Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Great Transition: Week 2

Amidst snow, high winds, and dropping temperatures, it was delightful to see such a large audience for this week’s installment of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s film class/lecture series. Rosenbaum was not in attendance, instead enlisting the aid of Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, Colombia professor and co-author of Rosenbaum’s book on Abbas Kiarostami. The film this week – Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. Rosenbaum mentioned in his last lecture his desire to show a “puzzle” film, and that his first choice, Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad was unavailable (a fully restored print will be opening sometime in the near future for a full run at the Music Box Theatre). So, instead of being stunned once again by Resnais’ masterpiece, we are left with Bergman’s pretentious, lugubrious foray into dull psycho-analysis and pseudo-avant-garde visual tropes.

Elisabeth (Liv Ullmann) is an actress who has stopped speaking (in mid-performance no less!). Alma (Bibi Andersson) is the nurse assigned to care for her, and perhaps coax Elisabeth out of her self imposed vow of silence. Several sequences show Elisabeth in her room, viewing news reel footage of a self immolating monk in protest of the Vietnam war, a clichéd (and border line offensive) short hand: she’s withdrawing from the horrors of the world around – get it? In the meantime, Bergman begins filming the actresses in extreme close up, organizing profiles of their faces into compositions baring more than a passing resemblance to Janus, the guardian god of portals, patron of beginnings and endings. In the end, it is suggested that Alma might be crazy and that Elisabeth doesn’t exist at all. It is also hinted that they may in fact be the same person, or might be switching personalities. Sound intriguing? It’s not, unfortunately.

I was surprised to see that Rosenbaum had programmed a Bergman film (twice, in fact – he screened Bergman’s The Magician last year). In what became a fairly large scandal, at least amongst hardcore cinephiles, Rosenbaum published an op-ed piece in the New York Times shortly after Bergman’s death last summer entitled “Notes From an Overrated Career”. The uproar, whether one agreed with the content of the article or not, surely stemmed from the unfortunate, and somewhat distasteful, timing. You can check out the original piece if you visit the Chicago Reader blog. For my purposes, a couple of segments should give you the gist of Rosenbaum’s arguments:

What Mr. Bergman had that those two masters lacked was the power to entertain — which often meant a reluctance to challenge conventional film-going habits, as Dreyer did when constructing his peculiar form of movie space and Bresson did when constructing his peculiar form of movie acting.


The same qualities that made Mr. Bergman’s films go down more easily than theirs — his fluid storytelling and deftness in handling actresses, comparable to the skills of a Hollywood professional like George Cukor — also make them feel less important today, because they have fewer secrets to impart. What we see is what we get, and what we hear, however well written or dramatic, are things we’re likely to have heard elsewhere.

Interestingly enough, by sheer coincidence I happened to come across Andrew Sarris’ original review of the film in a Village Voice compilation. He suggests some pertinent criticisms as well:

Bergman has turned out twent-seven feature films without even beginning to suggest an instinctive affinity to the medium. His stylistic flourishes have always been strained, derivative, archly symbolic, or obtusely obscure. Some reviewers have indicated that more than one viewing is necessary to understand Persona fully. I doubt it.

I take Bergman’s lack of an affinity to the medium to stem from his theatrical background, which, it should be noted, he returned to more frequently towards the late period of his career. Also, his two most famous late films, Scenes From a Marriage and Fanny & Alexander, were originally made for television, a medium that favors story and acting over visual acumen.

Widely considered to among the greatest filmmakers of all time, it would seem useful to categorize what it is that Bergman is actually doing in his films. Bresson and Dreyer reinvented cinematic form in their pursuit of the ineffable; Godard is a romantic schizophrenic drunk on the endless possibilities of the medium he is obsessed with; Resnais was (and still is, to a lesser degree) a time traveler concerned with our ability to discern the past through film; Antonioni created new visual metaphors while chronicling the spiritual torpor of an increasingly industrialized urban society; Tarkovsky mixed his apocalyptic spiritual inquiry with a special relationship to the hard physicality of our world. So, what to make of Bergman? He seems to me a placid director, almost comical in his ability to simply place a camera in front of an actors face and just let it roll. He seems to have no interest in form, editing patterns, staging of a cinematic kind (that is, the body moving purposefully in tandem with the camera in space) as opposed to a theatrical kind (the same formulation as above, but minus the camera). It might be too easy to simply suggest that he was a man of the theatre, but it would seem to be the case.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Criticism vs Publicity: Or, is There a Difference?

I think the question becomes what is the critic's job. The critic is certainly a publicist but I doubt that most critics think of themselves in that way, or think of themselves primarily in that way. I would posit that it's reasonable to assume that a critic as populist as Ebert is reviewing films for people who are interested in the cinema primarily as a means of entertainment. I think the highly intellectual and analytical approach to film-making that you and our peers take is unique and not for everyone. Given that, I think it's fine that he reviews movies that people can see. That's his job. Anyone really into cinema will seek out Bordwell and go to the one week run of Lake of Fire, but most people go to the movies as a luxury and don't really look to the cinema as a place to get a rigorous mental workout.
I attempt to offer that with no value judgment on whether one is better than the other, but merely as a description of the state of affairs. I understand you'd probably like to change that, but you have to ask yourself do you really want to watch an intense eastern European film with a bunch of tweens who are texting the whole time?

The above is a blog comment by a trusted friend - a person, I should add, who is one of the most personable, reasonable, and intelligent that I know. I think it might be appropriate to respond to these comments in the blog proper, as opposed to being relegated to the response section. While I certainly take to heart his common sense and populist sensibility, our current critical situation strikes me as more problematic and insidious than he might think. Allow me to address a few bullet points:
What is the critics job?: Here's a definition that is certainly a doozy of a question: how to define something so personal and subjective? I can only suggest a response in the negative: a critic of anything, at least a critic of any value, cannot be a publicist. The two are, by definition, mutually exclusive. This is a confusion of terminology, and not a recent confusion, I might add. Roger Ebert is a publicist, not a critic, regardless of what he might think about himself. Even a cursory glance at his weekly reviews tells the tale: a reasonably gifted writer and film buff who has relegated himself to the role of plot synopsizing, and nothing more. Do people respond to this? Certainly; they happen to not be reading genuine film criticism.
Anyone really into cinema will seek out Bordwell and go to the one week run of Lake of Fire:
This comment strikes me as counterintuitive: how is anyone supposed to "be into cinema" when there are no mainstream critics/reviewers to point them in the right direction? Certainly, anyone who knows of David Bordwell, Dave Kehr, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Kent Jones, Amy Taubin, Gavin Smith, Mark Peranson, Robin Wood, Noel Burch, etc. doesn't need such guidance: we've already found it, the hard way. Part of my position is the radical notion that it might not be so difficult for future generations of movie fans to discover these writers; indeed, discovering these thinkers strikes me as essential to maintaining a viable cinephile culture. As it stands, anyone reading Ebert and his supposedly "everyman" approach to film art is missing out on a great deal of what is stimulating/satisfying/essential in today's global film going. There is also an assumption operating here: that a level playing field exists. This is absolutely not true. Roger Ebert, Jeffery Lyons, Peter Travers, Larry King, and others have made a mint selling their movie reviews on the AP: this is business, not love of an art form. Ebert objected to the delayed Chicago premiere of Persepolis because his reviews can’t run in other markets until they’ve first been published in the Sun-Times. My friend’s post suggests a kind of obtuse benevolence, neglecting the mingling of ignorance coupled with commerce. Unfortunately, when it comes to the arts, there's no such thing as matching funds:

I think the highly intellectual and analytical approach to film-making that you and our peers take is unique and not for everyone. But why can't it be for everyone? It is not necessarily based on education: most of my favorite films, ones that might be considered difficult, or at least non-mainstream, are largely visceral, physical experiences. I’m certainly not asking every writer to be “intellectual” and/or “analytical” – I’m suggesting that they might put their own style of writing, what ever that may be, to product they normally find it easy to ignore. I might ad that Hollywood and its publicists, whether technically on the pay roll or not, have a vested interest in making sure that their product is the only game in town. I’ve spoken elsewhere about the major studios creating their own “indie” divisions: it’s a matter of corporate branding. Magazines do essentially the same thing – assuming what people are interested in and proceeding accordingly. My point, once again, is that people can’t be interested in what they don’t know exists. Entertainment Weekly gave a decent amount of space to a long review of “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days”, so good for them. They also relegated Hong Sang-soo’s “Woman on the Beach” to about 40 words, even though it was given an “A” rating. Where is the sense in giving a film they certainly liked less page space than “The Hottie and the Nottie” or “Meet the Spartans”? You might suggest that it is an editorial decision and not up to the individual writer. I would assume that this is true, and that it is an inherent flaw in marketing art as consumable goods, one that we must struggle against (hence my constant Ebert baiting).
Ebert reviews movies that people can see: This is another fallacy: he reviews the mainstream movies that people can see. Putting aside, for the moment, what people might be inclined to seek out, anyone living in the city of Chicago could, this very evening, seek out films at Facets, Doc Films, Block Cinema, The Film Center, Chicago Filmmakers. etc. So, the notion that Ebert is reviewing films that people "can see" should really be qualified by noting that there are only certain films he is willing to see and report on. Furthermore, the notion that he is merely reporting on the films that people are interested in is a kind of circular argument – if he reviewed non-mainstream film, wouldn’t those films then become “movies people can see?” Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that Ebert and his ilk are reporting on less than you might expect. It seems that not too long ago, critics like Andrew Sarris, Vincent Canby, and Andrew Sarris could vacillate quite easily between mainstream and more demanding film. These days, you have Manhola Dargis and The New Yorker boys doing the same thing (to a lesser degree). The problem seems to be that these critics are in major cities, New York and L.A., and are either preaching to the choir or written off as intellectuals or elitists – four letter words in our cultural climate.
I hope you'll excuse this surly and perhaps poorly argued response: I just really, really dislike Ebert, as well as the notion most people have that he is the be-all-end-all of film criticism. The fact that he has won a Pulitzer Prize is particularly disheartening. You might reasonably suggest that these problems are simply endemic to our culture. This is undeniable, and the notion that my ranting and raving is going to change anything suggests either extreme hubris or stupidity. But hey, you gotta start somewhere, even if for now I’m just preaching to the choir myself. And no, I don’t want to watch Bella Tarr’s “The Man From London” with a bunch of texting tweens. But I remember stumbling into a screening of Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar” as an 18 year old on the prompting of a favorite professor and having my life changed. So…

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Great Transition: Week 1

Hollywood is not failing. It has failed.

Without individual creative expression, we are left with a medium of irrelevant fantasies that can add nothing but slim diversion to an already diversified world.

John Cassavetes

One of the problems with regular weekly film reviewing is that, more often than not, one simply becomes a publicist of sorts. Certainly, a critic can illuminate qualities in a good film or steer potential audiences away from an undeserving one. But it becomes a zero sum game, as the conversation, for better or for worse, is dictated by the studios and their product. One of the great pleasures of cinephilia is the notion of community, a diversified group of people who share only one thing in common – a love of film. Above and beyond any quaint (and ultimately irrelevant) notion of what’s good or bad this week, it seems to me that true cinephilia is an attempt at excavating the past, coupled with the notion that the past is still, somehow, now – a present tense. By way of introduction to this (hopefully recurring) column, I should state, upfront, the profound influence that Jonathan Rosenbaum has had on my life: as a cinephile, as a thinker, and, by extension, a person. You might be able to imagine my excitement to learn some months ago that Rosenbaum would be teaching a course at SAIC, and that it would last not one, but two semesters. The first part oft his film series, both titled The Great Transition, was one of a handful of great community oriented film events of last year, along with mini-retrospectives of Naruse and Teshigahara, a critical symposium about Bela Tarr (presented by Rosenbaum along with Scott Foundas and David Bordwell), a revival of several films by the avant-garde Zanzibar film group presented by Gabe Klinger’s Chicago Cinema Forum, and a Chicago screening of Jacques Rivette’s holy grail of modern cinema Out 1 (along with Celine and Julie Go Boating, L’Amour fou, and Out 1: Spectre). If you’ll allow the protracted introduction, I’ll simply say that Part II of Rosenbaum’s The Great Transition film series is perhaps the most valuable film school in town, and I hope to report on it here on a weekly basis. Viewing the schedule, I plan on attending every screening (I made it to about half of last year’s screenings) and blogging about them here. With few exceptions, I can’t anticipate anything happening on a Wednesday night that could be more valuable than this series, and my hope is that more film lovers will go out of their ways to attend.
As I understand it, with regards to his programming, Rosenbaum’s loose thesis seems to be that there were two decades of intense filmic cross-pollination, inaugurated by a group of filmmakers enamored of Hollywood studio product and who decided to make their own Hollywood films, with a twist. This was (is) the French New Wave. Simultaneously, the very filmmakers that influenced the Cahier du Cinema critics were still producing films themselves, creating a unique atmosphere of masters/students producing parallel bodies of work, some winding down while others were just beginning. The first session of The Great Transition presented films by Hawks, Fuller, and Tourneur along side Bergamn, Demy, Ozu, and Resnais (among others). This next session contrasts more Bergman, as well as Godard, Lester, Klein, and Makavejev, along with John Ford (among others). Obviously, the link between the French New Wave and Classic Hollywood cinema is not all that Rosenbaum is interested in here; so I hope you’ll excuse the oversimplification. What is clear here is an emphasis on film as exploration (an exploration, more often than not, that is also inherently political)
I suppose I’m preaching to the choir here, as anyone likely to be reading these words was probably already in attendance at this weeks’ screening of Cassavetes’ Shadows. It’s a masterstroke of programming on Rosenbaum’s part, this early American independent film that was produced before Godard, Moullet, Truffaut, and Rivette took the world stage, yet a kind of kindred spirit to the type of cinema these directors would typify and popularize. The film follows three African-American siblings, Lelia, Ben, and Hugh – of the three, Lelia and Ben are light skinned, able to pass as white, and are at odds with their brother Hugh, who is not. While Lelia and Ben confront an existential crisis of identity, (who, exactly, or what, are they?) Hugh is presented with a more relatable dilemma – the idea of “selling out” as an artist. He is a self proclaimed singer who is reduced, in an effort to make a living, to emceeing a girlie show. Throughout the film, their various conflicts will bubble and scrape to the surface, although any kind of traditional resolution or catharsis is ultimately denied.
Plot synopsis is unimportant here; much more so is the notion of a free wheeling improvisational spirit coupled with the ironic freedom of a no budget production. As Rosenbaum mentions in his lecture, despite the films end title that “this film was an improvisation” (probably stemming from Cassavetes’ solidarity with his actors, as well as an artistic camaraderie), the entire movie was largely scripted. But the novice –like impression of the film is one of discovery and invention, coupled with a complete disregard (contempt?) for narrative filmmaking norms. Having not seen the film myself for many years, I was immediately reminded of the free wheeling spirit of Godard’s Breathless (itself a film often referred to as improvised, although Godard fed his actors lines throughout the films production). In the most useful parts of his lecture, Rosenbaum explicates several differences between the original version of the film from 1958 (which, incidentally, Jonas Mekas declared a masterpiece, before violently denigrating the later reworked version), and a second version from 1960, which, according to Rosenbaum, consisted of Cassavetes re-shooting two-thirds of the original material. It seems that part of the problem (but not the whole problem) was the lack of a soundtrack; the film was shot silently, with the intention of post-synching the dialogue. Rosenbaum also quoted Cassavetes as calling the first version “too intellectual, therefore less than human”. It’s a bold statement, and in fact the film goes out of its way in two different scenes (a literary gathering and a trip to the Met) to insult (satirize?) bourgeoisie intellectuals. This was a label that would follow Cassavetes for some time (Rosenbaum admits to using it himself in relation to the director’s Husbands) but it belies a certain kind of humanism in Cassavetes work – the notion that true meaning comes not from book smarts but from self awareness and self recognition – it’s no mistake that Lelia and Ben are at war with themselves precisely because they lack a concrete sense of identity. Cassavetes positions this existential dilemma as a harsh and realistic social issue – he’s too intelligent a filmmaker and thinker to divorce the personal from the social. To get back to the specifics of Rosenbaum’s post-screening lecture, there are several large differences that he notes (and he is an authority, as one of a very privileged few who have seen the recently re-discovered original version of the film). Apparently, the original version makes specific the psychic damage of Lelia’s position, when someone blurts out that since she is so light skinned, she could easily pass for white. Even more dramatically, the original version radically alters the trajectory of Ben’s character. In the release version, towards the end of the film, Ben and his friends get in a brawl, leaving the three of them beaten to a pulp. Sitting at a bar, Ben pronounces that he’s “learned a lesson”. It is explicitly stated that Ben is going to change his ways, presumably for the better – no more violence. But, according to Rosenbaum, in the original version, this fight occurs half way through the film, rather than at the climax, and while Ben makes the same personal statement, he spends the remainder of the film up to his old tricks. It is a fairly pronounced difference – one offers a progressive, hopeful moment of self awareness, the other is somewhat nihilistic in its conception. After seeing the film for the third time (my first time on the big screen), the revelation of this profound difference suggests two things: harsh reality versus potentially naïve optimism. Either possibility makes an emotional sense, and Cassavetes opts for the one that is the most hopeful. Never sentimental, but always, within realistic parameters, an optimist – this is John Cassavetes.


I plan on making Rosenbaum’s presentations a weekly entry. Depending on how well I know the particular film, coupled with whatever the value of his lecture may be (sometimes the class dissolves into idiotic Q+A sessions, with Rosenbaum stoically keeping his cool while being bombarded with lunatic bromides), I may have more or less to say about the individual films. It’s an exciting venture, much more so than the largely insulting Hollywood product that floods the market between January and March. I’ll end here with a partially rhetorical question – if studios consider this season a dumping ground for the product they can’t release any other time of year, what does it say about us when we make such products financially viable for them? Don’t pay attention to what comes out this Friday, go see something fresh and unexpected on a Wednesday. Up next week: Bergman’s Persona