Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Continuing on the same subject (response to "misunderstanding")

Okay. Perhaps I spoke too soon, or just too glibly. I certainly don't want to make it seem like I think Bergman and Antonioni do the same thing. Quite the opposite. Both of them had a unique approach to writing for women, to photographing women and to showing women and letting them show themselves. As you mentioned, Fassbinder, Renoir and Cassavetes did this too, and in various, unique ways. I don't mean to compare anyone's styles in their totalities. I'm just interested, for the moment, in their attitudes about women. Rohmer and his French brethren I mentioned in the last post seem utterly baffled by women. They look at them as if their mystery was related to their presumed opacity, to the fact that as man, one can never know what a woman is thinking. I'm not denouncing them or their styles, I'm saying that Bergman and Antonioni do not think this is why women are mysterious. Or if they do, they give their actors the opportunity to show us the real mystery beneath the surface. The difference is that the French women hold us at bay while Vitti and Bergman's women invite us in. Bergman especially. Tulin and Ulmann don't just invite, they force themselves on us; they drag us through their thoughts and feelings in a way that is comparable, perhaps only to Cassavetes and Rowlands.
I would encourage you to think of this as an investigation of acting rather than femininity. I am not trying to convince anyone that Antonioni and Bergman show us what a woman is. Rather, I liken it to your comment about Denis doing things only a woman would do as a director. I would say the same about Vitti, Tulin, Ulmann, et. al. As actors they repeatedly make decisions to show us things that only a woman would show. Should I say could show? You be the judge.
So let me revise. There are plenty of directors making movies about women. There are those we have both mentioned as well as Akerman and acting centered directors who put together ensemble casts like Mike Leigh and Denis Arcand. Bergman and Antonioni knew how to focus on women without appearing didactic. They knew how to let their actors become the film without letting the film get away from them. Again, I'm not disparaging anyone's style here, but when Akerman makes a movie about women, she might as well tell you in bold caps: THIS IS A FILM ABOUT WOMEN. Leigh and Arcand don't make movies about women; they make movies about people, and women just happen to be half the people. All three directors are great. All three have interesting and subtle and perceptive things to say about women and men. But the way Bergman and Antonioni (and it is important to note that he only does this in the Vitt films) do it - the imperceptible way that they let their female leads take over films that are at once clearly imprinted with their own styles - is not something any living filmmaker knows how to do, as far as I can tell.

*Who cares about the male gaze, and feminist this and that? We have to be able to talk about these things without fear of evoking stupidities. I wrote the essay, to which you referred, about Tarkovsky and women precisely to show that the concerns of feminism are very important, but that academic feminism is grossly ill-equipped to address them. If you want to really think about something in all its complexity, go to art and stay as as possible from theory. Art reveals; theory obfuscates.

I have decided the Denis clip reminds me of two things, one for the purposes of differentiating and the other for the purposes of elucidating.

First the negative one. It reminds me of Charlotte Rampling at the end of Stardust Memories. Woody introduces the scene as a memory, and he describes her quite aptly as looking especially pretty on that day. She is very pretty, and she is of course trying to be so. He glamor shot approach to the scene makes it clear that this kind of thing can't work with someone too hot. It is difficult to imagine an Uma Thurman or Scarlett Johansen pulling off such a scene, because I doubt they would be able to forget how attractive they are long enough to accomplish it. Which, tangentially, brings to mind how Bergman was able to get such revelation from Bibi Anderson. Even by today's rather narrow standard she was a stunning woman in Bergman's films, far more gorgeous in the traditional and shallow sense we expect from movie stars today than Tulin or Ulmann. Yet Bergman finds a way to make her a great actor. I don't have much to add to this, it just hatched in my little head, but imagine yourself as a director; would you want to work with actors who were ostentatiously beautiful or with more average looking people? Who would you trust more to give you genuine behavior rather than posturing and preening? Simply amazing what Bergman did with Anderson.

The second shot the Denis clip brings to my mind is from the end of Zerkalo. After the father asks the mother (Margarita Terekhova) if she wants a boy or a girl, she goes through a quite similar series of uncertain gestures and fleeting emotions and ideas. My memory of this leaves me more receptive to the interpretation of the Denis clip, 13 Kangs is pushing for.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Let Slip the Dogs of Misunderstanding

The films of Wong Kar-Wai come closest to breaking the kinesthetic
boundaries of cinema through their visual emphasis on tactility--the
clash of textures--and Wong's elliptical narrative and editing style.

Surely no good can come of this vague generalizing about "representations of women" among major European filmmakers...
though, in spirit, of course i sympathize with the grandeur of your initial premise: that with the passing of Bergman and Antonioni, we've lost two of the most generous, penetrating, nuanced and multivalent perspectives on the subject of women in the history of film. But we're attempting to cut a pretty wide path through a particularly thorny patch of the cultural landscape, no?

I'm the last person in the world who wants to get bogged down in a pseudo-feminist/post-postmodern debate about "male gazes," "logocentric canons," or suitably pro-women agendas; however, i think we should again shift the attention away from questions of excellence or validation towards creating an understanding of the methodologies or aesthetics at work. You've offered a fine point of departure, i think, in your appreciation of Antonioni and L'Avventura in particular. Also in your dissenting opinion about Rohmer. It's neither here nor there for us to try to convince others that there are or are not other film artists out there doing similarly fine work; however, the thing is whether we can first agree on a common language of interpretation. To wit:

You: In short, Rohmer makes women strange by keeping them at a distance, Antonioni and Bergman let their actors show what they really are, and if it looks strange, so be it.

I guess what i'm looking for from you is a clearer statement of HOW you think Bergman or Antonioni (but also, presumably, Cassavetes, Fassbinder, Ozu, Renoir) are able to "show what (women) really are." I think your Nostalghia treatise is exemplary in that regard, but i wonder if you could summarize your stance in the context of these other two directors.

Now for my rousing defense of Denis, Wong and Rohmer and my woeful admission that i really didn't put much thought into this particular assemblage of pro-gyno power. Nevertheless, the gauntlet has been cast before me; i relish its import.

There's a school of thought that says we should be able to recognize the difference between a work of art made by a woman as opposed to one created by a man because of some fundamental difference in form, not content. Something about the way the authorial consciousness is formed or the way constructive values are differently applied in practice. I have always felt: hogwash! but a couple films by Claire Denis have me doubting my opinion.

I think I've raved to everyone i know about Nenette and Boni but it's almost impossible to see anywhere or even find. Luckily for us, we have the internet and Youtube. I hope I'm up to this but here's a scene from the movie which does, i think, everything you claim that Antonioni does in his masterpiece:

Please, please, please, please work.

In Nenette and Boni, but also in Beau Travail and Vendredi Soir, her camera is exceptionally patient, observant, nuanced and sensual. Why is this different from a music video? Because, as in the case with Wong Kar-Wai, Denis' aesthetic is not, as it is sometimes crassly assumed to be, aimed at being merely "attractive." I mean, just look at the thing for godssake! The first time you watch it, it's possible you might simply take it for a typical Hollywood "meet-cute" with Vincent Gallo gamely checking out a shy but seemingly willing Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi. But the length of the shots is problematic, for one. In particular, the length at which we hold finally on VB-T as "the Baker's Wife" seems to run counter to the first rule of narrative propulsion: keep the story moving.

The more you watch her uncomfortably avoiding then meeting the camera's (and ostensibly Vince Gallo's character's) gaze, the more we are taken OUT of the narrative and into the immediacy of the preganant moment. Wow. We get to actually watch this woman's mannerisms, the toothiness of her grin, her neck, the charming journey from a toothy grin to compusure to the eruption of a smile. In other words: we actually get to observe this woman (who? the Baker's Wife? or Valeri Bruni-T?) being herself.

Sigh. I can already hear the Mulvey-ian clamor at my back: male gaze! male gaze! objectification! Sigh. If you call that objectifying, you must think that DaVinci was a lecher. Objectifying is when it doesn't matter who the person is as long as she's/it's a woman. Who could ever reduplicate Valeria's performance? It would have to be someone who was just as playful, self-conscious, cheerful, shy and optimistic as her. Even then, would she have the same masculine jaw and the same flash in her eyes? There's another scene from this movie discussed at length at which is worth reading. Also with VaIery B-T. I don't agree exactly with the specific semiotic reading of the scene but i stand firmly in agreement with the author's appreciation of Denis' sophisticated and nuanced technique.

Here's the link:
I might add that Denis does something very, very unusual and, i think, different from what a male director would do. In both scenes, as Hoover also points out, she gives a slightly unbalanced emphasis to the female subject over the male. Unbalanced in terms of time on screen. However, and i think this gives the lie to the whole "male gaze" issue, there really is no unbalance in terms of significance or priority in terms of point of view.

In my clip, for example, we linger longer on the woman but watch again at how the camera does that pan-up-the-body thing to Vince Gallo. Then, we hold on him waaay longer than we need to in order to get the point that he's checking her out. It's as if the director herself were taking Vince Gallo in just in the same way he is taking in his future wife. And, in fact, we can't help but notice the angularity of his features, the decidedly un-sailor like facial hair, and those eyes... After watching fixedly, we even see him recede from the camera, ostensibly to take in more of his subject.

It's a nice little counterpoint to her performance, don't you think? I mean, she sort of steals the scene--because of her charm, her beauty, her performance--but there's no way to construct some kind of hierarchy in terms of prioritized POV without stretching the limits of logic. The watched is no less powerful or strongly identified than the watcher: she's just prettier. But even that is probably false since it overlooks the powerful stylistic symmetry of his neat, white uniform and her delicate, blue top; his slightly unkempt hairiness and her revealing neckline and unblemished skin; his comic-sad eyes and her comic-happy expressions; his unwavering stare and her repeated attempts to meet it. That, my friends, is fucking art!

I'm fucking exhausted from writing that, by the way. Can I write part two about Wong and Rohmer later? Also, I want to see if my embedding worked... more later.

Who will make movies about women now? part two

Responding to the suggestions in the comments section:

Claire Denis - I've only seen a movie called I Can't Sleep which strikes me as being more about gay men than about women. I would say the same about Wong Kar-Wai. I don't mean that he doesn't have anything at all to show us about women. When he wants to talk about women, he does well, particularly in the second segment of Chungking and obviously the last two films. Yet, when you say to me: Wong Kar-Wai, I think of Tony Leung. Still, I like Wong as an option. Interesting that gay men seem the likely candidates to provide the answer to my question. I thought of Almodovar. It certainly seems that Todd Haynes thinks he's making a movie about a women with Far From Heaven though it ends up being a miserable movie about movies.

As to Eric Rohmer, I don't think so, and I think explaining why will clear some things up. (My original post was perhaps to abrupt.) Rohmer's movies are about people talking. They are about people hiding their emotions under verbosity and posturing. Antonioni and Bergman are all revelation. That's what they allow there lead women to do: reveal. Rohmer makes them mysterious deliberately. He makes them do strange things that confound the male leads. And the men are always the central concern anyway. All the celebrated works that are ostensibly about women: Claire, Chloe, Maude, Collectionneuse - all of them are really about a male protagonist struggling to understand the strange woman with whom he is obsessed. In short, Rohmer makes women strange by keeping them at a distance, Antonioni and Bergman let their actors show what they really are, and if it looks strange, so be it.

I would put quite a few filmmakers in Rohmer's camp: Chabrol, Truffaut, Godard; hell maybe it's a French inclination. Rivette seems more like Bergman and Antonioni, but I'm basing that conclusion on having seen one film, so it's probable that I don't know what I'm talking about.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Who Will Make Movies About Women Now?

I’d like to throw in my two cents without sounding either haphazard or overly-dramatic. We lost tow greats on Monday, but they lived long, productive, amazing lives and they gave us so much. If anyone actually reads this webstie, and you haven’t seen any of the following, do so as soon as possible: l’Aventurra, la Notte, and l’Eclisse, by Antonioni and Persona, Through a Glass Darkly, Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage, Fanny and Alexander, A Passion (The Passion of Anna) and Autumn Sonata by Bergman. For me, these are their masterpieces, but both made plenty of other great works. I don’t know if its cliché necessarily, but Seventh Seal was my introduction to art film as well. It’s a fine film, but I see the merits of the position 13 Kangs critiques as much as his counter-arguments. It’s not his best, not nearly, but it is a good point of entry to art cinema for 20-year olds who have read a little philosophy, turned their backs on the faith of their youth and don’t mind reading subtitles. One need only think for a moment of how our filmmakers in this country handle allegory (Think Star Wars and Lord of the Rings) to appreciate the virtues of Seventh Seal.

I want to mention something different, and not just dwell on the previous post. For a few years I have been thinking about Antonioni and Bergman and their poetic relationship. I once had the notion to write an essay or a book or some document about directors who are able to do what they do, thanks in large part to their female actors. I conceived it as my reply to all the feminist criticism that I detest with it’s insistence on positive representations, its cryptic psychobabble about the male gaze and its suspicion of women being directed by men. Antonioni and Bergman, along with a handful of others I won’t mention here, know how to direct women and how to represent women like few other artists. The best way I can describe it is that they give them the space to be themselves.

It is not at all pedantic, but rather organic to the structure of the narrative. For Antonioni it is all but coincidental. There is so much down time in his films, so much time to consider an image and an action that has nothing to do with plot. And in l’Aventurra and l’Eclisse especially, that time is filled with Monica Vitti. Consider the plot of l’Aventurra: girl vanishes, the boyfriend of the vanished girl becomes the lover of her best friend, then he cheats on her the first chance he gets. Beyond those three events, this movie is basically Monica Vitti looking around. She hardly even speaks. I don’t mean to overstate the case (so much as reveal what I really think movies are for) when I suggest that the greatest scene in all of Antonioni is Monica Viti silently making faces at herself in a mirror at the end of l’Aventurra. The privacy, honesty and range of tones she runs across in the minute or minute and a half, are, for me, worth the rest of the film.

Bergman was clearly fascinated by the mystery of woman. The biography is stereotypical enough: the director keeps marrying his lead actress, making a number of films with her, than ditching her for a new actress. And it probably sounds like a dumb excuse to say that he probably felt like he had to do this to really know these very different women well enough to get them to be themselves at their best in front of the camera. His methodology is easy to psychoanalyze and my argument is easy to deconstruct, but how do you argue with results? In David Thompsons’s Biographical Dictionary of Film he calls Cary Grant the greatest film actor ever. A strange thing to say by any standard. And of course, hopelessly wrong. The greatest actor in the history of film is Liv Ullman, and she would never have been without Bergman writing for her and directing her.

Anyway, I am keeping this one short. Feel free to comment.