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.