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.