Wednesday, April 29, 2009

SFIFF52 #3: Oblivion + Bullet in the Head

by Mark Haslam

The subject of Heddy Honigmann's new documentary, Oblivion (El olvido), which I saw yesterday afternoon, is broad to say the least: maybe we can call it a history of Peru's modern politics, or an account of the many, many follies of the Peruvian government, or, just, Peru. Honigmann tells the country's story through its people, their memories and their frustrations and their dreams. The camera follows them, integrates itself, for a day or two, into their lives. Among the bartenders and waiters, shop-owners and leather workers, shoe-shiners and panhandlers that populate Oblivion, the most enigmatic to me were the street performers: boys and girls that cartwheel and juggle and handstand through crosswalks, in front of idling cars, hoping to get money from the passengers looking out of their windshields. The dynamic of these moments is amazing. Aren't we like the idling onlookers we movie-goers chastise for penny-pinching? And when they do give money, are they just doing it because of the camera, to look good? But then, aren't the people in the cars the same ones telling this story? So much happens in these crosswalks, as in every other moment of the film: each shot a rich history; each memory, each anectdote a loving cry.

I went to Jaime Rosales's Bullet in the Head for two reasons: one, I'd heard that audiences had been walking out of it in droves, that it was 'difficult'; two, I couldn't get in to see Greenaway's Rembrandt's J'accuse. The 'difficulty' of Bullet is that there is no dialogue: the camera takes an embodied position, so that its position, which is always distanced from our main character, can't hear what anybody is saying. The narrative becomes a document of this man's daily life. Here he is with a friend in a cafe, there using a public telephone, here now at a party, going home with a woman, driving a car, etc. Yet these don't seem like 'difficult' concepts to me: space and voyeurism have been brought to higher levels of consciousness in film many times. Then again, I think (and the film gives you plenty of space to think) that 'voyeurism' might not be the right word—and here enters some 'difficulty'. We don't feel as though we're looking in on a life. The shots are too composed, all too orchestrated, don't feel at all like surveillance. Of course, a film like Rear Window is carefully composed—but there voyeurism lays beneath narrative; isn't, as here, the narrative itself. Moreover, a level of terror enters into each shot because of the title, which announces an event we think we know will happen. But do we want to see it? What agency do we have to not see it apart from leaving the theater all together? We're not voyeurs at all. We're not looking in, we're being shown, being made to watch. It terrorizes its audience, and I wasn't sure how I felt about. It seemed a different kind of terrorizing than that of, say, Michael Haneke, who deals with many of the same issues as Rosales. Where Haneke, for me, is a great success, I'm not sure about Bullet in the Head. I need to give it some space.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

SFIFF52 #2: Tulpan

by Mark Haslam

hold it high

Camel hooves, a cloud of dust, and a modest yurt on Kazakhstan's vast, desolate Hunger Steppe. Inside the yurt, Asa is describing the terrible sea creatures he probably didn't see during a spell in the Russian Army. To one side of him is his goofy, fidgety friend, nodding along to every word, laughing with his gold teeth; to the other side and rather stern is his brother-in-law, a sheep herder in whose home Asa's crashing. He is speaking to the parents of a young girl, Tulpan, that he desperately wants to marry. The listeners either aren't impressed, or don't have much time for emotion. Tulpan, whose eye flashes briefly from behind a curtain (this is about as much as we and Asa will see of her), is also unimpressed. To Asa, the rejection means more than lost love: his dream of a yurt and a herd and a family of his own, a dream drawn on the underside of his collar, depends on his having a wife. This is the only way he'll be given a herd. This is the only way to pursue his aspirations.

Tulpan is the document of Asa's pursuit. It seems fitting to call it a document, because director Sergey Dvortsevoy focuses just as readily on the land and space around as on character and drama. (Dvortsevoy has made several documentaries, all of which I now want to see.) It is, after all, the land that houses Asa's dreams and frustrations. Dirt kicked up clouds the camera, and we see nothing beyond, are forced into the foreground and into the present. Or, gazing off into the distance, we see everything, which, here, is nothing. And yet, through Asa's eyes, the vastness, the emptiness of the steppe becomes exceedingly beautiful. I couldn't help but dream, while watching the film and even a little now, about a perfect life on the Hunger Steppe....

So much of what makes this life appealing is the animals. Not only are they charming as hell, snorting and snarling and rambling about, but they introduce a level of spontaneity that allows Dvortsevoy's style to flourish, enhancing the sense of documentation that powers the film. In my books, the long sequence of a ewe giving birth on its own makes Tulpan worth seeing.

a globe

I saw it last night at the Kabuki. It plays there again on Thursday. Tomorrow, watch out for Heddy Honigmann's Oblivion, which is playing for the last time. I will be there, and I think I might camp out to see Wild Field and Rembrandt's J'accuse later in the day. It's gonna be a long one!

keep it close

[A note: In case you miss it at SFIFF52, Tulpan will begin playing in the Bay Area May 8th as you can see here at the Zeitgeist Films website.]

Monday, April 27, 2009

SFIFF52 #1: The Weekend

by Mark Haslam


I spent a good week staring at the line-up for the San Francisco International Film Festival, trying to decide what to see, what to skip. Making the decision to not see something, however, was near-impossible, especially with some 150 films from across the globe screening. So, as the fest kicked off last Thursday, I chose to not choose, to not plan. Instead, I'll wake up each morning, see what's playing, and, with perhaps some light research, pick a film to see. I'll report back here with my thoughts and my hopes that you in the Bay are enjoying the SFIFF52 as much as I am.

On Friday I caught Jonathan Parker's (Untitled), a satire of the contemporary art and music scenes. The film fails, I think, where most such satires fail: laughs come from a facile immediacy, from pointing at contemporary art as funny, silly, and stupid in and of itself. Parker knows the dedication that most of these artists have (being an avant-musician himself for many years), not to mention the sense of humor many artists have about their works. But the film misses these things. And when it tries to show them, we've been distanced too much to see the characters as anything but parodies—and ultimately too distanced to care.

Catherine Breillat's new film, Bluebeard, has two threads: one, a version of, “Charles Perault's 17th-century fairytale about a gloomy nobleman with a penchant for murdering his wives,” in Richard Avila's words; and two, a young child (named Catherine) with a penchant for tormenting her squeemish older sister by reading the gruesome story. A double story of sisters—two from the Perault story, two reading—the film wonderfully, subtely, Breillat-ly marries sexuality, wit, and self-consciousness. I'd like to write more extensively on Bluebeard, and I'd like people to see it. There's one last chance, this Wednesday. If it helps, check out Daniel Kasman's words after the film's World Premier in Berlin.

A new print of Antonioni's amazing, rarely screened 1955 film, Le Amiche, is a highlight of the Festival. It plays again on Tuesday at the PFA. It's Antonioni. Go.


[A note: Don't forget to check out further, different SFIFF52 coverage from VINYL buddies Brian Darr and Michael Guillen and Darren Hughes as well!]

Sunday, April 26, 2009

HUNGER vs the infotainment telesector

by Steven Boone + Ryland Walker Knight

[A note: Some of you out there may already be hip to this video through its appearance on SpoutBlog last week. If it's news to you, feel free to click that link and see it there. We embed it here because, besides the obvious friend trumpeting, well, we think it's great. It's the kind of stuff we would like to see more of here (and elsewhere on this interweb). Below you can read Steve's typically on-point intro, which we, perversely, of course, have made our follow-up context for the images above. We've done this for the simple fact that we like the idea that their relationship can be switched, flipped, overlaid, uprooted, found and forged in new ways. We find this fact to be self-evident. And, as members of this fancy web, a right of (even a will to) our power. We know this power is miniscule; we do what we can.]

little spaces

In the 1996 book Jihad vs. McWorld (1), political science braniac Benjamin Barber coined the term “infotainment telesector” to describe the conglomerates controlling print journalism, television, music, film and advertising. He could have just said, “the media,” but noooo. Infotainment telesector sounds like something from ’50s sci-fi, but its weird, metallic ring is just about right for 2009. In a social climate where no one bats an eyelash at baseball stadiums named after rapacious banks, we are living out previous eras’ dystopian visions of the future. It’s just hard to tell because everybody’s so animated, far from dehumanized, and we have a participatory comfort toy Orwell and the others couldn’t predict,the Internet (2).

In the following video appreciation of the acclaimed art film Hunger, I don’t deal with Barber’s work at all but use his clanky term to evoke what British artist Steve McQueen’s film is up against: A metronome set by the infotainment telesector that nearly everybody, even those artists who proclaim themselves radical (or disengaged) outsiders, marches to. It’s a spectacular con, and so many of us are falling for it, but not McQueen. He’s in a minority of filmmakers worldwide who let their images and sounds move at a natural pace.

What the hell am I talking about? What’s a “natural” pace?


(1) Read the original 1992 article by Barber by clicking here and heading over to The Atlantic's surprisingly well archived internet back catalogue.

(2) You gotta love that Andy Rector put this Daney-tennis-Godard-slaphappy-Lewis bit together right around the same time.

Friday, April 17, 2009

A conjunction of quotations #4

— edited by Ryland Walker Knight

Banister Barrier
The Yards

Work is a part of life. expression of life.
Orson Welles

When I began writing, I always said to myself that my ideas were very shallow; that if a reader saw through them, he would despise me. So, I disguised myself. I disguised myself, in the beginning—I try to be a 17th Century Spanish writer with a certain knowledge of Latin. My knowledge of Latin was quite slight; I do not now think of myself as a 17th Century Spanish writer; and my attempts to be Sir Thomas Brown, in Spanish, failed upwardly. So, perhaps, I evolved a quite dozen fine sounding lies. Of course, I was out for purple patches. Now I think purple patches are a mistake. I think they are a mistake because they are a sign of vanity. And so the reader thinks of them as being a sign of vanity. And if the reader thinks of you, and he thinks of your modern affects, then there is no reason, whatever, whether he should admire you or put up with you. Then, I fell into a very common mistake: I did my best to be, of all things, modern. Now, there is a character in Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Lehrjahre [Apprenticeship]—the character says, "Well, you may say of me what you like, but no one will deny that I am a contemporary." Now, I see no difference whatever between that quite absent character in Goethe's novel and the wish to be modern, because we are modern. We all have to strive to be modern. It is not a case of subject matter, of style.
Jorge Luis Borges

Maria Callas is someone I can understand. That kind of solitude, of being alone in the world and wanting to be loved...I believe in love, not ideas, nor intelligence. Look where ideas got us! How can anyone believe in ideas after the Shoah? We must be wary of intelligence. This is another paradox, isn't it? Just like Guillaume and Rivette! It is very important to resist. One must always resist. That's what I am, above all: A resister. I will always resist ideas.
Guillaume Depardieu

All my life I’ve been harassed by questions: Why is something this way and not another? How do you account for that? This rage to understand, to fill in the blanks, only makes life more banal. If we could only find the courage to leave our destiny to chance, to accept the fundamental mystery of our lives, then we might be closer to the sort of happiness that comes with innocence.
Luis Buñuel

It is the dirty secret of all architecture, even the most debased: deep down all architecture, no matter how naïve and implausible, claims to make the world a better place.
Rem Koolhaas

There are two basic ways that a filmmaker can relate to film history: to work within an existing tradition or to proceed more radically as if no one else has ever made a film before. I think it would be safe to say that at least 99% of the films we see in theaters are made according to the first way. The Danish narrative filmmaker Carl Dreyer and the American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage are two of the rare exceptions who might be said to have followed the second way. Even though they too both worked to some extent in existing traditions, their principles of editing and camera movement and tempo and visual texture are sufficiently different to require viewers to move beyond some of their own habits as spectators in order to appreciate fully what these filmmakers are doing artistically. Without making such an effort at adjustment, one’s encounters with the films of Brakhage and Dreyer are likely to be somewhat brutal in their potentiality for disorientation.

Ghatak, I believe, is another rare exception who followed the second route I have described, and one who provides comparable challenges of his own. And his methods of composing soundtracks for his films as well as his ways of interrelating his sounds and images are among the things I would point to first in order to describe his uniqueness as a filmmaker. One might conclude, in other words, that he reinvented the cinema for his own purposes both conceptually, in terms of his overall working methods, and practically, by rethinking the nature of certain shots he has already filmed—–specifically, by starting and/or stopping certain kinds of sounds at unexpected moments, sometimes creating highly unorthodox ruptures in mood and tone.

It might be argued that these ruptures were not necessarily intentional. At least I’ve found no acknowledgment of them or of many of Ghatak’s other eccentric filmmaking practices in his lectures and essays such as “Experimental Cinema,” “Experimental Cinema and I,” and “Sound in Cinema,” all collected in Rows and Rows of Fences: Ritwik Ghatak on Cinema (Calcutta: Seagull, 2000). But by the same token, I find little if any acknowledgment by Carl Dreyer of his unorthodox editing practices in his own writings. And the issue of artistic intentionality remains a worrisome one in any case, because artists aren’t invariably the best people to consult about their own practices, and it can be argued that what artists do is far more important (at least in most cases) than what they say they do. And the radical effect of Ghatak’s ruptures in his soundtracks strike me as being far better illustrations of his manner of reinventing cinema than any of his theoretical statements. To put it as succinctly as possible, they reinvent cinema precisely by reinventing us as spectators, on a moment-to-moment basis, keeping us far more alert than any conventional soundtrack would. And this makes them moments of creation in the purest sense.
Jonathan Rosenbaum

Any passion that is not eternal is hideous.

If I had not existed, someone else would have written me, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, all of us. Proof of that is that there are about three candidates for the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. But what is important is Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not who wrote them, but that somebody did. The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates is important, since there is nothing new to be said. Shakespeare, Balzac, Homer have all written about the same things, and if they had lived one thousand or two thousand years longer, the publishers wouldn’t have needed anyone since.
William Faulkner

I don't feel that the cinematograph was just a way of putting the present in a box for the future. There is in these [Lumiere's] films a recreation of the atmosphere of the period that is exactly what we love today in Godard. When we look at the very first films, they're almost all extraordinary. You feel like using the word "genius." But these cameramen weren't geniuses—they were helped by the fact that technique was still difficult. I find more fantasy in certain Lumiere films than in paintings that aspire to fantasy. It's the creation of a world that exists in reality, but also of a world that exists in the imaginations of Theodore Rousseau or the Lumiere cameramen. The angle chosen by the cameraman — a humble servant of reality—is the work of his unconscious talent. Many great works of art are the result of the unconscious. I would even say that when a film we've made works, it's in spite of us.
Jean Renoir

And though it may be madness, I will take to the grave
Your precious longface
And though our bones they may break, and our souls separate
- why the long face?
And though our bodies recoil from the grip of the soil
- why the long face?
Joanna Newsom

Just because a person's dead doesn't mean they've changed.
Bette Davis

To digress briefly, because this is a very nice little story: there was an old professor of film giving a course on direction, and he showed Dreyer's film The Word (1954) to his students. At one moment, a few of the students laughed during the film, and after the end of the film, the professor said to them: ‘Look, if you start laughing when you hear the word 'God,' you're never going to make a film.’

I tell this story because filmmaking is a very real and serious profession. Serious means heavy, and sometimes the weight of things can be very heavy. The weight of feelings is something to handle with balance and common sense, and so we must never laugh when somebody speaks about God or the Devil. In effect, when we speak of God or the Devil in cinema, we're speaking about good and evil, we're talking about people. We're speaking about ourselves, about the Devil and the God in us, because there's no God up on high, and no Devil below.

It's correct because all the things in front of you, all the themes that you can try to film in your lives as directors, these are always very serious things, even the comedies or the gags that Chaplin filmed. These are always very serious things which, at bottom, are related to good and evil.
Pedro Costa

I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking. What I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. . . .What is going on in these pictures in my mind?
Joan Didion

I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls
Animal Collective

Many things have happened to me, as to all men. I have found joy in many things—for example in swimming, in writing, in looking (at a sunrise or a sunset), in being in love, and so on. But somehow the central fact of my life has been the existence of words and the possibility of weaving those words into poetry.
Jorge Luis Borges

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach, where death begets art.

by Ryland Walker Knight


One of the first film nerd moments in New York back in January was the opportunity to see this Straub-Huillet piece projected big and loud at the Walter Reade. Given my transient status that month, it took me a little longer to finish a piece on the film. Long enough so that Kasman decided to sit on the piece until now. I like to think it's more than a space filler and implore you to click right here and gauge for yourself.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Looks that scar. Or, Once there were eyes.

by Ryland Walker Knight

If you've seen Once Upon A Time In The West before, you'll recognize these dazzling blue eyeballs as some of the most sadistic peepers to hit a screen. If you remember this flashback, you will remember that they are alarmingly gleeful, and their appearance is blink-quick, punctuated by a slow-mo fall into dust by the younger version of Charles Bronson's Harmonica. You will also remember this flashback is the clue to why he's named Harmonica; or, at least, why he wears a harmonica. What's cool about a harmonica is that it's a wide instrument split into sections, or frames, of sound. You could say the same thing about cinema. Also, Fonda gets his comeuppance in a splendid composition.

Spoiler? Not really. This is Leone we're talking about here. You don't watch it for the plot, really. Or, you shouldn't; you should watch for how wide screen it is, how super saturated the frame is with color and activity and blood. I watch it for the geometry.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Convergence for your weekend (4/11/09)

by Ryland Walker Knight

repo yo easter eggs

borges is so money

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

April showers: a grab bag of links and hints, plus a question.

by Ryland Walker Knight

Wow, this is counterintuitive. But it's a treat nonetheless since the film has no Region 1 DVD. I went ahead and embedded the film here but you should definitely watch it full screen, and loud. It deserves to be seen just like its title declares (asks?) it to be. That way, the outsized colors that feed this melodrama will pack more punch and, we hope, shock you into a powerful feeling. I saw the film last summer before my Telluride trip (see the bottom and the comment thread of this post) and it kick-started a Nick Ray fascination that has only grown since (a recent example). In fact, I've had my favorite of his films, On Dangerous Ground, at home from Netflix for a little too long now. I sure would like to write something coherent about it, but that will probably have to wait since I'm on the hook for a long-form piece about James Gray for a certain publication to be named later. In any case, watch James Mason shiver and rant his way through an illness and addiction whose consequences hit home in more ways than one. New media, baby. It'll take over your life. Get it?

look away

And, a reminder: my last Dreyer Diary shall hit The Notebook shortly, I'm told, and the link will appear in the link dump post below. While I'm here: March was rough stuff for a variety of reasons but the Dreyer films were a fine project to keep my brain active. I'm happy I met the films on the big screen (as with this Ray above, and On Dangerous Ground) since each is meant to be felt with the eyes (as a portal to the heart). For what it's worth: Ordet was/is my favorite. I'd like to write about it again, and better, some day. It has a lot to give. And, to reiterate what I tweeted @ Brian, all that nonsense comparing Silent Light to Ordet misses the fact that, plot point be damned, Reygadas' project is much more about tactility whereas Dreyer's project is about reorientation. You can find the perfect example of this shifting of perspective begin at the 3:55 mark in the clip below. (It occurs to me that I should say this comes a little late in the film, and that I should issue a spoiler warning for those concerned with such things.)

video unavailable; maybe again, some day, in a different form

What's really cool about On Dangerous Ground is that it's about both! I might say that those two films, along with some Hitchcock and Buñuel, are my favorites of the 1950s. I know it's a rich decade, as every one is, and that I cannot compare with some cinephiles' viewing history, but, are there any takers? Or, what's your favorite Nick Ray picture? And, for that matter, which Dreyer?

hit me

—Do we still have readers out there in the sphere? Can I provoke a response? To echo our stooly mope above: hit me.