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 na├»ve 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

1 comment:

Kali said...

Unfortunately I don't think a lot of SAIC students understand what a valuable opportunity they have with Rosenbaum. Which is extremely sad. Please continue writing these posts, and I'll continue to do my own.