Tag Archives: filmmaking

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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Filed under Spring 2017

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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Filed under Summer 2016

Mélo: High Style & Emotional Content

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

Melo

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

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

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

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

Melo

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

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Winter 2015

Nerd Vs Geek: A Side Project for our Producer

Our loyal readers may or may not have noticed that I have been a bit out of touch with writing articles for Zimbo Films lately, and I have a good reason for it. For the last several months I’ve been working on a comedic webseries with Matt Conant and Stephanie Yuhas called Nerd Vs Geek, playing with the notion that both of these classes of….well, nerdiness and geekdom, cannot get along. Matt and Stephanie wrote, produced and directed the show, as well as acted in their “creative love child” of a show under the same names.

NVG1Panorama

I was their video intern for a year under their non profit company Project Twenty1 after I graduated college, and they both gave me a lot of insight as to how the “film world” works and what I need to do to make myself stand out. I have worked as the production manager for the entirety of the series, and as a fellow geek/nerd, I jumped at the opportunity to bring some clarity to the broader definition of what those terms mean. Shows like Big Bang Theory have attempted to shed some light on the subject of pop culture and geekdom, but have failed to convey this love of sci-fi/fantasy/video games/etc. as an acceptable social norm. By isolating Sheldon as an unusual person and the only unusual person in the entire show, it insinuates the stereotype of the traditional nerd, as someone who you don’t want to become. (Please don’t comment on how I don’t understand Big Bang Theory, I have honestly never watch the show. I have just heard this rant from countless friends and am simply reiterating their thoughts).

Group Photo NvG

Nerd Vs Geek has an ensemble cast of nerds and geeks, who constantly squabble over their differences and what is the acceptable amount of geeky/nerdiness in social situations. The show is split between the nerds: Apple (Sarah Braun), Becca (Shelby Dawn), Royale (James Collins, Jr.) and Stephanie (last name Yuhas), and the geeks: Gregg (Robb Stech), Matt (last name Conant), Enriggy (Rogelio Gonzalez), and Wyatt (Jordan Allen). Each nerd has a different area of…..let’s say expertise. Apple enjoys writing, daydreaming, pizza, and has a habit of being the quiet one in the room. Becca is the controlling president of the local Mensax group (an off brand of Mensa), and can be incredibly manipulative. Royale has a photographic memory, enjoys Dungeons and Dragons, and is secretly much more geeky than he lets on. And last but not least, Stephanie is a 1st grade science teacher with an obsession for dinosaurs and random nerdy facts. As far as the geeks go, Gregg is one of the most closeted about his geeky side; only letting it out when in the presence of his brother and other geeky friends. Matt is the most antisocial of the group, and is completely immersed in everything from pop culture to board games to obscure video games, and prefers the solidarity of his basement compared to the company of other human beings. Rogelio has a tendency to create weird voices and likes to think “Batman” is an actual verb. And Wyatt is one of the sane ones, whose obsession of theater knowledge attempts to help Apple come out of her shell.

NvG panel

Nerd Vs Geek was also featured in an “Indy Filmmaking for Pennies” panel at Too Many Games 2013 in Oaks, PA yesterday. I had the pleasure of filming it (as you can see from the picture). Too Many Games is a retro gaming convention best known for hosting nerdy famous podcasters and filmmakers such as the Angry Video Game Nerd and Brentalfloss. The panel yesterday featured most of the cast and crew from Nerd Vs Geek as well as the show Living in 8 Bits, created by Mike Licisyn, our cinematographer from Nerd Vs Geek. A good number of people attended the panel and asked some interesting questions about filmmaking on a budget and how to begin. We also premiered the tenth episode of Nerd Vs Geek at the panel, which received a good reaction from the audience (probably because it has to do with playing Dungeons and Dragons, and it’s one of my favorite episodes so far).  Below is the link to the episode if you care to watch.

-Caroline Boyd

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Filed under Spring 2013