Thursday, February 19, 2009

Katie Tippel (Paul Verhoeven, 1975; photographed by Jan de Bont)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Two Lovers (James Gray, 2008; photographed by Joaquín Baca-Asay)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Moving Pictures

There was a period in the early to mid-1960s when almost every French or Italian director contributed to an anthology film. There was a theme, a sarcastic or snappy tone and an awkward title. Filmmakers mixed unassumingly: young turks and old hacks, the brilliant and the uninspired. So you would have Godard and De Broca sharing a movie. One of the weakest of those movies features one of the strongest segments: Rene Clair's "Marriage," in 1960's Love and the Frenchwoman, one of the film's two interesting episodes, the other being Michel Boisrond's attempt at being the French Bergman, "Virginity."

Boisrond's an interesting character in his own right, but what's interesting, for our purposes, is Clair's episode--or, rather, its setting. A little cross section of young marriage: a newlywed couple bickers on the short train ride from their wedding "back home" to their new apartment "in the city." The wedding itself isn't important enough for a motion picture camera: it's shown as a series of still photos, from the car arriving at city hall to the church to their exit down its steps to the reception with the dancing relatives. Suddenly, the pictures are in the hands of a photographer in his darkroom, one of Clair's little men, and the film begins to move as he rushes to deliver them in time, handing them to the bride through the window of a moving train.

There's a reason to why Alexander Medvedkin and his comrades built a movie studio into a train car, and why cameras are placed on tracks for dolly shots. Trains are moving dramas. There's a sort of script--the route--with a clear beginning and a definite end. A group of people are put together into a space that isn't terribly different from a theater: a long front hall like a stage, with windowed compartments and sliding doors. They cross from one side to the other but rarely leave. Sometimes they go off stage, closing doors or locking themselves in the bathroom, and sometimes minor characters--conductors, etc.--will enter from one side and leave out the other. The noise of a train, especially outside of your compartment, means you have to talk loudly, and clearly. And when the train stops, the passengers become like a traveling theatre troupe, strange actors spilling out of the doors to entertain the locals for fifteen minutes.

Train travel, like any genre, is simultaneously schematic and unpredictable. In a Western, you know there'll be a gun fight, but you don't know when; on a train, you know there'll be a delay, but you're never sure when it'll happen, or if you'll even notice it. The passengers usually don't know each other, and though they know where they're going, they keep looking out the windows at the passing scenery, surprised by the journey itself. And every passenger must consciously make the decision to either engage or ignore every other passenger.

It's interesting that American films have never had much of a knack for train travel; it took until Wes Anderson and The Darjeeling Limited for the drama of the sleeping compartment to be fully explored. No, American cinema loves cars, and the forced intimacy and shared sense of purpose they create between those in them. Two people on a train are passengers; two people in a car are a relationship. Train travelers, equally powerless, are therefore equal as characters; between the driver of a car and his or her passenger(s), there's always some sort of dynamic. Someone has to have power over someone else: the driver is making the passenger go somewhere, the driver and the passenger try to decide where to drive, the passenger has a gun to the driver's head, etc., etc.

There's another important thing about trains, one that distinguishes them from cars. The car moves when it's driven; the movement of a car is always a conscious action. But even when people on a train are standing still, or sleeping, they continue to move. The train is inevitable. It travels to its destination regardless of whether the people on it want to go there or not. The train ride is the tragedy or the comedy or the romance that sucks people in, turning them into its characters, hurtling them towards an abrupt conclusion: the arrival. And there are few things as terminal and irreversible as a train's arrival at its destination. Train passengers don't have the luxury of hesitating.

And in Clair's episode, the arrival marks the terminal end of the argument: unloading their luggage, they leave behind the things they were bickering about--he his cigarettes, she her garish hat. The fight, like a train ride, is completely self-contained. Watched by a surprised conductor, the couple walks into a different, unfilmed story hand-in-hand.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Cinema Museum (Mark Lewis, 2008)

Friday, February 6, 2009

Noroît (Jacques Rivette, 1976; photographed by William Lubtchansky)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Map

A map is not the same thing as the place it represents. The globe is not the Earth. The map is a way of systemizing an indescribable whole. When I look at Chicago on a map, I’m not looking directly at the city where I live, but I’m looking at a reference, a sort of text that uses measurements to give me a rough idea of where this city is in relation to other cities. The dot is a variable that stands for the city; if I get a magnifying glass, I won’t be able to discern any more than what I see right now.

Raoul Coutard’s Hoa Binh opens with a map. I’m getting a little ahead of myself here—let’s talk about Coutard for a minute. Why, for example, is he the greatest cinematographer? Answer: because, in making his moving pictures, he’s aware that he isn’t capturing the image of something, but an image of it. Free of having to define, he instead describes. A photograph of a thing, like a map, is not the thing itself. So Coutard has a certain freedom: he can use the wrong film stock, shoot under the wrong lighting conditions, use the lenses you’re not supposed to be using because he knows that the people who follow all of these rules make images just as subjective as his. Let other cameramen worry about science and mathematics: he can be a dramatist, a journalist or a poet. Coutard always points out that he has no style, and that the camerawork is different for every director he worked with. This is partly true; Coutard’s style is the ephemerality of images. The feeling that, say, a camera movement, even if duplicated for every take, will, on some level, never be the same twice.

So Coutard opens the film, which was his first as a director, with a shot of a map. There is a voice, helicopter noises, etc., etc. But let’s talk about the image, which, like all of Coutard’s greatest images, has a disposable quality. It could be any image, but it’s this one and we have to deal with that decision. So disposable, in fact, that the credits are shown over it, identifying the producer, the title of the film (and in classic French style, the title of the source novel and the names of its author and publisher) and, finally, the name of the director. All of these bits of text take precedence over the image under them in our viewing experience. As the credits roll, we get closer to the map, which we at first see as consisting of Asia, India, the Middle East, the horn of Africa and a bit of Australia. As we get closer, the frame becomes dominated by Cambodia and Vietnam. This is not a zoom; a zoom changes our view while maintaining the same position. The slight changes in perspective and lighting along the edges make it obvious that the camera is slowly dollying towards a map. We are physically getting closer; even this subtle movement is a physical experience—not of the world, but of a map.

Eventually, this specific image of a system (a false image) dissolves it into a specific image of something ephemeral: a helicopter pilot’s head, a reflective visor covering his eyes. A dissolve is always a struggle: one image conquers the other one. There is something deeply dramatic to dissolves, especially in older Hollywood films, which would often dissolve in the middle of an action. That action became the dying breath of a scene as the next one stood victorious over it. So we begin with the system of Vietnam: the map. Vietnam as a place on a globe, as a place in relation to other places. And slowly this image is overpowered by a real, fleeting experience—looking directly into a man’s face. His visor even reflects the cameraman.

Coutard was once a war photographer. He was in the French Indochina War and lived in Vietnam for 11 years. So imagine Coutard sitting down at his home in Paris or at some café and opening up a newspaper. Or maybe he’s watching television. He sees a map with arrows and lines and explanations. And as he looks at the map it becomes overpowered by his own specific experiences. He remembers the smell of Vietnam, the climate, the people. He knows war and he knows what war feels like in that region. He looks at this map, this empty system designed to give people with no specific experiences, no memories of a place a way to itemize it. And whereas others can toss it aside, turn to the next page to look at the sports section, this map, meaningless to them, is in a quiet struggle with an image in his head.

A fleeting, disposable image becomes beautiful through its disposability. It could be any image, but it’s this one. The first memory. The film editor is often in the act of remembering, of searching for a moment that has now passed but an aspect of which has been recorded, and creating something out of that aspect, that shadow. Movies are a shadow world, in that every action casts its shadow—every decision has an infinite number of counter-decisions. The image of the helicopter pilot’s head is only on the screen for a second after it finishes dissolving in. It is followed very quickly by other images—also of masked, helmeted heads, of an airfield and of smoke. From the stand point of production, they are identical: a cameraman is told to get footage of a helicopter crew, maybe to focus on their heads. From the point of planning, any of the first four images after the map could be the one that the map image dissolves into. But each attempt at creating the same image results in a different image. One image is chosen: the helicopter pilot’s head, staring at the camera man is the image that overpowers the map.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Nicholas Ray's The Janitor

For Joe Rubin

We like to say that the Internet allows us to explore "new forms." The Internet doesn't allow anything. It forces. YouTube’s length limitations mean that I’ve had to upload Nicholas Ray’s The Janitor as two six minute halves. Instead of looking at this as an interruption, a hiccup, the Internet’s equivalent of a reel change, it’s better to see it as an arbitrary cleaving: two videos have been created from one movie. Ray, of course, can survive any division. The troubled history of many of his productions isn’t a tragedy, but a testament. You could fire Nicholas Ray, but you couldn’t exorcize him from the movie. He ends up haunting whatever scenes of Wind Across the Everglades he didn't direct. Like Orson Welles, who could be cut and recut but could never be cut out. The reason they hold so much fascination as filmmakers, as figures, is because they didn't need total control for the films to be theirs.

Part 1: Le Coq et Le Clergyman

May 1973, 16mm, post-synced sound, a little West German money, a small studio in Amsterdam. One man, aptly named Max Fischer, handling both the camera and the editing table. The Janitor was shot as the 12th of a baker's dozen (or, even better, devil's dozen) of fantasies for the Wet Dreams anthology film. Nicholas Ray plays himself as two characters: a priest out of Bataille and a janitor out of Beckett. The priest is a preacher and a moralizer. Of course moralizers and the “deviants” they preach against have the same obsessions: sex and death. And sex and death are there in the priest's room, which is decorated with funeral parlor wallpaper and a rickety brothel bed. His thick-browed daughter pulls the stockings up over his skinny legs. Meanwhile, the bare-footed janitor bumbles around a sound stage like a bawdy silent comedian. His stage name could be Larry Semen.

Their voice is a French baritone that sounds like it's narrating even when delivering dialogue. The sort of voice that turns anyone engaging it into a talking point instead of an equal. The sound is as authoritative as the images are noisy. There's a jitter to the picture, a reminder that movies are made possible by electricity and that every shot can be made to spark.

Part 2: Ray vs. Ray

Whatever we dream about, we ultimately dream about ourselves. The wet dream, the abstract sexual desire, is a desire for ourselves, for some idea of others that exists only in our minds. The janitor dreams the priest. The priest is too caught up in his fervor to take note of his own incest. The janitor stops shitting just long enough to destroy him. The somebody who hallucinates his power against the nobody who can take an ultimately suicidal action.

The division created by the need to split up the film into two halves gives us two videos with different approaches. The first part becomes about the body as seen from a distance. The director's body as a marionette. The second part is self-expression in the most literal sense, a film that speaks through images of its director’s beautifully craggy face. Here the body is a fancy way for transporting the head. And there's something monumental about the human face. It's more of a landscape than the body. The mountain of Ray's nose, the ravine of his mouth, the forest of his hair. So whereas in the first half, the priest and the janitor are characters, here they become figures; the first half is a story, and the second is a myth.

Myths aren't to be confused with parables. Parables have morals; myths illustrate some vague and inarticulatable power. As long as films get made, every one of them is gonna be about filmmaking. So every mythic film is about the film myth. The idea of the movies, something popular and incredibly beautiful. And to Ray, if cinema can't be a salvation, it can be a testimony. If success is impossible, one should strive to make an honest record of failure. If there can't be a victory, there can be a struggle, even if it's only the struggle of the director against him or herself.

Modern Romance (Albert Brooks, 1981; photographed by Eric Saarinen)