Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Night at the Movies

Where do you go to see art films? Is it basically Chicago, Boston, NYC and San Francisco plus the odd art museum? Hell, I'm just taking Frisco and Chicago for granted. I have never seen an art film in either of those places myself; I just imagine they are cosmopolitan enough to support art house movie theaters. At any rate I do not expect to see them where I live, but once a year, during the week long film festival at the end of April. I must add, however, that in recent years the pickings at the festival have been rather slim and as the market shrinks up and even festival films will need to be selected more and more as money makers and not as works of art, the pickings will only get slimmer. I do not have great expectations from this year's festival. So imagine my surprise when I take my weekly peak at the local theater's website and find they will be showing Carl Dreyer's Day of Wrath and Tarkovsky's Solaris all week. If I go Sunday, I can even catch both on the same day. This was a rare opportunity indeed, so I headed off to the theater for a night of cinema the likes of which I had not known since my days in Boston.

It did not go according to plan, not exactly anyway. First I found out that there was an error in the screening times posted on the website. Day of Wrath played earlier than it was scheduled and the only option I had at the time I arrived was Fritz Lang's M. Well I could have watched Two Lovers or some movie about a cake, but mainstream, quasi-art, Oscar-fodder was not exactly what got me out of the house that afternoon, so I went to see M – me and four other people, one of whom had no idea what he was there to see; I overheard him asking the cashier which movie they were showing was about WWII “or something” because he had to watch it for a class. So I watched M. I should mention that I watched a DVD of M in an effort to get back to my original question. I certainly do not fault the theater here, 35mm or even 16mm prints are very expensive and these days you would have to hire a person separate from your regular “projectionist” to run the machines. But I will say that it was a bit of a surprise to go to the movie theater to watch a pair of classic films only to find out that I would be watching DVDs that I own. The projection was okay though. It was crisp and sharp. The sound was not so good. M and Solaris are especially quiet films, and for much of the time I was hearing Two Lovers and/or the cake movie from the theaters below.

The conditions were not ideal. The financial situation is not good. The films are not films. Nobody is coming out to see them (there were four people in the theater to see Solaris). At least the films will always be the films. M is not an altogether bad movie. Certainly overrated by a great many film historians and theorists, but smarter than its later counterparts – junk like Psycho and Silence of the Lambs. It is a good study of mob mentality and moral ambiguity. Not a bad movie to show high school kids if you can get them past the fact that it is in black and white and in German.

And then I watched Solaris again. What a testament to Tarkovsky as an artist that even his least successful works are still full of surprises and nuance. Perhaps I had not noticed it before or I had simply forgotten how physical this movie is. Tarkovsky has a reputation for being quite heady and cold, and I was quite struck by the amount of physical contact in this film. There Snaut's frequent pats on the back and grasping of arms and shoulders – at one point he walks arm in arm with Kelvin and Hari while Kelvin wheres an open robe and quite explicit underpants. Kelvin's physicality often underpins the close contact of a given scene. He wears a variety of mesh shirts and often has the very short briefs. The contact between Hari and Kelvin is also quite more explicit than is typical of Tarkovsky. They kiss arms, hands; Hari puts Kris' fingers in her mouth. Kelvin buries his head into her lap repeatedly, an especially humiliating gesture if one is at all familiar with the generally held notion about Tarkovsky's misogyny. So significant is Kelvin's gesture of submission to Hari that it sparks the ire of Sartorius in the library scene. Is his fury just the result that Kris would lower himself to a non-human, or that Hari is a female, and moreover that Kris would not think twice about submitting himself to her in front of other people?

Also in this scene are the beginnings of what Robert Bird has dubbed the crucible of ideology. To argue multiple points of view is one of Tarkovsky's most important narrative devices. Contrary to what many critics may believe, Tarkovsky's films do not espouse positions about gender, religion, politics, or the nature of truth. His mature works pit several positions on these matters against one another, and in the end no one emerges victorious, nor does the narrative itself achieve any synthesis. Kris, Snaut, Sartorius and Hari each have a distinct point of view. None of them are right. None of them are wrong. This is a quite remarkable narrative achievement considering the rather clear-cut ideology of Andrei Rublyov. In many ways Rublyov is a better film than Solaris, but it remains less of a Tarkovsky film. One need only compare the trio of Snaut, Kelvin and Sartorius with Daniil, Andrei and Kiril. Andrei is clearly the “right” while Kiril is “wrong” and Daniil mediates between the two leaning toward Andrei spiritually and intellectually, but feeling a bit like Kiril emotionally. Who is “right” among the other three? Who wins in the end? The Solaris trio is much more like the Stalker trio, even going so far as to add a fourth – a woman who undercuts the very ontology of the subject the three men argue about.

It is quite advanced in many ways, but still probably Tarkovsky's weakest film. I would love to see a directors cut of it, one that didn't include all the sci-fi nonsense he was obligated to put in by the cultural authorities. All the shots of Solaris itself are so dated and distracting. And Donatas Banionis' acting job on Kris Kelvin. It is easy to see why Tarkovsky disliked working with Banionis and was apt to mention him when enumerating the reasons why he thought of Solaris as his worst film. But then most directors in the history of this medium should be happy to make a movie that equals Tarkovsky's worst.

Tokyo Story, the Limits of Ideology and Some More Biography

“Plato makes the perfect ideal being tremble in me. But that's only a bit of me. Perfection is only a bit, in the strange make-up of man alive. The Sermon on the Mount makes the selfless spirit of me quiver. But that, too, is only a bit of me. The Ten Commandments set the old Adam shivering in me, warning me that I am a thief and a murderer, unless I watch it. But even the old Adam is only a bit of me. I very much like all these bits of me to be set trembling with life and the wisdom of life. But I do ask that the whole of me shall tremble in its wholeness, some time or other.” D. H. Lawrence

It is no secret that I am student of Ray Carney's. I just finished an essay of his entitled “Two Forms of Cinematic Modernism: Visionary and Pragmatic.” It is described on his website as “the longest and most ambitious essay he has ever written about film and philosophy.” I have not spoken to Ray about when he wrote the essay, I know that a lot of the ideas and examples came up in a course I took with him in 1997, but my concern is that the essay was first publish in a book called A Modern Mosaic: Art and Modernism in the United States that came out in 2000. That means that Carney waited an awfully long time to set down some tenets for an aesthetics. He had already published books about Cassavetes, Dreyer and Capra in addition to numerous essays and interviews. This suggests to me that I need to get back on track writing about films instead of always letting myself be drawn into debates about the nature of cinema. It is hard not to get side-tracked by these arguments, because I have always been on the defensive. It seems every time I say one movie is bad and another is good, I am asked, by teachers, by would-be publishers, to insert a detailed aesthetic breakdown that makes clear how I reached such a conclusion. Over the past ten years this has become practically instinctual. I have published two essays in cinema journals, one about why it is wrong to understand Tarkovsky's Nostalghia as an anti-feminist harangue and the other about why Kiarostami's Taste of Cherries is a cinematic masterpiece while a movie ostensibly interested in many of the same questions, Mendes' American Beauty is kitsch. Then there is the content of this blog! Where are the movies for people who hate movies?

So I want to thank 13 Kangs for getting us back on track even if he chose a particularly silly idiom. I would ask readers not to judge him by his appropriation of techniques invented by sports hackery, but by the content of his criticism. 13 Kangs is a great student of Bergman, and I know that he did not get that from his screen writing teacher; he learned painstakingly over time. In any event his recent post is a damn sight better than my discussions of run of the mil documentaries about great thinkers and abstract speculation about the nature of Cinema or the makeup of the canon. There has been too much abstract discussion about the nature of art and the particular potential of cinema lately, and it is distracting me from writing about works. Not that this discussion is unimportant, just that I need to make sure I am still writing about works and artists. The films are the real teachers.

I was reminded of this by a recent viewing of Ozu's masterpiece, Tokyo Story. I actually watched it before writing the second blog about Žižek! and the one about Derrida. I must admit it was extremely difficult to bear down and finish those, because Ozu will take the wind out of those intellectual sails. It made me think about how I treat people, particularly how I treat my parents and my grandparents and how disrespectful and ungrateful to them I am. It showed me what generosity looks like. It showed me selflessness and forgiveness. It made me think about how people deal with profound loss. Tokyo Story is about getting old and dying and trying your whole life to do right by people and knowing that in many instances you failed. And when I say that art is about life and not about ideas about life, that's what I mean. Tokyo Story is not ideas; it is not so much in the mind. Ozu's films are always behavior and human experience. His work is also camera angles, empty spaces, pacing and other important aspects of visual and narrative style, but I want to focus just on the matter of ideological consent for the moment. Tokyo Story is daily life; more specifically, it it the daily life you and I ignore because we are too busy thinking about big ideas. When my father looks up from his lunch and tells me, with my mother siting next to him and my wife sitting next to me, that he figures the family name will die with him because his one male cousin only had daughters and it doesn't look like I'm going to have any kids, there is no philosophy to help me make sense of that.

But there is Ozu. I could have forgotten what art was for if not for watching that movie. I came up with the name for this site thinking about a former English professor who absolutely hated movies because he thought the medium was inherently pornographic. I convinced him to take part in programming a film series with me, and I consider it one of my happiest achievements to have won him over to Mother and Son, Stalker, Late Spring and Sans Soleil. I forgot about him. I forgot about that impetus. From now on I hope to fill this page with more criticism and commentary of movies that the average web wanderer my have never heard of.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Let's Get Irrelevant!

Is this a film or filmed theater? Bergman struggled monumentally with the same
fundamental problem as Ibsen: how to bring the elemental fury of the inner world
alive for a viewing audience. His answer was through dramatic precision and
sublime acting.

I hope everybody has missed me and has been enjoying J. Knecht's mapping of the intellectual universe. For those of you keeping score at home, he argues that an enlightened view of aesthetics precludes "understanding" and "explication" and, instead, relentlessly returns our attention to the question of new forms. (Is it better to say "expands our horizons"?) Because of the inherent problem of evaluating new forms with old methodologies, Knecht is apt to dismiss authority and the highly-acclaimed while slyly substituting contemplation of his own pet canon. Fortunately, he is usually correct and mostly self-deprecating. However, that doesn't mean that I'm not getting bored!

I've decided to go against everything that everyone holds sacred and to create a Power Ranking of Great Directors based on my current mood of magical whimsy. Hold your venom, you bagel-eating philistines! It's all in the name of unsettling your biases and inflaming your passions. Here we go!

The rules: This is a Power Rankings analagous to preseason sports rankings that project a team or player's overall value based on various categories, such as passing yards or turnovers. Most art critics have an inherent problem with the term "Greatest" but I think it's mostly due to laziness. Surely we can agree, for example, that Rembrandt is a greater painter than Gaugin and we can point to several formal categories in which Rembrandt's best paintings simply surpass or transcend the works of the latter. I am likewise attempting to formalize a discussion of "top" directors by uniformly applying a formula for greatness while remaining open to changing the terms or the relative value of these aesthetic categories.

The criteria:
a) FORM: a signature style that reveals innovation or technical/artistic mastery of the mechanical aspects of filmmaking (i.e. visual, sound, editing)

b) THEME: complex, mature development and expression of thematic material (objective weight/value of specific thematic motifs deemed to be irrelevant)

c) ACTING/DRAMA/STORYTELLING: consistency and refinement of acting performances; emotional resonance of internal narrative/characters (possibly a red herring but I propose that narrative filmmaking is superior to documentary for the reason that fiction is superior to journalism; I propose that all great directors choose narrative for this reason to formally exploit this distinction between truth and artifice as a primary vehicle for their expression; therefore, I posit that a director's handling and development of characters and the internal dramatic narrative is paramount to the success and scale of his achievement)

d) KNOWLEDGE/CONCRETENESS/REALITY: hear me out--a great director offers so much more than technical innovation, thematic richness and human drama, she brings a refined appreciation for the details of the world, concrete knowledge of things and situations that is rapidly being lost in the ironically named "information age." Surely, Shakespeare would not be Shakespeare without his immense understanding of politics and the law, trade and commerce, farming, fashion, history and the military. A director certainly need not be a scholar but, like Rilke's angels, she is bound by the same mission as the returning traveler: to impress and edify us with intimate knowledge of the world.

10. Ingmar Bergman

Formal Greatness: C+
Thematic Greatness: A-
Dramatic Greatness: A+
Greatness of Knowledge: B

Several honorable mentions neglected here in favor of Bergman (Angelopoulos, Dreyer, Fellini, Herzog, Hou, Marker, Mizoguchi, Renoir, Wong), largely due to incomplete viewing. But on the other hand, how can you argue with Bergman's inclusion? Even though I have not seen half of his films, Bergman is in my estimation, along with Ozu, the supreme master of classical dramatic narrative form. Not a bad performance in either oeuvre and many, many legendary ones. His heralded theater roots provided him with the gifts of pacing, dialogue, composition and a knack for handling actors. Nevertheless, these roots themselves had to eventually be outgrown and his work with his actors become the true focal point of his enterprise before Bergman became truly "great."

Even with Nyqvist at his side, Bergman's genius for theatrical realization always overshadows his formal/technical innovation. Deft with comedy, spectacle and the most intense drama, he has a visual tendency towards prettified symbolism a la Seventh Seal. (Strangely, I find the narrative structure of Bergman's early and middle films virtually indistinguishable from the Kurosawa's pot-boilers.) Hard to complain when a film is as satisfying as Wild Strawberries, however, Persona seems to mark a conscious shift in Bergman's priorities towards resolving his themes through other possible means, culminating somewhat in the refined lavishness of Cries and Whispers.

In my mind, Scenes From a Marriage ultimately surpasses Persona as his experimental masterpiece, not through technical innovation, but through the relentless insistence on distance and performance. These two formal innovations are Bergman's greatest achievement in that by loosening the restrictions of time and delving ever deeper into his actor's souls, Bergman arrives at a cinema (albeit originally intended for television) that at last matches the ferocity of his themes (faith, suffering, the distant promise of love) with an experience for the viewer that roughly mirrors the rawness and discomfort of his characters. The title, for me, marks a radical departure from Bergman's comfort zone of formalized drama and instead evokes the kind of actorly exercises with which he would be equally familiar, but perhaps less willing to film. But instead of merely watching pretty actors suffer and torture each other, we become complicit through time and closeup in their momentary flashes of emotion and insight. (The standard here is not "rawness" of acting but the use to which that acting is put and I see no reason to draw comparisons to the acting in Cassavetes, which is equally superior.)

Knowledge of the world in Bergman is mostly limited to the internal realm of the yearning soul (can that really be called knowledge?) and the relationships between men and women. His example lets me illustrate the inverse connection between the strength of his "themes" and his "knowledge." Themes such as solitude, suffering and the existence of God hint to a form of artistic transcendence that demands not only intellectual rigor but a great degree of innovation to avoid mere signification and involve the viewer in a lived experience of transcendence. Bresson has much the same project and he tackles it through rigorous editing and dramatic minimalism. Bergman, on the other hand, tends to show people in anguish and doubt, paralyzed or inflamed by their passions. He tends, in other words, to act his themes out. Although no one can question the authenticity or rigor of Bergman's examination of faith, I am saying here that his expression of this theme tends to be less than, say Bresson's or Dreyer's who sometimes achieve a kind of epiphany for the viewer through the power of the image or editing, rather than the power of the drama. That, to me, is another order of genius. Bergman's merit, I think, comes, like a solid veteran, from his unflinching dedication to his themes.

As a result, I rate Bergman's contribution of knowledge to be only average. He shows us intimate rituals and daily, lived interiors but I can't help but feel it's all set decoration. Has he ever been genuinely interested in the work people do, for example, outside of the relationships they trap us in or the way they symbolically reflect our souls? (Thus the profusion of professors, priests and maidens.) His actors and his sets are always so handsome and impeccably dressed; in other words--artificial. On the other hand, by Fanny and Alexander, all of Bergman's dramatic, symbolic tendencies seem to culminate in a kind of Hamlet-esque reflection of itself that is singularly beguiling. The layered orchestration of family life, ritual and fantasy in this film approaches the highest achievements of Tarkovsky and Kiarostami for me. I cannot help but wish that, like Fellini, he occassionally indulged in more childish reflection instead of trying to be so grownup.

Ultimately, his actors are Bergman's shining achievement. Through his devotion to their bold and nuanced performances, Bergman lays bare the inner lives of men and women as the cinematic counterpart to D.H. Lawrence (or at least August Strindberg).

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Notes on Derrida

That both Žižek! and Derrida appear within a couple years of one another from Zeitgeist films makes the comparison inevitable. Since I watched Žižek! first I find Derrida functions as a counterpoint in many ways. The way Žižek embraces the filmmaking, how he is always performing, going so far as to act out his death at the end vs. the way Derrida shies away from the camera, always seems reluctant to answer questions, never seems quite confident that this film about him is going to amount to much of anything. That Žižek! is packed from end to end with words, words, words but what I remember about Derrida are the silences – I remember him thinking more than speaking. The project of Žižek! seems to be that the filmmakers want to help him achieve his goal of shedding his humanity and “becoming a monster; becoming theory,” whereas the goal of Derrida is to humanize him through focus on the banal and the mundane, interviews with his wife about their relationship, interviews with his brother. The result is that both end up at odds with their respective mythic images. Žižek, the devourer of popular culture and the champion of the everyday comes across all cerebral and discursive, flying far above the world as we know it a deal with it. Quite surprisingly, it is Derrida who emerges as a down to earth fellow. The documentary is a bit more haphazard, a bit aimless, and quite inferior to Žižek! but the central figure manages to save Derrida through his quiet, matter-of-fact persona.

For me what was most interesting about Derrida was his frequent rejection of the ways in which he is appropriated by the anything-goes/everything-is-meaningful crowd that currently hold court in American intellectual culture. When asked by a British talk show host what he thinks of the idea that Seinfeld is born from Deconstructions Derrida responds: (He blinks a couple times, hands folded and arched just in front of his chin. It is clear that he disdains the question but he is polite. He shifts in his seat) “Deconstruction… the way I understand it… does not produce any… sitcom (Derrida’s French accent is ever so slight, but you hear it when he emphasizes the “com” instead of the “sit.” Somehow that end up communicating to me that he finds this question ridiculous) If people who watch [Seinfeld] think deconstruction is this, the only advice I have to give them… just read; stop watching sitcom. Do your homework.” Who would have guessed that Derrida harbored the notion that popular culture is shallow? Later there is a scene in which one of the filmmakers points to the some books at the top of his shelf and asks, “Have you read those?” Derrida pulls down two novels by Anne Rice and says “No. I Taught a course concerned with vampirism and cannibalism and someone gave me these. I have read most of these books (on the floor to ceiling shelves from which the Anne Rice came), but not all of them.” Again I want to emphasize, imagine that Derrida would think reading Anne Rice is a waste of his time!

I don’t know what it all adds up to regarding Derrida’s aesthetics, but I am glad to see some indication of standards and values, because those are the things deconstruction is always invoked to neutralize. Similarly, when he is asked what he would like to ask the great philosophers of history, Derrida says he wants to ask them about their sex lives. Not because he wants to diagnose them, but because he wants to make them talk about what they leave out. It has been suggested to me that Derrida is more of an artist than a philosopher. That would explain why he wants the great thinkers to remember their bodies. So much thinking is done at a distance from lived experience, is done even to forget and deny lived experience. The deconstructionists, the post-colonialists, the multi-culturalists, the feminists, the psychoanalyticists fail to bring lived experience back into philosophy; they merely draw their abstractions from different groups of people and champion different values. Their revolutions are often only the flipside of the coin to which they object. Derrida’s project is much bigger, much more dangerous. Not that I am an expert on Derrida. Have written a few hundred words, I am left thinking that I actually know nothing about Derrida after watching that movie. I only know a few things that he is not.

Remaining thoughts about Žižek.

Here is the long awaited (I am sure of this) part two of my reaction to Reality of the Virtual. I would like to cleverly set up the stream of consciousness you are about to step into, but I have no patience to construct such artifice at this late hour. (Yes, this was posted at 12:30 on a Sunday, but when I wrote that sentence it was 10:00 Saturday night and I had been writing, or at least sitting in front of the computer, since 2:00. While that may not seem like much for a lot of people who call themselves writers, it is quite exhausting for me.)

The bit about everyone agreeing to the virtual through silent, even unconscious, assumption is crucial. So many of our beliefs are not really notions in which we believe, but beliefs that we expect others at once to have and to assume we have so we go along. I would say that this flow runs over the very notion of belief itself. When I watch myself, I can see that my very behavior is almost totally made up of movements and sounds that I assume others expect of me. Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel is a brilliant illustration of this phenomenon. Fine, upstanding people will digress to savagery before taking a single step over the precipice that separates the status quo from the unknown, even as the status quo is killing them.

According to Žižek this is the very function of a society. Like the Freud of Civilization and Its Discontents, argues that society is flawed not by disharmony, but by its primordial shape. Historically, those at the top of the socio-economic power structure have attributed the various problems in their respective societies to minority groups that threaten harmony. Everything would be fine if we got rid of the Jews or the Gays, if we kept the Blacks and Women where they belong, if we kept out the Mexicans, if we killed off the intellectuals. Placing aside for the moment the moral objections to these plans, they do not work because they misunderstand the problem. There is no idyllic, harmonious society to which we must return; there is only the flawed shape of a society that necessarily stratifies classes. A society has to have poor and rich, worker and owner, ignorant and enlightened. What Žižek dares to suggest, if I understand correctly, is that we don’t need an alternative society so much as an alternative to society.

But we are all very attached to society, and so we try to make it work. Chief among our recent efforts to save society has been to disseminate tolerance far and wide. Rodney King’s famous “Can’t we all just get along,” has become something of a motto to large segments of our population, particularly for intellectuals and public figures. Of course nothing has changed about politics and pundits. They still don’t get along, but now they can accuse the other side of not wanting to get along. As for intellectuals, the new-found mission of tolerance opens up myriad new subjects to teach, ways to teach them and demographic groups to bring into the universities.

Žižek calls tolerance a chocolate laxative. He says the ultimate chocolate laxative is to wage wars to free people who don’t ask to be freed i.e. Iraq. I am still working on that metaphor. Does he mean that we are unable to take something we need unless it is sugar-coated, and thus we begin to conflate the two? Is it that we start feeling good about feeling bad? Or does he mean that it isn’t what we think it is. That we think tolerance is something sweet, but the sweetness conceals a motive completely at odds with what we should expect from it? Tolerance, Žižek says, means do not harass me; in fact, don’t even come close to me. Since every attempt at communication is almost always first an intrusion of some sort, then every word spoken toward or written about another human being is potentially “harassment.” It does not take long to reach the point at which this fear of harassment becomes intolerance. I am quite susceptible to this argument, because I see this going on all around me. Everyone is entitled to his opinion, and if you don’t like it, you can fuck right off! Where does conversation take place? Indeed where does thinking occur? I think this is Žižek at his best – revealing that a given ballyhooed truism that seems like a good idea, actually engenders the opposite of what it purports to do.

Nowhere is this more striking than in his discussion of pleasure. His examples are always vivid. “There is nothing more miserable,” Žižek says, “than those young couples or people who organize their life in order to enjoy themselves.” This is exactly why we have Blackberries. Everyone needs her life to be meticulously planned. We even plan something called free time! We plan to go out and get drunk on a particular night then the next day’s schedule says: “gym” or “jogging.” We have to plan our pleasure! Žižek distinguishes Freud’s time from our own, and it is often instructive to think of our era as “Post-Freud,” arguing that Freud developed his theories and practice in opposition to the societal injunction to deny oneself pleasure, whereas our societal injunction is to go after pleasure. Of course Žižek argues that our pleasure is pleasure neutralized – we get to drink on the decaffeinated coffee and non-alcoholic, low-carb, light beer we want! What we need now is find a space where we are allowed not to enjoy. How pregnant that suggestion is! Yet I fear that my digression into why I think we need that pleasure-less space would lead this commentary quite away from Žižek, so I should leave it alone for now.