Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Two thoughts on I'm Not There

1. There was a nearly sub-sonic tremble from the left-hand side of the theater at a couple points. I would have guessed an air-conditioning problem if this hadn't been Boston in December. Turns out Beowulf was showing next theater over. This is bullshit. If your sound insulation can't handle a movie, turn the fucking volume down. Don't screw the people next door trying to watch a film about music. This article about projection problems and what to do about them (short version: complain) is right on, but it misses the point. I'm not going to leave the movie for something that will likely resolve itself before I get back anyway, and complaining after is kind of a hassle. But there's probably a free ticket in it, so I really should have said something.

2. Jane Dark wants to put aside stunt casting, which drops Blanchett down to fourth best performance. I don't think this makes any sense, not for a film like this. Watching Blanchett's ironic distance from the character only reinforced the sense that Dylan's own ironic distance was a way of escaping a persona he was tired of. It's a reinterpretation of Don't Look Back. When Blanchett says "I know more about you than you'll ever know about me," she sounds disappointed; when Dylan said it he just sounded superior. Seeing her watch us through not only Dylan but through Dylan's estrangement was, for a second, breathtaking. Brilliant ending.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

La vie en train de devenir le rêve

If you don't have an hour and a half, skip to the 45 minute mark.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Darjeeling Limited

It's hard to be sure yet how good Wes Anderson is. I'll just say that I think Darjeeling Limited goes a long way towards breaking out of the fetishisms (commodity and others) that were so endearing/inhibiting in Royal Tenenbaums. Apparently Satyajit Ray is the new fetish, but I think it mostly worked. Still too reliant on a cool soundtrack, though.

Oh, and if Schwartzman cared about street-cred, he could have at least gotten his nose broken to match Brody and Wilson. Seriously, no props on that one.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Creating a Non-Bourgeois Audience

Kino-Eye, dir. Dziga Vertov, 1924

Kino-eye is a pastiche film, held together mostly by the loose focus on a troop of Pioneers (Soviet boy scouts, basically). This doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a plot, though: think of it as a bildungsfilm, the hero of which is the audience, which in the course of the film learns to become conscious of itself.

Vertov was probably a bit naïve, but he believed that Russian peasants who had never seen a film before would not be spoiled by bourgeois viewing habits. They were to be a tabula rasa out of which he could create a new kind of audience.

The film creates its own audience by presenting it with what Vertov called kino-pravda: truth that could only be revealed by the camera. His camera tricks seem pretty tame today, and to be honest they are used to greater effect in The Man with the Movie Camera. But their purpose is clear: to let the audience experience a new way of seeing. For example, Vertov uses slow-motion to emphasize the movement of the human body—as in the diving scene as well as this shot of a boy being thrown into the air:

And he uses reverse-motion to connect ordinary people to the conditions of production—as in two extended sequences in which he follows a cut of meat back through the slaughterhouse to the cow (it’s less gruesome in reverse), and a loaf of bread back through the bakery and the mill to the wheat field.

The message is that only film trickery can reveal the real conditions of existence. Vertov doesn’t try to hide the special effects, as is the case in what’s called the Institutional Mode of Representation—he realizes that the tricks are what people want. Like Méliès, he thinks of himself as a film magician. He shows us a real magician entertaining his audience, something he would repeat in The Man with a Movie Camera.

Unlike Triumph of the Will, which also shows a lot of audiences, Vertov literally shows the creation of the audience, as in this shot of a crowd gathering around an accordian player.

And he also places the viewer spatially within that audience, instead of just showing it from above.

And unlike Triumph of the Will, the audience turns out to be watching itself, as in this shot of a peasant woman making a short speech. She is taken out of the audience and for a brief moment becomes the star. Her joy at this simple example of self-expression is infectious.

The nature of the audience becomes more problematic towards the end of the film. Instead of an audience watching a live spectacle, they become a mass media audience.

How is it possible for a mass audience to watch itself? Well, through Vertov’s film, for one. Okay as far as it goes, but there is the disturbing possibility that the act of the country constituting itself as an audience must be mediated by the party, or the leader. This becomes more pronounced ten years later in Three Songs of Lenin (although there are other things going on there). This is nowhere near as bad as Triumph of the Will, though, where the perspective is often that of Hitler—it is only through his observation that the audience exists as one.

There is a strange section at the end which depicts some type of mental institution, probably meant to show that the state is taking good care of the least of its citizens. What’s strange is that it could be read as a criticism of state paranoia. This man yells (in the intertitle) “You are a police officer of the old regime, and it is unacceptable that the Workers’ Soviet doesn’t know about it.”

Even stranger is the close-up of his eye, which echoes the promotional poster shown above:

Is Vertov suggesting that his camera is insane? Or worse, his audience?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Friday, October 19, 2007

Captive Audience

Sullivan's Travels, 1942, dir. by Preston Sturges

The basic plot is this: bigshot director John L. Sullivan is tired of directing mindless comedy, and wants to do a message picture. He realizes he doesn’t know anything about the problems of the poor, so he dresses up as a hobo and goes out to look for America. A case of mistaken identity leads Hollywood to assume he’s dead, and he ends up with a six year hard labor sentence. At this point, he and his fellow prisoners are taken to a black church to see a movie.

Sully has been making trouble for the warden, and thus for himself, by insisting he is not supposed to be there. (There must be some mistake. You see, I’m rich!) This makes the movie scene a tense, even scary moment. His hope, and our fear, is that he might see himself on screen, and make more trouble.

His hope that the movie will liberate him would be touching, except that the audience (in the film and outside the film—all audiences are both inside and outside the film) knows that films do not liberate. How is he imagining he would be freed, exactly? Seeing his name on a film would do nothing to prove he is who he says he is. Even suppose he is able to demonstrate a total knowledge of the film; this mastery over the film would free him from the manipulations of the film itself, but would do nothing to convince the skeptical warden that he actually made the film. After the studio distribution process, he has no more right to the film than the rest of the audience does. The culture industry enchains even the director.

Expecting to see his own reflection, what he gets instead is this:

A charitable reading of this would be that Sturges is making light of Sully’s pretensions. You think you’re a bigshot? You and your fellow humans are nothing but silly animals. There’s nothing to do but laugh at the human condition.

That would probably be more appropriate if we were looking at Chaplin, someone showing his own ridiculousness. (There’s a difference between Sturges the writer-director and Chaplin the director-actor—Chaplin's self-mocking is direct, Sturges's is indirect.) But there’s no pathos in Mickey Mouse, it’s pure product. This is a defense of the worst aspects of the culture industry: you are prisoners, film will not free you, it will only make your bondage slightly bearable. There is nothing anyone can do to change it, so don’t try.

The only way I can see this movie as anything else is to read the deus-ex-machina ending that comes right after this scene as an ironic attempt by the film to subvert itself. (See: The Last Laugh.) Saved by modern mass media! His sentence magically reversed! No sympathy at all for his fellow prisoners. A huge plot hole that shows the inadequacy of the very type of movie it claims to be. Somehow I don’t think this was how it was intended, or received.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The camera in Stagecoach

Stagecoach, 1939, directed by John Ford.

In classical Hollywood, you’re not supposed to be aware of the camera. So it’s interesting when you ARE aware of the camera.

This is the iconic shot of the movie, and the iconic shot of John Wayne’s career. Why is it so powerful?

Until then, the movie has shown the stagecoach’s journey in three kinds of shots: 1. interior shots of the passengers, 2. exterior shots of the top of the coach, with Buck driving and Curly riding shotgun (literally)

and 3. extremely long shots of the coach moving through Monument Valley.

Inside the stagecoach, all camera positions are motivated by character points of view—they are looking at each other as they talk, and Ford uses these eyeline matches to construct the interior space (without ever showing it all in one shot) as well as to illustrate the social relations between the characters. The two exterior shots are not motivated in this way. Who exactly is looking? The two-shots of Buck and Curly are especially jarring, because unlike the long shots they contain significant narrative information, and so they can’t be explained away as transitions between scenes. The viewer is slightly disturbed.

Along comes John Wayne to save the day. Ah ha! It’s HIM. Well, that’s okay. In Lacanian terms, “the missing field is abolished by the presence of somebody or something occupying the absent-one’s field.” (Daniel Dayan, “The Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema.”) Wayne is the authority figure, the law, because he’s the unseen watcher. More theoretical jargon: “The Absent One, also known as the Other, has all the attributes of the mythically potent symbolic father.” (Kaja Silverman, “On Suture.”)

But because this is John Ford, every shot is recuperated by the narrative—even the long shots of the coach which seemed to be nothing more than some nice scenery to look at. In contrast to the Buck-Curly shots, though, the “missing field” here turns out to be filled by the Apaches—far more sinister. In both the shot seen above and the shot of the Indians, Ford moves the camera to draw attention to the importance of the shot: he dollies in on Wayne, and he whip-pans from the coach to the Indians overlooking them from the top of a cliff.

Whereas Wayne is the authorized observer (Buck is on the soundtrack: “Hey, it’s Ringo!”) the Indians are not (ominous music plays). They threaten Wayne’s privileged viewpoint, since theirs is more commanding. The stage (so to speak) is set for the climactic face-off between Wayne and the Apaches.

The camera also shows up here, at the ford. Coincidence?

Monday, October 08, 2007

What woud Rizzo do?

So the fake ex-first lady wants you to "never outlive your money." Okay poor people, you know what you have to do: die early.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Little Foxes

The Little Foxes does for depth of field what Birth of a Nation did for cross-cutting.

I suppose this was supposed to be a liberal film. Lillian Hellman wrote the screenplay from her own play, and there’s no doubt that it’s a bitter satire of rapacious industrial capitalism. The new class of merchants, personified by the Giddens clan (L to R below: Oscar, Regina, Ben) is accused of exploiting the poor (and black) for their own depraved ends. So far so good. But what alternative does the film offer? The late lamented southern aristocracy, represented here by Aunt Birdie (that’s her in the background, drunk and ignored.) That’s right, we’re supposed to believe that industrial capitalism is more exploitative than SLAVERY. If this weren’t racist enough, the portrayal of blacks in the film is, well, let’s just say problematic.

But no one watches The Little Foxes for its insights into the shift from agricultural to industrial capitalism. We watch it to see Bette Davis be eeevil, and for cinematographer Greg Tolland’s depth of field. In this shot you have the whole movie, basically: Aunt Birdie gets pushed to the background, Bette Davis sits in the middle, scheming with/against her brothers, and this is all conveyed through staging in depth. And the stairs in the background, which I’ll come back to in a bit.

André Bazin’s big point about staging in depth was that it is more democratic because the audience, when given the opportunity to scan the image at its own leisure, was more involved in constructing the meaning of each shot for itself. Compare this to continuity editing, where the audience is led step by step to the only possible reading of each scene. Ideally, for Bazin, you’d have a lot of shots like the following, where Xan and her father Horace enter the hotel in the background while David scans the newspaper in the foreground. This is one of the more natural looking, least choreographed stagings in the film, and it gives a sense that these characters inhabit a more complex but freer social space.

Compared to this, the schemers are often squeezed tightly into the frame, even though the house is certainly large enough to give them some space.

This works very well to convey information about character and story--their world is menacing and claustrophobic. One other nice example: here various characters are gathered around Horace on his deathbed. We get a shot of (L to R) the doctor, Xan, and the nanny Addie. (Yeah, Addie is shoved to the back. See what I mean by problematic?) The three are united in the frame, just as they are united in their concern for Horace.

Then the camera pans to the left to reveal Regina, isolated and uncaring.

The lesson from this is that depth of staging is what you make of it. It’s not necessarily democratic, and it’s not even necessarily less theatrical. Apart from Bette Davis, the most important character in the film is the stairway. It’s a good way to show the hierarchical nature of southern society, and it makes for some dramatic framings.

But compared to the way Renoir can use the camera to show social relations between characters in any setting, inside or out, it seems like a weakness that Wyler has to rely so much on such a heavy-handed symbol. But I guess that fits the film's fuzzy-headed politics.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Face of Garbo

In Mythologies, Roland Barthes says that Garbo in Queen Christina "represents this fragile moment when cinema is about to draw an existential from an essential beauty, when the archetype leans towards the fascination of mortal faces."

That may be. But the film feels more like a defense of the star system as monarchy.

"The people follow blindly the generals who lead them to destruction. Will they not follow us, who lead them beyond themselves where there is grace and beauty, gaiety and freedom?"

"Europe is an armed camp, your majesty."

Well yes, in 1933 it was headed in that direction. But I hardly think monarchy was the solution.

"Must I smile for the masses, chancellor?"

No, Greta, you can just sit there and look gauzy and ethereal.


Yeah, we get it--she's an icon.

But uh oh! She falls in love with the Spanish ambassador. Forbidden fruit, y'know.

And because the Swedish people love her too much to allow her to pollute her pure Aryan blood by marrying a filthy spick, they storm the palace.

This is the part that I think is interesting. She stops them with the power of her gaze, in extreme close-up. This is the tightest shot in the film.

"No petition? No speech? You come then just for a glimpse at me?" Well actually, that's what monarchs are for. It's all a performance.

Her argument here is this: "I don't come down to the smithy to tell you how to be a blacksmith, so don't come here to the palace to tell me how to rule. My father was good at it, so therefore I'm good at it too." And they accept this. No matter that it's already been established that the peasants don't particularly LIKE being sent off to Germany to fight in a pointless war, all for the glory of the monarchy and the church. They are a mob, and so they have no political will. They are ultimately insubstantial and indistinguishable, just like their shadows:

Crisis averted! Whew, that was a close one. Good thing they don't know about democracy. Don't question your rightful leaders! And don't stop worshiping your movie stars! Only problem is it turns out she doesn't actually WANT to be queen.

"I'm tired of being a symbol, chancellor. I long to be a human being."

See, stars deserve their privacy too. She abdicates.

And rides off into the sunset.

But does that look like a "mortal face?" Not really--the director had to create a special filter to get the most flattering shot possible.

One interesting note: the famous scene when she walks around the room in which she's trysted (as they say) with the Spanish ambassador--the scene Bertolucci quotes in The Dreamers--was so strictly planned that she did it to a metronome. (This is according to IMDB.) So at precisely the point when the character has escaped most thoroughly and feels most free, the actress is most strictly controlled.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Two thoughts on Knocked Up

1. At first he didn't even remember that they had sex, but then eight weeks later he remembered the whole condom disaster in great detail. This is a minor quibble, but it seems like a stupid inconsistency just for the sake of a couple jokes that weren't even funny.

2. More importantly, the not-so-sub-text of the movie was that women are just better than men (prettier, smarter, better-adjusted) and that this gives them the right to nag improve their husbands/boyfriends, or to at least try. The only thing that the guys have is that they're funnier, which is always either a defense against the nagging improvement or a way to entertain the women, since they've got nothing else. This really bothers me, because it's exactly the same formula as half the sitcoms on TV, starring a fat comedian and his hot wife. And it's not an excuse that Judd Apatow (the director) is married to Leslie Mann (the sister.)* This is a significant step down from Freaks and Geeks, where the Geek actually realized he was too good for the cheerleader, and the Freak couple had the most interesting relationship on the show.

This is a return to the idea of the domestic goddess, updated for the world of career women. Oscar Wilde tore this to shreds at the end of An Ideal Husband, by bringing the wife down to size. This is probably why the Knocked Up birth scene is so graphic--probably the most graphic I've seen in a movie: it symbolically brings her down to size. But that just implies that female biology is secretly ugly, so the original idea that women are better than men is proven wrong in the end.

It's a very anti-feminist movie.

* Judd Apatow is not fat, but he's less attractive than Leslie Mann. Leslie Mann is funny, but she's probably not as funny as Judd Apatow.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Each day seems like a natural fact.

Not sure what's going on here. Mannequins can now do theory? Are theory people being mocked for their anti-humanism?

Theory is apparently a popular label. "[T]his is one-stop shopping for the sleek." I suppose on the practical level, such a no-frills line needs a justification for charging over $100 for a pair of shorts, and they way to get that is to emphasize that they are selling nothing more than signification. The commodity fetishism that was formerly denied is now proof of quality. Is that new?

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Bipolar world?

So if the EU gets credit for the lack of major wars in Europe since its inception--Bosnia excepted, but of course it's not part of the EU--what accounts for the lack of major wars in Asia during roughly the same period? There are obviously too many variables to offer a clear comparison, but no major Asian power has been involved in a war since Korea.

I'm a fan of the EU, but I am always annoyed when people defend it by saying that Germany and France have not gone to war again, as if they are natural and implacable enemies. They are not. The post-war European peace, and to a lesser degree the post-war Asian peace, stem from 1.) the reshuffling of populations that occured at the end of the war, which lessened ethnic tensions and 2.) the patience and realism the post-war reconstruction efforts. Part of that reconstruction was the vision of a united Europe, but not the only part.

Short stroll off Long Wharf

Google maps is apparently unfamiliar with the idea of air travel, because a trip to Europe following their directions would get a little uncomfortable.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007


xkcd.com is an internet comic updated three times a week. For something drawn entirely with stick figures, it's often surprisingly poignant, but almost always also funny.

Not today, though. Today's is just nerdy. In fact it's the nerdiest thing I've ever seen, and I'm ashamed to say I got the joke.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Attack of the Mooninites

Over/under on when real Err grafitti shows up in Boston? I give it two days.