Category Archives: international films

Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven

Even in 2017 there still remains a relative void of criticism surrounding latter day Soviet Cinema available in English. For the most part critical discussions of Russian cinema during the late Soviet period tend to center upon the Gosinko’s repressive policies or the election of Elem Klimov to the position of First Secretary of the Filmmaker’s Union in May 1986 (roughly corresponding with the Glasnost). In auteurist terms, the discourse surrounding Soviet cinema during this period is predominantly concerned with two filmmakers; Andrei Arsenyevich Tarkovsky and Sergei Parajanov. This limited view of Soviet cinema hampers the discourse of either subject since a concise and detailed context remains elusive.

Rada

It is these conditions that prevent me from going in depth with tracing the production history of Emil Loteanu’s lyrical 1975 film Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven. I can however provide a minimum of context by simplifying some aesthetic trends in the Soviet Cinema. Auteurist discourse and the capitalist machine that has come to be an intrinsic part of it would stipulate that Soviet cinema could be divided into three separate schools (by “schools” I mean spheres and/or origins of influence). There is the Dziga Vertov school, the Alexander Dovzhenko school, and of course the Sergei Eisenstein school of filmmaking. By looking at the heritage of Soviet cinema in such broad strokes, categorization of a film becomes relatively simple. If Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven has any relation at all to these three “schools” then it is surely to that of Dovzhenko. Like Dovzhenko, and later Parajanov, Loteanu’s cinema is preoccupied with insular cultures trapped within the USSR. All three filmmakers employ expressionistic camera angles and moves to convey a mysticism that while always remaining ambiguous never loses its inherent familiarity, like reiterations of motifs from almost forgotten fairytales. Loteanu is not as gifted an image maker as Dovzhenko though, nor is he an avant gardist innovator like Parajanov. Emil Loteanu opts to negate controversy and to derive much of the power of his films from his long collaboration with the composer Eugen Doga.

Those familiar with Loteanu’s much more popular international co-production Anna Pavlova (1983) may be surprised that most of the filmmaker’s career was as defined by his literary adaptations as by their music. Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven is a musical; produced during the height of Loteanu’s collaboration with Eugen Doga. In adapting Maxim Gorky’s short stories Makar Chudra and Old Izergil for the screen, Loteanu conjures images of gypsies that look shockingly like those images we have come to associate with European Westerns. This is not entirely surprising when one considers the social and political parallels between outlaws, bandits and gypsies within the two seemingly disparate cultures. Gypsies serve many of the same functions in Russian folklore as Westerns do in American and Western European traditions in terms of providing a romantic depiction of a societal “outsider” and the moral code that both isolates the “outsider” while also drawing the “outsider” into the fabric of our shared moral understandings which, at times, differ from the laws of our society.

Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven

The romantic depictions of gypsy outlaws and their Robin Hood existence are all designed so that within a sequence a musical climax is reached, erupting from fable to musical ecstasy and flamboyance. The economy of images in Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven privileges wide shots that ground characters either within the context of a mass (the gypsy communities) or of a location (urban versus pastoral). Balancing this aesthetic program is Loteanu’s use of POV close-ups. The close-ups in Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven are sensual and emotional, using a shallow depth of field to isolate subjects in the center of frame, confrontationally communicating emotion in a manner that is almost direct address. The spatial discrepancies between wide shots and POV close ups make up a rhythm that coincides with the rising and falling of Doga’s music in the soundtrack. Often the film will, as a scene progresses, speed up the rate of cutting in anticipation of the music and then, once the song has begun, cut to the beat of the music. This dialogue between the auditory and the visual in the film, its ebb and flow, is well suited to the gypsy folk style of music, imbuing the film with an overall sense of folkloric fantasy and the sort of revelry one associates with such spectacles.

Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven finds its most entrancing and memorable images in the scenes between the ill fated lovers Rada (Svetlana Toma) and Zobar (Grigore Grigoriu). The scene where Rada appears almost like a phantom out of a thicket to tend Zobar’s wounds contains the most expressionistic of shots in the film. As Rada approaches Zobar with her hand out, the camera takes a position twenty degrees to her right, with a shallow focus that is sharp only on her hand. This eerie emergence gives way to their sensual exchange as Rada tends Zobar’s wounds, conveying to us, in visual terms, that it is Rada who is seducing Zobar (an interesting role reversal).

Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven

One of the reasons that Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven is not better known in the West today may in fact be due largely to its relative “low-brow” stature and wide commercial appeal. The year Loteanu made Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven also saw the release of Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975). Though Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven may hold the record for the widest release of a Russian film in all of time (and made an international star out of Svetlana Toma), it doesn’t have the intellectual merits of a film by Tarkovsky, which is to say that it can never find its stride with a contemporary Western audience whose motive in seeing most foreign films is predicated by the notion that a foreign film should affirm one’s intelligence and cultural literacy.

-Robert Curry

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under international films

A Quiet Passion

I saw Terence Davies’ film A Quiet Passion (2016) the other day. It was the most thoroughly engaging cinematic experience I have had in the last year. Davies, true to form, grounds his subject within the context of the family unit and, within this context, examines the effects of the passage of time, of human mortality. Unlike his best known works Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), A Quiet Passion focuses on a historical celebrity (Emily Dickinson, played by Cynthia Nixon) and is set in the United States as opposed to Liverpool.

V63A0873.jpg

A Quiet Passion echoes heavily with the influence of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet in its privileging of duration and silence as a means of revealing the interior of characters without relying upon such tired devices as voice-overs. When Davies does employ voice-overs, it is always a recitation of one of Dickinson’s poems as an auditory counterpoint to the visual of the narrative, never as a means of taking the psychological elements of character and perverting it into exposition.

There is also a hint of latter day Robert Bresson to Davies’ sound design in A Quiet Passion, particularly if one recalls Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of Bresson’s Lancelot Of The Lake (1974). If one looks at the scene where Emily Dickinson, her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), and the Wadsworths (Eric Loren and Simone Milsdochter) have tea together one will immediately notice how high the sounds of glasses clinking have been brought up in the mix. These sounds lend a sense of tension to the scene while also making the space more visceral. This tactic prevails throughout A Quiet Passion.

Visually, Davies is at his best in two sequences. First, in showing the passage of time from Emily Dickinson’s adolescence to adulthood via a transformative portrait. Davies seizes the opportunity of each member of the Dickinson family sitting for their portrait as a means of moving the narrative forward in time while also drawing our attention to the technical limitations of 19th century photography and subverting the aesthetic conditions of photography itself. The second sequence is Emily Dickinson’s funeral procession. The unusual perspective born out of unorthodox camera placement, coupled with eerie tracking motions and a detached voice-over lend the scene gravitas without giving way to sentimentality.
This is Terence Davies’ true gift as a filmmaker in my opinion; his ability to construct highly emotive film experiences without ever becoming bogged down by sentimental signifiers or narratives capable of any easy closure. This places Davies within the same vein of filmmaking in terms of sensibilities as John Cassavetes. But unlike Cassavetes, Davies finds the source of his visual language not in social realism or naturalism but within the school of avant-garde formalism. The consistent use of visual tableaus and narrative vignettes are the direct descendants of Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet and Derek Jarman.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under international films

Stanley Kwan & The Death Of Ruan Ling-yu

“Woman’s awareness of herself is not defined exclusively by her sexuality: it reflects a situation that depends upon the economic organization of society, which in turn indicates what stage of technical evolution mankind has attained.” – Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1952

Maggie Cheung as Ruan Ling-yu

Critical discourse typically presents a cinematic celebrity or persona, be it that of a performer, director, producer, etc., in binary terms; either in circumstances of fetishization or philosophication.  Even then, in terms of cinematic depictions, the former far succeeds the latter.  Films such as Larry Peerce’s Wired (1989) present this fetishization in the most trivializing and offensive manner, though, in spite of itself, a highly marketable one.  Few films have been able to transcend this exploitative stance on biographical material concerning actors and filmmakers.  Mark Rappaport’s Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992) is a rare exception.  Unlike most commercial films with similar subjects, Rappaport manages to balance both biographical information with critical investigation.  In Rock Hudson’s Home Movies Eric Farr plays the titular subject, and it is he who walks us through clips collected from Hudson’s filmography and offers us a biographical context, as well as a new perspective with which to view and analyze these selected clips in a context indigenous to the 1990s.  Hence Rappaport’s film tends to be more anthropological than it does anything else.  The approach Rappaport takes towards his subject in terms of technique demands a great deal of the spectator, accounting for why so few have followed in his footsteps outside of the vein of short video essays.  On the surface, Stanley Kwan appears to be marrying both techniques and aesthetics together in his film Actress (1992).  However the cross textual relationship between both sections of Actress complicate such a reading in how one aspect of the film informs the other within a binary complex.  

One part of Actress is set in 1992 and shot on video.  This section charts the legacy of the films subject, Ruan Ling-yu, to varying degrees. The other section of the film follows Maggie Cheung in the part of Ruan Ling-yu reenacting the events that resulted in the famous actress’ suicide in 1935 at the height of her career.  These two different sections are shuffled together, a moment from one section may be echoed in another, and vice versa.  The effect is that Actress is as much about the death of Ruan Ling-yu as it is about how her death shaped her legacy.

Kwan is interested in what Ruan Ling-yu’s persona means and how audiences have come to deal with it.  In American terms one could roughly equate Ruan Ling-yu’s legacy with that of James Dean or Marilyn Monroe.  For Kwan there are two kinds of images at work in Actress; the immediate and the abstract.  The abstract images represent the “immortal” aspect of Ruan Ling-yu’s persona.  These images are collected in the film in the 1992 pseudo documentary section, though they are all of the past.  Each of these images are of Ruan Ling-yu herself, either in clips from her films that coincide with Cheung’s reenacting of their production or from old newspaper clippings.  The images here are of Ruan Ling-yu as she once was and has remained, immortalized by the camera, rendered exclusively to the confines of our collective imagination.  The immediate images represent the mortal part of her persona; the flesh and blood.  This is rendered in Cheung’s performance as Ruan Ling-yu in a fabricated reality born out of Kwan’s imagining of her life.  Here the audience emotes with the character of Ruan Ling-yu as it shares in her experiences; an inclusive experience as opposed to the exclusive experience of the other section.  It is also telling that it is the fiction that is more of a reality to an audience than the reality of Ruan Ling-yu remembered and discussed in the documentary section.

Center Stage

That these immediate images consist primarily of Ruan Ling-yu’s domestic life and her life at work at Lianhua Film Company.  In both contexts (home life and work life) the primary concern is with how a woman navigates societal constructs that are male dominated.  Within the depictions of Ling-yu’s work-life it is also important to note that Kwan goes out of his way to show the audience some of the workings of a production that do note concern Ling-yu; there is no narrative agenda or motivation.  What this enables Kwan to do is to reinforce the notion of male dominance.  The film directors, the cameramen, the gaffers, boom operators, etc. are all male, and each has a hand in constructing the filmic image of the Ling-yu character, defining her persona for the public.  Ling-yu’s work is that of a performer, one of emotion and experience.  The juxtaposition of these two types of creative invention or work epitomize the sexual politics of the early thirties, articulating the presumed roles of both sexes within the societal machine.  Scenes that concern Ling-yu’s love life, her adopted daughter and mother, her first husband and so on reiterate the female’s submissive role at home.  Ling-yu’s stoicism, another societal mandate of the time, during these sections suggest that her work as an actress was the only means of an emotional outlet available to her.

The 35mm film contrasted with video is a more visceral representation of binary complexes at work in Actress.  This can be read as an echo of the immediate and the abstract, the then and the now, the real and fantasy, the male and the female.  The manner as well as the content of the documentary style footage is distinctly more female than the 35mm fantasy of Cheung’s reenactment.  In these sections set in the early 90s Kwan points his camera to Ling-yu’s niece, who knew her, as well as Maggie Cheung, who plays her.  We are given two female perspectives of Ruan Ling-yu.  These perspectives also work within a binary complex.  The intimate and the superficial acquaintance, the domestic and the public persona.  Each woman’s testimony compliments as well as contradicts one another at times, rendering Ling-yu as a more complicated abstract; unknowable.  

The 35mm sections of Actress that interrupt and disperse the video section conforms to a more romanticized perspective.  Kwan shows us imagined reality, a past made tangible, if only briefly, through illusion.  Kwan’s masculine gaze is controlled and effective, taking measures never to trivialize the characters.  One could even argue that his homosexuality, his outsider status in China, allows him to relate to Ruan Ling-yu in a very intimate way, identifying with her feelings of suppression.  Regardless, Kwan is allowed a greater selectivity of the images he shows us in this section since the images are born out of his own creativity and not out of another’s reminiscence or conjecture.  

Ultimately, Actress is concerned with Ruan Ling-yu’s death.  Every aspect of the film has been staged or selected by Stanley Kwan to give a context as to why Ling-yu committed suicide as well as to the legacy that she left behind.  This framework exaggerates the multiple binary complexes within the film as well as presents Ruan Ling-yu as an allegorical figure.  In China, the mark of the end of early cinema is often pinpointed with the death of Ling-yu, just as in American cinema this is pinpointed, more or less, by the release of The Jazz Singer (1927).  That Kwan makes this film and frames it in this historical context at the close of the twentieth century has a good deal to do with his later project Yang+Yin (1996).

Actress

Yang+Yin may be a more traditional documentary feature on the history of Chinese cinema, but it represents the same impetus as Actress.  Looking back at China’s cinematic history from the nineties, in both films, Kwan finds constants in the overall character of his national cinema.  In Yang+Yin Kwan examines these constants from the outside, almost anthropologically, while with Actress he looks first at the human catalyst of cinematic art, focusing on the most iconic and renowned of Chinese film stars.   The sense of mortality in both films is essential to their readings.  Kwan sees Ruan Ling-yu in much the same way as he sees the cinema as a whole; a conflict between immediate expression and its impact with the legacy and reappropriation that that work inevitably will assume with the passage of time.  

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under international films

The Stillness Of The Moving Image

“I read, some days past, that the man who ordered the erection of the almost infinite wall of China was that first Emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who also decreed that all books prior to him be burned.”

– Jorge Luis Borges, The Wall & The Books

La Jetée (1962)

One can find no better example of cinema’s most cherished illusion than in Chris Marker’s landmark work La Jetée (1962).  Marker’s filmography obsesses over humanity’s relationship with time and how that relationship can be articulated within film; La Jetée is no exception.  La Jetée is most commonly analyzed and interpreted within this auteurist context, as a piece of the larger puzzle that is comprised of Marker’s works, indicative of singular interests, concerns and general preoccupations that are often compared with the writings of Henri Bergson and Jorge Luis Borges.  However the technique that first rendered La Jetée as an avant-garde masterpiece has had ramifications that have only begun to be understood and appreciated.

The technique Marker employed in La Jetée that was so controversial was to strip down the illusion of motion in film to its absolute minimum, debunking an illusion that still is essential to the cinema even today.  Marker’s approach, derived equally from the works of Dziga Vertov and Edweard Muybridge, was to tell a non-linear narrative in still images that, when juxtaposed with the preceding and proceeding images, created a suggestion of motion.  Typically this is exactly what film is, 24 frames flying past in a second, each, individually, appearing to be still.  Yet, in a sequence (and to the human eye), appearing to be in motion.  By allowing the images in La Jetée to represent a disjointed sequence Marker was able to get down to the very mechanics of how the mind of the spectator interprets both a sequence and the individual images that make up a sequence’s composition.  In undoing this illusion, Marker has inadvertently opened the doors to a new kind of film scholarship.

One must first consider the history of film, the march of time, that has left so many films of the silent era either in serious stages of deterioration or alternatively in total decomposition.  Then one must consider the history of various assemblages of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927).  The controversy of the Francis Ford Coppola re-release of Napoleon versus Kevin Brownlow’s in the late seventies and how the publicity of the Coppola/Brownlow conflict sparked a renewed interest in silent film.  Finally, one must consider the most radical effect that home video has had on spectatorship in terms of taking the responsibility of film programming out of the hands of distributors (for the most part) and putting it in the hands of the consumer public.

All three of the aforementioned factors have provided a motivation for silent film reconstruction.  Film historians, scholars and academics who once feared for the cinema’s silent heritage suddenly found that “big money” was interested in silent film restoration and reconstruction for monetary gain in both the theatrical and home video markets.

With regards to the nature of film reconstruction, La Jetée merely proved that the aesthetics necessitated by the process of reconstruction would be enough to create an approximation of a fully realized film from its few surviving parts.  For instance, around the time La Jetée was garnering praise, Pera Attasheva began collaborating with Sergei Yutkevich, Naum Kleiman and composer Sergei Prokofiev on a reconstruction of her late husband’s film Bezhin Meadow (1937).  The techniques that made La Jetée groundbreaking were now being used to bring Sergei Eisenstein’s most infamous work to audiences for the very first time.

Bezhin Meadow set a trend in terms of how reconstruction would be approached from a marketing standpoint.  Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) and Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927) would also find new life in the form of reconstruction (in 1999 and in 2002 respectively).  Though the choice of films to undergo this treatment is predominantly dictated by the fact that audiences desire to see these films and will therefore pay money to do so.  In this way the trap of film production is sprung again during reconstruction.  

Bezhin Meadow (1937)

What’s more troubling than this trend is the rare occasion when a reconstruction is attempted without the proper scholarly research.  The reconstructions of Greed and London After Midnight were undertaken and overseen by a reputable film scholar, Rick Schmidlin, so despite their shortcomings they remain the closest approximations of either film possible right now.  On the other hand, Jess Franco’s reconstruction of Orson Welles’ unfinished Don Quixote that was completed in 1992 is best known amongst scholars for having neglected much of Welles’ original intent.  Franco’s version of Orson Welles’ Don Quixote becomes doubly troubling since Franco not only knew and worked with Welles but because he also had access to so much of Welles’ materials in addition to hours upon hours of footage from Welles’ unfinished personal masterpiece.  Since Don Quixote, Greed, and London After Midnight are all marketed in the same manner, it becomes problematic for audiences to discriminate between the useful and the useless reconstructions.

At best a useful reconstruction such as Greed, London After Midnight and Bezhin Meadow gives the spectator a sense of the atmosphere of the narrative world as well as a sense of the filmmakers’ style and technique.  These approximations, no matter the effort nor the skill that is invested in them, can never convey the rhythm of montage, the nuance of performance, nor any subtleties that are typically afforded by either contribution.  These are half films, or ghost films in an almost literal sense.  The eerie quality of most reconstructed films is born out of the lack of their traditional filmic motion (a byproduct anticipated and used to great effect in Marker’s La Jetée).  One can, however, never detract from these reconstructions their usefulness from an anthropological standpoint nor from the perspective of auteurism.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under international films

Rivette’s Histoire de Marie et Julien

I started to write this piece back in November, but put it off for some reason.  Since Rivette’s passing it seemed appropriate to finish it.

Emmanuelle Beart

Marie in the afterlife

There has been a lot of discussion around Rivette’s films lately, a kind of renewed interest or mass discovery by a new generation.  Lincoln Center recently hosted a parallel retrospective of Rivette’s work along with the films of David Lynch, and a few months afterwards the Criterion Collection announced that they would be releasing their first Jacques Rivette title Paris Belongs To Us (1961).  If one wanted, one could even turn the clock back a few years to when International House screened Celine & Julie Go Boating (1974) to trace the gradual acceptance of Jacques Rivette into the mainstream of the American “movie-buff”.  That isn’t to say that J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum haven’t been praising Rivette for decades.  The point is that American distributors have not been ignorant to the fact that the demand for Rivette films on home media has called for very little supply.  Luckily, Rivette’s films are readily available in Region 2 editions from BFI and Artificial Eye.  If you are like myself, that is where you will go to get your fix.  Which brings us as to how I was able to see Histoire de Marie et Julien (2003).

Histoire de Marie et Julien is as deceptive and unpredictable as its title is mundane.  Rivette introduces his audience to a narrative concerning the blackmail of Madame X only to refocus the film onto what was seemingly a subplot at about thirty minutes into the film.  From there the two plots interconnect in the most bizarre fashion until the narrative has become one of the supernatural, a romantic ghost story or an ethereal fairytale for adults.  In terms of his work as a screenwriter the narrative complications and adjustments to emphasis hardly rival those of Out 1 (1971).  That said, Histoire de Marie et Julien manages a fluidity to the sudden shifts of the script so as to render any relationship to genre almost undetectable.  In a 1968 interview with Cahiers du Cinema Rivette himself stated “These are films that tend towards the ritual, towards the ceremonial, the oratorio, the theatrical, the magical, not in the mystical so much as the more devotional sense of the word as in the celebration of Mass.”  Similar to Kenneth Anger in this way, Rivette sees his formalist exercises as a ritual of cinema; a stance he again would reiterate in his writings on Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966).

Histoire de Marie et Julien also continues Rivette’s tradition of creating a duality between his female protagonists, a stylistic trope present in almost all of his works.  But what is more interesting to myself is his ability to elicit such genuine and emotionally frank performances from his leads Emmanuelle Béart (Marie) and Jerzy Radziwilowicz (Julien).  The intensity of the relationship depicted by these performers recalls Rivette’s work in La Belle Noiseuse (1991), which, coincidentally, also starred Emmanuelle Béart.  Rivette has stated a tremendous admiration for John Cassavetes’s work with actors, so it wouldn’t be surprising if Rivette didn’t learn something from Cassavetes’ films.  Still, Rivette is not particularly thought of as an “actor’s director” the way one would consider Cassavetes or Robert Altman.  This is an oversight, probably brought on by the fact that Rivette is such a gifted formalist.  When as early as the development stage of Rivette’s Les Filles du Feu project he is writing about the use of actors in his work, how to push the boundaries of acceptable modes of performance in the cinema.  When one begins to analyze the performances in Rivette’s films it becomes clear that the art of acting is always a primary concern, be it in the more natural vein of La Belle Noiseuse, the lyricality of performance in Histoire de Marie et Julien or the artifice of performance in Celine & Julie Go Boating.

Historie de Marie et Julien

Marie and Madame X (Anne Brochet)

Rivette’s films are complicated, intricate, and spiritual evocations of the cinema’s powers.  Hopefully, with his passing, more of Rivette’s works will become readily available.  A wider appreciation from American audiences is long over due.  And who knows, if Rivette can find an audience in this country, why not Werner Schroeter next?

-Robert Curry

 

Leave a comment

Filed under international films

The Singing Ringing Tree

The following is an excerpt from the upcoming book Cinema Homosexualis by Thomas Lampion.  Part Hollywood Babylon, part Movie Journal, Lampion’s anthology of well researched essays offer a unique glimpse at some of the cinema’s most obscure and misunderstood films.  What unifies these essays as well as these films is their adherence to fantasy; the fantastic.

The Singing Ringing Tree (1957) is one of the most important fairy tale films, second only to Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast as one of the crown jewels of Europe’s legacy to Fairy Tale Cinema. It is a film that rivals, or perhaps matches the psychological pathos of even The Wizard of Oz. What makes The Singing Ringing Tree so original in comparison to its more famous cousins are its very conflicted but intriguing roots. The Singing Ringing Tree is from the world of the Brothers Grimm, the decadent, technicolor product of a rigid Communist Film Industry, the ghosts of German Expressionism and the most primitive but enchanting theatricality.

The Singing Ringing Tree

Walt Disney’s contribution to the genre of fantasy was all prevalent after the silent era had closed, practically inventing the world of fairy tales in a cinematic environment that was inevitably leaning to the guiles of technological advancement in color and sound. After the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937, a question was aroused, could a fantasy be fully evoked and depicted in live action, incorporating color and sound to the fullest possible extent? Could it be just as endearing and engaging as Disney’s cartoons which seemed to have been made from the most potent of magic? Whatever attempt to gage Fairyland were done in response or retaliation to the set norms that Disney had invented and perfected. The Wizard of Oz in 1939 is certainly the first challenge to rise to the occasion, but outside of the Hollywood Studio System, the question still pertained, particularly in the East.

How the communists loathed Walt Disney, with his decadence, his instilling of American Morals in the most European of Folklore. The cinematic factories of the Soviet Union and Communist East Germany could only retaliate by controlling film distribution, only the most advanced in the cogs of Soviet Russia could win a chance at seeing Disney’s films, the Soviets had their own factories rival Disney’s output. With a bevy of their own intrinsic folklore, they were able to churn out hundreds of both animated and live action fairy tale films that seeped into the communist sub-conscious. Some imitated Disney’s inclinations, but the films that survived and endured evolved from a nationalist identity and a left field originality. East Germans perhaps had an easier time travelling beyond the wall to see Disney, but the problems were still the same. The East Germans had inherited the land of the Brothers Grimm, a world filled with its own morals and symbolism, ones that even the most left leaning could hardly gage or agree with, making The Singing Ringing Tree’s existence even more astonishing.

The Singing Ringing Tree steps beyond being merely a product of its time, like so many German films of the 1950’s. According to Quinna Shen’s fantastic book The Politics of Magic, The Singing Ringing Tree was a deeply troubled production. The East German Film Industry had since its invention after the war, relied considerably on West German artists input, however, this notion became hotly contested among the powers that be at DEFA Studios once Francesco Stefani had been hired as a guest director. While the West Germans aesthetic tendencies meant appeal beyond the walls and into the international scene, by 1957, a real concern over the West German input’s lack of political ideology and what they perceived to be capitalist influence was beginning to bristle hairs. The production crew refused to accept any credit or responsibility for the finished product by the time it was released. Many on the film board were less than thrilled with the concept of a Princess as a protagonist, its old fashioned morals of kindness and inner beauty not meeting the changing standards of the studio’s political system.

Many East German Fairy Tale films were done in a droll, literal style, especially if closely supervised by the higher political powers. One aspect that likely crossed hairs was the films very real camp aesthetic, not from the influence of cartoons, but of two centuries of traditional children’s book illustration. While many Fairy tale films of the era evoked a pragmatic naturalism, The Singing Ringing Tree insists on a fantastic world contained in sets, matte paintings and miniatures. This world makes no apologies or concessions’, it is implemented with its own symbolism, setting the stage for emotions of love, jealousy, anger and deception, amplifying it to delirious heights, rivaling even the most American of fantasies. Visually, the film takes almost no real nods to Disney, but in fact, seems to invent its own alarming visual language. No Fairies or mushrooms, no wicked witches or evil step-parents. Maybe what is so alarming about The Singing Ringing Tree is how structurally unorthodox its characters are in comparison to other fairy tale films. One is often taught to believe that to keep a fairy tale film on the right path one must have relatable, endearing characters to engage an audience. This film does the very opposite. Nearly every character until the end is remarkably unlikeable, even despicable. The plot centers round the behavior of a wicked, selfish Princess and an initially fool-hardy Prince Charming. The Princess refuses to marry him, only under the condition that he brings back the Singing Ringing Tree. The tree not surprisingly, is in custody of a wicked dwarf, who turns the Prince into a bear, and the Princess into a hideous hag. We are endeared to these characters over-time, not by song and dance or by cuddly cartoon creatures, but by the very real, and often negative emotions we all feel as children and adults.

The Singing Ringing Tree

The film was a success on both sides of the wall and even around the world. Perhaps the film’s most notorious reputation was in Great Britain. Tired of American Programming involving Bugs Bunny and Westerns, the BBC’s Children’s Programming Division decided to buy the rights to a handful of East German Fairy Tale films as a sort of antidote in the late 50’s and 60’s. The films were so cheaply presented, that they were in fact not even dubbed or subtitled, but merely laid with a voice-over track, narrating the original audio, as if wicked dwarves and paper mache goldfish weren’t quite creepy enough, its well feared, and loved by a generation of British Baby-boomers much in the way The Wizard of Oz was in America.

-Thomas Lampion

Leave a comment

Filed under international films

Proof Of Cinema

“For at least two years I have felt ready to make some theoretical statements about film language in relation to the ‘Underground’ film.  A problem which has held me up is the discrepancy I feel between the actual experience I get from film making and viewing – the erraticness, impulsiveness and irrationality – and the linear logic that emerges from writing about it.  The clarity of a verbal statement creates a misleading feeling of having understood or stablished a set of experiences or phenomena, and one is tempted to let it substitute for the less conveniently comprehended physicality of image-experience.”

-Malcolm LeGrice, 1972

Malcolm LeGrice's Berlin Horse (1970)

Malcolm LeGrice’s Berlin Horse (1970)

an introduction to a set of circumstances

Writing about the cinema in the last couple of years has become increasingly difficult.  When I first began writing about films in a pseudo-professional capacity for CIP late in 2011 the cinema seemed to be a succinct and easily definable medium.  In part this was due to the assignments I had been receiving (usually a retrospective analysis of a “classic” French film), but also the fact that when I had begun writing about the cinema I had just graduated from college.  It was in college, particularly in classes dealing with film history, that the cinema was presented as a broad yet recognizable category of Fine Art that contained within it a series of easily categorizable elements, labels, and genres.  This limited view of the cinema was the gospel, reiterated time and again as a dirge of propaganda.

A year after college and six months into working for CIP some real perspective began to accumulate.  As I continued to make film after film it became increasingly evident that there is a fluidity to the cinema.  One cannot make a film that is exclusively one way or another, nor can one limit one’s self to a singular reading of a film.  Every film is unique in its way; a link in the chain of the career of its author, be it the director, producer, writer or cinematographer.  What’s problematic is that after such a realization that fundamentally redefines one’s notions of the cinema, this realization has a rippling effect.  As one trains one’s mind to interpret and invent the cinema, one begins to find the cinema in places where one was instructed it simply did not exist when one was in college.  Of course I am referring to web-series, American Television,  pop-up installations, fan made photo montages of celebrities on YouTube, etc.  Just as technology permeates every aspect of human existence, so the cinema permeates every aspect of technological existence.  In the last five years the fluidity of the cinema, which struck me as so profound several years ago, has doubled.  The adaptability of the cinema, along with its accessibility, appears to be an expansive force, a global tidal wave crashing over human culture in a rhythm, successive yet sustained.

Michael Snow at the Jack Shainman Gallery in 2013.

Michael Snow at the Jack Shainman Gallery in 2013.

parameters for an argument

In a media environment where labels are quickly becoming void of their original meaning a discussion of cinematic principles is becoming increasingly difficult.  Almost out of necessity I’m tempted to ground the evolution of the cinema of the past fifty years in the context of one filmmaker’s career or another.  Michael Snow would be, in my opinion, the best candidate for such a discussion if I were to go that route.  Never as popular as he deserves to be, Michael Snow’s career charts, almost too perfectly, the modes of cinematic production and its evolution from the “Underground” films of the seventies to the multi-media and video installations of today.  Snow’s voice and aesthetic interests have remained consistent, propelled into new technologies only by Snow’s sincere desire to create.

But to lead such a discussion with Michael Snow as its center piece would only be beneficial to those who have already immersed themselves in a cinema where narrative and the possibility for escapism are not requirements of the cinematographic langue.  To most audiences the requirements of the cinema demand a fabricated reality, a fiction indebted to the conventions of literature.  So the discussion must include filmmakers who have sought to dearrange these popular principles of cinematic convention but who have also, even if only on a theoretical basis, pushed the cinema into uncharted avenues.

The best candidate to open this discussion, who is coincidently one of Michael Snow’s earliest champions, is Jean-Marie Straub.  Born to the same generation as Jacques Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard, Straub’s career goes back to the fifties when he first began collaborating with his wife Danièle Huillet (1936-2006).  Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s films, in a physical sense, are dominated by long static compositions with a minimalist approach to blocking and set design.  Their films represent a distillation of the cinema to its primal elements.  What makes this duo relevant is their consistency in their aesthetic approach that maintained their position as a truly unique force in world cinema for over forty years.

Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub's Sicilia! (1999)

Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub’s Sicilia! (1999)

“this is really a film for children”-Danièle Huillet

It’s important to any analysis of European Cinema, especially German cinema, to bear in mind the tremendous influence Walter Benjamin had on the filmmakers who would originate the French and German New Waves of the sixties.  Despite their birthplaces, Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub have a distinctly German voice to their cinematic expressions; Straub himself was a mentor to Rainer Werner Fassbinder after all.  But in the interest of space and time, it would, perhaps, be helpful to turn to critic/filmmaker Alexander Kluge for an astute summation of the aesthetic principles that he, as well as Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, aspired to.

“A very easy method would be for the audience to stick to the individual shots, to whatever they happen to be seeing at any given moment.  They must watch closely.  Then they can happily forget, because their imagination does all the rest.  Only someone who doesn’t relax, who is all tensed up, who searches for a leitmotif, or is always finding links with the ‘cultural heritage’, will have difficulties.  He’s not watching closely anymore.  What he sees is semi-abstract and not concrete.  It would be a help if he quietly recites to himself what he hears and sees.  If he does that it won’t be long before he notices the sense of the succession of shots.  That way he’ll learn how to deal with himself and his own impressions.”  (Film Comment, Vol. 10, no. 6, 1974)

What Kluge proposes Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub realized in their films.  As I stated earlier, the physical attributes of their work correspond to Kluge’s proposed distillation of cinematic expression.  If one examines one of their later works, Sicilia! (1999), one is struck by how little the film explains with regards to the underlying narrative purpose of the film.  The scenes simply “exist”, and it is in their chronological alignment that meaning can be found.  As with Kluge, this meaning must be manufactured by the audience.  Wrongfully, this approach to narrative cinema is typically referred to as “too intelligent” primarily because a film such as Sicilia! depends so much upon the participation of its audience.

This cinematic model of distillation is similarly at work in Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa Vie (1962).  However, Godard minimizes the involvement of his audience by inserting title cards between each of the scenes or vignettes in Vivre sa Vie.  These title cards, like the chapters in a novel, explain to a minimal degree what it is that the audience is about to see happen, thus allowing the audience to concentrate its attention on the more superficial elements of the film.  Without these title cards Vivre sa Vie would have the effect of Sicillia! or Moses & Aron (1975).  Even more commercial filmmakers, like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, adopted the Kluge/Straub/Huillet approach only to minimize audience participation in different ways.  Fassbinder’s Beware Of A Holy Whore (1971) relieves the audience of some responsibility through the direction of its actors and its fluid cinematography.  The effect of this is Brechtian, thus recognizable and easily contextualized.

This approach to the cinematographic langue is not, by any means, an effort restricted to the generation of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub.  Their influence strongly colored Chantal Akerman’s early narrative efforts Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) and Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978).  Likewise, Hal Hartley makes use of this aesthetic approach significantly, and rather subtly, in his film Henry Fool (1998).  It is at the core of this aesthetic that the audience must, to a degree, join the filmmaker in authoring the film itself.  In contrary to the belief that such a mode of cinematic expression is “too intelligent”, these films, and this style in particular, remain one of the most accessible of the cinema.  So much so that Danièle Huillet, in the first issue of the British film magazine Enthusiasm, once observed that her film with Jean-Marie Straub, Not Reconciled (1965) was “really a film for children”.

Jean-Luc Godard's film Passion (1982)

Jean-Luc Godard’s film Passion (1982)

“all art may be seen as a mode of proof”-Susan Sontag

In the Summer/Autumn issue of Moviegoer published in 1964, Susan Sontag outlined the aesthetic impact of Godard’s Vivre sa Vie.  It’s safe to say that at this point America was unaware of Alexander Kluge, Danièle Huillet, and Jean-Marie Straub.  Regardless, Sontag pinpoints their desired cinematic intent and puts it very succinctly when she terms it “proof”; a cinema of proof.  By contrast, all other commercial cinema not conforming to the aesthetics proposed by Kluge and Sontag belong to the cinema of analysis (“analysis” is the word Sontag chose as the opposite of “proof” in her article).

A cinema of proof today seems almost impossible.  Consider the period critics refer to as the Second French New Wave (1978-1984).  Filmmakers Alain Resnais, Eric Rohmer and Jean-Luc Godard are finding renewed commercial success with their films, films that have remained as provocative and innovative as Breathless (1960) was many years before.  Godard, the most internationally marketable filmmaker of the three, found his success short-lived in the market of the “blockbuster spectacle” when he released Passion (1982).  Passion, despite its self, remains one of the finest examples of what we have in this essay been terming the cinema of proof.  It’s a film that employs the tactics of Straub and Huillet with the wit to dissociate the audience from the would-be protagonist (played by Hanna Schygulla) and re-associate them with the director (played by Jerzy Radziwilowicz) by means of a shared experience (audience contribution equated with traditional film authorship).  In this way Godard’s Passion succeeds where Michelangelo Antonioni’s Identification of A Woman (1982) stumbles.  Still, neither film found any success beyond the critics and champions of these filmmakers.

Consider now that a cultural environment existed in the sixties and seventies that allowed a cinema of proof to flourish, and compare those conditions with the needs audiences tax upon their different forms of media today.  A cinema of proof would be impossible.  If the sixties were Godard’s golden period (in terms of success) then the 2010s would be the age for Luc Moullet’s drastic reappraisal.

Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers (2009)

Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (2009)

“illness always has a few beneficial side effects”-Gilles Taurand

From the perspective of 2015 the idea of a cinema of proof seems an almost Romantic notion.  I’ve read that Jean-Marie Straub considered his films (and thusly those films that follow the same aesthetic guidelines) to be “eternal” in both their simplicity and accessibility.  His notions, however, are dependant on an audience willing to invest what Kluge fondly referred to as their “imagination” into the film viewing process.  In 2015 technology along with the speed of daily life prohibits that kind of investment, relegating this would-be utopian cinema to a kind of touchstone by which to asses the success of other films in incorporating the audience into an intellectual dialogue.

Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (2009) utilizes Straub’s aesthetic in literal terms but its sheer gross-out spectacle leaves little room for the imagination.  Similarly, the films of Andrea Arnold come close to this but always back off to safer narrative convention in the third act, as if the climax of her films would be too difficult for audiences otherwise.  The distillation championed by Straub could still find renewal in a form of new technology, in which case an entire reassessment of aesthetic models would be mandatory in order to better calibrate the juxtaposition between manufactured image and spectator.  What Straub gives us today is a kind of looking-glass through which cinema may be measured and accounted for in certain areas.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under international films