Friday, December 9, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene:

for In Review Online, I talk about Sean Durkin's masterful debut feature, surely a lock for top ten of the year and as superb an actor's showcase as you're likely to see.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame:

over at In Review Online, I blather about the newest Tsui Hark opus.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Miss Bala:

a review of Gerardo Naranjo's 'Miss Bala' at In Review Online. Scoot on over and give it a glance, will ya?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


I wrote a few words on Soderbergh's Contagion for In Review Online. Check it out.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

CIFF Dispatch #1:

I’m a big fan of Joachim Trier’s 2006 debut Reprise, and with his new film, Oslo, August 31, I think its safe to say that a major cinematic talent as arrived – if Reprise was the work of a gifted newcomer, all kinetic energy and speed, Oslo, August 31 is calmer, more soulful and despairing, a kind of funeral dirge for lost youth. Working once again with leading man Anders Danielsen Lie, Trier charts a day-in-the-life of a recovering addict on an evening pass from his rehab center. Anders sees some old friends, has a disastrous job interview, contemplates a reunification with an old girlfriend and weighs his options, such as they are – as he puts it, ‘I’m 34 years old, and I’ve got nothing. I can’t start over again from scratch.’ There’s not much that Trier does wrong here, from the literate, deeply felt screenplay to a deceptively simple mis-en-scene; Trier has taken a page from the Assayas play book, finding inventive ways to enliven dialogue heavy scenes and allowing small, quiet moments to articulate otherwise abstract states of mind. There’s no arm chair shrinks here, and while Trier’s characters are intelligent and articulate, even self-aware, there’s no one simple diagnosis - disappointments abound.

Trier oscillates freely between Anders’ subjective point of view and a larger, seemingly objective view of the city surrounding him. Sitting in a café, Anders eavesdrops on the numerous conversations surrounding him; his isolation is palpable, and Trier hammers it home when Anders leaves the café – stepping outside, the din of voices suddenly drops off the soundtrack. As Anders converses with an old friend, a scene otherwise covered by traditional shot counter shot, Trier jump-cuts on the friend mid-sentence, his words continuing on the soundtrack while his lips no longer move. Anders himself is constantly isolated in the frame by various bits of architecture or the lines of a room; even when surrounded by people, as in the various gatherings he floats into during the narrative proper, Anders is isolated in one-shots while others are grouped together in the frame. As Anders’ long day’s journey into night continues, Trier’s editing becomes more jagged, the images more subjectively abstracted (Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar came to my mind more than once), and the soundtrack even louder – while the first two-thirds of the film features only ambient sounds and diagetic dialogue/music, the last third becomes immersed in booming techno music (my ears detected at least one Daft Punk song). Anders seems to be sinking deeper and deeper into his own head, dragging us along (a further Assayas connection, as Oslo, August 31 roughly mirrors that narrative trajectory of Cold Water, also culminating in an extended party scene/free floating pseudo-narrative matrix).

Trier begins the film with an intimate montage of Oslo, a mixture of stock footage, video images and a myriad number of overlapping voice-overs describing people, places and memories that amounts to a brief-but-epic city symphony; Trier ends the film with a series of still frames that progress in reverse chronological order through the film’s locations – Anders’ pre-rehab home, several apartments, a park, a lake and finally Anders’ room at the rehab center. The locations are empty now, and since we’ve been tethered to his point of view for the entire film, we palpably register Anders’ absence. We will miss him, but the world will continue without Anders, and ultimately without us.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Interesting Stuff:

It's been a long summer, and I've been pretty quiet on the old blog. But new content is on the horizon (for the few of you who care).

I wrote two short appreciations of Kiarostami for In Review Online's recent Kiarostami 'Directospective'. They've parceled Kiarostami's oeuvre into three sections, only the first two of which are currently available. My thoughts on 'Ten' and '10 on Ten' will be revealed sooner or later, at which point I'll update this post. In the meantime, I can wholeheartedly recommend the pieces already posted.

Adrian Martin has been particularly busy this summer; working with Girish Shambu, they've launched a new online magazine called LOLA - it's a worthy successor to the now apparently defunct Rouge, with at least several of the same contributors (notably Nicole Brenez) and a similarly broad approach to contemporary cinephilia. It is a welcome addition to the online film community, and hopefully fares better than Martin's previous endeavor.

Martin has also spearheaded a conference called World Cinema Now; there's a companion blog that promises to be updated regularly before and after the event, and already has some significant content, including some nice pieces on mad man provocateur Philippe Grandrieux.

In a stunning bit of good news, and to my mind perhaps the most significant cinema event of the year, Venice has just screened Nick Ray's We Can't Go Home Again. It is apparently not just a restoration, but a completion of Ray's final masterpiece, which has seen the light of day only briefly in two different early versions (one in 1973, the other sometime in the early 80's. I should note that I'm not actually sure which version I've seen, such is the limited information available on any version of the film). David Hudson has collected a bunch of links over at the Daily Notebook, including writings by Rosenbaum and links to a current Ray 'blog-o-thon.' Reports have the fine folks over at Oscilloscope acquiring the film for distribution. So hopefully we see it sooner rather than later.

Happy reading, let's talk soon...

Literary Interlude:

'Yap, yap, yap. Part of this generation that is proud of its shallowness. The sincere performance is everything. Sincere and empty, totally empty. The sincerity that goes in all directions. The sincerity that is worse than falseness, and the innocence that is worse than corruption. All the rapacity hidden under the sincerity. And under the lingo. This wonderful language they all have - that they appear to believe - about their 'lack of self-worth,' all the while what they actually believe is that they're entitled to everything. Their shamelessness they call lovingness, and the ruthlessness is camouflaged as lost 'self-esteem.'... it's a con these kids have going. The hyperdramatization of the pettiest emotions. Relationship. My relationship. Clarify my relationship. They open their mouths and they send me up the wall. Their whole language is a summation of the stupidity of the last forty years. Closure. There's one. My students cannot stay in that place where thinking must occur. Closure! They fix on the conventionalized narrative, with its beginning, middle, and end - every experience, no matter how ambiguous, no matter how knotty or mysterious, must lend itself to this normalizing, conventionalizing, anchorman cliche.'

Phillip Roth, The Human Stain

Friday, June 24, 2011

Videos by Jake Barningham:

‘Pretty’ is the failure of interesting

I never intend any of these things (videos) to be relaxing experiences

All my images die. I think a good image should die…

VIDEO is the little brother who ends up killing himself.

Jake Barningham, quoted from conversation and email correspondence

“It is well-known that a standard video image lacks the sharpness and definition of even 8mm film. There are other, and in my view even more important, differences as well. In video, the range of darks and lights, the differences between the blackest black possible and the whitest white, is far narrower than in film. As a consequence, there are fewer intermediate shadings possible. Video colors lack the fullness and saturation of pure film colors; they are less intense. I am not speaking so much of the measurable purity of the light as of the fact that video green seems somehow less different from video red than a film green is from a film red. The video image is thus less differentiated in its internal structure than the film image. Similarly, far less of an illusion of depth is possible on video than in film… one senses the physical solidity of each object, but one also feels that the space between objects has the same palpable sensuality. A space is created, all pieces of which are in measurable and articulate relationships with each other. In video, this sense of physical space, of a felt distance between foreground and background, is largely lost.”

Fred Camper, The Trouble With Video

I quote Camper at length here for several reasons, not the least of which is that his negative description of video’s shortcomings as a medium are, in fact, appropriate estimations of the virtues of Jake Barningham’s video work (it should be noted, in the interest of full disclosure, that Barningham and Camper are on friendly speaking terms, and that I also know them both). Indeed, Camper’s assertions on the distinct virtues of various mediums, and the belief that within these distinctions lay the strengths of each medium, has been a formative influence on myself and Barningham. In point of fact, Barningham himself insists on the distinction, referring to himself as a video artist, not a filmmaker, and having no desire to work with film (to quote the artist: ‘I don't like handling film, I don't like shooting film, I don't like touching film cameras… its such a barbaric process, I've no idea how Brakhage made such beautiful poetry’.). What Barningham has managed to do is, simply put, more than akin to the poetry that Brakhage has imbued to celluloid. It is this critic’s opinion, whatever it may be worth, that Barningham is building a formidable body of work and quickly emerging at the forefront of this still new, not entirely understood, medium.

It can be difficult to speak of a diverse number of individual works that share a unifying sensibility while still diverging in their particulars. Nevertheless, Barningham’s videos strike me, first and foremost, as studies on absence. While none suggest a narrative, in each there is a hint of an image, something almost, barely tangible, that ultimately remains elusive and transient. It is interesting that the discernable images which do crop up, however fleetingly, are objects most associated with the human figure – a car in ‘#25’, houses cropped to the bottom of the frame in ‘and houses’, what appears to be an entire plot of land in ‘night, day’. Indeed, ‘color copy’ suggests an entry point into the other works – an almost recognizable image of a tree is bombarded by a flurry of pixels, each seemingly in a random, chaotic collision course with another. Yet these pixels almost ‘gather’ themselves, as if attracted to the image and attempting to ‘fill it’ in. But repeatedly, the pixels break down and scatter. While the image is partially defined by that which it is lacking – a specificity of sorts, Barningham also invites us to view the breakdown as something worthwhile in-and-of itself, as moments of pure movement, abstracted motion, the pixels themselves as unique sculptural objects. Camper is correct in suggesting a lack of articulated space/depth in video; Barningham’s works are interested not in spaces with which to insert oneself, but in building walls.

I’ve had the opportunity to speak with Barningham about his process, and while the technical specificity is above my head, the basics provide an interesting tension between chance operations and tightly controlled structure. The basis for each of the videos in the Onion City program is, in the beginning, images culled from web based weather cameras, usually unmanned and virtually anonymous, installed by amateur meteorologists. Interestingly, this anonymity is in itself a kind of absence (images without an author). Barningham then proceeds to edit chunks of footage as he sees fit, before putting the footage through a series of ‘save as’ iterations. By ‘saving’ the footage as a different video file at each iteration, various degrees of de-resolution creates layers of pixelation and color manipulation. This process lends itself to what I’m referring to as chance operation, although Barningham has enough practice with his process that he can anticipate, to some degree, what each iteration will look like. And, of course, if he is unhappy with the results, he can simply delete the file and start again.

It is this process of ‘breaking down’ that gives some of the videos an almost clinical feel; even when organic materials are visible, the viewer is aware of the artist’s hand at work, digging into the video (if such a thing is possible) to arrive at its smallest possible unit. ‘trees’ is a fascinating study, and along with ‘night, day’, the strongest video in a series of strong videos. While using natural light to film a forest might produce a stunning effect, it is the antithesis of what video does well – light on film is translucent and has an ‘emanating’ quality. Video absorbs, as Camper has pointed out, and Barningham’s study of the forest gives a lesson in this process – there is no grain, only blocks, with an undulating quality that layers rather than blends; versus the solidity of film, video could be described as ‘disintegrating’, on the verge constantly of not unraveling but dissipating, bit by bit, back to the ether. Certainly, there is a ghost-like quality to Barningham’s images, ‘echo transmissions’ to use Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s term.

Horizontal lines tend to turn up in each of the videos on display in this series, particularly in ‘#25’ and ‘and houses’, usually as pseudo-violent intrusions across the frame that also serve, not unlike the occasional ‘X’ title cards in Michael Snow’s La Region Central, to orient the viewer. But a consistent horizon line serves as the organizing factor in Barningham’s ‘night, day’, an almost straight-forward landscape film that might also be the best in the series. It’s certainly the longest (clocking in at a whopping 7 minutes). But the additional length allows Barningham to build a more complex rhythm, with segments serving as distinct movements. ‘night, day’ consists in part of time lapse photography that Barningham has edited so as to conflate his own chosen patterns with the unique, even bizarre lighting effects produced by the time-lapse; bursts of pixilated white merge into murky gray/blacks with remarkable fluidity, and the viewer is aware of the possibility of an almost-recognizable field of vision playing out before them. The bottom of the frame exists in constant tension with the horizon line, strange almost-color bars that threaten to rise up and engulf the image proper. Meanwhile, flickering white dots in a field of black explode into an approximation of daylight before quickly settling down, back into oblivion, only to then repeat the process. Barningham returns repeatedly to the image of a house, begging the question of what could possibly be transpiring in this constantly morphing landscape (which again suggests an absence, i.e. who exists within this home?).
By my estimation, the second movement begins with the introduction of rain drops onto the camera lens. The attentive viewer can ascertain what is physically causing this effect, but formally speaking, the rain drops occur without warning as large physical objects invading the frame. They clump in an interesting way, again suggesting the tension between chance (random footage) and control (the artist chose this footage of these objects). This section moves along for a couple of minutes, building to a crescendo of rapid cutting that stuns the eye – if we’ve been lulled by the preceding pace, Barningham jars our attention.
The third movement seems to begin with the introduction of a new formal element, an architectural structure that intersects the frame and the horizon line, totally disrupting the field of vision that we’ve become accustomed to in the previous five minutes or so. Barningham repeats the structure, while maintaining the already established night-day-night rhythm, as well as briefly re-introducing, if only for a moment, the rain drops on the lens motif. The effect is of a cumulative ‘building-up’; one senses that Barningham could keep adding layers indefinitely, while simultaneously defamiliarizing and deconstructing the image. The complexity of ‘night, day’ exists in this dichotomy between simplification (the pixel) and maximizing (the infinite number of shapes one could introduce to this landscape).

If video could be called film’s ‘baby brother’, as Barningham has self-deprecatingly joked, it is through the efforts of artists like himself that the medium will assert itself as a peer, capable of its own unique poetry. Go see this work.

Saturday, June 25th
7pm – Chicago Filmmakers
Shorts Program 3
#25 (2011, 2 min)
western (2011, 3 min)
night, day (2011, 7 min)
trees (2011, 2 min)
and houses (2011, 3 min)
color copy (2011, 3 min)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Anticipating Film Socialisme, Part 3:

"... montage is what made cinema unique and different as compared to painting and the novel. Cinema as it was originally conceived is going to disappear quite quickly, within a lifetime, and something else will take its place. But what made it original, and what will never really have existed, like a plant that has never really left the ground, is montage. The silent movie world felt it very strongly and talked about it a lot. No-one found it. Griffith was looking for something like montage, he found discovered the close-up. Eisenstein naturally thought that he had found montage... But by montage I mean something much more vast."

Godard, "Le montage, la solitude et la liberte"; translation by Trond Lundemo

Anticipating Film Socialisme, Part 2:

"When it comes to a love of the cinema, cinephilia, fond citations from old movies, he believed (as did everybody else) that he's 'been there, done that'. To such an extent in fact that his name is now emblematic of a passion which even his detractors have had to concede, namely a passion for the cinema. The name 'Godard'... designates an auteur but it is also synonymous with a tenacious passion for this region of the world of images that we call cinema...

A love of the cinema desires only cinema, whereas passion is excessive: it wants cinema but it also wants cinema to become something else,it even longs for the horizon where cinema risks being absorbed by dint of metamorphosis, it opens up its focus onto the unknown...

He is caught between a recent past and a near future (unlike prophets who can easily combine archaism and the future), he is crucified between what he can no longer do and what he cannot yet do, in other words, he is doomed to the present...

Godard has been so easily described as an 'enfant terrible', an 'avant-garde filmmaker', an 'iconoclast' and a 'revolutionary' that we have failed to notice that, right from the start, he respected the rules of the game (unlike Truffaut). In fact, Godard is troubled by the absence of rules. There is nothing revolutionary about Godard, rather, he is more interested in radical reformism, because reformism concerns the present..."

selections from Serge Daney's 'The Godard Paradox'

Anticipating Film Socialisme, Part 1:

"In my opinion, films are hardly ever seen anymore, since 'seen' suggests to me the possibility of making comparisons. By that I don't mean comparing two things, or one image to the memory that one has of that image. Rather, I mean comparing two images and, at the moment of viewing them, highlighting certain links between them. For instance, if one claims that Eisenstein's parallel editing echoes a style of editing traditionally ascribed to Griffith, then one would need to project them simultaneously, with Griffith on the left and Eisenstein on the right. It would be like a trial and one could be sure of the accuracy of the claim. And one could discuss it. It would be technically difficult to place two cinema screens side by side, but video playback is now available so videotapes could be viewed side by side and compared."

Godard, quoted by Antoine de Baecque

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Mission: McTiernan

I've got a new post up over at the Mission: McTiernan blog, scoot on over and check it out. Posting has been light, but rest assured that my writing partner and I are hard at work on two large scale McTiernan projects. It might be a little while yet before either is ready to be officially announced, but rest assured more odds and ends will make their way to the blog before long.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Mann Silhouette, Part 3: an Interlude

I started this project because I was struck by how frequently Mann returned to, and revised, a particular ‘move’, a piece of visual rhetoric that pops up continuously and that has been tweaked, refined, simplified and which, ultimately, becomes the heart of a certain kind of philosophy (which we’ll get to with Public Enemies, perhaps Mann’s most misunderstood masterpiece).

Having said that, no great artist can be boiled down to some kind of schematic meaning; as David Bordwell is frequently reminding us, artists tend to experiment, attempting new solutions to frequently recurring scenes (like filming people around a table). Hence, a handful of Mann films that refuse to fit my ‘silhouette’ rubric – they are nonetheless, worthy of some attention.

Despite having some fans, The Keep strikes me as Mann’s one total, outright failure. To my mind, it is the one film his detractors constantly accuse him of making - bombastic, seemingly impersonal and ultimately incoherent. The Keep ultimately stands as an attempt at a German Expressionistic horror-thriller, a genre so far removed from Mann’s comfort zone as to boggle the mind. The idea of ‘stretching’ might be one of the reasons Mann took on the project, and as a film school student, it is obvious the he was enamored with Lang and Murnau (perhaps Lewton/Tourneur as well). Coincidentally, the film is actually filled with silhouettes, although they are so devoid of interior meaning as to essentially invalidate my functioning premise.

The Last of the Mohicans is another beast altogether. Along with The Keep and Public Enemies, it’s his only period piece (although the former are both, comparatively speaking, recent history). It’s also his only film to take place almost exclusively in nature, as opposed to the urban milieu Mann usually favors. Critic F.X. Feeney has suggested that Mohicans was a conscious left-turn for Mann after several years of television work (roughly ’86-’92), although Mann shoots down that idea in an interview with Feeney. Still, the notion of ‘stretching’ comes up once again, and after five years or so of heavily researched, true-crime related TV, it stands to reason that a totally new challenge would appeal to Mann.

Mann seems most concerned in Mohicans with establishing the difference between the native settlers and the stuffy British, as well as emphasizing the unity of the surroundings with Hawkeye and his family, men who have learned to live harmoniously with nature.

Hawkeye’s interactions with the Cameron family early in the film nicely encapsulate Mann’s visual rhetoric. The camera remains fixed, the group unified in the frame, with the mother and child supplying movement and energy to the tableau – she keeps turning around to look at the table, subtly reinforcing the viewer’s eye as to the shifting center of attention; the playful child becomes a wild card, adding something dynamic to the proceedings.

Contrast this with our introduction to the British: the long take of the carriage carrying Cora and her sister as it crosses the bridge is pretty enough, with a pleasing symmetry, but is bland and static after the rowdy dinner table scene.

Here, Cora’s first interaction with Duncan is a cold, shot-counter-shot interaction around a table. Situated nicely in the middle of a field (nature vs garden indeed), Mann cuts rapidly between the two characters, keeping their faces at opposite sides of the frame (further emphasizing their ‘apart-ness). Even when they occupy the same frame, as above, only Cora is in focus, complete with a dismayed look. Duncan is out of focus (also out of touch with Cora’s feelings), and appears to be looking of screen – hence the two shot capturing his failure to look her in the eye.

Mann furthers this notion of deadening symmetry with the films many battle scenes, contrasting the freedom of movement of the Huron warriors with the ‘column’ style fighting of the British. As they line up single file, their static arrangement becomes their downfall.

* * *

Collateral is an interesting, albeit small film, one which might usefully serve as a kind of divide between mid-period and late-period Mann. Heat, The Insider and Ali represent a string of masterpieces that show Mann further expanding his comfort zone into new arenas while remaining true to his own obsessions; the two films following Collateral, Miami Vice and Public Enemies, reveal a new kind of experimentation, with Mann paring down narrative as much as possible (while still remaining, obviously, narrative films). Collateral is also Mann’s first predominately digital film, after some experimenting in Ali (although bits of digital photography show up as early as Manhunter). Collateral strikes me as a transitional work – despite some well publicized script alterations, Mann receives no writing credit, and indeed the film is particularly beholden to an increasingly silly screenplay (by the scribe of the gimmicky, spectacularly inessential Wes Craven thriller Red Eye, no less). As Jonathan Rosenbaum noted upon the films release, it would have made a nice, taunt 80 minute noir back in the 50’s. If the scenario ultimately leaves something to be desired, Mann still directs the hell out of the movie, and Collateral’s ultimate pleasure is noting how a filmmaker can embrace and play with a new format – there’s a sense of constant discovery at work in the film’s mis-en-scene (it’s also his first film with cinematographer Dion Beebe, who will become as important to him as Dante Spinotti).

Mann sets up his primary motif in the films first section, as Jamie Foxx picks up Jada Pinkett Smith’s harried lawyer. Having bodies in the fore and mid-ground (front seat and back seat) allows Mann to play with character dynamics – first cutting between the two, then framing the two together, with one figure slightly out of focus, as they cast furtive, flirtatious glances at each other, and finally framing the two together as an equilibrium, a potent visual metaphor for ‘coming together’. As in some scenes in Mohicans, Mann keeps characters on opposite sides of the frame even when cutting between them. Interestingly, this maintains a sense of visual stability (the camera and cutting doesn’t interfere with their physical position within the car), while simultaneously keeping the viewer off balance (there’s an increasingly jagged force to the cuts).

* * *

The Last of the Mohicans could justify a book-length study in and of itself, and I don’t wish to undersell the pleasures of Collateral. Mann’s ‘city symphony’ contains (arguably) career best performances from Cruise and Foxx, and there is a lovely sense of isolation and disconnect as characters move through an eerily empty urban landscape. Interestingly, I get the sense that Mohicans and Collateral are most frequently cited as Mann’s best films – in other words, movies for people who don’t like Michael Mann films. That, perhaps, is grist for a later post. Up next, we tackle Mann’s first bona fide masterpiece, the exquisite Heat.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Andre de Toth's Springfield Rifle:

The instant streaming boom has lead to a few interesting things, one of which is the dumping of old, forgotten B Westerns by the boat load. Not unlike the studios slipping in auteurist gems amongst actor-centric dvd box sets, Netflix Instant is gradually accumulating a nice library of underserved genre-specialists. The infancy of the technology is also leading to some extreme aesthetic distortions, which we’ll get to in a moment.

The obscure object under consideration here is Andre de Toth’s Springfield Rifle, a quick, no-frills, frequently brutal western-thriller. I’m no de Toth specialist, but at least a handful of his films are essentials – Ramrod, Day of the Outlaw, Crime Wave and Play Dirty spring immediately to mind. De Toth’s universe is as physically jagged as it is emotionally crippling, with multiple agendas playing out against an unforgiving landscape – de Toth’s landscapes being as integral to the physical and philosophical motivations of men as they are to the films of Boetticher, Ray and Mann; that is, the landscape becomes something of a character in and of itself.

The perennially over-valued Gary Cooper lends his unmovable granite visage as a Union officer who goes undercover to infiltrate a group of horse thieves; they are raiding Union horses and selling them to the South, who in turn hope to amass a huge cavalry that will ultimately crush their opponents to the North. In typical de Toth fashion, our hero is shunned by his commanding officers, his son and ultimately his wife – in a stunning reversal, a Union officer first introduced as a heavy is revealed to not only be in on the undercover plot, but becomes Cooper’s only ally. Of course, once this reversal is made clear, he is gunned down, leaving Cooper once again alone, in over his head, and without evidence of his mission ( interesting that every espionage/cop thriller of the last several decades has in effect already been anticipated by this modest oater).

De Toth’s mise-en-scene is masterful, and the use of the full frame to contain two different (and oppositional) kinds of movement, extreme horizontals and verticals, is not only startlingly audacious but also a fascinating formal metaphor for Cooper’s dual existence. The fact that the film involves huge numbers of horses creates an interesting dynamic. De Toth will keep his camera back at a distance, the better to observe huge herds of animals grazing – it is in these amassed shots that we realize the sheer size of the Confederates’ ultimate goal, obliterating one’s enemies through sheer numbers. Conversely, de Toth anticipates scope photography while filming lines of horses in movement. Throughout the film, de Toth frequently starts a scene with a slow pan, usually from left to right, first introducing the space and setting, as well as character’s spatial relationships within it. As the film progresses and the action ramps up, the movements become so quick as to induce whiplash – in an attempt to reproduce the movement of the horses, while also keeping in mind numbers and a sense of scale, de Toth tracks the camera along side the animals, eventually catching up to a human figure, then passing them by to finish the movement at the head of the herd.

As impressive as these formal dynamics are, de Toth ultimately seems to value vertical, downward movements even more. While not as refined, thematically, as the much later Day of the Outlaw or Play Dirty (a physically grueling trek that puts Herzog’s Aguirre to shame), the treachery and inherent danger of an unforgiving nature is still readily apparent in Springfield Rifle. The film begins with Union troops moving horses through a snowbound pass, assuming that it is so dangerous that the raiders would be insane to follow, never mind that the terrain could also kill them before they reach their destination (reach it they do, only to find a band of outlaws waiting for them - treacherous indeed). Later, Cooper escapes his tower jail cell, de Toth emphasizing the extreme distance with long vertical lines from the tower to the ground; the finale of the film finds Cooper chasing his friend and commanding officer, now revealed to have been a traitor all along, down a rugged mountain side, each man careening wildly down steep inclines and ultimately hurling themselves from great distances. One is tempted to attach some kind of psychological interpretation to these ‘leaps of faith’, one man trying to evade capture at all costs, the other attempting to catch his adversary no-matter-what.

The great critic Fred Camper (one of the few who have dealt with de Toth in any kind of serious way) writes, ‘De Toth's great theme is betrayal--not single betrayals by individuals but networks of betrayal that implicate most of his characters. In de Toth's moral universe, the majority are susceptible to compromise, and the minority who remain pure… wind up dead or otherwise ruined, their lives altered forever by the treachery they've survived. Indeed, the phrase "None Shall Escape" could serve as a motto for de Toth's entire oeuvre. Born in Hungary, de Toth directed several films there and elsewhere in Europe before emigrating to the United States in 1940--on a ship, as he recalls, that sank on its next voyage. It's hard to know how his worldview originated, but perhaps it had something to do with coming of age amid the complexities of Europe between the wars, and having witnessed and filmed the 1939 German invasion of Poland.’

While Springfield Rifle has a happy ending (the traitor is caught and the plot revealed, Cooper is reinstated, given a medal and reunited with his wife and son), it’s hard to believe in it – there are so many tacked on happy endings in Hollywood films of every era that one is inclined to dismiss the final two or thee minutes of any given film. It’s hard to imagine anyone surviving unchanged in de Toth’s universe, where even nature itself has stacked the decks against us. Cooper’s victory must ultimately be hollow: one of his friends dead, the other revealed to be a traitor to his country, and his family left to survive the remainder of a Civil War.

Unfortunately, the technical limitations of this still new streaming technology reveals itself the most during camera movements – even more vexing as de Toth reveals so much with this contradictory visual scheme. The horizontal pans become blurred and choppy, and swaths of color betray clumps of digital artifacts, with tree leaves becoming square-ish bits and flowing water congealing into a morass of blue and white streaks. Granted, even HD streaming films have similar issues, and there is no doubt that whoever owns the rights to Springfield Rifle couldn’t give a shit as to how it’s shown (if you queue up anything that starts with a ‘Starz Network’ logo, you are guaranteed a sub-VHS visual presentation). But these gripes are perhaps grist for another post. Technical deficiencies aside, it’s still essential viewing.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Mann Silhouette, Part 2: Manhunter

Posing one or more characters against an expanse of space becomes increasingly important to Mann, and will gradually begin to take on more and more existential importance (particularly in the later works, as we'll eventually see). Here, we have a variation on the initial silhouette shot in Thief. But Mann has complicated the visual rhetoric. The placement of Petersen's Will Graham and Farina's Jack Crawford is important, as they are visually unified (in the same shot), but placed at opposite sides of the image, with their backs to each other. Crawford is asking Graham to return to the FBI and resume his profiling job, Graham is reluctant to place himself and his family in harm's way. Both men are visually overwhelmed by the horizon.

Another variation on the above shot, as Crawford briefly visits with Molly Graham. Again, both figures are together-but-separate, and Mann further emphasizes their rigidly oppositional stances with the vertical and horizontal lines of the bay windows.

Mann follows the previous scene with a shot of the empty night sky. This is, if I'm not mistaken, his first stab at this kind of shot - it's not motivated by narrative, nor does it contain any characters. It's certainly moody, and that alone might justify its inclusion. But I think there's more to it than that, and this is in fact Mann's (perhaps not yet fully conscious?) initial attempt at poetic abstraction - the implacable night sky, uncaring and indifferent to the human drama playing out beneath it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Mann Silhouette, Part 1: Thief

This was originally intended not as a series of different posts, but one large, in-depth essay, exploring (almost) all of Mann's films together. However, a few Blogger limitations have reared their ugly heads, so instead each film will receive its own, specific entry.

The genesis of this idea came, quite naturally, from watching Mann's films, over and over again, and realizing a certain stylistic unity. Obviously, you might rightly suggest, as all the great directors exhibit some kind of consistency from work to work. But in this case, it is really a matter of a specific move that he has continuously returned to, this move, this gesture, growing in complexity and meaning as his oeuvre has advanced.

This is an early scene from Michael Mann's first film, Thief. James Caan enacts what we infer to be a daily ritual, sitting with a friend on the lakefront in Chicago. This is really the birth of the 'Mann Silhouette', although in this context it reveals the limitations of Mann's early style. Simply put, it is graphically appealing, with a simple, immediate design and symmetrical precision (a precision that Mann will never fully abandon, even in his later work, and which metaphorically adheres to his admiration of stoic professionalism). As we'll see below, however, Mann isn't interested in just simple aestheticism -

Two frames from a scene that lasts several minutes - this comes from much later in the film, as Caan's life has spiraled out of control. It's a pivotal moment in the film, a moment of reflection, summoning courage and bracing himself for what must come next. It also represents Mann's first, seemingly instinctive extrapolation/expansion of the silhouette technique - it's now something like a close-up, more personal, and now informed by a specific context. It is the character (not the last) saying nothing, in terms of dialogue, and Mann telling us everything with his images. The objectivity of the camera and the subjectivity of the character conflate into a moment of visual/narrative awareness.

Friday, February 4, 2011

A Belated Look Back at 2010 (because two of you demanded it):

‘I’m reminded of the pipe dream of the late Carlos Clarens, a Cuban born film buff and critic… (Carlos) used to fantasize that one year the studios would fail to release a single new movie and would instead be forced to revive all the unseen and unseeable glories they had locked up in their vaults.’
Jonathan Rosenbaum

‘Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.’
Walter Benjamin

‘The concept of investing in the development of a cultured filmgoer is not evidenced in any aspect of commercial distribution. So why do we continue to validate this flawed institution by making a theatrical run the primary requisite for coverage? Media outlets that don't challenge such distinctions as "distributed" and "undistributed" are slowing down a paradigm shift that's already happening. The best, most challenging films left the art house long ago and occupied the sphere of film festivals and the internet. More importantly, the dissemination of these films has been left in the hands of savvy curators rather than soulless marketeers. These alternative systems are making exciting work readily available and deepening the cultural value of films by attaching a meaningful context to them (in a nutshell, this is the main purpose of a film festival).’
Gabe Klinger

All three of the above quotations encapsulate, more or less, what’s been on my mind all year. I saw something like 220 movies in 2010 that were entirely new to me (not including rewatching favorite films over and over again, either for pleasure or for study), although maybe less than a third of those were new releases. But I’d like to consider this a personal year-in-review, not just a top ten - as I’m fond of saying (perhaps too frequently even), cinephilia is a full time job, and I worked a lot in 2010. I filled in some huge gaps in regards to long standing favorite directors: Lang’s Moonfleet more than lived up to it’s reputation as a Serge Daney fetish object and formative touchstone of the New Wave directors (it offers in particular a kind of skeleton key to Rivette’s oeuvre); Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn is a mind boggling achievement; I caught up with a few new Tourneur’s as well - Nightfall, Stranger on Horseback, Experiment Perilous, Berlin Express, Way of the Guacho and Curse of the Demon (as well as the first Tourneur I’ve seen that I didn’t like – Appointment in Honduras); I filled a major gap in my Ray oeuvre with The Lusty Men, as well as seeing the first Nick Ray film that I didn’t like – Flying Leathernecks; I saw a couple of great de Toth westerns, Riding Shotgun and Ramrod; caught up with some of Renoir’s great, under appreciated American period – The Southerner and The Woman on the Beach; some Ford’s that had eluded me, Donovan’s Reef and Mogambo, and a series of Hawk’s masterpieces (in order of preference): The Crowd Roars, The Dawn Patrol, A Song is Born, and one of his supreme achievements, Red Line 7000. I could also mention outstanding films by Jerry Lewis, Borzage, Cukor, Siegel, Mann (Anthony), Rossellini, Welles, Tsai Ming-Liang and Rivette

In addition to catching up with these favorite directors, there are always totally new discoveries as well. The biggest one for me in 2010 was the remarkable Allan Dwan. I must pause to say thanks to Jake Barningham, who not only facilitated many of the above mentioned screenings, but also, single handedly, showed me, by my last count, thirteen films by Mr. Dwan. This is barely a scratch on his filmography, with something like 420 films credited as director, starting in the silent era. I also caught up with 7 titles by Joseph H. Lewis, thanks to a marathon on TCM, and was immediately smitten - he is a case for definite further study.

Despite all this rhapsodizing over older films, I did manage to see a few new ones, and liked quite a few of them. A brief list:

Liverpool (Alonso)
The Sun (Sukurov)
Butterflies Have No Memories (Diaz)
Lost in the Mountains (Hong Sang-Soo)
Around A Small Mountain (Rivette)
Girl on the Train (Techine)
Everyone Else (Ade)
Dogtooth (Lanthimos)
The Ghost Writer (Polanski)
Father of My Children (Hansen-Love)
Wild Grass (Resnais)
Valhalla Rising (Refn)
Centurion (Marshall)
Winter’s Bone (Granik)
Bluebeard (Breillat)
A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (Weerasethakul)
Vengeance (To)
Certified Copy (Kiarostami)
White Material (Denis)
Alamar (Gonzales-Rubio)
Our Beloved Month of August (Gomes)
Unstoppable (Scott)
Lourdes (Hausner)
Home (Meier)
Mother (Bong Joon-ho)
My Joy (Loznitsa)
The Place In between (Bouyain)
Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (de Oliveira)
(with an honorable mention for Carnahan’s The A-Team)

I stumbled upon Gabe Klinger’s comment on his annual Indie Wire best-of ballot, and it succinctly states better than I could what exactly has been bothering me regarding the did-it or did-it-not get distribution game; it all finally came to head this year (for me at least). Simply put, the whole question reeks of extreme cognitive dissonance at best, barely concealed marketing ploy at worst. Granted, most of the above films received some kind of traditional theatrical release in 2010, but a combination of financial woes, struggling independent distributors and decreased art house exhibition has led to strange list-making loopholes. The default mode seems to have become ‘when did a film play in New York?’

Exhibit 1: a friend complained that he couldn’t include Kiarostami’s Certified Copy on his best-of list as it had not been officially distributed (i.e. released theatrically in NY). Never mind that he saw it in a theatre here in Chicago, projected on 35mm film in optimal conditions. He could, however, include Cattet/Forzani’s Amer on his list (i.e. it got a NY release), never mind that it hasn’t played anywhere in Chicago and was viewed via a bit torrent file. I hasten to add that I don’t doubt his enthusiasm for Amer. It is, however, a strange state of viewing affairs (a further discord to confuse matters: I’ll have an imported region free blu ray of Certified Copy before it gets ‘released’ in Chicago, further muddying what the word ‘release’ even means) .

Exhibit 2: in an effort to not let myself off the hook, I must confess to my own viewing habits as well. I didn’t catch up with Alonso’s Liverpool until it hit DVD a few months ago. In my defense, it screened for exactly one weekend here in Chicago (it’s also a film that Cinema Scope has been promoting for well over a year, as it technically has a 2008 release date). I also saw two great films under less than ideal conditions, hence their lack of inclusion here – Godard’s Film Socialisme (minus English subtitles), and Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew (via an astoundingly high def, albeit bootlegged, rip).

Exhibit 3: looking back, I realized that I placed both The Sun and 35 Shots of Rum on my 2009 best-list. Consulting my notes, I see that I viewed both of those films in early 2010. No doubt attempting to play the NY release game, I must have simply tacked them on before posting (same as this year, the list is going up a month or so after everyone else). The Sun hasn’t appeared on any recent lists, as it must have received ‘official’ release, but I’m seeing a lot of mentions for the Denis, which must have only recently achieved ‘official’ status. Further confusing the matter: lists that ‘belatedly’ included 35 Shots of Rum as well as Denis’ more recent feature White Material (I’m reminded of the strange soul that included Tsai’s Goodbye Dragon Inn three years in a row on his Film Comment ballot – festival screenings, the year of official release, and its eventual DVD release). A brief addendum – the recent Film Comment ‘Final Cut 2010’ article includes de Oliveira’s ‘Eccentricities’ as well as The Strange Case of Angelica.

Exhibit 4: there’s no doubt that ‘On Demand’ and streaming film is going to radically alter how we receive movies – as I mentioned above, it’s already happening with some frequency. I myself viewed both the Weerasethakul and the Gomes online, courtesy of The surprise success of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives has overshadowed most of Joe’s previous work, none more so than the exquisite short film that gave birth to the feature. A Letter to Uncle Boonmee came from a group of works that Joe has labeled the ‘Primitive’ series, including gallery installations and a series of videos. One could argue that the ultimate value of the internet will not be alternate revenue streams for the major studios, but instead the dissemination of small scale films like this. Ditto Our Beloved Month of August, although no one could accuse it of being small scale – it’s 2 ½ hours long. I was pleasantly surprised to see the film show up on some major lists, but again, this seems to be only because of a token NY release (or perhaps just a screening). has had it available for almost a year, at a more than reasonable three bucks.

Conclusion: I don’t want to go overboard here, but it seems to me that the longer we play by these ‘rules’, the longer we let distributors and corporations dictate what we can see and when we can talk about it. These are distortions and assumptions, not the least of which is that eventually, we can all see everything available, that everything will eventually reach home video, and if not, it probably wasn’t worth seeing in the first place. Case in point, the above mentioned films by Hong Sang-soo and Lav Diaz; both were produced for the 2009 Jeonju Film Festival as part of their annual digital projects showcase (a series including at least one other masterwork I’ve been able to see, Tsai Ming-Liang’s Fish, Underground). They screened here in Chicago thanks to Patrick Friel’s White Light Cinema group, but have yet to turn up at any other venue or on any home video format.

List making is ultimately an idiosyncratic, deeply personal avowal of taste, for better and for worse, and it seems to me that there is a vague effort to make it some how more ‘scientific’, as if the whole process was some kind of Gallup poll. Certainly the studios would like to gauge as much as possible the fervor for their product, the better to gauge their awards chances. But it is ultimately a process that crushes short films, experimental/avant-garde work, and all but a handful of documentaries.

Two closing thoughts:

“The game is not just vulgar, it’s stupid. Yet we all love games.”
David Thomson on list-making/canon forming