Tag Archives: cinema studies

Alien: Covenant

The best part of Ridley Scott’s latest offering, Alien: Covenant (2017), is when Michael Fassbender kisses Michael Fassbender. The film features Fassbender in dual roles as the androids David and Walter and, of course, they kiss. This is bound to be great fun for fans of the actor, but it pinpoints a troubling side to Scott’s cinema. If one considers that it is the film’s villain, David, who kisses his double Walter, one cannot escape the legacy of villainizing characters who do not conform to heteronormative sexual practice. The stand-out representative of this trend in Scott’s films is Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) in 2000’s Gladiator.

Alien: Covenant

Repetition is the theme of Alien: Covenant in more respects than just the one stated above. For it seems that the narrative of Alien: Covenant is born out of a fusion between James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) and Erle C. Kenton’s The Island Of Lost Souls (1932). Thus, Alien: Covenant is as predictable as 2012’s Prometheus was subversive. There is now, more than ever, a sense of formula to 20th Century Fox’s Alien franchise. Not only does Alien: Covenant rehash familiar narratives, it also recycles it’s characters. By casting Katherine Waterston as the protagonist Daniels in a position within the narrative not dissimilar to that of Ripley in the original films, Scott has diminished the subversive potential of a female protagonist within a science fiction film.

Ridley Scott’s strengths as a filmmaker are, however, very much present in Alien: Covenant. The attention to detail in the set design and the pervading sense of atmosphere render this mediocre film far more visceral than it has a right to be. This does not redeem the series of special effects and stunts that send us blundering through Alien: Covenant’s narrative though. A criticism that seems applicable to almost all of Scott’s work.

Interestingly, this pattern of repetition or doubling appears to have extended beyond the confines of Scott’s work on its own terms. Just as Ridley Scott began his career by emulating Stanley Kubrick in his underappreciated first feature The Duelists (1977), so has Denis Villeneuve been emulating Scott since 2013’s Prisoners. This aesthetic intersection only occurred to me when the latest trailer for Blade Runner 2049 played before Alien: Covenant. Villeneuve is quite literally replacing Scott as he helms the sequel to the acclaimed 1982 film into the world of the franchise. My impressions of Blade Runner 2049 are actually quite similar to those I had of Alien: Covenant upon first seeing the latter’s trailer; haven’t I already seen this? Within this complex of subtle codification it is entertaining to ponder if Ryan Gosling really is to a generation of viewers what Harrison Ford was before him.

-Robert Curry

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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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Jess Franco’s Eugénie de Sade

Eugénie de Sade

Jess Franco was one of the most prolific filmmakers who ever lived; completing an average of eight films a year during his most productive period in the early seventies.  Though his films are typically no more than soft-core thrillers churned out as economic commodities, there is a sense and evidence of a more sophisticated visual language in his better films.  If one takes only his best films of the early seventies into account, Count Dracula (1969), Venus In Furs (1969) and Eugénie de Sade (1970), there is a remarkable consistency in Franco’s framing and narrative techniques.  In all three of these films, when interior shots are employed, the camera is placed slightly lower so that the ceiling is visible.  This strategy for visual cues denoting a character’s dominance or lack there of is typically associated with the films of Orson Welles, with whom Franco worked as an assistant director in Spain.  The narratives of these films are also indebted to Welles in how they, primarily Eugénie de Sade and Count Dracula, assume a flashback structure derivative in stylistic execution of Citizen Kane (1941) and Mr. Arkadin (1955).  There is also, as is the case with Venus In Furs, a direct homage to Mr. Arkadin in which both films (or rather a version of Welles’ film) open with a nude woman’s body washed up on a beach.  Despite Franco’s assimilation of Welles’ stylistic tendencies he never truly succeeds in elaborating on the subtextual themes in his films, rendering them visually arresting yet hollow.

Eugénie de Sade, however, is a little more sophisticated than Franco’s other films.  There is an accidental self awareness at work in Eugénie de Sade that begs the question of its audience; “is all voyeurism exploitation?”  Franco, intentionally or not, poses this question during the opening credit sequence of the film.  As Eugenie (played by Soledad Miranda) walks onto screen approaching a blonde model with the intention of undressing her, the title fills the screen.  At this point the film cuts to Franco himself in the role of Attila Tanner, seated in a movie theater watching what is apparently a snuff film (Eugenie, with the aid of her father Albert, proceed to murder the blonde model).  This very simple opening sequence becomes a personal statement by Franco.  He is the voyeur, watching a snuff film, fetishizing the players of the film.  Then again, so are we.  Audiences who attended Franco’s films were there to be tantalized by the bodies of his female stars Soledad Miranda and Maria Rohm.  Miranda in particular was Franco’s muse at the time Eugénie de Sade was made, and they would make six more films together that year including their most famous collaboration Vampyros Lesbos.  Franco’s stars were the show.  And as Eugénie de Sade continues, Attila (Franco) continues to spy on and fetishize Miranda’s character Eugenie.

It is Attila who questions Eugenie on her death-bed.  He extorts Eugenie by promising that he will end her suffering in exchange that she share the story of her father with whom she was engaged in an incestuous affair.  This is the catalyst for the Wellesian flashback structure of the film.  Within these flashbacks Attila also appears.  Attila is a famous writer and a tremendous fan of Eugenie’s father Albert (Paul Muller).  But he suspects that Albert and Eugenie are not only incestuous, but are responsible for a number of murders (which the audience knows they are).  It is in this scene where Attila confronts Eugenie and her father that Attila begins to fetishize Eugenie, promising the pair that he “will be watching”.

Eugénie de Sade

In the context of the narrative of Eugénie de Sade Jess Franco is Attila, whose relationship to Soledad Miranda is one of distant observation, congruent to the relationship between Soledad Miranda and her relationship to the audience.  The reality of it is, as Miranda’s director, the writer and editor of the film, and as Miranda’s lover; Franco’s relationship is more akin to that of Albert, Eugenie’s father.  Franco could touch Miranda, the audience could not.  The audience’s position is locked into one of voyeurism, into Attila’s perspective.

In many respects Eugénie de Sade is Jess Franco’s Blow-Up (Antonioni, 1966) or Peeping Tom (Powell, 1961).  There is even a scene in homage to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom in Eugénie de Sade where Albert and Eugenie, dressed in clothes that actually recall the design of Antonioni’s film, strangle a fetish model during a photo session.  Like Michael Powell, for Franco the act of voyeurism is violent.  But Franco goes further by fetishizing his subjects with a heavy-handed masculine gaze, his camera endlessly caressing Soledad Miranda’s body through an active zoom lens.  Powell was a dramatist in the classic sense and never gave way to camera moves and shots that did not adhere to the objective reality of his story.  Powell preferred moments of subjectivity be reserved for POV shots or scenes that took place in Mark Lewis’ (Karlheinz Bohm) studio.  This gives these moments a sense of threat in Powell’s thriller.  By contrast, Eugénie de Sade is so wrought with Franco’s fetishization of his female protagonist that the shots themselves are meaningless without the correlation of other signifiers specified above.

Eugénie de Sade, Blow-Up, and Peeping Tom are concerned with issues extending beyond thematic readings, functioning, each in its own way, as a commentary by the film’s author on the nature of direction.  Powell, for instance, alludes to the function of the filmmaker as an illusionist whose plastic fictions, be they tragedy or comedy, offer in human terms and experience an escape to an audience.  Powell’s primary investigation in Peeping Tom is into the nature of manufacturing artificial or staged violence to the delight of a sadistic minded audience bent on escapism at any cost.  Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up proposes that the director, Antonioni, and the film’s protagonist Thomas (David Hemmings), share a purpose in utilizing their visual art in an investigation.  Where Thomas investigates a crime, Antonioni employs Thomas’ investigation as a means to determine an abstract existential truth about the human condition or the film’s audience.  Jess Franco is interested in neither existential truth nor in the inherent theatricality of the film medium, but instead revels in the superficial delight his images offer, totally aware of the fact that the viewer will share in these delights with him.  This puts Franco as a filmmaker on the same philosophical level of participation with his audience as opposed to the dominating roles Powell and Antonioni hold over their viewership.  In other words, within the visual strategies and context of Eugénie de Sade Franco is both author and participant; a participant in so much as he is quite literally, given the Wellesian structure of the film, the instrument through which we perceive the narrative action.

Eugénie de Sade

The irony of Jess Franco’s relationship to Eugénie de Sade is that he shares his audiences’ pleasure from their perspective.  Not only do most filmmakers measure and derive pleasure from their completed films via their audience, but few directors who produced exploitation films revel so openly and communally in the act of voyeurism with their audience.  A filmmaker like Jean Rollin was obliged to include scenes of gratuitous sex, as was Terence Fisher.  Franco, on the other hand, catered his projects to the fetishes of both his audience and himself.  This fact imbues Franco’s films with a personal touch that could account for his sustained popularity within the genre of European sexploitation and horror films.

-Robert Curry

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