazing about that film is that it's a very simple story. A brother and a sister and they meet again. But we don't know everything about them. You take out all the things that other film-makers would put in so we know where we are. We don't know where we are in this film and we have to find ourselves, we have to find the story. Is that a conscious process?

Claire Denis: It's conscious and unconscious. Because again I am not trying to make it hard. I hate that. But I am trying to float on the impression of what a story could be. But for me, cinema is not made to give a psychological explanation, for me cinema is montage, is editing. To make blocks of impressions or emotion meet with another block of impression or emotion and put in between pieces of explanation, to me it's boring. Again, I am not trying to make it difficult but I think, as a spectator, when I see a movie one block leads me to another block of inner emotion, I think that's cinema. That's an encounter. I think cinema is linked to literature by a lot of social ways. Our brains are full of literature - my brain is. But I think we also have a dream world, the brain is also full of image and songs and I think that making films for me is to get rid of explanation. Because there is, I think, you get explanation by getting rid of explanation. I am sure of that.

Something I wrote on a_film_by four years ago:

"Here's my problem with taking 'the story' too seriously. As Zach [Campbell] points out, what we call the story of a film only exists in our minds. What there really is in the film is bits and pieces of information/happenings. Those can be taken in time-based cause/consequence relationships and we have a story.

OR we can take those in a more poetic way, as a continuous flow of thought/feeling/images that sometimes create interesting effects not because they construct a story but just because they contrast or draw parallels between different ideas.

And I'm not talking about contrasts/parallels between different scenes. It could be that in the same scene, same shot, different thought/feelings might be aroused by different elements.

If a character expresses regret by the way she looks in a funeral scene, what we have is more than that character feeling regret during a funeral. We have the ideas of regret and death meshed together, which creates a different idea impossible to express in words. This would, of course, have to be helped by the composition since cinema is a cinematic medium.

I find that most of my favorite narrative films also work in this poetic way. Au hasard, Balthazar, Viaggio in Italia, I Was a Male War Bride, Some Came Running, The Birds, Objective, Burma! are all great examples of this."

Or we can summarize all this thanks to a simple quote by Jean Mitry: "Le roman est un récit qui s'organise en monde, le film un monde qui s'organise en récit," Tag Gallagher's translation: "The novel is a narrative that constructs a world; film is a world that constructs a narrative."

Monday, May 31, 2010

Douglas Sirk's "A Time to Love and a Time to Die" (1958)

Buildings define spaces, and they are crumbling. War is Hell, and the lighting is Hell in A Time to Love and a Time to Die.

The only paradise is in the short moments of peace the lovers have, which are usually cut off by sirens or the bombs exploding. Still, the blossoming flowers appear everywhere...

About Sirk's The Tarnished Angels, I had said: "I felt so fragile, as if everything could break like a glass at any given moment". The same here: The whole world, everything we build might crumble down at any moment. True, this is a story at a time of war, a time of absurdity, but if we are in a world where such absurdities can happen, what does that tell about the every other moment in history? Isn't it pure luck for the lucky few that things are standing still... And what is it worth, if it's just pure luck?

Intricacies of composition, visual puzzles, filled with ruins, or the standing artifacts of civilisation (especially the museum...). Binding's house as a perfect example of how the materiality around is such a lie, just an extension of human egos (Tag Gallagher talks about "Wills"), threatened by an absurd destiny (which is forewarned by the title itself). Life itself is only a reflection, and Love slips away, even though we're trying to hold on to it (i.e. the last shot of the film).

Like Stan Brakhage says in Telling Time, aesthetics and empathy are one and the same. Film-aesthetics, not as a collection of pretty pictures, but as a rhythmic succession of durations, a perception of time-itself ("A Time to... and a Time to..."). And empathy (Tag Gallagher talks about "understanding"), not only for the characters whose stories we're watching, but also for a vision of the world (Douglas Sirk's, in this case).

Similarly, Tag Gallagher reminds us that the Greek word "Melodrama" actually consists of two words: "Melo" (meaning "Music": rhythm, form...) and "Drama" (emotions, identification, conflicts...).

There is joy in the experience of A Time to Love and a Time to Die, a dark, frightening joy...

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Semih Kaplanoğlu's "Yusuf Trilogy" (2007-2010)

Yesterday, I went to see Bal (Honey) for the third time.

I went there because I felt like I needed the movie, because it was the only real thing around. Bal would offer me a ride to the very essence of things, while everything else seemed bland... I needed therapy, and it was with this mindset that I went in, not knowing what to expect, except to be healed... Healed I was when it was over.

Now that I'm getting familiar with it, the road it offers feels less bumpy, like a free-flowing conversation. This familiarity does not ruin the experience at all, it breeds no contempt, no boredom. It's the other way around, Bal feels closer and closer to home, like a memorized prayer that gets more elating each time it is read (not that I'm a religious person in any way). Is it just coincidence or a case of selective attention that I ran into the following two quotes by Beckett today?

“All poetry, as discriminated from the various paradigms of prosody, is prayer.”


“ has nothing to do with clarity, does not dabble in the clear and does not make clear.”

In his thoughtful article on Semih Kaplanoğlu's Yusuf Trilogy, Fatih Özgüven gives us some clues on how to approach these seemingly distant films. Here is my own summary of what he says, or rather, what I understand from it:

The trilogy consists of three films with peculiar titles: Yumurta (Egg), Süt (Milk), Bal (Honey). The following explanation for the titles only work in the context of the trilogy as the films create their own meanings:

Honey represents the Father, who acquires his knowledge of the world through work (the bees are working and Yusuf's father works in order to obtain honey and teaches his son how to). Milk represents the Mother who has a more innate knowledge of life, just as milk comes naturally. She is also the one insisting that Yusuf drinks milk. Egg is life, or birth, which can only happen through the coming together of what's innate and what's acquired.

This above paragraph can be taken as a mythology of how human beings are created, OR as a mythology of how artworks are created. To draw the parallel between art and life isn't very hard here, especially since Yusuf will become a poet. The distinction between life and art is superfluous anyway.

The expending symbolisms above work as clues to the trilogy, they clarify, but shouldn't be taken too far. Semih Kaplanoğlu's films also appreciate the thingness of things. So, in a way, an egg is an egg, milk is milk, honey is honey... Quoting D.H. Lawrence:

“Life and love are life and love, a bunch of violets is a bunch of violets, and to drag in the idea of a point is to ruin everything.”

When I first heard that a Turkish film-maker whose works I had not seen before was going to make a trilogy with the titles Egg, Milk and Honey, I thought it was ridicule, a poor attempt at something. Now with Bal, it all seems so very clearly, unshakably profound. In Bal, there is a scene in the classroom where a girl reads a paragraph from a textbook. It goes something like this (as much as I remember): “We eat food in order to obtain our energy. Without them we would be incapable of doing ordinary things such as walking, running, playing...”

So foods are not just foods, we exist thanks to them, they are our connections with other species, or the outer world in general. They are connections that become part of us. Notice that eggs, milk and honey are all foods obtained from animals (without actually killing them; animal meat is always gross in the films). As shown in the trilogy, human beings also use food for spiritual purposes in their rituals, as if they have metaphysical powers.

(SPOILERS in the following paragraph:)

Our senses are another connection we have with the outer world, and they are also metaphysical. Little Yusuf rings a little bell, supposedly hoping that it will somehow bring his father back. He shuts the light on and off in the evening, as if he's hoping his dad will appear all of a sudden (just like in his dreams). He also learns to taste honey, feels a need to embrace the trees... The first poem he ever hears is a Turkish translation of Arthur Rimbaud's Sensations:

“On the blue summer evenings, I shall go down the paths,
Getting pricked by the corn, crushing the short grass:
In a dream I shall feel its coolness on my feet.
I shall let the wind bathe my bare head.

I shall not speak, I shall think about nothing:
But endless love will mount in my soul;
And I shall travel far, very far, like a gipsy,
Through the countryside - as happy as if I were with a woman.”

The film ends with the sound of breathing dissolving into the sound of the forest.

For me, first and foremost, Semih Kaplanoğlu's Yusuf Trilogy is about the line between us and the outer world, or rather, about the fact that such a line actually does not exist.

I find it best to end with Semih Kaplanoğlu's own words about the Yusuf Trilogy, partly because it mentions layers I didn't even talk about here:

“Seeing at the Forum section of the 55th Berlinale, where my second film "Angel's Fall" had its world premiere in February 2005, how some directors look upon their own provincial towns opened new horizons for me.

Soon after my return home, I started writing about the Anatolian provinces; the short stories I wrote created a trilogy. The three, feature-length films will be titled Honey, Milk and Egg. I intend to begin the shooting with Egg, the third chronological story in the trilogy. The films will be shown in reverse order, i.e, as Egg, Honey and Milk.

What I'm looking at here is a longish cinematographic flash-back. Call it an internal journey, if you will, towards the authentic and away from the globalising face and appearance of the world's provinces. For it is in our provinces that the feeling of time, so eroded by civilisation, still clings.

This will also be something of an archaeological dig, extending from the last days of the mother-son relationship (with the death of the mother in Egg) to the beginning (the birth of the son in Honey). I hope in this way to narrate the burden and pain of passing time so that I may be able to invite everyone to remember and think about his own time. We all have mothers we love and it is highly possible that much is hidden in the time we spent with our mothers, and the time we are no longer able to spend with them.

I wish to note that my films are not only bound to the story, that is, the screenplay. I am of the view that time is the raw material of cinema. My expression is plain, spare in dialogue, shaped by visual and audio details and focused on conveying the sense of time passing with every breath.”

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Semih Kaplanoğlu's "Bal" (2010)

English title: Honey

It's a film that deserves multiple viewings but I'd just like to react to my first viewing. Warning: This post has SPOILERS!

Who would have guessed that the trilogy would end anti-climactically, down-beat, dissolving into life itself, with the sound of breathing...

As Cihan said beautifully after the film, you fall down into the film after a while, and there is no turning back.

Primitive, expressive, conscious, depressing and joyful, Kaplanoğlu's last film is not about anything. It is off life itself.

Primitive it is, somehow reminding us our primal reactions to nature, to parents, to language, to poetry. Before consciousness.

A film OFF life, its depressive nature also offers joys, some urgency, and a blatantly sensual beauty grasping the eyes first, then the mind, and later my philosophy of life.

In a Semih Kaplanoğlu film, expect to learn to be patient... And find out for yourself how that minute attention later spills over to the rest of things in your life.