Tuesday, January 30, 2007

What's New?

promotional still for Tears of the Black Tiger

In his most recent entry for the Chicago Reader's often interesting On Film blog, Jonathan Rosenbaum, currently at Rotterdam, takes time in his brief update to muse on applying the "new" label to films, having seen Jia Zhangke's Still Life at its premiere at a festival a year ago, only to find it at Rotterdam this year as a "new film." Rosenabum then divulges that he purchased a DVD of the film, which is available on the Chinese black market (the only way to find many of the director's films in his native country) for 60 cents
So is this a new movie or an old one? I'm reminded of when Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles finally premiered in trendy New York in the 1980s, seven years after it premiered in Europe, and some reviewers were calling it "the new Chantal Akerman film."

So what defines "newness?" The Thai kitsch-western Tears of the Black Tiger, made in 2000 and shown at Cannes in 2001, will be appearing in Chicago and various other cities this year via the Landmark Theatres chain. There has been a seven-year gap between the movie's creation and its release here. Tears of the Black Tiger is a product of 2000, or rather the bastard child of the late-1990s (mainstream) mentality of film history as a set of moods and color schemes to be venerated or subverted and the cheap hyper-stylization of 2000s Asian cinema.
Though Jeanne Dielman could concievably have been the "new Chantal Akerman film" (as L'Intrus was "the new Claire Denis film" around these parts), Tears of the Black Tiger is not the "new Thai action comedy" because it defines a Thailand of the recent past. It is a question of emphasis and analysis--with a mainstream film like Tears, we tend to focus on how it defines its time and place. But is that where our attention should be? Shouldn't we analyze everything equally--shouldn't Jeanne Dielman concievably then have been "the new Belgian film?" Or is a question of national myopia, or possibly familiarity and context?
Newness suggests oldness. But the fractured nature of history renders ideas such as "new" and "old" meaningless. There is, perhaps, only that which is current (immediate) and that which requires context (distant, historical).

"Naive Melody (This Must Be The Place)"

Stop Making Sense

American sound cinema comes full circle in Stop Making Sense. The Production Code mandated the sanctity of marriage--after 1934, Americans saw a lot of domestic bliss, until the 1960s came around and unhappiness became fashionable (and has remained so ever since). After all, where's the story in a happy marriage? "Struggle" in post-Code American cinema is almost never class or economic struggle--rather, it is always the struggle of individuals against each other, especially individuals in close proximity
But for five-and-a-half minutes of Jonathan Demme's 1984 record of two sold-out Talking Heads concerts, we return, willingly, to the days before the disappearance of the Production Code. The stage is lit by a living room lamp, with photographs dimly rear-projected behind the band. Everyone stands close together--it's a bit like being over for a party in the suburbs. With his goofy charm, all funny facial expressions and gawky physical comedy, David Byrne could be Cary Grant. The song is apocalyptic, and its doom evokes the kind of final, romantic love fetishized by Godard and stripped from American film by the 1960s-1970s generation. There was a time, before we were born, with which we can no longer reconcile, full of idealized embraces and timeless gestures.

The Advent of Sound

from a promotional still for Queen Kelly

With the advent of sound in American cinema came the advent of censorship. The Production Code first reared its head in 1930, the first year dominated by "talkies;" in 1934, it became standard practice.

Perhaps it was because the movies were too real now; they were no longer merely aesthetic objects. Silent films had been distant enough from life to fall under the umbrella of "art" and therefore escape heavy censorship--the people who complained were "moralizers," maybe a tad self-righteous. "Someone might be offended, but it's not like they have to watch," the logic went. A taboo suggested or "portrayed," after all, was merely scandalous (and, after all, scandal sold). But to hear it said (by real people, no less!) was downright subversive (and to see a woman disrobe is not the same when you cannot hear her clothes rustling).

Censorship seemed natural with the introduction of sound cinema: movies ceased to be simply flickers on a screen--they could stand on their own two feet without the help of an organist or a pianist to keep the audience's ears amused. It made movies dangerous. It made them potent. Sound cinema is a medium with extreme immediacy. For all of the power of their images, silent films couldn't compete with even weak talkies. Images are merely pictures, just a step up from photographs, but when those images spoke and sang and made noises as they walked around the set, they became something much more. Sure, they are powerful (even still images, with which we'd done very well until the 20th century rolled around), but can the people in ordinary images compete with the people who seemed to be able to do everything but breathe?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Notes on Two Chaplin Shorts: A Dog's Life / The Idle Class

In A Dog's Life, during the lengthy dance hall scene, there is a sequence where Chaplin is on the dance floor, the titular dog on a flimsy leash behind him; at one point, the dog stops, and stares off-screen--at a crew member, or possibly its owner, clearly looking for approval. The moment is short, but disarming--not because it subverts the fictional nature of the film, but because that moment we realize how little a movie means to a dog: the dog, however well trained, does not realize what a camera is or why it's being filmed.
So is it still cinema if the subject in unaware that they are being filmed? Or do "hidden camera" films constitute a different form of expression altogether--the more I watch movies, the more I realize how essential the relationship between the subject and the camera and microphones (the audience's eyes and ears) is. The dog is incapable of completing this relationship--it becomes "a part of the landscape," a true non-actor.

The Idle Class finds Chaplin and leading lady Edna Purviance playing rich people named Charles and Edna. But it's a double role for Chaplin, as he also appears as the Tramp, and a case of mistaken identity leads Edna (Charles' wife) to flirt with the Tramp at a a costume party.
How is Chaplin both the Tramp and the rich man? How is he able to parody himself (a rich man with marital problems) while remaining a different character, a yet be instantly identifiable with both? It's Chaplin's greatest strength--that the concept of Chaplin can be identified with both the innocent Tramp and Monsieur Verdoux, with the tragic clown of Limelight and the farsical demagogue of The Great Dictator. The real Chaplin, like the characters in The Idle Class, was both the symbol of Hollywood glamour and a working class hero. It is a conception of identity that only the cinema could have invented.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Jean-Luc Godard's Trailer for Mouchette

Perhaps the greatest, most hopeful revelation you get from seeing Quatre Nuits d'un Reveur, especially if you've seen a good deal (or all) of Bresson's work beforehand, is his sense of humor--worldly but not misanthropic, it is suprisingly gentle and playful, yet so fitting you feel as though it's a quality you might have missed all along, as if it's been there the whole time under your nose.
Re-examination is the basis of film criticism. Jean-Luc Godard's astounding trailer for Mouchette, which he long denied having made (but finally admitted authorship by including it in a self-curated retrospective of his work) is a passionate defence of Bresson's warmth as well as the kinetic nature of his filmmaking. It jokes about the film's black-and-white austerity and its Georges Bernanos source material ("Sung by Georges," one of the simple, white on black title cards reads) while reinforcing its intensity and potency. It is not as much subversion as suggestion. It is included, along with other, equally informative extras on Criterion's release of Mouchette; it's probably the best effort to humanize Bresson for American audiences anyone's made in a while, considering the fashionability of discussing his "spirituality" by high profile know-nothings like Paul Schrader.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Dissolves in Sansho Dayu

Japanese cinema is for the most part ahistorical. Like Hong Kong cinema (and unlike the movies of mainland China and Taiwan), Japanese cinema does not treat history as a set of episodes as much as a template; it's unsurprising that both Hong Kong and Japan should have produced so many films that treat history like little more than a colorful wardrobe full of astounding swords and costumes (Japan's pulpier Samurai films, especially the color ones; Hong Kong's kung-fu flicks).
The majority of Japanese historical films are built around a simple conceit: there are universal human themes, and the reason we should explore history in cinema is because certain eras make it easier to illustrate on these themes; the past does not seem to have us for a future, but rather exists as an unchanging era full of as many possibilities as the present--a sort of alternate present. The Chinese / Taiwanese viewpoint sees history as composed of irreconcilable episodes that we must attempt to explore regardless of our own distance from them, as giving them meaning creates the possibility of giving meaning to our own era (a sort of reverse-historicizing of the present); these episodes are also visibly finite, and we accept them as being our past.
Kenji Mizoguchi's "historical" films are quintessentially Japanese in this respect, as are the films of Akira Kurosawa, but, unlike Kurosawa, there's a strain of context in Mizoguchi's work--a sense, if not of time and place, then at least of order. Sansho Dayu contains some of the greatest dissolves in film, and (especially at the beginning of the film) they create a sense of flow--the scenes of the film do not seem to be cobbled together from several concurrent presents, but rather as a single long experience.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Self-portrait, by Giorgione

Oil on canvas

Jane Asher in The Deep End

Why is unrequited love (or lust) such a common theme in movies? Maybe it's because no medium is better suited--cinema is unrequited love. It's like looking at the whole world through binoculars: it's easier to fall in love with someone who could never love you back, or with a complete and distanced stranger. It's a breeze to accept someone's faults when you're listening in on their confesssion--but when when you've got to share a bed with them...priests have it easy compared to lovers.

Fifty years ago, Francois Truffaut wrote:
"The film of tomorrow appears to me as even more personal than an individual and autobiographical novel, like a confession or a diary. The young filmmakers will express themselves in the first person and will relate what has happened to them: it may be the story of their first love or their most recent; of their political awakening; the story of a trip, a sickness, their military service, their marriage, their last vacation, and it will be enjoyable because it will be true. The film of tomorrow will be an act of love."
Cinema is all romance of the most heartbreaking variety. It's the love affair of the character and the audience, and the audience and the filmmaker, and the filmmaker and the film.

Sal Mineo and James Dean

from a publicity still for Rebel Without a Cause

James Dean has nothing on Sal Mineo; at least not the Sal Mineo of Who Killed Teddy Bear. The opening credits are followed by a parade of sounds and images worthy of Kenneth Anger--a fetishization not only of Mineo's body (seen from the neck down and completely objectified), with its skinny ribs and languid poses, but of the various objects around his apartment, each imbued with the forbidden (to the film's 1965 audience) symbols of auto-eroticism. A rotary dial telephone whose receiver Mineo seems to briefly caress before grabbing firmly; a stack of dirty magazines; a scummy mirror dreamier than Narcissus' pool. The click of the phone is sounds canned--it gives us even more of a sensation of a dream, an idealized fantasy of dirty phone calls at odds with the squarely framed, ordinary world of the girl he calls up, who wanders back to her bed in a perfectly ordinary tracking shot while he, we can imagine, remains lying there in his dreamy haze.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Charles Adare arrives for dinner...

A horse-drawn carriage pulls up—it’s in a studio somewhere, some potted palm trees and a moody backdrop suggesting the Australian countryside, sometime in the evening. The lantern lights the coachman’s face moodily from underneath. There’s a shot of a sign, some dialogue, a zoom into an obvious matte painting—Under Capricorn’s greatest strength is how studio-bound it is, how obviously false. 19th century Australia is created not through location shooting, but through well-appointed room, long hallways with columns and occasional servants, gentlemen standing around in sparsely furnished estates made to look as opulent as possible with limited means. The unconvincing exteriors only add to a sense of Australia as a sort of mock England—by outside the landscape to a few establishing shots and an opening sequence that could be set anywhere, we are introduced to a world of people trying to create a society despite what might exist outside.

For all we know, Australia could be on the Moon--it's not as though Michael Wilding, playing the newly arrived Charles Adare, would ever notice. The matte painting is soon followed by one of the most beautiful of all long takes as we discover Australia with him—and it is not the Outback wilderness that we are seeing, but rather the house, its servants and masters. He sneaks around the garden, peeking in as Joseph Cotton scolds the help before intruding just in time to cover up for his spying. The truth of Australia, or at least the imaginary past Australia we are seeing here, has nothing to do with the potted palm trees and everything to do with the women fighting in the kitchen or the tiny chain of command established in Cotton’s household.

It's Hitchcock's greatest adventure film, and a reminder of what a great magic trick the moving long take is. And like a magic trick, we forget about its power—a magician never seems that exciting, just kids' stuff, until you happen to see one perform and, embarrassingly, you're a bit mesmerized. The roving camera is an astounding tool for evocation when exploring something unknown, or, even better, something you want discovered. Maybe it's more than a trick--it's a real incantation, a spell that can summon up not just a room, but the society the room is intended for in the space of a few lazy minutes.
Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men is Under Capricorn's direct descendant—but unlike its grandfather, the film's protagonist is no longer exploring, but interacting, living in the world of the film. The exploration is occurring on the part of the eyes and ears of the audience (the cameras and microphones). The very nature of the roving camera allows us to explore the world around him and the sound, like that in the second scene of Heaven's Gate, suggests an entire universe outside the characters not by merely commenting, but by downright interrupting.

Down with the awkwardness of forced introductions! Bits of newspaper, sound bites, and marks on the landscape do the talking, freeing up Clive Owen, Michael Caine, Julianne Moore and the rest of the cast to explore their own (and their characters') interactions with this imaginary future. We understand the cages cartoonishly stuffed with immigrants well enough on their own so that we can instead focus on Owen passing them by without looking; the world wasting away outside the bus Owen and Moore ride on tells us enough by itself—instead, we can explore how uneasily they sit next each other in the dirty seats of the bus's second deck. These scenes eclipse the film’s famous single-take action sequences—these are moments that recall Ernst Lubitsch in their casual ephemeralism; a Lubitsch dark and despairing, though just as reliant on the cult of the material, of the physical, in the conjuring of imaginary (though no longer glamorous) worlds to support the characters.