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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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A Sensually Complex World

To hell with it. Don’t worry about the audience. Don’t worry about the people. Your job is to look. Your Vocation is to look, not to entertain. Entertaining comes second. You should consider yourself somebody who can be entertaining by virtue of the sincerity and the rigorousness of his ability to look. – Hal Hartley, 1994

Farber & Patterson

Lately I have been immersed in Farber On Film: The Complete Film Writings Of Manny Farber (edited by Robert Polito). Manny Farber has long been established as one of the great American film critics and it is easy to see why from this collection. For myself, I find that he has so much to say that is still relevant today, particularly as it concerns the American cinema. One piece especially, The New Breed Of Filmmakers, very succinctly pinpoints the aesthetic trends that have become the backbone of Hollywood cinema and how these trends have limited or even bankrupted the artistry of Hollywood films. What I found most compelling in this single essay was Farber’s and his co-author Patricia Patterson’s ability to articulate a device that can single-handedly render the most mechanical narrative so much more fascinating.

Farber is describing his favorite scene in John Frankenheimer’s The French Connection II (1975) when he writes “the car scene is played-photographed off-center, creating space that’s not dependent on virtuosity but lets in a sensually complex world”. Meaning that this scene diverts, just for a moment, from the thrust of the narrative, acknowledging a “state” of character and location that reaches out and connects to a wider “world”, or set of sensory experiences, beyond the claustrophobia of the narrative complex.

Immediately Robert Altman comes to mind. Having just revisited his film Short Cuts (1993), Altman’s “audio collage” technique and his “sloppy” montage technique were fresh in my memory, as was the effectiveness of his aesthetic for getting to moments that let “in a sensually complex world”. However, most filmmakers, especially American filmmakers, don’t prioritize this kind of narrative grounding. Farber is correct in his assertion that scenes which do “connect” are the exception rather than the rule.

Gene Hackman

The reason that scenes like these have merits is primarily because the suspension of disbelief is allowed to take in a broader scope of world experience and reflection. When such a moment occurs in a film like The French Connection II it is entirely unexpected and even a little subversive. When one goes to see a blockbuster, one does not expect reality to really find a foothold in one’s sensory experience. In fact American audiences most likely associate this set of aesthetic experiences more heavily with foreign films (particularly those of Jacques Rivette, Werner Herzog, Chantal Akerman, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Andrzej Wajda and Jia Zhangke)  and underground films (those of Andy Warhol, James Benning and Shirley Clarke).

There also seems to have been a greater degree of such “moments” in the American films of the seventies. If memory serves, I can recall such instances very clearly in the films of Monte Hellman, Bob Rafelson, Elaine May, John Cassavetes, Jerry Schatzberg, and Barbara Loden; whereas in more contemporary films I find that such moments are much more scarce. In large part this is probably due to the “auteurist craze”, the power of the director, and the desire to disguise fundamentally formulaic films as art that was so prevalent in the seventies. Today, the producer is king again in Hollywood.

The roots of this aesthetic principle of “connectivity” could be easily attributed to the neo-realist films of De Sica, Visconti, and Rossellini with their emphasis of showing characters at work (as Giles Deleuze argues in Cinema 2: The Time Image). But I find that older films, going at least as far back as Griffith, demonstrate the same aesthetic desire and impetus, even if through the employment of a synthesis of character and location as an alternate means of expanding the audience’s experience of a film’s narrative world. Consider for a moment Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942). This Frantastique Val Lewton production has an added sense of urgency, despite its immense stylization, due to the “lived-in” quality of its art and set designs. This represents an even more primitive cue towards the same effect. This visual quality suggests that the narrative knows a greater, more inclusive expanse than we the audience ever get to see, and therefore is able to ground the “Fantastique” into a more accessible and complex vision of reality. Béla Tarr, Andrea Arnold, Harmony Korine, Claire Denis, and Hal Hartley represent a more contemporary manifestation of this synthesis, albeit a diverse one. Their highly stylized films investigate and question the “world” of a film through their compositions which almost always privilege location over character within the frame.

Ned Rifle

Be it a “moment” or a “cue” or even a “synthesis”, these components that align our spectatorship toward a larger view of filmic reality will, even inadvertently, imbue a narrative with a more visceral sense of reality. This procedure has, however, proven to be more remote and impossible in the, what Peter Biskind would no doubt term, post-Jaws age of American Cinema. The flexibility of green screen and it’s obvious artifice negates the tangibility of the sets in a film like Cat People or the sense of location in a Rivette or Akerman film. And it is this reliance upon green screen, with its inherent use of exact choreography and promise of spectacle in the mainstream of American cinema which has dictated the closing in and entrenching of the narrative.

As suggested above there are still traces of these tactics in the American cinema. It is just that one must either frequent alternate means of film exhibition (film festivals, vimeo channels) or restrict oneself to a select number of American filmmakers.

-Robert Curry

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The Stillness Of The Moving Image

“I read, some days past, that the man who ordered the erection of the almost infinite wall of China was that first Emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who also decreed that all books prior to him be burned.”

– Jorge Luis Borges, The Wall & The Books

La Jetée (1962)

One can find no better example of cinema’s most cherished illusion than in Chris Marker’s landmark work La Jetée (1962).  Marker’s filmography obsesses over humanity’s relationship with time and how that relationship can be articulated within film; La Jetée is no exception.  La Jetée is most commonly analyzed and interpreted within this auteurist context, as a piece of the larger puzzle that is comprised of Marker’s works, indicative of singular interests, concerns and general preoccupations that are often compared with the writings of Henri Bergson and Jorge Luis Borges.  However the technique that first rendered La Jetée as an avant-garde masterpiece has had ramifications that have only begun to be understood and appreciated.

The technique Marker employed in La Jetée that was so controversial was to strip down the illusion of motion in film to its absolute minimum, debunking an illusion that still is essential to the cinema even today.  Marker’s approach, derived equally from the works of Dziga Vertov and Edweard Muybridge, was to tell a non-linear narrative in still images that, when juxtaposed with the preceding and proceeding images, created a suggestion of motion.  Typically this is exactly what film is, 24 frames flying past in a second, each, individually, appearing to be still.  Yet, in a sequence (and to the human eye), appearing to be in motion.  By allowing the images in La Jetée to represent a disjointed sequence Marker was able to get down to the very mechanics of how the mind of the spectator interprets both a sequence and the individual images that make up a sequence’s composition.  In undoing this illusion, Marker has inadvertently opened the doors to a new kind of film scholarship.

One must first consider the history of film, the march of time, that has left so many films of the silent era either in serious stages of deterioration or alternatively in total decomposition.  Then one must consider the history of various assemblages of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927).  The controversy of the Francis Ford Coppola re-release of Napoleon versus Kevin Brownlow’s in the late seventies and how the publicity of the Coppola/Brownlow conflict sparked a renewed interest in silent film.  Finally, one must consider the most radical effect that home video has had on spectatorship in terms of taking the responsibility of film programming out of the hands of distributors (for the most part) and putting it in the hands of the consumer public.

All three of the aforementioned factors have provided a motivation for silent film reconstruction.  Film historians, scholars and academics who once feared for the cinema’s silent heritage suddenly found that “big money” was interested in silent film restoration and reconstruction for monetary gain in both the theatrical and home video markets.

With regards to the nature of film reconstruction, La Jetée merely proved that the aesthetics necessitated by the process of reconstruction would be enough to create an approximation of a fully realized film from its few surviving parts.  For instance, around the time La Jetée was garnering praise, Pera Attasheva began collaborating with Sergei Yutkevich, Naum Kleiman and composer Sergei Prokofiev on a reconstruction of her late husband’s film Bezhin Meadow (1937).  The techniques that made La Jetée groundbreaking were now being used to bring Sergei Eisenstein’s most infamous work to audiences for the very first time.

Bezhin Meadow set a trend in terms of how reconstruction would be approached from a marketing standpoint.  Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) and Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927) would also find new life in the form of reconstruction (in 1999 and in 2002 respectively).  Though the choice of films to undergo this treatment is predominantly dictated by the fact that audiences desire to see these films and will therefore pay money to do so.  In this way the trap of film production is sprung again during reconstruction.  

Bezhin Meadow (1937)

What’s more troubling than this trend is the rare occasion when a reconstruction is attempted without the proper scholarly research.  The reconstructions of Greed and London After Midnight were undertaken and overseen by a reputable film scholar, Rick Schmidlin, so despite their shortcomings they remain the closest approximations of either film possible right now.  On the other hand, Jess Franco’s reconstruction of Orson Welles’ unfinished Don Quixote that was completed in 1992 is best known amongst scholars for having neglected much of Welles’ original intent.  Franco’s version of Orson Welles’ Don Quixote becomes doubly troubling since Franco not only knew and worked with Welles but because he also had access to so much of Welles’ materials in addition to hours upon hours of footage from Welles’ unfinished personal masterpiece.  Since Don Quixote, Greed, and London After Midnight are all marketed in the same manner, it becomes problematic for audiences to discriminate between the useful and the useless reconstructions.

At best a useful reconstruction such as Greed, London After Midnight and Bezhin Meadow gives the spectator a sense of the atmosphere of the narrative world as well as a sense of the filmmakers’ style and technique.  These approximations, no matter the effort nor the skill that is invested in them, can never convey the rhythm of montage, the nuance of performance, nor any subtleties that are typically afforded by either contribution.  These are half films, or ghost films in an almost literal sense.  The eerie quality of most reconstructed films is born out of the lack of their traditional filmic motion (a byproduct anticipated and used to great effect in Marker’s La Jetée).  One can, however, never detract from these reconstructions their usefulness from an anthropological standpoint nor from the perspective of auteurism.

-Robert Curry

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