Monday, July 28, 2008

Float my boat. A double bill for the ages.

by Ryland Walker Knight


Sight and Sound asked 52 film critics and programmers and professors to put together a dream double bill and write a few words about their choices. You can see them all here in a pdf. I wrote something similar over a year ago for The House, a 5 for the Day post. I was proud my selections were adventurous and intuitive links between the films. Since then I think I've refined my ideas about the double bill and am not quite as interested in those kinds of outlandish pairings, although I dig the idea of cinephile parlour games like how can you link this film with that (real nerd shit). Also, those I chose were all relatively recent pictures. One of the cool things about this Sight & Sound group is that it skews towards older cinema as much as current cinema. But, still, there's one in particular, from Brad Stevens, that I would gladly pay money for: Céline et Julie vont en bateau with INLAND EMPIRE. Here's his little graf --
"Nothing analyses a film better than another film," wrote French critic Nicole Brenez. And, although the result would run for an unwieldy six hours, the best way to fully appreciate Inland Empire [sic]--among the most misunderstood films of recent years--may be to watch it with Céline et Julie vont en bateau. These masterpieces set out to liberate women from the narrative traps in which cinema has traditionally imposed them. Both Rivette and Lynch deconstruct the act of storytelling from an explicitly feminist perspective, showing their heroines negotiating, and ultimately escaping from, houses of fiction. But whereas Rivette takes female solidarity as his starting point and ends by suggesting that the narrative is about to begin again, Lynch brings in female solidarity only during the final stages: the prerequisite for its existence being an acknowledgment, both devastating and joyous, that narratives are no longer possible.

A few things pop to mind: This bill would definitely run more than six hours; that word deconstruct sure does make me itch; I dig the term negotiate; his final sentence is a killer. One can only hope that New Yorker releases that DVD of Céline et Julie before too long, before everything switches again to Blu-Ray, before I plop down that money for BFI's Region 2 disc or pirate some other whack copy. Seriously: how come I missed it twice inside a year right before I moved back to the Bay? When are you going to show it again, PFA? I feel like I need to see it in a theatre. Right? I saw INLAND EMPIRE twice in two days at the California. I think that's another aspect to the double bill that doesn't get talked about enough: where you see the pictures matters. Because, for all my home programming, there's nothing quite like seeing a double bill big and loud in the dark with other people and little time for bathroom breaks. Last spring's pairing of Où gît votre sourire enfoui? and Sicilia! (with the short 6 bagatellas in between) was pure bliss: the entire program's running time (188 minutes) is less than one sitting of either the Rivette or the Lynch and packs just as much joyful whallop as either of those lengthier master works, although this pair is very much about how we don't escape narrative despite our desires to stand apart and strike new ground. Marriage is a story. Life is a story. We tell stories. Also: both these pairs could be seen as "about" their media, too: what do film and digital offer that the other does not? It seems significant that Costa's picture is a video work about editing celluloid, "starring" two older, married people just as much as the brazen surrealism of Lynch seems that much more unbounded in digital form. (Just as Miami Vice makes an argument on behalf of the speed of video; just as The Dark Knight's use of IMAX makes an argument for the requisite size of cinema as analogous to its impact/effectiveness; just as, to complete the circle, William Lubtchansky's photography argues for the tangible grain of celluloid as realer than real, an inherently film-specific kind of pictorial beauty that surpasses reality into sublimity; just as you could make that last clause's argument for any of these filmmakers.)

So, again, what double bills would you want to see? Look at this transition while you think about it:


UPDATE: The internet is beautiful, nefarious.


Saturday, July 26, 2008

We burned the forest down. The Dark Knight, back and forth. Part One.

money for nothing and tricks for free

[This is the first part in a rather lengthy email conversation between Jennifer Stewart and Ryland Walker Knight. For readability, the call and response pairs will be split up. I'll update each intro with links as we pump out the rest. For now, though, here we are, looking all around, trying to make some sense of that first weekend. There are
spoilers throughout. Consider yourself warned! Certain forms of hyperbole will not be tolerated in the comments thread although we are curious if you have a thoughtful response to offer in order to continue our conversation. Just, please, don't make me turn on comment moderation. Nobody wants that.]

watch it wash away

Jen --

From the top: I dig it. I don't think it's the masterpiece some have claimed, but neither would I call it a bankrupt endeavor, just complicated. As a picture of the modern city (and its consequent perils), in a time such as ours, this is probably as good as a pop artifact can get. The Dark Knight may not have Michael Mann's poetry of imbalance (an unfair comparison despite the opening heist's nod to Heat), but Christopher Nolan's nearly anonymous Gotham has all the right sheen and transparency, grime and emptiness, shadows and nightfall terrors to scare you of its dark arena of violence. It's the insistence on the city -- in swirling helicopter shots most of the time -- that makes it more than a Batman movie and less a Batman movie than before.

After all, it's the first Batman movie where Batman is just another part of the ensemble. Christian Bale may get top billing but he's by no means the star, much less that interesting (a shame). The real acting fireworks, so to speak, happen between the poles of Heath Ledger's typically hyperbolic Joker and Gary Oldman's beautifully understated Jim Gordon. Oldman's portrayal of decency grounds all the anarchic overflow of Ledger's embodied chaos.

However, all too often chaos is more a talking point than an element of the action. That's probably my biggest problem with the movie: Nolan doesn't really know how to shoot action scenes. Or, more pointedly, he doesn't shoot fight scenes well. For all the kinetic activity, those handheld close ups make these encounters less about movement than about fractured collisions that can't find a visual resolution in space. Which is a silly, hifalutin way to say, it's too often cluttered and fussy, if oddly dynamic. I'm puzzled by his close-in action mise-en-scene, and (I worry) not in a good way. That said, the film is edited pretty well and the timing on the wide shots inside action sequences is pretty spectacular. That mack truck flipping has a real weight -- which is aided by the sound design. Again, it's hard to compare him to Michael Mann, or even Paul Greengrass, but those guys are more interested in space as an arena full of possibilities and energy (something I dig); Nolan's idea of space is more pragmatic, logical, showing an interest in the where but not the how. For instance: I dig that the climactic high rise site is open and under construction, open to plain sight, as it gets at the illusion of spectacle (and how we make or account for appearance in this Gotham) once more. And I dig how the sonar plays into that, too, but all the encounters within that structure are pretty straight forward, a series of scenes of Batman deploying pawns in the way of the final showdown.

What makes the action interesting, in the end, is how Nolan gives each sequence significance before and after, pointing away from the action. (I think this is why I liked The Prestige so much: it isn't an action picture. The Prestige is about magic, about manipulation, about spectacle, about perception; and here all his editing patterns make more sense. He's forming a way of seeing there (looking for details) that doesn't quite cohere in The Dark Knight.) In the most simple sense, the context for the action in The Dark Knight is the current mood of the country: the fear of unknowable threats, of ultimatums without rules. There's a lot of easy allegories to draw. But that's all abstracted enough into ideas about chaos (those talking points) and seriousness so that I trust the film will play when the next administration's getting ushered out of office. However, all that falls to the Joker, in monologue form, which speaks to Nolan's interest in story. I think he fashions himself a storyteller more than a filmmaker; at bottom, it's how Nolan and his brother Jonathan escalate the consequences of the plot with each successive sequence that makes The Dark Knight so compelling. If ever I was to appropriate that Bordwell term, it'd be here: Nolan has mastered "intensified continuity."

Okay. On the one hand, I'm impressed you were so ready to let this film whip you around and rattle your soul. On the other, I don't think the film earns the boat scene with Tiny Lister or Walter Chaw's description of Maggie Gyllenhaal's resigned acceptance as "the single most heartbreaking moment of 2008 cinema." Further, what I find so dark is not really all the terror and wreckage throughout the film but the final lie Batman concocts under the assumption that people won't be able to withstand the morally complex truth of Harvey Dent's rather literal fall.

But this makes it sound like I only dislike the picture. And I don't. For the most part I dig it. I'm just caught up in my formal/aesthetic criteria here and not moving to how this picture, and its popularity, might be significant, if, by nature, blown way out of proportion. Maybe we can get into that a little more as we progress.



I'm in a strange spot. I've come to the tentative conclusion that my feelings for The Dark Knight are, well, just that. They're oddly resistant to qualification, yet smolder indignantly to hostile, very well-written reviews like Adam Nayman's for Reverse Shot. Not that I'm unthankful for you sending Nayman my way. But somehow it and Dark Knight has spawned a kind of crisis for me. Either I don't know who I am as a viewer, or I don't know what matters in film criticism. So I might be asking you to guide me back to the light. But first, hear my plight.

The problem is that Dark Knight really got to me. And like, 5 movies total have ever gotten to me. One of them was last year, at the Castro Theatre's special advance screening of There Will Be Blood. Previous was David Fincher's Fight Club, which I saw opening week, in 1999's Ottawa. What they all have in common, is that I was really shaken by each of them. And it was sublime.

I knew from Ledger's first scene that DK might deliver another such catharsis. I'm speaking of an intense kind of - for lack of a better word - pleasure, and it makes most or even (*gulp*) every other film experience pale in comparison. No, I think I mean that. I love Contempt and Battle in Heaven and Gosford Park and many other films. I can still conjure Reygadas' 360 sequence shot from Battle; the tingles it and other moments in that film gave me. (Still haven't seen Silent Light....). And I don't want to mitigate what those films are to me. Yet I don't know how to compare them to Nolan's Dark Knight, because DK created moral peril which actually, really threatened me. And that was riveting. I walked out not able to think of precedents, unlike TWBB's immediate conjuring of The Shining and 2001. But, then, on my second screening, when, in the interrogation cell, Joker laughs at Batman's missive fists and desperate demands to know Harvey and Rachel's whereabouts, it came to me like lightening: Tyler Durden. Fincher's and not Mann's or Greengrass' sense of action (more on that shortly).

Unlike Nayman, I had problems with Begins and thought its sequel better realized (casting REALLY helped). I'm tempted to say Nayman's problems with DK can be explained simply as, the film wasn't what he'd decided he wanted. Yet his impressive review made me second-guess my own enjoyment of the film. Could I have been wrong somehow?

A growing problem for me with film criticism is how easily formal concerns along with a kind of privileged ethics are made exclusive and essential. For example, I want to care about your worries over how Nolan realizes action. But I mostly have a hard time following them. I do like your point that if the action is shot closed-in, then we get fractured collisions (of say, body segments) rather than framed total movements. But why is that a problem? To me this simply signals different themes and concerns - quite literally, a different perspective on the action. Does action require a total view of bodily encounters, in order to "find a resolution in space"? You said 'twas all really just complaining the actions shots were cluttered and fussy. I guess I just don't see that. Or, even granting your premise, don't see why something else would necessarily be... better, somehow? In fight sequences, Nolan's camera goes in close so that Batman can appear and disappear suddenly - the sense of his superlative movement is created by these cuts that let his outline outstep the frame, even when centered in it. Fincher liked showing us local reactions to blows, and Nolan may be after something similar, which means the total scene of bodies having room to manifest the forces both impacted and exchanged during a fight just isn't the right profile for the shots. I'm likely in over my head here, so perhaps I should just say: you seem to be assuming there's a way to shoot action scenes, and Nolan ain't done it. Help us (me) scrutinize with your eyes: Who or where does that premise come from, and why should I care about it, especially when in order to see anything amiss in the film, it seems to first need assuming?

That said, I'm happy to say I strongly agree with you that Dark Knight ain't doing anything dark through themes of chaos, and certainly not as film-noir dark as some have hastily claimed. The triumph of DK's big moment is that Joker assumed more chaos than he could engineer: people are more attuned, less individualistic, if a little less civilized (in the bad, Rousseau sense of loosing sympathetic trust) than he imagined. Chaos in the film is simply Joker's attempt to remove some of the (already perhaps flimsy) partitions supporting an ordered edifice of civil morality. (Civil morality as in the ideological commitments to the sense of fairness that underly law, the courts, and the judiciary - also, the related concepts of what one should rationally desire and fear). Joker's desire not just to lay bare but to rip down these partitions - revealing the panic-inducing expanse of amorphous, unscripted moral interpolation - is seen realized in Gotham's inner and outer design. Nothing has proper walls: Dent's office, Bruce Wayne's bunker and penthouse -- all pillars and receding perspective lines, shelves and desks with only open, surface conspicuity. Even in Lau's Hong Kong architectural marvel, the walls and drawers are glass, revealing everything and waiting to be shattered. The precariousness of moral infrastructure: you take a vote on a ferry, but ooops, this isn't enough to resolve the threat. (Wasn't democracy suppose to be our political panacea?) I guess we could call the result 'chaos,' but despite his speech to (by now) Two-Face, Joker is certainly, definitely, a planner. He is an engineer, a scientist, and he'll say what it takes to realize his experiments. Joker's response to the ferry passengers' inadvertent solution to the prisoner's dilemma (why did I have no jade and all cathartic relief at that moment? Is there something wrong with me?), is to lament that all must be done oneself. I agree with Nayman that Gotham is the anonymous hero of the film, for the film sacrifices the false stability and irrational vulnerability of electing heroes to be "the face" of, say Justice. The city needs much more than one "white knight" who is willing to let his face bear the investment of justice. One wall can't hold up an edifice. One face can't take that much.

You said Nolan may be more of a storyteller, than a film maker. Well, I like stories. I like them a lot, because they shake me and I'm not sure but that might be one awesome reason to be alive. Images shake me too, and they can tell a story with images and/or with actors. Ledger and Eckhart and Oldman and those huge empty spaces with transparent partitions, was some of the best shaking I've had.

glass between us

Saturday, July 19, 2008

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2008: A Series of Introductions, A Question of Communion.

by Ryland Walker Knight

unknown embrace

[Update (7/22/08): article can be found here.]

The piece should be up at The House Next Door by now but my school work kept me occupied during the week and a big tentpole picture got in the way (took precedence?) here at the week's end. Luckily, a lot of my fellow Bay Area bloggers have covered the festival already (see below). I just hope my belated wrap up can serve as a nice, final grace note. It was a heck of a weekend. I really dug it, even though I missed a number of the fims. I look forward to attending next year provided I'm still in the Bay (which Allison bet me will be the case). The highlight of the weekend, I must confess, was meeting and hanging out with Girish Shambu and Darren Hughes, who Michael "Maya" Guillen was hosting. We skipped the Saturday night showing of The Man Who Laughs (which I want to watch soon thanks to Michael's recent posts and that big tentpole picture's allusions) to enjoy a leisurely dinner and good, old-fashioned cinephile jibber jabber.

One film I did not mention in my House piece is the short that preceded Jujiro: a nine minute color film called Kaleidoscope from 1925. I wish I'd gone pirate style and videotaped it. Not that my digital camera would do it justice. Part of the power was how big it felt up there on the Castro's wonderful screen. Plus, it reminded me of Painlevé's Liquid Crystals*. All it was: color plates shifting in space, cut up by mirrors and edits, merging and splitting and washing into a huge affective pool of light. I could have watched that forever. (Especially if Yo La Tengo had scored this one; although I quite dug what Stephen Horne provided on piano.) I guess my next venture should be into the avant guarde. Like, for real. Any suggestions on where to start with that?


[A link dump for all the local coverage I've come across.]

At The Evening Class:
At Hell on Frisco Bay:

At Six Martinis and the Seventh Art:

At Dan's Movie Blog:


Outside the Bay, Girish and Darren have logged some posts. Go read them. Girish has a more general overview with a few nuggets of recap while Darren looks at Tod Browning's The Unknown.


Tonight I'm off to the PFA to catch Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life. It'll be my first Ray outside of Rebel Without A Cause and King of Kings. It doesn't sound like the cheeriest film (this weekend's offerings are quite the opposite of sunny, hence the Reygadas detour this morning), but it's not on Netflix, nor is it available on campus, so I gotsta go. One of the things the SFSFF really did for me was to reactivate my cinephilia. I may not be able to afford to attend everything I want to see in theatres but last weekend and yesterday's screening proved that watching movies big (and loud) in the dark is a lot different than at home with a lamp on and the internet calling out "Look at me!" I think it almost mandatory for any, um, true cinephile routine (to go along with Nathan Lee's list of other shit to do as well, like reading and eating and talking to people). And, maybe most important, it's a lot more fun.

* = That's the picture; that post is almost painful (chuckle) to read, but it still warms me.

Some light for the current dark tidings. Some Reygadas.

hug spot
wash house

How about a bit of counter programming? After yesterday's noon:forty-five viewing of everybody's favorite thing to talk about right now, I needed some stillness, some light, some reserve, some duration, some real matter, some water. You know, some good old timey long take mise-en-scene. Phew! However: I'll be seeing big fussy over there in the multiplexes again, probably (I think it's got its merits; they just look like anathema to this brand of heartbreak, which looks like antivenin to that brand of terror), and writing something. So stay tuned. You wouldn't want to miss it, right? We all need more, right? Right? Or, you could follow Glenn's lead and actually see The Red and the White at the PFA tomorrow night at 7pm. I know I will. --RWK

Friday, July 18, 2008

Watchmen looks promising? UPDATED.

Who watches Zach Snyder? I will admit up front that I thought 300 a big pile of hateful, lame-brain junk. But it did look good. This looks pretty great, too. I just hope it retains the spirit as well as amplifying the look. Cuz I'm one of those fanboys who does indeed love this "most celebrated graphic novel of all time". I'm also a fan of Billy Crudup in most things, so that bodes well.

UPDATE: Beyond the prickles 300 sends up my spine, though, the real danger is condensing that big book into two hours (or so) draped in slow-mo "Look Ma!" shots. I'm prepared to lose some things, sure, but I keep wondering if this project would have been better suited to cable television: the only visual medium (so far) that seems designed for (or is accepted as) serialized storytelling. Because, for all the hoopla and dollar bills, I'm beginning to think twice about those Lord of the Rings movies Peter Jackson made. (And, to a lesser extent -- of course -- those books Tolkien wrote; although I dig what they're after with myth.) Thing is: not even the self-proclaimed fans of old serials (cough) can seem to make a series of films that work as a medium and not a cycle because they're so addicted to tropes, not ideas. The problem with Zach Snyder's other movie is he thought his ideas, or Frank Miller's ideas at that, would trump all his tropes -- and he was right. Cuz, shit, man, those ideas sure were dumb. (Favorite moment? When the "hero" of the piece flat out endorses xenophobia as a philosophy.) Luckily, Alan Moore is a bigger thinker; however, I don't know if I want that vision (of life, of earth, of art) to play in 2009, even if the movie does wind up working. Especially after yesterday's pitch black in-the-trenches marathon, The Dark Knight. I just don't know if I'll be ready by then. Or, you know, if the world will be. Christopher Nolan certainly doesn't think so, even if the picture ends going up, not down, into the light, not dark, for once. Table that for now, though. The point of coming back onto this post was to say: hot damn, that trailer looked dope on a big, wide screen. --RWK

Oranges and knives, bread and wine. Sicilia!

Here are the beginning and ending of the only Straub-Huillet film I've seen, Sicilia!. Their subtitles are not in English so watching these are a test of my Romance language background understanding; and yet, at the same time, the way the Straubs direct their actors to speak is like music. It's just as pleasurable to simply let the sound run and look at other things. If you speak Italian, though, I imagine it's a different experience. You can appreciate the conversations for their constative elements as much as their musical rhythms (especially during the list at the end), as well as the subtle psychology of the Straubs' editing. It's all in the grammar. Here's that electrifying compulsion: I have to see more. --RWK

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Poem for the month, sketchbook style.
"Wait Come Back."

wait come back

From my friend Mia. Visit her blog or her website for more current, stylish line- and typography-based art. She lives in Portland. Apparently she's brought VINYL IS HEAVY readers. Funny. Cool. What's up, Portland? Also, below is her view from her new favorite park. --RWK

wait come back

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A storm of Bastille Day links. An Index. UPDATED.


Here I'll collect links to our own Bastille Day posts and any others our blogging buddies may offer. Just leave me a note in the comments or in an email and I'll be sure to update the list. I will also throw in some links to some pieces about France and French films that I feel should be read around this time of year. But that's for later. For now, here's what we can give you:

Thanks for reading! We hope you enjoy our odd enthusiasms and we look for yours as well. Now we plan to go eat some cheese and drink some wine, maybe even down some moules frites or, um, a ratatouille. If you didn't get around to posting anything today, on the fourteenth proper, don't worry: I'll continue to update this list as things pop up online, here and elsewhere. --RWK

Monday, July 14, 2008

Brief Thoughts on France, the French, and the Rest of Us.

by Mark Haslam

[Part of VINYL IS HEAVY's Bastille Day celebration. Click here to see our index. Click here to view all the entries at once. Ed's note: Mark is a friend from school, another cinephile I like to talk and sometimes disagree with (re: Haneke). I'm happy to have him on VINYL: he's a smart, kind guy with a discerning eye and good taste — for the most part. Look for more from him in the months to come.]

what price freedom

France (read: Paris) is the place film dreams of, the place where films can dream. The limitless possibilities that Hollywood’s Golden Age represented to the world in the Thirties and Forties migrated in the Sixties and Seventies to France—at least, to France as depicted in the cinema. I remember, as a young cinephile-to-be, sitting down with Godard and Melville and Cocteau and Renoir and Truffaut, and thinking, “This is where film is.” Okay, maybe I’m giving young Mark too much intellectual cred…but still, there was something in their work that made film real, made it seem as though it came from this place—that Les Quatre Cents Coups, for example, wasn’t simply made in Paris, but that it had already existed in Paris, had already been lived and was still being lived each and every day by each and every Parisian.

And this, I think, is the draw of France and its movies for those of us that aren’t French: the draw of a place where film, simply, happens. So, in thinking about French cinema, I found myself thinking about it as it is in the hands of non-French directors. Buñuel was always brilliant, but not until he left the oppression of Franco-run Spain did he make something as perfect as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (only one of the several masterpieces he made in France). More recently was Michael Haneke, whose Caché represents, for me, the possibilities of cinema in France, while his English language remake of Funny Games represents the ability of a Hollywood aesthetic to ruin a film (a film I’ve long admired). There plenty of filmmakers to think of here, but it was Krzysztof Kieslowski that ultimately occupied my mind. Kieslowski didn’t make any films in France until the Trois Coleurs trilogy at the very end of his career; yet those three films to me seem so involved in the idea of “France” and the idea of cinema that the two seem to lose any distinction.

The colors of the French flag (blue, white, red) compose the visual landscape of the trilogy (Bleu, Blanc, Rouge). Yet never does it seem that the colors are inserted into these films—they are not done up or painted onto the settings. Rather they are brought out of their locations: the blue of a window’s reflection, the red of a car’s brake-light. Here are the colors as they always are, Kieslowski’s camera just makes them apparent to us (I spy with my little eye something with the color…). The colors begin with definition (blue = liberty, white = equality, red = fraternity), yet the moment the films begin they gradually work toward abstraction. Red seems more like a warning of division, or a kind of divisive passion, not a sign of fraternity. And the supposed liberty of Bleu is more of a hollowness—each instance of the color a reminder to Julie (Juliette Binoche) of what she no longer has: a husband, a child, both of whom died in a car accident she survived.


Julie tries to forget her past (as her Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother has), leaving behind or destroying what remains of her husband and child. But her attempts to carve out a private niche fail. The world, in fact, who awaited her husband’s composition celebrating the unification of Europe, will not let her. And neither will the film, which also strives for a sort of “unity” in its color scheme.

So the pool, where Julie finds a sort of freedom, betrays her.


She is discovered, and then invaded.


What sort of liberty is this? Julie is at the whim and will of her environment, and blue becomes the question of liberty, rather than its affirmation. Can liberty exist for her? What form would it take? Liberty is a only a possibility, always present as blue, but, like color itself, never fully graspable. Similarly, Bleu’s languid pace opens the possibility of something to happen—the freedom of any occurrence at any moment—but doesn’t allow the possibility to become a reality. When, finally, something begins to happen (a relationship between Julie and Olivier, the completion of Julie’s husband’s composition) these things shatter in the final five minute sequence: images, barely moving portraits of all the characters we’ve encountered, fold over and dissolve into one another. But each image is also a depiction of constraint or captivity: Julie pressed against glass; the necklace a noose for the young man; Julie’s mother in the retirement home losing her memory; the unborn child in the womb; the stripper in shadows; a painted figure in an eye; and finally Julie, again behind glass, with the slowly encroaching reflection of blue.

During this sequence, the Unification of Europe piece plays, but whose version is it? Julie’s? Her husband’s? Olivier’s? The loss of definition—precisely what Julie seems to have felt throughout the film—becomes perhaps the liberty of expression. As we watch her compose music, the visual field blurs.


The Colors Trilogy presents not the clarity of expression, but the movement toward clarity, which is inevitably unclear. I guess, then, Kieslowski both complicates and confirms the idea of France as a place for cinema to happen: these are films that portray the potential of occurrence and of creation, both of which exist and are denied in France and in cinema.

Fireworks. Pierrot le fou.

by Claire Twisselman

[Part of VINYL IS HEAVY's Bastille Day celebration. Click here to see our index. Click here to view all the entries at once. Click here to see Claire's accompanying image essay.]


Seeing Pierrot le fou in a big, dark theatre was a turning point for me with movies. I don't think my story is particularly out of the ordinary (see here). Godard is an often-traveled road into more serious film interest. His films are fun, playful, smart, rigorous, sometimes boring, hip, sexy, gorgeous and contradictory candy. And I eat it up. I've read -- and heard others say -- that Godard is a young person's filmmaker; that he's more important to young people than older people. I don't know if this is true, but I do know that his exuberance in the 1960s (like most young people, I haven't yet seen much past Week End) is pretty infectious. His movies are giddy for movies. I've since grown to like Masculin-Feminin more than Pierrot, but Pierrot will always remain dear for kick starting my fascination with a lot of French cinema. Or, at least, what the Criterion Collection has made available.

Originally, I told Master Knight that I wanted to write this when Pierrot was released by Criterion. But, as can be the case, I put school first, hanging out with friends second, reading the internet third and writing about movies for the internet a quite distant fourth. (Something I hope to "correct" in the coming year.) Part of my interest has been that the Criterion Collection has played a big part in my burgeoning cinephilia -- along with the ever-expanding blogosphere, Netflix, certain friends' eager recommendations and the rep scene I'm starting to pay attention to. The other reason I wanted to write about Pierrot is because the first time I saw it was in Berkeley, at the Pacific Film Archive, while visiting a friend who insisted we go (1) because the film was rare and is hilarious and (2) because film historian David Thomson introduced the film. Ryland has since told me that he was at the same screening.

All I knew going in was it was going to be a cool French New Wave film with jump cuts and widescreen images and a doomed love story. That's what my friend told me at least. What I didn't expect was how funny the film is. There's a lot of sight gags but my favorite may be up front when Jean-Paul Belmondo's Ferdinand, so mad at the banal "party" his wife has dragged him to, winds up throwing cake at her.


That is, until the final moment with cartoon dynamite and Ferdinand's last second realization that he doesn't want to go up in smoke. Of course, he's too late. If love affairs are all about timing, and this film is certainly about love (that is, an idea or myth of love), then Ferdinand is at once a brilliant, terrible, hopeless and athletic romantic-comic. Or maybe that's just Jean-Paul Belmondo. Who, of course, is Godard's stand-in (his ideal or mythic alter ego), who Godard kills with tongue planted firmly in (blue painted) cheek.


It's certainly easy to think of this movie as Godard killing his already-ended marriage to Anna Karina. It's no doubt a turning point for the director, an awakening to new dimensions of cinema's duty to its audience: which is to say to the world. But, of course, part of what makes Godard interesting is how unsubtle his films shift. Things abut, they don't bleed. He's no Eisenstein but his movies rely on juxtapositions so that it's easy to ignore the in-camera mise-en-scene. Think of the central relationship of Pierrot, a cute flake and her hapless devotee. They're doomed from the beginning. They are their own fireworks. Everywhere they go they leave wreckage. They are ill at ease. In one light, they are Godard's cinema, his bi-polar desires for politically and philosophically aware films over against a B-movie impulse for guns and cars and pure sensation. In another light, the couple is simply an argument about what love does to people, how its impulses sway and push and pull and distort and blow up the world.

But they, that perfectly not perfect couple, brim with possibilities. And that's the appeal of the cinema, too. Furthermore: like Godard's cinema, they take and take and take: they steal their way south. Everything they do is commented on as from some place else, be it a movie or a country or a book or a song. Pierrot le fou is a great argument for recycling! How vomiting up your psyche can be sexy! How theft can turn into production! How (not) to fall in love. And how to look good doing it (or not doing it). The bottom line: keep moving. My favorite Godard movies are the ones that insist on pushing forwards. Although kind of brilliant, La Chinoise is like a stuck-in-a-rutt headache, its Leaud analog, Masculin-Feminin, runs all over the place, even if it spends a lot of time indoors. Also fitting that after his Technicolor adventure here with Pierrot he went back to cheap black and white (with Willy Kurant instead of Raoul Coutard lensing) for a more "documentary" approach. In a lot of ways it seems Pierrot le fou, and not Week End, is the real turning point for Godard's career. The last ditch effort to purge the romance from his system before he could concentrate on more rigorously formal, um, "exercises" -- not fun like the old days, the received wisdom tells me. But I seem to miss or refuse to hear those things. I'm certain that as I continue to look beyond the Criterion Collection and the distinctly New Wave period films I'll find yet more rich material from Godard. Except, I'll have to forge ahead knowing he left a lot of that goofy giveaway pop sensibility behind when he traded in Karina for Wiazemsky. In any event, there's bound to be fireworks in my future, just a different style.

cherry cola

Looking at, for and with desire in Contempt.

by Jennifer Stewart

[Part of VINYL IS HEAVY's Bastille Day celebration. Click here to see our index. Click here to view all the entries at once. Ed's note: Jen plans a few revisions which she hopes to finish sooner rather than later but in the spirit of this enterprise, I thought I'd offer her initial thoughts for now since they're a good starting point and valued contribution to our little project here.]


Le cinéma substitue à notre regard un monde qui s'accorde à nos desires. Le Meprise est l’histoire de ce monde.

As Contempt’s camera turns on us, its narrator ends the prologue with this claim about cinema and what awaits us on the other end of the lens. Since seeing this stunning-looking film at the Castro Theatre, on a rare hot evening in San Francisco a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about its self-proclamation. What follows are my current thoughts – still developing, not quite a reading, but some thoughtful rumination on film and desire. If cinema substitutes for our gaze a world according to our desires, one immediate question should be: how does film know what we desire?

The usual answer is that film does this manifestly. Here, we’d say film presents bodies and dynamics we want to see played out because these confirm stories that offer to stabilize desire into objects and roles we can imagine ourselves in. But it doesn’t take much to see how unsatisfying such an answer quickly becomes, especially for a film like Contempt. If anything, Contempt stages conflicts and problems of desire, collateral with problems and conflicts of film-making. We look at Brigitte, to be sure, and we see her as the kind of beautiful thing film can present. But her presentation is exactly the key, for she (and everyone else in the film) is not a character (to be “identified” with or not) so much as a portrait of the consequences of exchanging (or, failing to exchange) the looks that confirm an understanding of loving and/or desiring, and of being loved and/or desired. What happens between Paul and Camille, arguably, is a breakdown in their ability to return a sustained world between them where desire and love is signaled and consummated. In that moment where Paul blithely hands Camille over to Prokosch, sending her alone with him to his villa, Camille shuts off. The camera shows us the whole silent exchange; a watershed moment between this couple, the precipitating consequences thereof which the rest of the film unfolds. What’s beautiful about Contempt is that this visual language of desire is told as embedded in a world saturated with cinema. It presents the texture and reference of cinema everywhere, as living or naturalized mythology on the walls and in the livelihood of its characters. Contempt enriches the idea of a world in which desire occurs, by showing its fragility.

So why not say, film stages not a manifest but a latent constitution of desire. I mean, it is the emblematic form of cinema itself - a camera 'seeing' in a frame - which has effected the substitution, because it provides a world in which our gaze is directed. The substitution then is simply a world exchanged for a framed world: a world scoped out for us. A world showing us where and how to look. Put that way, pornography is cinema’s logical extension, because it leads and places the eye exclusively (in sex acts made graphic on the screen) – you have no where else to look.


Contempt plays with this. Camille makes a game of asking Paul to look at pieces of her in the mirror – her ankle, her knee, he thighs, her breasts, her face – and asks of each how he likes them. They look into a mirror out of shot while the camera roves along Camille’s naked body. In both senses a body is framed before we look upon it as presented for desire. If pornography is one end of this scale of directing the eye, cinema more usually arouses through affective implication: through shots whose vantage points are themselves part of the suspension of a film’s (if you like) meaning. By suspension, I mean an affective pregnancy, of the fact that the experience of watching will quite literally move through our bodies; provoking, stimulating, arousing, paralyzing, dulling. This is to some extent because watching will simultaneously be an active process of conscious and unconscious connections, as we draw out resources with which to track the film. Most of these will be fleeting and flashed, multifarious and peripheral. And, different occasions of viewing a film can triage a different stream of this fluid. My point is that suspension nicely captures how unqualified watching can be. Its affective power lies in this suspension, for it is this affect we resolve or try to tell, when we try to speak (coherently) about a film.

Contempt is a sequence of suspended desire. The film within it trying to be made (The Odyssey) collapses, and the consummation of desire and love between Paul and Camille collapses, but Contempt looks on.