Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Sound of Airports

Airplanes and movies were born around the same time, but the movies grew up faster. Perhaps it's because the airplane exists to satisfy only a few desires or needs, whereas the possibilities of the cinema seemed endless in its early years.

There is also the economic question--even with the rising price of movie tickets, it's still cheaper to catch a two-hour film than a two-hour flight. Airplanes were just out of reach for common people for a long time, so it seems unsurprising that (like the movies) they captivated the public imagination, impressing as much with their single-mindedness as the movies did with their variations.

And now, like the movies, airplanes are an everyday miracle. Airports are as banal as movie theaters nowadays.

Movies have an advantage over airplanes--airplanes have little opportunity to portray movies, but the cinema has had a field day with air travel and the locations associated with it. In American cinema, there is a tendency to emphasize the loud noise of airports, hoping to play off the audience's (perceived) anti-social tendencies. Most movie airports are like the busy town in the second scene of Heaven's Gate--an undercurrent of loudness, unfamiliar. Unlike Heaven's Gate, most American films seem to play off the idea of the community as something threatening--there can't be anything good about this many people in one place. Airports (and subway stations) are boring and suspicious. The emphasis on background sound suggests a belief that airports (and public spaces in general) cause people to lose their individuality (by robbing characters of their voices, or at least of some of their voices' power). Even in Billy Wilder's Avanti!, the drone of the airplane is used to disorient the audience in order to set them up for a joke involving confusion at the airport's passport check, where Jack Lemmon has to prove his own identity. The culture of public space in American cinema is an anti-flânerie, where places like airports rob individuals rather than allow them to reinforce their identities.

This is not to say that airports are comfortable or even friendly places, but nonetheless the view in mainstream (or, for that matter, any) American films is to follow a model when it comes to their portrayal and the portrayal of other public spaces. We reinforce these ideas without really understanding them, or being completely honest to our experiences.

Two Weeks Since You've Been Gone: Notes on Action Movies

Charles Bronson with his Wildey .475 in a promotional still for Death Wish 3

I've been watching a lot of Anerican action films lately--the kind of pure action that flourished from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. Before that, action had to have at least a bit of adventure to it--a sense of removal. In the pure action film, though, reasons and locations are treated as banal--every house, jungle, fortress and oil rig is introduced with the same auspicious pomp, so that we no longer assign locations or motivations significance. The pure action film is the opposite of the noir film--not only does the situation of the world not seem hopeless, but in fact there is no situation at all. Even in films such as the Sylvester Stallone vehicle Cobra, which, like many pure action movies, builds it basic premise around the audience's moral outrage at crime, the underworld seems not to matter because it is emphasized as much as the ordinary world. There is no class struggle in the pure action film--only the struggle of individuals against each other.
This is because the concept of a class struggle not only opposes the predominantly right-wing politics of American action movies, but also destroys the hermiticism inherent to the genre. Action movies must exist in a vacuum. The forces we are expected to rally against--liberal neglect, drug cartels, kidnapping rings--are reduced and personified. In order to give the film a sense of resolve, the enemy is always quantifiable and defeatable; there is a concrete solution to a concrete problem. Even in the Death Wish movies, where Charles Bronson, with his middle-aged man's physique and dour expression, seems to be fighting the whole world, there is always a sense of complete resolution in the end. The entire series rests on the denial of the existence of other problems--Bronson seems endlessly surprised whenever he stumbles upon a gang or a crime syndicate, moving from city to city. The action movie rests of the denial of the big picture--not only moral questions (the prevalence of political intervention, or, for that matter, murder), but contexts as well (and this includes contexts familiar to the films' intended Reagan/Bush American audiences). The films therefore paradoxically strive to play off of the audiences' fears (reductionism, ascribed values, and other products of capitalism) while simultaneously attempting to deny outside influences or possibilities making them, therefore, material in every respect.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Andrew Bujalski Interview

As Mutual Appreciation is seeing a DVD release via HVE this month, I'm reposting a brief interview with its director, Andrew Bujalski, I conducted shortly before the film's Chicago premiere in the fall of 2006.

Mutual Appreciation is in black and white. Funny Ha Ha was in color. How is Mutual Appreciation more a black and white film than Funny Ha Ha? Was it something you intended while writing the film?

My quick answer is that I believed Mutual to be a (peculiar) comedy, and that I thought black & white would be funny. I can't remember at what stage in
pre-production I settled on [black & white] but I'm sure Bob Dylan/Don't Look Back had something to do with it; that said my great fear was that people would read it as merely an allusion, a tip of the hat, to all the great cinema in that format, and I didn't mean it as such. The fact that [black & white] is relatively rarely used for narrative features these days doesn't mean that the medium isn't still alive and kicking and packing a punch. It's a great thrill to get [black & white] rushes back from the lab and project them on a wall; contrary to what that one Paul Simon song says, I'd argue that everything looks better in black and white.
We've reached a point where video and video-editing has developed very far--far enough, in fact, that it's a separate medium and a separate approach to the world from film-based editing and shooting. Why have you choosen film?

Because it's still better! I was hanging out with a friend the other night and we turned on the television and stumbled upon a very peculiar episode of The Monkees,
which deviated from the regular sitcom-y format, this one was just a psychedelic documentary of the group on tour--the footage was all gorgeous, the editing was bizarre and gripping (old school avant-garde, there's an oxymoron for you), and whatever technology has come since to replace all that hasn't won my heart the same way.
I've read that Chantal Akerman was your thesis advisor. Has she been an influence on your work?

Chantal was indeed my thesis advisor. I'm hugely fond of her personally, am sure I learned a lot from her directly then, and of course [I] am a fan of her oeuvre as well. That said, as a cinematic forebear I don't think I've taken more (or less) from her than I have from 100 other filmmakers whose work has stuck with me.

Did you make any films before
Funny Ha Ha? Shorts and the like?

Sure—my Chantal-advised thesis was a 26-minute fiction film. Not very good! But an incredible learning experience all around, there's no question I couldn't have made Funny Ha Ha without getting through that one first. Also a handful of other student shorts, both on my own and collaboratively. Some documentary work, which I think has been massively influential on how I approach fiction.

What was the documentary work like?

We learned from the ground up: here's how you load film in the camera, here's how you run the Nagra, here's how the Steenbeck works. Go out and shoot. The observational tradition.

A friend of mine once said that at a certain economic level, every movie becomes a documentary: i.e., with a low enough budget, filmmakers rely on places they actually know and the day jobs of their actors for material. Do you feel that there's a documentary aspect to your films, that in a way you're portraying the lives of people you know in a fictional manner? And is this your primary interest, or, as the friend suggested, a question of economics?

Most good fiction films borrow some energy from documentary, just as the reverse is also true. Which doesn't mean necessarily that I am "fictionalizing" my
friends' lives, on the contrary, I'd more likely say they're "documentarizing" my made-up story. I sort of agree with your friend but think he's looking at it backwards—it takes a lot of money to bleed everything resembling life out of a film.

Godard on ABC

A clip from Breathless--just a few seconds of Jean Seberg selling The New York Herald Tribune in her yellow (gray) sweater--was shown on ABC's Nightline last night; it was a piece on how the French feel that they're losing the Champs-Élysées to American stores. What would Jean-Luc think? The archival film clip is a time-worn device of televised news narrative, a way of subtly tapping the (fictional) collective conscience; there are things we remember mostly through cinema.
Sometimes they are not even things cinema was present for. For example, cinema only came to the concentration camps after they were closed, but it's been atoning for that oversight with a half-century's worth of Holocaust movies whose television-like reliance on pre-established forms imbues the subject with a sort of boring seriousness, the distance of a news item. It's hard for us to feel about it because we've been told how to feel about for so many years, just as its difficult to feel empathy for the people on television. Rather, we process the information and then feel empathy--television language is indirect.

Another interesting juxtaposition (same channel): evening Oprah episode on wunderkinds (an Indian preteen studying to become a doctor, an Austrian girl with a photographic memory, etc.) followed by an advertisement for Harrington Learning Centers, a chain of "educational programs" to help your "underachieving child" get ahead.

Scarface, Carlito's Way and the Internet

Al Pacino in a promotional still for Carlito's Way

Scarface and Carlito's Way are so intertwined for me that I often get them confused. In which one does he own the nightclub? Am I sure he didn't have a beard in both? Carlito's Way does not as much redeem the sins of Scarface as fill that film out--it's the missing chapters in between rather than an apologetic epilogue. The characters are not Carlito Brigante and Tony Montana, but Al Pacino and Brian De Palma. The existence of Carlito's Way makes Scarface a better film just as Scarface tarnishes Carlito's Way--and the other way 'round as well, for Scarface also makes Carlito's Way a better film and Carlito's Way mars Scarface.
It's an odd situation, considering the fact that we tend to view films as individual works, or as wholly independent parts of a community (the cinematic narrative). The advantage cinema has over literature is that a writer can only write what he or she notices, but in a movie there a million other outside factors that make their way into the production. And so Scarface had Carlito's Way waiting for it in the future, in our future collective memory, in a form of dependency alien to books.
This kind of relationship--the cinematic narrative, the cinematic history--is almost proto-Internet. We think about the Internt in ways we could never think about cinema or literature--a website, after all, is not a "work," since the "work" is the Internet itself. The Internet does not consist of many parts, but is rather a single whole--the presence of information on the Internet colors other information on the Internet. The relationship to other websites is an integral part of a website. It seems as though every medium we invent is treated more collectively--first television, then pop music, and now the Internet.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Daney with Les Straubs

The photograph is exactly as you'd imagine them--Huillet turned away (after all, Straub is the mouth, the "public figure"), but smiling, Straub impishly smoking a pipe. The photo accompanies a short Serge Daney piece from 1984, something I spent too long poring over with a dictionary, sad to discover that it yielded few secrets or revelations. The article is already gone from my memory, but the photograph remains.

Monday, February 5, 2007

The Weight of Money

Jens Lekman photographed in Athens, Greece

It's lucky for Jens Lekman that his native Sweden's currency rhymes with Barcelona. The title of "I Don't Know If She's Worth 900 kr," a light pop ditty built around coo-ing girl group backing vocals and a Jens' trademark lazy-electric-rhythm-guitar, is wonderfully casual in its mention of economic realities: the truth is, can Lekman spare the money to visit a girl in Spain? He starts the song by admitting that he falls in love too easily--that the gap of social reality (money) and social fantasy (a love affair) forces him to confront the validity of the latter. It's a natural though process we engage in daily; we greatly underestimate the role economics, or the concept of value in general, plays in the way we analyze our surroundings. We guage how much we liked a film by whether we'd pay to see it again, how much we enjoy the book we're reading by whether we'd buy it, how much we liked the song we heard based on whether we'd buy the CD.
It's the weight of money on our everyday decision making, and its a weight largely absent from the cinema and television of the United States. It's taboo to discuss exact sums in films unless they're unrealistically large heist takes--you're more likely to hear about hundreds of millions in a duffel bag than $67.50 for the electric bill. It's opposite of a noir film, where the world always felt so hopeless because the numbers were so exact. Sitting in the darkened theatre, we wondered whether a person's life was really worth the $200,000 (even after we adjusted it mentally for inflation) in Nightfall, or the few thousand dollars in Thieves' Highway.
Even poverty is a rootless conception, a vague state, the opposite of Chaplin, when we were constantly reminded of hunger, of running away from police and petty stealing just to get a bite to eat; instead, we just have the image of Chaplin, as though the tramp costume is enough for us to understand what it's like to be poor (or, for that matter, rich, as wealth is equally vague in American films). Poor people live in exaggerated squalor now in American films (David Fincher, after all, made decay art design fashionable), but this "hyper-reality" is only connected to social reality by a few choice buzzwords (Welfare, Medicaid), in the same way Casino Royale's James Bond is modernized with the invocation of 9/11.
By denying this social reality, we create a social fantasy that will define the American mindset as well as exact figures would: a desire to portray problems without describing their causes, a post-Left liberalism of gestures that are not as much empty as disconnected. It is the lie that will eventually tell the truth, for cinema has a capacity for history that exceeds that of the written word--a writer, after all, can only write down what he or she knows or notices, but in a movie, there are so many outside factors; an absence is as informative as a presence. We'll go down in history as the Imaginary Generation, using our sense of history to create a pre-historicized present that pretends to exist as a commentator outside of the American (and international) narrative rather than the latest episode of it. Or perhaps that is how every generation has been.

De Palma's Chicago

To borrow a term from Thom Andersen, Brian DePalma (like Alfred Hitchcock) is a ”low tourist”: a filmmaker who, when describing the city where his film is set, chooses obvious landmarks or characteristics already imprinted on the national or cinematic consciousness. The Fury, which is mostly set (as a title card informs us) in “CHICAGO 1978,” shows a city of crowded Tom Palazzolo beaches, industrious elevated trains and a South Loop resembling the cinematic view of New York (and big cities in general): newly free to mention the existence of sleaze, 1970s Americans film reveled in sex shop storefronts, sleazy hustlers and porno theatres. There had always been red light districts, but for a good fifteen years, American filmmakers were giddy to mention this newly accepted facet of urban culture. It’s odd to see the South Loop’s El train support columns, something tourists lean up against when posing for pictures instead propping up movie pimps and drug dealers—it’s hard to believe that something as bland as the columns is our closest architectural connection to that fairly recent (but, thanks to development and urban planning, completely gone) past.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

The New Mythology

Sabrina Seyvecou in Choses Secrètes (Secret Things)

Secret Things (2002) is a mythological film--a fantasy film, even. Its director, Jean-Claude Brisseau, is known for his admiration of Fritz Lang--and, like Lang used Teutonic imagery in his Nibelungen films, Brisseau uses another familiar pantheon, and, in doing so, makes a convincing arguement that sexuality is the mythology of contemporary society. "Taboo" sexual elements and activites are as instantly recognizable, socially codified and thought-over by modern Westerners as Classical myths. The characters are sexual fauns, muses and Olympic gods; every actor seems to have had plastic surgery or, at the very least, a few too many spray tans. Incest and threesomes are Brisseau's Siegfried and Kriemhild. The sex scenes themselves play out as classically and rigidly as passion plays, only with three decades of softcore porn as their source material--and they are performed reverently, for Brisseau, like Lang, believes in the power of myths not as falsehoods but as social anchors. The effect is something simultaenously petty and epic, like a noir film.