Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Reverse Shot: Deep Red -- Joanne Nucho on The Color of Pomegranates

Deep Red: Joanne Nucho on The Color of Pomegranates
Reverse Shot

Steeped in religious iconography, The Color of Pomegranates is a deeply spiritual testament to director Sergei Parajanov’s fascination with Armenian folk art and culture. It is also a controversial work, which, coupled with another of his films, Shadows of our Forgotten Ancestors, led to his arrest and imprisonment in a Soviet Gulag for four years. The Soviets insisted he was guilty of selling gold and icons illegally and committing “homosexual acts.” In reality, his only crime was offending the tenets of socialist realism, both in his daring surrealistic form and in his choice of subject matter. While many of the popular films of this era in Soviet cinema were largely propaganda designed to serve the ideological interests of the regime, Parajanov chose to focus on the ethnography and spirituality of the Ukraine, Armenia, and Georgia.

The Color of Pomegranates is a poetic, dreamlike film that sought to portray the life of Armenian troubadour Sayat Nova through images inspired by his life and poetry. Born Haroutiun Sayakian, he is remembered as Sayat Nova or “king of songs.” Raised in the Georgian city of Tiflis (as was Sergei Parajanov himself), Sayat Nova performed in the Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Persian languages. This brought him fame beyond the Armenian community and he was summoned to serve as Court Musician and Poet by Heracle II, the 18th- century king of Georgia. After falling in love with the king’s sister, Princess Anna, he was expelled from the court. He spent the rest of his life as a monk where he continued to write poetry and music. To the Armenian people, Sayat Nova is considered a martyr because he was executed by the invading Persians for refusing to renounce his Christian faith.

Parajanov’s decision to make a film about the life of an Armenian poet and martyr was a dangerous one. Armenian national identity was not to be prioritized—it was viewed as only a part of the Soviet Union. The idea of Armenian independence and secession from the Soviet Union was still dangerous and punishable by death. The lack of a Soviet presence, or any other typical themes of the propaganda films of the time, marked The Color of Pomegranates as a subversive work.

The text of the film, the poetry of Sayat Nova, and the life of director Sergei Parajanov are all reflections of the Armenian national identity, which is itself deeply connected to the Christian faith, as they were the first “nation” in the world to adopt the religion, in the year 301. Surrounded by largely Muslim populations, they were an easy target for invasion and subjugation by their neighbors. The paradigm of Christianity, the images of the suffering of Christ and subsequent salvation—most recently exacerbated by the Armenian genocide perpetrated by Turkey at the beginning of the last century—are at the core of Armenian individuality.

So what is the color of pomegranates? As the film opens, we see thorns intercut with images of pomegranates soaking a white cloth with their juice, a deep blood red. Then we see a dagger resting upon this same, stained cloth. A voice reads from the poetry of Sayat Nova: “I am a man whose soul is tormented.” In Armenian mythology, the pomegranate was a symbol of fertility, literally fruitfulness—it is said that a ripe pomegranate contains 365 seeds, one for each day of the year. The thorns are those of the crown that Christ wore as he suffered on the cross. The two are inseparable, bound closely by the image of bloodshed, the inevitable fate of the Armenian people—here there is only sacrifice and suffering. Later in the film a priest wearing the traditional black garb of the Armenian apostolic church utters “heaven has deemed that sorrow be our lot.” With the camera set at a distance, the monks gather before him, also cloaked in black, shroud-like robes fall on their knees. Everywhere there is death, darkness, disaster—and yet, a feeling that the biggest disaster, the ultimate catastrophe is still to come.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Michael J. Anderson on Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
by Michael J. Anderson

A gesamtkunstwerk or 'total art work' constructed from American folk and craft traditions much more than the classical arts, Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom (2012), from an original screenplay by Anderson and Roman Coppola, builds its diegetic world of hobbyist watercolors and kitsch nautical prints, primary school literature and amateur theatrics, homemade costuming and mass-manufactured Davy Crockett coonskin, Protestant church architecture and stained glass, Hank Williams and children's records. Moonrise Kingdom, however, is also dominated by mid-century English composer Benjamin Britten, who provides the most conspicuous exception to the picture's cultivated, if still semi-fictionalized 'Americanness,' not to mention its clear preference for more popular lower forms. In fact, it is Britten's modernist art foremost that provides Anderson's film with its governing aesthetic principles and climactic subject matter.

As to the former, it is Britten, along with the name-checked Gilbert and Sullivan - Moonrise Kingdom largely is set on the fictional island of New Penzance - who offers a model for artistic synthesis in the operatic form that is presented in the in-film production of Noye's Fludde. (Britten also composed original music for that other total art, cinema, with his collaborations on Alberto Cavalcanti's 1935 Coal Face and Basil Wright and Henry Watt's 1936 Night Mail being the most notable.) Likewise, it is the diegetic presentation of Britten's pedagogical-experimental Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, early and late in the film, which telegraphs Moonrise Kingdom's own quasi-Brechtian separation of elements, with Mainer-type Bob Balaban, for example, presenting the film's narration in omniscient, on-screen direct address rather than in the more traditional voice-over.

With respect to the film's subject, it is Noye's Fludde, a "miracle play" that the director acted in during his adolescent years - in this sense it provides a means of accessing the filmmaker's personal history; a means of conjugating the aesthetic with the autobiographic - which is refashioned in the image of Anderson's arch narrative: the broken, in one sense or another, family unit that is reaffirmed if not actually reconstituted at picture's end. In Moonrise Kingdom we have both examples - however tentatively in the case of the former - with twelve year-old runaway "khaki scout" Sam (Jared Gilman) ultimately finding a new foster father in bachelor police-captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). Anderson indeed recomposes his new family following "the region's worst meteorological disaster of the second half of the twentieth century," a 1965 hurricane of Biblical proportions that comes as the small island community is preparing for its annual production of the Britten opera. In Max Fischer lookalike Sam and the clear-rimmed spectacled Captain Sharp (see the director), Anderson seems to be replaying both his own biographical-cinematic past, while also filtering his personal experience of divorce during his childhood years through the young lead. Moonrise Kingdom certainly qualifies as a deeply psychoanalytic cinema, though a cinema that has been displaced not only onto a faux-New England setting, but also four years before the Texan Anderson's birth.

Moonrise Kingdom is no less notable as an emblematic narrative for Anderson's "Generation X," both in terms of that familial breakdown that disproportionately impacted the children of the 1970s and also of the post-modern culture that would reach its cinematic apogee amid and immediately after the peak of the VHS era. Anderson's postmodernism to be sure is ever apparent in Moonrise Kingdom's constituent combination of high art and kitsch, in his narrative taste for inventory (and letter writing) and what amounts on some level to his construction of joke diegetic worlds. In his exploration of the latter, Anderson shows a predilection for fluid, metronymic camera movements, flash pans and hard comedic cuts, whether he is mapping the dollhouse-like space in which the lead Bishop family resides at Summer's End or showcasing Camp Ivanhoe to the rhythmic beat of a snare drum. As with Rushmore (1998) and the four features that would follow it, Moonrise Kingdom emphasizes the artifice which provides the major-key for Anderson's art; there is in his latest, as ever, a very strong sense of an extrinsic narrator behind this fetishized, if still largely invented world. His is a cinema of aesthetic mediation.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Chris Marker: 1921 - 2012

Shelagh M. Rowan-Legg: Chris Marker, Filmmaker Behind LA JETÉE, Dies at 91

Jaime N. Christley: Great Directors -- Chris Marker

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Radio West: Amy Kalafa -- Lunch Wars

Lunch Wars
Radio West (KUER: Utah Public Media)

The average American kid will have some 3,000 school lunches by the twelfth grade. But what are they eating? When filmmaker and author Amy Kalafa went into school cafeterias, she found lunch trays laden with chicken nuggets and French fries, but little in the way of healthy choices. The question she kept hearing from parents though was "What do we do about it?" Kalafa has written a book called "Lunch Wars," and ... she joins us to explain how to start a school food revolution.

To Listen to the Episode

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Fall 2012 Bluegrass Film Society

[Tentative schedule]

August 22: Sound of Noise (Sweden/France: Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjärne Nilsson, 2010: 102 mins)

August 29: Naked Lunch (Canada/UK/Japan: David Cronenberg, 1991: 115 mins)

September 5: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (USA: Joseph Sargent, 1974: 104 mins)

September 12: Dead Man (USA/Germany/Japan: Jim Jarmusch, 1995: 121 mins)

September 19: Entranced Earth (Brazil: Glauber Rocha, 1967: 106 mins)

September 26: Kill List (United Kingdom, 2011: 95 mins)

October 3: My Neighbor Totoro (Japan: Hayao Miyazaki, 1988: 86 mins)

October 10: Sleeping Beauty (Australia: Julia Leigh, 2011: 101 mins)

October 17: The Devils (UK: Ken Russell, 1971: 111 mins)

October 24: Before Stonewall (USA: Greta Schiller and Robert Rosenberg, 1984: 87 mins) [with the Alliance Project]

October 31: Beyond the Black Rainbow (Canada: Panos Cosmatos, 2010: 110 mins)

November 7: Le Havre (Finland/France/Germany: Aki Kaurismäki, 2011: 93 mins)

November 14: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (UK/France: Peter Greenaway, 1989: 124 mins)

November 28: Amateur (USA/UK/France: Hal Hartley, 1994: 105 mins)

December 5: The Elementary Particles (Germany: Oskar Roehler, 2006: 113 mins)

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Robert Farrow: The Wicker Man -- Games of truth, anthropology, and the death of ‘man’

The Wicker Man: Games of truth, anthropology, and the death of ‘man’
by Robert Farrow

The Wicker Man, a cult classic of 1970s British cinema, portrays the investigation of an authoritarian police officer (played by Edward Woodward) into the mysterious disappearance of a young girl in the remote Scottish island of Summerisle. It becomes apparent that the islanders observe various ancient pagan traditions, and Sgt. Howie—a committed Christian—becomes increasingly suspicious of them. Eventually, he comes to suspect that she is somewhere imprisoned, earmarked as a human sacrifice for the Mayday festival of Beltane.

As the mystery unfolds, Howie comes to realizes the awful truth: the missing girl was a mystery fabricated in order to lure him to Summerisle, and it is in fact he who is to be burnt alive in the Wicker Man as an offering to the renewed cult of the old gods. This sinister ending has ensured this film a place in the annals of horror despite its divergence from the tropes of most horror films of the 1970s. The Wicker Man presents no bogeymen, no vampires, and no sinister music; its ending is all the more shocking, in fact, for the twee charm of the villagers and the folk-music score, which lead the audience into a false state of complacency that mirrors Sgt. Howie’s own vulnerability. And in a further departure from other examples of the genre, the antagonists are in no way demonized.

So, if The Wicker Man breaks so many of the genre rules, why is it such an unsettling film? One answer is illuminated by the complex matrices of truth, power, and knowledge made familiar by the French historian and philosopher, Michel Foucault: The Wicker Man presents us with an alarm call to wake us from “anthropological sleep,” and to tear down and burn our own false conceptions of “man.”

Foucault, a noted critic of the social sciences, rejected all positive notions of objectivity and human nature. For Foucault, we exist trapped within a kind of postmodern labyrinth (or “archive”), where truths are relative to the societies and practices that develop them. This is not a facile cultural relativism. Instead, we are invited to understand truths as problematized, colored by the contexts and subjects that produce them. The power structures that (so to speak) restrain us are also what makes our freedom possible, conditioning our thought at a collective, unconscious level.

Foucault’s own diagnosis of the present took the form of investigations into (often obscure) historical documents that aimed at exposing the implicit “truths” that underlie social practices and norms, thereby supporting his position as a thinker of social and historical relativity. As his work developed, it became clear that the driving force behind his work was an interest in how senses of identity are formed when the self is essentially a product of certain power/knowledge relationships, discourses, and games of truth.

Foucault’s early works—and The Wicker Man—offer this message: identity is best understood as an amorphous, shifting fiction, an “anthropology” that is to be exposed. When the full import of this becomes understood, the effect is rather more unsettling than the fraternity gorefests that typify many later horror films.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Friday, July 20, 2012

Michael Koresky: Consider the Source -- On The Passion of the Christ

Consider the Source: On The Passion of the Christ
by Michael Koresky
Reverse Shot

I opened my wallet for Jesus. And then, after paying the ten dollars and twenty-five cents, sitting through the ear-splitting, retina-scalding Regal Cinemas’ 2wenty (“Remember to arrive at the theater early!”), ads for Eclipse breath-freshener and Coca-Cola, bulbous oversized M&M men and a TNT “We Know Drama” sensory overload, I was ready to be saved. Lifted out of my seat, perhaps, and brought back down into my chair just in time for the beginning of lent.

Alas, in the end, it was a movie. A mere movie. Mel Gibson’s brilliantly cynical marketing strategy, buoyed by the ADL’s advance work, lured even us non-believers (sinners) into the theater; certainly we didn’t expect to emerge as right-wing Christian fundamentalist converts, but we had every right to think we would be witnessing an honest representation of human and artistic faith, a spiritual roadmap to the psyche of a filmmaker and actor who felt driven, even instructed by God, as he has claimed, to create a cinematic likeness of the divine. It’s not essential that a moviegoer agrees with the political or religious implications of the images emblazoned on the screen, but that the images translate as a response from the filmmaker’s soul, that we believe we are witnessing the gospels as Mel himself sees them. The sheer divine force offered by Pasolini, Scorsese, by Bresson and Burnett and Spielberg, by Alexanders Payne and Sokurov, manifest in images that relinquish themselves to whatever artistic means necessary, not in shameless grandiosity that wishes to pummel the viewer into submission, into terrified acceptance. Gibson may find disingenuous the earthy benevolence of Pasolini’s Christ and the psychological torment of Scorsese’s, the lyrical allegory of Bresson’s Balthazar and Spielberg’s E.T., the spiritual personification of Payne’s Warren Schmidt or Sokurov’s cancer-ravaged saint-mother; he wants a more direct address, to make you feel every thrust of the rusty nail as it’s hammered into Jesus’s palms, to clutch your own shoulders as Jesus’s arm is ripped out of its socket, to cover your eyes in gratitude when the crucified thief’s eye is plucked out by a vengeful crow, to reverently ooh, aah, and shriek when Jesus is scourged, his back torn and ripped open into a hundred fleshy strips. Apparently to Gibson, there is no metaphor in religion; faith manifests itself as a spiritual dead-end, a believe-it-or-be-damned expression of finality. Of course Gibson, progeny of his fundamentalist missionary father’s terrifyingly stubborn outmoded beliefs, ended up a Hollywood actor—that particular “dream factory” churns out endless expressions of American complacency every year, cheerless damning spectacles of moral righteousness and unambigious carnal pleasures. Of course Mel Gibson, though a self-avowed man of endless spiritual vitality, can only depict the divine through the employment of hundreds of buckets of stage-blood. With its ludicrous, Hollywood-fortified conviction (not the same thing as faith, incidentally), Passion may be the world’s first completely banal Jesus Christ film. And though it’s remarkably, hopelessly literal, it was certainly waiting to happen. It had to happen.

If 2000’s Gladiator ushered in the new Bush regime, then perhaps Gibson’s blockbuster is the new 21st-century’s first true coercively conservative “classic.” Rarely has a film with a fundamentalist core been so blatantly conceived, so forthright in its admissions. Every decade of American film, though never preoccupied with anything grander than itself, nonetheless ends up a product of its own political backdrop. First Blood and its subsequent sequels became emblematic of the Reagan era, literally winning Vietnam back from the liberals, reasserting the swaggering machismo of the American hero that Seventies Hollywood attempted to all but decimate. And just as Stallone enacted Reagan’s cloudy-headed right-wing version of recent history, Gibson’s Christ—“compassionate” Conservative, deliverer of that old-tyme religion—emerges from the tomb at just the moment of the Bush administration’s attack on civil liberties, and the attack on the Civil Rights of American gays launched by Dubya himself with full-on, unabashed old-testament condemnation. Those who speak out against Gibson’s film are automatically stigmatized as leftist rabble-rousers and hapless atheists; to deny its physical impact or so-called technical grandeur is to supposedly denounce Gibson’s personal belief system. What’s more essential is to realize that when Gibson’s savvy propaganda piece, meant to inflict a tough-love Jesus on the nation’s wayward souls, floods into 4,000 screens, another dam between Church and State begins to crumble. The youngsters of the Clintonian Nineties, finding solace in the emergence of a truly multicultural pop mainstream, need to be reclaimed by the right, shorn of their piercings and tattoos, and brought back to Sunday school; who better to do that than Jesus himself, this time, like Rambo, stripped to the waist, chained and whipped, flesh torn and limbs broken, but never down for the count?

To Read the Rest of the Essay More: Jeff Reichert: Jesus Christ Superman

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Ken Chen: Chilly, Obstinate Memory -- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Chilly, Obstinate Memory: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
by Ken Chen
Reverse Shot

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind could be one of those precious, necessarily rare things: like Breathless or 2001, a paradigmatic film for a generation. The film’s conceit is ingenious in its genre-ductility: Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet’s characters (respectively: boyfriend, memory-of-girlfriend) flee across the landscape of his memory while it’s being forcibly forgotten—thanks to Lacuna, a therapeutic brain surgery service that offers to erase all those unpleasant thought-crumbs of ex-boyfriends, ex-girlfriends, and the recently deceased. What makes screenwriter Charles Kaufman and director Michel Gondry’s film consequently so intimidating is how it is able to think like many different films simultaneously: a romantic comedy by Alain Resnais, a listlessly unbeautiful indie flick, a formalistic trick movie like Memento, a self-consciously aesthetic art film, suffused with strange imagery (the faceless people in Sunshine are straight out of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another), a hedonistic teen flick replete with inebriated, tank-topped girl, a screwball drama, a black comedy satirizing the intrusive efficiency of machines, and a love story whose characters brim with more reality than a reservoir of Mystic Rivers. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s willingness to trot across the borders of genre, its syncretistic way of unifying all these narrative modes—all these things make it at once poetic and spiritual. The film is a metaphysical chase movie—the villain we flee from is forgetting.

But what exactly about Eternal Sunshine is spiritual? This question demands another preliminary question: what becomes of spirituality in a scientific age? And if there can be a secular spirituality, how is it distinct from sociology or psychology? Once we become bereft of God, spirituality becomes privatized, shunts inward, molts off the social, longs for private rather than profound truths. Spirituality forks away from philosophy because (perhaps to philosophy’s credit) philosophy is too comprehensible; spirituality has no moving parts, no planks of argument: it is necessarily ineffable, interpretive and “intuitive” rather than analytical—it is the roadless road that arcs over chasms unbridgeable by syllogism. Instead, in a non-metaphysical age, the subject matter of secular spirituality ceases to be truth; the subject matter of spirituality becomes the self. As Richard Rorty writes in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, “The process of coming to know oneself, confronting one’s contingency, tracking one’s causes home, is identical with the process of inventing a new language—that is, of thinking up some new metaphors.” Our version of spirituality, therefore, asks us to interpret life—to invent our life’s own story, its unique descriptive language—rather than propose an answer for it. Our preexisting tools of interpretation—the rich cultural density of the novel and the abstracting truth of poems—thus becomes analogous to spiritual searching. Our life becomes a story and the supple, mystic emotions we associate with love and longing, regret and desire, start to seem somehow more profound than the puny omnipotence of God. This is why when D.H. Lawrence writes: “Sometimes life takes hold of one, carries the body along, accomplishes one’s history, and yet is not real, but leaves oneself as it were slurred over,” to describe the desperate life of a poor coal miner’s wife, he seems “spiritual” (though not theological) in a way that “Make a joyful noise unto God, all ye lands/ Sing forth the honor of his name/ make his praise glorious” (Psalm 66; King James) does not. What we require of our modern spirituality is intimate content—the wisdom of usefully idiosyncratic thought.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind feels spiritual because of the way it imbues film with this specifically literary content. It is the foremost example of what could be called avant garde realism—which might also describe films such as Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time and Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole, a type of realism that solves, dissolves, and welds together the intellectual resources of surrealism and its opposite, cinema verité. The fault of surrealism is that its mysteriousness arises from its irrelevance—surrealist images have a hard time creeping into meaning, a hard time becoming pertinent to our identity, because they resist paraphrase and explicit meaning; the fault of cinema verité is that, while it is full of life, it is a factless life, a life jailed to the moment: this is the image- oriented psychology of film rather than the thought-dense introspection of novels. Eternal Sunshine solves these genre maladies through its conceit: the first two-thirds of the film occur within the protagonist’s memory, so the otherwise “realist” film can deploy any number of non-realist conventions (a character meta-fictionally aware that she is only a memory; people disappearing as they’re forgotten; Jim Carrey surrounded by giant furniture, stuck in the memory of his baby self) without them actually becoming non-realist: they are real to their context, the way that a dream is a real dream.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Fall 2012: ENG 281 Weekly Supplements

Fall 2012 Weekly Supplements: Written

1) Giacci, Vittorio. "Cinema, Responsibility and Formation." Cinemascope #7 (2007)

2) Eig, Jonathan. "A Beautiful Mind(fuck): Hollywood Structures of Identity." Jump Cut #46 (2003)

3) "Cinematic Storytelling" Mystery Man on Film (June 11, 2007)

4) "Difficult Cinema." Girish (February 23, 2011)

5) Ebert, Roger. "How To Read a Movie." Chicago Sun-Times (August 30, 2008)

6) Gamman, Lorraine. "If Looks Could Kill: Gangster Suits and Silhouettes." Moving Image Source (May 8, 2012)

7) Video Essays: Archive

8) Ethics: Peace and Conflict Studies Archive

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Erich Kuersten: An American Rohmer -- Clint Eastwood's Breezy

An American Rohmer: Clint Eastwood's Breezy
by Erich Kuersten

If you were ever a girl on a date with Clint Eastwood and he wanted to sleep with you, chances are--based on his rep, artistry and ouevre--there wouldn't be a much you could do to resist. He'd play the perfect music at all the perfect times, on the piano, himself; he'd get the door for you, hold out your chair; speak huskily of Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, and when he finally smiled wide enough to show his teeth, you'd find yourself making the first move, despite your best judgments, or maybe because of them. After all, he's done this before. He believes what he's saying now, but the morning is bound to bring a whole different Eastwood.

As a director, Clint seemed to never quite recover his sense of the romantic after the whole Sondra Locke thing, but prior to then he had at least two romantic classics, only one of which is a slasher movie.

In order to find an American director/auteur who captures that pre-Locke longing, the slow rhythm by which real seduction occurs, one must go as far back as Nicholas Ray and Frank Borzage. Or one could just go to France, to Eric Rohmer. Rohmer wouldn't break his Bazin-influenced naturalism by playing a '70s soul-folk ballad over a beach at dawn holding hands montage, or setting a languid park-side tryst to Roberta Flack's "The First Time (Ever I Saw Your Face)" as Eastwood does in Breezy (1973) and Play Misty for Me, respectively, but the potency would be the same. It would be 'real' in a way that makes you weak at the knees, even sitting down. But where angels fear to tread, Eastwood just advances more slowly and inexorably, like a mongoose on a cobra. His Flack montage works because he really is a romantic, and feels these things listening to Roberta Flack. You can tell by how fine and deeply it sits in your gut that it's not just groupthink treacle and cliche. There's a world of difference between manipulation--trying to make an audience feel some emotion--and the art of pleasing oneself. What makes Eastwood or Rohmer swoon? No one needs to ask such a thing, for we have their films.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

J. Hoberman: The Single Antidote to Thoughts of Suicide -- Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s American friends

The Single Antidote to Thoughts of Suicide: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s American friends
by J. Hoberman
Moving Image Source


My thanks for inviting me to participate in this event as well as facilitating that participation by having this part of the program in a foreign language, English. I hope I won’t offend you if I begin by observing that for an American of my generation, born shortly after World War II, the sound of conversational German emanating from the screen was uncanny and even menacing, a vehicle for barked Gestapo torturers or sneering East German spies. As late as 1976, Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris would cite "a commercial jinx against German-language films in the New York area, at least partly for reasons that are too painfully obvious to mention."

"Jinx," which connotes "bad luck," is too coy a word to account for this provincialism, as is the reference to the New York area. The German language was stigmatized by powerful negative associations particularly but not exclusively among Jews and political leftists. German silent cinema was enshrined but the entirety of German talkies was reduced to a single letter M, which also happened to be a movie about the worst sort of human monster, a serial child killer. M opened up on the void and there was nothing like it…until Fassbinder. He dispelled the jinx.

I’m talking from the perspective of a civilian filmgoer rather than a professional movie critic. I did not review any of the movies I’ll be citing. In fact, the first thing I ever wrote about Fassbinder was an obituary for a no-longer extant journal, American Film. But I did follow Fassbinder’s American career from the cheap seats. I saw The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, The Merchant of Four Seasons, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Fox and His Friends more or less in that order in the mid-’70s when I was in my mid-twenties. What I remember impressing me was their strange affect. The language was part of it but, more generally, it was unclear whether the movies were funny or sad. They were certainly not bittersweet. There was a lugubrious quality that was also disconcertingly, irresistibly comic.

Not understanding the language or appreciating the context can sharpen other forms of attention. I was struck by Thomas Elsaesser’s comment [in the preceding presentation] that Fassbinder seldom included the German landscape because one of the things that initially impressed me about his films was their emptied-out, blandly paranoid urban settings. I thought these were a humorous invention until I spent a few days in Frankfurt in 1979. Then I discovered that these stylizations were actually a form of documentary truth. [silence]

Now, Fassbinder was not entirely unique. Between 1967-71, which is to say at the height of the ’60s, the New York Film Festival showed nine German-language features, three by Werner Herzog, two each by Alexander Kluge and Jean-Marie Straub, one by Volker Schlöndorff and one by Fassbinder. I did see most of these. Kluge appeared to be a more pedantic Godard, Straub seemed a lighter Bresson. Herzog was too freakish to be anything other than himself—definitely strange but not necessarily German—which is to say that the dwarfs were more striking than the language they spoke. In terms of the so-called New German Cinema, Fassbinder was something of a late addition, although Susan Sontag would later maintain that New York Film Festival director Richard Roud turned down her suggestion to show Fassbinder’s first feature Love is Colder Than Death.

Fassbinder made his debut two years later at the 1971 New York Film Festival with Recruits in Ingolstadt. Response was dismissive, even hostile. The lone exception was the New York Times lead critic Vincent Canby, whose review linked Fassbinder’s direction to "the methods and the manner of early Brecht" (a good and very fashionable German whose name was strategically dropped in the NYFF blurb). Canby deemed Recruits to be "an oddly unfocused satire but one that has many lovely moments….The movie fails, but it’s a failure of concept, not of intelligence, nor of style and performance." In sort, he recognized something.

To Read the Entire Presentation

Friday, July 13, 2012

Severine Benzimra: Jean Marais -- Dream Lover

Jean Marais: Dream Lover
by Severine Benzimra

Jean Marais was a dream figure. An absolute hero. Americans had Kirk Douglas or Burt Lancaster, with whom to learn about history through westerns or peplums, we had a gay perfect blond male to learn about our history through swashbuckling adaptations from Alexandre Dumas or Théophile Gautier, classic theater plays by Racine, Corneille, Edmond Rostand or Victor Hugo.

Marais was une force qui va, a force that could quote Victor Hugo (Hernani). A force of nature who introduced generations of teenagers to the poetry, the ravishing quest of beauty and the incestuousness of Jean Cocteau. He became the ideal mature lover in the 50s. He incarnated the handsome, noble father, from whom young girls had to fly away to look for love, thanks to Jacques Demy.

Every French person might well have his/her own inner image of Jean Marais. He could make fun of himself. He played an evil green-skinned Fantomas, but unfortunately refused the part of the killing monk in The name of the Rose, Jean-Jacques Annaud's film. He had many faces, man/god, ancient/modern, lover/brother/father, artist/muse, actor, sculptor, etc. The fragrance the male, created by Jean-Paul Gaultier, might well be an homage to Jean Marais. He played in about 90 movies; eight TV series, 30 plays: his beauty and energy never faded, unlike Alain Delon's, like Burt Lancaster's. Like Lancaster, he played for Luchino Visconti. Lets be honest: impossible to imagine him as Il Gattopardo, Burt Lancaster imposed himself on Vischotni for that film, as well as in Gruppo di Famiglia in un interno and so did Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice, though the role of Gustav von Aschenbach was firstly proposed to Jean Marais.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Monday, July 9, 2012

Kim Morgan: You Have 30 Seconds to Leave the Theater" - Gaspar Noe's I Stand Alone

You Have 30 Seconds to Leave the Theater" - Gaspar Noe's I Stand Alone
by Kim Morgan
Sunset Gun

I have missed Gaspar Noé.

The French enfant terrible who helmed one of the greatest pictures of the 1990’s, I Stand Alone, and who, with Irreversible, placed Monica Bellucci in a situation that angered even those OK with Susan George’s episode in Straw Dogs, had been absent from the screen far too long. Yes, he made a short for the sexually explicit Destricted project, and yes there are the condom commercials from years back, but Mr. Noé needed another full length feature under his (whipping) belt. To say I'm greatly anticipating his newest, Enter the Void would be an understatement.

The director, heavily influenced by '70s cinema, William Castle shock-a-tude, pornography, Godard, Céline, Nietzsche and (as I have argued, whether he knows this or not), even Thomas Hardy, was the great Gallic hope for a new generation of savage filmmaking. Unlike some current filmmakers who traffic in mere shock, or art house directors striking a transgressive pose, Noé is a genuine artist, but unpretentious -- a man who loves nothing more than upsetting his audience (or, in the case of Irreversible, making some faint), while injecting his screaming compositions with substantive thought, intelligence and philosophy.

So hearing that Noé will be releasing a new Noé vision got me excited, and in the mood to re-visit his debut blast of brilliance, over ten years later, 1998’s I Stand Alone. This is the movie that caused a daily critic to walk out during the screening I attended, this is the movie that bonded me with my sister (long story), and this is the film that I told a colleague to see on a date. That advice didn’t work out so well.

When first reviewing the blisteringly brilliant picture, I quoted an anecdote by director Paul Schrader. Schrader said:

“I had an interesting lunch recently with a French director named Gaspar Noé who wanted to do a film with me, something with violence and pornography and all that. And I said to him, 'I don't think anyone's shockable anymore.'"

Now I admire, sometimes revere Paul Schrader, and I would probably agree with him at that moment, but with I Stand Alone (and the latter Irreversible) he was positively wrong. For Noé had not only made one of the most shocking pictures in decades, but also one of the most stylistically impressive, emotionally challenging, thematically intimidating, astoundingly touching and, in its own warped way, weirdly funny. I Stand Alone, or Seul Contre Tous (Alone Against All) is a hair grabber that drags you around the muck and pushes your face into its world so far that -- and this is rare with such hard cinema -- you’ll experience moments of such bizarre, hideous beauty that you’re left significantly moved. It attacks one's senses with such transgressive power that by its end, one feels flustered, simultaneously full and empty. I Stand Alone rattles in your brain long after the movie's disquieting end.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Sunday, July 8, 2012

David Kalat: Ring Around J-Horror

Ring around J-Horror
by David Kalat
Movie Morlocks

J-Horror don’t get no respect. The long-haired ghosts have become a cliché to be ridiculed, and the tragedy of it is that the audiences perhaps best attuned to appreciate what J-Horror had to offer in its heyday are those least inclined to give it a chance. I know—I speak from experience. My love affair with J-Horror began, as all the best movie love affairs do, with opposition.

I grew up on horror movies—but to grow up on horror movies in the 1970s meant to grow up on a diet of gothic chillers. It’s an extinct animal these days, hounded off the earth and replaced by a coarser, ruder, more grisly genre that has changed what “horror” means.

The horror movies I fell in love with as a child were films about dread, free-floating fear, and abstract ideas. Fear of sex, fear that science was reaching hubristically too far, fear of the foreign, fear of one’s own inner demons—these were the themes underlying the best of the gothic chillers. Modern horror movies reduce it all down to the simplest element: fear of being killed.

The change in horror movies is not necessarily a bad thing—just because my tastes run one direction doesn’t mean my tastes are right. The gothic chillers I cut my teeth on were crafted in a different, more innocent age. Horror had to change, because the world in which the audience lived changed. In Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets, Boris Karloff plays himself, more or less, an aging star of monster movies whose personal appearance at a drive-in coincides with the arrival of a gun-toting madman who takes to killing the audience for no clear reason. In the 1960s and 70s, the real-life horrors of assassinations and riots and wars made it impossible to feel the same shivers from monsters of a more innocent age.

The summer after September 11, 2001 I was at a monster movie convention. The attendees, all of them fans of gothic chillers and creepy monsters, shared a dazed bewilderment at the unutterable horror the real world had too recently become. If the traumas of the late 1960s had rendered Frankenstein and Dracula obsolete, then how could Jason and Freddy and Leatherface possibly compete with real-life madmen who could vaporize thousands of innocent people in an instant?

It was at this event in 2001 that I was first introduced to The Ring.

A colleague was running a booth selling Japanese horror imports, and he tried to get me to watch Hideo Nakata’s The Ring—but I kept resisting. The problem for me was that the guy trying to convince me was running a stall selling bootlegs of various Japanese shockers such as the Guinea Pig films, and Guts of a Virgin. If you don’t recognize those titles, then you’re a happy lucky person. These are sadistic exercises in video cruelty that even gorehounds find extreme. In my mind, that’s what Japanese horror was: everything that was wrong with modern American horror films, but even more vicious, misogynistic, and depressing.

I wrongly pre-judged Ring to be something gaudy and rough. I almost missed the fact that, halfway around the world, the suspense-driven gothic thriller had been brought back from extinction.

Meanwhile, the Ring spread. At that point, Hideo Nakata’s 1998 motion picture had not yet been officially released in the United States. So it circulated instead through an underground subculture of fans who made copies for each other. “Here, ya gotta see this.” Ironically, that’s the same thing that happens in the movie: people make copies of a scary video for each other. Reportedly, if you watch this cursed videotape, exactly seven days later you drop dead. When a group of teenagers simultaneously die of unknown causes at different places around Tokyo, an investigative reporter traces their lives back to a common point when they watched a scary video together. She watches it herself, and realizes in horror she now has just one week to solve the mystery of the tape and save her own life.

One of the underground copies wound up in the hands of a man named Roy Lee, whose destiny was soon to become intertwined with Hideo Nakata’s. Lee was overwhelmed by the movie—no surprise, really, since everybody who saw it responded by a) loving the movie; b) recommending it to a friend; c) trying to make their own version; or d) some combination of the above. Since Lee worked in Hollywood, his ability to take action was substantially more advanced than the average fan. He made a copy for a development executive at Dreamworks Pictures, Mark Sourian. “Here, ya gotta see this.”

Sourian immediately phoned producers Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald: “Here, ya gotta see this.” Sourian copied the tape and sent it along to his producers. They watched it, and had the same reaction. They then copied the tape and mailed it to up-and-coming director Gore Verbinski (whose major credit at that time was Mousehunt).

And so, Dreamworks hired Verbinski to render Nakata’s film into English, with an explicit agenda of maintaining as much of Nakata’s atmosphere as possible. It arrived in theaters around Halloween-time 2002, and sported a decidedly low-key marketing campaign. Whatever I had mis-expected of the original, the remake was obviously aimed at—and attracting—a crowd of serious adults, who didn’t come out talking about the splatter FX but instead made comparisons to the early films of Luis Buñuel. My interest was piqued, and off to the theater I went.

I kept my expectations low—but as the film unspooled, I was enthralled, mystified, intrigued, and genuinely scared.

There is a moment towards the end when the entire cramped auditorium erupted in simultaneous shrieking. It’s been a long time since was genuinely shaken by a movie, and it set me out on a project of researching its history and coming to some kind of understanding of the genre.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Friday, July 6, 2012

John Bredin: 2 or 3 Ways Godard Taught Us How to Speak and Live

2 or 3 Ways Godard Taught Us How to Speak and Live
by John Bredin

I highly recommend Jean Luc Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her to shy people. To those poor souls who, like my former self, have had their speaking agency crippled, reducing them to verbal mice. Such radical withdrawals from the speaking world are often the result of being smothered by a patriarchal, authoritative and oppressive family, school system, or society. In my case, it was all of the above.

Mindful of the healing and transformative power of art, for the reticent of speech I bring a message of radiant hope: a nugget of cinematic wisdom distilled from what critic J. Hoberman calls Godard's greatest masterpiece. (As founder of the French New Wave movement in modern cinema, Godard is, arguably, one of, if not the most important, avante garde filmmaker of all time.) Deciphering lessons from Two or Three Things which, in a burst of validation from the zeitgeist for its continuing relevance, Film Forum in New York City screened both last fall and this spring you might be inspired, like I was, with the epiphany that it's not too late for you to achieve the exalted state of verbal freedom; the intoxicating, liberating, yet simple pleasure of being able to share (in a calm, thoughtful and nuanced manner) the cognitive and affective music of your soul with others.

In Two or Three Things Godard offers humanity nothing less than a filmic template for bold and authentic communication in the world: an aesthetically rich and pedagogically fertile piece of language curriculum that bears repeated visits. Without exaggeration, I'd call it a Linguistic Declaration of Independence. Notice, if you will, how the film celebrates the miraculous potential of spoken language, while at the same time interrogating it in what linguists refer to as a meta-talk, or talk about talk fashion often through the power of amazingly simple, wonder-provoking phrases.

For example, whenever Juliette the bored housewife who moonlights as a prostitute addresses a person, the camera, or thin air with a random thought that just popped into her head (I know how to talk; Let's talk together; Together is a word I like.) or when Robert, Juliette's husband, engages in that remarkable see-saw dialogue with a strange woman in the café (Say words; Do you know what talking is? Talk about something interesting.); or the pretty girl at the bar, whose deer-in-the-headlights narration of the simple details of her life startles us with its unassuming transcendence (I like to take walks, ride my bike for fun, go to the cinema two or three times a month. I like books); or when Godard himself, intoning with his whispery, philosophical voiceover, decides to interject a thought or two because he's the auteur (filmmaker as author) and can talk whenever he damn well pleases we're treated to a model of the magical possibilities of human speech.

Shy people, take notice.

Sometimes we become shy (and I myself still feel shy at times, depending, naturally, on who I'm with, or the situation), better still, let me phrase it a different way: we say that we're shy, or inarticulate, or afraid to talk, when in reality we're simply numbed by over-exposure to the prepackaged speech of movies and television shows: talk that's fakely fluid in the Hollywood sense. After watching actors speak brilliantly, dashing off hilarious applause lines as if they were talking naturally when, in reality, they spent days or weeks memorizing a pre-written script by comparison, our own conversational offerings might appear flat and boring to us. Certainly too, in a media-saturated age such as ours, because of our overexposure to glib, slick, oily-tongued, sonorous anchor people and celebrities, one could easily see how a person might get the false, even monstrous impression that this is how real people should talk. Unable to achieve such a bizarre standard of faux eloquence in our own speech, we clam up.

Philosopher Maxine Greene, critiquing such indurations in the mundane, talks about the need to resist passivity, to, partly through reflective art encounters she says, escape submergence in the everyday, the routine, the banal. Such submergence ought to include our current mass drowning, if you will, in a sea of pop cultural and media kitsch: a filling up of our heads, like the white cream inside a Twinkie, with a combination of advertisements, pop cultural fluff, and the grave pronouncements of the talking heads. Might such an inexorable assault on our cognitive and aesthetic apparatus tamp down our capacity to generate our own unique and creative thoughts, disabling our ability to write (and speak) our own essays to the world?

Godard offers us a cure to such a paralysis of language in Two or Three Things: an extraordinary pastiche of verbal and visual images, philosophy, and politics, that many critics have likened to an essay on film. As essays go, of course, it's worth noting that the traditional, written kind from the celebrated classics of Montaigne (Of Experience) and Emerson (Self Reliance) right up through today's brilliant NY Times pieces by Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert, and occasionally I'll grant, David Brooks offers one of the most powerful and flexible vehicles to tell our stories and richly express the complexity of our thoughts, questions, wonderings, and theories on any given topic.

To Read the Rest of the Essay