Thursday, December 18, 2008

The passion of Jean-Claude

I really liked JCVD. So what? In part, I place emphasis on this evaluation because, first, it's a flawed film my affection for which, I freely admit, might not outweigh its failings; and second, I have no particular interest in Jean-Claude Van Damme as either actor or celebrity persona, or in the action films he made in the 1980s or 1990s. A very odd metafilm, JCVD tells the story of a frustrated Van Damme, at the end of his tether with flagging movie offers and a child custody case stemming from his divorce (both of these have parallels with the star's actual life). This dash of realism is countered with a healthy offering of movie fantasy: Jean-Claude, in Belgium in order, apparently, "to get back to his roots," needs to wire money back to his lawyers in Los Angeles so the custody case can proceed. Thus he ends up in a bank; more improbably, he ends up in the center of a bank heist. (The cops think he's the one orchestrating it, and the real robbers use this misconception to their advantage).

As a critique of celebrity culture, JCVD has some apt, if slightly obvious, observations (one of the police chiefs sees himself as a supporting star in a Van Damme vehicle; in countering the action genre's tendency to represent Arabs as terrorists, the Arab characters - who comment upon this stereotype in the film - could not be further from villainy). In most hands, these ideas are simply platitudes, but the director, Mabrouk El Mechri, includes them with a touch light enough to allow them to register emotionally. More affecting, however, is his style in relation to Van Damme himself. Of these, the most remarkable is the film's opening sequence, which begins with an exquisite long take depicting the filming of a Van Damme action sequence, paired on the soundtrack with Curtis Mayfield's 70s classic Hard Times. No shot like this exists in any Van Damme film that I am aware of: unlike the fantasies of action cinema, which depict their attractions and stunts through the kind of invisible editing that hides the reality of their construction, and their dependence on real human bodies, El Mechri hear lets us see Van Damme as that very real body, at times comically unable to perform, at 47 years of age, the ridiculous feats his (largely disinterested) diegetic director is asking him to perform. The shot, for me, in summing up what turned out to be the major theme of the film, was incredibly moving, moreso than any of the younger Van Damme's "feats" likely would have been.

In some respects, this opening long take is the best thing in the movie. Perhaps this is because it sums up poetically what the rest of film sometimes communicates through a more prosaic rhetoric. In fact, at one point Van Damme himself becomes a rhetor. In a temps mort during the robbery, Van Damme sits with the other hostages. Suddenly, a crane, with the camera attached, raises Van Damme into the air, and the viewer, is reminded (if indeed it has been forgotten in such a reflexive film) that this is a movie, and Van Damme is a movie star. What follows is more surprising: a seven-minute sequence in which "Van Damme himself"addresses the audience, and pours out his heart on a variety of topics (stardom, obviously, but also America, his movies, violence, mortality, among other things). As Van Damme himself has suggested in a press conference about JCVD:

The movie is in French, so I don't know if it's going to be that big. It is going to be subtitled, so the German people or the American people or the Japanese people will not see the same...but they'll see the feeling! They'll see a feeling, because when I talk up there it doesn't make too much sense except in my crazy head. In it, this is something real. (Qtd. in Christoph Huber, "Time & The Hour: For the Melancholy Mastery of Jean-Claude Van Damme," in Cinemascope 36, Fall 2008, 37).

El Mechri clearly loves Van Damme's films. Even though I do not share the same love, I understand what he, and Van Damme in this quote, seem to be getting at. The narrative sense of films like Van Damme has made are not the reasons they are beloved by audiences. (Are they even beloved by audiences? El Mechri seems to think so, and perhaps they are in Belgium. Certainly films like them are beloved nearly everywhere). This is a film which mounts its appreciation of Van Damme through a critique of the star culture which has apparently sold him short, and, further, does this through a feeling rather than a narrative sense (it has a narrative, of course, but it's less compelling than the film's remarkable attractions, two of which are the opening long take and the soliloquy I've already mentioned). At one point in the film Van Damme's action pictures are defended as "pure," and this, I think, is not a defense of their stories, but rather of their spectacular stunts and attractions (surely one of the attractions of Van Damme is the fact that he did his own stunts), of the authentic display of the body which lies buried in the visual sleights of these films. JCVD has merit because it locates in the arduous physicality of these attractions a genuine desire to connect with audiences; it is thus no mistake that Van Damme's seven-minute oratory is capped with the "Muscles from Brussels" showcasing his spectacular physique for the camera. But at the same time the film is aware that such gestures turn Van Damme into an object: the film constantly places the Muscles into situations that call for his action persona to kick into high gear (indeed, many of the sequences in the bank feature Van Damme "practicing" his famous high kick for the hostages and one of the robbers) and then denies us the attraction it would seem to promise. The film, and the star, seem to be asking us to understand the idea of the action attraction before giving into it again: to pair heart with head.

In turn, JCVD's own flaws can be measured through the extent to which it pairs, and at times fails to match, its obvious heart for Van Damme with a head. In other words, not everything is thought through: the inclusion of Mayfield's Hard Times, for example, while a great aesthetic pairing to the groovy opening sequence, opens up questions about the link between Van Damme's travails and the trials of African-Americans in the 1970s that nothing which follows answers (it goes without saying that I don't think this parallel holds any water anyway; I think El Mechri is just riffing off of Tarantino's po-mo love for similar music from the period). More appropriate, aesthetically and thematically, is Marie Mazziotti's cover of David Bowie's 80s hit "Modern Love," which plays over the film's closing credits. Like Mazziotti's cover of Bowie's over-polished, but deeply felt, original, JCVD finds real heart in what at first seemed to be empty artifice.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Desplechin's births and deaths

Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale recently opened in the United States after a celebrated premiere at Cannes. To my mind, it falls just short of the exhilaration I felt after experiencing Descplechin's deft weaving of interlocking narratives in Kings and Queen (2005). A Christmas Tale, by contrast, is often more exhausting than exhilarating, and at times more tiring (given how much story and cinematic texture he has packed into the film) than moving. But it has left me with just as much to chew on, and will no doubt justify repeat viewings.

A Christmas Tale winds its way around different narrative trajectories all centered around the bourgeois Vuillard family. The family's matriarch, Junon (Catherine Deneuve) is dying of cancer, and much of the story is about her search for a bone marrow match within her family. The most promising match turns out to be Henri (the always wonderful Mathieu Almaric), her troubled son who has been estranged from the family's daughter, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) for some time. Patriarch Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillion) organizes a family get-together that will finally bring all of the siblings together again for the first time in years. The family remains haunted by the death of a younger sibling, Joseph, who is seen only in photographs, his life arrested in a still image within a film so rich with movement and variety.

In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, A Christmas Tale would easily become another piece of Hollywood holiday detritus, in which everything is resolved at the end as familial disturbances are ironed out. The possibility of continued disturbance remains vitally alive at the end of Desplechin's film, however, although it does achieve some measure of resolution. In large part, I would say the film is about the founding myths we use to make sense of our past experience (which in the story involves, of course, the past experience of the family itself). A passage from Irving Signer's recent book Cinematic Mythmaking: Philosophy and Film gets at what I mean:

As we all know, many examples of superb mythmaking occur in operas between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. Film goes further: it transfers the mythological representation out of the theater and into the realm of nature and society, where it still takes place aesthetically but can now be observed as if it duplicated what we might encounter in our commonplace immersion in the everyday world of sight and sound. (Singer, Cinematic Mythmaking, 7)

Singer's book is about those stories we immediately recognize as myths: Pygmalion, Orpheus. A Christmas Tale is more about the myths we create to endure our more prosaic, everyday experience, and Desplechin shows how such mythmaking emerges "in the everyday world of sight and sound" of the Vuillards (without ever allowing their bourgeois haunt to become "naturalized" through any kind of classical filmmaking strategy). Death hangs over all of the characters; it is a part of the family's history, and in this way young Joseph becomes a kind of founding myth, explaining the family's tribulations and disappointments. Family history haunts characters in other ways, too: Elizabeth's son Paul (Emile Berling) has recently been institutionalized for a mental disturbance, and he sees parallels with both Henri and the other Vuillard brother, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), who suffered a mental breakdown at Paul's age. But as Elizabeth affirms in the film's final scene, the film is ultimately about the search for new familial myths through which to explain experience, once the old ones become oppressive and stifling. Desplechin makes this clear enough through some of the films he cites (films that, at various moments in film history, breathed new poetic life into old stories): the poster for The New World appears late in the film, prior to the final scene; and The Ten Commandments, viewed on the family's television during Christmas Eve, becomes less about the link between Judaism and Christianity and more about the family finding its own sense of rebirth and rejuvenation, and discovering that their family could be otherwise.

Desplechin's play with the fragments of cinema's past suggests a larger meaning at work. I don't want to burden such a delicate film as A Christmas Tale with heavy allegorical significance (although J. Hoberman is right when he calls the director a "maximalist": despite Desplechin's craft-like attention to detail, this is a film that is dense enough to call for sweeping interpretations, too, some kind of frame which might make sense of its richness). But it is, alas, on some level about the birth, death, and rebirth of cinema. Deneuve herself is, of course, a glowing sign of the cinematic history Desplechin both honors and inflects here, and like other Desplechin characters she, in one scene, self-reflexively acknowledges the presence of the audience. In one sequence she literally glows: as a doctor samples her bone marrow, Desplechin bathes Deneuve in white light, as if regarding her, and the related New Wave history the film so lovingly builds upon, as very nearly sacred. In a corresponding moment, in the film's penultimate sequence, Almaric's Henri gives the bone marrow which might save Junon's life, and he is lit in a similar glow. Is Desplechin suggesting that Almaric's star will eventually be passed from Deneuve's, thus carrying on the history of cinema that so many have presumed dead?

Obviously, this question, at least for Desplechin, is answered from the start: no director and no film this vitally alive could even entertain the question of cinema being "dead." Such are the pleasures of this delicate, finely observed film that nonetheless allows its characters to talk to the audience and refer to themselves metacinematically as "shadows." It is to Desplechin's enormous credit that this meditation on film and life never feels forced or pretentious, but utterly organic. Kings and Queen may ultimately be the more enduring film, the one I turn to to explain to neophytes what Desplechin's all about, but this is still one of the best films of the year.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A time for history

Two films I saw over the long Thanksgiving weekend - Australia and Milk - are linked by an interest in history, although the approach of each is distinct. In part this is because of the divergent styles of the two auteurs involved. Baz Luhrmann's Australia is a postmodern spectacle trafficking in the star personas of his charismatic leads (Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman), while Gus Van Sant's Milk dramatizes the life of the gay activist Harvey Milk and bases that dramatization upon Milk's own words about his life. Both are suprisingly conventional genre entries (the historical melodrama and the biopic, respectively) from two unconventional filmmakers, but Milk, to my mind, succeeds much more than Luhrmann's film and for reasons directly pertaining to its approach to its subject matter.

Australia is the first of Luhrmann's films to be situated within a discrete moment in history. (One could argue that Strictly Ballroom is somehow a depiction of 1980s Australia, although I think it is less interested in that period in and of itself and more in using elements of that period for its own pastiche). Titles appearing before and after the narrative clearly indicate Luhrmann's intention to say something relatively objective (and only objective relative to his previous films) about the situation of Aboriginals in Australia before and during World War II. Treated as little more than slaves, aboriginal children, whose mixed race threw into confusion the nation's self-identity, were removed from their homes and placed in shelters so as to guarantee that they would not procreate with members of the white race. The film is narrated by the half-caste boy Nullah (Brandon Walters), and titles which frame the story suggest the extent to which the film is interested in establishing its drama as a historically valid representation of the Aboriginal experience. That the balance of the film is mostly concerned with the Kidman/Jackman romance, however, should come as no surprise. What links Australia more closely with Luhrmann's previous films, however, is its insistence that we can use pop culture as different ways of responding to our experiences: at repeated intervals in the film Nullah whistles the theme to The Wizard of Oz, and when he is later depicted watching the film in an open-air theater in the outback, it suggests that the young boy is using American popular culture as a means to articulate his desire for an existence free of oppression. More globally, what Luhrmann seems to be suggesting is that our tendency to communicate through our understanding of the popular forms we know best is in fact a means of storytelling that can convey our own cultural histories. There's not anything terribly revealing about this idea, as anyone who has taken a Cultural Studies course in the last ten years can tell you. What's so strange about Australia, though, is that this young boy's joy in poaching popular culture is not echoed by Luhrmann in the making of the film itself: usually quick to invigorating, emotionally invested pastiche, in Australia Luhrmann, rather than delighting in the play with style so evident in Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet, is content to use the template of the historical melodrama rather straightforwardly and conventionally. The film feels as if Luhrmann simply watched Titantic and then wanted to remake it, albeit in a slightly different register. This is part of the reason I never felt Nullah's delight in storytelling as I was watching the film.

Milk is more successful. The film mixes documentary images of San Francisco in the 1970s with a fictional account of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), a gay activist who rose to prominence as city supervisor near the end of the decade. While the film builds inexorably to the moment of Milk's assassination, Van Sant, to his credit, does not allow the film to end on this note. Instead, the film ends with the words of Milk himself, as spoken by Penn, allowing Van Sant's effort to end on a note of optimism (one which is made automatically more ambivalent given the film's release at a time when civil rights have been revoked from gays in California during the most recent election). Certain images - such as the film's opening montage of photographs of gays and lesbians holding their hands in front of their face in order not to be photographed - suggests that the histories of these individuals have not yet been told through images, but rather policed through them. This is one of the reasons why Van Sant's carefully crafted biopic feels so revelatory and liberating; it invests a traditional form (the political biopic, let's call it) with emotional and thematic significance it has not historically been given (enhanced further by the fact that Milk's own account of the events depicted serves as the film's structural lynchpin). Further, Van Sant delights in showing us how Milk's followers use images to advance their own agenda (as with My Own Private Idaho, Van Sant is as intereted in photography as he is in cinema). This is in contrast to the superficially playful Australia, which insists on the ability of different peoples to use culture to their advantage within a film stodgily replicating a tired, traditional form of mainstream culture.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Quick change

In retrospect, it is becoming clear that Clint Eastwood's great "late films" may, in fact, consist of only two: Mystic River (2003) and Million Dollar Baby (2004). Those two masterpieces constitute a strong grasp of classical filmmaking (evinced also in the earlier Unforgiven) during an era of postmodern intensification and remixing, and for whatever their problematic aspects in terms of moral perspective - issues of class and gender, I think, are conservative in both films, no matter how much strength Hilary Swank endows her character with in Baby - at least there's no doubt as to where Eastwood stands. Changeling, however, and despite its stately compositions that are by now a calling card for Eastwood's approach to no-frills storytelling, is a narratively unsure and ideologically inconsistent work.

At its heart is a simple story (based on actual events, as its opening credits are eager to inform us): a young boy, in Los Angeles in the 1920s, is kidnapped and the LAPD, in order to assuage its public image, orchestrates a press conference in which the boy's mother is reuinted with her son - except it is not the right boy. In fact, the LAPD knows this, and is doing everything it can to make sure the mother is seen by the public as mentally unstable rather than a woman who simply demands justice (or "responsibility," as the film repeatedly frames it). The mother, Christine Collins, is played by Angelina Jolie, and as a friend pointed out, she embodies the mannerisms of the age with a sure hand (Jolie belongs in a film of the era; although Eastwood shoots the film in a beautiful desaturated color obviously intended to invoke a sepia-toned photograph of the period, I was left wishing he had filmed the entire thing in black-and-white). For the first hour, in fact, Changeling is mostly engrossing largely because of Jolie's performance.

The film's defects become salient by the second and third acts, however. It is apparent enough that Eastwood's critique of institutions is aimed less at the police, or mental hospitals, in total, and more at just the few bad apples responsible for their downfall. We are never meant to question the police in this film; we are only meant to question individuals the film has simply dropped into the role of antagonist (Jeffrey Donovan plays the police Captain just this side of Snidley Whiplash territory, and he and Eastwood are never able to infuse his character with anything approaching humanity). Because of this, Eastwood's ideological critique is never terribly sharp, and because his denouement ousts the perpetrators, we're left feeling that everything has basically been a-OK with these institutions since the 1930s. (This is why the film, although a product of its time, does not really work as a critique of Bush doctrine, or any other contemporary phenomenon, and it is difficult to imagine the conservative Eastwood consciously aiming for such significance). Puzzling, too, is Eastwood's perspective of Los Angeles: he would seem to be critiquing the star system of Hollywood when, late in the film, a man suspected of murder primps and preens for the camera, yet the film itself works (insofar as it works) only because of Jolie's star image.

No great film - no film - is completely consistent in terms of ideology, of course. But these caveats would be easier to stomach if Eastwood's narrative hand has been sure; after all, even detritus like Blood Work (2002) functions with a certain economy in its storytelling. But in Changeling he is uncharacteristically sloppy, pulling punches with flashbacks in the second half of the film (which seem to have been included not to provide to the audience with crucial narrative information - the images gratuitiously repeat what the voice-overs paired with them tell us - but to show brutal scenes of violence in ways that aren't too brutal) and tossing in John Malkovich's underwritten character (a local Reverend who espouses against the LAPD's offenses) whenever he needs to move Christine's resistance against the police department forward in the narrative. I credit Eastwood's ambition, but in attempting to critique so many institutions (Hollywood, mental health, the police, the media) in a narrative so unsure of itself, the film emerges with no stable perspective through which to analyze any of them.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

W., we hardly knew ye

The very title of Oliver Stone's film suggests the central question hovering behind the entire project: will this film mount a sharp critique of Bush's disastrous presidency, or will it end up as an object basically indistinguishable from the black-and-white bumper stickers we've seen plastered to Republican-owned SUVs over the last eight years, bearing the same insignia? It's definitely not the former, and about as substantive as the latter. Stone's complete lack of a sharpened perspective (cinematic, political, or otherwise) from which to judge Bush turns nearly every image and performance in this film to mush. Only a few sharp moments and images emerge (in one sequence, the heads of Rumsfield and military officers hover on monitors in the White House war room, suggesting a level of Max Headroom trippiness that Stone sadly never channels into a larger commentary on the events depicted). Brolin's performance and the screenplay suggest that Bush was a party boy who eventually developed a deep desire to please his father, and achieved this through a presidency in which he became essentially the instrument of devious trolls (see Richard Dreyfus as Cheney and Toby Jones as Rove). The angry liberal in me accepts the emotion behind this; the analytical liberal in me is disappointed that is all Stone - never, admittedly, the most sophisticated filmmaker on the face of the planet - could come up with. Stone boils Bush's career down into a single dumb metaphor which constitutes the film's final image, in which we see Bush, dressed as GM of the Texas Rangers, attempt and fail to catch a baseball while standing in the outfield of a stadium. If Stone is suggesting that Bush just lost the ball in the lights this, in turn, also suggests he was standing in the right place to begin with, which is a dangerous sentiment through which to view the last eight years. As historian, stylist, and dramatist Stone falls flat this time around.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Miracle at St. Anna

A few notes on Spike Lee's new film, which I found mostly disappointing. Miracle at St. Anna continues Spike Lee's interest in intervening in the traditional representations of race in American genre cinema. This is clear from the opening sequence in the film, in which an elderly war veteran, Hector Negron (Laz Alonzo) responds passionately while watching on television the John Wayne war film The Longest Day (1962). Hector is responding to the film's exclusion of the reality of African-American soldiers from its narrative, and clearly his response is meant to parallel Lee's own. But did Lee's revision of World War II history, which admirably attempts to redress the historical lack of focus on the African American experience of World War II, have to reproduce so many of the genre's tired conventions? In the end, despite its virtues, I did not feel illuminated by the experience of The Miracle at St. Anna; I felt I was watching a tired genre retread which only superficially refigures the history of its genre.

The film has its virtues. The measured sentimentalism of Italian neorealism is ably reproduced by Lee in a subplot about a gentle soldier named Private Train (Omar Benson Miller) who benevolently protects an Italian boy orphaned during a Nazi massacre at the St. Anna church. Their interaction is lifted from a roughly similar relationship between an African American soldier and a young Italian boy in Roberto Rossellini's Paisan (which is, strangely enough, one of the least sentimental, and most unflinching, of Italian neorealist films) and their scenes introduce a healthy dose of magical realism that Lee handles admirably. In fact, early in the film the theme of imagination as a form of resistance which their friendship inaugurates seems to echo the film's own playful narrative and stylistic patterns (including Lee's own frequent shifts in tone, from the comical to the tragic sometimes within the same sequence).

At times, too, the ways Lee deals with the affects of symbolism within his own story is powerful. One sequence in which Lee's soldiers rip down racist depictions of black soldiers in Italian fascist propaganda is moving (although Lee seems to pull his punches in just barely suggesting that similar kinds of offending images existed in American propaganda as well). But his own use of symbolism is overrloaded and polysemic to the point of incoherence. (The Italians in the film frequently refer to "The sleeping man in the mountain" - a mountain which in profile takes on the form of a sleeping giant, and which for them seems to gesture towards their resistance to Fascism - but what are we to be anything besides exasperated when Lee insists on drawing an obtuse parallel between the sleeping giant and Private Train?) Lee also pays homage to Paisan in an encounter between a young Italian woman, Renata (played in St. Anna by the beautiful and engaging Valentina Cervi) and two American soldiers, Bishop (Michael Ealy) and Stamps (Derek Luke) here amplified by Lee to include his recurring motif of biracial sexual attraction. Cervi is talented and her scenes with Lee's actors are frequently convincing on a basic dramatic level. Unfortunately, Cervi's character becomes a mere cipher through which the characters of Bishop and Stamps work out their spiritual conflicts (for Bishop, she's a sign of his fall from grace, and for Stamps, a sign of purity amidst the degradations of war - or something similarly hoary). What was social commentary in Jungle Fever here feels like a narrative device that Lee can't quite situate within either the history of American race relations during the 1940s or the confrontation between blacks and Italians during the war; what's worse, the tension between two different soldiers over Cervi's affections positions her character as alternately saint or whore, with little left that is human in between, resulting in what has to be one of Lee's weakest female characters. Numerous other subplots (including the experience of several Italian resistance fighters) constitute some of the weakest scenes Lee has ever filmed. In the end, I was left wishing he had just made an Inside Man sequel: in other words, I left depressed.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A few good books

(A bit of a grab bag today, in other words, something of a lazy post: a few observations on some film books I've been reading recently).

At any given moment in time, ask a student or professor what those interests are and their response is likely to be heavily mediated by whichever books have left the greatest impression on them most recently. That is, I think, an absolutely wonderful thing: while discussions of interests and agendas tend to be exclusionary and limited to the contexts in which they developed, discussions of books tend to open up ideas more dialogically (since any good book, like any good film, can't be reduced to the lens through which a single reader, or even a single department, understands it). With that in mind, here's something potentially useful to you: a list of five film and media studies books I've dived into recently, and that in my own orbit proved engaging. Some of these are books that I've used in crafting my dissertation, so inevitably my choosing them - and my comments on them - are the result of my own agenda, but I imagine the reasons they might be useful are too many for me alone to anticipate, so take everything I say about them strictly with a grain of salt.

1) and 2) Garret Stewart, Between Film and Screen: Modernism's Photo Synthesis and Towards a Postfilmic Cinema. Time to kill two birds: two books here instead of just one, but these two are truly a diptych separated by less than a decade. In both Stewart is interested in the ways in which cinematic textuality - celluloid's twenty-four photograms per second - ruptures and intervenes in the generation of a stable narrative form on another level. In Postfilmic Cinema he is interested in seeing how this idea develops in the digital age. The most inspiring idea to me in these books (wrapped within Stewart's playful, recessional prose style) is that filmic style is not a mere adjunct to narrative, but can operate contrapuntally and deconstructively to narrative in even the most apparently conventional films, reminding us that the pull of celluloid through the projector is not unlike the phonemic unspooling of written prose. In Postfilmic Cinema, and more implicitly in Between Film and Screen, Stewart is also interested in showing that hermeneutics and textual analysis still have a place in a field that often seems to disavow them in favor of a view of films as part of a homogenous cultural archive. But Stewart himself isn't disavowing the value of media archaeology per se; he is simply imbuing it once again with the question of media specificity, showing how those acts of analysis and interpretation can in fact demonstrate that films themselves, even if they cannot be reduced to a single material essence, nonetheless intervene into their own material histories.

3) Richard Brody, Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard. Actually, like the Stewart books this too could be part of a scholarly diptych: put it alongside Colin MacCabe's Godard: Portrait of the Artist at Seventy and you've got yourself a great single volume on Godard. Taken apart the flaws of both become more apparent. I don't mean to belittle the achievement of either author: I don't know of another film scholar or critic who could have tackled such an elusive subject more comprehensively, and thus any present attempt is going to remain, I think, only a fragment of a fuller picture. MacCabe is strong on JLG's childhood, so Brody (thankfully) leaves that aside. His approach is to chart the personal life and then use the personal life as a yardstick with which to judge the films. This is more than a little problematic, since reducing Godard's filmography to biography is to settle for reducing the most contentious film practice of the last sixty years into a linear personal narrative. Especially disappointing is his tendency to speak of the early films almost exclusively as if they were all tortured love letters to Anna Karina. Of course, they are this on some level, especially Contempt and Pierrot le fou, but is that all they are? If you've really responded to a dense work of art like Pierrot in a way that changes you, does it really matter to you whether or not Godard and Karina were getting along at the time? Maybe it's an interesting factoid at best. Brody seems to think it's a relevant aspect of the film; although I certainly acknowledge this, and am appreciative of Brody's attempt at characterizing Godard's work as a personal cinema up to a certain point, I'm not convinced of the salient importance of the artist's love affair in any interpretation of a work of art. (And despite the fact that this is a biography, a biography need not interpret every film through the artist's life; see MacCabe's earlier volume for evidence, or Chris Fujiwara's recent volume on Otto Preminger, which separates the author's charting of the life from the author's reading of the films). Anyway, for anyone interested in Godard this is still required reading, especially since Brody does such a good job of situating Godard within the shifting fads of postwar French intellectual life.

4) Claire Colebrook, Deleuze: A Guide for the Perplexed. Despite the title, this isn't "Deleuze for Idiots." To my eyes it's a major addition to film scholarship on Deleuze, despite the fact that Continuum's marketing department has pigeonholed it as an introductory volume. Colebrook isn't, strictly speaking, a film scholar, but nevertheless the value of this book for film scholars is the book's tendency to privilege the philosopher's work on cinema as a lens through which the rest of his philosophy can be understood. (Being someone who took forever to plow through Deleuze's two Cinema books, and who continues to remain daunted by the rest of his corpus, Colebrook's project is invaluable to me). Colebrook argues that the Cinema books, far from simply comprising the side project of a thinker taking a break from "philosophy proper," are actually central to understanding his thinking. The author does this by showing how the concepts central to Deleuze's work on cinema are, in actuality, central to his understanding of life.

5) Malcolm Turvey, Doubting Vision: Film and the Revelationist Tradition. Turvey, a film scholar deeply influenced by analytical philosophy (in particular Wittgenstein), performs what he calls an act of "destructive criticism" on the revelatory tradition within classical film theory, as embodied in the work of Vertov, Epstein, Balazs, and Kracauer. His interest is to show that these theorists' insistence that the specificity of cinema lies in its ability to reveal natural phenomena otherwise imperceptible to human vision is based on a flawed understanding of concepts of human vision, arguing that the "visual skepticism" which undergirds the work of these theorists (and their contemporary brethern, such as Cavell and Deleuze) is unfounded. For a book so "destructive," however, what is most useful about Turvey's volume is his attempt to discover what might still be useful about the revelationist tradition once the conceptual confusion he diagnoses in the book has been jettisoned.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Manny Farber

Manny Farber died on Sunday (August 17th). He was 91. Here is a link to a wonderful piece by Jonathan Rosenbaum - written several years ago but revised and posted on the author's blog in tribute to Farber shortly after his death:

Rosenbaum on Farber

I hope to re-read Farber's "Negative Space" sooner rather than later, and after I do so I'll post some musings about it here (although Rosenbaum's essay seems so definitive to me that whatever I might contribute might just be superfluous).

Breillat's Man, or the Old and Last Mistress

The first part of the title of this post is probably misleading; I don't mean to write about men in every Catherine Breillat film. (That kind of exercise might be a little too punishing for just one heterosexual male to undertake by himself, regardless of how sympathetic he is with feminism). For the moment (mostly given that what I've seen of her earlier work is not fresh on my mind just now) I'm only interested in her most recent film The Last Mistress (translated more accurately as The Old Mistress, and although the original title is certainly preferable, I don't think the new one lacks resonance), which I caught over the weekend. Asia Argento's performance, which is terrific, has been discussed at length elsewhere; what intrigues me more is Breillat's central male figure in this film, or more precisely the story he tells, and how it appears to be interpreted - or, more accurately, felt - by his primary interlocutor, his future wife's grandmother.

In a lot of ways he's a type. (I'm thinking all of Breillat's characters are types, and that is perhaps closely related to how she conceives human sexuality as a series of performances that throw the social strictures of any given moment into relief). The man, a libertine, Ryno de Marigny (Fu-ad Aît Aattou), plans to marry a proper, and properly innocent, woman of Paris, Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida); in order to do so in full faith he must end his tortured ten-year affair with his mistress Vellini (Argento), of Spanish descent. In the most intriguing section of the film (the greater part of the second act), Ryno, in an attempt to honestly deal with his past and his difficulty in breaking off the relationship with Vellini, narrates his experience with his mistress to Hermangarde's grandmother (Claude Sarraute). In this section of the film we see violence done to the corporeal body function as a particularly graphic visual metaphor for the kind of sexual knowledge that can't quite be spoken. In a recent issue of Film Comment, Amy Taubin puts it well: "Vellini is the excess that cannot be contained by the moral order, by social discourse, by what French psychoanalytic theory terms 'the law of the father'" (29, Film Comment 44, no. 3). Juxtapose Taubin's observation with a few words on Lacan's "Real" and you've got yourself a (probably pretty formulaic) conference paper.

Although it is certainly true that the film is about the constraint on female desire in the social/symbolic realm, and the way such constraint generates violence to the body on another level, Breillat's interest is not simply in violence but in violence as it is imagined. Most of the really striking moments of violence in the film - Vellini licking blood out of Ryno's wound, Vellini slicing Ryno across the face with a dagger, the two of them making love as their daughter's corpse burns (that actually sounds more disturbing as I write it than it appeared in the film) - is that they exist in what are essentially flashbacks that feel as if they are a part of the present. Part of what is so interesting about the film's narrative structure is that these images which convey the past of Ryno's stormy relationship with Vellini exist in a kind of free-indirect space between Ryno as narrating agent and Hermangarde's grandmother as listener. Knowing that these graphic images represent what can't be spoken in Ryno's social discourse with the grandmother, but which are nonetheless graphically inscribed in the images which comprise the flashbacks that figure that discourse in the film, it is difficult to ascertain whether this violence is "how it happened," a slight projection onto the past by Ryno ("slight" since we have to assume, on some literal level, that what he's saying is true, since it links up coherently with the first and third acts), a fantasy by the grandmother or, more likely, a mingling of all of these. Ryno, for example, looks just as young in the flashbacks as he does in the present. Is Ryno projecting his thirty-year-old self into the events of the past, intensely reliving them as he tells of them? Is his grandmother fantasizing in a free-indirect fashion by imagining the Ryno she sees before her as she listens to his story? Late in this flashback sequence, after listening to a particularly passionate moment in the story, we see the grandmother lying nearly prostrate - almost sexually inviting - in her chair, listening to Ryno's story with desire that has not been entirely repressed. (Her mischievousness is only confirmed later when she pretends to be asleep while Ryno and Hermangarde are making love). I suspect for Breillat, on at least one level, The Last Mistress is an older woman's fantasy (which is what makes the original title more resonate in the end).

Of course, these questions I'm posing can't be answered; what's important for Breillat is to pose them, and she does so in a way that supports the argument of Taubin and others. This is, in some ways, a surprisingly conventional film from Breillat, one that will likely play better in American art-houses than her earlier films. The film, in the theater in Atlanta where it is playing, was only scheduled for one week; it's now booked for an additional week, suggesting to me that European cinema is most palatable when it weaves its radical gestures within an invisible, highly metaphorical style (there's something almost classical about The Last Mistress in both its construction and its stylistic economy). And although the setup and Ryno's story are the highlights of a film that gets flabby in the third act, Breillat had me in her grip throughout. I'm sure she would appreciate that metaphor, too.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Woody in Barcelona

For a long time it was difficult for critics to gauge the value of a Woody Allen film without recourse to the director/writer/actor's off-screen persona. Allen's absence from most of his recent films - or perhaps just his absence from the tabloid headlines, at least relative to his presence there in the 1980s and 1990s - has removed one of the crutches many critics once relied upon to understand his work. But I'm starting to suspect that this over-reliance on the extra-diegetic Woodman became a recurring motif of Woody reviews for a more intriguing reason: Despite the fact that Woody Allen is an undeniable auteur, he is, in another sense, not really one.

Let me explain what I mean by this admittedly outlandish statement by first explaining what I do not mean. I do not mean to suggest that Allen's work lacks recurring themes, narrative motifs and stylistic tropes that constitute a coherent and deeply engaging oeuvre. This consistency has only become more apparent, and more interesting, when one considers how adept he is at hopping to and from different genres, covering the romantic comedy, the musical, the psychological drama, and even suspense with admirable dexterity (the suggestion that he directs effective suspense films is, admittedly, more than a little awkward when one considers Cassandra's Dream, his worst film, but Match Point more than makes up for it). But despite these consistencies, a recent quote from Woody suggests why I think each new film - especially each new film he's made in the last decade or so - has always felt like something of an autonomous event, cleaved from any relationship to the director's personal or artistic history. In responding to an interviewer's question regarding whether or not his new film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, was influenced by Whit Stillman's Barcelona, Woody suggests the following:
No. I had no interest in it in relation to this film. I watched it and enjoyed it years ago when it came out, but it had no… I was just fumbling around for an idea that I could do in Barcelona amongst various notes I have at home, ideas on scraps of paper. And I came up with two girls going on a vacation. And then Penélope Cruz called and said she heard I was doing a film on Barcelona, and she'd like to be in it. After we met, I then started to think, "How could I accommodate Penélope? What does she suggest as a character?" And that led me to her character. And so the thing formed in a completely different origin. (From The Onion,
Or, in other words, the origins are more immediate, having to do with practical issues surrounding the source of both budget and the nature of the lead actors. Of course, every filmmaker faces such practical, enabling constraints, but relative to certain other filmmakers who seem rather self-consciously aware (both aesthetically and in terms of their public persona) of their status as auteurs, Woody seems to disavow his own personal history and the history of film at every turn. (I wouldn't stake my life that this has been true across the board, but even in the one interview written around the time of the release of Interiors in the edited collection Woody Allen: Interviews, Allen doesn't even mention Ingmar Bergman).

Granted, whether or not my thinking here is convincing might be pretty closely tethered to how far you're willing to go in considering the director's "biographical legend" - or the director's apparent lack of interest in his own biographical legend and the way it is situated within film history - as a factor in your understanding of film. After all, just because Woody disavows his own history, and the history of film and his relationship to it, doesn't mean we have to, as I've already suggested above. His greatness as a director is related directly to how his best films become even richer when seen as an entirety that develops out of a love for both comedy and European art cinema. But his attitudes towards history do, I think, color our experiences of his recent films shot outside of New York. What I mean is how the writing of his characters seems so completely separate from any sense of those characters as having emerged from a history or society larger than they are. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Rebecca Hall (Vicky) and Scarlett Johansson (Cristina) play young Americans visiting Barcelona; they both become infatuated (Vicky after initial resistance, Cristina immediately) with the painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) and Cristina's relationship with the latter becomes complicated once Juan Antonio's ex-lover, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) returns to his life after her most recent suicide attempt. The tourist status of both Vicky and Cristina seems to absolve Woody from explaining how, or why, these characters became what they became, beyond what we're told in a rather perfunctory voice-over narration (by Christopher Evan Welch) that is neither very funny nor terribly revealing. (Another way of putting it: does the voice-over reveal anything that Hall or Johansson - both of whom are very engaging in this film - are unable to reveal through their facial expressions, movements, gestures or inflections? I don't think so). I think this is the case because whenever Woody's script touches on aspects of their personal history that might initiate larger ideas into the film (i.e., Vicky's status as an American graduate student studying a culture whose language she does not speak; Cristina's prior existence as a maker of short films) it discards them almost immediately. The approach is more problematic when we consider the characters of Juan Antonio and Maria Elena, who seem to function as extensions of the exotic landscape rather than autonomous human beings. (Although it's been said that this film could have been made in any city, I doubt Bardem's and Cruz's characters would have successfully made the trip, and this perplexes me even further regarding what attracts Woody to these characters in the first place, beyond the sense of exoticism which they offer).

The film has some great pleasures, of course. I've already mentioned Hall and Johansson, and Bardem's performance in and of itself almost turns the motif of linguistic barriers, which Woody treats only lightly elsewhere in the film, into something electric in those dynamically tense moments in which Juan Antonio admonishes Maria Elena to speak in English when in Cristina's presence. But I was left spending most of my time thinking about the film's evasive relationship to its setting. It might be that this is a problem which colors all of Woody's recent films made in other countries. In both Match Point and Cassandra's Dream, Allen is undeniably interested in social class, but less as an object of analysis and more as a shorthand through which to explain the characters' histories and psychologies. This is less a problem in Match Point, because it's such an effectively constructed piece of genre cinema and because Woody is more at ease with the upper-class milieu of London than its working class in Cassandra's Dream. All of this is not to suggest that Allen has simply deviated from an earlier, more productive tendency in which he more fully explained the origins of his character's backgrounds and the implications of those origins; like Eric Rohmer, he's always been more interested in the way people talk and think, which requires, by necessity, a focus on the moment as it is lived and as it is directed towards the future rather than as it emerges from the past. But Rohmer's contemporary-set comedies hardly ever left the comfortable environs of bourgeois France and the milieus within it which he knew well; when he left that milieu it was almost as if he was aware his approach to contemporary stories wouldn't work outside of it, resulting in the lightly modernist play with history in Perceval and The Marquise of O..., for example. In Allen's best films the love of New York palpably ingrained in the images seems to explain everything about the characters even before a word of dialogue was spoken between them. (Annie's move to Los Angeles in Annie Hall carries great dramatic and comedic weight in purely visual terms). Without that closely knit relationship with the setting, Allen's writing has to fill in the blanks. (Egads - I'm close to suggesting Woody is a weak writer. Of course not. I only mean to suggest here that Woody perhaps needs his milieu to be a great writer, which he is, most of the time). When his writing is not quite up to snuff, the film itself can survive when everything else is reduced to the cool machinations of genre, as in Match Point. When things get a bit more messily human, even in a relatively engaging film like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody just seems a little out of his element.