Friday, July 31, 2009

"Pornography will always have sociological import because it reveals which aspects of the culture we have internalized to the most intimate extent; and much American pornography being made today—with its tendency of making 'celebrities' out of passionless exhibitionists without much discernible character—reflects the late-capitalist model of constant productivity at the expense of any human imperfection."
--Ben Sachs

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Preminger's Anatomy

We drove down to Hyde Park under Turner skies, those azure clouds that drift in from the lake and give Chicago the character of a maritime city. Down to Hyde Park to see Anatomy of a Murder. I'd never seen the film projected before, or even in widescreen, having only watched it from a pan-and-scan VHS. I don't know if it was the projection, or the fact that so many years have passed (and so many more Premingers have been seen by me) since I last saw it, but my impressions of the film this evening are completely different from what they were yesterday.

I have to resist the urge -- talking, thinking, writing, typing -- to call the film Anatomy of a Relationship. Maybe it's because the Moullet title is better -- it rolls off the tongue more easily (though there's a certain beauty to the word murder being so harsh, interrupting every sentence you put it in) -- but also because it's a good Preminger title but very much a joke for Moullet (a better title would've been Memoirs of My Nervous Illness). Anatomies, geographies, studies -- these are all good descriptions of the Preminger framework, a word that seems truer in respect to the director than style.

Anatomy of a Murder, which had for years seemed to me like a very good entertainment made within Preminger's particular sensibility, now appears, alongside The Human Factor, as one of two key films for understanding the director, the easiest ways to get to the heart of Preminger. What distinguishes it from so much of his other work is that, whereas most of Preminger's other films treat all of their characters as "subjects," Anatomy of a Murder presents the idea of a Premingerian hero. We find it in James Stewart's character.

Preminger's dream, I think, was to read life the way Stewart and Arthur O'Connell read law: precisely, fervently, but with time for some jazz, a few drinks and a few jokes (and Preminger could be very funny, not least of all here). I've come to believe that out of all directors, Preminger was probably the one least interested in truth. His interest lay in fact, like a scientist's; this is why his direction always seems like a sort of science. We like to believe in a certain scientific idealism, that the scientist or the researcher is looking for truth, but really what they're looking for is fact, an observation that can be backed up by a rule. The jurist has the same interest. Law was a good match for Preminger; he was interested in the courtroom for its ability to establish facts, not (like, say, André Cayatte) in its ability to make decisions based on those facts. The verdict in Anatomy of a Murder isn't important at all; it comes quickly, with very little fanfare. Preminger doesn't even savor Stewart's moment of victory (the decision isn't even his -- it belongs to the non-characters of the jury), and he starts a dissolve to the next scene right after the jury foreman says "not guilty."

Its the ability to construct a description, to make out of the mess of life a sentence or a paragraph or a widescreen shot that's heroic to Preminger. It really doesn't matter whether Stewart wins the case or not (he ends up not getting paid anyway) or what the case is really about (this is a courtroom drama largely without twists, at least not in relation to the main case); what matters is the way he argues, sometimes denying or ignoring truth, in order to create something clear.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Against the Day

A few short notes about The International:

1. The character names, like something from Made in USA, are taken from literature and cinema: Salinger, Whitman, Wexler. The Italian is named Umberto Calvini (would Calvino have been too obvious?).

2. Clive Owen, Sisyphean as always, plays a man who hunts a conspiracy only to discover that there isn't one. What he at first believes to be a plot is in fact simply the mechanism of the world. He might as well fight the day. Naomi Watts is there to echo his words and explain them. When the explanations are no longer needed, she disappears from the film.

3. The International is something of an unfinished film. It was finished once, as a thriller, but it didn't test well, so the studio had Tom Tykwer re-shoot scenes to make it an action movie. So he have one full film and a fraction of another.

4. The film is not paranoid. It's not like a Pakula movie. Pakula's paranoia is born out of hope and disappointment. He's not a man who believes the world is sinister, but is worried that it could be. Tykwer and screenwriter Eric Singer don't have as much faith. The International is made by people who believe they know how the world works. The end credits sequence, the most essential in recent memory (and this is at a time when the end credits have taken on the role of "exit music"), confirms this: we see the events of the film unfold as they would in newspapers -- just the sort of stuff that would get a paragraph or two in the business pages of a major daily.

5. I admire its accusatory clarity. There's a clarity to the images (crisp, in Burberry and Alexander Wang colors, with the establishing shots photographed in 70mm -- Tykwer has said he'd have shot the whole film in the format if he could've afforded it) and to the ideas. Nothing is ambiguous about the plot -- the politics, the countries, are all very specific. Israel is Israel, Iran is Iran, the banks are the banks, Italy is Italy, the Red Brigades are the Red Brigades.

6. The world seen contre-jour appears to have a division between light and dark. But when you walk out into the sunlight and can see everything equally, the division disappears. (And what does the old Communist say when Owen interrogates him? "The difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to make sense," or something along those lines, sense always being a question of contrasts. Evil's easy to spot when it lurks in the shadows.)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

4th Time Around

Fourth time seeing 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her in four years. Second time on 35mm. The print's scratched, and I wonder if it's the one I saw at the Music Box way back when. To my left, a man falls alseep in the first reel and snores loudly; the explosions on the soundtrack wake him up. To my right, a man falls asleep in the middle of the film -- his snoring is quieter, more like hibernation. A full house, but it's a small theater. Before the movie, a young man in a Woody Allen t-shirt tells his girlfriend they should go see Made in USA at 8 instead so they can get seats together. Before the movie, Dan Gorman and I talk Milius' Dillinger. Before the movie, they show a Volkswagen ad, touting "clean diesel" technology, and I think, "This is the right thing to show. Advertising, ideas. That's what we should be thinking about. They've gotta remind us that the world hasn't changed in 40 years."

So what do I notice in the film? The coffee cup's more galaxy-like than ever before, and more embryonic, too. I rediscover Marina Vlady's freckles and how the red lipstick brings them out. I step out towards the end and find myself helping a blind man in the bathroom (he's here for a documentary on Beethoven), missing the image of the cigarette glowing in the dark. I'm surprised that the film feels so complete without it.

The copy of Lafcadio's Adventures on Bouvard and Pecuchet's table is the same edition I have. And I've read Bouvard et Pécuchet now, and understand that while Flaubert had them leave Paris for the country, Godard has them move to the suburbs, where they can continue their urban impracticalities. Godard's gentler, too (Flaubert, describing his plan for the novel in a letter: "I shall vomit over my contemporaries the disgust they inspire in me."). As Flaubert began his unfinished novel from the notes gathered in the Dictionary of Received Ideas, so Godard, I imagine, used as the script for his (unfinished as always) film a list of ideas (idées, idées, idées, we're reminded again and again, as if he's flipping back to the cover of that blue spiral-bound notebook).

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

This is from Olivier Assayas' segment for Paris, Je T'aime: a great, clear moment in a soggy film. Sometimes you see an actor in a movie and you think "What a perfect face for that role!" So I wonder if Assayas cast Lionel Dray entirely based on his hands, the way so many actors or actresses have been cast for their faces. They're long hands, with fingers that stretch out like snails towards Maggie Gyllenhaal's neck. Desire expressed through physiognomy.

Hands Over the City

The hands of criminals, from Lang's While the City Sleeps and Limosin's Young Yakuza. Both are also the first shots of "crime" we see in the films. In the Lang film, it comes during the opening scene, the hand of the killer unlocking the door so he can return later to commit a murder; in the Limosin, it's the first image we see apart from the title card and credits. And here's the difference between the two directors and the two films, and also the difference between evil and criminality: Lang's evil is an inscrutable menace, while Limosin's crime is ordinary, banal, just a yakuza gambling on his off time. The irony is that the evil, more dangerous, comes at a moment of passion, while ordinary criminality is a permanent condition. Lang's killer lives amongst us, while Limosin's yakuzas aren't even allowed into convenience stores.

About Novo

is the best film Christophe Honoré has ever been involved with. Honoré only co-wrote the script, though like all of his scripts, it's not very good. But that's alright, because it's not a Christophe Honoré film -- it's a Jean-Pierre Limosin film. So much of a Jean-Pierre Limosin film that one of its first images is of a pair of hands: a man shaking a vending machine.

Eduardo Noriega plays a sort of comic David Mackenzie character, a grating amnesiac who finds himself in convoluted scenarios: the horny boss, the temp who needs help with her bra, etc., etc., etc. The temp becomes his girlfriend -- though of course he can't remember her -- and then there's the problem of his wife and son, whom he can't recognize but who watch him from a distance. All of this, plus cameos by André S. Labarthe and Yoko Ono's Bottoms.

But really, none of these people and their worries matter. Limosin is interested in activity at a more basic level. I admire him because he doesn't need characters. He can make movies about the inner lives of lips, feet, thighs, nipples, fingers, breasts, or shoulders. Those are his characters, and the people they're attached to are his plots. A person walking down the street for Limosin is, more often than not, about what the feet are doing and not the direction the person is going. Novo isn't about love, and certainly not about sex: it's about a hand over another hand, a hand on a hip, someone else's thumb on your chin. You get the sense that, if he didn't have to get funding to make his movies, Limosin would get rid of these goddamn scripts and just film hands for two hours.
Tokyo Eyes (1998) and Novo (2002)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Tokyo Eyes

All a film needs is a simple story and two good faces. In Tokyo Eyes (good title, too), the faces belong to Hinano Yoshikawa and Shinji Takeda. Yoshikawa's got great lips and eyebrows that can arch or level in a half-second. Takeda's a handsome slacker: pretty face, bad posture and a walk like Jean-Louis Barrault in Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier (or like Denis Lavant in Merde), but more pathetic than menacing. The simple story belongs to a film that was never made: Paris Eyes, the movie Jean-Pierre Limosin had originally planned. Then, on a whim, he decided to shoot it in Japan instead with a Japanese cast and a French crew. He even got Xavier Jamaux to do the music (Jamaux was doing acid jazz then, but he's since swapped acid for cocktails and does the music for Johnnie To and Wai Kai-Fai's movies)

Yoshikawa plays a teenager who begins following Takeda, who she believes is a notorious gunman called Four Eyes. Four Eyes has been going around shooting people, mostly single men, and Yoshikawa's detective brother has been assigned the case, which has consumed his life. When he falls asleep, he dreams that he's at the police station, still working. Limosin throws in Kafka gags, little jokes about A Woman is a Woman and Tokyo Decadence, even a poster for Irma Vep. Takeshi Kitano and Ren Osugi both show up, but this is to be expected -- Limosin directed the Cinéma, de notre temps episode on Kitano the next year, and he called it L'imprévisible (The Unpredictable).

Limosin's an interesting character himself. He's done a TV movie,
a script by Christophe Honoré, documentaries. He did two more Cinéma, de notre temps episodes -- on Kiarostami and Alain Cavalier. You can almost imagine him as the sort of man who is fascinated by Kitano (whom he films like some sort of talking bird -- after getting used to Kitano's image in his own films, it's fascinating to see someone else filming him, trying to catch his strangeness), admires Kiarostami (the video games here are filmed with the same intelligence as Kiarostami's cars), but believes himself to be damned like Cavalier.

It's a little film, the sort of movie where the shape of a space doesn't matter half as much as the objects cluttering a shelf. No rooms, just windows and tables. No apartments, just couches and doors. No train cars, just handrails. Tokyo Hands, they should've called it, because it's the cinema of the hand more than the eye, the camera less concerned with what the eye catches than what the hand might be able to touch. Anything that exists outside of the possibility of being touched has no place in this film. If you see a ceiling, it's because it's too low (and even in the subway cars, the first thing we notice isn't the ceiling itself, but the hanging advertisements, just within reach). So we see newspapers, cigarette lighters, video arcade machines, shoulders, haircuts, handbags, guard rails, walls, cell phones, and, of course, guns and cameras. Of course, of course, of course. Most of Tokyo Eyes is shot with a handheld camera, which isn't that different from a gun, maybe a little bit heavier, but just as easy to use and only a little less dangerous.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Two Close-ups in One Wide Shot

This shot comes from the Christmas dinner scene early in André Téchiné's I Don't Kiss. Four figures, arranged symmetrically across the 'Scope frame. If you connected the lines between their heads, it would form a sort of subtle valley. The heads aren't quite symmetrical, though -- they're more like opposites -- two focused on the activity of one of the others, the other two only interested in their objects: a book, a cello. Two are silent, and the other two are "heard," though it's only the objects that we hear, in absolute, clear close-up: the crisp turning of pages, the perfectly-recorded cello. Two simultaneous close-ups on the soundtrack, one wide shot in the image. Outside the windows, snow falls silently.

Monday, July 6, 2009

When the bandages came off, Parker looked in the mirror at a stranger.
--Richard Stark, The Man with the Getaway Face

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Thursday, July 2, 2009

A Tsai Video

Going through those old screen captures, I found some images from a little Tsai Ming-Liang film called Fish, Underground. It's a video, about 30 minutes long. I remember I wanted to write about it then, but never got around to it. Well, it's late, I'm not doing anything better -- "no time like the present" and whatnot.

There's a story to the movie, and it goes like this: Tsai wanted to make a documentary about a medium, and so he hopped on his bike with a camcorder in tow; the bike broke down or the traffic was bad or something like that, and so he found himself stranded at local fair. So he takes the camcorder out and starts walking around.

Camcorders are complex instruments. They're not just cameras. They're microphones, VCRs, effect generators, titlers. It's a lot of power to put in a little plastic box; it's funny how casually we use them, like it's nothing at all to record sound and image, play back, turn on a digitial filter. Complex and uncomplicated -- there's a beautiful combination. So complete, you don't even have to think about it.

Sometime later, Tsai said that when he made the movie, he wasn't filming, but using the camera as his eyes. He said this about the shots of the tunnel and the dead fish from which the movie gets its name, but I don't remember those as well as, say, the girl shimmying to "...Baby One More Time," the way the gold miniskirt and platform shoes make her movements even more awkward or that bored expression on her face, like the kind a waitress has when she's bringing you the check. She's "dancing," not dancing -- she repeats the same movement over and over, not even following the rhythm of the song. It's what she's paid to do; when the song fades out, she continues her "dancing."

The girl starts "stripping," and the announcer behind her sees Tsai in the crowd and tells him to stop filming. He puts the camera in his bag, but he doesn't stop recording. If we can't see, we can at least hear. There's something like half a minute of the grainy blacks and browns of the inside of the bag while we hear the crowd applauding the show.

He intended it as a recording, but it's a sketchbook, too. There's an intersection with a broken traffic light, mopeds buzzing by in the hazy morning light. A street lamp casts a peach glow over a crosswalk to nowhere. It's the Kuala Lumpur of I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, but as he first found it in Taiwan.

I don't remember whether I saw the latter movie before or after I saw this one, but, either way, I noticed no connection in 2007. What difference a couple of years make. Now it seems obvious, as though at any moment those Bangladeshi men will carry the lice-filled mattress through the intersection.