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Le Brasier Ardent

When the world gets to a point where it no longer expects to be hit into excitement or tickled into guffaws by every film, when speed isn’t the test of a film – and that time isn’t so far distant – the French film will come into its own in the world’s eyes and the eyes of France.  – Harry Alan Potamkin, The French Film, 1930

When Harry Alan Potamkin wrote his article The French Film for the publication Cinema in 1930, I am sure he had no idea how far away we’d still be in 2017 from a time when “speed isn’t the test of a film”. I can say that, from my own experience as a teacher, that it is speed, the speed of cinema today versus the speed of the cinema ten or twenty years ago, that is the primary prohibitive factor that keeps today’s youth from discovering the cinema’s history. But why distinguish narrative cinema by a binary complex of “art” and “entertainment” at all?

 

Le Brasier Ardent

I believe there is something to be said for films whose system of aesthetic values defy categorization as either “entertainment” or as “art”. There exists between the two, the “speedy” and the “slow”, a happy medium where, on rare occasions, a different kind of cinema occurs. In this medium zone one would probably find such classics as Roy Rowland’s The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987), Sara Driver’s When Pigs Fly (1993), and Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy (2012); each film a brilliant, genre defying accumulation of incongruous cinematic expressions whose singular totality yields new and sometimes profound insights as to how we perceive and interpret films.

One of the truly anomalous works of cinematic art I have encountered, as strange and threatening as Tough Guys Don’t Dance but as chaotic as The Paperboy, is Le Brasier Ardent (1923). Le Brasier Ardent brings together such conflicting elements that its relatively fluid narrative trajectory should, under no circumstances, function cohesively; and yet it does. The film opens with what appears to be a D.W. Griffith inspired piece of metaphorical moralization which transitions into a slapstick styled satire (featuring a gadget infused bed and a speaking dog) that transitions once more into a different style altogether that combines Louis Feuillade’s sense of pulp with Fritz Lang’s sense of design to comic effect. The hero of Le Brasier Ardent, Detective Z., is equally absurd. He first appears as a Dr. Mabuse style vilain in a dream, then reappears in “reality” sporting a bizarre disguise only to metamorphose into a series of other personalities, in rather quick succession, including a dapper private eye, a grandma’s boy, a bumbling clown, a sadistic pianist, and finally, a giddy man-child.

The reason why all of this nonsense seems to work is because of Le Brasier Ardent’s star/director/writer Ivan Mosjoukine. Mosjoukine, a prominent member of Films Albatross, was a highly regarded actor in his day who only directed two films (of which Le Brasier Ardent is the second and last). The lack of a formal regard for the cinematographic, coupled with Mosjoukine’s sincere interest in exploring notions of fantasy, combined to create one of the most highly original and entertaining films France produced in the early twenties. According to the excellent Flicker Alley DVD liner notes to Le Brasier Ardent, this was the film that inspired Jean Renoir to first pursue a career in the cinema.

In many ways the genius moments of stylistic juxtaposition in Le Brasier Ardent are the byproduct of an amateurism; much in the same way that the beauty of Flaming Creatures (1963) was the byproduct of Jack Smith’s relative amateurism. The disregard for formal convention is one thing that, in most cases, cannot actually sustain a film on its own. Luckily, Mosjoukine’s own aesthetic convictions, as well as his charisma on screen, sustain Le Brasier Ardent where it may otherwise fail visually. Even more important though to the complex of Le Brasier Ardent’s various stylistic parts is Mosjoukine’s speed. We move at a rapid pace from scene to scene, plot point to plot point, style to style, at such a clip that it has to be Mosjoukine’s constant presence that sustains us as his image unifies the sum of the film’s parts.

Ivan Mosjoukine’s direction, his absolute authorship of the film Le Brasier Ardent, stands as a sort of latent self-portraiture. Ivan Mosjoukine began his film career in tsarist Russia, relocating to Paris during the revolution of 1918. At Films Albatross, Mosjoukine, along with other Russian émigrés Victor Tourjansky and Alexandre Volkoff, began to explore with tremendous enthusiasm the French cinema. The “discoveries” Mosjoukine made in the French cinema are felt throughout Le Brasier Ardent as if the film were a kind of index on the very potential of cinematic narrative forms. On another level, Le Brasier Ardent is not just a catalogue of aesthetics and techniques, it is a record of Mosjoukine’s various incarnations and meanings in the role of a matinee idol as Detective Z continues to shift and change with the narrative.

 

Le Brasier Ardent

Consider J. Lee Thompson’s What A Way To Go! (1964) in comparison with Le Brasier Ardent. Both films examine different styles of narrative film using one star (Ivan Mosjoukine and Shirley MacLaine) as the anchor point with which to provide narrative continuity in an otherwise discontinuous film. Each of these two films proposes questions about the interplay between the cinema and our own private fantasies. What A Way To Go! approaches this textual collage, as it were, in an episodic form, prioritizing accessibility for an audience with affiliations for the classic Hollywood form by locking its different styles alone in various isolated dream sequences. Mosjoukine’s film is more bold than that, maybe even careless. Le Brasier Ardent doesn’t treat each new style within a narrative vacuum. Mosjoukine grounds his investigations into differing forms within a straight fluid narrative that imbues the film with a spontaneity and intensity verboten in What A Way To Go!.

Le Brasier Ardent is one of those explosive little films that conveys a true and highly contagious passion for the cinema. However, if one were to consider seeking this film out, there is something to keep in mind; the plot-line is patriarchal and chauvinist (though no more so than the majority of silent films). Le Brasier Ardent is a film of value because of its technique, its uniqueness in this respect, not its political or social message.

-Robert Curry

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Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird (2017), is the “hip” ticket this holiday season. Like Wonder Woman (2017) in the spring, Lady Bird suits the zeitgeist; though in many respects this clouds rather than illuminates a lot of the serious discussions I have heard about the film. Still, as far as debut films go, Lady Bird is effectively entertaining and will, no doubt, touch upon the specific cultural references and experiences of most millennials.

Lady Bird

Lady Bird’s two main achievements are its narrative and its defying of convention. Most films, directed by men or women, that deal with a woman’s “coming-of-age” center around two conventions that are subverted in Gerwig’s film. First, the notion that the primary objective of any teenage girl is to get a cool teenage boy to like her. Second, that the only way to attract a suitor is by “fitting-in” with the popular clique. Lady Bird does address certain maneuverings to be popular as much as it addresses the maneuverings of it’s title character to get a boy, but with a focus not on the end goal, but rather on the subtle ramifications of these endeavors. In fact, Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) herself doesn’t calculate or even manipulate those around her all that consciously, and certainly does so with a blind eye as to how her actions affect the people closest to her. Gerwig’s prioritizing of these two processes within the narrative focus negates what often seems like obsessive and borderline violent behavior in the protagonists of other films centered on the experiences of teenage girls (consider the teen films of John Hughes and that ilk).

The focus on process also enables Gerwig to sustain the narrative thread concerning the titular character and her mother (Laurie Metcalf), along with several other characters and subplots. It could be said that Lady Bird, as much as it is a character study, is a film that actually allows the players to develop characters, yielding some effective and surprising performances to the point that it sometimes appears to be an ensemble film. The issue then is that Gerwig, though an actor herself, does not frame or cut Lady Bird based upon the strengths of these performances.

Gerwig’s camera placement favors a medium to wide two-shot, locking characters together in one frame. This would not seem as theatrical as it does if the blocking or the depth of focus were at all interested in the spaces inhabited by these characters. When Gerwig does use close-ups it is almost always after a conflict when the stakes are settled and we feel secure in the knowledge of where we should be investing our sympathies as spectators. Similarly, Gerwig’s approach to editing is to cut to the action of a scene or sequence. We the audience are never given the chance to stay in a scene after the narrative action has occurred and are never allowed to witness or share in the tension of the characters within a moment.

Lady Bird

These issues of technique culminate to the effect that Lady Bird forgoes much of its potential for dramatic urgency. Lady Bird is a “safe” film, a commercial film, that refuses to take any real substantial risks.

-Robert Curry

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Godard & Ishaghpour: A Review

“Looking at Histoire(s) du cinéma, the first chapter especially, I got the impression there had been three major events in the twentieth century: the Russian revolution, Nazism, and cinema, particularly Hollywood cinema, which is the power of cinema, the plague as you (Jean-Luc Godard) say.” – Youssef Ishaghpour to Godard, Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century

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Jean-Luc Godard may come in and out of fashion, but it seems indisputable that he, more than any other filmmaker, is the most important artist of the cinema in the twentieth century. One doesn’t need to particularly like or enjoy Godard’s work to appreciate its singular accomplishments. In fact, in the book I wish to address, Youssef Ishaghpour himself, despite the high regard in which he holds Godard, often challenges the filmmaker’s own ideas and readings concerning his films. Godard certainly has his fair share of detractors, certainly with concerns towards his latter period, but to summarily dismiss a work because it is difficult or unconventional is more an act of self-betrayal than a critique of a film or filmmaker.

The book in question here is the brilliant Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century (first published in 2000) by Jean-Luc Godard and Youssef Ishaghpour. This publication is part of a series titled Talking Images, edited by Yann Perreau, which is primarily interested in investigating the usefulness and purpose of the cinema at the start of the twenty-first century. So it is fitting that the text of Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century, a lengthy conversation between Ishaghpour and Godard followed by an essay by Ishaghpour, should focus on Godard’s mammoth Histoire(s) du cinéma.

In Histoire(s) du cinéma Godard employs a variety of avant-garde video tactics (superimposition, text overlays, dubbing, looping, etc.) to create a visual complex that is the equivalent in cinema to what Alfred Döblin and James Joyce achieved in literature. At the center of this complex is Godard himself, and from this center spirals the cinema in a series of rhyming and juxtaposing rhythms whose images are linked by Godard’s own subjective interpretation of his memories of the twentieth century which are, in-turn, embodied on the audio track and in text overlays. This complex yields over its 8 parts and 266 minutes a series of patterns and intersections, both formal, calculated and accidental, that locate a broader sense of purpose to the very design of cinema as a social and political form of art.

From this jumbled description, of what I consider to be Godard’s greatest achievement, above, one can begin to understand how complicated Histoire(s) du cinéma truly is and why it continues to perplex, enrage and enthrall audiences. Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century is the most practical and useful guide one could hope for to dissect Histoire(s) du cinéma. The intimate, conversational quality of the “interview” section of the book gives Godard, by way of Ishaghpour’s insights and careful readings of the film, the opportunity not only to describe some of the specific meanings of certain images in Histoire(s) du cinéma, but to also address his own desired outcome of the project in terms of its spectatorship. This essentially serves to direct the reader’s focus to different elements of the film during different sections, though the conversation never becomes a matter of “mapping out” Godard’s complicated visual and audio complex.

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There is also a casual, somewhat anecdotal quality to Ishaghpour and Godard’s conversation that is likely to be of interest to the viewer who never bothered to look at Godard’s work post-Weekend (1968). For instance, Godard’s interest in Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), Orson Welles and his aesthetic relationship to John Ford, Henri Langlois, Jules Michelet, Jean Mitry, Georges Sadoul, Gilles Deleuze and Truffaut are all discussed and will no doubt satisfy the appetites of many a film major.

But to separate one element of the interview from the other is to dispense with the overall purpose of the text as a whole which is to rediscover Godard the filmmaker and critic in his Histoire(s) du cinéma. Ishaghpour’s closing essay, Jean-Luc Godard Cineaste of Modern Life: The Poetic in the Historical, eloquently argues that, with Histoire(s) du cinéma, Godard locates the cinema as a means of contesting History/Histoire(s). Ishaghpour very succinctly presents his idea within the wider context implied by Histoire(s) du cinéma, the state of contemporary art, by drawing on a variety of scholarship from Deleuze’s notion of the time-image to Sergei Eisenstein’s theories of montage.

I will say that some of the material in Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century can be a bit forbidding insofar as it references an equally wide variety of texts as it does films (some more obscure than others). If one prefers a less focused study of a single Godard film, or is interested in films from earlier in his career, I would recommend Forever Godard, edited by James Williams and Michael Temple. Forever Godard is a fascinating volume that anthologized a series of essays about the filmmaker on various parts of his career that is fully illustrated with stills from his films (which make this volume a beautiful object as much as a book).

-Robert Curry

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A Spectacle Of War

“Of course, you know this means war!” – Groucho Marx, A Night At The Opera, 1935

Dunkirk

I don’t particularly love war films as a genre. I find most of them to be either overly sentimental, propagandist, violently exploitative, or just racist. For me the first really good and also fascinating war film is  Abel Gance’s J’Accuse (1919). The other war films (I’m finding this genre label a bit too loose and not very helpful) that have expressed anything of merit have all appeared to have taken something from Gance, even if it is just a shared impulse. The “good” war films, in my opinion, all cherish human life with a capacity that a blockbuster production is incapable of while also posing questions regarding the necessity of violence and the nature of violence as spectacle. The more popular route has always been more propagandist and celebratory of the machismo of war while simultaneously pushing the political agenda of a current regime. That’s precisely why masterpieces such as Chris Marker’s omnibus film Far From Vietnam (1967), Miklós Jancsó’s The Red And The White (1967) and Elem Klimov’s Come & See (1984) remain elusive to most American audiences during a time when they are, perhaps, needed the most. But playing in cinemas today are two films who navigate these concerns with war in different ways that make them as illuminating with regards to their subject while also functioning as a sort of litmus test for the ideologies of this moment in time. The films are War For The Planet Of The Apes and Dunkirk.

Matt Reeves’ War For The Planet Of The Apes (2017) represents a pastiche that apes (pun intended) from such distinguished and diverse films as John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963), Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), and Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951) to cite only the most obvious examples. The culmination of these narrative elements having been reappropriated and strewn together in a patchwork is not necessarily that interesting in so far as imbuing a new degree of emotional response to familiar stimuli, but rather in War For The Planet Of The Apes’ capacity to examine the principles of these narrative tropes that have allowed them to work in different iterations over many decades by simply rearranging and aligning them within a linear narrative construct. Ironically, the detachment required by such an investigation derives from the computer generated apes themselves (they represent a different though just as plastic and campy manifestation as the costumes worn by actors during the original franchise from the late sixties into the seventies).

War For The Planet Of The Apes exists in a kind of limbo in American mainstream cinema. This represents an alternative reading of War For The Planet Of The Apes. Reeves has still delivered an overwhelming spectacle of violence, so it isn’t very likely that many viewers will be watching the film for its subtle genre deconstruction. Due to its blockbuster status, critical discourse around War For The Planet Of The Apes will be miniscule while audiences will not likely feel encouraged to enter into an analytical dialogue with the film. War For The Planet Of The Apes, as campy as it is, successfully straddles the line which is so sacred in American cinema; the one between art and entertainment (intellectual vs. spectacle). The problem here is that there shouldn’t be any segregation.

War For The Planet Of The Apes

Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there is Christopher Nolan. His films have consistently pandered to artistic recognition while never truly accomplishing anything worthwhile or remotely interesting as far as I can see. Dunkirk could have potentially demonstrated the various sensations of duration born out of a variety of duress in its hodge-podge semi-linear structure. However, Nolan consistently assumes that his audience suffers from some kind of mental incapacity and chose to label these three experiences of duration, thus negating the final reveal that would have lent Dunkirk emotional power. Nolan’s approach to form via these labels (The Mole, The Sea, and The Air) also functions to deny the film any interesting exchange between the images within the three different timelines as he cuts back and forth between them.

Thus Dunkirk is the antithesis of War For The Planet Of The Apes in that it aspires to art and provides only spectacle. The spectacle itself is not even that rewarding for that matter. As I sat in the theater watching Dunkirk I kept thinking of Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977). Dunkirk, like A Bridge Too Far, trades on its roster of celebrities and plethora of special effects to pull at the heart-strings of its audience. This strategy, while good in theory, doesn’t allow for ample character development, thus making it difficult for the audience to have anything more than a passing superficial reaction to the film. The only time Dunkirk comes close to achieving any real characterization is during Mark Rylance’s scenes. Rylance brings a subtlety and a sense of experience to his role as Mr. Dawson that renders his character with more depth and ambiguity than could be mustered by the rest of the film’s cast.

What Dunkirk and War For The Planet Of The Apes have in common is what they prove, each in their own way. These two films indicate that a majority of the movie going public see war and accept war purely as a spectacle, as a means for escape. This probably has as much to do with how these films are sold and marketed as with the way which wars are treated by journalists and the media in this country. Arguably, as the images of Vietnam on the 5 o’clock news fade from our national consciousness, so does our ability as a nation to treat war on film as anything other than “pulp”. I doubt that it is any coincidence that a majority of the most worthwhile films about war I have seen were made during the Vietnam conflict and in its immediate aftermath.

-Robert Curry

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Wittgenstein, Bazin, & Godard

Reality: The world or the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them: “he refuses to face  reality”. – Webster’s English Dictionary definition

In 1921, Ludwig Wittgenstein published his most significant philosophical writing Tractus Logico-Philosophicus.  In his book, Wittgenstein does not argue on behalf of his beliefs as they pertain to reality, but instead presents his reader with a number of observations whose validity he believed to be self-evident.  The sum of Wittgenstein’s observations present the reader with a perspective of our shared reality that is designed to undermine the conventions and the stability with which man kind has always employed when grappling with the world around him.  In summation, Tractus Logico-Philosophicus presents a reality without any definite truth, where knowledge as we know it is nothing more than a human invention.  The components of this “human invention” consist of numerical labels and names that allow the human intellect to reason with his/her surroundings, to navigate a reality as subjective as it is believed to be objective.

Wittgenstein’s work has become one of the most influential philosophical studies of the twentieth century, and is, along with the works of Henri Bergson, essential to the development of film theory and criticism.  Consider that everything contained within a frame and the accompanying soundtrack of a film is a “reality”.  To navigate this reality, the filmmaker has broken it up into various shots.  These shots, aligned during the film’s post-production, allow a fluidity of experience, simulating the human experience of time or life.  The denominations of a film’s parts (shots, sequences, scenes, acts) are therefore synonymous with the numerical labels Wittgenstein attributes to man’s invention of a “shared reality”.

The parts of the film, assembled by the filmmaker, each represent a distinctly emotive signifier that the audience utilizes to navigate the film’s narrative.  Each member of the audience, with his or her own subjective perspective, will interpret these signifiers differently, though without much variation.  This phenomenon speaks directly to Wittgenstein’s observations regarding mankind’s experience of reality.  There can, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, be no definite reality if there is no universally uniform reaction or perception to an event, object or thought.

Film is the most illustrative medium of the arts when put in terms of philosophical translation. Yet, in an issue of Cahiers du Cinema published in December 1956, Andre Bazin and Jean-Luc Godard became embattled in an argument over the validity of film art and its ability to reflect or capture reality.

Bazin’s article, “Editing Forbidden”, advocates a cinema of long takes shot with a deep focus.  Bazin believed that it was the cinema’s responsibility to translate our reality as we see it to film, creating the illusion that we, the audience, are occupying the same space and time as the character’s of the film’s narrative.  This translation of reality is more literal than Godard’s interpretation, standing in direct opposition of the theories of montage originated by Eisenstein and Vertov in the twenties.  The films Bazin supported, such as the early films of Orson Welles and John Ford, present a perverted reflection of our reality, and therefore inherit the same non-truths as those outlined by Wittgenstein.

Godard’s article “Editing, My Beautiful Concern”, takes the opposite approach as Bazin’s.  Godard argues that the films of Nicholas Ray, F.W. Murnau, and Fritz Lang, with their use of elaborate montage in the tradition of Eisenstein, present a cinematic experience closer to our reality, and perhaps even closer to a true reality in general.  By breaking a narrative up into numerous signifying parts as opposed to a few, these films create a more powerful emotional and psychological reaction in the audience.  Though most of these films are highly stylized and melodramatic, their ability, through montage, to capture human emotion does represent a more accurate reflection of the human experience.  Despite the fact that these films are subject to Wittgenstein’s observations because they exist in our reality as works of art, within their own insular world they come closer to a true definite reality than those films advocated by Bazin.

For instance, a film by F.W. Murnau such as Faust (1926), with its expressionist and romantic tendencies, creates a world within the film that is entirely reflective of the emotional and psychological truth of its characters that is indisputable to the audience, though the audiences’ own reaction is subject to debate.  A less stylized film such as Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train (1951) presents a world so much like our own that the truths experienced by the film’s characters are just as ambiguous and artificial as our own.

Godard’s observations are nonetheless in direct opposition of the basic language of film criticism.  Godard’s film Made In USA (1966) utilizes cultural signifies constantly, just as it employs a complex editing strategy.  Made In USA presents its audience with more truth through these tactics than most films, but is labeled avant-garde or experimental.  Yet, a film like Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972) that utilizes a number of long takes, and avoids using signifiers of any cultural significance is labeled naturalistic.  The paradox that exists here is the direct result of what Wittgenstein outlined to be mankind’s desire to make sense out of the chaos of his existence, to label and categorize what there is in the world.  I don’t mean this in terms of the titles avant-garde or naturalism, but in mankind’s desire to confront reality on the terms of his experience of his perceived reality.  That is to say, the reality of Last Tango In Paris is closer to our own in how it deals with the concept of reality as an aesthetic illusion whereas Made In USA avoids all confrontation with our perceived reality, preferring to manufacture its own world of truths.

-Robert Curry

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