Sunday, January 25, 2009

Hollywood as Salon

I have a colleague who believes that Michael Mann is a great artist. He has called him one of the greatest living filmmakers, and has written a book about his work. This is a serious film student – what I call a serious film student. You ask him about Ozu, Kiarostami, Bresson, Tarkovsky, Cassavetes, Dreyer, and he knows that these are the great artists in the history of the medium. Then he adds Michael Mann. I do not expect universal agreement, even among the handful of people I consider serious film students, regarding the delineation of the list of great filmmakers. The important thing is to distinguish generally between the class of visionary artists listed above and the group of celebrated hacks and technical showboats more typical celebrated in the mainstream: Hitchcock, David Lynch, the Coen Brothers and the like. As I am more inclined to put Michael Mann in the second group, he seems like a particular odd selection to add to a list of important film artists.

I once asked my friend, “You mean the same Michael Mann that directed Last of the Mohicans and Heat?” “Yes,” he replied. “The same Michael Mann,” I continue, “who made Miami Vice and that movie where Tom Cruise is a blond-haired assassin and Jamie Foxx is his down-to-earth but streetwise cab driver?” He tells me that this movie is called Collateral and says that the light in it is like nothing he has ever seen on film. This is where I want to begin. I am willing to believe that the lighting in Collateral is interesting, but is that enough to make Michael Mann an important filmmaker? It is still a fairly hackneyed premise (that of dragging the everyman unwittingly into the dark underbelly of society in order to give him a glimpse of what life is really all about) propelled along by two of the most hackey actors alive, yes? Sven Nykvist isn’t interesting because he shed some virtuoso light on a few of Woody Allen’s more mundane and unfunny movies. He’s interesting and important because he lit Bergman and Tarkovsky.

The point is that light has to do something. I remember my only visit to the Frick in New York City principally for Vermeer’s painting known as: Officer and Laughing Girl. Never have I been so struck by light in a painting. But Vermeer’s light is more than technical virtuosity. It has narrative and perceptual functions. I am not going to attempt a lengthy interpretation here, but suffice it to say that Vermeer uses light to tell the story not to color it. More importantly, his mastery of light conveys time and space in a way that no other painter has matched. The experience of light is much of what it means to see a Vermeer in person. (For more on the subject of light as a means to create narrative and time, I suggest reading Moving Pictures by Anne Hollander. Not that I am an authority on “Art History” texts, but for whatever its worth, her book is the best I have read about painting.)

So often lighting in film or cinematography in general, is just the director of photography unleashing his technical mastery upon a film that does not necessarily warrant it. Moreover, maybe his technical mastery is not all that interesting by itself anyway. If you took a song by the Nickelback and let Yngwie Malmsteen solo over it would you suddenly have a masterpiece? I would say you would not, because they are terrible and he is all glitz and show with no substance. Likewise with Michael Mann, I cannot imagine how even two cinematographers (it took one Dione Beebe and one Paul Cameron to shoot it) could make an otherwise mainstream hack job into a work of art.

This Michael Mann conversation happened years ago. I only think of it now because I caught the last hour of Manhunter on some movie channel a couple nights ago. At first it was kind of nice to see such a slow-paced film until it became clear that the pace was being used to create suspense. I think I was reading the Video Hound when I came across the suggestion that Stalker was slow-paced to create suspense. This comment made sense to me at the time, because I could not imagine a film that would be slow-paced for that reason. Slow pacing is its own “reward” as it were. Slow movies are not slow just so the viewer will be on the edge of his or her seat waiting for something to happen. That seems to be exactly why Manhunter is slow, not to teach the viewer to be patient, but to play off the viewer’s impatience. I also thought the movie was shot well. It has a unique look it terms of contrast and depth. There are also some nice exterior shots of sunrises and sunsets. If cinema where only beautiful photography! Unfortunately, cinema is often hackneyed stories and clichéd techniques. I will not belabor this argument with a point by point account of each successive film cliché. It is enough to say that there is a final showdown in which the police detective crashes through a bay window in slow motion landing in the arms of the serial killer. A shootout ensues in which the killer has to be shot in the chest about a dozen times, presumably because it is especially difficult to kill evil.

It isn’t as if I needed to sit through it to reach a conclusion on this director. I have seen the aforementioned Last of the Mohicans and Heat as well as Ali, and I have understood all three to be pretty standard genre works. Mann is beloved in the industry so he always has a nice budget for cinematography, sound, locations and big name actors. The result is always a typical movie its type. They look and sound slick and professional, the actors chew up their scenes like they are on a reality show (because apparently we think that’s what constitutes good acting), and the stories are predictable, palatable and satisfying to their projected demographic of filmgoers who expect a little something more but not too much.

The question of who comprises this demographic is an important one. The film scholars worth reading tend divide film between art and kitsch. I have done this for about ten years, but I am starting to understand that it simplifies the issue, and thus draws attention away from the problem. It is one thing to say that some films are art films but most films are mass-produced kitsch. It is easy for the person who is saying it, but more often than not it is divisive for the one hearing it. Many people consider themselves film aficionados precisely because they like Mann, Hitchcock, the Coens and the like, and hate Bridget Jones’ Diary, Star Wars and superhero movies. These folks tend to get indignant when you tell them that these two kinds of films are ultimately the same thing. A better analogy is in order. Though it will probably do little to make friends among those who admire Hitchcock and the Coens and those who admire Ozu and Tarkovsky, it has the advantage of being a bit more subtle than the binary.

There is a sector of Hollywood that functions as the Salon in Paris functioned in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I would not say this is the work of a particular studio, but is rather an attitude adopted by certain producers, directors and filmmakers. Another term for them that I have used in the past is “Oscar fodder.” From Gone with the Wind to No Country for Old Men and all the Godfathers, Schindler’s Lists, Forrest Gumps and Brokeback Mountains between, these films are distinguished by technical mastery and serious intention. These are the titles that the Eberts, Maltins and Kaels champion a film art. These are the works that the average filmgoer considers to be something more important than a mere movie. And they are better than the latest Indian Jones movie in certain stylistic respects. What they lack is unique vision. They subscribe to a certain body of techniques and those who stray too far from the boundaries of this body are summarily locked out of the Salon.

There is a word for this kind of art: Academic. In Art History they use this term to describe the art that is produced once formerly visionary and revolutionary techniques are accepted into the mainstream and taught. The end result is always that such techniques become stale for they are bereft of their organic impulse. Style and vision are not taught, they are developed by individuals almost always in opposition to that which has been taught. Academic art tells us nothing we do not already know. It shows us nothing we do not already see. I would suggest that we are at this point with cinema, only it does not happen with generations or with movements. In contemporary film a director with nothing to say, someone like Quentin Tarentino, will go to see a film by a great artist like Wong Kar-Wai. He will then extract certain stylistic attributes of Wong’s movie and peeper them into his latest stupid heist movie or his latest bad-ass-who-cannot-be-killed movie. These always look beautiful, and the pint is that they merely look beautiful. They encourage one to judge them as “well done” and it is in one’s ability to tell when film is executed properly and professionally that he or she feels reassured. It matters little whether or not the narrative has a reassuring message, though it most often does.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

What the Canon is Missing

In 1952 Bela Balazs formulated a theory of “spectator identification” as the new and novel power absolutely unique to art of film. He describes identification in the following way:

In the cinema the camera carries the spectator into the film picture itself. We are seeing everything from the inside as it were and are surrounded by the characters of the film. They need not tell us what they feel, for we see what they see and see it as they see it” (Film Theory 48).

In Dudley Andrew’s exposition on Balazs in The Major Film Theories, he points out that this idea is inconsistent with other key components of Balazs’s theory: “Spectator identification and delusion are seen here in a positive light whereas they work against the concepts of defamiliarization and of art as formal technique, which Balazs struggled to establish” (98). My aim here is not to assess Balazs in general but rather to acknowledge that by elevating identification as the essential novelty of cinema and by further attributing this achievement to Hollywood narrative style he sowed the seeds of contemporary film scholarship. It is unfortunate that the pioneering work of someone so passionate about the potential of film to aspire to the status of a high art would in many ways function as the embryo that grew into a separate field of film study that decisively rejects high art in favor of texts that reflect upon, and appeal to, mass culture.

Genre theorists, cultural studies critics, psychoanalytic readers, feminists and psychoanalytic feminists, before they conclude anything else, assume that the unique power of cinema is its ability to encourage viewer identification to the point that the viewer gets lost in the world of the film and imagines himself part of it. Thus, what makes cinema important is simply the sheer force with which it can influence masses of people through this process of identification. This is how we come to view Leni Riefenstahl’s bald recycling of the essentially “Pavlovian tactics of Eisenstein’s montage” (David Cook, Narrative Film 789), as the means to creating a masterpiece. Triumph of the Will may be a masterpiece, but of propaganda. The crowning achievement of the film is to trick the viewer into identifying with a hero. In every important stylistic respect Riefenstahl’s methods are no different from Hitchcock’s or Spielberg’s.

The cinema of spectator identification neglects at least three things that only movies seem capable of doing. I will introduce these briefly:

Persistence of Vision and the Time-Image

When a person watches a real movie, celluloid through a projector and not a videotape or DVD, the film images are not actually continuous but projected one frame at a time at a rate of 24 per second. They look like a continuous stream due to a physiological quirk called persistence of vision. Because the frames appear one at a time, the viewer is physically in relative darkness, given the right theater conditions, over half the time he or she sits in the theater. In Forrest Gump, JFK or anything by Alfred Hitchcock this fact is merely incidental. Among those who would argue otherwise are the early film theorist for whom the cinema’s psychological potential was of a particular interest. I would distinguish between those who take advantage of this potential and those who neglect it. Cinema as such has no inherent aesthetic qualities, only potential qualities to be brought out by master artists.

In the cinema of spectator identification, much of the potential is neglected in favor of the one thing that matters: plot. One can buy everything by Oliver Stone, Robert Zemekis and Hitchcock from Columbia House, because plot looks good on video. Nothing crucial to their works is lost in the celluloid to video transfer. What Gilles Deleuze calls the time image, however, does not transfer as readily. Essentially Deleuze contends that cinema is unique in its potential to show time. Andrei Tarkovsky, Theo Angelopouplos, Chantal Akerman, Miklos Jansco and others make their films out of very long takes. While Hitchcock rarely needs a shot to last longer than 5 or 10 seconds Jansco, for instance, makes films in which shots last for 20 minutes (Red Psalm). When a viewer is in a darkened theater and relying on his persistence of vision for image continuity this is very important. It is not the same physical experience to watch a movie without many cuts as it is to which one with hundred and hundreds of cuts. This is a large part of the reason that the former does not work on video. Video is a continuous digital image so persistence of vision does not occur. A film with long takes helps to induce within the viewer a meditative rhythm while on video transfers it can much easier just make her tired and bored.

Color and Light

Celluloid is a translucent medium. The images appear on the screen because the light source behind the film strip projects them forward. A number of films within the American experimental or avant-garde tradition are interested in exploiting and exploring this aspect of cinema. These filmmakers actually make movies without ever photographing anything because they believe that the fundamental element of cinema is light. Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight consists of pieces of dead bugs, specs of dirt and gravel and tiny blades of grass affixed directly to the celluloid. When the film is projected, one sees the little bits enlarged and rushing across the screen, barely comprehensible, against a background of harsh white light. Mothlight is only movement and light. It could not be further removed from a tradition that believes the cinema to be an essentially and necessarily narrative form. Nor does Mothlight transfer especially effectively to video. The bright, natural light takes on a yellowish hue and causes the borders of the “images” to look pinkish when digitized.

This is part of a larger problem with the transfer of colors in general. Digital values are very different from the values of celluloid emulsion. In a film like Schindler’s List in which all you have to be able to do is pick out the red coat from the black & white image, this is not a problem. Likewise, the difference between the two color scales does not change the saturated color symbolism of Douglas Sirk melodramas or even Nicholas Ray’s color films. The important thing about Susie’s bedroom in Imitation of Life is that it is pink. The important thing about Jim’s Jacket in Rebel without a Cause is that it is red. But when colors are not meant to stand for something, but rather are to be confronted and lived, to actually alter one’s vision as in any color film by Tarkovsky or Bresson, video versions lose or at least alter a key component of the experience. In Spielberg, Sirk and Ray’s Rebel colors have a very basic – one could say “obvious” symbolism. Red means “x” and pink means “y.” In Tarkovsky and Bresson colors are part of a symbolic matrix that exists only in the film. Green does not mean “x” or “y” in Stalker; it means difference in experience from the sepia world that precedes it.

Size vs. Spectacle

Aficionados of films of spectacle like John Ford’s westerns, Spielberg’s historical epics or the proliferation of CGI enhanced adventures from The Matrix to Lord of the Rings will often vigorously demand that these films must be seen in a theater to get their full effect. By “full effect” they mean that these films are meant to be seen very large, overwhelmingly large, in fact, to facilitate the viewer’s desire to enter into the film in Balazs’s sense. I would suggest other reasons why films need to be big. Jacques Tati’s Playtime has to be seen as large as possible, because many of the shots offer so much that requires attention. Every aspect of the long-shots in the airport terminal at the beginning of the film has been meticulously choreographed. Everyone on screen is doing something, and all of it is important. One may find himself watching the person at the bottom left hand corner then suddenly realize he has neglected the other twenty people on screen. One then begins to dart his gaze around the whole image, fixing on some action or person momentarily and moving to the next one. Jonathan Rosenbaum refers to this as “Tati’s democracy” because he gives the viewer you so much to look at without demanding that you look at something specific. I would add that the viewer may be able begin putting together all that he or she notices and thus see a rhythm or composition emerge.

Whatever one concludes this experience, this process, is not possible when watching Playtime on TV screen in one’s living room. The gestures of figures in long-shot are subtle enough on a big screen; on TV they may be empirically non-existent. The trouble is that the meaning of the Tati film is precisely in the accumulation of those gestures and the rhythm of those movements. While we may miss the beguiling spectacle of Death Valley when we have to settle for watching The Searchers on TV, we get the meaning clear enough and freely acknowledge Ford’s mastery in creating that meaning. Tati on a TV screen is irreparably obtuse, and we are led to wonder why anyone would find his films worth watching at all.I do not wish to merely suggest that John Ford and Jacques Tati make different kinds of films; Tati makes better films. His films are better because their meanings can only be put forth through film and because they frustrate and disintegrate every theory of genre, spectatorship or race, class and gender that the critic may force upon them. Ford’s films invite this kind of criticism and, in fact thrive on it, because they are not very interesting for any aesthetic reasons.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Truly Terrifying Film

Many of the films of Kenneth Anger echo some of the playful found in Jacobs and Smith, but in Scorpio Rising he aims at something much darker, we might call it heaviness, in contrast to the lightness of Smith and Jacobs. Critic, Juan Suarez, describes the difference: “In [Scorpio Rising], gayness was aligned to sincerity, subjective truth, and authenticity; the protagonists’ homosexuality was the expression of a subjective inner essence repressed in everyday contexts,” while, on the other hand, in Flaming Creatures, “there is no subjective essence to be realized, no interiority where the self’s truth lies dormant” (Suarez 191). Indeed, Scorpio Rising begins more playful than it turns out to be. At first it looks like it will be a longer version of Kustom Kar Kommandos, a homoerotic, fetish-heavy music video. For some viewers the injection of Jesus into this context is just an adventurous extension of the joke. But for those of us willing to speculate on the homosocial nature of the relationships among Christ and his disciples, the continuity between Scorpio and the Savior is very important. It is no mistake that the appearance of Christ and the apostles coincides with the singing of, “he’s a rebel…” on the soundtrack. While this may be offensive to some, it shouldn’t be too unsettling for those among us who have no vested interest in Jesus Christ’s sexuality.
Where it gets troubling for the rest of us is in the movement from iconologies of rebellion to those of fascism and death. Anger is not at all content to subvert the dominant culture by exposing its homosocial roots. This is not a coming out film. Gay pride fails to hold Anger’s attention. Rather he wants to explore his fears. Part of what happens in Scorpio Rising demonstrates that insidious ease with which icons of rebellion and freedom can become symbols of power and oppression. Moreover, one can never dismiss unwanted meanings; if one wishes to take back those symbols from the dominant regimes and re-appropriate them as counterculture, one still evokes all previous meaning. Scorpio may want to use the Swastika as a new symbol of rebellion, but it will always be an emblem of mass murder.
Why would anyone who is queer want to hold that up as a representation of gay culture? It is precisely Anger’s point that insofar as counterculture has the potential to become mass culture, it is extremely dangerous. Scorpio Rising offers, in part, a cautionary vision about where gay culture can go, if it insists on being blessed by the mainstream. The persistent suggestion is that an individual, who is good, will always be subsumed into the culture with which he seeks to affiliate himself. This culture, whether marginal or mainstream, will inevitably turn destructive especially as it moves out of the margins and into the mainstream. That is precisely what happened to Christianity which began with love for your neighbor and ended up with the Crusades, The Inquisition, Manifest Destiny, the 700 Club and the Promise Keepers. One should feel heavier after watching Scorpio Rising. It is a very frightening film, much scarier than any dumb Hollywood thriller or slasher flick, because the stuff that Anger is afraid of is real.

Jacobs and Smith

In the tiny underground world of experimental film, an artist's reputation often precedes him. The trouble is that said reputation is often spoon fed to viewers that might otherwise no better, delivered to them by festival programs and Avant-Garde Cinema instructors. One must look beyond the political agendas of many so-called supporters of these films to see what is really happening in them. The first time I saw Little Stabs at Happiness, I dismissed it outright. I thought movies had to look serious to be important. Ken Jacobs was, in my estimation, anything but. Not only did I find his films irreverent; he seemed to me sloppy, lazy and boring. I was told that this movie was important because it had something to do with Queer Cinema. I was led to believe that any fault I would find with this film was indicative not of any shortcoming of the Jacobs or his movie, but my own homophobia. Given time, distance, and a fresh set of eyes and ears, I would now argue that Little Stabs has less to do with sexuality at all, than the simple virtues of silliness. This is a special kind of silliness, of course. To praise Jacob’s playacting is quite distinct from analyzing the psychological function of watching clowns in a circus. Those kinds of clowns aren’t self aware. Ken Jacobs and his subject, Jack Smith, are overtly self-conscious and this sets them apart from the rest of the clowns. Jacobs is one of the few poets of the clown world.
The great moment of revelation in this film comes when the guy with fedora (Jacobs?) plays with the children on the brownstone steps. Seeing the children at play with the adults reminds us that the film has been about play all along. Little Stabs is not about being outrageous or flamboyant, but dressing up and play-acting like a child. Without the sequence with the children one could do the queer reading, but this scene takes the film beyond the one-dimensional, sexual interpretation. It would be a home-movie for the loonies who made it to laugh at when they get together to drink and smoke pot. The scenes with the children make it a film for the rest of us to take seriously. It is perhaps difficult to understand because we do not take children, or the way they act, seriously in our culture. Jacobs does and Little Stabs at Happiness is his poem to children and to continuing to act like one when you are supposed to be grown up.
I am not sure, despite consensus to the contrary, Smith’s Flaming Creatures is all that different. To me it does not so much seem like a homoerotic challenge to normative sexuality as an attempt to get back to pre-sexual physical relationships. None of the people in it are having sex – it is not pornography; they are just playing with each other’s body parts. They grab at limp dicks and floppy breasts in a way that is deliberately silly. Even the so-called “rape” scene seems less about psycho-sexual terror and more about self-conscious role-playing. Surely a rape scene in which the victim laughs the entire time is not much of a rape scene. Rather it is as playful as anything else, and to call it a rape at all, is to refuse Smith his attempt to impose upon the viewer’s vision a pre-sexual lens. It may be that for some viewers this return, even if only for the brief duration of the film, is impossible.
Certainly the adults in this film with their adult bodies cannot go back and become as they were before they had carnal knowledge. Nor can the viewer. Still, to psychoanalyze Smith’s film from one’s armchair is to miss the point. Too often criticism of Creatures hangs up on the viewer’s inability to go back to an early state of sexual development. It is not that Smith wants to neutralize the erotic charge of genitalia and breasts. It is that he wants nothing more than to shake them. This is foremost. The sexual charge is up to the viewer. This is not a bohemian desire to demystify the body. It’s not about confronting the repressed with what they want to keep sacred. Giggling penises and breasts are about play. Flaming Creatures is about acting like a little kid, even in relation to another adult person’s naked body.