Thanks for the Use of the Hall - Archive

This archive contains posts from May 2007 to November 2008. More recent posts are at:

Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Nakahira vs. Vadim, and a Bit About Composition in General

I accidentally created an interesting double bill when I attended back-to-back screenings at MOMA of Yasushi Nakahira’s 1956 Kurutta kajitsu (Crazed Fruit, aka Juvenile Passion) and Roger Vadim’s 1959 Les Liaisons dangereuses. Both Nakahira and Vadim were championed in the mid to late 50s by the Cahiers du Cinema critics, who used them as sticks to beat the mainstream French cinema for its stiffness and orthodoxy. And both directors enjoyed only a brief period of critical favor: Nakahira never made another splash in the West, and Vadim quickly alienated the affections of Cahiers and its followers.

(The historically appropriate pairing of these films isn’t pure coincidence. The Cahiers critics of the time seemed to take a special interest in films about youth: possibly because the subject matter encouraged a freer directorial style; possibly also because the Cahiers writers were young themselves and trying to foment a revolution. The Nakahira and Vadim films were both part of MOMA’s Jazz Score series – and jazz music and youth subjects went hand in hand in films of the 50s.)

Truffaut, whose review of Kurutta kajitsu was compiled and translated into English in My Life and My Films, made the connection between Nakahira and Vadim:

"In short, you will have guessed, Ishihara (Editor’s note: screenwriter Shintarô Ishihara, the central literary figure of Japan’s 50s “taiyozoku” youth culture) is called in Poland the Marek Hlasko of Japan, and in France the Sagan/Vadim/Buffet of Japan. The second is certainly warranted, since it seems clear that Juvenile Passion was influenced by And God Created Woman (Et Dieu...créa la femme), which played in Japan at the same time it was released in France.

"As in Vadim’s first film, we are shown two brothers who are successively the lovers of a young woman unhappily married to an American. I find the Japanese film superior to its French model from every point of view: script, direction, acting, spirit."

The Cahiers writers would always define Vadim by Et Dieu...créa la femme, which fascinated them upon its 1956 release, and seemed to them to point the way toward a new and freer cinema. It’s not the Vadim film that appeals to me most. Still, I think Vadim’s now-depressed reputation deserves a lift, and I certainly thought he got the better of Nakahira in that evening’s faceoff at MOMA.

One of the appeals of Kurutta kajitsu is that the characters are rebellious enough to confound certain genre expectations. The enigmatic female lead (Mie Kitahara, seen in NYC recently in Tomu Uchida’s memorable Jibun no ana no nakade [A Hole of My Own Making]) plays a triple game as wife, innocent, and slut, but is not typed as duplicitous: the film suggests that her desires are sincere in each compartment of her life. And the older brother (Yûjirô Ishihara) betrays his sibling, not from malevolence or weakness, but from impulsiveness wedded to a reckless existentialism. Director Nakahira makes unusual and vigorous attempts to convey the subjective experiences of the characters, using point-of-view shots and focusing on small-scale events to associate the boys’ lives with immediacy and sensation.

Still, Nakahira strikes me as stronger on big concepts than on moment-by-moment direction. Too often his performers fall back on conventional signposting within each scene, even when the characters don’t reduce to simple concepts. (Chabrol corrected this shortcoming in 1959’s Les Cousins, which could be seen as a loose reworking of Kurutta kajitsu.) And I don’t find Nakahira a visually expressive director: he manages a number of attractive shots, mostly in exteriors, but produces unremarkable results with basic tasks like cutting between characters or laying out simple action.

The simple scenes in Les Liaisons dangereuses are exactly where Vadim establishes his talent. His compositions and camera movements have great natural beauty, and also preserve a balance between subjectivity and an objective, environmental perspective. The now-familiar source material (I haven’t read Laclos’ novel, but I feel as if I have after seeing at least four adaptations of it) opens an intriguing gap between the malevolence of the protagonists and their more conventional sentimental aspirations, and Vadim and his writer Roger Vailland are intuitive enough to enhance the emotional gravity that accompanies the characters’ nasty gamesmanship. The best example of this approach is the stunning scene in which Valmont (Gérard Philipe) presses his courtship of the chaste Marianne (Annette Vadim) while they walk amid snowy mountains at a winter resort. Valmont’s seduction strategy, described in voiceover, is to tell Marianne the truth about his life of depravity; and so the scene plays with a built-in dual perspective, according to which Valmont makes both a calculating power play and a naked confession to a woman who is already more than just a victim to him. Vadim plays the scene for maximum solemnity, letting Valmont’s words resonate in the majestic spaces that shift behind the characters, and keeping his camera a little low and far enough away from the couple that their figures never completely eclipse the elemental environment.

Throughout the film, Vadim’s innate seriousness makes it possible for him to give the cruelty of the subject matter its full weight, neither softening it (cf. the Forman/Carrière and Kumble versions of the story) nor implicating himself in it (cf. the Frears/Hampton version). This is not to deny a certain number of missteps, mostly near the ending, possibly attributable to internal or external censorship. One can see Vadim as divided between a fruitful iconoclasm and a more conventional or conformist tendency. (If film criticism has tended to regard Vadim as the cinema’s answer to Hugh Hefner…well, Hefner too is half revolutionary and half conformist, and his career declined in the same precipitous fashion.)

Before I insert images into this blog for the first time, I’m going to make a tentative attempt to generalize some of the above comments about composition. When I watch a movie and think, “These images are intrinsically beautiful – this director really knows how to compose,” and then try to analyze the visual style, I often conclude that the compositions are balanced between two functions: showing the figure in the foreground, and showing the world. The balance is always managed in such a way that the shot can still function in the mind of the viewer as a depiction of the foreground figure; and yet the room or landscape is presented with some spatial integrity.

And every time I watch a movie and think, “These images are dull and conventional,” I conclude upon further analysis that the compositions are framed as if they are trying to present only one object, or one idea, and that the image reduces in my mind to a concept. Closeups are composed to show the person and not much else; longer shots are far enough back that the relation of the object or person to the surroundings seems to motivate the composition. I don’t necessarily think that shots that fit this description are a liability, but they miss out on intrinsic beauty, because they suggest a concept too strongly. In some cases shots like these gain value from being part of a larger artistic structure.

I was first put onto this train of thought when I attended another circumstantial double bill at MOMA of Mankiewicz’s House of Strangers and Fregonese’s Black Tuesday. I felt as the films had utterly different visual agendas: it seemed to me that every shot in the Mankiewicz film had a single concept behind it, and could be translated into words without loss; and that every shot in the Fregonese film was a picture of the world, with its complexity preserved.

I don’t have DVDs of Kurutta kajitsu or Les Liaisons dangereuses, so I’ll compare still images from the films that I found on YouTube. From the very limited selection of clips available, I chose two fairly unremarkable interior scenes: a teen party from Kurutta kajitsu in which the representatives of reckless youth state their credo; and the culmination of Valmont’s attempt to seduce Marianne in Les Liaisons dangereuses. The scenes have different emotional trajectories (not to mention different aspect ratios) and therefore don’t compare perfectly, but they do give a sense of Nakahira and Vadim’s compositional tendencies.

Let’s compare two-shots first. The Nakahira scene is heavy on closeups, but it contains a few two-shots:

The lack of compositional tension in the shots can partly be chalked up to the emotionally neutral content of the scene: none of the characters in these two-shots have a strong personal relationship to each other. Nonetheless, the layout of these shots has a cerebral quality to me: the two figures in the frame are just large enough that the frame seems to be about them and little else. The background is visible in the shots, and even has some visual appeal in the second shot; but for me the size of the people in the frame sends a signal that the background isn’t motivating the placement of the camera.

The Vadim clip is longer, so it provides more varied examples. And the emotional tension between Valmont and Marianne is at a high point, which to some extent mandates additional diagonal tension. Here are a few two-shots in this scene that are relatively free of diagonal tension, and therefore compare better to Nakahira’s two-shots:

Allowing for the wider aspect ratio that Vadim uses, and also for Vadim’s use of deep focus, these shots aren’t wildly different from Nakahira’s. (The deep focus is, of course, not irrelevant to this discussion: it’s certainly an invitation to experience the characters as part of the environment. I don’t know much about Vadim’s director of photography here, Marcel Grignon. He seems to have had a long career in the European film industry, but I recognize only a few of his credits, principally Clement’s Paris brûle-t-il? and Borowczyk’s La Bête. He worked with Vadim once again, in 1963 on Le Vice et la vertu.) I perceive a greater tendency in Vadim to arrange his actors to create a sort of human terrain, a landscape with perspective and contour.

Other two-shots in the scene make greater use of distance and diagonality:

Here we see an interest in the environment that doesn’t have a parallel in the Nakahira scene. The deep focus in these shots is clearly part of a plan to photograph the texture and the space in the room, while configuring the actors in dramatic opposition to each other. There is very little in the story that draws our attention to the setting: Vadim could easily have conceived the scene as an abstract personal confrontation, but he seems to think naturally in terms of topography.

Finally, a few closer two-shots drive home the idea of actors as terrain:

There is not much in the way of background in these shots, but the people are invested with spatial qualities of their own. I often thought of mid-period Antonioni when watching Les Liaisons dangereuses; it didn’t occur to me until afterwards that the film was released nine months before L’avventura, the film that popularized Antonioni’s wide-screen compositional style.

Now for one-shots. The scene I’ve chosen from Kurutta kajitsu centers on a Soviet-inspired montage sequence that cuts among a number of tight closeups, usually with tilted compositions:

The composition that isn’t tilted is the closeup of the straight-arrow brother, whereas the tilted closeups go to the “taiyozoku.” This correspondence between composition and characterization is way too blatant to have any resonance for me.

The scene contains a few one-shots that are more conventional:

Again, Nakahira frames simply, with no apparent intention other than to show the actor. There is some visual tension in the background with the wooden railing; the direct framing of the boy again discourages me from registering him in his environmental context.

Vadim’s simplest one-shots aren’t much more complicated:

Most of the added environmental presence can be chalked up to the wider aspect ratio and the use of deep focus. Often, however, Vadim clearly shows a desire to situate the characters amid their decor, even with the limited amount of screen acreage available to show background in one-shots:

The wider aspect ratio gives Vadim greater opportunity to place actors off-center and highlight the décor, Antonioni-style.

As with the two-shots cited earlier, some of the one-shots strongly suggest the topographical qualities of the bodies of the actors:

At one point, Vadim creates an off-center composition around Marianne, then moves Valmont into the frame for a more massed, topographical effect. Practically the same framing serves both halves of the shot, which suggests that Vadim’s compositions are friendly to the absence of the actors as well as their presence.

I haven’t seen Vadim’s 1957 Sait-on jamais... (No Sun in Venice), but it's often cited as one of Vadim's best (Godard reviewed it favorably in Cahiers), and it screens at MOMA in the Jazz Score series on Monday, June 16 at 6 pm and Wednesday, June 18 at 6:45 pm.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Children and Dogs

Here’s an old idea that I’ve tossed around on a_film_by once or twice.

We are all used to seeing people die in movies and not having it ruin our day. Many people believe that this restrained reaction is due to our knowledge that we are watching a fiction, our awareness that no one is really dying.

If, however, at the end or a row of anonymous movie extras being gunned down, the assistant director should accidentally place a child or a dog, the theater owner will hear about it. Some people’s days will in fact be ruined.

This surplus sensitivity to the onscreen deaths of children and domestic animals is extremely common. Spectators who endeavor to elevate their compassion for adult victims may succeed in leveling the playing field to an extent; but almost everyone understands, on a gut level, the special status of children and animals.

It seems to me that the near-universality of this reaction effectively refutes the idea that our indifference to onscreen death is due merely to our sophistication in recognizing the difference between fiction and reality.

Asked to explain this phenomenon, almost all interviewees say the same thing: “The child/animal is innocent.” The implication is that the adult is presumptively guilty, or at least that the occurrence of guilt in adults is sufficiently high that we should take no chances with them.

One can put forth an evolutionary explanation that we divide the world into members of our tribe, who help us survive, and others, who are a potential threat. Or one can opt for the more Freudian explanation that we all harbor an atavism that gives us a simple pleasure in the death of others, and that we feel freer to indulge this atavism with the excuse of self-defense.

In support of the evolutionary thesis, we observe that makers of fiction are skillful at using identification to change our reaction to the death of fictional characters. All filmmakers know that bit players will die unmourned, that the protagonist’s best friend is good for a bit of manageable sadness at the end of the second act, and that the death of the protagonist is an emotional experience that must be handled carefully. In effect, some characters become part of our tribe.

However, we are still capable of enjoying a tragedy in which the protagonist dies. The evolutionary thesis alone cannot explain this.

It could be that all three considerations – the argument from artistic sophistication, the argument from tribal affiliation, the argument from atavism – operate within us and combine to govern our reaction to onscreen death.


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Dramaturgy and Two-Ness

As I was watching some Thorold Dickinson films during his recent retrospective at the Walter Reade, I started thinking about dramaturgy, and how it relates to my tastes. Dickinson is a gifted, proficient filmmaker who nonetheless doesn’t appeal to me very much. He resembles Hitchcock more than he does anyone else: he has an acute sense of event, of the viewer’s involvement in the drama; and of the way that the camera can exploit the wholeness of space to heighten involvement. All the films of his that I’ve seen build slowly and carefully to well-managed dramatic peaks: the bedroom confrontation between Anton Walbrook and Edith Evans in The Queen of Spades, the terrorist act in which Valentina Cortese is implicated in Secret People, the Rear Window-like confrontation between Walbrook and Frank Pettingell in Gaslight. The last is Dickinson’s most dazzling film (though for me rather painful to watch), partly for the way it manipulates audience sympathy to sustain agonizing suspense for almost its entire length. (Gaslight was oddball material for Cukor, but characteristic and defining material for Dickinson.)

What bothers me about Dickinson is that he doesn’t seem to have much interest in creating a film universe with interesting and coherent internal connections. All his energy seems to be devoted to the problem of positioning the viewer vis a vis the story. His characters tend to be reduced to a simple configuration of behaviors that reinforce their role in the drama: compare Walbrook’s signifier-level villainy in Gaslight and The Queen of Spades, exemplified by his luxurious drawling delivery of treacherous endearments, with the same actor’s evocations of intelligence and introspection for Powell/Pressburger or Ophuls. Dickinson is quite capable of using realistic elements for counterpoint (as in the superb sequence in Gaslight where the boarding and renovation of a house conveys the passing of years) or providing social context (like the street sweeper in Gaslight who guards the safety of the working-class urchins as a horse passes). But these skills remain in the periphery: when it comes to telling a story, Dickinson’s thoughts are fixed on our reactions. There’s not much in the way of character arc or development in his films, and what there is (the protagonists of Secret People, my favorite Dickinson film, go through a few changes) is greatly simplified in the name of narrative clarity.

I have a tendency to criticize filmmakers for failing to do the dramaturgical work of harmonizing character developments with story developments. Recently I expressed my misgivings about the talented Kiyoshi Kurosawa in similar terms: I am always dissatisfied by how his plots do not express and amplify the emotional dilemmas that plague his troubled characters. (I wrote a tiny bit more about this issue once on a_film_by.)

I am implicitly using a classic dramaturgical model to beat up these filmmakers. Even the most elementary narratives generally strive to create a wedding between the issues of the characters and the workings of the plot. For instance, a character who is a coward traditionally inspires a story in which he or she must perform bravely to resolve a crisis. Complicated art can complicate this procedure a great deal, but the tendency to bring together action and character development is ancient and persistent.

Obviously there are issues of taste involved here, so I don’t want to posit classical dramaturgy as any kind of aesthetic absolute. And it’s not as if I think that the cinema peaked with silent melodrama: good narrative films show infinite variety and subtlety in their weaving of personal stories and event. Perhaps it would be fair to say the movies that I criticized above are ones that foreground dramatic construction, while seeming to me not to care enough about its implications for character development.

The reason I bring the subject up is that, while watching Dickinson films, it occurred to me that classical dramaturgy could be seen as a way of creating a relationship between internal and external views of a work of art.

By “internal view,” I mean the idea that the work of art is its own universe independent of us, with its own coherence. When we criticize a work of art for psychological plausibility, for instance, or for having plot holes, we are thinking of the film universe as a self-sufficient world that has its own motors and laws, and expressing a desire that the filmmaker not play fast and loose with its integrity.

And by “external view,” I mean the idea that a work of art is a spectacle for the audience, intended to entertain or trouble or stimulate us. In this view, we are thinking less of a film universe, apart from us, than of a film mechanism that exerts an effect on us. The relationship between entities in this view is not character to character, but filmmaker to us.

Every work of art can probably be regarded from both these viewpoints. I routinely look at every movie through both prisms. In fact, I tend to require that both perspectives give satisfaction for me to consider a movie good.

There’s a big question, for me at least, raised by this consideration of the internal and external views of art. Why should I care that these two realms be brought into relation with each other? Why does this create aesthetic value for me? Why would I not be satisfied with getting one good thing, and instead require two?

Maybe the answer is simple. Sometimes I think that there is something crucially important about two-ness in art. In fact, sometimes I think that what creates artistic value for me is the presence of two separate kinds of pleasure, given at the same time by the same gesture. The pleasures might be extraordinarily simple ones: I don’t see a lower limit to how simple they can be. Nor do I see restrictions on what kind of pleasures can be involved. But if these pleasures come one at a time instead of two at once, I notice that I resist calling them art.

According to this theory, classical dramaturgy is valuable (to me - I have to remember to keep sticking that qualifier in, because it's obviously not true for everyone), not because of some sophisticated philosophical relationship between the internal and external views, but simply because both the internal and the external views give some elementary pleasure when they cohere, and because classical dramaturgy creates both coherences at the same time with the same act.

A few days later, I saw a movie that got me thinking about one-ness and two-ness in the context of visual style instead of dramaturgy. Introducing his intriguing La France at a New Directors/New Films screening, Serge Bozon cited the influence of directors from the American classical cinema, naming Walsh, Fuller, and Jacques Tourneur. I wasn’t so sure about Walsh and Fuller, but some of Bozon’s shots did indeed evoke Tourneur in their compositional quietude, and in an artificial illumination of space that seems both friendly and eerie.

And yet the effect was not at all the same for me. The postmodern approach of Bozon and his co-writer Axelle Ropert removes the propulsion of the story: events in La France are characteristically cut off from each other, suspended in a state of direct address. The visual containment and illuminated backgrounds of Tourneur exist in the context of narrative conviction: an image that is saturated with otherworldly serenity might also serve the function of introducing a zombie. By stripping away narrative momentum, Bozon’s beautiful images seemed to me to be deprived of the double function of Tourneur’s shots.

I don’t rule out the possibility that Bozon offers other complexities in place of Tourneur’s story-based approach, and I don’t want to propose La France as an example of failed art. But it does illustrate that Tourneur’s visual impact for me is based on a two-ness that I detect in his visual style, and when one of the two functions goes AWOL (as it did for me, at least), the artistic impact drops by much more than 50%.


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Point of View and "Intrarealism" in Hitchcock

In 1978, when I was 23, I wrote a paper for a UCLA class that argued against the idea that Hitchcock's point-of-view sequences create character identification. The paper proposed an alternative idea: that Hitchcock's point-of-view sequences were part of a more general Hitchcockian strategy to recreate the primitive sensation that the camera is part of the film universe, and subject to its laws. I coined the word "intrarealism" to describe this strategy.

I managed to get the paper published in 1980 in Wide Angle magazine, a theory journal out of Athens, Ohio. It lay dormant for nineteen years, until Susan Smith wrote about it in an article in Cineaction, and subsequently in her book Hitchcock: Suspense, Humour and Tone. She was critical of some aspects of my idea, but I'm grateful to her for taking the article seriously. Since then the article pops up in the occasional bibliography or university reading list.

Here's the article, in electronic format for the first time, with its tortured style and youthful arrogance intact. I still think the basic idea is useful, though I've given up the practice of coining words.


Saturday, December 15, 2007

Scarface: MOMA, December 16, 2007

It's always been hard for me to have an informal relationship with Scarface, because its legend looms so large in my filmgoing life. (I am talking about the original 1932 version. I will never get used to having to make that clear, just as some religious people probably bristle to think that "Madonna" might no longer mean the Virgin Mary to everyone.) When I began reading film literature, commentators often cited it as the greatest work of Howard Hawks, who has always seemed to me the greatest director in cinema history. (These days, I believe that it's more common for critics to give honors to other Hawks movies - Rio Bravo especially.) It was unavailable for screening for decades, like other films owned by Howard Hughes, and could be seen only at clandestine 16mm screenings until the 80s. And, once seen and assimilated into the canon, it became a touchstone, a key test case for what might be termed moralistic criticism. Every time I wonder whether a movie is getting too much pleasure from the exercise of power or violence, my thought process makes an obligatory stop: "But what about Scarface? What does this movie do that Scarface doesn't do?"

All Hawks' films work off of a genre background that creates expectations about how formally, how quickly, how emphatically scenes will play. And then the execution happens more casually and rapidly than expected, creating an illusion of realism, and releasing energy. Depending on the genre, different aspects of Hawks movies can become part of the genre background; and in Scarface I have the feeling that whole chunks of the movie, even scenes with important characters, exist primarily to establish its genre credentials. Despite an amusing reflexive bit in the first shot - in which a janitor bats impatiently at the elaborate Sternberg-like decor, trying to clear the set for Hawksian use - Scarface doesn't truly announce its Hawksian intentions until the violence starts flowing freely. But then the film knocks us back in our seats: not with especially graphic violence, but with the speed and frequency of the mayhem, and also with the directness of its presentation of such frightening material.

The exhilarating effect is hard to deny. What does Hawks do to prevent our celebrating the violence? I'm not really sure that he does anything. Certainly he does not spare us Tony Camonte's cruelty, or hide his crudeness and unattractive qualities. Neither is he much interested in condemning him, despite the studio's many distracting attempts to placate the Hays Office by inserting socially responsible commentary. One feels that Camonte interests Hawks the most as a character in the scenes where he plays parent and teacher to his team of hoodlums, revealing a childlike nature that is comically inadequate to grasping moral issues, and that makes him, if anything, more sympathetic to the audience.

One notes that the thrill of the violence doesn't prevent the film from making an honest account of human suffering. For instance, there is no sense of reversal or contradiction when a brutal shooting scene ends with a barrel of beer rolling into a basement apartment and presumably killing one of its offscreen inhabitants (we hear the wailing of a woman as the scene ends). In general, it doesn't seem that we need to identify with Camonte or his men to appreciate the violent scenes: in fact, the audience probably wouldn't mind much if one of our monster/protagonists met his end amid the sensory overload.

But the joy of combat is represented as well as its human cost. The most exciting and perfectly realized scene in the film, in which Camonte and his minion Rinaldo score a machine gun from the gang who is attacking the restaurant in which they are eating, is very similar in tone to the final shootout with the Burdett gang at the end of Rio Bravo - our excitement at the onscreen violence is intentionally conflated with Camonte and Rinaldo's adrenaline rush from being under fire. The fact that the protagonists are lawmen in Rio Bravo and ruthless gangsters in Scarface does not seem to be a key factor.

The conclusion I draw is that Scarface gets away with giving us enormous pleasure from unspeakable actions because it promotes in us a sense of intellectual and emotional mobility. It does not have to romanticize violence or violent people to get its effects; it does not have to create a narrative that denies us one perspective or another on the violence. In this context, our thrilled response to killing registers simply, a fact among other facts.

You probably won't read this in time, but Scarface screens again at MOMA on Sunday (tomorrow), December 16 at 2 pm.

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Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Thinking About Sound

After I posted a few weeks ago about the films of Humphrey Jennings, I started thinking again about sound and what it means to movies. In particular, I often try to put my finger on how sight and sound function in different ways for us, about how they might each have a different function in a sound film. Sometimes I'll hear a critic or filmmaker talk about how sound has barely been explored by filmmakers relative to the image (Godard was talking like that in the early 80s, around the time of Passion; I recently a piece by Andi Engel on early Straub-Huillet that took the same tack), and I always feel that they've got hold of the wrong end of it: surely there are reasons that sound and image have been used in different ways. Bazin had a different, more holistic view of sound: to him, film was not fundamentally a visual art, but rather an art based on the realism of the photograph; and the addition of sound to cinema was simply the filling of a gap, a development in perfect harmony with cinema's primal mission. I'm down with Bazin's sentiment (which was largely prescriptive, a description of the kind of cinema that Bazin valued most), but even in real life sight and sound do not function symmetrically with regard to each other, and I'd like to understand more about it. Does anyone know of literature that takes a stab at distinguishing between the psychological effects of vision and hearing?

This time around, I started by thinking about a commonplace idea that rings true for most of us: that a deaf person feels cut off from other people in a way that a blind person does not, and that, though we think of vision as the most useful sense, we might be happier to lose it than to lose our hearing. At least part of the force of this idea is connected to our emotions about spoken language. The content of language can be conveyed visually; and so can the enormous complexity of human personality; but perhaps only spoken language delivers both these payloads simultaneously, so that the two seem inextricable from each other. When we imagine what we would lose by being deaf, we think first of voices.

But one can leave voices aside in this consideration. Imagine being Robinson Crusoe on an island and having to sacrifice one sense or the other (a bad deal, admittedly). I, for one, would still feel more connected to my environment listening to its noises than looking around it. More helpless, without a doubt; but more present, less distant.

Is this because sound is panoramic (coming from all directions, not just one) and continuous (never turned off by anything analogous to an eyelid)? If we could see in every direction, and if images came to us even as we were sleeping, would that be enough to make vision as intimate and oceanic a sense as hearing? I can't decide. Maybe it would.

Anyway, the word "helpless" that I used above is suggestive to me. It's often been observed that vision is associated with power: we select what we see, manipulate our sensory apparatus to our advantage. And the visual aspect of cinema is easy to imbue with the urge to dominance: editing or camera movement that is executed with energy often connotes an assault, a campaign of control. Sound can, of course, become just as obtrusive as the image. But a noisy sound track suggests to me chaos more than strategy. And a fairly straightforward sound track often has something of the passivity of that blind Crusoe crouching in the bush: it absorbs and registers everything around it, makes no sudden moves.

Even if one credits this impressionistic attempt to associate visuals with the active principle and the soundtrack with the passive, it's certainly possible to use images to suggest passivity (e.g., the "master shot" style of so much of today's art cinema) or sound to suggest activity (e.g., Hollywood trailers). In both cases, though, I'm aware of the work required. Whereas if I consider basic, Griffith-inspired, Gunsmoke-editing-project film language, I get a sense of the image imposing itself on reality, and reality imposing itself on the sound track.

A possible corollary: I wrote recently about a connection between auteurist tastes in cinema and the passive principle. And it also seems to be true that contemporary French art cinema, which still shows the influence of Nouvelle Vague technique, is the school of filmmaking most dedicated to the importance of natural sound.

Anyway, this is off-the-cuff speculation, probably subject to revision in the coming minutes.


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Not Completely Frivolous Lists: Women's Names

In honor of the upcoming NYC screening of Esther Kahn, here is a list of my ten favorite films whose title consists solely of a woman's full name:

  • Daisy Kenyon
  • Esther Kahn
  • Cluny Brown
  • Vera Drake
  • Sylvia Scarlett
  • Lola Montes
  • Annie Hall
  • Vanina Vanini
  • Effi Briest
  • Nora Helmer

(Given how poorly Woody Allen's films have been faring with me on revisits, I'm hesitant to select Annie Hall...but I'll let it stand for now.)

And, just to be comprehensively silly, here's a list of my ten favorite films whose title consists solely of a woman's first name:

  • Gertrud
  • Christine (Alan Clarke)
  • Petulia
  • Alyonka
  • Raja
  • Marnie
  • Lola (Fassbinder)
  • Camille
  • Eva
  • Muriel

I made these lists because of an undocumented feeling that a disproportionate number of my favorite films are named after women. (I can verify that the list of films with men's names that I like at this level is about half the length of the women's list.) And I don't think this is a purely personal preference: I think that the auteurist tradition, which I absorbed as a novice cinephile, leans gynophilic.

The reasons for this leaning strike me as far from feminist. Certainly one notes that naming a film after a woman is akin to objectification.

To speculate further: tradition has ensured that male-centered films have often been about the exercise of power, about creating or altering destiny; and female-centered films have often been about being acted upon, about being at the mercy of larger forces, about destiny altering the protagonist.

It would follow that male-centered films would be more likely vehicles for the audience's power fantasies. Sometimes these fantasies are individualist: commercial cinema always has a prominent place for action-adventure films with powerful, victorious male heroes. Sometimes they are political - and cinema's political movements, which necessarily are built on power fantasies, have different ways of dealing with gender-based power issues. The Soviet cinema, for instance, made an official effort (I'll leave to historians the question of how successful the effort was) to invest women with a mythology of power rather than passivity; the woman's movement has had a similar tendency. On the other side, it often seems to me that the old American left, which grew as a social and cinematic force in the 30s, embraced the traditional masculine role, and occasionally risked misogyny by equating woman with the temptations of home and security that must be resisted by the politically committed male.

The politique des auteurs was associated in 50s France with a Catholic position, and frequently with a right-wing position. Positif, the magazine that most vigorously opposed the auteurism of Cahiers du Cinema, was committed to the political left, and saw the advocates of the politique as little more than fascists. (English-language readers who are interested in the history of the politique should try to find a copy of Peter Graham's out-of-print collection The New Wave, which translates and reprints articles from Positif, Cahiers and other magazines that illustrate the political issues at stake.)

I've always believed that the Catholic origins of auteurism, obscured over the years by other layers of ideology, had a lot to do with the prominence in the auteurist canon of films in which the world is a vale of tears, and protagonists (often women) are buffeted about by forces outside themselves, finding at best a spiritual victory. And Positif's tastes in American cinema, which reflected their political commitment, strike me as rather male-oriented.

I happen to feel that, in the final analysis, vale-of-tears movies reflect the human condition better than movies about victory over adversity. (As Pialat said in a late interview: "Death - it's not an improvement.") Not that you can't have good movies with active protagonists: the human condition covers a lot of territory. But this leaning of mine is probably the reason that my lists of favorite films contain so many movies with women's names.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Godard; Bodily Functions

I've been discussing Godard in the comments section of a post on Craig Keller's Cinemasparagus blog. I managed to work Bazin into the discussion, to no one's surprise, I'm sure. And I've also been participating in a discussion on Zach Campbell's Elusive Lucidity blog about scenes where characters eat and perform other bodily functions. (Zach's post was specifically about eating scenes in Cassavetes' films, but I ducked out of that specific topic, as Cassavetes' work isn't fresh in my mind; I've never warmed up to him.)


Friday, August 3, 2007

Carriage Trade

As a young film buff, I used to enjoy Jonas Mekas's rapturous writing about (mostly) non-narrative film for the Village Voice. I remember him expressing an almost physical need to experience chunks of pure, full-bodied cinema. His enthusiasm stuck with me as a model for how non-narrative cinema might work - a model that I've rarely been able to instantiate for actual films. But I felt that Mekas feeling while watching Warren Sonbert's beautiful Carriage Trade last weekend. It occurred to me that my idea of "pure, full-bodied cinema" had been shaped over the years by Bazinian influences that took me far away from the film culture of many non-narrative artists; but that Sonbert was speaking to me from closer to home.

Sonbert's images, which we first see isolated by black leader and fades, and later see in various combinations, have a contained, composed quality that suggests that he is trying to sum something up with each shot: the quality of a place, or of an action, or of a person. When he sets a shot off by fades to and from black, he does an uncanny impersonation of the establishing shots of silent movies, because the shot seems to give us a complete enough account of what it shows that it could be illustrating a title card.

The images in Carriage Trade often have a bit of narrative, a bit of drama attached to them. Sonbert doesn't use that narrative charge to create a bigger story, but he is friendly to the narrative impulse, and begins and ends shots to enhance the import of what happens within them. If the shot portrays an action, Sonbert will often wait to cut until a moment that gives the action a shape; when his camera moves, it often traverses a static or repetitive scene as if to give it directionality, a sense of development. The appeal of the film for me comes, not only from the beauty and serenity of the compositions, but also from the bit of mystery that comes from so many shots having a minute, self-sufficent quality of narrative representation.

After a while Sonbert begins grouping shots together, or intercutting between groupings of shots: not unlike Vertov, though somewhat gentler and more meditative. Inevitably my mind turned to the issue of the film's global structure, and I never found any large patterns that gave me much satisfaction; my appreciation for the film remained on the shot level. Once in a while I would perceive a connection between shots - for instance, a circular pan around a group of people cuts to a circular window in a wall - and I would just let the connection drop. I've trained myself over the years to avoid an interpretive, thematic experience of the image, and without that arrow in my quiver, I didn't know how to profit artistically from whatever connections I detected.

It must be said that every account of Sonbert that I've read has put heavy emphasis on his use of montage; I presume Sonbert started that trend with his self-analyses (which I'd love to read, if anyone knows where to find them). I wonder if my own training in film blocks me from following Sonbert from the shot level to the level of intermediate structure, structure on the sequence level. Now that my interest has been piqued, I need to visit Sonbert again and try on different approaches to that problem. But I do believe that Sonbert's many admirers might perhaps profit from adjusting their focus and considering his shots as entities in themselves, as well as in connection to each other.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Rohmer, Rossellini, etc.

One of the odd things about the blogging life is that interesting material gets buried in comments sections for aging posts. Anyway, Daniel Kasman and I have been writing about possible connections between Rohmer and Rossellini, as well as some abstract ideas about narrative cinema, in the comments to his recent post about Le Rayon Vert. The discussion touches on ideas about storytelling that came up in my post on Lady Chatterley last week.


Thursday, June 28, 2007

Artifice or Fantasy, Part II

I've been hesitating to tackle this follow-up to last month's "Artifice or Fantasy" post, because I see serious problems with my line of reasoning. But let's get it over with.

Recently I discussed my realism/fantasy idea with a friend who's a visual artist. When I talked about photographic realism as a medium-based element that the artist's fantasies must encounter and make terms with, she said that the visual artist's materials serve a function like that for her: that her initial ideas must in some way take on a new or modified identity when they meet the materials with which she is working. I liked that parallel, and especially liked the corollary implication that photographic realism was the filmmaker's material: it's a sort of rephrase of Bazin's preoccupation with the ontology of the photographic image as the basis of cinema.

(Of course, there is a strand of filmmaking and film theory that is an extension of the visual arts, and that is based on the simpler, visual-arts-like argument that a filmmaker's materials are the emulsion, the flicker of the projected image, etc. I would argue that this literalism misses the unique qualities of cinema, and it certainly misses out on the beauties of Bazin's insight; but I wouldn't argue that it creates bad movies. In a way, the works generated by these two aesthetics could be described as belonging to completely different art forms.)

Having described the idea that artifice somehow needs to make terms with the realism of the medium, I must confess that I question how generally it applies. There are certainly many fine moments in cinema that depend for much of their impact on the intractability of the image, on the way that the image's documentation of the world is so much more, or so much other, than anything the fiction can offer. But I have good experiences at the movies that can't be described adequately in these terms. For instance, without searching very hard, I come across my recent blog entry on Noel Black's direction of actors in A Change of Seasons. There is no sense in which the acting ideas that I discussed could be described as the fusion of a fictional fantasy and a medium-based realism. It wouldn't even make sense to talk here about behavioral realism. If I were going to describe what's going on in A Change of Seasons using the language of my model, I'd have to say that Black is arranging for the fantasy of a certain story archetype to collide with a surprising, equally fantastic vision of behavior and intimacy, one built upon a bemused, intimate connection between people that expresses itself even when the story is in the process of driving those people apart.

So, in this case, not fantasy vs. realism, but fantasy vs. fantasy. And, really, when one thinks about it: probably all moments in all films contain a fantasy vs. fantasy structure on some level. How common is it for a movie to express a single pre-artistic fantasy, counterbalanced only by the realism of the photographic image? Very very uncommon, and perhaps unheard of. Even film moments that depend crucially on the photograph, moments that could never have existed in a novel, never be rendered by an animation: even these moments tend to be based on the collision of multiple, interacting layers of expression that do not pertain to the photograph.

This takes a great deal of the fun out of my fantasy vs. realism model. If realism doesn't come from the image, from the nature of the medium, then it's really more like just another fantasy, like something the artist dreamed up to counterbalance something else that he or she dreamed up.

So, for now, I'm thinking that, though "fantasy vs. realism" might describe something, I shouldn't be trying to promote it into a more comprehensive theory of how art works.

Just as a footnote (and to tick off one of the "to do" items at the end of the first "Artifice or Fantasy" post): you can see in my argument a pervasive assumption that good moments in art depend on some complication, some collision of levels, some way in which expression meets a meaningful obstacle. This model is more or less axiomatic for me, and I don't think it's very controversial at this point in history: it seems built into most modern discussions of art. Is it universal and timeless? I wonder about this. Did whoever drew those animals on the Altamira caves build in a layer of contradiction? What about all those medieval paintings intended to glorify God? Of course, the fact that the Altamira dude didn't intend to throw us any curveballs doesn't prevent us from identifying and appreciating such curveballs in the work. Still, I hesitate to define "art" in terms of collision and complication, even if I can't appreciate any art that doesn't make me feel complicated.


Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Artifice or Fantasy: Slight Return

There is some action in the comments section for the "Artifice or Fantasy: Part I" post. If the original post wasn't up your alley, neither will the comments be.


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Artifice or Fantasy: Part I

As I have a little time, I thought I'd write about a general idea about film that's been kicking around my head lately. Skip this post if you don't feel like a theory session.

So I came up with this formal concept back in my early film-buff days, and it hung around in my belief system ever since then, without being particularly useful. The concept was that all films contain both realistic and artificial components, and that art happens on the interface of these components. And further, that it didn't really matter how realistic or how artificial a film might look to us: that the interface would always be there and would always operate in the same way. The same vocabulary of realism and artifice could be used for Farrebique or Tales of Hoffman.

You'd think that I would have some problem with the "realism" half of the formula, as that term is so embattled. But I'm a Bazinian, and have therefore had to consider what kind of meaning that word might have - and Bazin himself is much more helpful on that count than his detractors would have it. So I actually felt capable of some nuance when discussing realism and its value.

The problem was with artifice: not so much in identifying it as in figuring out how it worked. When was artifice good and when was it just phony? Thirty years later I was still dancing around that issue. Sometimes I would get pleasure from blatantly artificial elements, and I would vaguely attribute these artistic successes to some formal subtlety, some question of balance or proportion. Which I realized was just hand-waving, as we used to say in math. Other times I would criticize films for not being real, and my irritation would hide from me the obvious question: why do I consider this film false, where instances of artifice in other films seem to get a pass? Clearly I lacked a theory of how artifice might work or not work.

A few months ago there was a break in the case. And, like so many developments in my thought in the last ten or fifteen years, it can be traced back to my increasing adherence to a Freudian, or perhaps a psychoanalytical, mindset. A big current of psychoanalytical thought involves looking at old complexities in a simpler way, and realizing that we didn't light on the simple theory immediately because it was undesirable, because we didn't want to hold that belief. Why do we have nightmares? Maybe part of us likes the nightmare. Why do we have incest taboos? Maybe we think of family members in sexual terms. The problem of evil? Maybe people like to hurt each other. Etc.

So, all of a sudden, it occurred to me that maybe I liked some artifice because it fulfilled some fantasy of mine, and disliked other artifice because it pressed some button of mine. Forget for the moment considerations of craft, artistic balance, and so on. Maybe the artifice in art is, at root, just wish-fulfillment.

This was not the belief I wanted to have. Early in my film-buff life I had decided that fantasy and wish-fulfillment were incompatible with art. That was not just a way of rejecting the happy-ending ethos; it was a way of drawing lines between art and pornography, art and violent fantasy, art and anything that seemed too primal and powerful to allow delicate formal issues to operate.

This new belief was letting in all this stuff that I'd been excluding for years. But maybe it was worth giving it a spin, theoretically speaking.

So: instead of an opposition between realism and artifice, I tried thinking of art as a balance between realism and fantasy. The idea clicked immediately. As a filmmaker, I knew full well that I was drawn to some subjects and not others for pre-artistic reasons - that there had to be some powerful, primal motivation that would keep me working on a project. So I might be drawn to a sexual theme, and then complicate and distort it until it could be no one's fantasy: no matter, there was an element of fantasy that gave the project a juicy, desirable feeling in my mind. Surely film appreciation worked in the same way.

I saw the big advantage of the new realism vs. fantasy concept. It's always been painfully obvious that, as much as film buffs like to theorize about what makes films good or bad, we all like different things, and our reasons for liking and disliking are often blatantly linked to our personalities. We have a lot of trouble grasping why everyone doesn't love Film X, or hate Film Y; something about us really wants to believe that the issue is purely aesthetic, despite the screamingly obvious subjectivity of all parties.

By substituting "fantasy" for "artifice" in my formula, I was losing the idea that artifice was a formal element that could be manipulated well or poorly. But this idea had never done me much good anyway, had never developed over the course of my intellectual life. On the other hand, I was gaining a view of film appreciation that allowed for the subjectivity that so badly needs to be acknowledged in film theory, the elephant in the room that we all ignore. Our pre-artistic preferences could now be, if not actually theorized, at least inscribed in a theory. And the new formula also allowed for realism as a purely formal element that could be used to shape, oppose, redirect fantasy in ways that could challenge us, and that could be analyzed. I was already down with the idea that realism was formal, was something that the medium gave us, something that was bigger and less controllable than any fantasy. Now I had a new way of thinking about "the ontology of the photographic image": it's the part of cinema that the artist doesn't just dream up, that necessarily contributes more than the artist can intend.

A checklist for Part II of this post:
  • Discuss how this dichotomy might be adapted to other art forms.
  • Discuss why we want art to be more than pure fantasy, and whether that was always the case.
  • Acknowledge the problems posed by this new formula. In particular: does realism always come from the nature of the medium? (Plainly not.) Can the artist introduce it as a kind of nega-fantasy? (Plainly.) In that case does it work the same way as medium-based realism? (That's a tough one....)


Monday, May 28, 2007

Resnais via Bazin

Hope readers don't mind if I link to comments I've made elsewhere that I'd like to keep track of. This post on the a_film_by Yahoo group discusses Alain Resnais's recent play adaptations, and some writings of Andre Bazin that bear on Resnais's work.

I really do think that a Robinson Crusoe who is stranded with only Bazin's collected works, and who reads them over and over during his twenty-eight island years, will likely have a better understanding of cinema than someone with a well-stocked film library who hasn't revisited Bazin since college days.

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