Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Magnificent Seventeen

Still from I Fidanzati by Ermanno Olmi

In an early episode of Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema, Serge Daney suggests (speaking of the series) that as a member of the New Wave generation, Godard was uniquely positioned historically to attempt such an ambitious project:

“...there are suddenly too many films to see or catch up on this heritage-turned-monster that was the history of cinema. Before the 60s you had only four or five main countries producing films but then cinema became a world-wide industry. It’s impossible for a young person today--short of spending 10 to 15 years watching films--to catch up on everything they haven’t seen whilst also establishing an axis on which to situate their own history…”

Though I’d argue that pre-1960 cinematic history wasn’t quite as contained as Daney would have it, his characterization of the present is right on the money. This rings especially true as 2009 comes to a close (and along with it, the decade); have you noticed that at times like this, people like to make lists? Film Comment magazine requested a number of my own, to be tallied and puréed into spreadsheet form along with those of dozens of other film writers, with the result being a series of master lists representing some sort of cine-critical mass- “best films of 2009”, “best films of the decade”, “best of the avant-garde”, and so on. It’s time-consuming but fun, yet I can’t help but notice how little it resembles the sum of what I actually watch, which involves not only a lot of happy wrestling with that heritage-turned-monster, but looking beyond what most people think of as “cinema.” With that in mind, here’s a list of favorites seen this year, regardless of when (or how) they were made:

1) I Fidanzati- Ermanno Olmi: Love and longing expressed through flashbacks and an exchange of letters, Olmi’s follow-up to the just-as-great Il Posto is set against the “economic miracle” of early 60s Italy; so heartfelt, and so perfectly crafted- how did he do it?

2) Joy Division’s Transmission (performed by Steel Harmony): Rolling slow through the streets of Manchester, this steel drum ensemble plays the shit out of one of the very best songs to originate from that city. Part of Jeremy Deller’s Procession, it sings with all the joyous abandon found in a New Orleans funeral parade on their way back from the cemetery. Thanks to Amy Monaghan for this.

3) A Lecture- Hollis Frampton (Anthology Film Archives 3/28/09): A recording of HF’s 1968 illumination of spectatorship and the cinematic apparatus, originally presented at Hunter College; if that wasn’t enough, it was sandwiched in between an excellent introduction by Mike Zryd, and followed by Ken Eisenstein’s brilliant presentation linking Frampton’s lecture with Jorge Luis Borges’ The Aleph.

Still from Final Thoughts: Series One by Steve Reinke

4) Final Thoughts: Series One- Steve Reinke: A compendium of short videos that hang together as a surprisingly coherent whole, Reinke forges ahead with his often funny, sometimes shocking, yet always smart associative method, despite a (facetiously?) asserted “death of the reader.” Some of us are still hangin’ on there, Steve.

5) A Divided World- Arne Sucksdorff: Synthesizing plein-air cinematography and close-ups staged in the studio, this all-but-forgotten Swedish master depicted animals struggling for survival over the course of a winter night. Reminiscent of the river scene in Night of the Hunter, this is nature film as glorious contrivance; it really shouldn’t work, but it does- magically. Big thanks to Scott MacDonald for sharing this rare print.

Still from The Masseurs and the Woman by Hiroshi Shimizu

6) The Masseurs and the Woman- Hiroshi Shimizu: A pair of blind masseurs seek work by following a seasonal itinerary between mountain and seaside resorts; along the way, their encounters with spa clientele and staff--as well as the frank treatment of daughters sold off into prostitution--are drawn with compassionate nuance. Shimizu seems to have understood something about blindness, and even more about seeing- his visual sense is truly exquisite.

7) Promised Lands- Susan Sontag: She made films too? And how! Thanks to Light Industry for resurrecting this 1974 documentary gem about the Yom Kippur War and its aftermath. While Palestinian voices are conspicuously absent, it’s somewhat mitigated by what we do hear and see, including a deeply affecting look inside an army psychiatric hospital where battle-traumatized soldiers undergo treatment.

8) White Lightning-The Fall (music video): Someone had the right idea here: great song by the Big Bopper, ripe to be the very hit that gave the world George Jones; the mighty Mark E. (Jones’s heir apparent, at least in the saloon) seems unusually sober here, unlike the cartoon lightning and lovably dopey rear-screened bikers. Chug-A-Lug, Manchester style, could be the perfect a follow-up. Why aren’t I a record producer?

9) Anita Needs Me- George Kuchar: Don’t let the very un-Kucharesque title fool you- young George, circa 1963, makes good on his promise that, “your emotions will be squeezed.” John Waters said it alright- how much longer must GK wait for that MacArthur grant?

Drawing for On a Phantom Limb by Nancy Andrews

10) On a Phantom Limb- Nancy Andrews: This film is an autobiography, as one intertitle reads; really, it’s one harrowing chapter. Live action and various forms of animation are combined for this account of a grave medical emergency in which, as the filmmaker says, I thought I’d died. Lucky for us, she didn’t, with the film as an added bonus. Andrews is absolutely one of the best filmmakers out there now, and this one is among her most powerful- stay tuned for more about it in the coming weeks.

11) Doublestream (Part II of Caspar Stracke’s Circle’s Short Circuit: Torsten Burns reedit)*: In celebration of the original version’s 10th anniversary, Stracke has initiated a new reedit, assigning each of the five sections to an individual or team (Burns, Jenn and Kevin McCoy, eteam (Hajoe Moderegger and Franziska Lamprecht), Leslie Thornton, and myself); as the project nears completion, it’s hard not to be excited, especially after viewing Burns’s contribution, a delirious homage to the DeLorean as a modern dance video. Of all his work I’ve loved over the years, this is close to the top- look for this new version in 2010.

12) Multiple Sidosis- Sid Laverents: Man With a Movie Camera, as reconceived by a former vaudeville performer/one-man band. This small-gauge tour-de-force documents its own birth, or more precisely, the song that drives it. The meticulous layering of both music and image was all done at home--with patience, with love, and with goofy humor--in a San Diego suburb. Sid lives!

13) Sweetgrass- Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash: See my post from October 14. Happy to say, Sweetgrass will have an honest-to-goodness New York theatrical run at Film Forum beginning January 6, 2010.

Still from The Earth is Young by Michael Gitlin

14) The Earth is Young- Michael Gitlin*: Back in October I was fortunate to have been asked to moderate an after-screening discussion with the filmmaker at 16 Beaver. Studying it closely after a first viewing back in the spring, I was deeply impressed by Gitlin’s risk-taking approach and the film’s ability to challenge our presuppositions and stir debate, which it did, in spades. A terrific film, and a marvelous evening all around.

15) Our Hitler: A Film From Germany- Hans-Jürgen Syberberg: This neo-Wagnerian mini-series appeared on German TV the same year we Americans watched Roots; dirty laundry on prime time, but only Syberberg had the gumption to cast his arch-villain as a ventriloquist's dummy. “Filmed theater” is one of the harshest put-downs one can toss a filmmaker’s way, but in the case of Our Hitler, it works perfectly- all 7 ½ hours.

16) Return to LH6- Ken Jacobs: Another Light Industry highlight, the Orchard Street preacher described a time when analytical projectors were a classroom fixture (and before they would become one of his primary creative tools), when the film studies discipline was still up for grabs, and how an influential pedagogy grew out of personal aesthetic concerns.

Still from Leon Morin, Priest by Jean-Pierre Melville

17) Leon Morin, Priest- Jean-Pierre Melville: An emotionally complex, sexy, and at times very funny tale of the lives of French women under Vichy rule, with Jean-Paul Belmondo playing a parish priest (yes, that's right) in an even finer performance than his justly famous turn in Breathless just months before.

Happy 2010 to all!

*-Is it immodest to list these items that I have a direct association with? In both cases, it seems dishonest not to.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mr. Hulot and Mr. Schaeffer*

Shortly after the release of Jacques Tati’s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday in the summer of 1953, Paris was hit with a massive strike that paralyzed municipal services, including trains moving in and out of the city. Parisians unable to leave town that August during the height of the summer season had Tati’s film as a vicarious substitute, and it seems safe to say that for some, this groundbreaking comedy was the better option.

Part slapstick, part social satire, Tati depicted in hilarious microcosm an uptight nation unable to relax. Unlike the seaside hijinks contained within Jacques Henri Lartigue’s incomparable photographs, Tati’s shoreside inn-mates are a crabby bunch, incapable of leaving their workday rhythms behind. In the words of André Bazin, we’re witness to “…a feebly whirling duration turning back on itself, like the cycle of the tides… a conventional pleasure more rigorous than office time.”

These looping rituals are underscored by Alain Romans’ infectious song of summer, emanating so playfully from every possible source, both within the story space and outside of it; this is just one aspect of a meticulously wrought sonic fabric that would become the director’s trademark. Tati inverted the usual hierarchy of cinematic sound, with noise given unprecedented importance, and human speech relegated to a subordinate role.

In the years immediately preceding the film’s release, fellow countryman Pierre Schaeffer was sounding out his own hierarchical inversion by way of a radical new approach to composition called musique concrète; here, the staves of traditional musical notation were jettisoned in favor of working directly with the sounds of the world recorded onto shellac disk and magnetic tape. These and other pioneering methods were intended to “…open music up to all sounds”, sending pitch-perfect conservatory-trained performers running in the other direction.

Some years before, as Goran Vejvoda and Rob Young have recalled, Schaeffer had engineered the radio broadcast announcing the Liberation of Paris by Allied forces. Embedded in that program of news, music, and patriotic readings were coded signals agreed upon beforehand that, in a relay of sonic joy, directed parish priests to set their carillons ringing. It’s lovely to imagine this moment—seemingly straight out of a film Tati might later make—as one the director would carry with him for many years to come. The truth though was that Tati, who in the war’s early days wrote a scenario proposing his own fantasy inversion of a Germany occupied by the French, had wisely fled Paris to the village of Sainte-Séverè the year before to avoid recruitment for “volunteer duty” in a German factory; he missed the Liberation, but managed to find a setting and inspiration for later use in his first feature, Jour de Fête.

Jean-Luc Godard once wrote of Tati that, “He sees problems where there are none and finds them.” With his drastically pared-down shooting style that some mistook as primitive, Tati, along with his onscreen envoy Mr. Hulot, together joined forces to turn the tide of habit. The radical director teaches us the rules of their new game at the same time we begin to play it. In Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, this play includes noisy ping-pong matches and a recalcitrant old car. Both Tati’s cinematic conceits and Hulot’s character were grounded in a commitment to tireless observation, and Tati’s achievement was that through the two together, their eyes and ears become ours.

In the period following his Liberation broadcast, Schaeffer experienced his own, recounting in a 1984 interview with Tim Hodgkinson that, “I was horrified by modern 12-tone music. I said to myself, ‘Maybe I can find something different… maybe salvation, liberation is possible.’ Seeing that no-one knew what to do any more with Do-Re-Mi, maybe we had to look outside of that…”

Jean-Christophe Thomas has written that musique concrète, “maintains a unique way of hesitating between poetry, literature, and sound art”; I would add that there’s a bit of cinema there as well. Sadly though, Schaeffer in the end felt as confined as his listeners by having been “born in Do-Re-Mi”, and the impossibility of “distancing oneself from the dramatic.” In later years he expressed doubt that his compositions could be rightfully considered as music: “Unfortunately it took me forty years to conclude that nothing is possible outside DoReMi… In other words, I wasted my life.”

Perhaps Schaeffer’s failure was less with the music itself than in his inability (or refusal) to embrace the dynamic mutability of musique concrete that Thomas identified as hesitation. And wasn’t it significant to have taken those crucial first steps? Better to think of it instead as an unfinished but ongoing project.

(This is an expanded version of some program notes originally written for a Pratt Film Society screening in 2005.)

A newly restored Mr. Hulot’s Holiday will be screened as part of a Jacques Tati retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art from December 18 – January 2, and at selected theaters elsewhere.

John Kilduff’s Let’s Paint TV

The seeds of Jacques Tati’s cinema are contained within his early cabaret mime routines performed throughout the 1930s in France, and later across Europe. Colette witnessed his act (perhaps at Tati’s peak, when he was billed with the likes of Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier), which so impressed her that in June 1936, she wrote in her journal:

Henceforth I believe that no festive, artistic, or acrobatic spectacle could equal the displays given by this astounding man who has invented something which includes dance, sport, satire, and pageantry. He has created at the same time the player and the ball and the racket; the balloon and the person inflating it; the boxer and his adversary; the bicycle and the cyclist. His hands empty, he has created the accessory and the partner. His power of suggestion is that of a great artist… In Jacques Tati, horse and rider, all Paris will see, living, the fabulous mythic creature, the Centaur.

Tati’s onstage multitasking was performed in the service of the mime’s peculiar brand of theatrical illusion. Jour de Fête, his first feature, affected a shift from busy-ness to business. Struggling with an efficiency scheme based on American industrial methods, a provincial postman (the prototype for his Hulot character) juggles letter-sorting and bike riding duties all at once; regardless of difficulty, the point is to never stop moving.

If Jour de Fête showed the imposition of Taylorism upon one man's workday, John Kilduff and Let’s Paint TV comically embody the way we live now. Forever on the move, Kilduff’s powers of suggestion are something altogether different (but more about that shortly.) Dressed in a three-piece suit, he appears each weekday on his live webcast (11:00 AM – 12 Noon PST at, or via Skype: letspainttv), keeping brisk pace on a treadmill while he takes calls from viewers.

And paints.

And cuts hair.

Or blends drinks.

Or irons a shirt.

Or plays ping-pong.

Or carves a Jack-o-lantern.

All (more or less) at the same time.

Through it all, there’s something of the same irrational optimism described in Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Bright-Sided; unlike the "success stories" that appear there, however, none of Kilduff's activities are performed especially well. He is, as Nietzsche once said, “human, all too human.” Knowing this, he advises viewers to, “just half-ass it sometimes… half-assing it is sometimes your best bet here at Let’s Paint TV…”

The live video behind him is a fabulous mess, with greenscreening as crude as it comes. Cameras move spasmodically, switching spontaneously between shots in something resembling rhythm. A captivating, space-filling energy is generated, occasionally locking in with sounds of the treadmill whirring, Kilduff’s almost-out-of-breath voice, and the flashing title urging viewers to LIVE 323 255 9490 CALL NOW!

Endlessly upbeat and with an apparent sense of purpose, we might take him for yet another purveyor of self-actualization and alternative spirituality- if only his clothes were clean. Covered in paint that never made it to the painting (thanks to the forces of distraction), the suit is the giveaway: creativity and commerce, substance and appearance make for an uneasy coexistence. Chugging along at a steady 4.3 miles-per-hour, Kilduff distills every infomercial, business motivational speech, Landmark Forum recruitment effort, and fundraising telethon you’ve ever seen. The rhetoric and urgency are there, but thankfully, nothing’s for sale.

If his abilities are of a not-so-exceptional mortal, his affability in the face of idiotic callers—intent in hearing themselves swear on the air—is that of a saint (and not a little contagious.) His insistence on “staying positive” is different from that same message heard at an Amway regional sales meeting, where a hectoring, top-down manner is used to deliver veiled threats.

Kilduff’s personal website shows us his other creative endeavors; most surprising is that, unlike the paintings we see on the show, his other canvases, painted in an antic expressionist vein (and presumably on a break from the treadmill) are really quite accomplished. More consistent with his on-air persona are the many talents listed on his online acting resume, such as, “goofy dancing, oil painting, Host… Pogo Stick, Soccer, Softball, Swimming - ability – general… Disc Jockey, Improvisation, Licensed Driver, Mime.”

There’s an affinity between Kilduff’s show and the guerilla performances of Reverend Billy Talen; while taking a different tack from Talen’s incisive and overtly political oratory, both men use archetypically American models—the BlackBerry Man, the Southern Televangelist—as Trojan horses that deliver a brand of fun that somehow feels illegal. As in the Shopocalypse of Reverend Billy, Kilduff revels in anarchic spontaneity, casually summed up on an episode of Let’s Paint TV:

It’s not supposed to be figured out first- you’re supposed to do it first- you’re not supposed to think and do actions- you’re supposed to do actions and then think about it later… I don’t recommend doin’ that with the Iraq War, OK? OK, let’s take another call…

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Tiger Woods Chase Sequence

A month or so ago I promised comedy for my next postings; even if this wasn’t what I’d envisioned, I think it still qualifies:

Lumiere or Melies? Discuss.

Seriously though... “Speculative news” goes at least as far back as Alfred Jarry’s The Passion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race (a conceit later borrowed by J.G. Ballard for his The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race). Subject-wise, this Tiger Woods car crash video, produced by Hong Kong-based Next Media, lacks the sacrilege of the Jarry or Ballard pieces; whatever shock effect the video carries is in the hilarity of its visual imagination and as a queasy portent of things to come. In my new media critical studies course we spend one day on readings and discussion about Photoshop, video compositing, and photographic truth-value; while students are generally moderate when it comes to the ethics of altered images, I come away with a sadness that they’ve never known a time when questions of photography’s truth-value were NOT met with cynicism or believed to be naïve. So why am I not upset with this video? Perhaps if it were something of real consequence, rather than a professional golfer being chased in his Cadillac SUV by his golf-club wielding wife through their gated community outside of Orlando, my attitude would be different. Maybe this is just the treatment the story deserves? Unless of course R. Kelly is available for some more hip-hopera...

Sunday, November 1, 2009

2009 Flaherty Seminar: Part 3

The only thing more surprising than the fact that Alexandr Rastorguev’s Clean Thursday was made at all is that it’s been shown freely outside of Russia. A look at the funding sources of this deeply unflattering portrayal of occupation forces in Chechnya suggests a government much more tolerant of criticism than the one we know now. But no, that can’t be it: for the usually secretive Vladimir Putin to allow this film international distribution only shows the depth of the former prime minister’s cynicism; if outside support ever existed for their mission of extinguishing the Chechen uprising it should effectively be destroyed for those who view the film. Accustomed as we’ve become to the restrictions exercised by our own military to shape and control its image following the embarrassments of Vietnam, the film’s candor is both remarkable and altogether unfamiliar.

All this may suggest that Clean Thursday (aka Pure Thursday and Maundy Thursday) rates as a Grand Statement in the history of war on film, though this is far from the truth. Its scope is as narrow as the set of disused railroad cars where much of it is set. Retrofitted with laundry and kitchen facilities, the old train now functions as a supply base situated close to the battlefront. The spatial confinement is not unlike that seen in submarine movies, save for the exterior scenes/cutaways relieving us from the claustrophobia of its interiors. The depiction of conflict (with exception to the opening sequence) is confined to name-calling and arguments over the quality of the food.

The film opens with a brief shot of the military outpost set against a mountain, cutting to an extended run of scratched black leader accompanied by the sounds of machine guns and heavy shelling. Allah Akbar!, one man cries, amidst frantic radio communiqués; later in the sequence, images of older women appear in semi-steady rhythm- the mothers of the troops perhaps?

The image alternates between black and white and color stock, yet even with the latter, a single hue is generally dominant. Steam rises, water drips; tanks and personnel vehicles leave their deep ruts on the surrounding land. The men try and make the best of it: moments of real tenderness playing with a puppy, in letters to home read aloud, and, to my surprise, a lengthy shower scene where they scrub one another’s backs and shave each others’ heads. At other moments it’s clear to what extent they’ve adopted the necessary mindset, desensitized to their enemy’s humanity; at their worst, it’s as though Leon Golub’s mercenaries have come to life. As one soldier puts it:

We thought that when we came here, the presence of our troops here... such power would demoralize everybody. Bullshit! They don’t give any fucking shit! Wild people can’t be demoralized... It’s impossible to deal with these animals without weapon. It’s cruel, but they are animals.

Other statements conflate warfare with sexual domination, most notably in a sickening and remorseless account of how a female Chechen sniper was repeatedly raped (and subsequently died) after capture. At other times, the conflation appears in the language itself:

We must rape if we came here, but not to play with tits.

Its language is without a doubt one of the most striking features of the film; I’ve refrained from schoolmarm-ish insertion of [sic] next to each linguistic invention above and to follow- the subtitles I quote are just as they appear in the film. Proper sentence structure is left far behind; the coarse masculine essence that David Mamet thought he owned has been captured here once and for all. Stupidity and wit are indistinguishable, with neologisms—dacksuckers, bustards—worthy of Joyce, or Norm Crosby, or Stanley Unwin.

On the walk over to the discussion following the screening, there was much talk of how “bad translation” diminished appreciation of the film for some. I had a hard time accepting that it was really as simple as that, since the raw expressive power of the language seemed too perfect to be accidental (and was it really possible to separate objections about the what that was said from the how?) Those conversations continued into the discussion proper; unfortunately, Rastorguev was unable to attend the Seminar, but he did forward an apology through programmer Irina Leimbacher that confirmed his disappointment with the quality of the subtitles’ translation. The artist’s intentions are nice and all, but I still felt the crudeness of language to be a vital part of the film’s power, conveying the same sort of brutality used to carry out their mission. Both sides had abandoned civilized discourse—in all its possible aspects—long ago and, as co-participant David Dinnell very astutely suggested, “...perhaps syntax is the first casualty of war.”

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

2009 Flaherty Seminar: Part 2

Filing out from an off-campus screening at the Hamilton Theater Tuesday night, we were caught amongst a mass of teenagers there for a special midnight show of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen; it was all a bit like a staged reenactment of one of the final shots in the film we’d just seen, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash’s magnificent Sweetgrass. The scene in question shows a vast mob of sheep driven on the hoof from summer pasture and now bunched up at a railroad crossing close to market. Amidst the cacophony of bleating and bells clanging, the men whoop it up to celebrate the end of their journey. Not known at the time of shooting, it’s later revealed that this 150-mile long trek across streams and over arduous terrain to public grazing lands in the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains (and back out again) would be their last.

still from Sweetgrass by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash
Courtesy of the filmmakers

My initial trepidation—based on the first several shots—had been that this would be yet another quasi-structuralist “slow western”; thank goodness my initial assumptions were wrong, for this was a film that called for nimble improvisation and dynamic response to a subject not known for its ready compliance to documentary filmmakers (or to anyone, for that matter.)

Castaing-Taylor and Barbash returned to Montana three times to track (or, as they prefer to call it, record) the sheepherders’ journey through landscape that tests the limits of endurance, not just of humans, but of their horses and herding dogs as well. Aristotle had it wrong when he called shepherds “the laziest” of workers; their responsibilities are in fact never-ending. Even bedding down for the evening offers no real respite, as grizzlies pay frequent nocturnal visits to the herd.

Despite all that’s been made of the lightness and portability of modern equipment, anyone who knows of filmmaking’s difficulties under the best of circumstances will intuit the technical obstacles faced with shooting in such a remote locale. During the Q&A afterwards, Castaing-Taylor spoke of carrying their gear on horseback and accessing electricity from a car battery brought along for that purpose, a degree of hardship reminiscent of that faced by Eadweard Muybridge and other 19th century land survey photographers (and so vividly recounted in Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows), carrying not just the heavy glass plates, but also the wet-plate chemistry and darkroom itself in which those exposed plates would be processed.

An irony of the film is that only through sensing this invisible effort behind the camera will many of its viewers ever truly relate to the very different effort expended in front of it, activities so utterly foreign as to qualify as ethnography. Hannah Arendt’s distinction between work and labor is useful here; the latter, she wrote, “never designates the finished product, the result of laboring, but remains a verbal noun to be classed with the gerund.” Put another way, labor is by definition a never-ending process, never offering the satisfying permanence that is a thing; work, on the other hand, produces “a work” to be claimed as one’s own.

still from Sweetgrass by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash
Courtesy of the filmmakers

As subjects, the sheep posed unique technical challenges, ever-moving across windswept vistas (and displaying an occasional flare for comedy, as when they break that cardinal cinematic rule by staring straight at the camera). Ernst Karel’s sound design is extraordinary, and crucial to the film’s success is his deployment of wireless radio mics to bridge great distances and allow a paradoxical sonic intimacy across these vast open landscapes. The extreme disjuncture of audio/visual perspectives is powerful, as much for a practical response to the exigencies of livestock and landscape as for more expressive purposes, like conveying the loneliness of the sheepherder’s day-to-day routine.

At times we hear close range conversations amongst the men; in other instances, there are musings and muttered curses, having forgotten (or no longer caring) that they’re not really alone. “...Fuckin’ mountain climbin’ goat climbin’ cocksuckin’ MOTHERFUCKERS!!!” These and other epithets are directed at the herd, and later there’s a cellphone call—heard but mostly unseen—from one of the men to his mom from the top of a mountain. Funny, yet at the same time heartbreaking to hear such a tough character at wit’s end while we gaze down this beautiful mountainside; the sheep in the distance resemble maggots, scattering ever further. The dog, ordinarily darting to and fro, barking and nipping to contain them, is unable to stand, his paws worn raw from the journey. How easily it can all fall apart, as the full scope of their responsibility is laid plain before us.

The current glut of the passive observational within exploratory nonfiction filmmaking might be ascribed in part to James Benning’s influence; while I admire his work (and most especially the restless inquiries into narrative form apparent in his earlier and lesser-known films), I find that the locked-down stasis, extended shot duration, and mistaken equivalence of disengaged eye and heightened perception adopted by many of his less imaginative devotees—all in the name of rigor—too often sell their subjects short. By now, the duration of a shot as determined by the manufacturer of the roll on which it’s filmed is really a gesture more academic than radical; at what point, really, does “rigor” become “rigor mortis”? Happily, Sweetgrass avoids this.

Rigor mortis is in fact the necessary precondition for Pawel Wojtasik’s Nascentes Morimur (Autopsy), a video that delivers just what’s promised by its title. Like the second autopsy ordered up by Michael Jackson’s family (and before the findings of Jackson’s first had even been written), I initially asked myself, was this really necessary? After all, there was Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes as its obvious precedent. And yet, once again... the hesitation I felt in watching its opening shots quickly fell by the wayside. Opinion was perhaps the most divided here amongst any work screened at this year’s Flaherty, as some saw Wojtasik’s video as a too-formal treatment of such highly charged material; on the contrary, I found the dialogue Wojtasik created between his work and Brakhage’s earlier film to be altogether illuminating.

Those who’ve braved that difficult encounter with The Act of Seeing... may know of the struggle Brakhage had in making it; he once told an audience that, “Having turned into my forties I had never seen a dead person, except once as a child... I was feeling the breath of age down my neck and had a sudden strong compulsion to at least look at the human innards, to look at death in the sense of what happened to others.” Despite this determination, he begins tentatively, with many shots in the first several minutes framed in ways that mask or otherwise obscure the autopsy itself. As the film progresses, we see him gradually overcoming his fear, moving boldly toward scalpel and saw. Several autopsies are performed, and Brakhage makes it a point to present this as an ongoing process. In truth, the film is in many ways more about the living- the work the autopsists do, and Brakhage’s attempt, for his part, to be equal to the task. Much more, in other words, like a day in the life of the morgue (with an appropriately grungy look, shot under lower light on grainy stock) than how an autopsy is performed.

still from The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes by Stan Brakhage
Courtesy of the Estate of Stan Brakhage and Fred Camper (

Wojtasik felt it important to remain with a single body throughout (despite having shot four different autopsies, he just used footage from the first), and concludes with its torso stitched back up again. In the opening shots of Nascentes Morimur (which were shot to invoke The Act of Seeing...), there’s none of the nervous energy seen in Brakhage’s camera work and editing. Wojtasik’s bodily presence is that of careful control, though much of this is achieved through post-production. The light is clear, colors are vivid and marked by deep shadows. Movement is slowed as we settle into steady, deliberate rhythms; the image shifts in and out of focus, and each gradual fade to black is like an exhalation. All this is bracketed within a slowly contracting and expanding frame, opening wide to reveal glistening viscera, and narrowing again to an abstract sliver of color. In a certain sense, it’s an autopsy of an autopsy.

still from Nascentes Morimur (Autopsy) by Pawel Wojtasik
Courtesy of the artist

Nascentes Morimur is quite clearly an act of defamiliarization, not only of what we know about our own bodies, but also of whatever we may have learned of the autopsy procedure by way of The Discovery Channel or some other source. A remarkable shot near the end of the video shows both chest cavity and head not only opened and emptied, but flesh and muscle turned partially inside out to resemble some rare and monstrous orchid; I’m reminded of the bold theatrical gestures Pietro da Cortona’s anatomical engravings, where a cadaver holds the muscles of his rib cage as though displaying the fine silk lining of a custom-tailored dinner jacket for all to view.

Plate 4 from Tabulae anatomicae (1741) by Pietro da Cortona

Perhaps the most difficult viewing in the entire autopsy procedure (and seen in both works) are the steps taken to access the pineal gland; like a flight recorder for the human body, this tiny spot at the center of the brain is said to contain more information about the circumstances of death than any other part. To get there, the forehead is incised, and the face pulled back like a stubborn rubber mask; from there the skull is slowly cut with a rotary power saw and the brain removed. Never have I been more thankful for silence than here.

In The Act of Seeing…, Brakhage abandoned all aspirations of reanimating a no-longer-living being cinematically, as with his Mothlight or Sirius Remembered; instead he used film as an instrument to redirect that “breath of age” felt down his neck so he could “whistle or at least sing when moving through the graveyard.” In 2001, he expressed disappointment—despite having shown at the Seminar on three occasions beginning in 1967—that the film, “…isn't something that would satisfy the Flaherty people. Again they have rejected The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes. Why?” What he meant by “rejected” is not quite clear, but his statement plainly suggests a desire to be taken seriously (though on his own terms) as a documentarian.

Interestingly, Wojtasik approaches a way of seeing that Brakhage himself advocated in earlier films, and most famously in his Metaphors on Vision that, “does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception”, and away from that, “...which mirrors the movement of the individual toward death by its increasing inability to see.”

Thursday, October 8, 2009

2009 Flaherty Seminar: Part 1

Ideally I’d be getting this down as it’s happening (or shortly after), but as anyone who’s attended the Flaherty Film Seminar knows, there’s very little time there to write. The pace is both exhausting and invigorating, and the risk of drawing from memory is that certain particulars can get lost in the rush of sensation and passionate debate. An average Seminar day includes six to seven hours of screenings, and when not watching films or sleeping, most likely you’re discussing--while still processing--what you’ve just seen and heard.

Along with its intense schedule, the Flaherty puts both gourmands and recovering alcoholics to the test: the former, with what’s not there, and the latter, with what is. Meals are taken in the dining hall of the host college (Colgate University, this year and last), and like most cafeteria food... let’s just say it brings back memories. Drinks are served after the evening discussion at Bill’s Bar, so named for legendary MOMA film curator/librarian Bill Sloan; there, friends are made, beer is spilled, and conversation continues long into the night. Those needing sleep are best advised to spend a week somewhere else.

The cycle of meal/screening/group discussion is repeated thrice daily with occasional variations- that you can count on. What you can’t count on knowing is what you’ll see at a particular screening until the title credits appear. Aside from the name of the programmer and three or four featured filmmakers announced beforehand, the screening schedule is kept a closely-guarded secret.

The Flaherty's been likened by some to a cult (facetiously, for the most part), and by others to a family; founded back in 1955 to honor the memory of filmmaker Robert Flaherty, it operates on the principle of non-preconception, the idea being that approaching work blindly is the best way to combat whatever prejudices one might bring to a particular filmmaker, subject, or approach (as is shown in my next post.) This was a wise move on the part of Frances Flaherty and the Seminar’s co-founders, for it’s one of the few places where the self-imposed ignorance of the moving image community’s various splinter factions toward one another is directly confronted.

Despite the Seminar’s reputation for being anchored in the world of humanist documentary, a look at its history from the beginning reveals not just a commitment to challenging nonfiction filmmaking (early screenings of Jean Rouch’s
Le Maitre Fous and Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai are two of the better-known examples), but also to the avant-garde (like Robert Breer, Bruce Conner, and Gregory Markopoulos), along with the boundary-blurring work of Shirley Clarke, Peter Watkins, Robert Kramer, Su Friedrich, and countless others. Recently I learned that a most fascinating genre hybrid, and for me one of the revelatory treasures of the Seminar--Kent MacKenzie’s The Exiles (shown last year prior to its long-overdue commercial release), had originally been screened there shortly after its completion in 1961.

Hollis Frampton once described the beam of light emanating from a projector as, “all films... if we want to see what we call more, which is actually less, we must devise ways of subtracting, of removing, one thing and another, more or less, from our white rectangle.” To sit in a darkened theater on a bright sunny summer day to watch films of some bright sunny summer day somewhere else is at times fairly comical, and an inescapable part of the Flaherty experience. The Seminar hinges on the belief that, for that week at least, the benefits of partaking in this carefully chosen distillation of experience (and the various subtractions from that white rectangle) outweigh whatever’s lost in shutting out the world at large; this has certainly been my experience, and what follows are some thoughts on a few of the highlights from this year’s Seminar.