Tag Archives: aesthetics

A Pair Of Book Reviews

On Tuesday, May 9th, 2017 two stories broke on my facebook feed. One was from indiewire that detailed David Lynch’s “retirement” from making films (2006’s Inland Empire is to be his swan song). The second appeared courtesy of the Sydney Film Festival blog and explained why Martin Scorsese believes that the cinema is dead. If one is to take the statements of these two filmmakers at face value than the forecast for motion pictures seems to be pretty dire. However, it seems to me that both filmmakers are speaking with too much haste.

Desiree Gruber, David Lynch and Kyle Maclachlan in Paris

It is true that the mainstream of Western film production is relatively bankrupt. I myself have gone on and on about the irredeemable qualities of the current Hollywood franchises. Yet, this corner of the cinema, the one that dominates our media intake online and on television, represents only a fraction of what the cinema is today. One cannot gauge the current state of affairs in the cinema by using something like the Academy Awards or the Cannes Film Festival as a barometer. Films from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia all indicate innovation and progress in the tradition of such renowned filmmakers as Fritz Lang, Elaine May, Stanley Kwan, John Cassavetes, Ousmane Sembène, Nagisa Oshima, Alan Clarke, Béla Tarr, and Abbas Kiarostami just for starters. Not to mention the legions of underground filmmakers working in the U.S., Great Britain, France, Canada, etc. This, the underground, is where the majority of films are being made today (this leaves out, of course, the iconoclastic filmmakers still working within the mainstream that Lynch and Scorsese have given up on such as Jim Jarmusch, Andrea Arnold, Terence Davies, Atom Egoyan, Claire Denis, Charles Burnett, and Abel Ferrara; to name just a few).

As someone who works as an educator in the medium of film I can attest to a continued interest in the history of world cinema amongst my students. During this last semester I had a student who made weekly trips to his public library to rent Criterion Collection DVDs. I also had a student who, at age 16, had already made two documentaries and has decided she would like to focus on making some comedic short films. I was also fortunate enough to work with some acting students on two short film adaptations of works by Hal Hartley and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. So as far as I can see, the cinema is nowhere near dying off anytime soon.

In the interest of preserving the cinema I would like to recommend two books on the cinema. I often wish I could assign more readings to my students during the time I have with them, but the length, the specificity and some of the academic language of these books would render them inaccessible to my students in the context of the classes I teach. So I will relate some thoughts and reflections concerning these two publications to those who read this blog instead (which, to my delight, does include some former students).

Fassbinder and Thomsen

The first text I would like to address is Christian Braad Thomsen’s Fassbinder: The Life & Work Of A Provocative Genius. First published in 1991, Thomsen’s piece is unique in the realm of studies surrounding Fassbinder’s work in so far as Thomsen actually knew Rainer Werner Fassbinder quite well and can offer some qualified analysis of his films. The title speaks to Thomsen’s regards for Fassbinder and the text makes quite an argument in support of those regards.

Unlike the work of Wallace Steadman Watson, Thomsen succeeds in contextualizing Fassbinder’s work in the theatre within his filmography. Drawing on aesthetic and political similarities, Thomsen paints a clear portrait of Fassbinder’s artistic development in both mediums. Their mutual friendship also gives Thomsen some unique insights into the more psychological readings of films such as Fassbinder’s segment in the anthology film Germany In Autumn, In A Year With Thirteen Moons and other personal films. Thomsen also brings the importance of the novels Effi Briest and Berlin Alexanderplatz as narrative influences to clearer light, going so far as to identify character types outlined by these two novels that find their echoes as early in Fassbinder’s career as Love Is Colder Than Death.

The true highlight of Thomsen’s book is the close analysis of Fassbinder’s more avant-garde films and videos such as Bremen Coffee, Nora Helmer, The Journey To Niklashausen, Pioneers In Ingolstadt and Eight Hours Are Not A Day. These titles in particular are often overlooked in studies of Fassbinder.

Thomsen’s weakness as a writer, and this may be due to the fact that the text is translated from Danish, is in the prose style. There are a number of instances where the language is casual, lending the text an air of amateurism that I am sure is quite unintentional. This style maybe appropriate for the anecdotal elements of the book, but it reads poorly in the sections of concentrated and deliberate analysis of specific works. That said, while Thomsen’s book is a highly informative and accessible piece of literature on the subject of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, it is not as exhaustive in its presentation of information on Fassbinder as The Anarchy Of The Imagination, published by PAJ Books in 1992.

Ms. 45

The second publication I will address exists on the total opposite end of the spectrum of the literary discourse of the cinema. Nicole Brenez’s Abel Ferrara, published in 2007 as part of the University Of Illinois Press’ series on contemporary filmmakers, is an entirely scholarly piece of writing and represents the best of what film academia has to offer in the way of auteurist theory. The structure of Brenez’s book is to present a close analysis of Ferrara’s films in the first half, ending with a second half that is a transcription of a question-and-answer session following a screening of the film ‘R Xmas at the highly regarded Cinémathèque Française in 2003. By structuring her text in this manner Brenez allows her subject to support her own interpretations of his work in his own words, though in a less detailed and more casual conversational context.

Brenez’s book looks at all of Abel Ferrara’s films from Driller Killer to The Blackout in varying degrees of detail. The films that receive the most attention are Ms. 45, Bad Lieutenant, The Addiction, Bodysnatchers, The Funeral, New Rose Hotel, and The Blackout. Brenez’s exhaustive and highly specific analysis of these films is singular in film scholarship. The kind of thorough and detailed readings Brenez offers us of Ferrara’s films cannot be found elsewhere. Abel Ferrara is a filmmaker who is, for the most part, largely ignored within the discourse of film, often surfacing as a topic of interest in a limited capacity primarily in general overview studies of American Independent Filmmaking and its history.

Perhaps the most delightful portion of Brenez’s work on Ferrara is her analysis of the “time image” in relation to The Addiction. Brenez very successfully argues that the shared traumas of war and genocide in the 20th century are in fact what prompts the highly allegorical vampirism of The Addiction’s narrative. Not only that, but she successfully ties in the commentaries on society found within Bodysnatchers and King Of New York as being earlier iterations of the same social analysis found in The Addiction. Likewise, Brenez’s investigation into the modes of character duality in Ferrara’s Dangerous Game, Bad Lieutenant, Ms. 45, The Funeral and The Blackout is equally as impressive.

Brenez is wise in her analysis not to look to hard at Ferrara’s filmic influences. Often these kinds of studies on specific filmmakers become bogged down in the auteurist trap of tracing influences as a kind of aesthetic genealogy.  The weakness of Brenez’s book is that, for a few readers at least, the language is extremely academic and the prose highly refined and elaborate.

John Huston, Orson Welles, and Peter Bogdanovich
In conclusion I would like to return to the catalyst for this piece and discuss briefly my approach to writing this post. Originally I was going to open this piece with a quote from Orson Welles taken from This Is Orson Welles  concerning the nature of film in academia. But given the bleak forecastings of David Lynch and Martin Scorsese I think that the discourse that these two publications represent as well as the example of Orson Welles will dispel any anxieties surrounding the future of the cinema. Consider that these publications represent only a minute sampling of the literature on the subject of film. Then consider that Orson Welles spent the last decade of his life trying to complete a number of films that remain unfinished and yet he never lost hope nor did he ever give up. The cinema is alive and well, without a doubt.

-Robert Curry

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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

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Christian Wolff & The German Cinema

The influence of Protestantism and the Aufklärung cannot, as so often is the case, be neglected in the analysis of German, Hungarian, Austrian, Dutch, Latvian, Polish, Lithuanian, and Swedish cinemas.  Philosophical concepts took root under the Prussian and German Empires of the 19th century, derived from Protestant theologians, that would have ramifications running through to the 21st century.  Despite inevitable changes in government over the course of two centuries, the popular ideas of the 18th century have become so rooted in the psychology of these masses that they have evolved.  Germany, whose history is perhaps the most well-known of these European nations, gives evidence that the ideas that first took root in the late 1700s continued to dictate practice and the motive for these practices through the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, to its contemporary federal parliamentary republic.  The “ideas” at work here are those of Christian Wolff and his predecessor Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz.

EFFI BRIEST

In these Germanic nations Pietism and the Aufklärung (or Enlightenment) captured the zeitgeist simultaneously and would continue in their development on a parallel course.  However, by the 19th century, philosopher Christian Wolff’s notions of “pure logic”, born out of this congruent development, had become widely accepted.  Wolff, building upon the earlier work of Leibnitz, proposed that the world at large operated as a machine, and that human beings, endowed with a soul, seek to understand themselves, their surroundings, and ultimately gain control of these things through that understanding.  That is to say that the more completely one understands a thing, the more complete one’s pleasure becomes, and vice versa.  This emphasis on “pleasure” stems from the influence of Pietism, whose symbiotic relationship with the Enlightenment is entirely unique to these regions of Europe.

By the early 1800s Wolff’s emphasis of knowledge (“understanding’), and the cold analytical means by which he believed that knowledge could be achieved, had become part of the bureaucratic machinery propelling not only the Prussian and German Empires, but also the Austrian-Hungarian Empires.  In the latter works of Theodor Fontane, particularly Effi Briest (published in 1894) and the characterization of Innstetten, one can find these principles of Wolff’s logic as elements of characters existing in autocratic positions of authority in which such elements of character are derided for the benefit of comic relief and social satirizing.

It is from this point that I wish to leap into a cinematic comparison between the character of Innstetten (Wolfgang Schenk) in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 cinematic adaptation of Fontane’s novel with that of Inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) in Fritz Lang’s M-Eine Stadt Sucht Einen Mörder (1931).  Both characters, despite some unique neurosises, represent characterizations of the infamous “cold German logic”, a character trope popular with audiences internationally, born out of Wolff.  It speaks volumes that in 1931 elements of Wolff was still so much a part of the German political machine that it should surface in Wernicke’s Lohmann (just as it would again in 1933 in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse).  Fassbinder’s treatment of Innstetten, though not as campy as Lang’s treatment of Lohmann, also functions upon similar assumptions and takes into account the same truths.  However, Fassbinder’s Effi Briest (1974) has stylistic concerns with emotional realism worlds apart from Fontane’s emphasis on the psychological in his novel.  Despite this aesthetical difference, elements of the broader depiction of Wolff’s impact evident in Lohmann still manage to surface in Schenk’s Innstetten.

Logically such characterizations have found their most popular outlet in depictions of Nazi and Soviet officials.  These depictions exude Wolff’s principles to cartoonish proportions, distorting much of their relevancy to the psychology of these nations today.  There are still examples of characters in authoritative positions that conform to Wolff’s principles to be found, for sure, however they tend to be marginalized when compared to the Nazi/Soviet stereotype.  One such exception exists in Béla Tarr’s The Man From London (2007).  The character of Inspector Morrison (István Lénárt), despite being British, conforms to the mold of Fritz Lang’s Lohmann.  This reveals Tarr’s Hungarian background as well as to reenforce the notion of this archetype’s (which is surely what it has become) contemporary relevancy since Morrison is neither an overt figure of fun nor a parody.

Yet, what is perhaps most compelling, is the influence of Wolff upon the construction of montage and image composition.  Despite the fact that rapid montage and the “city film” are distinct products of the Soviet Cinema, both found a sort of purity in the hands of the Germans.  Consider first Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony Of A Metropolis (1927), a film whose montage is a rapid fire depiction of images even more succinct in their content than Vertov’s film.  This approach to dynamic compositions to capture quick and telling moments became a staple in the propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl.  By the 1970s, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg had adopted the style of Ruttmann and Riefenstahl for his own post-modern spectacle Hitler: A Film From Germany (1977) to dispel the very web they spun with the same cinematic tactics.  Likewise, this same approach first found a foothold in narrative realism in Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer’s People On Sunday (1930) that would evolve into the pulpy film noirs of German Expatriates during the decline of the Hollywood studio system.

The Man From London

What unifies all of these films is their priority on narrative progression.  Where Jean-Luc Godard may use a cutaway to infer a political motif these films would advance toward one ultimate goal devoid of subtext.  Parallels between these German films and the films of Czech and Polish animators are perhaps the most obvious.  Though one may also propose that Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2001) represents the same basic technique but with a far less rate of montage.

The underlying factor that separates the Wolff influenced alignment of images, including the rate of montage, is that none of these films has any allegiance toward social realism.  On the contrary they are stylistically concerned with the fantastique, even when they assume to be non-fiction films.  In no other region is this style of film apparent than in these areas of Europe to whom the Enlightenment came late in the 18th century.  For these reasons there has been an evolution within the culture of Wolff’s philosophical teachings that have become inexplicably bound with national identity.

-Robert Curry

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She Said Boom

fifth column:  a group of people who act traitorously and subversively out of secret sympathy with an enemy of their country.

(dictionary definition)

She Said Boom

Dick Hebdige marks the beginning of “punk” as we know it today in the year of 1976 when a young girl was almost blinded by a flying beer glass at the 100 Club in Soho.  Hebdige singles this incident out because in his mind it served as the catalyst for what he terms “the mass moral panic” that first drew critical attention to “punk”.  What does this have to do with Kevin Hegge’s documentary film She Said Boom (2013)?  Defining and understanding the political origins of “punk” will enlighten one to the motives behind the band The Fifth Column; the subject of Hegge’s film.  To explain why “punk” became such an enduring and influential cultural movement one need only apply the very definition of “fifth column”.  Consider, as the members of The Fifth Column did in their native Toronto, that the “enemy of their country” is not a terrorist nor a corrupt politician necessarily, but rather concepts and ideas that are in conflict with the traditionally accepted modes of thinking in Western civilization today.

The Fifth Column cannot be labeled “punk” however, even if their music fits within the mechanics of punk music.  The Fifth Column, like Crass before them (though to a lesser extent), utilized an array of media beyond music such as film to give a voice not only to women, but homosexuals.  Before Pansy Division or Bikini Kill there was The Fifth Column, and their influence on both demographics has been monumental.

This is what Hegge’s film She Said Boom works very hard to communicate.  By interviewing members of the band, their contemporaries, and their successors Hegge is able to contextualize The Fifth Column not just musically, but sociologically.  That The Fifth Column was so successful in their aesthetic fusion of punk music and film in giving voice to Toronto’s subculture tempts critics to draw a comparison between them and Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable.  Yet Hegge’s ignores this comparison wisely.  Primarily, one must assume, because at this point not only is a comparison with The Velvet Underground a cliché, but Hegge would be indicating a duplicate social structure of oppression at work in both New York of the mid-1960s and Toronto in the 1980s.  Admittedly there are similarities, but a comparison of this nature would negate the principal instigating factors at work in propelling The Fifth Column beyond the circuit of your “run of the mill” garage band.  Thus, Hegge is very successful in his portrait of The Fifth Column, their work, and their legacy.

The Fifth Column

She Said Boom is very liberal in its appropriation of footage of The Fifth Column members from their films and the films of their associates (Caroline Azar, Beverly Breckenridge, GB Jones and Bruce la Bruce).  Though this footage is compelling in how vividly it renders a time, a place, and an aesthetic, the very employment of footage in this way has become a tactic so often used by documentary filmmakers that it is becoming tiresome.  Between Andrew Solt’s Imagine: John Lennon (1988) and Don Letts’ Westway To The World (2000) this tactic was not nearly as prevalent.  However, Westway The World‘s syndication on MTV and VH1 over the following years have helped engrain this device into the very mechanics of what is popularly referred to as the “Rock-Doc”.  And this is a shame because of all the documentaries that utilize this tactic to this end She Said Boom has had some of the best archives of footage to pull from.

-Robert Curry

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Sister Act & True Lies: Genre In The 90s Blockbuster

The mechanics of genre are as complicated in their motives as is their perpetual state of flux as these mechanics adapt to follow new trends in media.  The most obvious case being the Western, whose metamorphoses at the hands of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci indicated not only a desire for more sex and violence in the genre, but a more Freudian approach to the films’ characters.  In fact, most books dealing with an overview of cinematic history divide the progression of the Western into two distinct halves; before The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly (1966) and afterwards.  Despite the obvious differences between the Westerns of “then” and “now”, there are in the genre a set of unchanging aesthetic principles, and it is these principles that define the Western, justifying the very label of “genre”.  Westerns typically center on a protagonist finding redemption and overcoming his or her own inherent “evil” for the good of a community or a virtuous protagonist at odds with a massive “evil” force such as Apache, avalanches, sand storms, cattle barons, a gang, etc.  It is in these two basic character and narrative types that the Western attempts (and rarely succeeds) to construct an allegory for America.  But not all genres are as dynamically defined or as popular as the Western.  Some genres are so obscure that they exist only as sub-genres under the umbrella of larger and more abstract categorizations like “comedy”, “drama” or “horror”.

Sister Act

When The Walt Disney Company released Sister Act (1992) through Touchstone Pictures they sold the film as a family comedy and targeted parents with children between the ages of 8 and 14 as their primary demographic.  In part this was meant to cash-in on the built-in fan base for Nun comedies instilled in the parents by Sally Field’s The Flying Nun television show as well as to appeal to those who grew-up and were fans of Motown.  But to be fresh, new, and exciting Sister Act could not follow the formulas of The Flying Nun or other popular depictions of Nuns in the media like Lilies Of The Field (1963) and The Nun’s Story (1959) anymore than a Whoopi Goldberg vehicle could recreate the lack of success of Nuns On The Run (1990).  Instead screenwriter Joseph Howard and director Emile Ardolino returned to a tried and true Disney formula freshly imbued with the same nightclub edginess that made Pretty Woman (1990) one of Disney’s highest grossing films of the nineties.

The tried and true Disney formula I refer to first occurred at the height of Fred MacMurray’s tenure with the studio.  The basic premise, exemplified by Follow Me, Boys! (1966), concerns a protagonist who is forced to take charge of a group of misfits and imprint these misfits with the protagonist’s own personality traits, thus creating a surrogate family where the protagonist belongs.  Ironically this formulaic plot is the antithesis to popular culture’s preferred depiction of Nuns since the boom of the porn industry in the early seventies.  From Boccaccio’s The Decameron to Walerian Borowczyk’s Behind Convent Walls (1978) to Norifumi Suzuki’s School Of The Holy Beast (1982), Nuns have been portrayed as lesbian sodomites, a far cry from the sweet and familial Nuns under Maggie Smith’s care in Sister Act.  Oddly, Disney took it upon itself to project its typical family film plots into arenas where one would hardly suspect.  Where Sister Act puts Whoopi Goldberg into a Nunnery to rejuvenate the family film genre, Operation Dumbo Drop (1995) puts Ray Liotta, Danny Glover and Denis Leary in Vietnam with an elephant to keep up interest in their live-action family films.

In short, Sister Act is the redressing of a genre to perpetuate box office receipts.  This is not always a negative trend in the cinema, and in the early to mid-nineties it was a hugely popular approach.  Which brings us to James Cameron’s True Lies (1994).  What Cameron sets out to do, and does, is to make a genre film that is absolutely about its genre without ever being openly analytical or challenging.  The film’s star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, teamed with director John McTiernan on The Last Action Hero (1993) the previous year, constructing a film whose concern with genre mechanics is similar to True Lies but whose “on-the-nose” execution prevents the film from ever sustaining the suspension of disbelief for very long.

True Lies

True Lies essentially casts Arnold Schwarzenegger as the ultimate action hero, but subverts the trappings of the genre by pushing the extremes one associates with action films to comedic places.  For instance a chase scene that should be a motorcycle in pursuit of another motorcycle is transformed into physical comedy by putting the hero on a horse instead.  Likewise, True Lies has as its centerpiece the narrative arc of infidelity in which the spy (Arnold Schwarzenegger) uses his Bond-like resources to terrorize his wife’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) lover (Bill Paxton).  The subject of marital difficulty is not often a part of the action movie vernacular in this respect.  Typically, as is the case with Die Hard (1988), the male protagonist’s marriage is saved by the end of the film in the same way the world is saved.  Much of Cameron’s humor in dealing with infidelity recalls the oddball Alan Arkin comedies Chu Chu & The Philly Flash (1981) and The In-Laws (1979) in so far as the seriousness of the situation is undermined by the absurdity of the circumstance in which the situation has come to exist.  The absurdity, in the case of True Lies, is the very fabric of the action movie genre.

Listing all of these various components and stylistic tactics may give the impression that Cameron’s film is not so much reflexive with a sense of humor, but rather an incoherent mess.  This very well could have been the case if not for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s presence.  Arnold Schwarzenegger even being in this film becomes a means by which the genre is parodied and its hubris analyzed, almost in a parallel fashion to Tim Allen’s role in Dean Parisot’s Galaxy Quest (1999).

What both True Lies and Sister Act are indicative of is a desire to manipulate genre to re-sell narratives and celebrities all too familiar to audiences.  The degree of innovation, however successful or not, points to the possibilities that are often overlooked in favor of remakes or adaptations from other visual media.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Spring 2015

Mélo: High Style & Emotional Content

Alain Resnais is a difficult figure to place within the world of the cinema.  He is most certainly an auteur, an intellectual, and a humanist all at once, imbuing his films with those characteristics.  Though it was early in his career when he established himself as one of France’s celebrity filmmakers with Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Last Year In Marienbad (1961), it was in the middle of his long career when Resnais’ films began to evoke a more mature and seasoned approach to the cinema that still concerned itself with the themes that have defined him as an auteur; time, romance, and loss.  The first film I have seen of his that displays both the theoretical thinker in Resnais and the emotive storyteller is Je T’aime, je t’aime (1968).  But by the time Resnais is making films in the eighties his aesthetic has become so refined, so subtle, that the nuance that once seemed impressive in Je T’aime, je t’aime, compared with Hiroshima mon amour, began to look blatant and broad in its strokes.  The only way to describe this refinement that occurred at the onset of the decade is simply that Resnais had mastered a balance between the emotional and the intellectual.

Melo

Resnais’ film Life Is A Bed Of Roses (1983) is an immensely complex film, weaving time, space, and narrative style simultaneously into a three prong narrative film that essentially tells the same fundamental story in three different filmic vernaculars.  What is, at an intellectual level, a complicated meditation on the function of storytelling in contemporary Western Society remains, superficially, an enjoyable romantic musical comedy.  But even this approach would be further refined in Love & Death (1984), eventually reaching the pinnacle of this aesthetic evolution in Melo (1986).

There had been a feverish energy to Life Is A Bed Of Roses and Love & Death that is absent in Melo.  Melo, by contrast, has the feeling of painstaking preparation and detail.  One may attribute this sensation to the long duration of scenes, heavy with hypnotic dialogue, or the theatricality of the framing and set design.  All of which would make sense since Melo is based upon a play by Henri Bernstein.  The fact that Melo, in Resnais’ hands, is transitioning from the stage to the screen accounts for the director’s approach.  For as much as the film is a triumph for the actors’ performances and Bernstein’s play, it is also fundamentally concerned with the illusionary effects of the theater on its audience.

Consider Resnais’ use of the curtain.  Each time a scene crossfades to this image the curtain is static, neither rising nor falling.  Allegorically, an audience’s mind associates the movement of the curtain as either a marker of the end of an act or the beginning of one.  Resnais denies this closure.  For Resnais what is important is not the kind of progression signified by the curtain, but more simply that a progression in narrative time has occurred.  This enables Resnais to move ahead, sometimes by years, in the film’s story without having to walk the audience through the details of what has transpired between one-act and another, relegating that duty to the context clues within the scenes themselves.  This approach to narrative ellipses, prevalent in the films of Ozu and Techine, has a distinctly theatrical heritage.  But unlike his peers, Resnais stresses the occurrence of the ellipse in time to his audience.

Resnais is faithful to the theatrical medium of the play not only in his approach to eliptical effects, but also in how he stages the film.  When I wrote before on Life Is A Bed Of Roses some months ago I discussed the artifice of certain “fantasy” segments.  In Melo these moments of a fantasy world do not exist, they are the constant norm.  The Brechtian notion that theater engages reality by imitating it is at the heart of this device.  However, its manifestation in the cinema of Resnais is far from the minimalist exercises of Malle’s Vanya On 42nd Street (1994) or Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Niklashausen Journey (1971).  Resnais prefers the lush sets of warm color and hand-painted night skies of Powell & Pressburger’s Tales Of Hoffmann (1952) or The Red Shoes (1948).  This cuts any physical connection out of the film between the reality of the audience and the reality of Melo.  Resnais takes this one step further by manipulating light not in the traditional sense of narrative film like in Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970).  On the contrary, Resnais embraces the theatricality of spotlights and fades, as if he is aware that to a film audience these technical devices are as likely to evoke images of the stage as they are to emote the dreamy whimsy of Arthur Freed’s MGM musicals of the forties and fifties.

Melo

All of this theatricality and the self-awareness its manipulations are indicative of would mean little other than a formalist exercise if it wasn’t for what Resnais does with it.  Like Last Year In Marienbad, Melo is an achievement in blocking and choreography.  The performers have been staged so that every effect and set piece is instrumental in its contribution not only to the actors’ performance, but the emotional potency of every scene.  The meticulousness of the arrangements in Melo rival even some of F.W. Murnau’s greatest dramas for their heartbreaking fragility and overwhelming sincerity.  When the artifice of a theatrical world like that in Melo is put to the service of the drama as opposed to the spectacle the drama of the narrative surpasses reality in its ability to effect an audience.  This is not Jean-Marie Straub’s cinema of the intellect, this is pure emotional filmmaking on par with John Cassavetes, though in an entirely removed cinematic style.

-Robert Curry

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Define David Lynch

            Currently, Philadelphia is immersed in the art and films of David Lynch. PAFA and the Prince Music Theatre are both host to career spanning retrospectives that demonstrate not only Lynch’s outstanding gifts as a visual artist but also his versatility. Lynch’s fine art varies from sculpture to collage to painting; each medium touched by his unique sensibilities and interests, just as his films are. Where Lynch’s fine art is manifest in a variety of mediums, his film work spans a number of genres, though this aspect of his filmography seems, to me at least, to be generally under played by both critics and fans alike.

Lynch

Lynch on the set of Twin Peaks

            Today, David Lynch’s most popular works are Twin Peaks (1990-91), followed by Blue Velvet (1986), Mulholland Drive (2001) and The Elephant Man (1980). Of these titles, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive are genre pictures; thrillers to be exact. Lynch has manipulated the thriller genre to explore themes that are not conventionally associated with thrillers, thereby making the films both deeply personal and to an extent less accessible than his other films. The popularity of Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive is due largely to their Academy Award nominations and high critical profile. Whereas Twin Peaks found a new legion of fans via the popularity of its DVD box set on web based social media, thusly canonizing the short lived show as a staple of hipster culture. The Elephant Man is Lynch’s most mainstream drama, adhering to the popular mechanisms of the filmic biography. What makes The Elephant Man distinctly the work of Lynch despite these genre mechanisms is the cinematography by Freddie Francis coupled with the sound designs of Alan Splet, which in conjunction recall Lynch’s first feature Eraserhead (1977).

            Eraserhead is the first of two films by Lynch that can only be categorized as personal filmmaking, the second being Inland Empire (2006), since not only are they so heavily indebted to the visual palette of his fine art, but because their worlds are so insular, as if Lynch has captured images from his subconscious onto film. In contrast to Wild At Heart (1990) or Lost Highway (1997), two films completely concerned with narrative function, Eraserhead and Inland Empire evidently function in a totally different vein of the cinematographic langue. In an even starker contrast to these two avant-garde epics is Lynch’s family film The Straight Story (1999), released by Disney.

Lynch & Montgomery

Lynch reviews lyrics with Jocelyn Montgomery in the studio

            It’s clear that Lynch fits Andrew Sarris’ model of auteurism, but the diversity of these works, without even bringing Dune (1984) into the argument, is a testament to a kind of fluency of the cinematic language that one typically reserves for Howard Hawks or Fritz Lang. Like the giants of the studio era, Lynch has the uncanny ability to successfully make a genre film whilst imprinting the film with his own identity. It’s doing David Lynch a disservice to categorize his work as a filmmaker, be it avant-garde, experimental or surreal. Lynch is exclusively none of these things. Yet more and more audiences are pigeonholing him as one thing or another. Why not simply call David Lynch a filmmaker or an artist?

-Robert Curry

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