Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Fond Memory of Peter Kubelka and Film Students

It is no doubt an understatement to say that preconceptions always get in the way of clear perception. What is more: it is painfully obvious. Yet we fall victim to it over and over. Even when we think we come to a new experience with an open mind, we end up falling back on old assumptions to make sense of things. This is an especially harmful attitude to bring to a work of art. Art demands the individual’s willingness to change; it addresses one’s capacity for new ways of thinking. The old road maps one typically uses to navigate through life will only get in the way here.

I have watched Peter Kubelka’s Unsere Afrikareise in three separate experimental film courses, and each time the subsequent discussion has digressed into a condemnation of the white Austrian filmmaker’s portrayal of the indigenous Africans as animals. We can all agree that Kubelka’s film demonstrates the barbarity of tourist violence against animals, and for this we applaud him. However, we fault him for his indifferent, somewhat exoticized and fetishistic photography which seems to treat as equal subject material the African and the African animals. This always annoyed me, and I was relieved to find, in the discussion that followed the film the last time I saw it, an African student willing to argue against the consensus opinion. After several white students expressed their anger at Kubelka’s insensitivity and his failure to break from the colonialist mentality he is ostensibly critiquing, the one African raised her hand and gently suggested that her white, American peers had missed the point. Kubelka does not equate African people with African animals, she suggested, rather he demonstrates Western expansionist culture, by way of the Austrian tourists in the film, does not make a meaningful distinction between the animals they hunt and the people who serve them while they do it. What happens next is one of those precious moments in life, the kind of occurrence that would be totally unbelievable if it did not happen every day. She was ignored. How amazing! How momentously condescending, ironic and stupid all at once! The sensitive, post modern, hip white people have judged Unsere Afrikareise to be racist, and no black, African girl is going to tell them different.

I love this story as an example of the tendency toward self-righteous, hypocritical political correctness that so many people bring to art these days. They not only assume that Peter Kubelka has a responsibility to present everyone’s perspective evenly and fairly, they also want their desire to see those qualifications met to be easily satisfied. In other words it’s no good if Peter Kubelka really is on our side if he arranges his material in such a way that we can’t understand that to be true. James Benning addresses this in an interview with Scott MacDonald about his early films:

I was trying to experiment, and if you’re experimenting, by definition, you don’t communicate with a large audience. I thought it was rather silly to try to put political issues into an esoteric context. If you’re trying to make political changes, you should use the language that is easiest to understand (231).

Here Benning points toward something that a lot college kids (or, for that matter, more sophisticated viewers such as teachers and critics) do not consider when they watch Unsere Afrikareise, Kubelka does not have message. While I am unwilling to go as far as Kubelka himself, who says that he could have made this film with any images, I will agree with him that violence against animals and the treatment of Africans by Euro-tourists do not constitute the primary concern of this film. The film is about structure, and the subject is, I believe assumed. It is wrong to kill animals for sport and to abuse natives for cheap labor. This simple truth, however, is not fodder enough for an artist. Showing that the bad guys are wrong is Spielberg’s project. Kubelka aims higher; he digs deeper. He wants to effect the viewer’s perception. He does not care about politics as such.

The aim of such care-less filmmaking is further extrapolated by Benning, “If you look at things different aesthetically, maybe you’ll look at things differently politically” (231). When Kubelka says that he is trying to drag us out of the Stone Age, this is what he is talking about. But we like the Stone Age. We like our morality and our ethics to be simple, either/or choices between right and wrong.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Long Live Cinema!

I have been looking over some books by Jonathan Rosenbaum. It has been a while since I read MOVIES WARS or ESSENTIAL CINEMA, and I was again stuck by this "death of cinema" notion. I have run into this subject at Ray Carney's website as well as a number of other places, and I would like to say something about it.

Is the cinema really dead?

Cinema has only been around for about 100 years. How can it be dead already? Perhaps we could spend the next fifty years or so just dealing with the works of Tarkovsky, Bresson and Ozu, before we bury cinema. Yes, each of us wants to deliver the cleverest and most heartbreaking eulogy, but let us wait just a little longer, at least until we figure out those three geniuses. Can any medium ever die? How can the theater be dead if some company somewhere is performing Shakespeare? Can the novel be dead if you have War and Peace, Absalom, Absalom!, and Wings of the Dove sitting on your bookshelf? It comes as little surprise that the voices announcing the death of cinema never mention that there are no more Tarkovskys, Bressons or Ozus in their laments. There are two kinds of writers that think the medium is finished, and both have paid little if any attention to the filmmakers listed above.

The mainstream reviewers, the hacks that serve as a pseudo-intellectual branch of promotional machinery for Hollywood, complain that Hollywood stars are not glamorous anymore. Tom Hanks is no Clark Gable. Jennifer Lopez is not Rita Hayworth and so forth. Movies are boring, predictable and no fun.The other group presents a more serious problem, because they are the academics and reviewers of art films. These are baby-boomers who miss the good old days of the public consumption of intellectual cinema like that of Godard and Bergman.

Jonathan Rosenbaum has done much to dispel the myth of this phenomenon.
For my part, I shall only add that that these critics never understood art in the first place. If they think movies are supposed to be intellectual they probably pronounced Bergman dead when he stopped making ponderous metaphysical allegories like Seventh Seal to pursue the human drama of Scenes from a Marriage.

It is true that there are no decent art house directors these days like Antonioni, Fellini, Godard or Bergman; they have been supplanted by mediocrities like Soderberg and Todd Solondz or popular left-wing cultural critics like Michael Moore. This means only that the bar has been lowered to achieve the status of a fashionable filmmaker.

We must also remember that as wonderful as Bergman and Antonioni are, they are lesser artist than Bresson and Ozu who were never fashionable. The difference today is that the gap between Antonioni and Ozu is not as wide as that between Soderberg, and for instance Tsai Ming-Liang. There are filmmakers on the caliber if Fellini and Bergman working today, they just aren’t popular. There are even a few on par with Tarkovsky and Dreyer, and they are even less well known.

In no particular order, here some great artists who work in this dead medium, every one of whom is alive and making movies or very recently deceased:

Theo Angelopoulos
Chantal Akerman
Abbas Kiarostami
Mohsen Makmahlbaf
Dardenne Brothers
Pedro Almodovar
Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Zhang Yimou
Ousman Sembene
Idrissa Sissako
Edward Yang
Wong Kar-Wai
Jim Jarmusch
Lars Von Trier
Harmony Korine
Werner Herzog
Alexander Sokurov
Jafar Panahi
Tsai Ming-Liang
Su Friedrich
Jay Rosenblatt
Bela Tarr
Takeshi Kitano
Kim Ki-Duk
Guy Maddin
Olivier Assayas
Atom Egoyan
Mike Leigh
David O. Russell
Ken Loach
Charles Burnett
Gillian Armstrong
Chris Marker
Andrew Bujalski
Duplass Brothers
William Greaves
Arnaud Desplechin

I would suggest the following additional bit of perspective on this list. Most film critics only write about film. In addition to film, I write a great deal about literature and a bit about painting, dance and performance art. I bring up my other areas of scholarship only to point out that it would be impossible for me to come up with a list of writers, painters or choreographers that is comparable to the above list of filmmakers. To take the example of literature, there are not 30 writers alive today who are as important in the history of literature as are these filmmakers in the history of film. Let me keep it short and demonstrative. Kiarostami, Leigh, Ackerman, Tsai and Angelopoulos are some of the greatest filmmakers ever, easily ranking alongside Tarkovsky, Dreyer, Bresson and Ozu. Are there any living novelists who are comparable to Henry James, Marcel Proust, Dostoevsky or Faulkner?

Saturday, December 20, 2008


Heads up to the four people who look at this site: I have moved the more forcefully polemical content of this blog to a whole new blog spot! It is called The Contrarian and you can find it at In the future I will attempt to devote this page to saying more positive things about good movies, saving my ire for the overrated and outright stupid for the new page. Please check it out.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Andrew Bujalski

If filmmaker Andrew Bujalski has an idea to put across, perhaps it is summarized, or hinted at, by the character he plays in Mutual Appreciation, Lawrence. When he finds out from Ellie that she experienced a “moment” with Alan, in which the two of them admitted that they shared an attraction of some sort, Lawrence responds (I paraphrase), “Why did anyone bring it up? Wouldn’t it have been better if it had remained unspoken?” In the Freudian world in which we live, this is a truly revolutionary idea. Our culture is geared toward opening up and revealing. Popular culture in particular encourages everyone to get everything off their chests. After Freud everyone feels the need to bring the unconscious to daily life and throw light on the places where secrets hide. Of course this can have positive results, but the problem with Freud, and the problem Bujalski addresses, is that a clear distinction is not made between unconscious desire and passing fancies. It may be a misinterpretation of Freud, but we do tend to think that the ultimate truth is all that which is unspoken. This is why Ellie, who is reasonably satisfied with her romantic life, feels the compulsion to confess her feelings to Alan, to in fact, drag those feelings out of him. Lawrence/Bujalski’s suggestion is simple enough, but none the less crucial: not every unspoken desire is a meaningful desire; not every vague attraction belies a deep need. Above all not every mystery needs to be unraveled and solved. In our culture there is a myth about missing out on opportunity, about living one’s life regretting what might have been. Mutual Appreciation shows, at least in part, that what might have been isn’t necessarily better than what is. We make choices in life. A million paths not taken are the lives we could have had. At some point one must live the life he or she has created, and stop worrying about what it would be like if things were different, if one lived in another town or city, if one had a different spouse or partner, or if one made a different career choice.

I preface this by saying: “if” Bujalski has an idea he wants to put across. In fact hardly any more dialogue from Mutual Appreciation or Funny Ha Ha is as interesting as the lines quoted above. Bujalski is not so much an idea man as an astute observer of behavior, and he puts it on screen in all its awkward banality. Throughout both films characters find themselves in situations where they do not know how to act. Whether in groups or in pairs, these people are always feeling each other out, sometimes brazenly testing their limits like when Alan finds himself at a “party” with three strange women who want to dress him up like a lady, sometimes excruciatingly uncertain as Alex’s phone call to Marnie to discuss something his sister should not have said. All of it rings absolutely true. Interaction seems forever superficial and efforts at meaningful communion such as Alex and Marnie’s coffee date are a beautiful mess. These people are at their best when they are alone and silent. Marnie in particular seems like a woman from a Hopper painting – everything important is happening inside. She never reacts publicly they way we are used to seeing people react to romantic frustration or heartbreak. She takes everything coolly, not even giving the viewer the satisfaction of crying when she’s alone. Instead she thinks. She mulls over her disappointment. This is the kind of filmmaking where one feels the weight of time in the shot.

There is something distinctly reminiscent of Ozu in Bujalski’s style. Both of them show deep, sincere feelings of love and affection, whether reciprocated or frustrated, without fanfare. In Ozu the characters never touch each other (think of how startling it is when troupe leader Komajuro slaps Sumiko). Ozu characters often love each other profoundly, whether husband and wife, daughter and father or old friends from school, but they never lay a hand on one another even in the most incidental way. Though kissing is often portrayed as an embarrassing mistake in Funny Ha Ha (Marnie kissing Gary the engineer or being kissed by Dave) and Mutual Appreciation (Sara throwing herself at Alan), Bujalski shows plenty of incidental physical contact. Everybody lays their head in each other’s laps, draping arms and legs over one another. Nobody has any qualms about personal space in these films. Instead Bujalski avoids having his characters make a scene. They don’t yell and scream when they are hurt or angry. Marnie looks sad. Mitchell and Lawrence talk calmly and clearly about their concerns, desires and disappointments. Though they do not emote, these characters are not at all Bressonian. They display a degree of maturity we simply do not expect from people in daily life, to say nothing of what we expect from people on the screen.

Perhaps this is Bujalski’s idea: one can live intensely and never have to throw a fit. One can suffer a spectrum of disappointments and can go on any number of strange and wonderful adventures and never have to shout it from the rooftops. This seems to have brought me back to the first thought in this little essay. Both ideas are about the value of the internal world. Here is where I would normally give you a tidy conclusion, but since Bujalski does no such thing in his films, it seems inappropriate.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Puffy Chair, Human Frailty and the Foolish Belief That We Are All the Same

I tend to praise good movies at the expense of lesser ones. It is not so much that I must build a hierarchy; I just find that comparing and contrasting works that are ostensibly similar, whether in terms of subject matter or style, helps me to pinpoint with greater clarity the achievements of the better film. In part this is a reaction against the film I view as the lesser work, because often I find myself thinking about a mediocre film, “such-and-such thinks this film is gritty and real; this film isn’t gritty and real; it’s trite and clichéd.” My naïve reaction is that if said critic had seen the better film, he or she would recognize it as such and stop saying such glowing things about the lesser film. So part of the point of comparison and contrast is to expose superficiality. For instance, if I say that The Puffy Chair shows us things about ourselves that we would rather not see, another critic may accurately point out that Todd Solondz film, Happiness, does this too. So I would want to contrast the two films in greater detail, because I find the work of the Duplass brothers more insightful, more meaningful, more honest and ultimately better, than the films of Solondz. I use Happiness as a point of reference because it seems to fail at showing exactly the things The Puffy Chair illuminates.
(I apologize for the extra exposition. It is just that comparing an object you think is mediocre with one you think is brilliant is frowned upon in academia, so I feel like I need to explain myself on this matter, and it possibly leads to over-explanation.)

The Duplass brothers shine an embarrassing fluorescent light on the things about human personality beneath the façade of normality. Instead they give us the unconscious banality of our own real lives. Take the baby-talk, for instance. The movie begins with the couple, Josh and Emily talking to each other in this way, and it is more uncomfortable, because it is so familiar than any of the darkness that comes from the shock effects of Solondz and the like (Sam Mendes, Paul Thomas Anderson, Paul Haggis, etc.). This is the kind of thing we, and I am speaking of a cultural, “we,” here, do not want to see. We want to see the deep, disturbing secrets that other people are hiding from us, especially if those secrets are violent or sexual – all the better if they are both! We do not, under any circumstances, want to be shown ourselves, and to be reminded of how superficial and trite we are on a daily basis in front of the people we love.

To achieve that honesty requires great acting, and The Puffy Chair succeeds as far as the actors take it. For whatever reason, the “dark” directors are always given credit for the great performances turned in by their actors. But the characters in their films act nothing at all like real people. They are one-dimensional caricatures of human frailty; they are grotesques and not multi-layered personalities. Consider that a movie like Happiness has to have scenes like the one where the dumpy, uncomfortable protagonist finds his way to the apartment of his dumpy, uncomfortable neighbor where she admits to him that after being raped by the maintenance man, she killed him and cut his body up. Why do we need to imagine such outrageous, inhuman things in order to make humanity interesting? The Puffy Chair shows that regular people fighting about regular stuff can be just as interesting, more interesting, in fact, because it proximity to reality might mean that one actually learns from it.

I take it as unequivocal proof of the truth in the performances that I had to reassure my wife that the Josh was just a boyfriend as Emily was a girlfriend. She kept telling me that she didn’t want to identify with her. Exactly. I don’t want to identify with him either, but that doesn’t make him any less real. Not liking him doesn’t prevent me from seeing myself in about 95% of the things he does. I have asked my wife a hundred times, “Do we have to talk about this now? I’m trying to sleep now.” It is easier to think you learned something from a movie when you feel superior to it. The reality is that if you leave a movie confident and reassured, you probably didn’t learn a thing.

I want to say that great art should shatter you, but it should do something else too, and that something else is what I think is missing from The Puffy Chair. The acting and story-line, let us say the spirit of the film reminds me of Cassavetes or Mike Leigh. What those two do that the Duplass brother do not, is show us some positive humanity. Josh in terrible to Emily and Emily is terrible to Josh. Though there is a fleeting tender moment between them at Rhett and Amber’s wedding, it is quickly sullied. In a general way, it feels like there is too much pressure on that moment, not within the context of the narrative, but too much aesthetic pressure as if the fact that they have a relationship at all hinges on Josh’s performance of that song. Let me be clear. This aspect of the film troubles me. I am still turning it over. It does not hurt the work; it does not ruin the work. It could be that they are trying to show me something I don’t want to see so I am resisting with my demands to see a little happiness.

Bonus Polemic
In the distance I hear an angry mob of white college girls who just read their first Gilligan essay. In a chorus they accuse me of propagating more straight-white-male bullshit. The only truth in this movie is that it shows you how the straight white male filmmakers think about women and relationships. It doesn’t tell us anything about women. It doesn’t mean anything to people of color or gay people.

(Never mind that many my accusers, who are so weary of hearing what sensitive white boys have to say, what break their cervixes to spread their legs for Conor Oberst. And I like his music too, I’m just saying: be aware that you have a double-standard.)

I can only tell you what I saw in the movie. My assumption is that people of all races and sexual preferences have the same kind of problems as the couple in this movie. If they have different problems, then let a gay filmmaker or a black filmmaker or a female filmmaker make a movie that shows me this. White college girls, is that so much to ask? It’s just that when I see a good movie by someone who is supposedly not me, I am struck by how the movie is about me. Su Friedrich’s Rules of the Road is about me. It’s not about lesbians; it’s about couples and how their love fades and turns into all kinds of other terrible, painful feelings.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

A Message to My Fellow Liberals This Holiday Season

Tuesday morning I get to head up to the community center and cast my vote in the primary. This is an exhilarating prequel to the almost mystical experience of full-fledged democracy that will take place in November. I am being facetious, but it’s the only way I am able to deal with the onslaught of election coverage that is now picking up a full head of steam nine months before anything remotely important happens. As an act of fellowship with my liberal brothers and sisters, I would like to suggest an alternative to agonizing over the choice to vote for Clinton or Obama.
The political problems in this country are but a small manifestation of our cultural immaturity. If you want to work from the ground up you must realize that who you vote for is not the ground. The change that will occur in your day-to-day life as a result of voting Republican or Democrat are miniscule enough; I cannot fathom the delicacy of the instrument that would be required to measure the difference between Clinton and Obama. I know they each promise different things, thus giving the impression that you are choosing between two distinctly different countries, but the reality is that very little will change when the new administration takes over for Bush. I know this is true because I was there to see nothing happen when Reagan/Bush gave way Clinton Gore. And as much as Bush has made himself into the worst president in the history of the US, it would be hard for me to quantify or qualify the ways in which my life has been worse under his tenure than under Clinton/Gore.
So I say take some of the energy you devote to weighing the pros and cons of Clinton and Obama, and use it instead to measure the relative values of watching some Oscar fodder like Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie or 3:10 to Yuma vs. a recent film by Jafar Panahi, Abbas Kiarostami or Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Spend some serious time with yourself, and find out why you would rather watch Hollywood storytelling dressed up as “serious filmmaking” over a film by any one of the three truly unique artistic voices on the planet. The effort involved in watching a great art film is taxing, but it is also more rewarding than watching actors you know play dress-up and pretend to be serious.
So watch a good movie for a change. Someone new will be president next year, and your life will be no different. Watching a real work of art, on the other hand, might change you in ways you never thought possible.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Andrei Tarkovsky

The following link takes you to a dissertation about Andrei Tarkovsky written by a frequent visitor to the blog.

The author would like to acknowledge that typos abound, and he hopes that they do not get in the way of what are otherwise great ideas.