Friday, April 24, 2009

What is What is the 21st Century?

I had some ideas, some vague notions. I played around with sounds and with pictures, and I took a lot of notes, but I wasn't ready to put them together. So I thought, "I better make something of this. I better start doing something." And What is the 21st Century? is that something. It's a column I'll be doing, weekly. The first one is up, and it's hopeful--the sort of hope only Jason Statham can bring.

What's it about? I'm not sure. The idea is that I'll try to answer the titular question a little bit every week. I know that a complete answer is impossible, which is something very hopeful. There's no hope in concrete goals--or, really, it might just be that concrete goals are too daunting. Just doing is easy; trying to accomplish has a note of despair. It might not even stay a column. It might become something else, moving away from words and still images.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Recent Failures

From a post intended for Film of the Month Club:

"Who is this image by?"

"Hong Sang-soo, of course."

"How do you know?"

"Well, there's a line right down the middle." Which is true. There's a bit of physics to Hong; he can warp space. He can make a tabletop five miles wide. This is what he does as a director: he creates borders. This is true of his editing--nowhere has the word cut been more appropriate in describing the joining of two moving pictures--but even truer of his images. And they are images and never imagery, which is why frame captures tend to fail in capturing a Hong image. He's interested in the dramatics of a moving picture, not in its drama. There's no drama, or understandable emotion, to the image above; it's just two men sitting at a table eating and talking. Yet, within the actual take, within the film itself, there is a drama--something that only the viewer can see or feel. The viewer watches and thinks: "Never have two people sitting so close together sat so far apart."

This is Hong: when two people look each other in the face, there isn't a sense of connection; each is simply looking at the face of the other. This isn't a single action, but two actions that happen to be synchronous. A conversation is not one thing, but two people talking in turn.

From a plastic angle, a nearly identical image. It was taken in 1957 at the South Pole; the men in the photo are arctic scientists, characters more at home in a Zanussi film than one by Hong. There are other differences: the men are not engaging with each other--each is working at his separate task. And, yet, by placing themselves equally in the same framing (the photo, staged, was taken with the camera on a timer), they reinforce the idea that, though they're working on different things, they are working together. There's no dividing line; the lamp at the center seems to radiate a unity that imbues both of them.


From an abandoned post for Tisch Film Review:

There is, of course, the film, and then there’s the filmmaker. The Woman on the Beach presents us with a troubling case. We don’t know, for instance, how much of a “Jean Renoir film” it really is. The story goes, as it often does, that RKO had large portions of it re-shot and re-edited after some poor test screenings. Which in turn leads us to ask whether it’s Jean Renoir we admire or “the films of Jean Renoir.” Because at first glance an admiration for Renoir above all would compel us reject The Woman on the Beach. This is maybe the only time in Renoir’s career this question is seriously posed, though it pops up in almost all of the films of Orson Welles and Nicholas Ray: "What do we admire when we admire a movie’s director?" Because it’s when a director is at his or her most compromised that we often have our suspicions (whether positive or negative) about them validated (and The Woman on the Beach is a film of suspicions, both of the characters and the audience, who, as in Renoir’s La Nuit du Carrefour, are turned into detectives). The ”least exemplary” work usually provides a better understanding of a director than their best known one. I'm thinking of a hundred films: Yasujiro Ozu's Dragnet Girl, King Vidor's Metaphor, John Ford's Seven Women, Josef von Sternberg's Jet Pilot, Robert Bresson's Four Nights of a Dreamer, Alfred Hitchcock's Topaz, Richard Linklater's Bad News Bears, Arthur Penn's Mickey One, Francois Truffaut's A Gorgeous Kid Like Me, Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind, etc., etc., etc. Each one is a decoder ring that deciphers some previously invisible aspect of the director's other films.


The reason we said Renoir was great or Minnelli was a master was first and foremost because of the movies and what they suggested of their greatness. We didn't know right away that Renoir was "intelligent" (Hollywood is run by intelligent people); his movies suggested an intelligence. Renoir came first, but we discovered him last. So we don't admire Renoir as a deep-focus tracking shot, which is, after all, the result of the work of numerous technicians and actors. We admire the thinking. What attracted Renoir to the deep-focus tracking shot was the complexity of the drama it could give a moving image, the subtleties that could occur within a single take—the same reason directors from Mizoguchi to To have been attracted to it. But we should remember that what attracted these directors was not the shot itself—the fetishization of a certain framing—but the idea of a dynamic moving image, that when you pointed a camera at something, it wouldn’t just be a single idea (a door opening, a car pulling up), but several social and emotional forces playing out in a way they couldn’t in a still photo. The wide shot was simply the easiest way of achieving this dynamic. So, if the American Renoir includes more close-ups and medium shots than the French Renoir—imposed studio style—it does not make the images any less dynamic. What happens within a single shot of Charles Bickford’s face as Robert Ryan gives Joan Bennet a cigarette in The Woman on the Beach is as complicated as anything in Boudu Saved From Drowning. It’s an image that grows in ambiguity with every viewing of the film.

Sunday, April 5, 2009