Thursday, September 26, 2013

Sean Smithson: We Are What We Are, Tastefully Macabre

WE ARE WHAT WE ARE, Tastefully Macabre
by Sean Smithson

Let's get this out of the way right off the bat: We Are What We Are is not a remake. Differing greatly from the original Jorge Michel Grau Spanish-language version, the creative team of Jim Mickle (writer/director) and Nick Damici (writer/co-star) have taken the original concept of ritual cannibalism and inverted it, switching almost every trope in the initial version, and spinning it into something completely their own.

In this Americanized take, Iris and Rose Parker (Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner) are two young girls living in a rural community who have recently lost their mother, and are now left to tend to the needs of their little brother Rory, and ailing father Frank (Jack Gore and Bill Sage). Stand-offish and a mystery to the local citizens, the Parkers have kept to themselves, labelled strange, eccentric, and a bit fanatical by their neighbors and fellow townsfolk. As an on-going storm rages, causing flooding and immobility, slowly the long standing mystery of a number of disappearances in the area begins to unravel.

A local coroner, Doc Barrow (played by scene stealer extraordinaire Michael Parks), whose daughter had gone missing the season before, slowly begins to suspect the anti-social Parker family of being involved, and tells the local sheriff (Nick Damici) of his feelings. Young Deputy Anders (Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt) meanwhile has an infatuation with the beautiful Iris, who obviously wants to return his affections but keeps her suitor at a distance because of her duty to her family. When a human finger bone is discovered, evidence starts pointing to foul play in the small community, and the tourniquet on the Parkers slowly tightens, as dark secrets (and worse) are threatened to be revealed. Plot elements are deftly juggled by Mickle, as the storm worsens, the clues amass, and tensions mount.

The raging storm brings flood waters that threaten to literally dig up long-buried secrets. Caught in the spiral is caring neighbor Marge (Kelly McGillis) a bit of an old maid who has taken to watching over the girls and their little brother, and helping them through the trial of losing their mother. Let me say here, it's so great to see McGillis become a Mickle cast regular, this being her second film with him, and proves that real screen talent elevates material (which the genre sorely needs right now).

This is a horror movie, so it goes without saying, things don't end well for many of the characters in We Are What We Are. Thankfully, director Mickle never goes for the cheap shot or easy gore, instead methodically building a tale of a family in pain and turmoil, who happen to have some very strange practices and ideas of what worship is.

The most overt change is the family structure being shifted from young teenaged boys, a little sister, and a mother trying to keep things together (as in the original) to a literal "flip," where now we have a widowed father, his two young daughters on the verge of womanhood, and their little brother. It seems a bit literal on paper, but in the context of Mickle's vision it's actually a revelation. Changing the setting from a city to a small almost Norman Rockwell-esque Any Town, America strengthens the backstory and brings it all "home," so to speak.

To Read the Rest of the Review

Monday, September 23, 2013

Making Contact - Room To Breathe: From Chaos to Peace in the Classroom

Room To Breathe: From Chaos to Peace in the Classroom
Making Contact

At overcrowded and underfunded public schools across the country high suspension rates are exacerbating existing achievement gaps. Often, chaos in the classroom is to blame, keeping students from concentrating on their classes. On this edition we’ll hear excerpts from Russell Long’s film “Room to Breathe” which takes us to a middle school in San Francisco, California, that began teaching mindfulness in the hopes of giving students the skills they need to focus on learning.


Ling Busch, guidance counselor at Marina Middle School; Megan Cowan, mindfulness teacher, students and teachers at Marina Middle School in San Francisco

To Listen to the Episode

David Bordwell - The Grandmaster: Moving forward, turning back

THE GRANDMASTER: Moving forward, turning back
by David Bordwell
Observations on Film Art

The summer has brought us two major films by the two leading Hong Kong directors. I’ve discussed Johnnie To’s fine Drug War earlier. Now it’s time for some ideas about The Grandmaster. Wong Kar-wai’s film displays, in fairly straightforward ways, some of his typical artistic and commercial strategies. Here he adapts his characteristic approach to style and form to a classic genre—and to the demands of the marketplace.

On kung-fu considered as one of the fine arts

Wing Chun is the best-known and most influential Chinese martial art in the world. It owes its renown to two women and two men. In the 1700s the Buddhist nun Ng Mui developed a style called Plum Flower Fist, and a young woman named Yim Wing Chun adapted it into something requiring less strength. Bruce Lee trained in the style, revised it according to his interests, and popularized it in films that reached millions of viewers. Lee’s teacher was Ip Man, a master who settled in Hong Kong after World War II and set up a school. Ip made public a Southern fighting technique that had previously been shared among families and friends.

As both a mainlander and a Hong Konger, Ip is a good symbol of the union of two Chinas. Given the stunning rise of China’s economic and cultural power since the 1980s, it’s not surprising that someone would come up with the idea of a film about him.

Wong Kar-wai claims to have had that idea in the late 1990s. In 2002, he announced that a film about Ip was on his agenda. After finishing 2046 (2004) and an episode for the portmanteau film Eros (2004), he seemed to move forward, slating Tony Leung Chiu-wai as the star and bringing Ip’s family aboard as consultants. But other activities intervened, including an ill-fated three-picture deal with Fox Searchlight. Wong continued to occupy himself with his other businesses, including his lucrative talent-management firm and his advertising unit, for which he made commercials for Dior, Lacote, Motorola, and other companies. He also directed My Blueberry Nights (2007) and recast Ashes of Time (1994) as Ashes of Time Redux (2008).

In 2009 he got to work on the Ip Man film, eventually bringing in funding from many sources, including mainland Chinese companies, Fortissimo, The Weinstein Company, and Annapurna Pictures. Scheduled for a premiere in late 2010, then late 2012, it didn’t appear until January of 2013. It seems that he was still doing postproduction in Thailand hours before its first press screening in Beijing.

During the ten years that The Grandmaster took to reach the screen, other filmmakers had seized on the great man’s life. Two popular Donnie Yen vehicles, Ip Man (2008) and Ip Man 2 (2010), were followed by a prequel The Legend Is Born: Ip Man (2010), and this year, after Wong’s film was released, Ip Man: The Final Fight.

However much Wong fiddles with his movies, in this case he kept the title fixed: Yi Dai Zong Shi. It literally means “The Grandmaster of That Era,” or—since Chinese doesn’t mark plurals in the noun—“The Grandmasters of That Era.” It’s significant that in early publicity, the project was known as The Grandmasters. Wong says his son talked him out of that title. Now, in non-Chinese-speaking countries, it’s The Grandmaster.

The ambiguity about the title takes on special relevance because we have several Grandmasters. After the Beijing premiere, The Grandmaster was released throughout China and in Hong Kong. It did good business, earning over US $47 million in those territories. Wong made a shorter version for the European market, and that was apparently the one premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February. A still shorter version was prepared for the U.S., with The Weinstein Company as distributor. It opened in August, to mostly good reviews, and it has currently reaped about $6 million at the American box office. So far, the film’s worldwide gross is nearly $63 million, making it by far Wong’s most commercially successful theatrical release.

To Read the Rest

Archives of the films, by decade, that do not have an individual post

These are archives of the films, by decade, that do not have an individual post in the links on the right side of Dialogic Cinephilia:












2010 - 2014

2015 - 2019


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Honest Trailers: World War Z

Upstream Color (USA: Shane Caruth, 2013)

Upstream Color (USA: Shane Caruth, 2013: 96 mins)

Baron, Zach. "Shane Carruth Will Have Another." Grantland (April 2, 2013)

D'Addario, Daniel. "Everything you were afraid to ask about Upstream Color." Salon (April 12, 2013)

Hudson, David. "Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color: This second feature, appearing nearly a decade after PRIMER, is “a stimulating and hypnotic piece of experimental filmmaking.” Keyframe (January 22, 2013)

Kiang, Jessica. "Shane Carruth Reveals The Mysteries Of 'Upstream Color'." IndieWire (April 8, 2013)

---. "Shane Carruth Talks Trying To Make The Perfect "Album Film" With 'Upstream Color'." IndieWire (April 3, 2013)

---. "'Upstream Color' Director Shane Carruth Reveals Details On Next Project 'The Modern Ocean,' His Work On 'Looper' & More." IndieWire (April 1, 2013)

Kutner, C. Jerry. "Cinema du WTF – UPSTREAM COLOR (Shane Carruth 2013)." Bright Lights Film Journal (May 19, 2013)

Leary, M. "Upstream Color (Carruth, 2013)." Filmwell (April 18, 2013)

Risselada, Brian, Josh Ryan and Max Slobodin. "Shane Carruth." Syndromes and a Cinema #6 (December 8, 2013) ["the films of Shane Carruth, an American director who also wrote, produced, edited, composed the score for, and acted in both of his two films Primer (2004) and Upstream Color (2013)."]

Daniel D'Addario: Everything you were afraid to ask about Upstream Color

Everything you were afraid to ask about “Upstream Color”: Pigs! Mental breakdowns! Nematodes! "Walden"! We answer all your questions about 2013's strangest film
By Daniel D'Addario

It perhaps shouldn’t be surprising that a science-fiction relationship drama depicting the life cycle of a neurotoxin-cum-immortal force that passes from nematode to human to pig and back again might get audiences confused.

What’s surprising is that it has them applauding.

“Upstream Color,” an at-first-blush incomprehensible movie by “Primer” filmmaker Shane Carruth, has earned qualified raves since its first screening at Sundance this year. Said Hollywood Reporter critic Todd McCarthy:

“The experience of watching the film, especially this first section, is highly visceral and sensuous; the images possess a crystalline clarity that is exquisite, and they’re dispersed in rapid rhythmic waves[...] All this will seem profound to some and mean nothing to those who never got algebra.”

Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir struck a similar note:

“I was immediately drawn in by the mysterious, meticulous world of vision, sound and sensation Carruth creates, with its blown-out digital color scheme and intimate focus, which simultaneously seems to be contemporary America and also an alien zone of disconnection and isolation.”

The film, which has been playing in New York for a week and begins its nationwide rollout today, is likely to earn many similar plaudits: admiration for Carruth’s technique in creating compelling images, tempered by confusion over just what, exactly, those images mean on a metaphorical or even minute-to-minute level. But close viewing of “Upstream Color” will reward even the reader who pulled a B-minus in middle-school algebra — the mysteries are revealed, but simply at a pace that is a bit more laborious than the average film.

What follows is one reporter’s untangling of the mysteries of “Upstream Color,” informed by a recapitulation of the film itself and then public statements Carruth has made.

Spoiler-phobes ought to stop reading now — with the caveat that knowing how the film works in advance might do the opposite of spoiling the movie. It might just save the diligent viewer a return trip to the theater to attempt to decode “Upstream Color’s” secrets.

To Read the Rest

Boing Boing: DF Tram's "Movie Mix" Journey through Filmspace

Music: DF Tram's "Movie Mix" journey through filmspace
by David Pescovitz
Boing Boing

My favorite DJ, DF Tram -- who draws from far-out jazz, psych, experimental ambient, soundtracks, avant-garde classical, and myriad other genres -- just posted this glorious "Movie Mix" that he describes as "a "a selection of sounds from films that have inspired me, audio from scenes that I enjoy, scenes imagined, and scenes discovered along the way." What a fantastic way to lose yourself for 90 minutes.

To Listen to the Mix

Jayne Amara Ross and Frédéric D. Oberland: Music Compilation Tribute to Cinema

Stunning music compilation tribute to cinema
by David Pescovitz
Boing Boing

Experimental filmmaker Jayne Amara Ross and composer/sound artist Frédéric D. Oberland created an absolutely exquisite compilation of cinematic music and spoken word that inspires their art, from Bernard Hermann, Tom Waits and Crystal Gale, and John Zorn, to Maya Deren, John Cale, and Danny Elfman and Elliot Smith.

Listen to the Mix

ENG 281/282 Course Film Schedules

Spring 2014 ENG 282

Spring 2013 ENG 282

Fall 2013 ENG 281

Spring 2012 ENG 282

Fall 2012 ENG 281

Spring 2011 ENG 282

Fall 2011 ENG 282

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Matrix (USA: Andy and Lana Wachowski, 1999: 136 mins)

Lorraine Gambert - If Looks Could Kill: On gangster suits and silhouettes

If Looks Could Kill: On gangster suits and silhouettes
by Lorraine Gamman
Moving Image Source

This article is written as a sequel (in two parts). The first part focuses on the modern gangster silhouette and offers reflections on the meaning of the narcissistic aspect of menacing men and their suits. The second part looks at the HBO TV series The Sopranos (1999-2007), and asks why it features so many representations of fat Mafia men who don't always look their best, even when fully tailored. It also examines the postmodern and melancholic implication of The Sopranos' crime, and consumer as well as clothing narratives.

Part 1: The gangster silhouette and mainstream movies

Gangster films are about looks—they are about making the spectator desire what the gangster possesses.
-- Stella Bruzzi1

James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart are movie stars who clearly knew how to wear a suit. In Saturday afternoon repeats of films like Little Caesar (Mervyn Le Roy, 1931), "G" Men (William Keighly, 1935), The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (Anatole Litvak, 1938), or Rod Steiger in Al Capone (Richard Wilson, 1959) and Ray Danton in The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (Budd Boetticher, 1960), movie gangsters reveal a narcissistic preoccupation with clothing, and in the way they link violence and vanity, they often operate to glamorize menace. The suits in gangster movies also help the actors cast a spell over the audience.2 Many of these films provide accounts of American back-street kids who made it to the top of the underworld only to be transformed into suit-wearing "Spivs" who receive their just deserts in the end. All the American actors who have played Al Capone, notably Jason Robards in The St Valentine's Day Massacre (Roger Corman, 1967), share this quality, as do British 1960s fictional villains such as Michael Caine in Get Carter (Mike Hodges, 1971) or Richard Burton as Vic Dakin in Villain (Michael Tuchner, 1971). So why has the suit, "the whole range of tailored jackets, trousers, waistcoats, overcoats, shirt and neck-ties that make up the standard masculine civil costume all over the world,"3 lasted as a clothing style for such a long time? And why is the modern suit—often irritatingly "perfect" in its presentation—adopted by gangster movie icons?

All the classic gangster films feature forceful masculine figures: lean and mean in tight-fitting tailoring (two-tone or occasionally Savile Row suits). They entertain us by violating the law (and/or prevailing social morality) whilst remaining good-looking and sartorially special, if not always good-hearted. Stella Bruzzi's useful analysis reviews the different ways in which European and American gangster films engage with masculine archetypes and male narcissism. She argues that "vanity in a man came to signify evil and degeneracy (the most obsessively narcissistic gangster is often the most violent)."4 On the subject of their suits, from Cagney's double breasted look to Caine's single-buttoned, high-lapelled 1960s look, they operate to repress almost everything of the man, back behind the defensible lines of the image and also of the tailoring. Even in the more obviously dated Al Capone hats, spats and double-breasted jackets, featured in the TV series The Untouchables (1959-63), where the Spivs are hounded by the svelte waistcoated Eliot Ness, gangster movies seem to use the suit as a boundary that marks the "defensible space" of the body in the way that Oscar Newman used the term to describe both real and symbolic boundaries of architecture.5 Melodramatic alpha-male anti-heroes—and the violent ones too—are clearly transformed when the tailoring works. Even gangster movies that end with moral tales against lives of crime often cannot get the message across, because plot lines do not contain or override the powerful symbolic meanings of the glamorous suits onscreen that the guys lived for—and often died in. As Robert Elms has pointed out, "preposterously expensive tailor-made suits appear to have some sort of alchemical ability."6 The reason so many gangsters wear them in the movies may also be aimed at using the magic of tailoring to block the penetration of the onscreen hostile gaze—a point I shall return to.

The Godfather Parts I-III (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972; 1974; 1990), Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984), and crime films like Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990), Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1992; 1994) all feature action-packed spectacles of hard men wearing sharp, often bespoke business suits. Gangsters as "sexy beasts" appear in full filmic profile, conservatively dressed in designs that fashion historians argue have "stayed virtually the same for 200 years."7

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Haskell Wexler -- One Scene: The Cranes Are Flying

One Scene: The Cranes Are Flying
By Haskell Wexler

I first saw Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying in Chicago in 1957. The film’s cinematography, by the great Sergei Urusevsky, has been a major influence on my career. The shot in the film that stands out most for me starts at about twenty-five minutes in. It begins handheld, when the character Veronica looks out the window of a bus, and continues out into a vast crowd of people. Then there’s a fast lateral movement going out of the bus and past a car, which could be just a great handheld move or was perhaps done on an improvised dolly. We can see a wide street through the crowd. Veronica stops for a beat of three seconds at the edge of the boulevard—at this moment, a crane seat was slipped under Sergei. The camera then cranes up to see the tanks and a wide view of the crowd.

To Read the Rest and to Watch a Video of the Shot

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Romeo + Juliet (USA: Baz Luhrmann, 1996)

Romeo + Juliet (USA: Baz Luhrmann, 1996: 120 mins)

"Analysis of Setting in the Opening Scenes of Luhrmann's Film, Romeo + Juliet." Cliff Notes (No Date)

Faraci, Devin and Amy Nicholson. "Romeo and Juliet." The Canon #3 (November 17, 2014)

Gyde, Richard. "Baz Luhrman’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet." Shakespeare Online (July 1997)

Harris, Laura Ann, et al. "Romeo and Juliet at the Movies." 21st Folio (April 11, 2016) ["In this episode, we discuss two modern film adaptations of Romeo and Juliet: Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film, starring Olivia Hussey as Juliet, and Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 modern dress film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the star-crossed lovers."]

Stam, Robert. "Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation." Critical Visions in Film Theory. ed. Timothy Corrigan, et al. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2011: 541-557 [Professor has a copy]

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Bamboozled (USA: Spike Lee, 2000)

Trouble Every Day (France/Germany/Japan: Claire Denis, 2001)

Trouble Every Day (France/Germany/Japan: Claire Denis, 2001: 101 mins)

Eyebrows were raised when the acclaimed filmmaker behind Beau Travail (1999), Claire Denis, revealed she wanted to do a cannibal love story as her next project. But the results were typically fearless and resonant: a moody, lissome exploration of desire and restraint. Trouble Every Day follows two couples: Coré (Béatrice Dalle), imprisoned by her husband (Alex Descas); and newlyweds Shane (Vincent Gallo) and June (Tricia Vessey). Coré and Shane are afflicted by the same unnamed ailment, which makes them long to munch on human flesh. – Anna Bogutskaya

Burchett, William, Brian Risselada and Josh Ryan. "Claire Denis." Syndrome and a Cinema #3 (October 17, 2011)

Chapman, Mark. "Reconceptualizing the Uncanny Vampire: Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day Bright Lights Film Journal #68 (May 2010)

Funderburg, Christopher, et al. "Claire Denis." Wrong Reel #122 (April 3, 2016)

Heath, Roderick. "Trouble Every Day (2001)." Ferdy on Films (October 25, 2010)

Hughes, Darren and Michael Leary. "Claire Denis." Movie Mezzanine (2015)

Meek, Tom. "Women Who Prey." The Rumpus (April 18, 2014)

Mitsuda, Kristi. "Too Close for Comfort: Trouble Every Day." Reverse Shot #29 (2009)

Palmer, Tim. Brutal Intimacy: Analyzing Contemporary French Cinema. W4estport, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011. [Professor has a copy of the book]

Reardon, Kiva. "The ABCs of Trouble Every Day: Sex, Love and Death." Keyframe (August 19, 2014)

---. "Claire Denis and Objects of Desire." Keyframe (March 3, 2016)

Walton, Saige. "Cinema and Sensation: French Film and the Art of Transgression by Martine Beugnet." Senses of Cinema #50 (April 2009) ["Those familiar with French director Claire Denis will be aware of the exquisite sensuality of her cinema. Whether coming together with another body in the world through the shared space and flesh of desire, or being driven apart from others by personal and sociopolitical circumstance, bodies – their gestures, bites and kisses, alternately languid or energetic movements, postures, habits and rituals – are the very “stuff” and substance of the film experience here. Given her privileging of the senses and her amenability to, as well as considered dialogue with, philosophers of the body, Denis is at the forefront of a number of contemporary directors (by no means exclusive to France, if we consider the work of figures such as Hou Hsiao-hsien, David Lynch or Wong Kar-Wai) who are generating much interest from sensually alert film scholars. Adrian Martin, for instance, identifies “the bedrock of Denis’ cinema [as] the flesh”, while Elena del Río comments that the “film body” of the cinema itself becomes a “sensation producing machine” in Denis, as if each film were “sending ripples of affect and thought across a diversity of its movements”, independent of the body of the viewer. The arresting materiality that infuses Denis forces us to look anew at sensory encounters with the cinema."]

Monday, September 9, 2013

Matthias Stork: How to "Perform" the Video Essay; Benjamin Sampson: A.I. Artificial Intelligence – A Visual Study

AUDIOVISUALCY: How to "Perform" the Video Essay
by Matthias Stork
Press Play

In “La caméra-stylo: Notes on Video Criticism and Cinephilia” , Christian Keathley argues persuasively that the current landscape of video essays, including commercial DVD supplements and web-embedded features, is defined by a continuum of explanatory and poetical works. Explanatory video essays follow a thesis and are language-based: “Images and sounds – even when carefully and creatively manipulated in support of an argument – are subordinated to explanatory language.” Essays that lean more towards the poetical register, by contrast, are driven by the basic language of cinema: “These videos resist a commitment to the explanatory mode, allowing it to surface only intermittently, and they employ language sparingly, and even then as only one, unprivileged component.”

Keathley’s text provides a useful framework to assess the video essay as an emerging form of criticism. And it emphasizes that it is more than just an explanation or a poetic meditation. It is a performance piece. The critic uses the film’s very own properties to write cinematically (hence the reference to Alexandre Astruc’s pioneering concept of the caméra-stylo). But, more than that, the critic also uses her voice, her actual voice, in addition to prose, both written and cinematic. Voice-over commentary, the way an essay is narrated, has a profound effect on its impact.

The essay that we are highlighting today is one of the most beautiful examples of the form, and not simply because it remediates a film by Steven Spielberg (and a longtime project by Stanley Kubrick). A.I. Artificial Intelligence – A Visual Study, produced by Benjamin Sampson, a doctoral candidate in the cinema and media studies department at UCLA, is an exploration of some of the titular film’s essential themes and aesthetics. It projects a lucid and cohesive argument with captivating imagery. Sampson uses minimal voice-over. He chooses his words carefully and the deliberate pace and soft pitch with which he narrates the essay lend the presentation a nostalgic, almost magical note.

The essay is, overall, driven by an aesthetically judicious style. The themes are broached verbally, but the full communication occurs via the film’s scenes and Sampson’s own editorial work. Except for chapter breaks and the credits, the essay uses no textual inserts and instead relies on elegantly rendered dissolves, split screen effects, and superimpositions. Sampson manages to create an aesthetic space where the film comments upon itself. The essay seems so natural, so organic, it could be mistaken for a poetic, explanatory epilogue. This is probably why it prompted me to revisit Spielberg’s film, to find new appreciation for it. Is this not the best kind of criticism? Beautiful, stimulating, impactful, all the while in sync with the work it critiques. A.I. Artificial Intelligence – A Visual Study inspires new or awakens old curiosity about the film. And it does so by virtue of an exceptional performance.

To Watch Benjamin Sampson's 2 Part Video Essay on A.I.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Carl Freedman -- The Supplement of Coppola: Primitive Accumulation and the Godfather Trilogy

The Supplement of Coppola: Primitive Accumulation and the Godfather Trilogy
by Carl Freedman
Originally published in Film International #49 (2011): 8-41.


The first words uttered in The Godfather are, “I believe in America.” It is an audacious opening scene in several respects. The initial line is spoken over a completely dark screen. Then the light comes up to reveal, in extreme close-up, the speaker: a homely, nondescript middle-aged man who (as we will soon learn) is the undertaker Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto). As the camera gradually zooms out from close-up to middle distance, Bonasera continues to talk, though it remains unclear for a brief while to whom he is speaking. He tells the story of his beautiful daughter, who had acquired a boyfriend, one not, as Bonasera is careful to make clear, of Italian background. While out on a drive with the boyfriend and another male friend, she found that she was expected to provide sexual favors to both boys; and, when she refused, they beat her viciously, disfiguring her for life (“Now she will never be beautiful again,” sobs Bonasera). Her father, “like a good American,” duly reported the crime to the police, and the boys were arrested, indicted, tried, and convicted—but given a suspended sentence. “Suspended the sentence!” says the undertaker in incredulity and disgust that the judge could have punished such a vile crime so lightly. Now he has come to the local crime boss, Don Vito Corleone, for justice. After some preliminary conversation between Bonasera and Corleone during which the camera remains behind the Don’s right shoulder, the angle of the shot reverses, and reveals, in a sumptuously lit medium close-up, Marlon Brando in his greatest role. Don Corleone chides and humiliates Bonasera for never having sought his friendship before; but he does finally agree to see to it that the two boys will be made to suffer (though not killed, as he judges that too harsh a punishment, since the undertaker’s daughter is still alive). Throughout most of the scene, Brando has been gently caressing a small cat that is squirming and playing in his lap.

Given the centrality of Bonasera and his story to this opening scene, the first-time viewer might well suppose, at this point, that the undertaker is to be one of the principal characters of The Godfather and that the story of his daughter and her attackers is to become one of the film’s main narrative strands. Such is not the case. In the nearly three hours (actually 175 minutes) of the film, Bonasera makes only one more, quite brief appearance, and the daughter and the attackers are never heard of again. It is, nonetheless, a sound cinematic strategy that leads Coppola to begin The Godfather as he does: for it is part and parcel of the film’s epic sweep that some of its major concerns can be introduced with a scene that is, at most, tangential to the main action. Precisely because the scene is of little intrinsic narrative significance, it helps to highlight how omnipresent and thematically important are the motifs that it introduces.

The most foregrounded of these motifs, the one announced in the first line of dialogue, is the theme of America and, more narrowly, the ambiguities of the American immigrant’s lifeworld. In his second line, Bonasera (whose first name is never mentioned in the film but is significantly given as Amerigo in Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel, The Godfather, on which the film is based) adds, “America has made my fortune.” The bourgeois commercial society of the United States has enabled him to become an evidently prosperous small businessman (he is wearing a well-tailored suit), whereas he would, perhaps, have been doing well to avoid starvation back in Italy. His belief in America has led him to raise his daughter “in the American fashion,” allowing her more freedom than would have been considered appropriate in the old country, and trusting, at first, to the institutionalized American system of law and justice. When this system fails him, he must turn to a much older and more personal kind of authority, one that derives from the almost pre-capitalist regime of rural Sicily that will be explored in detail in The Godfather, Part II (1974; hereafter referred to as The Godfather II). When Don Corleone chastises the undertaker, he does so not only for Bonasera’s prior aloofness to him personally but also for the naïve overinvestment in his adopted land that has led Bonasera to trust the American police and the American courts in the first place. “You found paradise in America,” says the Don sarcastically.

Yet there is a certain unconscious irony in Don Corleone’s sarcasm. It is, after all, he himself who has more triumphantly “found paradise in America” (after rising from beginnings that one would guess, in this film, to be unpromising and that are clearly shown, in The Godfather II, to be, indeed, about as unpromising as can easily be imagined). Amerigo Bonasera is a relatively affluent petty-bourgeois, but Vito Corleone is a member of the real ruling class: a man of immense wealth and power, who famously keeps judges and politicians in his pocket, and who, as we will soon see, is capable of winning a battle of will against one of the richest, most influential, and most determined studio bosses in Hollywood. Nonetheless, as an Italian immigrant, Don Corleone remains, like Bonasera, only ambiguously American. One suspects that the non-Italian boyfriend of Bonasera’s daughter has walked free at least in part because of a more unequivocally American identity (and in Puzo’s novel the judge, indeed, explicitly says that he is extending lenience partly because of the defendants’ “fine families,”5 a phrase that in context almost certainly denotes a WASP background). Likewise, though Vito can afford to put on a spectacular wedding celebration for his daughter on the grounds of his luxurious mansion—several outdoor scenes of the wedding immediately follow the indoor scene with Bonasera in the Don’s study—he must submit to the presence of FBI agents who mar the festivities by snooping around and writing down the license-plate numbers of the guests’ cars. True enough, the FBI’s interest is due to Don Corleone’s being a crime boss rather than an Italian immigrant as such. But, of course, it was his ethnicity and impoverished immigrant status that led him, indeed nearly compelled him, to exercise his skills of leadership and entrepreneurialism in the Mafia rather than, say, in such (then) WASP near-monopolies and “legitimate” enterprises as Wall Street or the CIA.

This ambiguity in the identity of the Italian Catholic immigrant—nominally American and yet not American in the strongest, most unqualified sense—interlocks with an even more important ambiguity concerning the nature of crime itself. What, really, is crime? Or, to put the question another way, what is the relation between the law and the justice that the law is meant to serve? Once again, the opening scene with the Don and Bonasera is exemplary. The judge who allows the attackers of Bonasera’s daughter to go free is almost certainly acting within the letter of the law; but the viewer must agree that the suspended sentence is far from just. Even more ironically, in order to seek the justice that the law has denied, the undertaker must go to a crime boss. Though Don Corleone’s power derives from illegal enterprises, his response to Bonasera—as he decides on corporal but not capital punishment for the two attackers—arguably displays not only a certain moral order but also quasi-judicial sobriety, restraint, and moderation.

The ambiguity that thus complicates any conventional axiological dichotomy between lawfulness and crime is intensified further after Don Corleone dismisses Bonasera and summons another supplicant into his study (there is quite a parade of them, all taking advantage of the Sicilian custom that prohibits one from refusing any favor on the day that one’s daughter is married). This is another successful petty-bourgeois, the baker Nazorine (Vito Scotti), who, like Bonasera, also has a daughter. The US immigration authorities are planning to deport his assistant Enzo (Gabriele Torrei), whom Nazorine wishes to stay in America so that he can marry Nazorine’s daughter and, presumably, eventually take over the family business. The Don promises to take care of things, and, after the baker and Enzo exit, tells Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), his consigliere and adoptive son, to turn the matter over to “a Jew congressman in another district,” evidently one of the numerous office-holders who do the Don’s bidding. This is the first of many references to the Godfather’s political connections; and it presents us with the irony of a professional lawbreaker who not only gives orders to a professional lawmaker but who at least sometimes, as in the case of Enzo, does so in order to accomplish the right and just, if perhaps not strictly legal, thing. In addition, the overt reference to the unnamed congressman’s Jewishness obliquely announces that the theme of ethnicity is not restricted exclusively to Italian immigrants. The Las Vegas casino owner Moe Greene (Alex Rocco) constitutes a minor Jewish presence in the film; and, in The Godfather II, Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg)—a powerful Mafia financier based on Meyer Lansky, as Greene is based on Bugsy Siegel—constitutes a major one. Moreover, Tom Hagen’s Irish background is given some importance as well (though less than in Puzo’s novel). The comparative marginalization, in WASP-dominated America, of more recent arrivals of non-WASP ethnicity, is of course unjust according to the universalistic Jeffersonian principles on which the US is officially founded; and so the resulting uncertainty as to whether Italian and Jewish—and even Irish—immigrants are “truly” American is integral to the larger indeterminacy that renders hopelessly fuzzy the officially clear-cut categories of law, justice, and criminality.

It is, then, here, in the opening scenes of The Godfather in Vito’s study, that primitive accumulation makes its first and most deeply allegorical appearance. For primitive accumulation is, after all, the necessary basis of any deconstruction of the binary opposition between legality and criminality as understood in bourgeois society. Capitalist legality attempts to draw an absolutely clear iron line between itself and the criminality to which it opposes itself, so that the legitimacy of private property and the right of contract can be grounded as securely as possible. But the attempt never quite succeeds—the line is always, in fact, a permeable membrane—because capitalist legality is itself based (in its origins but also, as we have seen, to some degree as an ongoing enterprise) on massive crime, on the unilateral abrogation of property and contractual rights as well as on brute physical force. Such is the intrinsic instability—the potential moral, conceptual, and physical anarchy—that afflicts the fundamental presuppositions of capitalist society. And Don Corleone enacts this instability, this tissue of ambiguities, in the calm and shadowy luxury of his study, whose furnishings—the large wooden desk, the Persian carpet, the leather-lined chairs—all bespeak affluent bourgeois solidity even though, or rather precisely because, they are all the fruits of crime.

To Read the Entire Essay

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Nick Schager - Stylized Realism: The Cinematography of Breaking Bad, Season 1

Stylized Realism: The Cinematography of Breaking Bad, Season 1
by Nick Schager
Roger Ebert

While cinematographer Michael Slovis has, since he came aboard in season two, helped define the visual signatures of "Breaking Bad," the show's aesthetics were firmly established from the beginning. Over the course of its maiden seven episodes, AMC's hit series set itself apart from much of its small-screen competition via a distinctive and daring look, one whose bracing realism evolved to include ever-more-inventive stylization.

That development grew out of its narrative, which details high-school chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) entering the criminal world of meth production and sales alongside former student-turned-dealer Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). Like its protagonist, "Breaking Bad"'s style is one that regularly segues between the mundane and the outrageous, charting its various characters' emotional, psychological and logistical circumstances through an exciting blend of anxious handheld camerawork, tense spatial compositions, evocative visual angles, and vibrant use of shadow and light.

Those hallmarks are present from the pilot, in which Walt, shortly after his 50th birthday, learns that he has lung cancer and strikes up a meth-cooking partnership with Jesse. Directed by creator Vince Gilligan and shot—on film, per the show's custom—by John Toll ("Braveheart," "The Thin Red Line"), this first episode sets up much of the show's formal template, including a palette of burned-in colors, textured chiaroscuro, frequent use of natural (or natural-looking) light, and cinematography that's alternately tranquil and edgy.

It's an aesthetic founded on contrasts, and mirrors both Walt's own state of mind and his literal caught-between-different-worlds situation. When Walt and Jesse first meet in the pilot, their faces are half masked in shadow—an expression of their good/bad duality, as well as their two-sides-of-the-same-coin kinship. And when Walt confronts bullies mocking his cerebral palsy-afflicted son Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte), Gilligan and Toll utilize a series of straightforward camera set-ups to highlight the humdrum ordinariness of the locale as a means of making Walt's ensuing violent outburst all the more shocking.

Season one's first episodes are typified by the deft interplay between visual stasis and bumpiness. While there's a constant restlessness to "Breaking Bad"'s handheld cinematography, more static compositions often reflect a given on-screen character's confidence, power or suppressed rage. There's virtually no movement when Walt—newly empowered by getting away with murder—potently pounces on Skylar (Anna Gunn) in bed at the close of episode one, or when an angry Walt patiently sits through his relatives' pleas and outbursts, and then asserts his own agency, during episode five's intervention. The stationary camera is one of control.

To Read the Rest and To Watch the Video

Filmslang 2013: Lexington, Ky 9/13 - 9/17

[Extra credit opportunities students in my courses]

Filmslang 2013
September 13-17, 2013
Lexington, Kentucky

The Lexington Film League and the Lexington Public Library are pleased to present Filmslang 2013 in partnership with Boomslang: A Celebration of Sound and Art. Filmslang events will take place in the week leading up to Boomslang, from September 13-17, 2013 and include a local music video showcase; a short film night at Natasha’s; the Sundance Film Festival award-winning narrative feature “Computer Chess;” the feature-length documentary “Adjust Your Tracking: The Untold Story of the VHS Collector;” the 30-minute sci-fi short film “What is a Group?” by musician Ian Svenonius (Nation of Ulysses, The Make-Up, Chain & the Gang); and a “Pecha Kucha” style meet-up for the local film community.

More details regarding venues and schedule can be found at Filmslang and Boomslang.

Friday, September 13, 7:00 PM
Farish Theater—Free

The Lexington and Kentucky music video scene is much more than alive... it's totally kicking. Come see a juried selection of new videos by local filmmakers featuring local music. ***NOTE: WE ARE TAKING SUBMISSIONS FOR THE LOCAL MUSIC VIDEO SCREENING. FIND DETAILS HERE: Call For Local Music Videos***

Saturday, September 14, 3:00 PM
Farish Theater—Free

Musician Ian Svenonius (Nation of Ulysses, The Make-Up, Chain & The Gang) channels his unique perspective, vision and style into a new medium with his first film. The 30-minute sci-fi short, WHAT IS A GROUP?, is a treatise on the music industry as explored by two aliens making an anthropological survey of the planet Earth. The film utilizes archival images and a fantastic soundtrack in a way that only Mr. Svenonius can. The Filmslang screening is only the 2nd public showing of this new work.

Saturday, September 14, 7:00 PM
Farish Theater—Free (Donations Welcome)

Set over the course of a weekend tournament for chess software programmers thirty-some years ago, the Sundance Film Festival award-winning narrative feature, COMPUTER CHESS, transports viewers to a nostalgic moment when the contest between technology and the human spirit seemed a little more up for grabs. Join us for the Kentucky Premiere of this funny and unique film.

Sunday, September 15, 3:00 PM
Tadoo Lounge—Free

Find out what’s going on in Lexington filmmaking right now and meet active filmmakers and film advocates in the community. In the style of Pecha Kucha or Ignite talks, each presenter will have 6 minutes to show 24 slides about what they do. Before, during, and after the talks, there will be plenty of time for mixing. Come, listen, meet your people.

Monday, September 16, 9:00 PM
Natasha's Bistro & Bar—$5.00

Join us at Natasha's Bistro & Bar as we present award-winning short films by central Kentucky filmmakers! The show starts at 9pm, but get there early for dinner and drinks, and to meet the people behind the films. Hosted by Kentucky filmmaker Justin Hannah.

Tuesday, September 17, 7:00 PM
Farish Theater—Free

This feature-length documentary is a passion project made by true lovers of the format hoping to capture why VHS holds such a special place in so many different people's hearts. The film features interviews with VHS collectors, video store owners, filmmakers and distributors.

Lexington Film League
Facebook Group Page for the LFL

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Films We Want To See #33: Under the Skin (UK: Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

I read Michael Faber's mind blowing novel Under the Skin in 2002 while traveling through Europe -- it has always stayed with me (and definitely changed the way I perceive the world). I have just found out that Jonathan Glazer has made a film loosely adapted from the novel. This is one of those stories it is best to not know to much about the plot. I didn't when I read the book because I picked it up on impulse in a London bookstore:

Daniel Bird: The Genre Mask

The Genre Mask
by Daniel Bird
Electric Sheep

In 1996, I met the writer and musician Stephen Thrower at a programme of Jess Franco films at the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead, London. Thrower was the editor of Eyeball, a fanzine celebrating art and exploitation in European cinema (although in the last few issues Thrower expanded his horizon globally). Eyeball was designed to mimic the layout of the defunct Monthly Film Bulletin. With wit and intelligence, Thrower (along with the likes of Pete Tombs) mapped out a zone of convergence between European high art and more low-brow tastes (genre film, comic books, pornography, etc.). In Eyeball, a review of Godard’s Pierrot le fou would rub shoulders with a reappraisal of Franco’s Virgin among the Living Dead – and why not? Ado Kyrou flagged up the ‘sublime’ moments to be found in ‘bad’ films. Franco made lots of bad films (so has Godard). Thrower was particularly keen on Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981) – a film that was, at the time, pretty much loathed all round. In short, its ‘artiness’ pissed off the horror crowd, while the monster and copious blood-letting excluded it from the prissy gaze of the ‘art house’ set. Thrower, however, loved it, and had no qualms about dedicating the last issue of Eyeball to Żuławski. Possession is released in the UK on Blu-ray by Second Sight on 29 July 2013.

In spring 1997, Thrower and I travelled to Paris to interview Żuławski. Szamanka had opened in France and was about to close. It was only playing in one cinema in Saint Michel, and the reviews plastered outside the foyer made for an entertaining read. Libération urged anyone who saw Żuławski approaching a movie camera to shoot him with a tranquilizer gun. Szamanka did not disappoint: it offered an unhinged performance by a beautiful unknown, and bruising social comment (not to mention cannibalism and nuclear war). Żuławski was admirably intransigent during the interview, rubbishing Terry Gilliam’s Fisher King, Ken Loach’s social realist camera set-ups while proposing that if Martians land on earth then they should be made to watch The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ‘because they might learn something about what it is to be human’. That is not, however, to suggest Żuławski was a ‘fan’ of genre cinema – on the contrary. Anything that adhered to a ‘formula’ (ironic or otherwise) clearly bored him senseless. It reminded me of an interview Thrower conducted with Alejandro Jodorowsky around the time of the UK release of Santa Sangre. Jodorowsky said that, for him, the horror film was the only genre in which film poetry could still exist. Similarly, David Cronenberg asserted that he was not interested in gore, but rather imagery that could only be shown in the horror genre – like the tumour firing ‘cancer gun’ in Videodrome (Cronenberg, it seems, has gone back on this stance in favour of middle-class respectability). One of the things that impressed me the most about Possession was how Żuławski did not ‘suggest’ the monster (as Polanski did in Rosemary’s Baby), but rather showed it in its slimy, tentacled glory.

Towards the end of the 1990s, the French magazine Starfix asked a number of directors to list their films of the 1980s. Żuławski’s list included:

The Shining
All That Jazz
The Thing
Fanny and Alexander
Blade Runner

Two trends can be discerned: first, take The Shining, The Thing and Blade Runner – three films that were marketed as genre films, but whose beauty, initial commercial failure and current ‘classic’ status rest in the fact that they are – like Possession – anything but formulaic; second, All That Jazz, Fanny and Alexander and Platoon are rooted in personal experience – but in each case Fosse, Bergman and Stone take what could have been mere memoir material to the realm of cinema. All That Jazz and Fanny and Alexander are not just honest and painful – they are also fantastic and, in the case of Platoon, hallucinatory. Żuławski’s list is of films that, like his own, all in some way ‘pierce reality’.

To Read the Rest

Democracy Now: David Frost, 74, Remembered by Director Ron Howard For Historic Interview with Richard Nixon

David Frost, 74, Remembered by Director Ron Howard For Historic Interview with Richard Nixon
Democracy Now

British broadcasting legend David Frost has died at the age of 74 after a heart attack. He spent more than 50 years as a television personality best known for his signature long-form interviews. He is best known for a series of historic interviews he conducted in 1977 with the disgraced former president Richard Nixon who had resigned three years earlier. The interviews lasted more than 28 hours and ended with Nixon making a tacit admission of guilt regarding his role in the bugging of Democratic rivals at Washington’s Watergate building and the later cover-up. The interview was later dramatized in the 2008 film "Frost/Nixon,” directed by the Academy Award-winning filmmaker Ron Howard. In December 2008, Democracy Now! interviewed Howard about the film.

To Watch the Episode

Thomas Beard -- Medium Cool: Preserving Disorder; Haskel Wexler on Medium Cool

Medium Cool: Preserving Disorder
By Thomas Beard

“For me, as an ethnographer and filmmaker,” Jean Rouch once remarked, “there is almost no boundary between documentary film and films of fiction. The cinema, the art of the double, is already the transition from the real world to the imaginary world, and ethnography, the science of the thought systems of others, is a permanent crossing point from one conceptual universe to another; acrobatic gymnastics, where losing one’s footing is the least of the risks.” Through works like Jaguar (1967), which concerns the migration of three young men from rural Niger to the urban centers of Ghana, Rouch advanced a hybrid form by foregrounding the elements of self-dramatization inherent in ethnography. His predecessor Robert Flaherty put the paradox more bluntly: “Sometimes you have to lie to tell the truth.” It’s notable that one of documentary cinema’s most iconic sequences, when the hero of Nanook of the North (1922) hunts a walrus, was an entirely staged affair, the protagonist armed with a harpoon even though the Inuit had by then replaced such weapons with rifles. Indeed, one could trace a compelling history of documentary film form by focusing on its relationship to fiction.

The beginnings of this genre, such as it is, can be found even in cinema’s earli­est moments, long before the current usage of documentary was intro­duced by John Grierson in the 1920s. Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 Life of an American Fireman, for instance, signaled new possibilities in film narrative with its shrewd, relatively seamless intercutting of documentary “topicals” with scripted scenes. In the 1930s, Luis Buñuel would derange the still-nascent conven­tions of nonfiction filmmaking with Land Without Bread, a surrealist riff on ethnography that imaginatively distorts the film’s supposed object of inquiry, the impoverished Las Hurdes region of Spain. Much later, Lionel Rogosin achieved the flophouse realism of On the Bowery (1956) by engaging his subjects in loosely improvised scenarios and combining that material with footage recorded on hidden cameras. But it would be the advent of portable sync sound for 16 mm shortly thereafter that ushered in the most significant strains of this richly variegated tendency within independent cinema. The new tech­nology granted an unprecedented agility to the observational style of nonfiction filmmakers, forever altering the popular understanding of documentary’s look, its feel, its claims to truth. And just as cinema verité became ascendant as a technique, figures like Jim McBride, Peter Watkins, and many others would cannily deploy its style in the service of fiction.

A crucial entry in this peculiar canon is Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969), a quasi-scripted narrative played out against the backdrop of the actual 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the tumult surrounding that event. The film revolves around John (Robert Forster), a television news cameraman who has become disenchanted with his profession, and Eileen (Verna Bloom), a young war widow from West Virginia who has just moved to the city with her son. Both, to their surprise, become embroiled in the political swirl of the moment—he is furious to discover that the film he shoots for work is regularly handed over to the police and FBI for inspection, and she finds herself suddenly in the midst of a very real protest that’s met with a very violent response from the Chicago police. Medium Cool is a film remarkable for its insistence that no one exists outside of politics, whether one experiences it as a backdrop to daily life (a wrinkled Bobby Kennedy poster in a cramped apartment) or as a nightstick to the gut.

The unusual strategies of Medium Cool can be partially explained by a perusal of Wexler’s expansive filmography. On the one hand, he’s regarded as among the most influential cinematographers of his generation, having lensed the dinner-party-as-blood-sport theatrics of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), the Vietnam vet love triangle of Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978), and the miner strike saga of John Sayles’s Matewan (1987), to name only a few. On the other hand, he has a long-standing commitment to political documentary. Before making Medium Cool, Wexler traveled with a San Francisco delegation to the March on Washington for his first nonfiction feature, The Bus (1965), and his next documentary project was the powerful witnessing of Brazil: A Report on Torture (1971), one of several films he codirected with Saul Landau. He was also responsible for filming the interviews with soldiers in Interviews with My Lai Veterans (1971) and the interviews with Weather Underground radicals in Underground (1976). Wexler has had a kind of double life as an artist, known both for his poetic reportage and for his role as a studio craftsman, and his bifurcated career is mirrored in the dual nature of Medium Cool. The collision of Hollywood and global politics would also be particularly dramatic in Introduction to the Enemy (1974), a film he made with Tom Hayden and movie star turned activist Jane Fonda that documented their trip to Hanoi and the liberated Qung Tr province.

“When I was in Vietnam with Jane Fonda,” Wexler has recalled, “I was filming a farmer walking through a field when, all of a sudden, he stepped on a land mine. Two Vietnamese guys ran out there to help him, and I ran after them to shoot the scene of them bringing this guy in, his legs all bloody. The whole time, I had two overwhelming feelings. One was ‘I got a great shot!’ and the other was to put my camera down and help the farmer. In the end, I carried on filming, even though I couldn’t even see what I was shooting because I was crying so hard. I have thought about that moment many times, about the question of when you have to put the camera down, when to stop observing and get involved.” These issues were already on Wexler’s mind during the production of Medium Cool, and they resonate deeply with the film’s central questions: When one is tasked with representing a subject, what kinds of obligations does one have to that subject? When is intervention appropriate, even necessary? Such ethical prompts are immediately apparent in the film’s opening scene, which features John hunched over the body of a barely living car crash victim, filming her for the evening news. His soundman, frustrated by the horn blaring from the wrecked vehicle, cuts it so as to better record the woman’s last gasps. Money shot in the can, the two men walk away and pack up their equipment. John makes a blithe suggestion: “Better call an ambulance.”

To Read the Rest

Monday, September 2, 2013

Jon Shenk - Playback: Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line

Playback: Errol Morris' 'The Thin Blue Line'
by Jon Shenk

I was a freshman in college when a friend asked me one night if I was interested in seeing a documentary film. "The director will be there," he said. "A guy named Errol Morris."

The screening was in a lecture hall, but when the lights dimmed, I immediately felt transported to another world. An electric blue line shot through the screen during the title sequence, and I remember thinking, I have no idea what this blue line is all about, but I'm drawn to it. I spent the rest of the film in a state of hypnosis.

The first lines, like so much of the interview material in The Thin Blue Line, come so effortlessly. This is America, I remember thinking, but a new kind of America where every spoken syllable is important. A man in jail tells us, "In October, my brother and I left Ohio... We arrived in Dallas on a Thursday." Another inmate begins by saying, "I ran away from home." The pace is patient and deliberate. In this alternate universe, engaging one another's stories feels like a sacred act.

At 19, I had never considered a career as a documentary filmmaker. I had never thought about what made a documentary a documentary, but with The Thin Blue Line, I was beholding a beautiful piece of art, full of drama, justice and humanity. I wondered, Could I ever be a part of something like this?

The Thin Blue Line is a study of truth. At one level, it is a collection of depositions, in life's cosmic courtroom, that serve as a giant "fuck you" to the Texas criminal justice system. During the Q&A that night, a student asked Morris how he felt about the death penalty. He responded that he never intended to make an anti-death penalty film, but that he found his subject, Randall Adams, by accident while researching a film focused on the court psychologist that assessed Adams' sanity. "However," Morris said, "if I was able to randomly uncover one innocent person on death row, I can't help but to think there might be a second one out there."

That response defines the relationship between documentaries and the potential activism around the issue that they approach. Morris is not so much an activist as he is an artist/storyteller unabashed by unimpeachable, first-hand knowledge about this particular subject matter.

To Read the Rest

The Piano Teacher (Austria/France/Germany: Michael Haneke, 2001)

The Piano Teacher (Austria/France/Germany: Michael Haneke, 2001: 131 mins)

Bradley, S.A. "Killed by Death." Hellbent for Horror #33 (February 27, 2017)

Brunette, Peter. Michael Haneke. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 2010.

Frey, Mattias. "Great Directors: Michael Haneke." Senses of Cinema #57 (2010)

Grundman, Roy. A Companion to Michael Haneke. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2010.

"Michael Haneke Studies: Videos, Podcasts and Article Links." Film Studies for Free (June 26, 2010)

Price, Brian and John David Rhodes, ed. On Michael Haneke. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University, 2010.

Sorfa, David. "Uneasy domesticity in the films of Michael Haneke." Studies in European Cinema 3.2 (2006)

Wheatley, Catherine. Michael Haneke's Cinema: The Ethic of the Image. NY: Bergahn Books, 2009. [BCTC Library PN 1998.3 H36 W44 2009]

Christopher Falzon: Philosophy Through Film

Philosophy Through Film
by Christopher Falzon
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

This article introduces the main perspectives concerning philosophy through film. Film is understood not so much as an object of philosophical reflection but as a medium for engaging in philosophy. Contributions to the area have flourished since the beginning of the 21st century, along with debates over the extent to which film can really be understood to be “doing” philosophy, as opposed to merely serving as a source of illustration or example for philosophical reflection. A number of objections have their origins in perceived similarities between the cinema and Plato’s cave; other objections have their origins in more general Platonic criticisms of fictive art’s capacity to reveal truth. Against these objections are some surprisingly bold views of film’s capacity to do philosophy, to the effect that much of what can be done in the verbal medium can also be done in the cinematic one; or that there is a distinctive kind of cinematic thinking that resists paraphrasing in traditional philosophical terms. There are also more moderate views, to the effect that film can be seen as engaging in certain recognizably philosophical activities, such as the thought experiment; or that they are able to present certain kinds of philosophical material better than standard philosophical genres. This article considers these views for and against the idea of philosophy through film. It also considers the “imposition” objection—that while film may serve to provide useful illustration, any philosophizing is in fact being done by the philosopher using the film.

1. What is Philosophy through Film?

This article introduces the main perspectives concerning the idea of doing philosophy through film. By film here is meant, primarily, narrative fiction film. The idea of doing, or at least engaging in some way with, philosophy through film can mean at least two things. Firstly, it may mean using film as a resource, a source of example and illustration, in order to illuminate philosophical positions, ideas and questions. Secondly, it may mean that film itself is to be understood as a medium for philosophising—doing philosophy in film or philosophy as film. The latter implies a more robust engagement of film with philosophy. The extent to which a film can be philosophical or contribute to philosophical knowledge has itself been a matter of some debate. However, what is broadly accepted is that many films ‘resonate in fruitful ways with traditional and contemporary philosophical issues’ (Livingston and Plantinga 2009: xi).

Consideration of film in its philosophical significance, and of philosophical issues through film, can be distinguished from more traditional philosophy of film, though in practice the two activities overlap. Both are subfields in the area of philosophical aesthetics. Philosophy of film traditionally concerns itself with the reflective study of the nature of film, aiming to spell out what film is, whether it is an art, how it differs from other arts, and so on. It is philosophy about film. Contrasted with this is the idea of film serving as a resource, means or medium for the illumination and exploration of philosophical ideas and questions. This is philosophy through film. Historically, philosophy through film is of a more recent vintage than philosophy of film, which enjoyed significant development in the 1980s. Philosophy through film has flourished mostly since 2000, although there were a number of important forerunners who promoted the idea that film can contribute to philosophy, including Cavell (1979), Jarvie (1987), Kupfer (1999) and Freeland (2000).

Since the turn of the century a significant amount of literature has emerged, devoted to the exploration of philosophical themes and questions through narrative films or genres of narrative film. The literature in this area includes more or less popular explorations of the philosophical dimensions of particular films and genres, and of the work of specific directors or writers (for example, Irwin 2002, Abrams 2007, Sanders 2007, Eaton 2008, LaRocca 2011). Along with them there are more pedagogically-oriented introductions to philosophy through film (for example, Litch 2002, Rowlands 2004, Falzon 2007, Cox and Levine 2012). There are also the more theoretical discussions defending the idea of philosophy through film (for example, Mulhall 2002, Wartenberg 2007, Sinnerbrink 2011), or criticising it (for example, Russell 2000, Smith 2006, Livingston 2009).

This article will discuss a range of philosophical positions that have emerged both for and against the idea of philosophy through film. It will proceed by considering a number of objections to the idea.

To Read the Rest

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Martin Scorsese - The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema

The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema
by Martin Scorsese
The New York Review of Books


Frank Capra said, “Film is a disease.” I caught the disease early on. I felt it whenever I walked up to the ticket booth with my mother or my father or my brother. You’d go through the doors, up the thick carpet, past the popcorn stand that had that wonderful smell—then to the ticket taker, and then in some of the old theaters there would be another set of doors with little windows and you’d get a glimpse of something magical happening up there on the screen, something special. And as we entered, for me it was like entering a sacred space, a kind of sanctuary where the living world around me seemed to be recreated and played out.

What was it about cinema? What was so special about it? I think I’ve discovered some of my own answers to that question a little bit at a time over the years.

First of all, there’s light.

Light is at the beginning of cinema, of course. It’s fundamental—because cinema is created with light, and it’s still best seen projected in dark rooms, where it’s the only source of light. But light is also at the beginning of everything. Most creation myths start with darkness, and then the real beginning comes with light—which means the creation of forms. Which leads to distinguishing one thing from another, and ourselves from the rest of the world. Recognizing patterns, similarities, differences, naming things—interpreting the world. Metaphors—seeing one thing “in light of” something else. Becoming “enlightened.” Light is at the core of who we are and how we understand ourselves.

And then, there’s movement…

I remember when I was about five or six, someone projected a 16mm cartoon and I was allowed to look inside the projector. I saw these little still images passing mechanically through the gate at a very steady rate of speed. In the gate they were upside down, but they were moving, and on the screen they came out right side up, moving. At least there was the sensation of movement. But it was more than that. Something clicked, right then and there. “Pieces of time”—that’s how James Stewart defined movies in a conversation with Peter Bogdanovich. That wonder I felt when I saw these little figures move—that’s what Laurence Olivier feels when he watches those first moving images in that scene from The Magic Box.

The desire to make images move, the need to capture movement, seemed to be with us 30,000 years ago in the cave paintings at Chauvet—in one image a bison appears to have multiple sets of legs, and perhaps that was the artist’s way of creating the impression of movement. I think this need to recreate movement is a mystical urge. It’s an attempt to capture the mystery of who and what we are, and then to contemplate that mystery.


Does cinema really begin with Muybridge? Should we go all the way back to the cave paintings? In his novel Joseph and His Brothers, Thomas Mann writes:

The deeper we sound, the further down into the lower world of the past we probe and press, the more do we find that the earliest foundations of humanity, its history and culture, reveal themselves unfathomable.

All beginnings are unfathomable—the beginning of human history, the beginning of cinema.

A film by the Lumière brothers of a train arriving at a station in France is commonly recognized as the first publicly projected film. It was shot in 1895. When you watch it, it really is 1895. The way they dress and the way they move—it’s now and it’s then, at the same time. And that’s the third aspect of cinema that makes it so uniquely powerful—it’s the element of time. Again, pieces of time.

When we made the movie Hugo (2011), we went back and tried to recreate that first screening, when people were so startled by the image of an oncoming train that they jumped back. They thought the train was going to hit them.

When we studied the Lumière film, we could see right away that it was very different from the Edison films. The Lumière brothers weren’t just setting up the camera to record events or scenes. This film is composed. When you study it, you can see how carefully they placed the camera, the thought that went into what was in the frame and what was left out of the frame, the distance between the camera and the train, the height of the camera, the angle of the camera—what’s interesting is that if the camera had been placed even a little bit differently, the audience probably wouldn’t have reacted the way it did.

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