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...