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Four Films About Cassavetes

You think I want to be popular? You think I want them out on video? I want millions of people to see my movies? Why would I? – John Cassavetes

Cassavetes and Rowlands

When I teach film directing I inevitably discuss John Cassavetes at length, usually with regards to collaborating with actors. I prefer to show an interview or documentary to my students as opposed to one of Cassavetes’ own films so that they can hear from him about his process as a filmmaker. The reason why I don’t usually show one of his films is that most of my students have already taken my film analysis course where I show either The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie (1976) or Husbands (1970). So the issue isn’t so much their familiarity with Cassavetes’ work so much as it is an issue of familiarizing them with Cassavetes as an artist at work and de facto teacher.

An episode of Cinéastes de notre temps (dir. Hubert Knapp & Andre S. Labarthe, 1968), I’m Almost Not Crazy: John Cassavetes, The Man & His Work (dir. Michael Ventura, 1984), Anything For John (dir. Dominique Cazenave & Doug Headline, 1993), and A Constant Forge (dir. Charles Kiselyak, 2000) are the four films about Cassavetes that I choose from for various reasons, though usually the choice is predicated by running time (I may only show an excerpt), the students’ ability to focus, and the students’ own aesthetic interests. Each film has its own merits, each has its own limitations; but I have found all of these films to be indispensable as a teacher and as a filmmaker.

Cinéastes de notre temps (which translates to “filmmakers of our time”) is a series for French television about the cinema; the episode about John Cassavetes can be found as a bonus feature on the Criterion Collection release John Cassavetes: Five Films. This television documentary first introduces the viewer to Cassavetes in 1965 as he is editing Faces (1968) during a break from shooting. In this first section, Cassavetes’ euphoria in the midst of his second independent production after two films for major studios is contagious. It’s all jokes and laughs as he walks through his hand-held shooting style and drives along the Canyon where he lived in LA. The second section, shot in 1968, picks up with Cassavetes at Cannes after screening Faces. Cassavetes’ hair has greyed, his demeanor is relatively withdrawn and his mood somber. This episode of Cinéastes de notre temps epitomizes one of the serious pitfalls of independent production for Cassavetes in how these two halves demonstrate the serious toll that completing Faces has taken, both physically and emotionally. But it is also interesting to hear Cassavetes, before and after, as he discusses the intent of the film. There isn’t a variation in terms of aesthetic goals, but there is a variation in language and conviction. For these reasons I find Cinéastes de notre temps works better as a portrait of the artist rather than a portrait of the artist’s process.

John and Gena
Michael Ventura’s film  I’m Almost Not Crazy: John Cassavetes, The Man & His Work is distinct for having been made with Cassavetes’ cooperation during the actual shooting of one of his films, Love Streams (1984). Ventura does not venerate his subject, and this film is all the better for it. Cassavetes can be seen going wild on set directing his wife Gena Rowlands, throwing tantrums at the crew, and espousing some particularly elegant musings on the condition of American cinema in sit-down interviews. Running at just about one hour, I’m Almost Not Crazy is one of the most fascinating authentic portraits of a filmmaker at work that I have ever seen. I’m Almost Not Crazy: John Cassavetes, The Man & His Work, like Cinéastes de notre temps, is also available as a special feature on a Criterion release, though this time for Love Streams.

I chanced upon Dominique Cazenave and Doug Headline’s Anything For John on the bonus disc of the Wild Side Video deluxe release of the film Husbands (this is a French release and therefore Region 2). Unlike the two films discussed above, Anything For John was shot after Cassavetes’ death and therefore takes the approach of an oral history. Al Ruban, Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Sam Fuller (a neighbor of Cassavetes apparently) are all interviewed and each sings the praises of Cassavetes. The interviews are intimate and yield their greatest rewards when former co-stars begin to goof around a little, inadvertently shedding some light upon their relationship as collaborators. This becomes even more fascinating if one views one of Cassavetes’ films immediately before watching this documentary. Seeing actors’ spontaneity in performance and then in life can give one a precise idea as to what control Cassavetes exerted as a director.

The same is true, though to a lesser degree, of Charles Kiselyak’s A Constant Forge (which is available in the Criterion Collection’s release John Cassavetes: Five Films). Unlike these other films, A Constant Forge is epic in scale (running at 200 minutes) and much more frank about Cassavetes’ shortcomings as an alcoholic. Like Anything For John, a bulk of A Constant Forge is made up of interviews and film clips. Kiselyak’s film’s most unique attribute is that it incorporates footage of Cassavetes from I’m Almost Not Crazy: John Cassavetes, The Man & His Work and Cinéastes de notre temps as well as a voice-over narration of an actor reading some choice quotes from Cassavetes (that can be found in Ray Carney’s excellent though controversial book Cassavetes on Cassavetes) in an attempt to keep Cassavetes’ own voice heard amongst the chorus of interviewees. A Constant Forge’s grand scale allows it to be this inclusive and seemingly definitive, though I would argue it yields fewer rewards overall as a film than the three previously discussed pictures (despite the time it devotes to Cassavetes’ elusive stage works in the 70s and 80s for which I am grateful). The same criticism that is often leveled upon Carney’s Cassavetes on Cassavetes is applicable to A Constant Forge in that while being so inclusive in its texts it misses out on one of the great truths about Cassavetes, and that is, like his filmmaking process, he is a different person everyday, infinitely adaptable. In a book this is an acceptable loss, in my opinion, especially if the book intends to read like a patchwork autobiography. What makes it detrimental to A Constant Forge is that it serves to pinpoint Cassavetes’ appearance in the film to be nothing more than an illusion. Anything For John, on the other hand, employed Cassavetes’ absence rather well, structuring much of the film as a sort of make-shift eulogy where his absence is very much the point.

directing Love Streams in 1984

What all of these films lack is a healthy appreciation for Cassavetes’ early days as an actor in films and television. Only A Constant Forge deals at length with this period, though mostly only with regards to Cassavetes’ work in Martin Ritt’s film Edge Of The City (1957). I would have enjoyed some analysis of Cassavetes’ work as a director on Johnny Staccato (1959) as well as a more in-depth biographical context.

If I had to pick just one of these excellent films to recommend, it would be Michael Ventura’s film. Despite its very vivid and immediate portrait of its subject, Ventura, according to his interview in Anything For John, manages to capture something of the tragedy Cassavetes faced on the set of Love Streams. Cassavetes believed that Love Streams would be his final film, his last statement to the world. This feeling just seems to permeate every aspect of Love Streams and I’m Almost Not Crazy, investing them with a taste of tragedy.

-Robert Curry

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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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Putting A Year To Rest

“Cinema also made the power of America abroad, its conquest of the world since the Second World War being due not only to military, technical and economic supremacy but also to the power of its cinema.” – Jean-Luc Godard, CINEMA: the archaeology of film and the memory of a century, 2000

“In other words, the validity and vibrancy of this important cinematic tradition depends upon a workable compromise between art cinema and popular cinema; between generic tradition and formal innovation; between political intentions and social fantasies; between private investment and public funding; and between a real appreciation for the local and regional and a critical examination of the national as a new/old  category of cultural identity within an increasingly streamlined global media landscape.” – Sabine Hake, German National Cinema, 2002

Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge

Introduction & Hacksaw Ridge

I have seen a number of blockbusters this Autumn.  Some were decent, some were terrible.  But each was indicative of the state of American cinema today in its own way.  Together these films provide a survey of the strategies and tactics employed by producers, directors, and studio executives in the effort to fill seats and entertain.

Of all of the films I have seen this Autumn, Hacksaw Ridge (2016) is by far the most indicative of America’s mass consciousness and how Hollywood chooses to address that mass conciousness.  Hacksaw Ridge is a return to form for director Mel Gibson.  Again he addresses the horrors of war, the morality of Christian duty and the circumstances that prompt Christian men to question their beliefs.  As always, Gibson does all of this at a fast pace, fast enough so that we the audience don’t have time to question nor ponder the significance of Gibson’s images.  Gibson’s film succeeds only in so far as it conveys his own Christian beliefs as well as serving up a violent spectacle so tantalizing to fans of Saving Private Ryan (1998) and video games that nothing else really does matter anymore.

That’s the issue at hand in American cinema today.  If a film conveys one articulate moral platitude and provides enough spectacle then nothing else really does matter.  This has been true of American mainstream cinema for sometime, though it has never seemed so blatant to me before.  The pretense of artfulness seems to have died in the wake of J.J. Abrams and Michael Bay.  Arguably the last really compelling mainstream commercial release with wide distribution in this country was Lee Daniels’ The Paper Boy (2012).  Since then, aside from some films released on the  “art-house circuit” (if one really can call it that), the best work available to American audiences is happening on television or online streaming platforms.  The cause of this jockeying in power and quality is inevitably born out of a competition between film, television and online streaming as well as a competition between the major entertainment conglomerates for successful branding or franchises (Star Wars vs. Star Trek, Marvel vs. DC, Harry Potter vs. Pixar, etc.).  Given this atmosphere  it isn’t any wonder why American media as a whole has stooped to pandering, placating and generally condescending to their audiences.

Blake Lively in The Shallows

Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe & Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows

In studying film history one tends to take it for granted that there can be innovation and controversy in B-Movies and exploitation films.  In the vein of exploitation films a number of remarkable filmmakers have cut their teeth.  One can often see evidence of this remarkability in the early exploitation films of such filmmakers as Jonathan Demme, Monte Hellman, Joe Dante, Robert Wise, and Abel Ferrara.  Regrettably, there is no evidence, as far as I can see, of any innovation or invention in either Don’t Breathe or The Shallows.

I saw both films at The Rave just off of UPenn’s campus with my friends Stephen and Virginia.  Virginia chose these films with our consent under the assumption that these films would somehow represent a contemporary manifestation of the kind of exploitative cinema that the three of us love (my expectations being set more specifically along the lines of Roger Corman’s productions in the eighties).

The experience of The Shallows certainly came closest to this.  As Virginia put it The Shallows was the first “serious shark movie” in a long time.  The Shallows was rather preposterous, a drawn out battle between Blake Lively and a CGI shark.  That was the film’s narrative; escape the shark.  The subtext of the film was that the love that Blake Lively’s character had for her deceased mother (a victim of cancer) could enable her to do anything.  This sentimental detail, designed to raise the stakes for the audience, really did nothing more than elicit a rather comical commentary from our fellow theater goers.

The true purpose of The Shallows though was to give the audience the opportunity to drink in Blake Lively’s body with our eyes for upwards of ninety minutes.  Don’t Breathe represents a similar impulse, though Alvarez seems to have run amok in creating images that sexually tantalize to the point that, due to the sheer volume and the inherent violence of these images, they become repulsive.

Don’t Breathe plays itself out as a sort of aesthetic marriage between Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978) and Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs (1991) with a sprinkling of Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark (1967) for good measure.  The narrative premise is wholly indebted to Craven’s film while the approach to sexual violence and retribution is that of Zarchi’s film.  However, unlike either film, though particularly I Spit On Your Grave, the phallic, and images representing the phallic, remain the brunt instrument of pain and sexual power.  The inverting of sexual dominance via castration that is the climax of I Spit On Your Grave is substituted in Don’t Breathe for a phallus in the control of a once female victim.  This is what was most troubling about Don’t Breathe.  The film lacked the audacity to empower the female protagonist on her own terms, thus subverting and disqualifying any claims to a feminist reading.

Tom Hanks & Aaron Eckhart in Sully

Cookie Cutter Perfection: Gavin O’Connor’s The Accountant & Clint Eastwood’s Sully

The Accountant is a troubling film.  It’s first act reads as the kind of genre-centric character study epitomized by Francis Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) while the second and third acts are dreadfully typical post-John Woo action spectacles.  The protagonist’s autism, initially treated with a sensitive humanism, metamorphoses into a kind of superpower or mutant ability with regards to how the script treats this condition.  In this respect the narrative design of the film implodes upon itself.  The latter half of the film eclipses the former, wiping away all of the nuance and subtlety.  In fact, the highlight of the film is right before this aesthetic shift in a short dialogue exchange between Ben Affleck and Anna Kendrick concerning painted portraits of dogs playing poker.  

Equally as generic, Sully represents the latest in a long line of films by Eastwood centering on a man fighting the system, though this time that man is played by Tom Hanks.  Hanks himself is no stranger to the “underdog” hero narrative as evidenced by last year’s Bridge Of Spies and The Terminal in 2004.  But Sully lacks the arbitrary whimsy and racism of Hanks’ collaborations with Steven Spielberg.  In the place of that whimsy Eastwood substitutes character.  The issue is that the script never really allows for the title character to exhibit more than one facet of himself, opting to play the same note over and over again.  The film can’t even bring itself to flirt with America’s post-9/11 paranoia or trauma concerning urban plane crashes, nor does it allow for the bureaucratic corruption to expand beyond three short sequences.

Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them

 Derrickson’s Doctor Strange & Yates’ Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them

I mentioned earlier how instrumental the successful franchise is to contemporary Hollywood marketing.  As a motivating factor as well as an aesthetic trend setter the franchise cannot be underestimated.  Consider the revival of the Star Trek, Star Wars, Transformers, and Power Rangers franchises.  Hollywood is franchise happy.

One such revived franchise is the Harry Potter franchise.  I have never read Rowling’s novels nor have I seen all of the original films.  However, I have been told that should not stop me from comprehending Yates’ Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them.

Immediately I was struck by a number of things in this film that are indicative of the Harry Potter franchise’s bankruptcy.  Firstly, another in a long line of nightmarishly awful performances by the acting atrocity Eddie Redmayne.  Secondly, the overwhelming number of jokes made at the expense of an overweight character.  Then finally the appropriation of the Marilyn Monroe type and of the early twentieth century period.  These first two issues speak for themselves.  The last two, at least in my perspective, represent an effort to establish familiar and marketable signifiers as well as lazy screenwriting on Rowling’s part.  New York of the twenties, as well as the twenties in general, have great currency with millennial audiences as they continue to fetishize the flapper era and its look.  The Monroe element is more elusive.  Typically an archetypally Monroe character is a sort of Janus.  The character will, to serve narrative needs, go from ditsy blonde sex object to an assertive and intelligent woman of the modern world.  This device has its root in the dispelling of the stereotype that Monroe was somewhere short of intelligence in the wake of her death and the thousands of ensuing biographies.  Popular films from the mid-sixties onward make use of this contradiction in a number of ways.  Rowling’s just doesn’t happen to be very interesting.

The construction of Rowling’s plot is a little less troubling in that it is generally so formulaic.  The hero is lost in a strange environment where he makes friends who can help him accomplish his task, save the world, and improve their own moral character.  The base approach to this structure and its literally magical charms allow Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them to fill the void left by Don Bluth so many years ago in the children’s film market (Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them is a remake of An American Tale right?).

Unlike the world of Harry Potter, the world of Doctor Strange is one that I know and love.  Rintrah is by far one of my favorite supporting characters in all of comic books.  I have two copies of the Amy Grant issue in my collection, as well as original trading cards of Kylian and Irish Wolfhound.  Not to mention my admiration for Steve Englehart’s groundbreaking run.  That said, I could rip Derrickson’s film apart from a fanboy perspective in a prolonged diatribe.  But I won’t.  I will stick to the film itself, dealing exclusively with it on its own terms.

Marvel/Disney has set out to create a universe in film that mirrors that in the comics; and it has.  The studio has produced about a dozen films that cross-reference and relate to one another at an alarming rate.  And it is into this universe that they have, with this film, introduced Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange.

Doctor Strange strives to inject hip and cool into the world of this often overlooked comic book character in the guise of visual effects lifted from Christopher Nolan’s Inception and the casting of Tilda Swinton.  Oddly, the film retains some of the jingoism of the comic.  The film’s structure itself is typical of the “origin story”.  The film is so remarkably mundane and familiar that there isn’t much to say other than that it looked better than Captain America: Civil War.

La La Land

Out Of The Theater And Back At Home

I opened this piece with two quotes.  One by Jean-Luc Godard and one by Sabine Hake.  I find both of their points to be valid and certainly true to an extent.  But are their ideas, their notions of what the cinema is and should be, applicable to the mainstream of Hollywood productions?  I don’t think so.  In the films I have discussed here there has been no evidence of a “workable compromise between art cinema and popular cinema” nor has the American cinema exhibited “power” as Godard puts it.  But I have seen such elements, components, and evidence in American films.  Though these films tend to be small, underground films playing regional film festivals.  Or, as is the case with Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, an rare exception that proves the rule.  

-Robert Curry

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Katzelmacher

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s most infamous play, Garbage, The City, & Death (1975), is a kind of revisionist cabaret assault on the audience.  By that point, Fassbinder had extended his creative aspirations beyond the tutelage of Jean-Marie Straub and towards the mainstream, and had mastered the reflexive political filmmaking sensibilities of Jean-Luc Godard, with a healthy dose of Brecht’s self awareness and artifice tinting his theatrical works.  Despite the mature themes and prowess with which Fassbinder instilled Garbage, The City, & Death, what remains one of his greatest works on both the stage and in the cinema is Katzelmacher (1969).

Katzelmacher is as simple in its execution as Garbage, The City, & Death is complex, designed to replicate the Bavarian “folk plays” of Marieluise Fleisser (to whom Fassbinder dedicated the piece).  Katzelmacher originated as a play at the end of Fassbinder’s hey-day with the AniTheater, and the dissolution of his association with Jean-Marie Straub.  Fassbinder’s film adaptation of Katzelmacher occurred just four months after completing his film Love Is Colder Than Death (1969), during a period in his career when the full potential of the cinema was still beyond his grasp, and his films were still stylistically fused with the AntiTheater.  Within a year, Fassbinder would begin his experimental period, imitating heavily the films of Godard; but in 1969, his approach to film was still very much indebted to the works of Straub.  Given Fassbinder’s budgetary restrictions and artistic limitations of the time, Katzelmacher represents Fassbinder’s most successful and fascinating exercise in low budget filmmaking.

On the stage, Katzelmacher can best be described as minimalist in terms of its set and lighting designs.  The play itself is set in a singular location in which all of the action (the action itself consisting of mostly dialogue) takes place.  From this fixed setting, the residents of an apartment building in a Bavarian suburb pass judgment and exhibit hostility toward a Greek immigrant worker.  The characters taunt and transgress against the Greek, while some, in a twist of ironic hypocrisy, are simultaneously endeavoring to seduce or exploit the Greek.

Fassbinder’s presentation of prejudice and exploitation articulates a contemporary fear of foreigners; that immigrant workers were taking all the jobs, that they would delude the German culture.  The particular theme of Katzelmacher pertaining to the corruption of German culture (manifest in all its brutality when the Greek is severely beaten) is played up to great effect to recall the circumstances through which the Third Reich rose to power some thirty-five years earlier.  Fassbinder’s career is marked by a thematic trend of drawing comparisons between the German cultures he experienced and that which allowed the Nazis to come into power.  In almost every case, when Fassbinder employs this tactic, it is cautionary, tinged with a sense of historical awareness.  Not surprisingly, such a mode of thematic operations was not easily received by the general German public, let alone when presented in such an “in your face” approach as that employed in the production of Katzelmacher.  Keep in mind that the actors articulating Fassbinder’s harsh diatribes were positioned against a brick wall set facing out across the stage to the audience.

To transition Katzelmacher successfully from the stage to the screen, Fassbinder wrote entirely new scenes that had only been referred to in the original stage version.  These scenes take place mostly within the apartment building itself, in the rooms inhabited by the film’s characters.  These scenes allow the film audience to engage the characters in a more intimate setting, providing a greater insight into their behavior and moral contradictions.  Film can do this in a way the theater cannot, where devices such as the close-up, and the POV shot articulate visually the sub textual experience of a character.  Fassbinder’s grasp of these methods is not entirely developed in Katzelmacher, but one could argue that it is for the better.  Katzelmacher’s exhibition of filmic principles is as limited as those in Love Is Colder Than Death, but benefits from these limitations because it was not an attempt at a genre picture as its predecessor had been.  In this case, when Katzelmacher utilizes film tactics, it is to punctuate issues and circumstances, making the overall piece far more aggressive than its counterpart while never losing the subtlety that would force the audience to withdraw from the cinematic experience.

The long takes that define the visual dialect of Katzelmacher (with the exception of two tracking shots that book-end the film) provide the groundwork for Fassbinder’s film.  Long takes, or shots, in the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder develop in leaps and bounds over the course of the next decade, from the pans and tilts employed in Whity (1970) to the long and terrifically elaborate tracking shot that commences the epilogue of Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980).  Though Jean-Marie Straub’s minimalism suits the early films of Fassbinder, Katzelmacher in particular, it becomes more than evident that by the time Fassbinder directs Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1969) he is prepared to shift his cinematic interests into the Sirkian melodrama.

What is most surprising in Katzelmacher is Fassbinder’s sense of dramatic rhythm as it pertains to the editing of the film. Almost every scene exists as a single shot, of which there are eighty or so, each with duration of about one minute.  Though the film is stagnant, the lengthy shots of the film maneuver across the screen to a definite beat.  This not only signifies a rapidly building tension between the native residents and the Greek, but an understanding of the needs of a mainstream audience.  Jean-Marie Straub’s work in film at the time are heavily encumbered with long shots, sometimes lasting over three minutes, that prevent Straub’s films from finding an economically viable mainstream demographic.  Fassbinder manages to balance his “art-house” credentials with commercial possibilities, a creative move that caused a number of his oldest supporters to turn from him.

Forty-three years later, now that Fassbinder has passed and his position in the cinema is unshakable, it is becoming more and more difficult to access his early films within the context in which they were produced.  The lengthy shots and self-aware performances of his players are not easily digested by most audiences and present an almost insurmountable problem to American audiences.  In America, access to Fassbinder’s AntiTheater work (scripts, notes, etc) is almost non-existent outside of the occasional Fassbinder biography.

-Robert Curry

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Borges & Frampton

It’s interesting to consider how the depiction of memory has changed since the 19th century.  Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life Of Charlotte Bronte, James Boswell’s The Life Of Samuel Johnson and James Longstreet’s From Manassas To Appomattox all read of their time when it was taboo to detail personal relationships to persons, events or otherwise.  Since the 20th century it is standard for any art form to depict that that is wholly personal to its author.  This is true of the artist’s approach to memory.  Where Longstreet would restrict his accounts to statistics and figures, Frank Harris would supply a reader with a story warts and all in My Life & Loves, but specifically with his own ideas included.  Hollis Frampton does the same, but transposes a biographical account to the medium of film.  Is a biography not just one man’s account of his life as memory serves?  This is the question of 20th century art forms.  Frampton may even go so far as to dissect this proposition of biography in Nostalgia (1971), much as Borges did in his text Borges & I, though with the elegance reserved for such endeavors as proposed by Bergson’s work that made both men’s works possible.   Yet, the question is, within art, how does the incorporation of “time” (reflexive or not] manipulate the memories which the artist depicts?

In Creative Evolution, Bergson proposes all experience takes place in time, and for a film artist such as Hollis Frampton this is inescapably true.  Film as a medium manipulates and transposes time in an accepted narrative line whilst still adhering to it’s very own duration as a piece.  Frampton works his art on Bergson’s “sensory plane”, in that his piece Nostalgia is both visual and audible; however Frampton takes one step beyond this in how he manipulates this ‘sensory plane” to be even more reflective of his film’s duration.  To put it simply, the audio of Michael Snow’s voice-over narration’s content does not sync with the image which Frampton presents his audience.  Therefore, the audience must do two things which, as a byproduct, bring the film’s duration in time to a sensory forefront.  First, one must pay close attention to that which Snow describes, for it will be the backstory to the anticipated image yet to be seen.  Furthermore, one must retain the content of the image, to better understand the preceding explanation Snow has given the audience.  This is a process as muddled as it appears here, hence, the primary sensation Frampton has given his audience is not one of a documentary (which Nostalgia essentially is as far as content is concerned), but rather illustrates, through the audience, the time it takes to remember and the sensation of remembering.

Frampton’s background as a photographer, which is the focus of Nostalgia, has conditioned him to deal with time in a unique way.  As is well known, photography began as a documentary tool in the 19th century and has arguably never lost the association.  Therefore, it seems fair to suggest that Frampton manipulated his film with the essence of the photographic purpose in mind.    Justifying the duration of shots as well as documenting in real time the experience he meant to capture.  That is to say as a recording tool, the movie camera operated within the parameters of Bergson’s “mechanical time” whilst documenting the organic, which in this case are flames.

On the other end of the avant garde film spectrum is Jean Genet’s The Song Of Love (1950).  Genet comes from a literary background similar to Pasolini, though with a stronger, overriding concern with the novel as a means of dearranging linear narrative time.  To illustrate the emotional content of his memories of incarceration, Genet employed many of the effects pioneered in the fantasy films of Jean Cocteau [who often visited Genet’s set].  Genet opts for emotional content and emotive experience through expressionistic terms and tactics over the reflexive technicalities of Hollis Frampton, with a result more instep with Alfred Doblin’s depiction of memory in the novel Berlin Alexanderplatz.

“The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to.” (Borges, page 246]  It’s that sensation of remembering from the present that Borges makes tangible in his story Borges and I, and is also the aesthetic sensation of the author in Frampton’s Nostalgia, the author who is Frampton himself, just like Borges.  Borges uses his “present voice” to recall his past in the third person, and splitting the identity of Borges into the Borges of then and now.  Frampton makes the same tactic applicable to film in an arguably reflexive manner in that the image is the work of Hollis Frampton photographer made in the early 1960s, while the voice of the now (during screenings] is of Mike Snow, a filmmaker.  The change in identity, Frampton to Snow is just as significant and meaningful in the continuity of continuous time as the change in career, photographer to filmmaker.  Hence the identity of both Borges and Frampton has been split by past experience to present “shared” experience with their respective audiences/readers.  This division of identity over a matter of time reinforces Bergson’s idea of “organic time”.

Borges’ approach to the theory of “organic time” is of the very poetic, in which he juxtaposes the physical author with the mental representation of the same author, and though they share one identity, only the “mental” is given a voice.  Throughout the piece allusions are made to the everyday life of the writer Borges, yet, according to Bergson, no act can ever be exactly repeated by an organic entity.  Thus, Borges, when writing Borges & I, was remembering uniquely, as will his reader.  But upon a second read, all will not be as remembered, which is a point the voice of the “mental” makes in the piece.  It is then arguable that Borges’ piece is as reflexive as Frampton’s.

“Efforts stored up in the present is indeed also a memory,”[Bergson, page 51] describes perfectly the sensation the audience feels while ingesting the works of Frampton and Borges.  Though the audience/reader feels they are taking part in both respective works in one single moment, in actuality they are experiencing physically the passage of time.  Thus the suspension of mental awareness by stimuli creates a plastic sensation of time, which both Frampton and Borges exploit in their audience/reader as well as depict within their pieces.

The latter proposition seems particularly relevant in Nostalgia.  Film is the physical representation of time in it’s passing, which the audience surely knows though is compelled to understand the plastic time of the film as a given reality.  Thus, as each photograph in Frampton’s piece is burnt and replaced with a new photograph, the audience resets its mental clocks.  When a film is understood on such a compartmentalized level, one begins to understand better the beginnings and endings which exist within a film working down from scenes to sequences, sequences to shots, shots to frames.  The construct of Frampton’s film, it’s repetition, disjointed information, and split author all work in unison to likewise compartmentalize the audience’s sense of time.  For instance, at the start of a new shot it is typical that a viewer will ponder the facts before, the photo now, and the photo to come; in other words they are remembering to remember what they remembered while only being conscious of the now while sub-consciously acknowledging the passing of time.

Bergson’s phrase “organic time” has some rather unique ramifications.  “Organic Time” when put in the most simplest of terms means that organisms, always undergoing the process of change and development, cannot repeat the same action twice.  This opens up a new theory in the interpretation of Nostalgia.   Though Snow’s voice over is a constant mechanical recording, a change will occur within the audience.  No audience member will view the film and take part in it’s process of remembering the same way twice according to Bergson.  Thus it is proposed that Frampton has constructed a film which builds layer upon layer of remembering to remember having remembered again; a process so complicated in the mechanics of the mind, yet trivial to human experience.

Which is where the before mentioned concept of plastic time becomes dominant.  Borges’ construction of time in Borges & I is stilted in it’s retrospective observations since text must occupy a “mechanical time” in contrast to Borges the man who exists in “organic time”.  This is not so much a juxtaposition as an ending achieved through contrasting means.  For only in the medium of “mechanical time” can Borges illustrate the sensations of “organic time” which are then shared with his readers.  It is an uneasy contradiction which is addressed with in the text itself.  The “mental” of the author in Borges & I experiences organic time, but perceives his physical counterpart to inhabit “mechanical time”.  It may even be read as a dehumanization of one in favor for the other by Borges himself [outside his text that is].  The same is applicable to Nostalgia.  The mechanical time of film embodies in it’s visual illusions the organic time of the director and his audience.

It seems a justifiable counter argument that film and literature are void of “organic time” because such a sensation is only achieved via an illusion.   But it is the illusion which is the sensational for the persons observing, the tangible to those unaware of the nuanced mechanics within the mediums that the pieces exist.

It is through such rigorous manipulations of time that the sensation of memory and in turn self reflection can be emoted through a piece and to it’s audience.  As a race, humanity has been obsessive  about shared experiences; one may argue that all art is fundamentally inspired by such a drive.  Yet, it seems relevant that the pre-occupation with time, which so clearly defines humanity on a person to person basis, should provoke the highly conceptual planes of experience that Borges and Frampton strive to lift their audience to.

The plane of experience though mathematical and calculated in Frampton’s work, does lack the lyricism of Borges.  Borges has the ability to, in his fiction, wed the differing approaches to the experience of time and sensation of memory which Jean Genet and Hollis Frampton represent.  The poetry of lyricism is a human sensibility, and may indeed move Borges’ piece deeper into the spectrum of “organic time”.   Consider the emotive quality of poetry, and it’s contrasting meaning to those who have varying experiences and backgrounds.  Thus it seems reasonable to propose that poetry has the organic quality that most writing does not.  Since Borges [being a skilled poet himself] plays with time through his poetic sensitivity; isn’t it fair to speculate that his work will posses the merits of “organic time” more dominantly that Frampton’s Nostalgia?

Bergson’s notion of “organic” and “mechanical” time define the back bone of the works Borges & I and Nostalgia.  The pieces differ immensely in form, medium, and reflexivity, but share the common concern of what does memory mean to human kind and how is it felt?  Perhaps too broad or too vague, but none the less, Borges and Frampton endeavored to search themselves for an answer.

-Robert Curry

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