Tag Archives: Andrea Arnold

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Spring 2017

Humping Neil Armstrong While Dreaming Of Michael Fassbender

Despite the impression this site may have given, we have not been idle here at Zimbo Films.  Currently we are in the midst of cutting together some video for Emma Arrick’s Plant Me Here as well as continuing to develop Thomas Lampion’s Julie Lovely.  In fact, over the next week or so a few essays by Lampion will be published here on our blog that will chart the genesis of Julie Lovely as well as Lampion’s own coming-of-age in the cinema.  Companion pieces to those Thomas Lampion has written will also be written by both myself and my brother Hank.

However, what follows has little to do with Julie Lovely.  In fact the focus of this piece is to chart five experiences I have recently undergone at the movies.  I doubt I have ever written so much about films that one can still currently catch in theaters.  

Kamikaze '89Kamikaze ‘89

Directed by Wolf Gremm

Written by Robert Katz from the novel by Per Wahloo

Starring Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Günther Kaufmann, Boy Gobert, Franco Nero

Wolf Gremm’s masterful ode to Rainer Werner Fassbinder showed just once on June 8th at International House as part of a new national re-release of a restored print.  Despite my obsessive interest in Fassbinder this was the first time that I had seen this film from start to finish.  Perhaps it was seeing the film clearly for the first time (I mean this literally since every other encounter that I had had with Kamikaze ‘89 had been on VHS) that I was able to truly observe and appreciate Gremm’s film.  Kamikaze ‘89 is perhaps the campiest New German film I have seen outside of some of Werner Schroeter’s earliest shorts.  And Gremm uses this camp much in the same manner as John Waters, constructing a satire that is all at once conscious and reflexive.  The post-modern appropriation of logos and other visual signifiers is so abundant and so specifically American that the cultural synthesis between the U.S. and West Germany that informs so much of New German cinema is finally exploited to the last and laid to rest.  Gremm applies the same “over-kill” tactics to his allegorical scrutinizing of WDR and it’s relationship with state funded cinema in Germany.  

What was perhaps the most enjoyable part of the film was Fassbinder himself, turning in a performance as sleazy and graceless as Robert Mitchum’s turns as Philip Marlowe.  This is Fassbinder at his best, chewing the scenery, reveling in the design of Gremm’s picture that recalls equally Godard’s Alphaville and Fassbinder’s own World On A Wire. Fassbinder’s natural chemistry with Günther Kaufmann (former lovers and long time collaborators) adds a more realistic and nuanced element to the comedic proceedings of Kamikaze ‘89.  Though this natural chemistry reads as bittersweet in the context of Fassbinder’s death shortly after the film was completed.

I do not mean to give the impression that Kamikaze ‘89 is only enjoyable if one is immersed in the history of New German cinema.  My friend Gretchen who accompanied me to see the film enjoyed it very much without being a Fassbinder fanatic or German cinema aficionado.  For as she keenly observed (and I am paraphrasing) Kamikaze ‘89 “had tremendous entertainment value”.  The film is colorful, fast paced, unpredictable, kinetic, and lighthearted.  And to top it all off the film climaxes with Fassbinder humping a giant image of Neil Armstrong mid-moonwalk, then turning and finishing his cigarette as the credits begin to roll.  To quote my friend Gretchen again, “It was beautiful”.

The Lobster

The Lobster

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Written by Efthymis Filippou & Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Jessica Barden, Olivia Colman, & John C. Riley

The Lobster is one of the darkest films that I have seen this year.  In terms of it’s concept and narrative structure Lanthimos’ film is clearly indebted to Albert Brooks’ film Defending Your Life.  At the same time its formal staging and rigidity of performance recalls Hal Hartley’s No Such Thing and The Girl From Monday.  Yet The Lobster is without the sentiment of Brooks nor the wordplay of Hartley; two devices that help keep each respective filmmaker’s work from becoming too close to our own reality.  Like Kamikaze ‘89, The Lobster is concerned with a dystopian fantasy of our future where Lanthimos’ stylistic choices appear to be more a byproduct of the ill society that the film depicts.

As with Kamikaze ‘89 I saw this dystopian picture with my friend Gretchen.  And despite all of the craft and technical merits of the film, the journey of its characters proved a bit too much for our emotionally fragile conditions.  There is a bit of Fassbinder in the way The Lobster trudges forth in an onslaught of sadomasochistic relationships pushed to the brink.  On another night I know I would have found this film hysterical, but on the night I happened to see it The Lobster was only able to effect me in the most negative way.

 

X-Men: Apocalypse

X-Men: Apocalypse

Directed by Bryan Singer

Written by Simon Kinberg

Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac

Unlike The Lobster and Kamikaze ‘89, Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse is not about a dystopian future, but rather how the X-Men manage to avert such a future.  As the title makes clear, this installment in the X-Men movie franchise focuses on Apocalypse, an immortal mutant driven totally mad by his powers.  It would be very easy at this point to make explicit the discrepancies between Singer’s film and its comic book source but I do not believe that that would be very useful to anyone.  Instead I am going to discuss a subplot of the film that I believe was done a disservice by the filmmakers.

Michael Fassbender’s turn as Magneto is by far the best performance of any actor in a superhero film made this decade.  X-Men: Apocalypse is Fassbender’s third outing in his role as the master of magnetism, and interestingly, in this film he is given something new to do with the character that hadn’t been done in the films before.  Where the film begins Magneto is living in secret with a wife and daughter in rural Poland working at a blue collar job.  His powers and his daughter’s powers are kept secret from the other townsfolk.  But when Magneto uses his powers to save the life of a fellow factory worker Magneto is exposed.  This revelation of his true identity sets into motion a series of events that result in the murders of his wife and child.  Magneto slits the throats of the culprits and is soon about to exact his revenge upon the workers who betrayed him to the authorities when, out of thin air, appears Apocalypse and his cohorts.  In one instant Bryan Singer lets the most emotionally charged portion of his film come landing with a thud as Magneto’s slow descent back into villainy is exchanged for a moment of comic relief with Apocalypse.

Despite this most bizarre choice, X-Men: Apocalypse is a lot of fun.  It’s own self-deprecation in a scene where Cyclops and Jean Grey ponder why it is the third film in every franchise (they are referring to Return Of The Jedi) is always the worst made me snicker.  And James McAvoy’s bold performance choices, though sometimes a bit over the top, were always entertaining.

It is very difficult to make a film in this genre watchable at this point since every audience has seen all of this before, but Singer does a good job.  I did, however, have the benefit of having the real Apocalypse (a Toy  Biz action figure) sitting next to me since my brother thought to bring him.  I doubt many people have had quite the same movie-going experience.

Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War

Directed by Joe & Anthony Russo

Written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely

Starring Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan

Unlike the films I discussed earlier I did not see Captain America: Civil War with either my brother or my friend Gretchen.  Instead it was a spur of the moment decision I made with Stephen Mercy.  Stephen has done some truly remarkable music for my films in the past and I have always known him to be a most thoughtful and reflective person.  I had never been in an audience with him so it was exciting to embark on a cinematic experience with Stephen, even if the film we were going to be seeing was Captain America: Civil War.

Captain America: Civil War was the most boring spectacle I had ever witnessed on the big screen.  Stephen and I sat there un-amused for two and a half hours while the room pulsed with everyone else’s energy as they lapped up the latest installment of Marvel’s movie universe.  It became oddly surreal for a time before reverting to quiet frustration.  Captain America: Civil War offered nothing I had not already seen before in the genre of Super-Hero flicks.  It didn’t have the saving graces of X-Men: Apocalypse or the atmosphere of Tim Burton’s Batman.  All it had was the most base and superficial appeal of any summer spectacle.

There was one moment I did take a private delight in.  A few days before Stephen and I had our little superhero adventure my brother told me that in the film Hawkeye calls Ironman a “futurist”.  When I saw the film and heard the line for myself I smiled.  Though it is unknown to most, Robert Downey Jr. recorded an album in 2005 titled The Futurist.  This album has been the brunt of so many jokes between my brother and I over the years that there simply isn’t space to get into it now.

The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book

Directed by Jon Favreau

Written by Justin Marks from the stories by Rudyard Kipling

Starring Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson

I saw The Jungle Book with my mother and brother about a week and a half after Stephen and his mother saw it.   Evidently the Walt Disney Corporation still holds a patent on all of our childhoods for better or for worse.  But unlike other Disney remakes of Disney films such as Cinderella or even Freaky Friday, The Jungle Book was different.  

Favreau clearly holds Zoltan Korda’s 1942 adaptation of Kipling’s fables in high esteem.  Not only does he create visual echoes of Korda’s film, but drew upon it aesthetically in terms of the designs of the CGI animals.  The effect of combining the Romanticism of Korda’s The Jungle Book with the original Disney animation of 1967’s whimsy and lyricism makes for a freshness that I had assumed left the studio with Don Bluth.

That is not to say that The Jungle Book is flawless or some sort of masterpiece.  As with Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse, The Jungle Book’s greatest flaws are born out of an overindulgence of the action spectacle.  The forest fire that concludes the film is so preposterous in scope and execution that by its very artifice it reassures the audience that good will triumph over evil yet again.

Michael Fassbender

My Dream

Let me first say that the only film I own in which Michael Fassbender appears is Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank.  In my opinion it is still Fassbender’s best performance and Arnold’s best picture.  I like Michael Fassbender and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t.  Regardless, shortly after I saw X-Men: Apocalypse I had a dream.

In my dream I am walking home.  It is a brisk spring day in the afternoon.  My shoe rips, leaving my toes exposed on my left foot.  I take a few steps forward but my toes begin to hurt.  Walking towards me is Michael Fassbender.  He looks determined, aloof.  When he seems about to pass me he stops.  “Your shoe is broken”.  Fassbender removes a needle and thread from his pants pocket as he kneels on one knee in front of me.  So very gently he takes my left foot, places it on his knee and begins to sew closed the hole.

-Robert Curry

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Summer 2016

Two Short Reviews

Given that it is the holiday season and that post-production is just now concluding on four productions simultaneously there just has not been very much time to dedicate to writing.  However, I have recently seen two films, one new and one slightly older, that I would like to discuss to some measure.  That said, I believe I should note that neither film is meant to really be discussed in conjunction with the other.  The grouping of these two films is circumstantial, though if one sheds some light onto the other through these brief critical appraisals so much the better.

Spotlight

spotlight

from left to right: Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, & Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight

Spotlight (2015), despite all of the hype, is not the first film to deal with the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and the institution that protects them, nor is it the first film to dramatize the actual events surrounding the story as it broke at the Boston Globe.  In anticipation of Spotlight I watched Dan Curtis’ (best known as the man behind the show Dark Shadows) film Our Fathers (2005), a Showtime original movie.  Each film represents a different approach to the same story and coincidentally both are rather effective ensemble pieces.  The primary difference is actually quite simple, and that is that Our Fathers focuses on characters within the church and Spotlight restricts itself exclusively to the perspective of the journalists who first broke the story.  Considering how that sounds, one may be surprised that each film remains relatively objective in its treatment of characters (each film does, in one manner or another, condemn the Catholic Church).  McCarthy’s Spotlight redeems characters complacent to the cover-ups just as it also allows protagonist Michael Keaton to be subject to very human errors and mis-judgements.  Likewise, Curtis’ Our Fathers goes to great lengths to humanize Cardinal Law’s (Christopher Plummer) crisis of faith as the cover-ups become public.  This is even more astounding to a degree due to the fact that Our Fathers, unlike Spotlight, was aired only four years after the Boston Globe exposed the Catholic Church.

The traits that make Spotlight at worst an “interesting” viewing experience are clearly the product of Tom McCarthy’s talents.  Tom McCarthy who has written (with Josh Singer) and directed Spotlight seems to have been groomed to tackle this material.  His background as an actor on The Wire and Law & Order has certainly colored his approach to recreating the story, bringing recognizable narrative arcs and character types of the “true crime” genre into the film.  McCarthy’s recent work as a director on a series of character driven independent films is also certainly at work in Spotlight, particularly when one considers the strong performances of the film’s ensemble cast.

This leads us to what is the most impressive aspect of Spotlight; its lack of a proper villain.  Yes, the Catholic Church and its lawyers represent the obstacle to the journalists’ justice, yet is left, as it would be to the journalists’ perspective, a vast and faceless entity.  Faceless in that the multitude responsible for the cover-ups of child molestation by priests is too great to be summed up by one character (a component that is not shared by Our Fathers).  This gives Spotlight a kind of ambiguity that is effective in persuading viewers that are of the thinking that these cover-ups are the result of a few “bad apples”.  The audience must make the journey, with the journalists, to uncover the facts of the case and thus come to a moral conclusion.  In most films an alternative perspective to that of the protagonists would be manifest in a single character representative of this alternate perspective who would be given scenes that demonstrate the immorality of this conflicting position.  Singer and McCarthy’s script has none of this, opting instead to repackage the prestigious “message film” as an effective and engaging piece of persuasion.

Serena

o-SERENA-facebook

Bradley Cooper & Jennifer Lawrence as the Pembertons in Serena

Lumber barons have, believe it or not, been a staple in American cinema for a long time.  I am prompted to say this because I have heard a number of people react to the premise of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence starring in a lumber drama as if it were a quaint novelty.  Granted, it is a sub-genre that is not often employed in this day and age, with the exception of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), so is the genre of the oil baron drama.  Yet each sub-genre shares a singular conceptual thread; the disillusion of morality in the face of capitalist gain.  This is the very crux of Written On The Wind (dir. Douglas Sirk, 1956), Giant (dir. George Stevens, 1956), The Strange Woman (dir. Edgar G. Ulmer, 1946) and Come & Get It (dirs. Howard Hawks & William Wyler, 1936).

But unlike the dramas of oil barons and their industry, the lumber baron drama has a visual allegiance to an entirely unrelated film genre, the western.  Like westerns, these films about logging in the wilderness are so rooted in the visual textures of nature that they adorn, intentionally or not, the romanticism of the western genre, the idealistic certainty of the Westward expansion.  With Serena (2014) director Susanne Bier wisely embraces this element of the genre, utilizing a number of cutaways and establishing shots of the North Carolina mountain ranges to give an expressionistic reflection of the protagonists’ psychological and emotional states at any given time.  The manner in which these nature shots linger owe a debt to films by Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick, though Bier appears to have some difficulty wedding this aesthetic with the performances of her lead actors.

Cooper and Lawrence’s portrayals of the Pembertons are melodramatic to the point of camp, a fact that isn’t at all odd when one considers the supernatural (second sight) and all together gothic elements of the narrative.  This union of camp with the gothic can also be seen in Ulmer’s lumber baron drama The Strange Woman, supporting the relative success this combination of filmic elements is capable of.  However the style in which Bier captures her characters, an intensely realist approach to the visual language of these scenes, does much to undermine both the camp and the gothic elements entreanched in the films material.  Ulmer, representing the opposition to social realism and therefore Bier’s aesthetic, preferred The Strange Woman to be theatrical in its visual language, capturing the performances of Heddy Lamarr and George Sanders through a gloss of obvious artifice indebted to the theories of Bertolt Brecht.  Bier, on the other hand, is rooted in the contemporary trends of realism best exemplified in the films of Steve McQueen and Andrea Arnold.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under Autumn 2015, Winter 2012

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 Summer 2015