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September 10, 2010

Suspended Lives, Revenant Images. On Harun Farocki's Film Respite by Sylvie Lindeperg

Note: Suspended Lives, Revenant Images. On Harun Farocki's Film Respite was first published in Trafic, no. 70/2009 and is reprinted in Harun Farocki | Against What? Against Whom? edited by Antje Ehmann and Kodwo Eshun.

respite.gifHarun Farocki's Respite is something of a ghost film, revisiting his exposition on the intersection between productivity and violence (as captured by the unseen reconnaissance photographs of Auschwitz) in Images of the World and the Inscription of War, and dissecting the nature of image production and its role in inscribing - and intrinsically, codifying - history. It is an attempt to connect the visible and the invisible that is also suggested in Sylvie Lindeperg's essay, Suspended Lives, Revenant Images. On Harun Farocki's Film Respite. To this end, Lindeperg describes Farocki's use of found footage and archival photographs as an "exhumation", suggesting the dual nature of these companion films (Respite consists of footage from the Westerbork transit camp) as a critique of history and filmmaking, both converging on the implication of images. Moreover, since the Westerbork footage exists as a set of unedited rushes rather than a completed work, Lindeperg reinforces this analogy by referring to Farocki's deconstruction in Respite as the figurative reassembly of a "phantom film".

Images of the World and the Inscription of War underlines the troubling proximity between acts of conservation and acts of destruction, the relationship between the violence of war and the technologies of recording and reconnaissance, the instability of meaning at work in the image ...[The film] therefore forcefully underlines the necessary "collusion of image and text in the writing of history." The knowledge constituted by eyewitness accounts permits us to decode elements hidden in the image, to recognize what was inscribed there, but neither interpreted nor even seen at the time it was recorded. The conjunction of seeing and knowing thus allows us to recover the unthought of the photograph at the moment of its making. This reading appears as the product of an encounter between historical knowledge, the regime of memory, the symbolic and social demands that condition the exhumation of photographs, the questions addressed to them, the ways of decoding them.

In introducing this parallel image of a ghost film that can be reconfigured to reveal malleable layers of reality and meaning, Lindeperg broaches on the idea of filmmaking as archaeology and an act of conjuring. However, rather than a treatise on the ambiguity of truth and fiction in the vein of José Luis Guerín's Tren de sombras, Lindeperg illustrates the intrinsic paradox of the wartime footage intended to capture (and preserve for history) the way of life of a people who were targeted for extermination:

Fritz Hippler recalls the instructions given to him by Goebbels while filming in Lodz in 1940: 'Film everything you see: the life and the crowds in the streets; the commerce and trade, the rituals in the synagogue, crime, none of this should be forgotten. It has to be captured in its original state.'

...These remarks attributed to Goebbels reveal, above all, the conjunction between the act of archiving and disappearance that prefigures the tragic encounter between putting-in-an-image and putting-to-death. From 1942, in fact, filming was continued and increased in the Polish ghettos. The Nazis filmed those that they were going to kill, documenting them because they were going to kill them.

It is this dichotomy that underscores the idea of cinema and image-making as the process of preservation and destruction, where memory is formed by the sequencing of images, each one supplanted by the next.

In Images of the World and the Inscription of War, Farocki juxtaposes photographs from diverse sources in order to decode the traces of the event inscribed in the pictures while simultaneously taking the measure of what is not immediately represented. In Respite, however, he starts with a single source in order to evoke memory-images. The sequences of Westerbork thus become palimpsest images, which summon to the surface other image-strata, which recall the memory and history of cinema. Accordingly, the black intertitle cards play the role of crystallizers of memory and facilitators of vision, while simultaneously providing a space for absent images.

In this respect, Respite not only proposes to refigure history, but also to resurrect the dead through reconstituted images, to form a more durable image-memory in their absence.

There is another meaning of the title Respite that refers to the notion of latency, to the passing and the work of time, the time that mirrors the forgotten scenes of life in the camp and that extends to the present. In this sense, the force of Farocki's film depends on the contextualization of these shots within the mechanisms of propaganda as well as the confidence he places in their autonomous power. Detached from the intentions of the film, the luminous faces of the persecuted appear before us as revenant images. This spectral effect allows an emotion to surge forth that assures the posthumous victory of these captive men, women and children placed in front of the camera at the whim of their jailor, since time can foil the designs of the conquerors, and the image, as Chris Marker observed, has the power to transform the dead into something eternal.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 10, 2010 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2010, Film Related Reading


July 21, 2010

Nelson Pereira dos Santos by Darlene J. Sadlier

dossantos_sadlier.gifWith Nelson Pereira dos Santos's body of work deeply rooted in an aesthetic as well as political and social consciousness, it is not surprising that Darlene J. Sadlier analyzes the trajectory of dos Santos's cinema through a similar paradigmatic approach of integrating film form with historical context. Brought up in a middle-class, cinephile household in a rapidly modernizing (and consequently, culturally vibrant) postwar São Paolo, dos Santos's involvement with the left movement in the 1940s was incited more by humanism - particularly, with respect to the socioeconomic disparity and underdevelopment of the sertão (northeast) region - than opposition to the authoritarian government of Getúlio Vargas. Despite working towards a law degree, dos Santos had spent his academic career pursuing filmmaking, traveling to Paris to embark on a makeshift film studies crash course (after a failed attempt to enroll at the renowned IDHEC [Institut des hautes études cinématographiques]), and taking on documentary projects commissioned by the Communist party. It was during these lean years working in cash-strapped productions that dos Santos, now living with his young family in a Rio suburb near the city's largest favela, conceived the idea for Rio, 100 Degrees - a film that confronted the unvarnished reality of life in the slums that, until then, had remained below the periphery of social discourse on everyday life in the city (even as the favela maintained a visible presence atop a hill):

In contrast to the aerial shots of the tourist sites, the camera takes a position low to the ground to photograph the favela from the base of the hill to the top. This angle enables dos Santos to give audiences a better sense of the size and steepness of the hill as well as the closeness and poverty of the wooden shacks, which lack even running water. We see a boy walking up the hill with a can of water on his head and several others making their way down narrow paths and onto the paved streets filled with marketplaces, cafés, and palm trees. These few shots make clear that the favela is quite close to the city; but life in the metropole is so much richer that it seems like another planet.

In the essay, Rio, Zona Norte, Mandacaru Vermelho, Boca de Ouro, and the beginning of the Cinema Novo Movement, Sadlier examines dos Santos's early, transitional films that, while entirely different in their scope (and levels of critical and commercial success), reveal recurring themes and methodologies that would resurface throughout his body of work: race and indigenous identity versus assimilated Western culture (Rio, Zona Norte), landlessness and migrant workers (Mandacaru Vermelho), and a translational approach to literary adaptation (Boca de Ouro). Also, by locating these films within the chronology of Cinema Novo, Sadlier makes a salient point on dos Santos's precedence with respect to the birth of the movement, correcting the common misconception that aligns his cinema squarely with the emergence of Glauber Rocha, Leon Hirszman, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, Carlos Diegues, and Arnold Jabor under the rubric of Cinema Novo.

Sadlier expounds on Dos Santos's translational approach to adapting literature in her detailed analysis of Vidas secas. Based on the novel by Brazilian author Graciliano Ramos (whose autobiographical novel, Memories of Prison, would later be adapted by dos Santos in 1984), dos Santos not only took advantage of the novel's cyclical structure to rearrange the self-contained stories for dramatic effect, but also dispensed with much of the characters' philosophical inner monologues in order to retain a more visceral connection with the nature of poverty.

Between and within sections, characters' thoughts and moods often undergo swift, radical changes, revealing their curiosity about language and undermining certain stereotypical notions about "primitives" derived from nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature. In fact, Ramos's novel is as much or more concerned with the "human and contradictory" language and consciousness of the retirante (peasant migrant) as it is with the brutal landowning system of the Northeast.

...Dos Santos's film dramatizes this scene in its entirety [an episode in which the oldest son struggles with his mother's explanation of the concept of inferno], but it somewhat downplays the boy's curiosity about the words and his desire to understand what he does not know, giving greater emphasis to the ironic relationship between the word 'hell' and the boy's immediate surroundings.

In Culture and Cannibalism: Como era gostoso o meu francês, Sadlier frames How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman within the context of cultural extermination as a result of the military government's attempts to bring "civilization" to the indigenous people as part of its national development campaign. By drawing on colonial history, the cannibalism serves as an allegory for the consumption of one culture by another - a phenomenon that speaks directly to Brazilian society's continued emulation of European culture long after the country's independence. (Note: The equation of cannibalism with cultural consumption also appears in Joaquim Pedro de Andrade's Macunaíma).

Sadlier further proposes an intriguing corollary that by filming from the perspective of the indigenous tribe, dos Santos is recreating a historical record that had been erased from "official" history through a process of what critic Raymond Williams describes as "selective tradition" in which culture is redefined by the prevailing attitudes of contemporary society (and that, by nature, reinforces these biases and aspirations).

Viewed in these terms, dos Santos's film is less interested in distorting a canonical text than in revealing what that text omits. Its documentary-like or "anthropological" style directly participates in an effort of reinterpretation by providing the viewer with a simulation of what has been lost, not just in time but also through the selective cultural process. Dos Santos's solidarity with the Tupinambá can therefore be described as an ideological position in powerful contrast with the interests and values of the dominant class in Brazil, which has always identified with Europeans, especially the French.

The collapse of populism in the 1960s also coincided with dos Santos's divergence from a purely leftist agenda towards a more humanist cinema, a transition that is reflected in the fabular dimension to Ogum's Amulet:

Although dos Santos had long been aware of religious practices in the favela, his approach in his earliest films was strictly Marxist, focusing on social class and race while implicitly dismissing religion as an opiate of the masses. O amuleto de Ogum makes clear not only the centrality of religion in the lives of the poor but also the ways in which umbanda reinforces class solidarity and gives a kind of power to individuals who are caught in a violent and corrupt world.

Stadlier also illustrates this ideological shift in her analysis of Memories of Prison and Cinema of Tears. In Memories of Prison, dos Santos creates early ambiguity on the identity of the author and main character, Graciliano Ramos, by placing him in the milieu of the general prison population, in essence, democratizing the attribution of "hero" to all the prisoners. In Cinema of Tears, dos Santos's Latin American contribution to the BFI's Century of Cinema project (on filmmaker searching for a lost film that connects him to a tragic episode from his past), he embraces the escapism of popular studio-produced films and their ability to connect with the audience.

The actor's search through the archive is also, of course, a fictional device that allows dos Santos to show brief clips, most of them in pristine condition, of wonderfully evocative black-and-white films of the studio era. By this means he pays tribute to a generation of directors, cinematographers, and stars who became internationally famous largely because of their work in melodramas. Although the content of these films had little to do with the social reality of the moviegoing public, the Mexican melodramas were among the highest-quality films made in Latin America. In effect, dos Santos who began his career as a neorealist and a symbol of the Latin American New Wave, takes a revisionary approach to a genre that, like the chanchada [musical comedies], was often criticized by the Left because of its association with Hollywood.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 21, 2010 | | Filed under 2010, Film Related Reading


February 15, 2010

Forest of Pressure: Ogawa Shinsuke and Postwar Japanese Documentary by Abé Mark Nornes

ogawa_nornes.gifBy examining the evolution of postwar Japanese documentaries - and in particular, the singular output of the Ogawa Pro film collective under the leadership of the charismatic, if autocratic and impractical filmmaker Ogawa Shinsuke - Abé Mark Nornes's book, Forest of Pressure: Ogawa Shinsuke and Postwar Japanese Documentary aligns closer to a socio-ethnographic study of the rise and fall of the Japanese New Left movement from some of its most visible participants than a critical biography on the inner workings of the independent, politically engaged film collective and its polarizing leader. Indeed, Nornes suggests this pliability in the introduction, disentangling Ogawa's self-cultivated mythology as hardscrabble peasant, student activist, and university dropout from his actual biography as upper middle-class Tokyo native and college graduate with a degree in economics. Born in 1936 (rather than 1935 as he had claimed, perhaps as a way of appearing more senior than his colleagues), Ogawa's early exposure to documentary filmmaking was in the form of educational films disseminated by the Civil Information and Education section of the Occupation as a means of promoting western democracy in postwar Japan. Struggling to pursue his craft during the waning days of the studio system, and under the constant threat of a red purge, Ogawa left the PR film studio, Iwanami Productions and, with the instigation of several student activists who had been participants in his documentary Sea of Youth - Correspondence Course Students that explored the challenges and stigmas associated with distance learning, formed Ogawa Productions as a means of promoting action through information.

It is interesting to note that Nornes creates a distinction between the genesis of Ogawa Pro and that of his Iwanami contemporary, Tsuchimoto Noriaki's independent film production studio (Tsuchimoto had shot the highly influential series of films on Minamata and the long-term effects of industrial pollution on its residents), citing Tsuchimoto's seminal role in the formation of Zengakuren at Waseda University in 1948 as a prelude to his career in activist filmmaking, suggesting that Ogawa's career trajectory was as equally influenced by cultural and political synchronicity as it was by a desire to exert creative independence.

This confluence is perhaps best exemplified by the Sanrizuka series that documented the local farmers' protracted (and ultimately, failed) struggle against the construction of the Narita Airport. Far from facile attributions of tradition versus modernity, Nornes incisively places their struggle within the broader context of hegemony, nationhood, and cultural identity (the need for a second airport near Tokyo was essentially created by the US military as part of enforcing the ANPO security treaty, and their struggle became emblematic of the broader resistance to the treaty itself and its implication of the Vietnam War, attracting student activists to their cause). Having lived in the village and learning their way of life over the course of several years, Ogawa not only eschews the myth of objectivity in shooting a documentary, but also redefines the concept of embededness as a means of engaging with the subject. By differentiating between the converging factions at Sanrizuka, Nornes proposes that series' final installment, Sanrizuka: Heta Village is also its most potent and well-realized film specifically because it transcends political immediacy, dissolving the notion of otherness to create a cultural portrait that is both tactile and ephemeral:

Heta Village represents a climax to the Sanrizuka Series and a keystone to Ogawa's career because the director finally perfected the documentary aesthetic he had been searching for. Before this, he conducted his search - his practical experiments with all their theoretical implications - while necessarily tending to the practical and on-the-ground politics of the struggle. Only by staying with his taisho [subject] for so many years, by following their struggle and living with them as neighbors, did Ogawa reach a point where he could shuttle the spectacle and details of the political struggle to offscreen spaces without committing an unforgivable ethical compromise. Those years of living and filmmaking enabled the collective to see beyond the urgent contingencies of the confrontation with power and reach for a more profound understanding of the conflict that continued in the fields of Sanrizuka and the jails of Narita. As filmmakers, they built this new understanding into their cinema. Sanrizuka: Heta Village is ultimately about - and literally embodies - the diverse ways of being human.

Ogawa's ability to disengage from the political dimension of "activist" filmmaking is also reflected in his decision (spurred in part by personal anxieties) to relocate Ogawa Pro from Sanrizuka to Magino, a remote village on the brink of extinction where the remaining members retreated to a life of farming rice and silkworms and compiling almanacs - a move that, as Nornes argues, exposes an underlying dichotomy in the regressive social attitudes within the organization that contributed to the attrition (especially with respect to the women's roles, often remaining uncredited in the films and being relegated to performing housework in the commune):

In retrospect, it would appear that the critiques of the Old Left were an honest attempt to renovate the relationship between art and politics but without substantially rethinking social politics. Indeed, looking at the way Ogawa Pro actually functioned, it was obviously an autarchy. For all the rhetoric about collective production, there was a crystal clear hierarchy with Ogawa in the unquestioned seat of power. The structure was relatively faint during the Sanrizuka Series, but after 1975 and the move to Magino, the isolation amplified the hierarchical roles. Those who could not keep up with the debate were swiftly purged. This structure may also be seen as an analog of the nation-state itself. The authoritarianism that all these factors point to may have left Japanese critical theory and documentary filmmaking of the early 1970s an inflexible discourse incapable of meeting the challenges of a social world undergoing massive change.

As Nornes further argues, Ogawa's increasing preoccupation with the daily rituals in the farming village (perhaps exacerbated by Magino's isolation) serves as a broader reflection of his disconnection from film as a vehicle for social change towards film as an art form, a paradigm that would supplant activist cinema as the preferred mode of expression by a new generation of filmmakers such as Naomi Kawase. In this sense, the Magino series not only reflected Ogawa's exhaustion from political engagement, but was also a symptom of the collapsing movement itself:

Ogawa Pro was not isolated from the changes that were transforming Japanese documentary from a collective spirit to a private film. And neither were the farming communities isolated from the urban filmmaking centers. Indeed, these sweeping changes in Japanese society deeply affected the filmmaking of Ogawa Pro's Magino period.

...This was, after all, precisely the time of Japan's bubble economy and farmers were quite well off (especially in contrast to the hard case poverty of Ogawa Pro). Farmers were enjoying a measure of prosperity, a participation in the fruits of modernity to a degree never experienced in the past. The Magino Village they portrayed on film was primarily one of Ogawa's own prodigious imagination. The film was widely criticized for this, especially in the hinterlands. The Sundial Carved with a Thousand Years of Notches was made at the end of an era; it is a film that could never be made today. As Iizuka Toshio points out, the people that really loved the film were - like Ogawa himself - lovers of the cinema, not the village.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 15, 2010 | | Filed under 2010, Film Related Reading


January 18, 2010

Alain Resnais (French Film Directors) by Emma Wilson

In Alain Resnais, author Emma Wilson presents an incisive and comprehensive analysis of Resnais's recurring themes of memory, plasticity, construction, and fragmentation. By placing contemporary history within the broader context of capturing internal states and subjective reality, Wilson proposes a means of reconciling Resnais's more experimental, overtly political postwar films (through the 1960s) with his later, more hermetic and theatrical aesthetic, where the collective trauma and projected desire of his early films pave the way for the nostalgia and lyricality of his post Stavinsky work:

Resnais is fascinated by mental or subjective images, the virtual reality which makes up individual consciousness and is itself composed of both what we have known and what we have imagined. This interest in the finest workings of the mind - in the mind itself as an internal cinema where images both virtual and real coexist - calls for an extraordinary reshaping of cinema and rethinking of the capacity of film to show us reality as it is imagined, as well as lived.

Beginning with an analysis of Resnais's short film documentaries from 1948 to 1958 - which range from such seemingly diverse subjects as artist profile (Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin) art (Guernica), culture (Les Statues meurent aussi), the Holocaust (Nuit et brouillard), the national library system (Toute la mémoire du monde), and polystyrene manufacturing (Le Chant du Styrène) - Wilson argues that the documentaries are integrally connected by the idea of (re)animation. In Guernica, the fragmentation of the painting reflects the inadequacy of representing collective trauma that foreshadows Hiroshima mon amour. In Nuit et brouillard, the juxtaposition of photographic stills with film footage creates ambiguity between life and death that, in turn, evokes the tragedy of the concentration camps. In Les Statues meurent aussi, the film is less a survey of African art than a reflection on cultural phantoms that have been lost in the face of colonialism and commercialization.

The death of statues is illustrated also in the opening images of the film where we see statues from western art, fragmented, the title seeming to refer to a Proustian sense of the friability of even hard matter, through time. In both motifs in the film, statues are rendered peculiarly animate (in particular, in Resnais’s moving shots which circle the material objects). Resnais introduces this uncanny theme of hesitation between life and death, flesh and stone, which will recur in his films as he shows ash-covered figures in Hiroshima, statues and shadows at Marienbad. In Les Statues meurent aussi, this material concern shadows the more trenchant awareness of the loss and embalming of a living civilization.

Moreover, in highlighting the symbiotic relationship between the living and inanimate in Hiroshima mon amour, Wilson introduces the idea of dislocating trauma from a specific, personal (and cultural) level towards a more amorphous, collective consciousness that runs through Resnais's films, a theme that is also captured in her analysis of Toute la mémoire du monde :

In Toute la mémoire du monde, Resnais propagates a notion of collective memory, of a ‘mémoire universelle’. He shows, obliquely how the shots of his own films are always already familiar, part of this cultural melting-pot or memory bank. His films will recall torture scenes in Goya, the bodily horror of passages in Kafka. His will be a collaged art, glimpsed first by a wider public as he edits together Van Gogh, pursued in the editing of Guernica and Nuit et brouillard. Resnais's response to the traumas of the twentieth-century history is particular: he recognizes the fear of forgetting, the blow dealt to memory, yet retains and refuses to relinquish the resonances of art, literature and popular culture, the fabric from which cultural memory is continually re-shaped.

resnais_wilson.gifIn the chapter on Hiroshima mon amour, Wilson insightfully argues that the dislocation is manifested in Resnais's films through cities that are as equally identifiable through images of iconic sites as they are interchangeable in their representations of urban spaces. In Hiroshima mon amour, the A-bomb dome is juxtaposed against the city's rebuilt commercial district, creating parallel strands of time that mirror the protagonist's unreconciled personal and collective memories of Nevers and Hiroshima.

Similarly, Boulogne and Algeria are also integrally connected in Muriel ou le temps d'un retour through suppressed personal and collective trauma, an intrinsic violence that Wilson proposes is revealed through Resnais's jarring editing and soundtrack that reinforce the atrocity of the Algerian War through the film's idiosyncratic aesthetic of "visual mutilation".

In her essay on L’Année dernière à Marienbad, Wilson provides an insightful analysis on the implication of Resnais's creative disagreement with screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet over his decision not to film the climactic rape sequence and instead, culminate the scene with a repeating shot of A opening her arms to X. While on the surface, the substitution radically transforms A's station from victim to liberated woman, Wilson argues that the action is ambiguous and unsettling, implying a dark psychology more in-line with folie à deux than feminist icon:

For me, there is no liberation in L’Année dernière à Marienbad, thought here may be an act of transgression, and movement into the unknown. What is radical about the film is not the liberation of A, about which I am doubtful, but its gradual intimation that she, like the heroine of Hiroshima mon amour may seek a love which devours and deforms her, that she may be an actor and not an object in the relation that is generation by the dialogue between lovers. This is disturbing to X, disrupting his authorship, letting him be fantasized as rapist by his lover. Yet it is also, surely, disturbing to A - and to the viewers - who see her participation in a fantasy by which she is destroyed.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 18, 2010 | | Filed under 2010, Film Related Reading


December 28, 2009

Marguerite Duras (French Film Directors) by Renate Günther

duras_gunther.gifIn Marguerite Duras, author Renate Günther examines Marguerite Duras's films from the perspective of interweaving politics and memory that runs through her body of work. Born in Gia-Dinh in French Indochina (now Vietnam), the only daughter of emigrant teachers Emile and Marie Donnadieu who moved to the colonies in search of a better life, Duras's early life would be marked by the intersection of the personal and political - first, as a member of the working class who better identified with the indigenes than with other colonialists in their exclusion from bourgeois colonial society (especially after the family fell into poverty following her father's death), and subsequently as a young woman in occupied France who became involved with the resistance and the plight of Jewish people in World War II. Indeed, even her adopted pen name of Duras, assumed from a childhood village where the Donnadieu family had resettled after her father's illness, reveals an element of autobiographic fictionalization that characterizes her work:

Although Duras transformed her experience into art, she did not do so by simply telling the 'story of her life', as she did not believe that the chaos of memory could or should be subjugated to the contrived order of a linear and logically structured novelistic or filmic narrative. Instead she isolated significant moments in her life and condensed them, in fictionalized form, into the recurring scenarios that run through the texts of her films. This repetition with variations of the same core material is one of the hallmarks of Duras's work, as she creates clusters of references through which texts and films mirror and transform one another.

A familiar instance of this process of fictional condensation and repetition is embodied by the recurring iconic character, Anne-Marie Stretter who appears in Duras's novels La Ravissement de Lol V. Stein, Le Vice-consul, and L'Amant, and also in her film, India Song. Inspired by Elisabeth Streidter, the wealthy, strikingly beautiful Swiss wife of a provincial administrator whose daughters were close to Duras's age (as well as the unrequited object of desire of a young man who committed suicide), Stretter not only represented the socioeconomic ideal of the colonial bourgeoisie that the Donnadieus were excluded from, but also Duras's ambivalent relationship with her mother, whose attention and devotion were largely lavished on her eldest brother, Pierre, at the expense of the younger children.

However, rather than creating fictionalized versions of autobiographical episodes, Duras emphasizes the disjunction through dissociation, desynchronization, and non-linearity, creating the aesthetic of voix off in which off-screen voices are used in lieu of synchronized sound to accompany the visual track and maintain separation between image and sound:

Duras's filmic technique, then, illustrates her view that cinema is not a transparent reflection of the world, but a highly complex construct which should be presented as such. But the gap between voice and image does more than merely show the artificial nature of cinema. It also creates an unsettling feeling of dislocation within the spectator's own sense of identity which, for the duration of the film, loses its usual cohesion and unity. Duras's films demonstrate that the notion of a stable coherent self or 'subject' is, in fact, an illusion which, in Western patriarchal cultures at least, has been used by dominant social groups to reinforce their position of power over those who have been defined as 'the object', 'the other'.

As with the fictional incarnation of Stretter, the composite autobiographical episodes from Duras's childhood would similarly form the recurring image of the beggar woman whose fictionalized biography is recounted in India Song and Son nom de Venise dan Calcutta désert: a desperate Vietnamese woman, near death, who had handed her equally gravely ill child over to Duras's mother (Duras ended up caring for the child who died a few days later), and an emaciated, screaming beggar woman known as "la folle de Vinhlong" who, for Duras, symbolized the fear of mental illness (and implicitly, the sense of helplessness) that she harbored throughout her life. But more importantly, the beggar woman also represents a stateless and disenfranchisement that expound on Duras's recurring themes of class and division, as illustrated in her transposition as a drifter in Le Camion and more loosely, by the unseen, immigrant sanitation workers who sweep the pre-dawn streets of Paris in Les Mains négatives:

The theme of racist oppression and exclusion in Le Camion is also reflected in the film's location, since the lorry's journey takes us through a region inhabited entirely by immigrants, including a large Portuguese community. As Duras explained, the latter used to live in caravans near the railway station at Plaisir, but were evicted and rehoused in the grandes ensembles, the blocks of flats which we occasionally see in the film. Exiled from their native country and subsequently excluded from mainstream French society, the immigrants are condemned to live in this desolate landscape, evoked in the text by the woman's repeated vision of 'la fin du monde', 'the end of the world'.

Indeed, inasmuch as Duras's films all contain a political dimension, Le Camion is perhaps the most overtly personal response to a political autobiography - her own estrangement from the PCF (Parti Communiste Français) - featuring a truck driver whose hardline membership in the PCF unconsciously perpetuates the artificial divisions inherent in a monolithic identity:

This denunciation of political power in Le Camion begins with Duras's vehement criticism of the PCF which can be traced back to her resignation and subsequent expulsion from the party in 1950, after her seven-year experience as a fervent activist. The sense of loss she experienced following this episode was exacerbated by the fact that for her the PCF had become a substitute family, creating a strong personal identification in addition to her political commitment.

Similarly, Nathalie Granger also represents a personal and political convergence, this time, within the context of the post 1968 French feminist movement, the publishing of the solidarity petition in Le Nouvel observateur in 1971 to protest outdated abortion laws from the 1920s, and the 1972 mass demonstrations in Paris against the trivialization of rape in the French judicial system. Citing the duality intrinsic in the women's insular environment, suggesting both imprisonment and utopia, repression and violence (reinforced through the broadcast news of escaped convicts that accompany the extended shots of domestic chores), Günther provides an insightful and exhaustive deconstruction of the film's structure and its process of illustrating, diagnosing, and finally refiguring the mechanics of social class and gender roles.

The notion of gender as performance is clearly relevant to Nathalie Granger, as Depardieu's slightly exaggerated gestures and facial expressions constantly remind us not only that he is an actor, but also that the male figure he represents is acting out the role of the salesman as part of this gendered spectacle. The sharp contrast, furthermore, between the man's initially confident performance and his subsequent vulnerability in front of the women also foregrounds this discrepancy between his spurious masculinity and the fundamental humanity he shares with Isabelle and her friend. It is evident, then, that the women's implicit violence is not directed at the man personally, but rather at a society that imposes such a rigid prescription of gendered behavior on a multitude of different individuals.

...At the end of the film then, Duras transcends the barriers of both gender and class by creating a relationship of mutual understanding between a working-class man and two middle-class women. The oppositional categories of the Symbolic order become irrelevant, as the man reconnects with his 'femininity', just as the women's anger and violence are an expression of their 'masculinity'.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 28, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Film Related Reading


June 28, 2009

Cinema of the Other Europe: The Industry and Artistry of East Central European Film by Dina Iordanova

other_europe.gifIn Cinema of the Other Europe: The Industry and Artistry of East Central European Film , Dina Iordanova proposes a reframing of Eastern European cinema (and by extension, film culture studies) away from conventional, western-centric paradigms that tend to evaluate post World War II cinema from the "other Europe" within the context of cold war politics and chauvinism. Intrinsic in Iordanova's thesis is the prevailing notion of a shared, distinctive Central European ethos that continued to gain momentum in 1970s cultural studies as a means of distancing the region from a Pan-Germanic evaluation of twentieth century history that provided the catalyst for two world wars and the division of Europe, as well what H. M. Hughes describes as a nostalgia for a democratic and more culturally diverse pre-1918 Habsburg Empire (note the embodiment of this sentiment in the image of a multi-ethnic paradise lost in Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Austeria that is also directly correlated with the experience of World War II in the fate of displaced Hassidic Jews on the outskirts of Poland). More importantly, the idea of differentiating Central Europe as a bridge between East and West was also a way of reasserting a regional identity that was separate from the complex dynamics of the Balkan region as well as the cultural cross-pollination of an imposed Soviet hegemony. In essence, the idea of a shared cultural identity provided a means of aligning (or rather, realigning) regional interests closer to the illusive ideals of a democratic West with the eventual objective of breaking with Russia (and with it, chauvinist attitudes that being "non-West" was analogous with backwardness and underdevelopment) and "returning" to Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union (Ironically, it is Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov who would capture this sense of isolation from "old" Europe and return to a shared cultural history in Russian Ark) - what Iordanova describes as a "remapping" of Eastern European films into redefined national cinemas that reflected the cultural amnesia of a post-Soviet landscape (most notably, in the absorption of East German films into a broader category of German cinema that glosses over the distinctive qualities of DEFA studio productions, and also the reassignment of a collective Czechoslovakian cinema into separate Czech or Slovak film cultures).

The second part, Film and History, Ethics and Society examines the role of history in the shaping of national identity as reflected in Central European cinema, creating a sense of impotence against the tide of history that, in turn, manifest as forms of escapism, whether through the romanticization of heritage epics (such as Andrzej Wajda's Pan Tadeusz), elements of surrealism (such as Wojciech Has's The Saragossa Manuscript and Juraj Jakubisko's The Deserter and the Nomads), or magical realism (such as Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Mother Joan of the Angels and Pharaoh). In each case, the encounters with history are rooted in personal - rather than collective - memory:

The people of Central Europe look at history from a specific angle: they come from small countries which are usually powerless to make developmental decisions, yet need to react to whatever political shifts and advances occur (usually at the instigation of a neighboring great European power). So the stories told here are not so much those of people heroically influencing the course of history but of those who cannot do much more but stand by and witness events; they are stories of the vulnerable and the powerless, the small and the weak, the pawns and the underdogs. The actions of these protagonists are marked by the overpowering consciousness of their own limitations.

...The key concern of East Central European cinema is the interplay between historical and social processes and the personal experience of these processes. It is within this relationship, tilted towards the individual, where most identity issues and existential insecurities are played out. The never ending identity quest is often accompanied by an underlying frustration; there is an ongoing friction between objective historical events and their critical appropriation that limits the range of choices available to the individual. This is part of an eternally unresolved process of identification where all subjective moves are ultimately determined by the dialectical interplay with history.

Iordanova further examines the toll of "historical burden" through a survey of postwar trümmerfilms (films of the ruins) such as Wolfgang Staudte's The Murderers Are Among Us (East Germany), Géza von Radványi's Somewhere in Europe (Hungary), and Aleksandr Ford's Five Boys from Barska Street (Poland), as well as Andzej Wajda's war trilogy (A Generation, Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds), which are thematically connected by a sense of tragic inevitability as ordinary soldiers fighting on the losing side of the war. Conversely, Iordanova cites Andrej Munk's Eroica and its ne'er-do-well, accidental hero as a foil to the trümmerfilm paradigm, underscoring the arbitrariness of siding with history. Similarly, Miklós Jancsó's The Round Up and The Red and the White also reflect this dynamic in the ambiguous framing of partisans and collaborators, the victors and the vanquished.

In the chapter State Socialist Modernity: The Urban and the Rural, Iordanova argues that the conventional images of dour protagonists, mundane problems, and bleak industrial landscapes that characterize East Central European cinema are acts of subversion that would serve as fertile creative grounds for such seminal film movements as the Czechoslovakian New Wave and the Polish Cinema of Moral Concern:

Well aware of the excesses and dangers of totalitarianism, filmmakers saw the making of 'apolitical' films as a matter of priority. The films that they opted for would often be about disturbances of intimate relationships rather than heroic confrontations or class struggles; they would focus ordinary everyday life and thus, in the context of imposed excessive politicization of the personal domain, deliver a covert political statement.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 28, 2009 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2009, Film Related Reading


May 20, 2009

Nippon Modern: Japanese Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s by Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano

nippon_modern.gifIn Nippon Modern: Japanese Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s, Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano presents an insightful, multi-faceted analysis of Japan's interwar cinema within the context of Tokyo's rebuilding efforts in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 (even as the process of industrialization had already been underway), in particular, the output of Shochiku Kamata Film Studio which, as the only studio in Tokyo remaining operational after the earthquake, continued to produce films during this transition period that embodied Japanese society's ambiguous relationship with modernization. To this end, Wada-Marciano examines the studio's prevailing representations of domestic and social spaces, the emerging middle-class, athletic competition, the modern girl (moga), nationalism, and ethnic identity that expressed the public's anxiety over Japan's rapid modernization, as well as the cultural transformation created by the country's international emergence ushered by the Meiji Restoration.

The chapter, The Creation of Modern Space analyzes the complex role of spaces as a reflection of social and cultural transition. In this respect, the father's alternating role as both authoritarian figure in his home and office subordinate willing to make a fool of himself for his boss's benefit in Yasujiro Ozu's I Was Born But... reflects what Wada-Marciano describes as the public's unresolved negotiation with the process of modernization. Wada-Marciano further explores the social dichotomy through the bifurcation of geographic space itself, in this case, Tokyo's post-earthquake, transitional landscape that embodies what sociologist Yoshimi Shun'ya classifies as kakyo kukan (hometown space) and mirai kukan (future space) urban spaces.

Citing the stories of the visiting provincial mother in Ozu's The Only Son, the bus driver's encounter with a Tokyo-bound country girl in Hiroshi Shimizu's Mr. Thank You, and an industrialist's decision to stay with his new rural family instead of returning to Tokyo (and his legitimate family) in Mikio Naruse's Wife! Be Like a Rose!, Wada-Marciano illustrates the idealization and nostalgia for a distant, irretrievable home evoked in these colliding images of tradition and modernity. Another manifestation of negotiated space is in the integrated setting of Yokohama harbor as a gateway to the outside world in such films as Yasujiro Shimazu's First Steps Ashore, Hiroshi Shimizu's Japanese Girls at the Harbor, and Mikio Naruse's Everynight Dreams to represent the alien other, whether through overt notions of foreignness as criminal element and economic marginalization, or ethnic and cultural assimilation (Wada-Marciano astutely points out that the characters Henry and Dora in Japanese Girls at the Harbor represent a mixed race - and by implication, culturally diluted - population, and were portrayed by Eurasian actors, Ureo Egawa and Yukiko Inoue).

The negotiation between domestic and social spaces in I Was Born But... also leads to the broader examination of the urban white collar workers and the amorphously defined middle-class that constituted the predominant audience for these films and popularized the shoshimin eiga (middle-class) genre. In the chapter, Vernacular Meanings of Genre: The Middle-Class Film, Wada-Marciano expounds on the idea of hometown by highlighting the studio system's ancillary creation of an interconnected, virtual "extended family" in the recurring casting of the studio actors who would appear in various roles across several film productions. Wada-Marciano further provides a comprehensive discussion of I Was Born But... within the context of audience identification by analyzing the sons' rebellion through the prism of ambiguous social roles in the face of a new, emerging urban middle-class, where society has paradoxically embraced modern ideals of equal economic opportunity through hard work, even as it reinforces archaic models of hierarchy:

The middle-class genre film suggests the antinomy between Japanese modernity and rising nationalism in the 1930s, in the sense of a Japanese national subject's split between the call to modernize and the contradictory longings for the mythic cohesion of the past. The idea of 'the middle class' at the center of the genre worked to mitigate long-standing differences in social strata and in the particularities of Japan's interwar social transformation; the collective image of the middle-class served as a national identity for the modern subject. The middle class that emerged in interwar Japan referred less to a reconfigured labor force than to a new citizenry of a modern social transformation.

In Imaging Modern Girls in the Japanese Woman's Film, Wada-Marciano proposes that the image of the moga has been shaped by modernity and nationalism in the absence of assimilating Western liberalism - in essence, reinforcing the distinction between modernization and Westernization. This distinction is revealed in such moga themed films such as Ozu's Woman of Tokyo, where the perceived scandal is implied in the sister, Chikako's (Okada Yoshiko) involvement with a left-wing organization rather than created by a morally transgressive act, a politicization that could not be explicitly stated because of government censorship and an imposed ban of socially progressive, tendency films since the early 1930s:

In a further reading of Chikako's sacrifice, the film deploys another parallel in an act of whispering that occurs as the film reveals Chikako's moonlighting. The scandal is revealed to Harue by Kinoshita; first he states, 'Chikako seems to be working as a barmaid after her daytime job... The rumor involves not only that... '; then he whispers the rest to Harue, although the information is not shared with the audience. At this point we might imagine Chikako is involved in prostitution or something worse. More whispering occurs in a later sequence, when Harue reveals the rumor to Ryoichi. She says, 'What would you do if your sister was not who you think she is?' Then she whispers to Ryoichi, and again, the film conceals the information from the audience. Ryoichi replies, 'What are you talking about? It's too ridiculous!' Harue continues, 'That's not all. Your sister has disgracefully become a barmaid.' This information, as delivered, effectively undercuts the possibility that Chikako's suspected disgrace involves prostitution, but leads the audience towards another possibility - that of Chikako's involvement with a Communist political group. The film encourages such a political inference by embedding details of a hidden social progressive narrative, as in an earlier scene of the police officer's inquiry at Chikako's office and later in a headline announcing the arrest of a criminal organization.

The idea of Japanese modernity as a convergence of social discourse and national policy also forms the critical framework in the chapter, The Japanese Modern in Film Style, which distills the essential themes from the previous chapters into an analysis of Yasujiro Shimazu's Our Neighbor, Miss Yae within the varied contexts of modernist filmmaking (shooting the soon-to-be divorced, older sister Kyoko through old-fashioned, shinpa styled framing to emphasize the visual disjunction), urban spaces (images of the Ginza shopping district from a moving car that convey progression in its conflation of absolute and relative motion), athletics (after-school baseball practice), and nationalism (Yae-chan's family's relocation to Korea as part of Japan's expansionist campaign during the Fifteen Years' War).

Posted by acquarello on May 20, 2009 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2009, Film Related Reading


April 19, 2009

Refiguring Spain: Cinema/Media/Representation edited by Marsha Kinder

Composed of three sections, Historical Recuperation, Sexual Reinscription, and Marketing Transfiguration: Money/Politics/Regionalism, Refiguring Spain: Cinema/Media/Representation is a collection of essays that examine the ways in which Spanish cinema has both defined and constructed a national identity in the latter half of the twentieth century under a transformative climate of repression, democratization, social liberation, and globalism.

refiguring_spain.gifIn the essay, Reading Hollywood in/and Spanish Cinema: From Trade Wars to Transculturation, Kathleen M. Vernon proposes that the inscription of Hollywood films in Spanish cinema - the use of excerpted scenes and placement of iconic American images in such films as Luis García Berlanga's Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall (that emulate Hollywood western and film noir aesthetics) and Victor Erice's Spirit of the Beehive (James Whale's Frankenstein), goes beyond simple pop culture reference and instead, conveys oppositional subtext that allude to the isolationism and xenophobia that marked Franco-era Spain, as well as the US government's enabling political climate against a shared Communist threat that reinforced the dysfunction. Vernon further examines the role of these inscriptions within Pedro Almodóvar's cinema that function, not only as tongue in cheek homage, but also reinforce the idea of illusive history as the country was undergoing a radical transformation to democracy (which culminated in the election of the socialist party, PSOE, that would remain in power until 1996). To this end, Vernon argues that What Have I Done to Deserve This? represents Almodóvar's most politically referential work, framing Bud Stamper's (Warren Beatty) dream of returning to a simpler life in Elia Kazan's Splendor in the Grass within the context of Franco's parochial policies:

Finally, in an ultimate irony, the character's flight from the city at the end of ¿Qué hecho yo? though it marks the apparent fulfillment of their shared dream, reenacts the conclusion of the founding film of Spanish neorealism, José Antonio Nieves Conde's Surcos (Furrows, 1950). Hailed as the 'first glance at reality in a cinema of paper-maché', for its treatment of the problem of the rural exodus to the cities, in the hands of Falangist Nieves Conde, it also served as a cautionary tale regarding the moral corruption and destruction of family structures that awaited new immigrants to the city.

...Far from the instance of the postmodern denial of history through pastiche, as in Fredric Jameson's account of the mode, through its juxtaposition in filmic intertexts, the ironic American pastoral Splendor with the Spanish cautionary tale Surcos, ¿Qué hecho yo? casts suspicion on the workings of the cinematic imaginary. The longing for return is revealed as a return to the past of Francoism, a past Almodóvar's films disavow even as they actively re-evaluate its hold over the present.

The idea of a post-Franco reframing of official history also serves as a basis for Marsha Kinder's examination of Spanish documentary filmmaking, Documenting the National and Its Subversion in a Democratic Spain. Tracing the origins of what Kinder characterizes as the distinctive "Spanish inflection" of contemporary documentaries, Kinder cites Luis Buñuel's Land Without Bread and Carlos Saura's Cuenca as early examples of subverted documentaries that sought to create historical record even as they underscore the inexactness and malleability of such representation. The complex nature of historical reconstruction is also illustrated in two Civil War-themed documentaries, Jaime Camino's La vieja memoria and Gonzalo Herralde's Raza, el espíritu de Franco, which, as Kinder proposes, "not only provide an archival record of popular memory, ...but they also perform a historical and ideological analysis of this material."

Kinder further examines two noteworthy, 1990s transition-era documentaries, José Luis Guerín's Innisfree and Víctor Erice's El sol de membrillo as examples of highly regionalized documentaries that, nevertheless, reflect the impossibility of mediated representation:

Erice's film is preoccupied with the serial performance of self-representation, which (no matter how narcissistic) must inevitably be historicized. The film demonstrates that no matter what subject you are documenting (on canvas or on celluloid, on paper or video), you are still representing yourself and your medium and bearing witness to the historical and cultural moment that shaped your subjectivity. Like Innisfree, both López's painting and Erice's filmmaking capture the traces of what is perceived and remembered.

Roland B. Tolentino's essay, Nations, Nationalisms, and Los últimos de Filipinas: An Imperialist Desire for Colonialist Nostalgia, in some ways, expounds on Kinder's thesis on cultural inscription - in particular, the systematic refiguring of cultural identity under Franco. By placing Antonio Román's film in the context of Franco's nationalist agenda, Tolentino proposes that the film's revisionism reflects Spain's campaign to rehabilitate its postwar isolation by invoking the shared colonial history of allied Europe, reframing the handover of the Philippines to the US as a geopolitical strategy rather than a defeat that marked the end of the Spanish empire. Moreover, by examining the integral role of religion in colonialism (in its moral rationalization of enlightened mandate) as reflected in the film, Tolentino presents an insightful parallel to Franco's regime, which drew support from the Catholic church.

The troop's isolation in the Philippines is analogous to the isolation of the Francoist regime from other nations. The value of defending the empire to death is the latent hegemonic nationalist call. In the construction of the national ego ideal, the film narrative glorifies the 'conversion of the historical massacre into a religious sacrifice, one that is focused on the 'fetishization of virility and sacrifice.' Catholic orthodoxy is entwined with militaristic adventurism.

It is interesting to note that while Tolentino discusses Spanish colonial influence through its increasingly marginalized role in contemporary Filipino culture (which has been increasingly supplanted by American imperialism), the ideology behind the colonialist nostalgia of Los últimos de Filipinas with respect to Spanish society - the film's intended audience - is only indirectly broached in the essay, alluded in a comment on Catalan speakers and Basque nationalists' (apparently) tempered response to the film. Indeed, inasmuch as cultural erasure reflects the legacy of colonialism, it also represents a motivation for Franco's social policy, where the assertion of regional identity is seen as a threat to national unity.

The role of regional identity in the national discourse is further explored in Jaume Martí-Olivella's Regendering Spain's Political Bodies: Nationality and Gender in the Films of Pilar Miró and Arantxa Lazcano. Examining the parallels between Pilar Miró's El pájaro de felicidad) and Arantxa Lazcano's Urte ilunak, Martí-Olivella proposes that both films redefine the notion of center and margin through their non-dominant, alternative points of view. This occupation of shared space is illustrated in the use of interchanging language in both films (enabled by the standardized use of subtitles in the original language), creating an environment where multilingual dialogue is part of the cultural norm:

What is the reality that these two films try to 'normalize'? It is the reality of a shared political space, Spain, that still resists being reimagined and thus represented as a plurinational, multicultural, and heteroglossic community... They underline a common goal to reimagine the different languages and cultures of Spain as an essential richness rather than a constant source of national struggle.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 19, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Film Related Reading


March 23, 2009

Russian Critics on the Cinema of Glasnost, edited by Michael Brashinsky and Andrew Horton

cinema_glasnost.gifRussian Critics on the Cinema of Glasnost, edited by Michael Brashinsky and Andrew Horton, is a book in two parts: the first, Films in a Shifting Landscape, is a series of essays analyzing the historical and cultural legacy that shaped three generations of Soviet film criticism; the second, Glasnost's Top Ten, is a compilation of articles by prominent Russian critics (collectively representing these generations) covering a selection of glasnost-era cinema - followed by editorial commentaries that interweave ideas developed in the first section - that, in their diverse arguments, reflect the sociopolitical turmoil as insightfully as (if not more articulately than) the films themselves. Noting the difference between Soviet film criticism and "traditional" film criticism in the absence of film art discussion, Brashinsky and Horton propose that the divergence is traceable from its origins in early nineteenth century Russian critical tradition (embodied by such literary figures as Alexander Pushkin and Vissarion Belinsky) that sought to transform society through cultural engagement: "To sketch it roughly: It occupies a middle distance between what in the United States is seen as pop journalistic film reviewing and highbrow theoretical academic analysis. Soviet criticism covers a much more spacious area, one that spreads far beyond film, art, and even culture onto life itself."

In the essay, Cinema Without Cinema, Mikhael Yampolsky further expounds on this tendency towards ideas over images by proposing that the evolution of Soviet cinema itself is essentially logocentric, an outgrowth of a film industry that is neither driven by commercial nor artistic value. It is interesting to note that while Yampolsky does not explicitly refer to propaganda in the notion of industrial film as a precursor to contemporary cinema, his argument that the technological lag between the Soviet film industry and its Western contemporaries has led to a certain heavy-handedness also supports the idea that contemporary cinema is still influenced by its propagandistic past. To this end, Yampolsky cites Roman Balayan's The Kiss in which the over-amplified sound of buzzing mosquitoes is used to convey summer heat, and Andrei Tarkovsky in his tendency to layer prose over already self-expressive imagery.

Alexander Timofeevsky's essay, The Last Romantics traces the evolution of Soviet filmmaking (and by extension, criticism) through generational paradigm shifts between the Joseph Stalin-era ritualization that engendered the creation of classicist, heroic images of messianic struggle (that, in turn, reinforced Stalin's cult of personality); to the sixtiesniks movement under Nikita Khrushchev's thaw that ushered a period of reform, cultural exchange outside the Soviet sphere of influence, and de-Stalinization; to a protracted stagnation under Leonid Brezhnev that resulted in a thematic movement towards the creation of self-utopias - as exemplified by Andrei Tarkovsky's Mirror and Vladimir Menshov's Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears - in the wake of an ideological impasse between individualism and collectivism. This cultural shift away from the state towards the individual is subsequently examined in Marina Drozdova's essay, Midseasonal Anarchists: Youth Consciousness and Youth Culture in the Cinema of Perestroika in which untraditional images - such as Georgy Gavrilov's documentary, Confession: The Chronicle of Alienation on drug addiction - help to redefine the notion of cinematic truth and identification.

For the second part of the book, the editors begin with a consideration of Tengiz Abuladze's Repentence, considered to be the first perestroika film, by opposing critics, Tatyana Khloplyankina and Igor Aleinikov. Khloplyankina's essay, On the Road that Leads to the Truth follows in the vein of Soviet film criticism's sociocultural role in the way generalized references to elements in the film are incorporated within an overarching philosophical argument, in this case, the allegorical subtext as an encounter with buried transgressions (especially under Stalin) and a dismantling of the Soviet social experiment. On the other hand, Aleinikov's essay, Between the Circus and the Zoo, is sarcastic and provocative, arguing that the film is too saturated with ideas to the point of dilution, and the symbolism too facile to be considered groundbreaking. In a sense, Aleinikov's strategy to open his essay with a false scene reflects the structure of his exposition as well, regarding the film as a missed opportunity in confronting the past:

After all, Repentance satisfies the current social order to a considerable extent, for the film is spectacular and politically sharp. Moreover, the movie reflects on the condition of that social order, the level of our present social consciousness, the erosion of criteria in this consciousness, which is so confused that it reminds one of the bright colors that, once mixed on an artist's palette, became a gray paste. It is necessary to distinguish those colors by separating the functions of art from those of journalism, political science, and politics.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Aleksandr Sokurov's The Days of Eclipse has generated a wide range of critical response among the featured glasnost-era films. Of particular note is Mikhail Yampolsky's brief, but illuminating deconstructive essay entitled The World as a Mirror for the Other World that proposes another layer to the film's dense, seemingly mystical iconography:

Disintegration of both time and causal relations is clearly connected with the symbol of the eclipse. This universal drama is exposed in advance; it penetrates the life of the leading character by mysterious and unintelligible omens. Every now and again, strange animals show up in the doctor's house, for no apparent reason. By mail, he receives a gigantic lobster, frozen in jelly (a hint as to his own case). Then his sister appears out of nowhere with a live hare in a shopping bag. Finally, a huge python sneaks into his room, supposedly an escapee from the neighbors. These animals symbolize constellations: cancer (lobster), hare, and serpent. A serpent directly relates to the idea of a cycle, revival and death, the symbol of the eclipse. It also belongs to the realm of shadows. A cancer is linked to the shadows of the dead and is considered a moon animal, as is the hare.

...The universal scale in The Days of Eclipse substantiates Sokurov's perspective. What seems weird, fantastic, and excessive to both characters and the audience may in fact be the key to existence in Sokurov's world, the core to those causal relations that are placed vertically (between the lines) instead of horizontally (in line).

Posted by acquarello on Mar 23, 2009 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2009, Film Related Reading


November 2, 2008

Disintegration in Frames by Pavle Levi

disintegration_levi.gifPavle Levi's insightful and well-argued book, Disintegration in Frames: Aesthetics and Ideology in the Yugoslav and Post-Yugoslav Cinema examines the evolution of the national Yugoslav and regional post-Yugoslav cinema within its shifting political and cultural landscape - initially, in the context of individual expression under the repressive government of Josip Broz Tito, then subsequently, as a reflection of ideologically motivated historical revisionism that sought to reinforce the myth of deep seated ethnic conflict and selective representation as a means of defining national identity through the artificial creation - and consequently, justified persecution - of the other. Rather than a natural regression towards pre-existing ethnic factionalism and decentralization resulting from Tito's death in 1980, Levi proposes that the factionalism itself is the artificial construction (rather than the notion of a Yugoslav federation that was only bound together by Tito's strong arm leadership) - created as a means of cultivating regional autonomy, solidarity, and empowerment in the political vacuum of post-Tito Yugoslavia.

In the chapter, The Black Wave and Marxist Revisionism, Levi frames the emergence of the new Yugoslav film (also called the Black Wave) in the 1960s within the cultural context of rejecting the social realist aesthetic that characterized the country's postwar cinema. Integrally connected to the evolution of the Soviet cultural doctrine of Zhdanovism from the 1930s, this aesthetic rejection reflects the country's broader sentiment of striving to achieve greater autonomy from the Soviet Union. Represented by such diverse filmmakers as Dusan Makavejev, Bostjan Hladnik, Aleksandar Petrovic, Zivojin Pavlovic, Ante Babaja, Vatroslav Mimimca, Kokan Rakonjac, Krsto Papic, Matjaz Klopcic, Bato Cengic, and Zelimir Zelnik, the movement not only becomes a critical assessment of the nebulous, artificial nature of the "realism" embodied by these early partisan films, but also proposes, as Levi argues, the idea of subjective realism as a filmmaker's individualist expression against restrictive cultural policies (leading to an idiosyncratically subjective, "psychological" aesthetic that is embodied in Hladnik's Dance in the Rain and Klopcic's Paper Planes):

In no small measure, this critical dimension was, in fact, a quality generated out of a desire to assert the autonomy of the subjective truth and of the independent authorial vision (even if, as was often the case, the filmmaker chose to produce 'ambiguous images,' to speak in open metaphors'). It was born, inevitably as it were, out of that 'valuable characteristic of the new Yugoslav film,' recognized by film theorist Dusan Stojanovic, in the fact that 'on the philosophical, ideological, and stylistic planes, it [the New Fiilm] offers a possibility - which in practice it realizes on a daily basis - to replace one collective mythology with endless individual mythologies'.

Within this idea of subjective, independent authorship, Levi further examines the cult of personality inherent in Dusan Makavejev's third film, Innocence Unprotected. Reworking footage from the eponymously titled first Serbian "talkie" by strongman and acrobat Dragoljub Aleksic with documentary footage featuring Aleksic's daredevil stunts, Makajevev captures the illusive nature of representation that speaks directly to the mythology of proletariat hero, Tito.

With the 'Hymn to Aleksic', composed in the spirit of Yugoslav Partisan songs and repeatedly played throughout the film, the sense of the acrobat's bravura being mythologized in a manner reminiscent of the methods used by the Yugoslav socialist cultural establishment is given its final touch. As such, the film seems to ask, how can these acts still be experienced as liberating? How can they still symbolize unbound human freedom?

Levi examines the national uncertainty and inertia left in the wake of Tito's death in the chapter, Aesthetics of Nationalist Pleasure, citing Emir Kusturica's When Father Was Away on Business as a metaphor for a country figuratively sleepwalking (as embodied by the young boy Malik) in the absence of the father (who, in the film, has been sent a work camp after being denounced by relatives):

When Father Was Away on Business is ultimately an emotionally charged lesson on political maturation: on the necessity of Yugoslavs dismantling and leaving behind the myth of the omnipotent Tito (who, not unlike Mesa, widely enjoyed the status of a loving patriarch, of a powerful and at times strict protector, but not a tyrant).

Nevertheless, despite the apparent nationalist perspective of post-Tito Yugoslavia in When Father Was Away on Business, Levi argues that Kusturica's cinema evolved towards a more ethnocentric stance that culminated in Underground, creating a paradoxical elegy for the dissolution of a Yugoslav national identity even as it reinforces ethnic stereotypes and cultural division. To this end, Levi cites the inclusion of two distinct documentary footages, implicitly linked by the use of same German song accompaniment, "Lili Marlene": one capturing the terrible aftermath of German bombing in Belgrade, Serbia during World War II, the other showing Germans marching into Maribor, Slovenia and Zagreb, Croatia amid cheering crowds:

The 'message' embedded within this sequence could not possibly have been missed by 'domestic' audiences - whether in Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, or Bosnia. Its primary function is to cinematically empower the discourse on 'Serb victimhood' - one of the pillars of Serb nationalist resentment ever since the late 1980s - while discrediting other Yugoslav nations... For, in the context of the 1990s breakup of Yugoslavia along ethnic lines - in the immediate aftermath of the conflict in Croatia with the war in Bosnia still raging - Underground's documentary 'reminder' about the ordinary, everyday Croats greeting the Nazis could hardly be seen as having any other effect but that of suggesting, as Stanko Cerovic notes, 'a continuum of Croat fascism from World War Two to the present day' and, by extension, a continuum of the Serb national victimhood.

The idea of an indefinable enemy as an ethno-nationalistic justification for war has led to what Levi calls the abstract representation of "ethnic enemy as acousmetre" in post-Yugoslav cinema, an aesthetic that is reflected in Srdjan Dragojevic's Pretty Village, Pretty Flame through the metaphor of an abandoned tunnel once dubbed as the "Tunnel of Brotherhood and Unity" that Serb fighters find themselves trapped in - hearing (but never seeing) the voices of the enemy above them. To contrast Dragojevic's use of acousmetre while retaining an essentially ethno-nationalistic stance, Levi also considers its visually analogous role in the final sequence of Muhamed Hadzimehmedovic's Bosian television feature, After the Battle, where a sniper is unable to determine the ethnicity of his target, having earlier witnessed the Muslim fighter assemble a makeshift cross to mark the grave of his Serb companion (who had also deserted):

What the viewer witnesses in this scene is the alignment of the sniper's perspective - visually conveyed by means of the cinematic point of view structure - with the gaze of ethnic hatred directed at the 'other'. And, as the sniper's puzzlement with what he sees suggests, the object of his hatred is first of all a fantasized other - an idea, a notion mapped across the empirical reality, 'superimposed' over the actual individuals existing in it.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 02, 2008 | | Comments (7) | Filed under 2008, Film Related Reading


August 9, 2008

Manoel de Oliveira by Randal Johnson

oliveira_johnson.gifIn Manoel de Oliveira, Randal Johnson's comprehensive and informative critical evaluation of the Portuguese filmmaker's body of work for the Contemporary Film Directors series, Johnson insightfully points out that the first 43 years of Oliveira's film career coincides with the repressive, right wing regime of António de Oliveira Salazar and Estado Novo, an era of severe censorship and authoritarian government that would lead Oliveira to complete only two feature films between 1931 and 1963. This cultural intersection provides the integral framework for deconstructing Oliveira's idiosyncratic and deeply personal cinema: an aesthetic that was equally forged by creative ideas on the essence of film form as it was by a humanist impulse and uncompromising moral - though not moralistic - stance. This convergence is illustrated from his earliest film, Douro, Faina Fluvial, a chronicle of life along the Douro River inspired by Walter Ruttman's experimental Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. Filmed during the transition between silent and sound, Douro, Faina Fluvial introduces the recurring themes of self-reflexivity and cinematic hybridity - the incorporation of fictional elements in a documentary - that continues to surface throughout Oliveira's cinema.

However, this idea of cinematic hybridity diverges from the now familiar improvisations that Jean Rouch would incorporate in his ethnographic documentaries (as well as Robert Flaherty and Johan van der Keuken) in that Oliveira emphasizes their resulting disjunction rather than their convergence - a consciousness of the artifice of performance and staging that is further developed in his subsequent film, Acto da Primavera where the staging of the Passion play in the provincial town of Curalha essentially becomes a twice-removed "reality" by having the townspeople reenacting their own performances to create what Johnson describes as a "re-presentation of a representation", occupying dual roles as participants in the documentary and actors in the filmed play (a hybridity between documentary and fiction that is also employed in Day of Despair, an evocation - and invocation - of Doomed Love author, Camilo Castelo Branco). Johnson further illustrates that this paradigm of dual representation is prefigured in the short documentary, The Painter and the City on the urban aquarelles of local Porto artist, António Cruz, suggesting that reality and truth are mutually exclusive entities, each defining its own relationship to the film image:

In this case, it is a matter of the relationship between pictorial and cinematic representation as, for example, the film cuts from a painting of an urban landscape to a filmic image of the same landscape or makes a painted train 'come alive' by cutting to a 'real' train coming out of a station. The truth is that they are both representations; what differs is the mode or mechanism of representation.

Moreover, the cross-cutting images of Christ's agony with the sound of jet fighters and images of the Vietnam conflict and apocalyptic mushroom clouds in Acto da Primavera also reinforces the elements of political allegory that weaves through Oliveira's cinema, from his first feature film, Aniki-Bóbó in its critical representation of authority that alludes to Salazar's authoritarian government, to Abraham's Valley in its dissolution of romantic myth set against an isolated, repressive society, to No or the Vain Glory of Command on the price exacted by colonialism and empire building.

Indeed, the disappearance of King Sebastian during a crusade in northern Africa is a subject that Oliveira continues to draw on as an allegory for contemporary history, both directly - in Sebastian's disappearance during the disastrous battle of Alcácer-Kebir in No or the Vain Glory of Command, and in The Fifth Empire on his quest for the "consummation of the Empire of Christ in earth" (under the influence of Jesuit priest António Vieira who, in turn, is the subject of Oliveira's Word and Utopia) - and also indirectly, such as A Talking Picture, where the history of 1578 Alcácer-Kebir exposes the continuing modern day tensions between the Christian and Muslim cultures that led to the tragedy of 9/11. In a sense, Oliveira's films reflect a national soul in its allusions to the mythologization of King Sebastian - embodying the beginning of the decline of an empire (Sebastian's disappearance effectively crippled a period of Portuguese exploration that had been ushered by Vasco da Gama and enabled Spain's domination), and the hope of a messianic figure who can restore its greatness.

The elusiveness of a consummated ideal also connects the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation funded The Past and the Present (ushering what writer Luís de Pina calls the second phase of Portuguese Cinema Novo), Benilde or the Virgin Mary, Doomed Love, and Francisca to form the seminal Tetralogy of Frustrated Love, both thematically, in their portraits of unrequited love set against deeply moralistic, repressive societies, and, as Johnson observes, aesthetically, in illustrating formal traits:

...that begin to articulate his concept of cinematic language: the use of sequence shots and tableaux vivants, a theatrical mise-en-scène, an economical use of camera movement, an emphasis on spoken language, a sustained exploration of the relationship between literature, theater, and the cinema, a certain literalness of adaptation, a specific mode of representation by his actors, and a high degree of self-reflexivity.

Johnson further proposes that the tales of unfulfilled love in Tetralogy of Frustrated Love are critically linked to Oliveira's subsequent expositions on history and empire in No or the Vain Glory of Command through Le Soulier de satin, which "represents the culmination of Oliveira's exploration of the relationship between film and theater" that began with Acto da Primavera.

In essence, these formal exercises reflect broader themes of time, memory, mortality, history, and legacy that not only reflect on the process of aging and passage (in films such as Voyage to the Beginning of the World, Porto of My Childhood and I'm Going Home), but also articulates the integral question on the human journey itself, a preoccupation that Oliveira poetically expresses during his appearance in Wim Wenders's Lisbon Story:

God exists. He created the universe... We want to imitate God and that's why there are artists. Artists want to re-create the world as if they were small gods. They constantly think and rethink about history, about life, about things that are happening in the world, or that we think happened because we believe that they did. After all, we believe in memory, because everything has happened ...but who can guarantee that what we imagine to have happened actually happened? Whom should we ask?

...The world according to this supposition is an illusion. The only true thing is memory, but memory is an invention... In the cinema, the camera can fix a moment, but that moment has already passed, and the image is a phantasm of that moment; we are no longer certain that the moment ever existed outside of the film. Or is the film a guarantee of the existence of the moment? I don't know. The more I think about it, the less I know. We live in permanent doubt. Nevertheless, our feet are on the ground, we eat, and we enjoy life.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 09, 2008 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2008, Film Related Reading


March 12, 2008

Questions of Third Cinema edited by Jim Pines and Paul Willemen

thirdcinema.gifA collection of transcribed essays presented during the three-day conference organized by Jim Pines, Paul Willemen, and June Givanni as part of the 40th anniversary of the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 1986, Questions of Third Cinema examines the evolution, application, relevance, and continued challenges of Third Cinema in its manifestation, not only from the perspective of its critical origins in Latin America and its diverse incarnations in the native cinemas of African and Asian countries relegated to third world status, but also in its representations of the Other within the film (sub)culture of developed nations, acting in opposition to the imperialist, bourgeois ideals of a dominant 'first cinema' as well as the abstraction - and egoism - of a consciously cerebral 'second cinema'. A cinematic call to arms taken from Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino's seminal article, Towards a Third Cinema, Third Cinema's identification lies in its aesthetic of unfinished research that is deeply rooted within the reality and history of a dominated society, transcending class divisions to collectively express a culture's inherent problems of representation, translation, mediation, and intervention.

In this respect, Third Cinema functions, not only as a simple reflection of 'alternative history' from an abrogated culture, but also as a chronicle - and indictment - of this process of systematic erasure. In the essay, The Third Cinema Question: Notes and Reflections, Paul Willemen cites this prevailing sense of indigenous culture and intrinsic activism (especially from the perspective of a dysfunctional, hybridized culture caused by colonial imposition) that characterize the films of Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Ousmane Sembene, and Ritwik Ghatak as cornerstones of Third Cinema's cross-cultural imperative:

Each of them refused to oppose a simplistic notion of national identity or of cultural authenticity to the values of colonial or imperial predators. Instead, they started from a recognition of the many-layeredness of their own cultural-historical formations, with each layer being shaped by complex connections between intra- and inter-national forces and traditions. In this way, the three cited filmmakers exemplify a way of inhabiting one's culture which is neither myopically nationalist no evasively cosmopolitan. Their film work is not particularly exemplary in the sense of displaying stylistically innovative devices to be imitated by others who wish to avoid appearing outdated. On the contrary, it is their way of inhabiting their cultures, their grasp of the relations between the cultural and the social, which founded the search for a cinematic discourse able to convey their sense of a 'diagnostic understanding' (to borrow a happy phrase from Raymond Williams) of the situation in which they work and to which their work is primarily addressed.

In essence, if a dominated society is to remain relevant, its identity cannot solely be rooted in imitation, but rather, reconstituted as a confluence of both native and assimilated cultures that cannot be inhabited by a simple process of translation. This fundamental problem forms the essential question in Trinh T. Minh-ha's essay, Outside In Inside Out, examining the implicitly imposed limitations on native filmmakers that, by extrapolation, endows a certain omniscience - and consequently, omnipotence - on the part of Euro-American filmmakers to serve as figurative, anointed interpreters of other cultures. For Trinh, this paradigm not only reflects the imbalance of power between Insider and Outsider, but also implicitly reinforces mutually exclusive, binary modes of representation:

That a white person makes a film on the Goba of the Zambezi or on the Tasaday in the Philippine rain forest seems hardly surprising to anyone, but that a Third World member makes a film on other Third World peoples never fails to appear questionable to many ...The marriage is not consumable, for the pair is no longer 'outside-inside' (objective versus subjective), but something between 'inside-inside' (subjective in what is already designated as subjective) and 'outside-outside' (objective in what is already claimed as objective) ...Any attempts at blurring the dividing line between outsider and insider would justifiably provoke anxiety, if not anger. Territorial rights are not being respected here.

Homi K. Bhabha similarly examines the fallacy of cultural (mis)identification with the Other in the essay, The Commitment to Theory, suggesting instead that the goal of Third Cinema is to facilitate cultural negotiation rather than negation through the co-occupation of what the author defines as Third Space, the "split space of enunciation [that] may open the way to conceptualizing an international culture, based not on exoticism or multiculturalism of the diversity of cultures, but on the inscription and articulation of culture's hybridity".

Teshome H. Gabriel further explores the idea of Third Cinema as other history in the essay, Third Cinema as Guardian of Popular Memory: Towards a Third Aesthetics, illustrating its genesis in folkloric tradition, in essence, a medium for conveying history through popular - though not necessarily "official" - memory:

Another form of Third Cinema narrative - the autobiographical narrative - illustrates this point. Here I do not mean autobiography in its usual Western sense of a narrative by and about a single subject. Rather, I am speaking of a multi-generational and trans-individual autobiography where the collective subject is the focus. A critical scrutiny of this extended sense of autobiography (perhaps hetero-biography) is more of an expression of shared experience; it is a mark of solidarity with people's lives and struggles.

This symbiotic relationship between Third Cinema and its cultural rooting is also reflected in Charles Burnett's essay, Inner City Blues, who argues that the integrity of filmmaking can only be preserved through personal investment within - and by - the community rather than in the bankrolling (and artistic compromises) of commercial studios:

The commercial film is largely responsible for affecting how one views the world. It reduced the world to one dimension, rendering taboos to superstition, concentrated on the ugly, creating a passion for violence and reflecting racial stereotypes, instilling self-hate, creating confusion rather than offering clarity: to sum it up, it was demoralizing. It took years for commercial films to help condition society on how it should respond to reality. In the later films that strove for a reality, the element of redemption disappeared, and as a consequence, the need for a moral position was no longer relevant. There was no longer a crossroads for us to face and to offer meaning to our transgressions.

...Any other art form celebrates life, the beautiful, the ideal, and has a progressive effect, except American cinema - The situation is such that one is always asked to compromise one's integrity, and if the socially oriented film is finally made, its showing will generally be limited and the very ones that it is made for and about will probably never see it. To make filmmaking viable you need the support of the community; you have to become part of its agenda, an aspect of its survival.

The moral trauma and violence of cultural imperialism is eloquently articulated in Haile Gerima's impassioned essay, Triangular Cinema, Breaking Toys, and Dinknesh vs. Lucy. Contrasting the lavish construction of Hollywood films (and manufactured film stars) to the artisanal quality of Third World cinema, Gerima rejects the temptation to imitate the Hollywood model, citing Hegel's comment that "the most important act a child can engage in is the breaking of his/her toys" as a metaphor for the unattainable pursuit of false idols. Moreover, with the increasing international popularity of Third World cinema, Gerima insightfully cautions against its unwitting distortion as a cultural reinforcement of stereotypes and exotization.

While we should be pleased with the growing interest shown by the progressive, international community in our cinema movement, we need to be concerned with the distribution and exhibition aspects of our creative outputs. We need to restore dignity to and for our films, we have to fight against the free exhibition of our culture. We must receive economic as well as political return for our labor, as part and parcel of our struggle for legitimate cinema. This will prevent the tendency to relegate our culture to the world of the exotic...

In the coming years, Third World cinema has a two-pronged responsibility: 1) to be an active catalyst in instigating the revolutionary uplifting of the masses of Third World from the gutter to the level of equal partnership - the birthright of all human beings - and to struggle to bring about the total removal of the above- and below-the-line distinctions of existence; and 2) to be a catalyst, directly or indirectly, in demystifying the superiority of the developed countries. This demystification can only take place through the decoding of the deemed superiority of the West. This will create some form of parity that will contribute to a better climate and democratic existence for all human beings. In other words, our cultural contribution to the West will be to bring them a little bit down to the human orbit.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 12, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Film Related Reading


November 12, 2007

Poetics of Cinema 2 by Raúl Ruiz

ruiz_poetics2.gifEleven years since the publication of Poetics of Cinema Raúl Ruiz continues his articulate, erudite, and insightful rumination in Poetics of Cinema 2, a lithe and infectious, yet densely referential, cross-pollinated exposition on the art and nature of image-making in an age of an overexposed cinema that, in its aesthetic democratization and crass commercialization, has fostered a paradoxical culture that is both sacred and banal, rarefied and dying. Intrinsic in Ruiz's exposition is the autonomy of images, a spectator's mental process of assimilating visual experience by decontextualizing the images from their imposed seriality (by virtue of ordered presentation such as chronology, guided tour - or its contemporary media equivalent, DVD commentaries - or other modes of accompanying narrative). It is this awareness of an assimilated image's contextual independence within the spectator's subconscious - the interactive "art of memory" - that Ruiz underscores the primacy of images over narrative form in the filmmaking process:

Firstly, the images that together make up a film determine what type of narration will structure the film and not the contrary. A film is not made up or composed of a number of shots, but rather it is decomposed by the number of shots; when we see a film of 500 shots, we also see 500 films. Thirdly, a film is valid, aesthetically valid, insofar as the film views the spectator as much as the spectator views the film.

In essence, Ruiz proposes that the independence of images from their respective original sources enables the personal creation and discovery of other "mental realities" - the accidental convergences and patternistic connections within the inexact continuum of a symbiotic, subconscious image registration. Therefore, within this paradigm, the role of the filmmaker becomes one of applying a fixative (as Ruiz suggests), presenting the indelible image - the imago - in a way that reinforces its persistence of memory within the distraction and noise (what Ruiz calls the perepeteias) of the film's overarching composition.

This idea of decontextualized images as organic, autonomous entities resurfaces in the chapter Fascination and Detachment in which Ruiz argues that the art of cinema lies both in its ability to engage the spectator during the course of the film, as well as its ability to form isolated connections and residual imprint - the iconostasis of the image that continues to exist outside of the film - that has been enabled by the ritualization of the transformative encounter:

We mustn't forget that to experience a work of art is not simply letting oneself be fascinated by it, a mere falling in love with it, but rather, it's understanding the process of falling in love. For this, one needs the freedom to move away from the loved object in order to return to it freely. The amorous encounter with the work of art is a practice that can be summarized in the following formula: 'To love renders one intelligent'.

Ruiz describes this existence of an external collective consciousness - a figurative external brain - as being akin to an electromagnetic field or emanated aura that creates a continuity of memory in its fragmentation and reconstitution even in the absence of immediate experience. Conceptually, Ruiz illustrates this sense of a karmic fatedness in a ghostly encounter between the hero and an enigmatic woman named Ivonne in The Lost Domain:

-I know that tonight we'll make love and that soon afterwards I will die, but I know we'll see each other again.

Amazed, the young man asks her:

-"We'll meet after our deaths?"

-"Of course not," she replies. "I don't believe in such things. We'll meet in a different way: you, or another man, will come across another woman, not me, like we have tonight, and they will live the same story, and, in this manner, we, like them, will have met.

This sense of infinite convergence also infuses the amorphous, if impenetrable, dream logic of his earlier film, Love Torn in Dream where inescapable destiny is implied through the eternal recursions and permutations of a set of immutable, iconostatic images that repeatedly play out in a series of parallel wormhole tales.

In examining the existence of images outside of their medium of creation, Ruiz further suggests the interplay of vicinity (the experience of the image) and resonance (the intimacy of the image) in the role of the spectator, an integral convergence between the presentation of information and its assimilation that also forms the basis for what Ruiz calls an actor's "fragmentary work", where each shot scene requires a certain degree of character reframing and re-invention - a locus of particular egocentricities:

Since Stanislavski, character has been constructed as a clock. A Newtonian clock. Later on, within and outside 'the method', the character will cease to be a clock. It's liquefied; evolution, duration, the flow of emotions and its overflowing are privileged. Though Stanislavski's counsel is still valuable and useful. In Stanislavski - and here we return to fragmentations - there is a coexistence of mechanical criteria and vitalist attitudes, privileging impulsion, lows and highs, and dramatization of incoherences.

Within this framework, Ruiz envisions an actor's creation of character as three concentric circles of permeable realities - the projected image (the largest), the self-image (the middle), and the memory of experience (the smallest) - that cumulatively reflect the complexity of character and eschew the staid conventionality of generic, paradigmatic representations: an impossible blankness of character that Ruiz subsequently calls inamible.

This coexistence of interpenetrating realities shaped by both the (super)imposition and intimate resonance of autonomous, living images is perhaps best encapsulated in Ruiz's stated postulate in the concluding chapter, The Face of the Sea (In Place of an Epilogue):

Here is my own theoretical fiction: in the waking dream that is our receiving the film, there is a counterpart; we start projecting another film on the film. I have said to project and that seems apt. Images that leave me and are superimposed on the film itself, such that the double film - as in the double vision of Breton traditions - becomes protean, filled with palpitations, as if breathing.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 12, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Film Related Reading


November 5, 2007

Eros Plus Masscre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser

erosplusmassacre.gifIn Eros Plus Masscre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema, David Desser examines the creative and revolutionary spirit that defined the 1960s Japanese new wave movement (nuberu bagu) apart from the facile identification and synchronicity associated with the coincidental emergence of the French new wave, and more importantly, refocuses his exposition within the indigenous specificity of Japanese culture in the face of postwar social, economic, and geopolitical transformation. Presenting the emergence of the movement as the fateful intersection between the budgetary realities of declining (and increasingly competitive) commercial film production among the nation's institutional motion picture studios (as a natural consequence of television's popularization as a medium for audiovisual entertainment) that also enabled the creation of more autonomous, independent film production and distribution companies such as the Art Theater Guild, and the modernist influence of the prewar Shingeki "new theater" (a movement patterned after the European Naturalist Theater) that, in its focus on the problems of the individual, served as an effective vehicle for promoting left-wing ideology, Desser underscores the significance of the industry's fostered climate of innovation and (implicitly transgressive) experimentation, not as the creative reinvigoration of a dying studio system, but rather, as a desperate means of luring audiences back to the cinema. Within this context of reflexive, corporate-driven goals of returning to profitability, Desser illustrates not only the highly conducive environment that cultivated the movement, but also foreshadows its inherent unsustainability.

Using the generational classifications outlined in Audie Bock's Japanese Film Directors - Early Masters (Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse), Postwar Humanists (Akira Kurosawa, Keisuke Kinoshita, Kon Ichikawa, Masaki Kobayashi), and New Wave (Shohei Imamura, Nagisa Oshima, Masahiro Shinoda) - as a basis for tracing the movement from its origins within the studio system through their tenure as assistant directors to established filmmakers (along with noting the natural human tendency to reject a mentor's influence in an artist's development of his own aesthetic), Desser further expounds on Bock's paradigm by presenting the precursive influence of the Shingeki modern theater in the creation of politically rooted, keiko eiga "tendency films" during the 1920s that explored social problems as a means of inciting change, as well as the popularization of the youth-centric taiyozoku (sun tribe) films that iconized the image of a rebellious, disconnected, and self-destructive postwar generation. Framed against the left movement's fervent opposition to the ratification of the bilateral Anpo Security Treaty of 1959 that sought to formally ally Japan with the U.S. in the Cold War against the Soviet Union (and implicitly, marginalize the country's own nascent socialist party), Desser illustrates the integral politicization coupled with the existential angst of youth culture the capture the zeitgeist of the movement.

Beginning with the chapter entitled Ruined Maps, Desser examines the commonality of sociopolitical themes that continually resurface in the films of the Japanese new wave, in this case, dislocated sexual energy as a manifestation of the integral question of Japaneseness. Diverging from the pinku eiga (pink films) genre in their political implication, the transgressive sexuality of Nagisa Oshima (Cruel Story of Youth, The Ceremony, and In the Realm of the Senses), Shohei Imamura (The Pornographers and The Profound Desire of the Gods), Seijun Suzuki, Koji Wakamatsu (Go, Go, The Second Time Virgin), and Matsumoto Toshio (Funeral Parade of Roses) reflect the moral confusion, dysfunction, and repression that intrinsically form the consciousness of Japanese postwar identity. This postmodern anxiety is incisively captured in Hiroshi Teshigahara's adaptations of Kobo Abe's modernist fiction, where the dehumanizing performance of absurd, everyday rituals (The Woman in the Dunes), physical disfigurement and transplantation (The Face of Another), and impersonation and social disengagement (The Man Without a Map) reflect the conscious erasure of identity as a delusive means of amnesic transformation - an potent metaphor for the superficial rehabilitation of national identity through imposed conformity, ideological re-identification, and revisionist history.

Desser similarly examines the essence of Japanese "feminism", or feminisuto, in the essay Insect Women - a cultural particularity that hews closer in spirit to the idealized portrait of sacrificing, indomitable, marginalized women in Kenji Mizoguchi's cinema than to the ideological pursuit of equal rights. Observing the role of sexuality as a means of empowerment and liberation in the films of Shohei Imamura (The Insect Woman and Intentions of Murder), Masahiro Shinoda (Dry Lake, Pale Flower, Banished Orin), and Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba), Desser also cites the work of lesser known filmmakers, Susumu Hani's A Full Life and He and She in the idea of spiritual emancipation through personal choice and self-discovery, and Yoshishige Yoshida's A Story Written with Water and Akitsu Springs where the maternal symbol of water serves as a metaphor for eroticism and idealization.

In the subsequent chapter, Shinjuku Thieves, Desser further expounds on the issue of gender disempowerment by examining the broader issues of ingrained social injustice that has been enabled by the cultural rigidity of monoethnic sameness and codified behavior. The first example involves the systematic discrimination of the burakumin, an archaic feudal caste designation for people whose ancestral occupations were touched by death (such as butchers, leather workers, and undertakers) and whose residences were segregated from the local population through isolated hamlets to avoid contamination. Although abolished during the Meiji Restoration, the stigma of burakumin persist in insidious ways that inhibit social mobility away from these "outcast communities" through such seemingly innocuous tasks as screening job applicants and martial prospects, where background investigations reveal their community (and inferentially, caste) association. Another is the racism and persecution inherent in the treatment of Koreans (and foreigners in general) in Japan, where a tainted history of occupation and enslavement (especially with respect to the forced recruitment of comfort women during the Pacific War) have engendered a cultural arrogance towards their once "conquered" ethnic minorities. It is this reinforcement of dehumanizing stereotypes that Nagisa Oshima incisively confronts in such films as The Diary of Yunbogi, Three Resurrected Drunkards, and Death By Hanging, where society's projection of Korean identity contributes to the corrosive realization of a demoralizing, self-fulfilling prophesy.

Moreover, as Dresser illustrates in Forests of Pressure, beyond the sad universality of racism and socioeconomic marginalization, even more irreconcilable is the intra-ethnic discrimination that is emblematic in the segregation of survivors from two man-made disasters: the hibakusha who survived the atom bomb (a recurring subject in Kaneto Shindo's body of work and in Shohei Imamura's Black Rain), and subsequently, those afflicted with Minamata disease, a neurological condition caused by severe mercury poisoning from industrial pollution. Stigmatized by virtue of arbitrary exposure, their plight not only reflects a social rejection of alterity and imperfection, but more importantly, provides insight into the Japanese postwar psyche by exposing its deeply rooted cultural anxiety over the unreconciled consciousness of its own self-inflicted victimization, whether through unquestioned allegiance that led to a senseless war and international humiliation, or through irresponsible industrial policies in the aggressive pursuit of economic recovery (and profitability) that have led to a large-scale environmental catastrophe. Contrasted against Shinsuke Ogawa's culturally immersive, profoundly committed, and groundbreaking environmental documentaries (most notably, Forest of Pressure and the epic Sanrizuka series), the widely divergent approaches to political filmmaking reflect the disorientation and uncertainty of a people struggling to define its essential postwar identity between the rapidly bifurcating lifelines of tradition and modernization, conformity and humanity, victimization and culpability.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 05, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, Film Related Reading


May 6, 2007

The Films of Oshima Nagisa: Images of a Japanese Iconoclast by Maureen Turim

turim_oshima.gifMaureen Turim's The Films of Oshima Nagisa: Images of a Japanese Iconoclast, presents an intelligent, comprehensive, articulate, and illuminating critical evaluation of the filmmaker's subversive, transgressive, confrontational, and provocative body of work. Turim frames the creative and thematic evolution Oshima's films through the biographical and historical context - as a privileged child from a samurai family alternately marked by the untimely death of his highly literate father and coddled upbringing by his overprotective mother, who, like many intellectuals of the postwar generation, were galvanized by Marxism and radicalized by the left movement in the dysfunctional wake of Japan's collective amnesia, cultural re-invention, and profound sociopolitical transformation that symptomatically defined the country's path towards international re-emergence. In particular, Turim makes an astute observation in underscoring the paradox inherent in Oshima's privileged childhood that had shaped his discourses with a sense of authoritative entitlement towards the very entrenched class and social structures that enable his own consciously willful (and transparently contemptuous) unconformity, even as these institutions have become perennial targets of his uncompromisingly acerbic critical inquiries: "So in this view Oshima becomes the rebellious son whose rebellion is nonetheless informed by his inherited sense of power and will to action."

In the chapter, Cruel Stories of Youth and Politics, Turim offers another salient proposition in her correlation of Oshima's representation of social and political dialectic though highly formalized, often theatrical visual strategies - adapted from his critical and ideological engagement with Brechtian and leftist theater (a medium for seeding cultural revolution often associated with Marxist social education campaigns) - with the idiosyncratic disjunctions that define Straub and Huillet's aesthetic:

Camera movement creates a theatricality that is spatial and subject to reframing, a blocking of character interaction that is specifically visual and cinematic ...The element I wish to compare is attention to frame and composition as regards the utterance and dramatic confrontations. In both cases, spoken lines are construed as framed, paced, and composed in a textual order, a semiotic order. The cinema becomes a device for redefining theatrical language.

Curiously, as the focus of Oshima's gaze shifted from subverting genre conventions popularized (and creatively controlled) by the studio system in such Shochiku-produced films as A Town of Love and Hope (shomin geki), Cruel Story of Youth, and The Sun's Burial (taiyo-zoku and yakuza) towards more overtly political films - a more self-reflexive, formally experimental, and culturally interrogative period that started with Night and Fog in Japan - the undercurrent of repressed sexuality that had once been relegated to the periphery, often as commercial commodity that alluded to post-occupation economic austerity or as a symptom of the moral ambiguity and social malaise of disaffected youth in the aftermath of a humiliated empire (as indelibly symbolized by the metaphor of the setting sun in The Sun's Burial), began to integrally surface in Oshima's social interrogations on ideological revolution, sociopolitical engagement, and cultural identity. Examining the role of sexuality and revolution in Oshima's Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (a volatile combination that also figures strongly in Violence at Noon) with respect to contemporary Jean-Luc Godard's own immediately pre-May 68 films (and whose international reputation for innovative filmmaking under the rubric of the French New Wave was often appropriated by the studios to promote Oshima's own iconoclastic approach to cinema), Turim illustrates the filmmakers' aesthetic point of convergence in developing the idea of historical revolt as the displacement of sexual dysfunction:

There is finally much that compares Diary of a Shinjuku Thief to Godard's Masculin-Féminin and La Chinoise, films that in their analytical view of the sixties youth movements are fascinated with the psychosexual dimensions of this discontent. If Oshima is a little close in spirit to the rioters than was Godard before his transformation post-1968 into the production of agitprop films, both directors charted in a postmodern moment is bound to sexual energies and tied to theatrics.

Turim's critical essays on Oshima's films from the late 1960s to the early 1970s that represent the zenith of Oshima's artistic synergy between his sociopolitical acuity and creative innovation (a more oblique film form demanded by studio restrictions stemming from the abruptly pulled distribution of Night and Fog in Japan shortly after it was released in the unfortunate wake of the assassination of Socialist Party President, Asasuna Inejiro) - producing such seminal films as Death by Hanging, Boy, The Man Who Left His Will on Film, and The Ceremony - collectively provide a thorough and insightful analysis on Oshima's now familiar themes of repression resulting from culturally ingrained conformity, deeply rooted xenophobia and racism fostered by the myth of Japan's social monoethnicity, the displacement of desire through violence (a prefigurative theme for Oshima's notorious In the Realm of the Senses), and lastly, scams as a metaphor for economic (and specifically, capitalist) inequity.

A chapter that I found especially insightful is the essay on Max mon amour, a film that Oshima co-authored with legendary, late period Luis Buñuel scenarist, Jean-Claude Carrière that I had always found problematic - and a bit too quintessentially and puzzlingly outré - in its unclassifiably eccentric and unrelenting satirical assault on the stultifying amorality and hypocrisy on bourgeois manneredness. Turim ingeniously places the film within the contemporary argument of popular right wing rhetoric that seeks to denigrate (if not outright demonize) homosexuality by equating it to such social and moral taboos as bestiality and pedophilia under a generalized, overarching classification of aberrant sexuality. Framing Margaret's infidelity through a more abstract desire of an unconventional other, Turim proposes an incisive corollary to her attraction to the chimpanzee, Max, by posing her transgressive compulsion as being akin to that of embarking on a lesbian affair. It is within this intriguing context that the film may be seen, not as a self-indulgent work of a filmmaker in decline, but rather, as an attempt to engage in a relevant, contemporary discourse on the violative intrusion - and politicization - inherent in entrenched social conformity and the perils of imposed moral values. Moreover, through the film's prevailing themes of sexual repression and psychological displacement, Max mon amour provides an integral connection to the evolution of Oshima's late period films, not only with respect to expounding on the surfacing homoeroticism and androgyny of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, but also anticipates the thematic ideas in Gohatto, a film that, at the time of the book's writing, was still in production.

Also worth noting is Turim's illuminating essay, Documents of Guilt and Empire, a comprehensive evaluation of Oshima's documentary films that, in many ways, serve as a complement to the recurring themes and preoccupations of his feature films. In Forgotten Soldiers, Oshima directly confronts the nation's history of racism and imperialism implicit in Death by Hanging and Three Resurrected Drunkards by chronicling a group of ethnic Korean veterans, conscripted by the Japanese during the failed Pacific War campaign, who are denied pensions by the government under the flimsy rationale that Korean immigrants should seek compensation from the South Korean government, despite their residence and service (and sacrifice) to their adopted country. In hindsight, the 1968 documentary, The Pacific War is a logical corollary to Oshima's creative period of revolution and experimentation. Composed of incisively edited propaganda and newsreel found footage, the film traces the trajectory of Japanese history during the early half of the twentieth century through the country's increasing militarism, engagement in the Pacific War, and finally face-saving historical revisionism and trivialization of casualties in the aftermath of the country's defeat, and in the process, reveals not only the elaborate mechanism of blatant lies and hypocrisy used by the government to justify the engagement (and protraction) of war, but also exposes the psychological denial intrinsic in the population's pervasive sense of victimization and collective amnesia. Like Forgotten Soldiers, the tragedy of the Pacific War is combined with the debunking of Japanese monoethnism in The Dead Remain Young, a documentary chronicling the memorial service for the sinking of the Tsushima maru, a boat carrying women, children, and the elderly who ordered evacuated from Okinawa by the Japanese government that came under torpedo attack by a U.S. warship and sank in 1944. By focusing on the mourners' expression of grief, Turim presents Oshima's exposition within the context, not only of the trauma of war, but also the implicit re-assertion of an irrepressible, indigenous cultural identity:

The role of this documentary is directly linked to Oshima's Dear Summer Sister in its focus on Okinawa, particularly on the children of Okinawa. They stand as a kind of double innocence in relation to the Japanese war effort, first as children but also as a conquered people with a different culture and language from the alleged homogeneity of other Japanese islands. That homogeneity breaks down with any closer look at regional, ethnic, and class differences, especially those conditioned by the separateness of an island identity.

Posted by acquarello on May 06, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, Film Related Reading


December 3, 2006

Our Films, Their Films by Satyajit Ray

ray_ourfilms.gifOur Films, Their Films is a collection of perceptive, contemplative, and illuminating critical essays and personal memoirs by seminal filmmaker, composer, artist, author, intellectual, and cinephile, Satyajit Ray. Arranged into the two titular sections, Ray's terse, candid, and often thematically overlapping expositions on Indian and international cinema reveal, not only profound engagement with, and sensitivity to, indigenous sensibilities in his own evolving creative (and learning) process, but also a cultivated, yet accessible approach towards the aesthetic appreciation of all forms of art - a cultural and analytical proficiency that is revealed through the modality and pervasive use of unorthodox forms of representation (often, music-based) that shape the logical arguments of his film criticism. This instinctual, cross-pollinated methodology is prefigured in Ray's assertion at the book's introduction that Orson Welles' film, Lady from Shanghai was the first atonal film in the history of cinema - a music-based characterization that is also evident in his praise of Charlie Chaplin's sophisticated, yet seemingly effortless choreography in the tramp films. Throughout the book, Ray often ascribes Chaplin's silent films with a certain Mozartian quality of lightness and deceptive facility that underpins a more complex arrangement, a delicate achievement that is epitomized in his admiration for The Gold Rush:

If one thinks of Mozart and The Magic Flute and the knockabout foolery of Papageno merging into the sublimity of Sarastro, it is because the comparison is a valid one. Here is the same distilled simplicity, the same purity of style, the same impeccable craftsmanship. And the slightest tinge of disappointment at the happy ending - the sudden veering towards a bright key after the subtle chromaticism of all that has gone before - isn't that rather like the cheery epilogue of Don Giovanni?

A similar sensibility may also be seen in his essay A Tribute to John Ford, in Ray's assessment of Ford's signature style and aesthetic imprint:

A hallmark is never easy to describe, but the nearest description of Ford's would be a combination of strength and simplicity. The nearest equivalent I can think of is a musical one: middle-period Beethoven. The same boldness of contour, the simplicity and memorability of line, the sense of architecture, even the same outbursts of boisterousness, and the same action-packed finales.

In the essay, Some Italian Films I Have Seen, Ray's creative philosophy towards naturalism and social realism is revealed, not only through his continued fondness for Vittorio de Sica's films (and in particular, Bicycle Thieves, whose fated discovery at a London screening propelled Ray to pursue his dream of adapting Pather Panchali to the screen), but also in his resistance to the formalism of Luchino Visconti's early, quasi-neorealist film, La Terra Trema, an aesthetic that, in some respects, anticipates the overt stylization and visual grotesquerie that would pervade the filmmaker's later works:

As it stands, La Terra Trema is a great bore, a colossal aesthetic blunder and a monumental confusion of styles. The grim naturalism of its locale is in constant conflict with the behavior of its human beings - deliberate and stylized to the point of ballet. Visconti's meticulous composition within the frame heightens this feeling of artificiality. Moreover, in an effort to achieve a slow rhythm he holds his shots till long after they have ceased to perform their expressive functions, and boredom results from the cumulation of a hundred such 'blank' moments when the audience is obliged to contemplate on the abstract qualities of images which were, however, not primarily intended for such contemplation. A slow pace is not in itself a bad thing. It is, in fact, as legitimate to films as it is to music or ballet or any other art that exists in time. But it needs a Bach to write a Sarabande that needs a Casals to do justice to it. The long, slow passages in the epics of Dreyer and Eisenstein are sustained only partially by their purely visual qualities, rich and rewarding though they are; it is the emotional conviction of these sequences, achieved through precision of interpretation, of acting integrated to the director's total stylistic approach, that is finally responsible for their strength, their artistic 'rightness'.

Another particularly incisive criticism is Ray's broader observation of Roberto Rossellini's recurring tendency towards an inability to sustain a certain degree of discipline through the course of a film - the occasional outcropping of false notes in an otherwise well crafted (and perhaps, even sublime) film - that, I would agree, is a valid assessment of Rossellini's more instinctual, and less formally methodical approach to filmmaking in general, evident in even his most cherished (and paradoxically, imperfectly "perfect") works. Of Rossellini's groundbreaking, postwar film, Ray argues:

Admittedly, Open City derives some of its power from the anarchic social condition in which it was made. But it seems certain that the jagged contours of its narrative, its slapdash continuity, are due less to the lack of apparatus than to Rossellini's inherent incapacity for sustained constructive thinking. Perhaps his talent is best displayed in the short stories of Paisa, and the forty-minute Miracle. His formal indiscipline becomes a definite handicap to a film like Open City which has otherwise a well constructed plot within the conventions of melodrama. The children in Open City behave in a disconcertingly adult fashion, and the best histrionic moments in the film occur when seasoned professionals like Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi take the stage.

Nevertheless, despite a deep admiration for several key works of international cinema, Ray offers a cautionary analysis on the pitfalls of blindly imitating decontextualized, foreign aesthetic conventions (particularly, with respect to imitating Hollywood films) in the creation of an indigenous cinema: a sentiment that is reflected in the essay's parting comment:

The present blind worship of technique emphasizes the poverty of genuine inspiration among our directors. For a popular medium, the best kind of inspiration should derive from life and have its roots in it. No amount of technical polish can make up for artificiality of theme and dishonesty of treatment. The Indian filmmaker must turn to life, to reality. De Sica, and not De Mille, should be his ideal.

Given his profound understanding for the cultural imperative of a native cinema, it is, therefore, not surprising that Ray's critical inquiry on the evolution and state of contemporary Indian cinema is similarly probing and impassioned, whether through an evaluation of the cultural value of idiosyncratic, masala compositions of the requisite musical numbers in a Bollywood production in the humorous, but perceptive and appreciative essay, Those Songs, to an analytical examination of the (then) emerging parallel cinema through commentary on films such as Shyam Benegal's Ankur and Mani Kaul's Duvidha. In the end, what is reinforced in Ray's thoughtful expositions on cultivating an indigenous cinema is the underlying idea that such indelible, timeless, and relevant images are borne of a desire to capture a cultural authenticity and not solely to engage in innately competitive, abstract demonstrations of technical innovation: "What our cinema needs above everything else is a style, an idiom, a sort of iconography of cinema, which would be uniquely and recognizably Indian."

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This entry is part of the Film Criticism blog-a-thon, hosted at No More Marriages!. Please visit the site for a list of all participants.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 03, 2006 | | Comments (11) | Filed under 2006, Film Related Reading


October 22, 2006

Split Screen: Belgian Cinema and Cultural Identity by Philip Mosley

split_screen.gifIn Split Screen: Belgian Cinema and Cultural Identity, author Philip Mosley makes a salient and illuminating re-evaluation of a bifurcated Belgian cinema, not only through the reality of a federal state characterized by a decentralized government and regional autonomy, but also irreparably marked by occupation and war, and divided by a cultural heterogeneity that has led to an inherently "split screen" national cinema. Mosley traces the evolution of Belgian cinema from the nascency of the medium itself in order to illustrate the integrality of the country's contributions to the development of the technology, citing the independent works of two native magic lantern pioneers: Etienne-Jules Robertson from Liège who developed the Fantascope which integrated a sliding carriage that enabled the projection of a rapid succession of images to simulate motion, and Joseph Plateau from Brussels whose experimental research on the psycho-optical principle of persistence of vision - the eye's momentary retention of an image after the object is no longer visible - led to his development of the phenakistiscope, a device that simulated motion through the rotation of a series of slightly varying images on a disk (a technology that artists such as Jean-Baptiste Madou would subsequently integrate to create animation). Furthermore, with the country's proximity to France coupled with the mediation of shared language, the Belgian film industry would develop rapidly from the advent of the Lumière films in 1895 through the cross-pollination of technological advancements, film production, and even artists (such as Jacques Feyder, Charles Spaak, Jean Servais, and Eve Francis) between the two countries. Ironically, silent film proved to be an ideally suited medium in transcending the country's linguistic barriers, a liberation from the limitations of regionality and biculturalism that would enable significant advancement in the development of the film industry and that, however, would prove to be short lived with the advent of the First World War.

An integral aspect in the evolution of Belgian cinema that continues to provide a relevant voice and profound influence in contemporary cinema is in the arena of documentary filmmaking. Ironically, this aesthetic for capturing the quotidian may be traced back from a more nebulous outgrowth of colonialism and propaganda, as missionaries gravitated towards the universal language of film images as a tool for religious conversion, and in the postwar era of austerity and resource shortages, as an incentive towards national unity and reinforcement of exerted control over the Belgian Congo (a region that proved even more valuable with the advent of the atomic age for its uranium mines). This ethnographic aesthetic may be seen, not only in the films of pioneering documentarians Charles Dekeukelaire and Henri Storck, but also in the tone poems of Thierry Knauff, the cultural investigations of Thierry Michel, the meditative, essay films of Boris Lehman, and the wordless, migratory landscape films of Chantal Akerman. Moreover, the convergence of native documentary filmmaking towards experimental rather than conventional cinema can be seen in the works of filmmakers such as Storck, Lehman, Knauff, and Akerman, a reflection of what Mosley describes as the inherently artisanal (and consequently, more intimate) nature of Belgian national cinema.

Similarly, this aesthetic towards capturing the essence of reality - a creative philosophy that is in integrally rooted in Flemish art - is also manifested in the evolution of social realism in Belgian cinema, particularly in the Wallonia region where a creative (as well as ideological) movement with predominant socio-political themes was propelled by a combination of incisive, pioneering documentaries, the introduction of incentive funding (as a means of re-invigorating the decimated film industry), and subsequently, the influence of British Free Cinema that spurred the advent of an indigenous Fugitive Cinema. Ironically, inasmuch as financial backers (often regional administrators and local industries) sought to project a more positive national image of postwar recovery, industrial progress, and immigrant assimilation through commissioned and subsidized filmmaking, what resulted from these panoramic surveys often proved to be less than ideal social portraits. Of particular note is Paul Meyer's seminal film, From the Branches Drops the Withered Blossom on the lives of immigrant workers and their families in the coal mining town of Borinage (Storck would earlier document the appalling living conditions in the same region in Misère au Borinage). Originally commissioned by Ministry of Public Instruction as a means of illustrating the well-adjusted integration of Italian immigrant families into Belgian society, Meyer, who had already run afoul with authorities over his earlier, controversial short film, Klinkaart - a film that uncannily anticipates Bresson's cinema, depicting the exploitation and assault of a young female brick worker - would be forced into insoluble debt when the ministry withdrew funding for making an uncompromising film that revealed the underlying reality of the abject working, domestic, and social conditions faced by the immigrants. Within this context, it is perhaps not surprising that Wallonian filmmakers (and seeming heir to Meyer's sociopolitical cinema), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne would subsequently revisit the issue of immigrant assimilation (this time, within the relevant, contemporary framework of racism and illegal immigration) in their first feature film, La Promesse.

It is interesting to note that throughout the evolution of Belgian cinema, the reality captured on film is not only rooted in the physical, but also in the interiority of the imagination. In illustrating the (eccentric) interpenetration between states of consciousness and psychological irreconcilability, the aesthetics of magical realism have become an indigenous aspect of Belgian cinema, as reflected in the films of André Delvaux (most notably, in The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short and Rendez-vous a Bray), Roland Verhavert, Ivo Michiels, and Rik Kuypers' expressionistic Seagulls Are Dying in the Harbor, and Jaco van Dormael (in particular, Toto, the Hero), as well as in the provocative and sophisticated animated films of Raoul Servais. Inevitably, what emerges from this fused state of bifurcated realities is not only the integration of the aesthetic legacy and sense of innovation and wonder achieved by the optical illusions of the precursory magic lanterns, but also a metaphorical social reflection rooted in the mundane reality of a complex native identity engendered by the country's fractured identity and biculturalism.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 22, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, Film Related Reading


April 23, 2006

Cinema Interval by Trinh T. Minh-ha

cinema_interval.gifAn intrinsic aspect of Trinh T. Minh-ha's cinema is her particularity of observation from a perspective that is neither of enlightened privilege nor indigenous intimacy, but rather, suspended between elements of objectivity and subjectivity, a gaze belonging to neither cultural insider nor curious outsider. By filming in this state of cultural hybridity, Trinh reassesses not only the form and structure of traditional ethnography, but also confronts the very philosophy and collective conscience behind this process of cultural documentation. Specifically, Trinh examines the traditional strategy of ethnographic filmmaking within the context of broader cultural relationships that segregate populations into social, political, and economic classes as defined by cultural dominance, history (and specifically, colonialism), and dissemination of information. In revealing the complex - and elusive - interrelation between the seemingly objective, pure documentation of "untouched" cultures and ideals of self-representation, and the human history that inevitably renders the impurity of that gaze, Trinh transects conventional documentary either/or perspectives of cultural sameness, and instead navigates through a symbiotic resonance of social marginalization and alterity. In the Cinema Interval chapter, Jumping into the Void, Trinh discusses the notion of hybridity with Bérénice Reynaud and the traces the evolution of this aesthetic perspective to her time spent living and teaching in Senegal and other West African countries as an anthropologist who, nonetheless, was aware of the dichotomy of her status as both a non-native and recognized cultural authority.

For me, there is no such thing as pure culture. Whether I deal with Africa or with Vietnam, my own culture, I would have to deal with the very hybridity of the culture itself...Hence, the necessity immediately to question my own position as outsider and as a 'hybrid insider' because, despite the differences, I recognize acutely the ethics and the experiences related to colonialism's aftermath, which I myself grew up with in Vietnam. If it was odd, as an insider, to read about oneself being offered up as a cultural entity by experts writing on Vietnamese culture, it was unsettling to look at oneself and others from the standpoint of an outside-insider in Senegal. The encounter with African cultures thus became a catalyst to think about questions of subjectivity and power relations.

Moreover, Trinh's films are not only formed by the inescapable perspective of cultural hybridity, but are also marked by the awareness that the very structure of (conventional) documentary filmmaking - the underlying roadmap by which these thematic expositions are developed - is, itself, a kind of cultural imperialism that guides (and perhaps, even steers) the direction of the author's logical arguments. In this respect, Trinh's elliptical, rhythmic, and intuitive cinema can be seen as a conscious (and conscientious) rejection of the linearization of explanatory language that is deployed by dominant cultures to contextualize - and conveniently encapsulate - information about marginalized cultures.

What is at stake is the problem of established power relationships. When this explanatory language becomes dominant, when it becomes so pervasive that the only way people can think about something is to think about it literally, then for me, that language also becomes dangerous, because its cultural centralization constitutes a form of impoverishment - the ways in which we think are reduced and homogenized - as it excludes or invalidates all other ways of communicating.

It is also interesting to note that in discussing the notion of hybridity within the myth of cultural assimilation and domination, Trinh broaches on the prevailing theme of Alain Resnais and Chris Marker's Les Statues meurent aussi, where the systematic process of displaying cultural artifacts in non-native museums for exhibition results in the decontextualization of these objects from their true purpose and utility to the point where they become removed from the living culture of the dominated society and simply become objects of curiosity: a figurative death that also serves as a broader metaphor for the fate of the colonized, indigenous societies from which the artifacts were appropriated.

This seems to be the case with a notion like 'hybridity', which has provided a strategic space for a range of new possibilities in identity struggles, but is being reappropriated in diverse milieus, such as the art milieu. Curators can continue to "collect cultures" from remote parts of the world, but rather than retrieving information and salvaging tradition, they now expertly stage and circulate the 'hybrid object'.

In the chapter Two Spirals, an interview with Linda Tyler, Sarah Williams, Toroa Pohatu, and Tessa Barringer, Trinh introduces the notion of film as a snapshot of a continuum - a crystallization of a moment and circumstance - an idea that Pohatu associates with the Maori belief that the past and future are happening in the present. Citing the example of teaching the philosophy of Jacques Derrida through the method of logical progression by also teaching the classical texts of Immanuel Kant and Martin Heidegger in order to illustrate the evolutionary development of Derrida's ideas, Trinh illustrates the pitfalls of such a linear approach that can lead to a neverending task of tracing back to the original text - an essentially pedantic distraction that inevitably stultifies the real process of critical thought and propagates the informational structure of hierarchical, dominant cultural authority.

Instead of going back to Kant and Heidegger, why not explore, for example, how Derrida's theories can meet Merce Cunningham's dances, or intersect with certain trends in contemporary performance arts? Why follow only the vertical and its hierarchies when the oblique and the horizontal in their multiplicities are no less relevant and no less fascinating for the quest of truth and knowledge? Why not first and foremost explore how any theory or writing speaks specifically to us - to our situated social and individual selves - from where we are, in our actualities, in our cultural differences, our circumstantial positionings and diversely mediated backgrounds?

In the interview Scent, Sound, and Cinema with Marie Zournazi, the inherent imperfectness and limitation of translation serves as an appropriate introduction for the intrinsic, non-verbal intuitiveness of Trinh's cinema. It is, therefore, not surprising that the specter of Marguerite Duras' India Song would enter into the discussion of Trinh's own film, A Tale of Love, both films evoking a profound resonance of loss, separation, rootlessness, and longing through cumulative (and assimilative) sensorial repetition rather than narrative explication. In this respect, India Song serves as a paradigm for the articulation of the postcolonial experience where elusive notions of home, nationality, and identity are expressed through equally ephemeral, non-narrative devices of textures, rhythms, and montage.

I feel a great affinity with Marguerite Duras' remark that after the premiere of her film India Song, she had the impression of being dispossessed, not only of a given area, a place, her habitat, but even of her identity...It is through the politics of denationalizing the refugee and the émigré, that a person-who-leaves becomes normalized, being systematically compelled to undergo the process of giving up their home, their country, their language, their proper name. In order to be accepted, one has to abandon one's unwanted self. In order to belong anew, one has to take the oath of loyalty, which entails disloyalty to one's home nation and identity.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 23, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Film Related Reading


January 16, 2006

Claire Denis by Judith Mayne

denis_mayne.gif Claire Denis' personal history as the oldest child of a colonial official stationed throughout outposts in French equatorial Africa is a biographical detail that is often only referenced within the context of her debut feature, Chocolat - a domestic situation that mirrored the filmmaker's young life (that, as author Judith Mayne accurately points out, often incorrectly trivializes the film as largely an autobiographical reconstruction of her memories of a colonial African childhood) - a seemingly anecdotal reference whose residual influence remains largely invisible and unexplored within critical analyses of her subsequent films. However, as Mayne argues in the Contemporary Film Directors series book, Claire Denis, this first-hand experience of living as a privileged European settler during the waning days of colonialism would continue to permeate throughout Denis' work. Specifically, Denis' upbringing was shaped by her parents' own acute awareness of the "perversity" of the inequitable relationship between their role as colonizers and the African natives (Denis describes her parents as adventure-seeking travelers rather than bureaucrats who staked their careers and fortunes on the continuity of colonial exploitation). Moreover, as a French-born colonist whose childhood was spent predominantly in Africa, Denis would experience early on, not only the ephemeral and indefinable notions of race, nationality, and identity, but also instilled a sentiment of perpetual transience that the author defines as the theme of "vagabondage" that would pervade Denis' work, an aesthetic tendency "to move around rather than towards" the subject of her gaze:

My father was a colonial functionary, so I knew that I was passing through. I didn't lose my country because I knew it never belonged to me. Nothing belonged to us...I belonged to a country - France - that I knew nothing about.

To this end, Mayne proposes that Denis' first three feature films, Chocolat, No Fear, No Die, and I Can't Sleep can be thematically correlated to her later films Beau Travail, Trouble Every Day, and Friday Night (the author similarly pairs Nenette and Boni with the ARTE telefilm episode U.S. Go Home, from Tous les Garçons et les filles de leur âge, as expositions on sibling intimacy) in their expositions on colonialism, immigration, and integration in order to illustrate a natural evolution that reflects Denis' own early life experience from colonist, to repatriate, to "assimilated" transplant in her native, yet foreign homeland (note the prefiguring themes of assimilation and transplantation in Denis' subsequent film, L'Intrus).

In Chocolat, the introductory sequence subverts the notion of race and identity in the images of a young white woman who turns out to be African juxtaposed against the image of a black father and son on the beach who turn out to be vacationing Americans. Inspired by the novel Une vie de boy by Cameroonian author Ferdinand Oyono, Chocolat eschews the romanticism and exoticization often associated with a nostalgia for an irretrievable colonial past. Instead, Denis provides a certain transparency of gaze through the heroine France that is at once native and estranged, knowing and curious - a suspended existential state that Mayne describes as the "desire to see coupled with the inevitable colonization of the look". Mayne subsequently parallels France's modern-day status as a displaced "native" with the legionnaires of Beau Travail who are, logistically, also without nationality - foreign soldiers without citizenship in the country they serve. In addition to the Herman Melville novel Billy Budd on which the film was based, Mayne also underscores the influence of Jean-Luc Godard's Le Petit soldat in the film, specifically, in actor Michel Subor reprising his role as Bruno Forestier from the Godard film, an ideological warrior in perpetual search for the next political agitation.

Like Chocolat, Denis' second feature No Fear, No Die is also inspired by literature, in this case, Franz Fanon's Black Skins, White Masks on the psychic toll of colonialism. Centered on two African immigrants who train cocks for a French club owner running illegal cockfighting tournaments, the sport becomes a metaphor for the colonial encounter in which native tradition is exoticized, removed from its cultural context, and exploited for profit by people in positions of power, and in the process of commodification, stripping the underlying art innate in the cultural sport. As Mayne incisively comments, Denis' films do not present a fetishized view of black people or African culture but rather, "because Denis' own desires as a filmmaker entail questions concerning race and racial boundaries, her work is inevitably seen in relationship to cultural anxieties about the relationship between black people and white people." Similarly, Trouble Every Day can also be seen through the prism of cultural anxieties, in this case, between sexuality and violence, and the underlying anxiety of foreignness introduced by migration and transplantation. Originally scripted as part of an envisioned triptych of films centered on the common theme of hotels with filmmakers Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep) and Atom Egoyan (unfilmed), the film revolves around the parallel premise of a sexual aberration that afflicts both Coré (Beatrice Dalle) and Shane (Vincent Gallo) (perhaps contracted through an implied past sexual relationship between the two while Shane and Coré's husband Léo performed scientific research at a Guyana facility). In this case, the sickness serves as a metaphor for the unknown and unreconciled legacy of colonialism, where the desire for profit (Shane's theft of Léo's clinical studies) results in the unleashing of a destructive and consuming epidemic.

Diverging from the literary basis of her earlier films, Denis' third film, I Can't Sleep is inspired by the real-life case of Thierry Paulin that, as Mayne points out, was sensationalized in the media by salaciously focusing on his private life as a gay mulatto, drag queen, and drug addict rather than the actual atrocity of the murders he committed:

How, then, could one make a film inspired by the Paulin case without indulging the racism and homophobia that were part and parcel of the coverage of his case? Denis' decision was to "evacuate" from the film any notion of "political correctness", that is, to refuse to engage with the question of what can or cannot be deemed an acceptable representation of race or sexuality. 'Political correctness', said Denis, 'is a corollary of racism'.

As a result, Denis structures the film through the tangentially intersecting lives of three cultural outsiders living in a state of literal and figurative transience in Paris - the drag queen Camille (Richard Courcet), his brother Théo (Alex Descas) who believes that returning to Martinique with his estranged wife (Beatrice Dalle) will set his life right again, and Lithuanian immigrant Daïga (Yekaterina Golubeva) who has traveled to the city to pursue an illusory acting career - in order to illustrate the inherent failure of assimilation as it manifests in the pervasive social and cultural otherness of language, race, and sexuality. Similarly, Friday Night can also be seen as a snapshot of a woman in a state of transition (she is literally trapped in her car by the gridlock caused by a transit strike) before the advent of assimilation (her transition from single life to a live-in relationship).

Lastly, a film inspired by Marcel Pagnol's La Femme du boulanger, Mayne cites a seemingly ordinary, yet insightful encounter between Boni (Grégoire Colin) and the baker's wife (Valéria Bruni-Tedeschi) on the effect of pheromones in Nenette and Boni as a fitting encapsulation for Denis' textural approach to cinema:

The woman is certainly visible in terms of the competing claims between the maternal and the sexual, but there is a definite movement beyond the dichotomy in this scene in which her discussion of 'invisible fluids' summarizes beautifully the film's occupation with flow - with water, with movement, with transformation.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 16, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, Film Related Reading


January 1, 2006

Chris Marker: Memories of the Future by Catherine Lupton

marker_memories.gifI have always felt an indefinable kinship towards Chris Marker's films that were not particularly related to the overt intellectuality of his work or his espousal of left-leaning ideals. However, it was not until the first chapter in Catherine Lupton's book on the filmmaker, Chris Marker: Memories of the Future that this gravitation took on a certain clarity and provided a kind of Rosetta Stone to contextualize this resonance. On the surface, there was the sympathetic approach in his characteristic pursuit of self-effacing anonymity and seeming penchant to recede to the background innate in his assumption of a series of pseudonyms - Chris Villeneuve, Fritz Markassin, Sandor Krasna, Jacopo Berenzi, Chris.Marker, and Chris Marker - in lieu of attributing credit for his work under his birth name of Christian-François Bouche-Villeneuve, and his practice of using avatars (an owl, a cat) to represent his image rather than publishing a photograph or self-portrait for identification (except for the one Marker-approved shot of him behind a camera and looking into the apparatus as the photograph is taken). But beyond Marker's mono no aware sensitivity for one's sense of place, Lupton reveals an even more accessible dimension to the near mythical filmmaker's methodology.

Specifically, Lupton examines Marker's postwar literary work for Esprit, a journal founded by philosopher Emmanuel Mounier who was, as Lupton describes "the primary intellectual force behind personalism, a philosophical and social movement that developed in France during the 1930s as an effort to reconcile Catholicism with left-wing political ideals. Personalism focused on the nature and potential of the human person, conceived as an amalgam of material, social, and spiritual dimensions. It aimed to foster human development on all these fronts: through political change, interaction with other individuals in human-centered social communities, and inner spiritual conviction." Esprit assembled a formidable collective of postwar thinkers such as philosopher Paul Ricoeur, writer and literary critic Albert Béguin, publisher and poet Jean Cayrol, and film theorist André Bazin whose creative sphere extended beyond the progressive journal towards fostering an organic, free exchange of ideas through Round Table dialogues and led to his association, not only with Bazin, but with other socially attuned filmmakers such as Agnes Varda and Alain Resnais, as well as activist actors such as Simone Signoret and Yves Montand (the couple would each become the subject of two subsequent Marker films, Mémoires pour Simone and Loneliness of the Long Distance Singer). True to form, Marker discounts his contributions to his early collaborative short film essay with Alain Resnais, Les Statues meurent aussi, even as Resnais himself underscores his colleague's indelible imprint on the film, most notably, in composing the critical narrative for the colonialist imperative of mission civilisatrice that argues, as Lupton comments, "that statues die once they are entombed in museums, no longer looked at as part of a living culture".

Lupton also provides a comprehensive examination of Marker's decade of creating militant political films and counter-information newsreels, starting with the 1967 film Far from Vietnam, a period that also marks his involvement in the formation of the film collective, Société pour la Lancement des Oeuvres (SLON) (originally registered in Belgium in order to circumvent censorship restrictions, but was later re-established in France as Images, Son, Kinescope, Réalisation Audiovisuelle (ISKRA) in order to take advantage of French film subsidies) that sought to empower people to document the worker struggle through direct cinema. This politically charged decade would also document such zeitgeist, counter-culture international events as the anti-Vietnam War march on the Pentagon in The Sixth Face of the Pentagon (a segment that was initially filmed for Far from Vietnam) and domestic events such as the 1967 Lyon textile factory strikes in A Bientôt, j'espère: a worker protest that Marker would subsequently re-evaluate as the true prefiguration of revolution (and not May 1968) in A Grin Without a Cat. Similar to the interrelation between Far from Vietnam and The Sixth Face of the Pentagon, unused footage from A Bientôt, j'espère also provided a springboard for the subsequent film, A Grin Without a Cat. Examining the evolution and collapse of the New Left movement from a more distanced perspective of memory, nostalgia, and hindsight, the film appropriately represents an elegy for this phase of Marker's career, turning once again to the realm of personal filmmaking of such social and ethnographic films as Letter from Siberia, The Koumiko Mystery, and Le Joli mai with Sans soleil. Integrating the contextual re-evaluation that came with the personal history of A Grin Without a Cat into his recurring preoccupations of cultural legacy and collective consciousness, Sans soleil can be seen, not as a departure from his militant, film collective works, but as a logical evolution towards reconciling the failure of the social revolution with his own memory of its once seemingly unstoppable progression - an inherent dilemma posed by the Krasna's references to a Japanese friend named Hayao Yamaneko who has devised a synthesizer that converts film images to abstract visuals that belong to a created world called The Zone (named after Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker). As Lupton comments:

There is a sense in which these characters represent two conflicting models of memory: Yamaneko the truism that memory is always a selective reinvention of the past to answer the needs of the present, and Krasna a residual faith in Proust's madeleine - the inconsequential experience that can restore a moment of the past in its entirety - despite his routine affirmations such as 'we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten'.

It is this sense of ambiguity that is also reflected in Lupton's comment in her analysis of Marker's thirteen episode series, The Owl's Legacy:

Two aspects of Greek culture have a particular resonance with Marker's ongoing concerns. One, already mentioned in passing, is the idea that for the ancient Greeks, all the different intellectual disciplines that sought to understand both the physical world and the realm of human experience were seen as an integrated continuum. Modern division between the sciences and the humanities, logos and mythos, theatre and life, as well as the either/or choices imposed by monotheistic religions, are antithetical to the Greek belief that all such modes of enquiry are profoundly interconnected, and to the Greek acceptance of ambiguity or uncertainty as a legitimate philosophical position.

In the end, it is again Marker's overarching sense of place and assumed role as rootless, humble universal traveler that defines his infinite curiosity to attempt to make sense of the totality of the world around him, a tireless passion to explore the interpenetration of all cumulative human phenomena - history, culture, memory - not to attempt to understand them, but to sincerely express the depth of what we as human beings cannot begin to understand.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 01, 2006 | | Comments (6) | Filed under 2006, Film Related Reading


November 20, 2005

Radical Juxtaposition: The Films of Yvonne Rainer

rainer_juxtaposition.gifAfter recently seeing Yvonne Rainer's Film About a Woman Who... for a second time, I still found that all the words I could muster for this dense, overlapping, fractured, and impenetrable, but somehow idiosyncratically transfixing film was something of a stream of consciousness outline, jotting down passing observations with the idea that, by encapsulating them into discrete packets of information, I could continue to re-arrange them like puzzle pieces towards forming a more cohesive overarching picture. This intrinsic difficulty in trying to assign words to a particularly multilayered and experiential work that is also infused with impenetrably autobiographical elements is also evident in Shelley Green's analysis for the film in Radical Juxtaposition: The Films of Yvonne Rainer. Composed of individual essays for each of Rainer feature length films, from Lives of Performers to Privilege (the book was published in 1994 and does not include MURDER and murder from 1996), the coherence of the essays similarly reflect the trajectory of Rainer's films, as they evolved from more abstract, mixed media performance pieces towards a more central narrative-driven, multi-themed expositions. But perhaps the key to understanding Rainer's work is that there isn't always a key: an underlying modus operandi that pervades much of the avant-garde movement that is reflected in her comment, "Incongruity can transform the banal into the fantastic. Two images – familiar in ambience but incongruent in time – when juxtaposed, create a third reality".

One aspect of Rainer's filmmaking that does appear consistently within her films is to capture the nature of performance, from Lives of Performers which visually and thematically represents the filmmaker's transition from dance to film, to her later, more expositional works. At the core of these performances is to present the intrinsic nature of social behavior, one that seeks to suppress human fears and desires in order to lead an socially idealized life of eternal performance. It is within this context that Jack's interminable (and indecipherable) monologues throughout The Man Who Envied Women can be seen as a kind of social filibuster, an impenetrable wall of verbal performance - an assumed persona - that serves to distract from the underlying hollowness of the speaker.

It is interesting to note that Green also underscores the recurring theme of decapitation in The Man Who Envied Women, both literally, in a New York Times article of beheaded peasants in South America, and metaphorically, in Jack's empty verbal prestidigitations. In the subsequent film Privilege, the author uses the term "unhooked" to describe the physiological and emotional changes that the retired dancer, Jenny experiences with menopause: the idea of liberation from body and from biological processes, as well as psychologically, from the social competition of desirability. However, these themes empirically define a similar phenomenon: the extension of Rainer's central theme of performance (or conversely, one's psychological, biological, intellectual, or emotional liberation from the act of performance). It is this integral theme that also characterizes the actions of the unnamed heroine in Film About a Woman Who..., a sentimental ambivalence and indecision towards her lover and social role that Rainer manifests through a fragmented deconstructive celluloid world that, similar to the heroine's reality, is a reflective figment of her own imagination.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 20, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Film Related Reading


August 27, 2005

Chasing the Truth: The Films of Mrinal Sen

chasing_sen.gifIn the book Chasing the Truth: The Films of Mrinal Sen, author John W. Hood provides an insightful examination of the sociopolitical and cultural conditions that have shaped filmmaker Mrinal Sen's personal and creative ideology. Born into a middle-class Bengali family in Faridpur in 1923, Hood provides a contextual frame of reference to the independence movement in this rural area as a "hotbed of the stream of the Independence Movement that was non-Gandhian in that it was characteristically violent." Sen's father, a nationalist and politically active lawyer, had the reputation throughout his career of defending fellow nationalists whose allegiance to insurgent organizations made it impossible for them to receive a fair trial under the very colonial government that they had sought to overthrow. It is, therefore, not surprising that Sen's politicization not only came at an early age, but would also deeply define his character (and that of his cinema) as well: a lifelong commitment to social causes that would be further galvanized with his involvement in the activism of the political left during his university days at the Scottish Church College in Calcutta. As Hood would later comment:

Mrinal Sen will always be regarded as a champion of lame ducks and underdogs. The Bengali poor - that vast majority of anonymity - perform a major role in many of his films, but never as heroes, only as victims. It will be remembered, of course, that Sen regards the notion of 'the noble poor' to be a perverse rationalization in favor of the status quo, and so in none of his films does he seek to idealize the masses in any way, portraying them rather in their material poverty, their ignorance, and most significantly, their powerlessness.

Hood also suggests that Sen's films are integrally rooted in the culture of Calcutta, citing that the city - often associated with nefarious Western connotations of decay, chaos, and misery (in particular, through the conjured images of the Black Hole of Calcutta in which British soldiers were imprisoned in a dungeon in 1756, Winston Churchill's missive during his stay in the region in which he comments "I shall always be glad to have seen it - namely that it will be unnecessary for me ever to see it again", and in the works of Mother Theresa in which the city has become inextricably associated with images of abject poverty) - instead provides a constant source of intellectual, philosophical, political, and social stimulation for the filmmaker through its natural state of constant flux and re-invention.

Sen's screen essay [Calcutta: My El Dorado] is sufficient to regard Calcutta itself as harbouring contradiction: wealth and poverty, splendour and squalor, pre-industrial and post-industrial economy, artistry and scholarship and disorder and ignorance, vibrant optimism and morbid pessimism. The really significant paradox is Calcutta's constant decay and its constant regeneration. The flood comes, the city survives, the floodwaters recede, the city, rejuvenated, springs back to life. No sooner to the police scatter the huts of the pavement dwellers than they are built again...For Chaitanya to cherish the man who dies every day, he must also be born every day.

It is this awareness of perpetual transformation that not only provides the creative stimulus for Sen's filmmaking, but also becomes an integral part of his narrative philosophy:

'Death' might seem surprising as a metaphor for the constant flow of the stream of history, being so obviously a mark of finality. In Indian thinking, however, death is one side of a coin in which birth is the other...While Mrinal Sen is a rationalist and by no means a religious Hindu, he does belong to a culture which readily accepts the notion of time as cyclic. An end of something is always the beginning of something else; hence, 'death', can be a useful metaphor for change and movement in the ebb and flow of history.

In essence, this cycle of renewal has also contributed to a characteristic, thematic open-endedness in Sen's films, from the literal and metaphoric dawning of a new day after the family experiences an economic and interpersonal crisis following the disappearance of their sole wage-earner, their unmarried (and callously exploited) daughter Chinu in Ek Din Pratidin, to the unreconciled departure of the photographer from the decaying mansion in Khandahar after a brief connection with the beautiful Jamini whose devotion to her ailing mother has bound her to a life of isolation and enabling illusion, and also the existential crossroads between civilization and autonomous existence of Genesis as a figurative Garden of Eden is destroyed by jealousy, rivalry, and greed.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 27, 2005 | | Comments (24) | Filed under 2005, Film Related Reading


May 8, 2005

Harun Farocki: Working on the Sight-Lines, edited by Thomas Elsaesser

farocki_sightlines.gifIn the introductory chapter, Harun Farocki: Filmmaker, Artist, Media Theorist, Thomas Elsaesser underscores the idea that the singularity of Farocki's cinema resides, not in the power (or juxtaposition) of images, but in the residual impact of the afterimages that is revealed through a careful editing design, noting that for the filmmaker, the power of cinema is "visible in an absence (the missing image)". In essence, Farocki derives his distinctive vision from the meticulous, observational study of images: a visually critical process that Elsaesser explains transforms Farocki's role of filmmaker to that of "a theorist, making him a special kind of witness, a close-reader of 'images', and an exegete-exorcist of their ghostly 'afterimages'". In this respect, Farocki's role can be seen, not as that of documentarian (this is especially true in his latter work where he has exclusively worked with existing, found footage), but rather, as that of an archeologist who sets out to discover a range of information and causal interconnections from a single artifact, a creative philosophy that is reflected in Farocki's comment, "It is not a matter of what is in a picture, but rather, of what lies behind. Nonetheless, one shows a picture as proof of something which cannot be proven by a picture". As Elsaesser further expounds, "events, accidents, and disasters can be turned over to see what lies behind them and to inspect the recto of the verso: except that even this 'image' belongs to a previous age, when a picture was something you could touch with your fingers and pass from hand to hand. Now it is a matter of recognizing the invisible within the visible, or of detecting the code by which the visible is programmed." It is this systematic methodology of characterizing the history behind the image that is reflected in Farocki's comment, "You don't have to look for new images that have never been seen, but you have to work on existing images in a way that makes them new. There are various paths. Mine is to look for the buried sense, and to clear away the rubble lying on top of the images", and is embodied in the identification of Auschwitz some 40 years later in the archived Allied reconnaissance photographs of adjacent high collateral targets in Images of the World and the Inscription of War, as well as the playful "discovery" of a factory worker tugging her colleague's skirt in Workers Leaving the Factory.

Elsaesser further notes that former film critic and scholar Farocki belongs to the May 68 counterculture generation of artists and intellectuals who sought to effect political change through social revolution and who, rather than suppress or radically alter his vision after the collapse of revolution, instead transformed his disappointment and redirected his energies towards the creation of a more critical and intrinsically political modernist cinema. The resulting symbiosis of avant-garde aesthetics and socio-political activism is also broached in a subsequent introductory essay on Farocki's films by Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Road Not Taken: Films by Harun Farocki in which he ruminates on Farocki's relative obscurity (and delayed appreciation) in the US: "I would venture that this is because they belong to an intellectual and artistic tradition in Europe that has never taken hold on these shores - an approach to filmmaking that regards formal and political concerns as intimately intertwined and interdependent."

This manifestation of a kind of subsumed radicalism is especially evident in the film Before Your Eyes - Vietnam in which a fictional doomed love story is set against the turbulent conflict of the Vietnam War (a love and war scenario that recalls Alain Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour but proves to be a much more overtly political film than its predecessor). In the film, not only does Farocki explore the issue of terrorism and domestic resistance (as Gillo Pontecorvo's seminal docufiction film, The Battle of Algiers, similarly captures), but also directly examines the media (or image) politics (and war) that is concurrently fought by all sides of the armed conflict as part of the overall strategy of modern warfare. Elsaesser provides a thoughtful encapsulation of this distinction between terrorism and insurgency in Before Your Eyes - Vietnam:

As a media war, as well as a liberation struggle, it challenged the meaning of territory, by creating the 'terrorist' alongside the 'guerilla': where the latter hides in the bush, vanishes in the undergrowth, camouflages himself into invisibility, the former has to make a pact with the visibility and the spectacle. In order to be effective, the terrorist has to be visible, but in order to be 'visible' among so many images, his actions have to exceed the order of representations, while nonetheless engaging 'the enemy' on the territory of representation. Political actions attain credibility and the 'truth of the image' it seems, by passing through the process of intense specularization, with the contradictory effect that in order to become recognizable as political, events have to be staged as spectacle.

As the protagonist, Anna, appropriately comments in the film (and is cited in Christa Blümlinger's essay, Slowly Forming a Thought While Working on Images), the manipulation of the media for public sentiment is akin to "competing for the greater atrocity" as anti-war protesters parading images of Vietnamese soldiers brutalized by the American military are alternated with images of civilians brutalized by communist partisans. However, with the media saturation of graphic images that inevitably lead to public desensitization, Farocki's task is then to convey the idea of the images without presenting the grotesqueness of the images, a separation that is exemplified in the filmmaker's notorious (but effective) act of stubbing out a cigarette on his forearm in order to illustrate the relative effects of napalm on humans in Inextinguishable Fire, a strategy of distancing - but not Brechtian alienation - that, as Blümlinger notes, seeks "to reveal the disjunction between the camera and the eye, between the subject and apparatus."

In the Thomas Elsaesser interview, Making the World Superfluous: An Interview with Harun Farocki, Elsaesser comments that as a writer for Filmkritik, Farocki had written appreciations for filmmakers as diverse as Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Bresson that stylistically, seem to be irreconcible, to which he responds, "But Bert[old] Brecht and Thomas Mann were also antagonists, and nonetheless, one can be an admirer of both as happens to be the case with me. Bresson, to put it briefly, makes his images rhyme, of which I am a great admirer, even though this is not at all my own project".

In a subsequent exchange, Elsaesser brings up the inevitable limitation of foreign translation in the multiplicity and specificity of meaning in the German word 'Aufklärung'. Farocki cites the Hans Jonas book, Phenomenon of Life which proposes that, "everything in philosophy has a metaphor related to the eyes, to vision and so forth, and that in religion, things always relate to the ear. In many languages, at least in many European languages, God is audible and philosophy is visible...So in this sense, it's very essential that the German word 'Aufklärung' is a bit different from the English word 'enlightenment', and such things are essential for a film, but they were not the starting point of the film."

In the Rembert Hüser interview, A Conversation with Harun Farocki, Hüser notes that Farocki's film, I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts, composed of surveillance footage from the high security prison in Corcoran, California was a line taken from the Roberto Rossellini film, Europa 51, during a scene in which Ingrid Bergman works in a factory for a day and finds the experience akin to being confined in a prison. Hüser suggests that the title is perhaps an expression of humanization for the prisoners as "real people" instead of depersonalized images captured in the surveillance videos in a constant state of strict regimentation and conformity, unable to act freely according to their nature without severe - if not fatal - consequences. Farocki expounds on this overarching humanism with the comment:

In Rossellini's film, a comprehensive world view comes into being. This world view may not hold, but the film has great meaning for me because it emphasizes an attitude of not wanting to acquiesce to a system of injustice.

Posted by acquarello on May 08, 2005 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2005, Film Related Reading