Thursday, 18 December 2008

Upcoming: Sam Fuller Retrospective

Coming January 2-18 at the Seoul Cinematheque is a 10 film Samuel Fuller retrospective. The following seven films will be shown in 35mm prints:

Pickup on South Street (1953)
House of Bamboo (1955)
Forty Guns (1957)
Run of the Arrow (1957)
Shock Corridor (1963)
The Naked Kiss (1964)
The Big Red One (1980) (reconstructed version)

And on 16mm:

The Steel Helmet (1951)
Park Row (1952)
Underworld USA (1961)

Most unfortunately, I will be in Canada as of next week and won't be able to see any of these films. Those who are around in January, however, make sure to enjoy.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

MILK (Gus Van Sant, 2008)

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Earlier this year, Gus Van Sant made Paranoid Park, another film in an experimental register that followed such works as Last Days (2005), Elephant (2003), and Gerry (2002). His new film, Milk, is a very different work, one in which Van Sant seemingly returns to his more mainstream works of the 1990s (Good Will Hunting [1997] Psycho [1998], and Finding Forrester [2000]). Clearly, Van Sant wants this more political work to reach a larger audience. However, I do not think he reverts to pedestrian style of his earlier mass audience efforts. In fact, I slightly prefer Milk to Paranoid Park. Both are near masterpieces of a comparable quality (if very different in approach), but Milk's greater political force makes me favour it more.

As a biopic, Milk is most interesting in how it rejects so many of the cliches of this mini-genre. It does not focus on Milk's early life. In fact, Milk's personal life in general takes a backstage to what actually made him interesting: his political activism. This is what the film is really about. Although Milk has been compared to Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992), it avoids the problems to which Lee's film falls victim. Malcolm X becomes so consumed with its lead character's life and personality that it fails to be a really compelling about its political activism. Malcolm X as a figure ends up feeling very safe and even co-opted. This is not the case with Van Sant's Harvey Milk. The biggest surprise about the movie is that it does not play it safe politically. It argues that there is a need for more radical approaches and that middle-of-the-road liberal centrism is not always (or even usually) the real motor for change.

For this reason, I was reminded of The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966), a most unlikely and no doubt highly idiosyncratic comparison on my part. Seeing the Castro and the oppression it faced from those in authority (an oppression whose wider history is seen in the opening credits [Figure 1]), I recalled the Casbah under French rule. In particular, the street protests that Van Sant depicts have an edge to them that uses the realist style that Pontecorvo conveys so well (Figures 2, 4-7). Milk's role as mediator is to represent this outrage and make happen the changes the community needs, not unlike the position of the FLN. In the gay movement, there is not the terrorism of the Algerian War, but there is every indication that Milk and his followers would result to this if their civil rights and safety continued to be abused. If Proposition 6, which is a major part of the narrative, had not been defeated in 1978, as the movement first believed, violence seemed a real and maybe necessary possibility. For this reason, Milk is more than just conventional Hollywood liberalism.

A large part of one's evaluation of Milk turns on how you view its more conventional and melodramatic moments. If you see these as Van Sant sacrificing artistic integrity to make his film more palpable for the popular audience, your evaluation will be more negative. But there is a way of reading these moments as working in concert with the more political scenes of collective action. Here I'm reminded of another great political work, the little known Scream from Silence (Anne-Claire Poirier, 1979). There's even a direct connection here with the use of the whistle as a defense against heterosexual male aggression and violence, which Van Sant uses for his most poetic shot in the film (Figure 3). In her tour de force of feminist activism, Poirier establishes a dialectic between Godardian style counter cinema and the melodrama of a suffering female victim. In his article on the film, André Loiselle argues that this combination of distance and emotion makes it both more emotionally resonant and politically effective. While Milk is not in the same category, I do think its melodramatic scenes and devices serve a purpose. For example, the sequence of Milk's murder uses a rack focus in which Milk looks out at his favorite opera (Figure 8). It is rather overblown, but it does reflect Milk and the gay movement's own fascination with the operatic aesthetic and thus is appropriate as a depiction of his final moment. If this and similar tactics, such as the musical score, are seen as an extension of the importance of emotion as well as reason, Milk can be viewed as less compromised and more authentic in its vision, even if that particular vision is not as pure as Van Sant's other recent films.

André Loiselle, “Despair as Empowerment: Melodrama and Counter-Cinema in Anne Claire Poirier’s Mournir à tue-tête (Scream from Silence)Canadian Journal of Film Studies vol. 8, no.2 (Fall 1999): 21-43.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

MR. HOOVER AND I (Emile de Antonio, 1989)

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If I had to choose the greatest documentary filmmaker, I would probably select Emile de Antonio. He is also the director who I most admire in terms of his commitment to political filmmaking in America throughout the era of the Cold War. He began making films in 1964, with the compilation work Point of Order, which dealt with the Army-McCarthy hearings. He made ten films in total, finishing in 1989 with Mr. Hoover and I. Somewhat fittingly, he died at the end of the same year, just as the Cold War was concluding. His films are often difficult to find, but last year a 4 disc set was released by HomeVision titled "Emile de Antonio: Films of the Radical Saint." The set includes his masterpiece, In the Year of the Pig (1968), as well as three lesser known works: Millhouse: A White Comedy (1971), Underground (1976), and Mr. Hoover and I.

Mr. Hoover and I certainly feels like the final work of an artist, a closing statement of sorts. It is de Antonio's most personal movie, and a large percentage of the film consists of de Antonio addressing the camera in long take and telling stories about his own life and that of his "co-star", J. Edgar Hoover (Figures 1 and 2). The first sequence establishes the point of view, with de Antonio describing Hoover as one of the main villains in the history of the United States, more dangerous and harmful than Communist and Nazi spies because of the power he held. Hoover is set up as the antithesis of everything de Antonio believes. However, despite the title, the film is less about Hoover and much more about de Antonio and his views about life and art.

De Antonio cuts between the shots of him lecturing to the audience with three other spaces that recur throughout:

(1) de Antonio talking to John Cage about his art as Cage bakes bread (Figure 3);

(2) de Antonio lecturing to university students (Figures 4 and 5);

(3) de Antonio getting a hair cut from his wife.

In addition, there is archival footage of Hoover presenting Nixon with an honorary FBI badge (Figure 7). Almost all of these scenes are handled with sequence shots (especially the ones with Cage and de Antonio's wife), which is very different from the heavy editing of de Antonio's earlier work. But de Antonio avoids a direct cinema approach. He makes the audience aware of the camera's presence and act of filmmaking, explicitly arguing against the endless flow and technical perfection of most film and television. In addition to being a filmmaker, de Antonio was also a painter with connections to the New York art scene (particularly Andy Warhol), and he makes explicit his spiritual bond with not only Cage but also the experimental filmmakers of the "New American Cinema" led by Jonas Mekas. He mentions Pull My Daisy (Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie, 1959) as being a major influence. The very idea of making art for profit is seen as counter to his principles:

"Perhaps the only thing worthwhile is to make something that isn't really for sale except on your own terms, which is I made it, it's true, if you don't like it, the hell with you. I want you to like it or I'd be crazy. But I'd rather be crazy than have you like it because it was false, because it was what you wanted for me instead of what I wanted."

As this passage suggests, de Antonio is decidedly strident and confrontational in his views (which is exhilarating if you're sympathetic, but likely aggravating if you aren't). The other scenes are thus crucial for balance, not in terms of contrasting viewpoints but in regards to tone. Seeing de Antonio in private with his friend and partner, as well as delivering a lecture to a social audience, allows the viewer to place his political position in context.

Ultimately, despite its concern with the past of both himself and Hoover (who died in 1973), the message of the film is directed towards the future. The penultimate shot is the university audience emptying (Figure 8), over which de Antonio begins his final voiceover. The last image (Figure 9) contains de Antonio's final words to the viewer, and they provide an appropriate summing up of the past decades and a look towards a future that, unfortunately, de Antonio will not be a part of:

"We had politics in the 60s simply because a great many young people became tremendously involved with the hope of social change. And that's why we're in such a quiescent period now, because it failed. The system was strong enough. This is the strength of democracies, that they create the illusion of change. But in fact what they do is permit change, a certain kind of change."

"And when the students in the 60s got hard, they were crushed. Chicago, the 1968 Chicago riots were by the police, not by the students, and that police riot was planned. The point of that police riot was to go out over world television to say that the United States government would take no more of this. That if you were willing to have your skull cracked, if you were willing to spend a few days in jail, crowded like sheep, if you were willing to have your record destroyed forever and go into a permanent FBI file, then you could demonstrate in that way, and if not, not. And that's a simple and cruel way, and it took place all over the country."

"The nature of the police went back to the period of the 1890s, when the police beat, killed, mowed down, so-called anarchists in the Haymarket riots and those other riots. The police moved into that same position in the 1960s because the game was getting out of control, the game was no longer played by the government's rules. And Kent State was the height of it. When the National Guard could fire on harmless, peaceful demonstrators and kill them, a very clear message was sent to the young people of this country and to all people who were political in the sense that I use that word. You had either the end of the movement, or revolution, and of course it was the end of the movement and a kind of slow death for political ideas."

"We no longer have politics as I use that word. But I think we're on the verge of it, and that's why we're making this film. I think we're on the verge of a new kind of social change. History doesn't repeat itself, it only appears to repeat itself. The new change, the form of the new change cannot be predicted. We will be aware of that form when it takes place."

Recommended reading:

Douglas Kellner and Dan Streible (eds), Emile de Antonio: A Reader (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

Randolph Lewis, Emile de Antonio: Radical Filmmaker in Cold War America (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000).

Friday, 28 November 2008

Upcoming films

At the cinematheque on Wednesday and Thursday are two westerns by Sam Peckinpah: Ride the High Country (1962) and The Wild Bunch (1969). And at the Korea Foundation Cultural Center this month are three films: The Notebook (Nick Cassavetes, 2004), The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002), and the Korean film Barefoot Gibong (Kwon Su-Kyeong, 2006).

Sunday, 23 November 2008

New Podcast Recommendation

I have recently discovered a new podcast called "Battleship Pretension." It is a roughly one-hour weekly discussion by two mid-20s cinephiles, Tyler Smith and David Bax. It is not review orientated, but rather an informal discussion between two friends around some film-related topic. Enjoyment of the show will probably depend on whether you like the two hosts and their interaction. It may also depend on whether you have a number of like-minded friends with whom you can have these types of discussions with in person. Since I currently lack any cinephile friends living in the same city, I enjoy eavesdropping on their usually intelligent and amusing conversations. It is, along with Filmspotting and the Plastic Podcast: Movies, one of the three movie podcasts I listen to regularly. You can check out the website in the link below:

Upcoming: Contemporary Korean Cinema at the Cinematheque

From December 5-14, there will be a number of Korean features and shorts shown at the cinematheque. The feature films with English subtitles include:

Jealousy is My Middle Name (Park Chan-ok, 2003)
So Cute (Kim Su-hyeon, 2004)
The Red Shoes (Kim Yong-gyun, 2005)
Boys of Tomorrow (No Dong-seok, 2006)
No Regret (Leesong Hee-il, 2007)
Milky Way Liberation Front (Yoon Seongho, 2007)

I am not familiar with any of the films or the filmmakers, but opportunities to see Korean films with subtitles in theatres are relatively rare.


Over the course of the last year, I have become more interested in the formal aspects of cinema. This has always been an interest of mine to some extent. But I think it has been heightened because of the years spent on my dissertation, which is not stylistic but rather contextual in nature. Thus re-engaging with form has been both a type of procrastination (always popular) as well as a way to connect with an initial love of cinema. As a result, I have contributed 27 entries to the Cinemetrics database over the last year or so. This site provides a tool for counting the number of shots of each film. Average shot length (ASL) has always interested me, partly because of its statistical nature. I first encountered the term in the work of film technology historian Barry Salt, and then later in the scholarship of Colin Crisp on Jean Renoir. What was appealing was the ability to point to something concrete in terms of stylistic differences in films. Of course, this is just one element of form and it can be overemphasized because of its tangible nature. Nevertheless, it is a useful factor to consider.

But I would make another argument for using the cinemetrics shot counting tool to view films. To me, watching a movie using cinemetrics is similar to reading with a highlighter. Whenever I'm reading anything remotely scholarly, I like to use a highlighter, not so much for what I highlight but more to make me concentrate. I tend to remember and think more critically about what I read. The same is true with cinemetrics. The focus needed to count shots turns me into a better, more critical viewer. The next time I teach an introductory film course (or any course where style is a major element) I will probably include assignments requiring students to use cinemetrics to sharpen their viewing skills. While it is certainly not for every film or even for every viewer, I do think it is valuable for anyone wanting help with his or her atttentiveness. It is especially useful for home viewing, which tends to be less focused than the theatrical experience.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Documentary and Horror Films: ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED

The genres of documentary and horror seem to be complete opposites, yet there are many overlaps. Documentaries often call on the horrific: Blood of the Beasts (George Franju, 1950), Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1955), The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes (Stan Brakhage, 1971), the legend of "snuff" films, and the Faces of Death series all rely, in vastly different ways, on the ability of images to shock and disgust. Recent documentaries continue in this tradition, such as the great Paradise Lost films and many of the recent Iraq exposes, particularly Taxi to the Dark Side. I thought of this congruence when watching the recent Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (Marina Zenovich, 2008) which uses many clips of Polanksi's films (many of them horror films) to tell the story of Polanski's trial for statutory rape.

Watching Zenovich's use of Polanski's work, I was reminded of a recent article in the new Film Quarterly in which Jonathan Rosenbaum analyzes the documentaries of Adam Curtis. One of the points Rosenbaum considers is Curtis's use of film clips and music. One of these is a music selection from John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), which Curtis features in The Trap. The question then becomes about the manipulation of using something like a horror film score to discuss social and political material. My own response is that the very overtness of such music in a documentary cannot help but be ironic to some degree and thus not conventionally manipulative. Rather, I think the effect can be both visceral and reflective.

One example that comes to mind is the credit sequence to Michael Moore's now rather reviled (even by those on the left) Fahrenheit 9/11. I remain a defender of the film and think it is Moore's best. The use of music in this opening, along with the visuals of the Bush cabinet being "made up" for cameras, can be used as an example of Moore's manipulation. But in this sequence I think Moore is much closer to his more critically respected contemporary, Errol Morris. The overtness of the music signals dread and provides emotion, but it is hardly the classical "unheard melody". I think a similar effect is at work in Phillip Glass's music for Morris and in Curtis's use of Carpenter's score. I don't think these examples stop or discourage the audience from thinking, but perhaps the associations here with the horror film make us more suspicious.

As for Wanted and Desired, the use of Polanski's films works in a very interesting way. The opening credits feature written titles describing Polanksi's crime, scored with the opening music to Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. Certainly this can be seen as manipulation (and titliation) of the highest degree. But as the film progresses, Zenovich critiques this idea of associating Polanski's horror films with his character, which was done extensively by the press after his wife was murdered by the Manson gang. By the end of the film, Zenovich moves from clips of Polanski's horror films to another aspect of his work, his absurdist irony, that captures the spirit of his trial. The result is both a compelling story and a well executed documentary film that reflects intelligently on both Polanksi's career and his life.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Negotiating the Pleasure Principle: The Recent Work of Adam Curtis," Film Quarterly 62, no. 1 (Fall 2008): 70-75.

Upcoming: Trinh T. Minh-ha, Chantal Akerman and Sadie Benning

Coming to the cinematheque (Nov. 23-Dec. 2) are films by three of the most critically acclaimed female directors in world cinema: Trinh T. Minh-ha, Chantal Akerman and Sadie Benning. The Akerman films are all more recent films, not her more well-known films from the 1970s. Benning's work is primarily shorts, and there are two different collections of her work being shown, in addition to the 50 minute Flat is Beautiful (1998). No information on subtitles for the Akerman films. Information on each director can be found here:

Argentinian Film Festival (November 24-29)

Thanks to Fernando for calling attention to the upcoming Argentinian Film Festival at the Korea Foundation Cultural Center. Information can be found here. Also, apparently the center has regular screenings with English subtitles. I've added a link to the site and directions.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Very Short Introductions

Since coming to Korea, I have become more familiar with a series by Oxford University Press: A Very Short Introduction. These pocket-sized academic texts function almost as first or second year university mini-courses on the given subject. At their best, they are useful both for the neophyte to the subject as well as academics themselves. And they can be invaluable for teaching purposes. My first encounter with the series was when I was preparing to teach an introduction to film theory course a couple of summers ago. I wanted a reading that would help explain post-structuralist theory and happened upon the Very Short Introduction by Catherine Belsey. I was familiar with Belsey, who is a literature scholar, from her excellent book CRITICAL PRACTICE, a chapter of which I read as an undergraduate. Although it was not a film theory book, Belsey's discussion of post-structuralist theory provided a great grounding in the major theorists (Barthes, Lacan, Derrida, etc) who have dominated Film Studies as a discipline. Belsey's accessible style gave the students a much needed grasp of the theoretical concepts (she quite brilliantly begins the book with a discussion of Alice in Wonderland).

Since then, I have read the following titles in the series:

4: Jonathan Culler, LITERARY THEORY
56: Jonathan Culler, BARTHES
73: Catherine Belsey, POSTSTRUCTURALISM
77: Kevin Passmore, FASCISM
79: Julia Annas, PLATO
148: Jerry Brotton, THE RENAISSANCE
150: Christopher Kelly, THE ROMAN EMPIRE
152: Tom Burns, PSYCHIATRY
153: Thomas R. Flynn, EXISTENTIALISM
159: Leonard Smith, CHAOS
161: Ali Rattansi, RACISM
163: Andrew Clapham, HUMAN RIGHTS
173: Ken Binmore, GAME THEORY
187: Veronique Mottier, SEXUALITY

Like the Criterion Collection, there is a numbering here that adds a collectibility aspect. And at less than 10,000 won a book, they are considerably cheaper than Criterion DVDs and make for very convenient subway and bus reading. In addition to Belsey, I would highly recommend the two studies by Jonathan Culler, LITERARY THEORY and BARTHES. My two other favorites are Simon Critchley's CONTINENTAL PHILOSOPHY and especially Ali Rattansi's RACISM, which should be required reading for everyone on the planet. I'm hoping to continue to add more titles to my reading list in the coming months. Currently, the Kyobo bookstore in Gwanghwamun has numerous titles for sale, all under 10,000 won. And, of course, all of the titles (I believe) should be available on-line.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

DOUBLE INDEMNITY (Billy Wilder, 1944)

I am currently teaching a course on American cinema here at the Korea National University of Art. It is a history of American film from the sound era up to the New Hollywood, relying heavily on the ideological reading offered by Robert Ray combined with more historical scholarship. The essay for the course is to analyze a film in relation to the course material. I decided to write a sample essay as a model and thought I would post it here in case it is of potential interest to anyone.

According to Robert Ray, most popular American films from the classical era followed both a formal and thematic paradigm. Formally, all techniques were meant to the “invisible” in order to conceal the choices necessary to tell the story. Thematically, incompatible values (such as individual-community) were felt to be reconcilable. These two tendencies in Hollywood cinema worked together to create a powerful ideological tool that reinforced the myth of America. But not all films shared this optimistic vision. During World War II, at the height of American optimism, there emerged a number of films that would later be dubbed “film noir”. The most popular of this group of films was Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944). Rather than offering an optimistic view typical of Hollywood, Double Indemnity challenged both the formal and thematic tendencies of American cinema.

Formally, Double Indemnity differs in two ways. First, there is both a voiceover narration and a flashback structure that breaks with the “invisibility” demanded of classical storytelling. Instead of unfolding objectively from an omniscient point of view, Double Indemnity is a subjective story told from the perspective of the character Walter Neff. The opening scene tells the viewer who committed the murder. The rest of the story consists of the murderer telling us how it happened and why he did. This interest in the subjective character psychology of a murderer differentiates Double Indemnity from American films of the time. Second, Wilder uses expressionist lighting in many scenes. Usually American films make all stylistic decisions relate to the story. The lighting in Double Indemnity instead makes the character and the story less clear and more difficult to comprehend. The intent is to create a dark, pessimistic mood rather than simply advancing the story forward quickly.

Thematically, Double Indemnity is an even greater departure from the Hollywood paradigm. The film makes it clear that although Walter may be killing his lover’s husband for money and lust, he is also interested in the adventure of the crime. Walter is an insurance man, hardly an adventurous occupation. But the fact that Walter is thirty-five and unmarried (as we are told in the first scene) indicates a reluctance on his part to not be a domesticated family man. Instead, he wants the myth of adventure that is no longer possible in the modern world. He wants to prove his manhood. But why does he have to do this? The answer is in the traditional mythology that idolizes the outlaw hero adventurer as being the “ideal man”. Hollywood may confirm the ideology of marriage, but it also sees the domesticated male as emasculated and boring, not a romantic, mythical figure. Walter falls victim to this myth, and has to be punished for his transgression of the law. Walter is the outlaw hero/adventurer, but in film noir, this character cannot be redeemed. He is both a murderer and a disturber of the capitalist status quo. He not only murders his lover’s husband but he also attempts to rip off the insurance company he works for. The film punishes him for his misdeeds, but Walter is also a sympathetic figure for the audience simply because he is our identification figure. The film focuses on Walter’s psychology and asks us to identify with his desires. The audience knows, because of the conventions of the Production Code, that Walter is a doomed figure. But this only adds to his appeal. The phrase “straight down the line” keeps getting repeated in order to emphasize Walter’s inability to escape the assembly line of industrial production. Because the viewer is in a similar place in this same society, Walter cannot be simply dismissed as an “evil” character. Rather, he falls victim to the incompatible values that most American films try to reconcile.

A key scene in illustrating the thematic of the film occurs in Walter’s office (42:22). Walter is sitting on his desk when Keyes enters from the back of the frame. Wilder decides to shoot their extended dialogue exchange in a single long take lasting approximately 130 seconds, signaling its importance by breaking with the shot/ reverse shot convention that sutures the viewer into the cinematic story world. The content of the sequence consists of Keyes trying to convince Walter to become his assistant. Keyes argues that unlike Walter’s current salesman position, being a claims investigator is exciting, adventurous work. But before he finishes his argument to Walter, the phone rings. It is Phyllis telling Walter that their murder plan can now go ahead as planned. The next eleven shots alternate between Walter and Phyllis, with Keyes lingering in the background of Walter’s shots. Tellingly, the phrase “straight-down-the-line” gets used here again. After this dialogue finishes, Wilder shoots Walter and Keyes in another extended take as Keyes exits from the door in the back of the frame. Keyes asks Walter why he has never married and then tells the story of his own unwillingness to become domesticated (he could not stop investigating the woman). Walter decides not to take Keyes’s offer of adventure. Keyes exits by telling Walter that he isn’t smarter than the rest of the office workers, only a little taller. Of course, what Keyes does not know is that Walter is planning to prove him wrong. He does not want Keyes’s desk job because he recognizes that the adventure is purely in Keyes’s mind, not in reality. He wants the real adventure that Phyllis offers. Also, he does not want to be Keyes’s assistant. He wants to prove he is better than Keyes, that he can outsmart him. Committing a murder and stealing money from the insurance company is Walter’s way of accomplishing this goal.

In many ways, Double Indemnity is the dark mirror of classical films. It exposes rather than denies the contradictions inherent in the social structure. For example, compare Double Indemnity with the most famous Hollywood film, Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942). Ideologically, a film like Casablanca works at reconciliation. Rick is the outlaw hero/adventurer who works for the good of the community and is capable of love (potential husband). Laszlo is the domesticated male (husband) but is also a resistance leader (adventure). Ilsa is believed by Rick to be a sexually adventurous woman but is revealed at the end to be a domesticated wife/mother. Double Indemnity, on the other hand, reveals these contradictions. Walter is the outlaw hero/adventurer, but in film noir, this character cannot be redeemed. Similarly, the femme fatale in film noir cannot be saved by love. Both the outlaw hero and the femme fatale must die for their trangressions. The film can offer no happy ending to deny the contradictions inherent in the culture. Casablanca finally reconciles its lovers in a key scene of romantic embrace (1:19:20). Double Indemnity replays the scene, but instead of a reunion, the two lovers shoot each other (1:34:24).

As much as Double Indemnity differs from classical films, it is still a product of Hollywood. Despite its unusual storytelling devices and expressionist techniques, it still mostly conforms to the invisible style. Thematically, it forms a “good couple” at the conclusion (Lola and Zachetti) to try to provide some sense of optimism. Also, the Production Code would not permit the execution of Walter in the gas chamber that would have completed the “straight-down-the-line” motif. But the fact that the Production Code would not allow Walter to be executed is telling. In 1932, it was demanded that the lead character of Howard Hawks’ Scarface be hanged in order to provide the proper punishment and avoid a glamorous death scene. With Double Indemnity, however, the audience is attached to Walter psychologically and emotionally in a way not possible with the classic gangster film. This is the really subversive aspect of the film. Double Indemnity challenges the formal and thematic paradigms and shows that Walter is ultimately a victim of the very mythology Americans are taught to believe in.

Robert B. Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema 1930-1980 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985): 25-69.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

BODY OF LIES (Ridley Scott, 2008)

Since returning in September, there hasn't been a film I wanted to see in the multiplexes. So yesterday I decided to see Ridley Scott's Body of Lies, a political thriller about the middle east. Not a great film by any means, but interesting enough for the most part.

The weaknesses are typical of many Hollywood films today: over-edited and over-long. The action scenes do not work at all, partly because of digital special effects used for simple chase scenes. There has often been a comparison lately between Hollywood action scenes and video games, but this may be the first film in which video game graphics are more realistic. In this case, a comparison to video games would actually be an insult to video games. The narrative structure is also far too loose. A tighter focus would have made the thematic clearer. However, as a Hollywood political film, this may not have been possible. The length and confusion is needed to make sure the politics are sufficiently blurred.

Despite this, Body of Lies does manage to make a point, albeit a very accepted one at this time: America is out of touch with how to deal with the "war on terrorism", especially when you get beyond the ground level and into the management class. To do this, the screenplay plays on the old American mythology in an intriguing way. Both opposing protagonists work for the state and are thus "official" heroes. With America involved in a global war, this makes sense. The autonomous outlaw hero of the past mythology would seem out of place in this story. However, the film's quite effective conclusion turns the lead character (played by Leonardo DiCaprio in another solid performance) into an outlaw of sorts, rejecting the war and government he has been fighting for and staying in the "frontier" of the middle east. And despite his allegiance to a woman, the ending is ambiguous over whether he can join her. Increasingly, American culture seems to want a return to the old autonomy and to disengage with being the "world police". Body of Lies is one example of Hollywood hoping to express and capitalize on this feeling.

Final note: both Body of Lies and The Departed were written by William Monahan, and they feel very similar. I would argue that they have more in common with each other than each respective films have in common with other films by their famous auteur directors Scott and Scorsese. Perhaps making films in the big budget Hollywood arena with its standardized style is making directorial self-expression more difficult.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

A TALE OF CINEMA (Hong Sang-soo, 2005)

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"Hong Sang-su's films feature too many elements of postmodernism to be classified as existentialist; too much rage and sincerity for postmodernist; too much cynicism for romanticist; and, perhaps most importantly, too much passion for nihilism." Kyung Hyun Kim (2004) (p. 228)

Returning to Canada this summer, I was able to track down some scholarship written on Hong Sang-soo, whose films have increasingly fascinated me over the course of the last year. The best work written on Hong thus far is by the scholar Kyung Hyun Kim. This includes a chapter on Hong's first three films in his book The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema as well as an essay on Hong's fourth film, Turning Gate. I look forward to revisiting Hong's earlier films after reading Kim's analysis.

I was also able to finally track down the only Hong film I hadn't yet seen, A Tale of Cinema. It is with this film that Hong returns, but with a slight variation, to the split narratives of his first three films. Hong's two features before A Tale of Cinema avoided the direct repetitons of the earlier films and were increasingly pared down stylistically, especially in the use of editing. This is especially true of Woman is the Future of Man (2004), with an ASL of 98 seconds, by far the most sparsely edited film Hong has made. A Tale of Cinema is a very different film, returning to an ASL (63 seconds) closer to Turning Gate (58 seconds) and also adding the use of a zoom lens that functions, as Michael Sicinski has noted, very much like conventional editing. Of course, there is a big difference, since the whole point of conventional continuity, in addition to providing shot variety and audience manipulation, is to be invisible. Hong's zooms are nothing if not noticeable.

Hong was asked about his use of the zoom by Huh Moonyung:

HUH: The distinct use of zoom-in and zoom-out would have surprised the audience who are familiar with your movies. What principle did you apply in using the zoom?
HONG: Emphasis, intimacy, making of a rhythm within a shot, a sense of alienation, compression, economical way to handle a scene, etc... (p. 76)

The contradictory nature of this response (intimacy and alienation) indicates a lack of consistent use of the technique. Nevertheless, the amateurish way in which it is used seems to coincide with the first half of the film and its film-within-a film status. We learn that the first 40 minutes was a student film and was being watched by the director's former classmate. This immediately explains the awkwardness of both the form as well as the acting. But once "Hong's" film begins the zoom does not disappear. Indeed, it will not disappear in his next two films either. Nevertheless, the rest of the film still feels more like a Hong film than the opening. The takes are longer and the use of the zoom less frequent and more controlled. Take the two sequences from the first half that are repeated. The first meeting between Sang-won and Yeong-sil (Figures 1-2) is restaged with Dong-su and Yeongsil, only this time there is no zoom (Figure 8). The shot of Sang-won and Yeong-sil having a drink (which starts as a typical Hong composition) is less than two minutes and features 4 zooms (Figures 3-7), but the repetition of the scene between Dong-su and Yeongsil is over twice as long and features only 2 zooms (Figures 9-11). The penultimate scene, although highly melodramatic, is filmed without a zoom (Figure 12). In his next two films, Hong's use of the zoom will follow the pattern of A Tale of Cinema's second half.

In addition to the zoom, there is a use of voiceover through the student film section. This is dropped once the second half of the narrative begins, but Hong brings it back at the conclusion. It is tempting to read all of this as Hong wanting to return to his own student filmmaking roots in order to rediscover filmmaking, especially since the film's title is usually translated in French (Conte de Cinema). Like the New Wave directors, Hong sees the need to rediscover the cinema after becoming more and more simple in his technique. This seems like a necessary step, even if A Tale of Cinema may be Hong's least successful film. Part of what marks the greatness of Hong is the quote above from Kim on the difficulty of labelling his work. In this regard, A Tale of Cinema is too obviously "postmodern", unlike Hong's other films. But at the same time Hong needed a new start, having pushed his style as far as it could go. I disagree with Michael Sicinsky that A Tale of Cinema is Hong's best film (although Hong's oeuvre, as I've argued in previous posts, is very difficult to rank); it is actually my least favorite. But without this experiment, perhaps Woman on the Beach and his most recent Night and Day (which may be his best film) would not have been possible.

For a plot synopsis as well as a very intelligent discussion of the film, check out Michael Sicinski's CinemaScope review here.

Kyung Hyun Kim, "Too Early/ Too Late: Temporality and Repetition in Hong Sang-su's films," in The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004): 203-230.

Kyung Hyun Kim, "The Awkward Traveller in Turning Gate," in New Korean Cinema (ed. Chi-Yun Shin and Julian Stringer) (New York: NYU Press, 2005): 170-179.

Huh Moonyung, Hong Sang-soo (Seoul: Korean Film Archive, 2007)

Thursday, 2 October 2008

UPCOMING: Nouveau Roman, Nouveau Cinema Special

From October 14th to November 9th, the Seoul Cinematheque will be presenting a massive retrospective on the French New Novel/ New Cinema. Information on the screening schedule and subtitles haven't been announced, but the list of films is very impressive:

HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR (Alain Resnais, 1959)
LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (Alain Resnais, 1961)
MURIEL (Alain Resnais, 1963)
L'IMMORTELLE (Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1963) (short)
TRANS-EUROP-EXPRESS (Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1966)
L'HOMME QUI MENT (Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1968)
DETRUIRE, DIT-ELLE (Marguerite Duras, 1969)
L'EDEN ET APRES (Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1970)
NATHALIE GRANGER (Marguerite Duras, 1972)
STAVISKY (Alain Resnais, 1974)
INDIA SONG (Marguerite Duras, 1975)
LE CAMION (Marguerite Duras, 1977)
BAXTER, VERA BAXTER (Marguerite Duras, 1977)
CESAREE (Marguerite Duras, 1978)
AURELIA STEINER (MELBOURNE) (Marguerite Duras, 1979) (short)
AURELIA STEINER (VANCOUVER) (Marguerite Duras, 1979) (short)
L'HOMME ATLANTIQUE (Marguerite Duras, 1981)
LA VIE EST UN ROMAN (Alain Resnais, 1983)
MELO (Alain Resnais, 1986)
SMOKING (Alain Resnais, 1993)
NO SMOKING (Alain Resnais, 1993)
ON CONNAIT LA CHANSON (Alain Resnais, 1997)

All the films are directed by either New Novelists Robbe-Grillet and Duras or from their early collaborator Alain Resnais. But despite the famous names, there are many relatively unknown films here, especially the films by Robbe-Grillet and Duras (with the possible exception of Duras's India Song). And having missed Last Year at Marienbad at the Ontario Cinematheque this summer (it was sold out), I'm looking forward to finally seeing a print. Hopefully this is the same collection of prints that was circulating in North America earlier in the year.

Sergio Leone Retrospective (Sept. 30-Oct.12)

Starting on Tuesday, four Sergio Leone films will be screening for the next two weeks at the Cinematheque: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, A Fistful of Dynamite, and Once Upon a Time in America.

I attended a screening of Once Upon a Time in the West back in July, and the print was excellent. Hopefully the prints of the other films are of similar quality.

Friday, 12 September 2008

LIES (Jang Sun-woo, 1999)

Truth, Lies, Cinema and Pornography

Even before his 1999 film Lies, Jang Sun-woo had a reputation as the enfant terrible of Korean cinema, often reminiscent of and compared to earlier figures like Jean-Luc Godard. Lies, however, was controversial even by Jang's standards, having been censored twice before finally being released in a version with four minutes missing. The Chungmuro film festival screened the original version this year for the first time in Korea. Most know Lies because of its notoriety, but it deserves to be compared with the very best of Korean cinema.

Lies uses the subject of sex to ask fundamental questions about the cinema itself and its relation to the social structure. The film details a primarily sexual relationship between an 18 year-old high school girl (Y) and a 38 year-old married sculptor (J) . From almost the very beginning their relationship is not ony sexual, but sadomasochistic (a physical metaphor for the emotional S&M of all relationships, perhaps). Initially, J plays the role of master, but eventually he wishes to switch roles and be beaten himself. The plot details the couple's relationship over a couple of years up until its conclusion. This includes the disapproval of everyone around them, including his wife, her brother and Korean society generally.

The main theme of the film is established in its title as well as the self-reflexive style of its first act. Jang begins with an interview with the lead actor, who offers his interpretation of the story (based on a Korean novel, Lie to Me, that likewise was labelled as pornography and censored). He describes the film as a fantasy for the erotic imagination of the audience (in other words, a fiction, or a lie). The rest of the opening act maintains this distancing Brechtian approach. The first sex scene provides a good example. Jang intercuts the scene with three intertitles, "the first hole", "the second hole" and "the third hole", as the sequence proceeds with vaginal, oral and then anal sex in almost a parody of pornography and its procession of standardized sex acts. The Godardian influence here is most pronounced.

But paradoxically, the very Brechtian direct address techniques allign Lies with pornography, which now frequently exposes its very nature as film in order to give the sexual situations greater authenticity. Thus the interview with the actress about her nervousness about the sex scenes is half-Bergman, half-verite porn. As Linda Williams argued almost two decades ago in her classic study Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible" (1989), hard-core pornography has always had closer associations to documentary than any other genre. One of Williams other major arguments in this book is that pornography has a very strong utopian element. Both of these concepts of authenticity and utopia are central to the meaning of Jang's text.

As Lies proceeds through its storyline, the more overt self-reflexivity of the opening lessens significantly, with the direct address and acknowledgment of the camera replaced by the occasional slow motion technique, the use of voice-over narration, and the very extremity of the sexual situations (which not surprisingly provoked nervous laughter at the screening I attended). Jang goes to great lengths to establish the constructed nature of the film ("lies 24 times a second") but then invests his sympathy in the reality of the central sexual relationship. Part of this is the utopian nature of their affair, which contrasts with the hypocrisy of the society around them. The most resonant scenes in the film are not the sex scenes, but the sequences following them in which the characters whisper about their exploits within the social spaces of the subway.

This utopianism does not last. As an audience we should guess this, because Lies sets itself up as an art film, not pornography. It thus cannot be naive enough to believe in its utopia. Eventually, Y moves on, to Brazil with her sister, and J narrates that he never sees her again. He is left in Paris, in an unsatisying marriage. Earlier in the film, Y tattooes that J is hers on his thigh. J's final narration states that when his wife asks him about the tattoo, he lied. This contrasts with the opening of the film, in which the actor (not the character) expresses that the film is fantasy. Jang's ending seems to imply the opposite: that the sexual relationship was the only real thing in his life. His entire social identity is the real lie.

Nabokov's Lolita was described by Vanity Fair as the "only convincing love story of this century"; Lies is likewise one of the few love stories of the recent cinema that holds any real persuasion.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Homage to You Young-Gil

From September 16th-28th, the Seoul Cinematheque will screen a 14 film tribute to the cinematographer You Young-gil, who worked with many of the top Korean directors before his death in 1998. The films showing with English subtitles are:

Gagman (Lee Myung-Se, 1988)
My Love, My Bride (Lee Myung-Se, 1990)
North Korean Partisan in South Korea (Chung Ji-young, 1990)
Black Republic (Park Kwang-su, 1990)
The Road to the Race-track (Jang Sun-woo, 1991)
White Badge (Chung Ji-young, 1992)
To the Starry Island (Park Kwang-su, 1993)
First Love (Lee Myung-se, 1993)
Green Fish (Lee Chang-dong, 1996)

All totaled, nine films from the first Korean New Wave (1988-1996), and a rare opportunity to see them in a theatre with subtitles. In fact, many of these films are difficult to track down even on DVD.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Chungmuro Film Festival Screenings

The 2nd Chungmuro Film Festival finishes tomorrow. I was only get to see four films this year due to a currently busy schedule: Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984), Lola Montes (Max Ophuls, 1955), Mad Detective (Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai, 2007), and Lies (Jang Sun Woo, 1999).

The newest film, and one in competition, was Mad Detective. I've heard positive things about Johnnie To so I was interested in seeing one of his films. However, the film left me underwhelmed. It seemed simply derivative rather than a fresh take on the crime/detective/buddy cop genre. It begins fine and with enough energy to propel it, but cannot sustain its momentum because I do not believe I has anything new to say about the figure of the eccentric, method-inspired detective. The movies the film borrows from (Manhunter, Memento, and Frailty) are all significantly better than this reworking.

Paris, Texas and Lola Montes are both films I saw for the first time roughly a decade ago. Viewing them again was practically like a new experience, especially with the Ophuls film. Lola Montes was shown in a recently restored print conducted by the French Cinematheque. It is Ophuls last film and his first in color and widescreen, and it is a much bigger film in terms of spectacle and artifice than anything else he had made. It is probably his most distancing film as a result, a film very much distilling many of the ideas of his other melodramas but, for me, lacking in the emotional resonance of a film like Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948). Even the technical virtousity does not match his earlier Madame de ... (1953), partly because of the pure size of the production. Certainly the film is worth watching, but does not match his greatest work.

Paris, Texas, however, may be Wenders' greatest film, even surpassing his work in Germany. What was most striking to me was how, as an outsider to America, Wenders nevertheless fit his film within the dominant paradigms of American cinema. This may be the influence of the screenwriter, Sam Shepard, but is nevertheless not that surprising that Wenders would be interested in making a paradigmatic American story given all of his previous meditations on America and its cinema in his German period.

The story begins with a man walking through the desert. After he collapses, the doctor calls his brother and we learn some things about him. His name is Travis, he has a son, and he disappeared over four years earlier. The rest of the narrative involves his reconnecting with his young son and eventually reuniting him with his mother. The ending is thus typical of the western (which itself is the most typical of American genres) in which the hero restores civilization but also has to retreat from this civilization himself. That said, the distinction of the film is its simultaneous reinforcing and questioning of this quintessential American type. The film begins with Travis as a mute, a parody of the stoic Westerner, but gradually he talks more and more, culminating in a extended conversation with his ex-wife in a peep show booth. This psychologizing of this figure reveals the essential neurosis that is, Shepard and Wenders suggest, at the heart of America itself: the desire for civilization (Paris) and the wilderness (Texas). At the same time, this is not really a deconstruction of the genre. Travis remains a sympathetic figure, and the film's ending, in which his wife and son reunite and twirl around together, is one of the more satisfying conclusions I can recall.

I'll discuss Lies fully in my next post.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

2nd Chungmuro Film Festival

The 2nd Chungmuro Film Festival begins next Wednesday, September 3, and continues until Thursday, September 11. Some of the highlights:

-a Douglas Trumbull tribute, along with a master class with Trumbull. Films include 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner, and Brainstorm.

-new print of Lola Montes

-David Lean retrospective

-tribute to Deborah Kerr

-a history of German cinema, including over 20 films from the silent era to the present

-a Kon Ichikawa retrospective, featuring nine films

-Memories of Korean Cinema

-a celebration of the Cannes director's fortnight, featuring over 20 films

-a retrospective of Korean auteur Jang Sun-woo

Once again, the line-up is impressive and it will be impossible to see even a fraction of what I would like, especially with work and moving considerations. I'm going to make a special effort to see a couple of Jang films, since I'm unfamiliar with his work thus far.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

UPCOMING: Bunuel's Mexican Films

Coming to the cinematheque from August 22-31 are six Luis Bunuel films from his time in Mexico in the 1950s: Los Olvidados (1950), Mexican Bus Ride (1952), El: This Strange Passion (1952), Illusion Travels by Streetcar (1953), The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955), and Nazarin (1958). No word yet on English subtitles.

Also, no news yet available on the Chungmuro film festival, scheduled to start on September 3rd.

I'm returning to Seoul next week and will begin writing and providing updates on screenings again over the next year.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Away for the Summer

I will be away from Korea for about six weeks as of tomorrow, so I won't be writing any reports from screenings here. I may make an occasional post of any movies I see while in Canada. I will be back for the 2nd Chungmuro festival in early September.

I went to see Once Upon a Time in the West on the opening night of the Summer Vacation festival at the Cinematheque, and the print was first-rate. I highly recommend checking it out when it screens again throughout the summer. It is a very different experience seeing the film in the theatre. I have watched what I consider Leone's best film many times on video, and although I love it, I did agree with the comments that it is slow. On the big screen, however, it never ceases to be riveting. In fact, I got a much better sense of how Leone reworks classical style. The scenes and narrative structure are almost identical (indeed, the plot is lifted from Nicolas Ray's 1953 western Johnny Guitar), it is only that Leone extends the individual scenes much longer than would normally be the case. The result is the unique blend that makes Leone so distinct. The influence on someone like Quentin Tarantino was also made more vivid by the screening.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

TURNING GATE (Hong Sang-soo, 2002)

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 5

Figure 6

Figure 7

After much effort, I tracked down one of the two Hong Sang-soo films I haven't seen, Turning Gate (thanks to Roujin from the filmspotting message board). Like all of Hong's films, I find it difficult to evaluate. Having seen seven of his eight features, it would be almost impossible for me to order them in terms of preference. Seeing Turning Gate in isolation would almost certainly detract from its effectiveness. At the same time, seeing it after looking at three of his previous and three of his subsequent works, it cannot help but be thought of as a transitional text. As such, it was less satisfying than his other films, although at the time it was released and even since then I have read reviews claiming it as Hong's masterpiece.

In terms of narrative, Hong avoids repeating scenes as he did in his first three films, most notably in the almost experimental structure of Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors. The narrative does split here, but the lead male character, Gyeong-su (an actor), simply moves from one woman to another. With Hong, as usual, there are still parallels drawn, most explicitly with the two goodbye notes each woman writes. Even the ending is based on a story told early in the film, and a truly odd scene of Gyeong-su lighting a man's cigarette is eventually given significance later in the film (although we may not remember it). But generally, the two stories here do not seem as obviously connected as in his other stories made both before and after Turning Gate. More than in his other work, the main male character is focused on to a great extent, and it may be Hong's most psychologically driven narrative. Unfortunately, that psychology turns out, eventually, to be rather limited and simplistically focused around ideas of purity. Hong's ending certainly critiques this, but does not seem to be able to go beyond it as he will in later works.

Stylistically, there are a few sequences in the first half that seem more expressionistic than Hong ordinarily presents. There is a scene filtered in red as Gyeong-su and his friend meet with two prostitutes (Figure 1), and a dance performed by Myeong-suk with an elaborate use of mirrors (Figure 2). But as the film progresses, the shots become more simple (Figures 3 and 4). Hong's editing rate is close to his previous film, but the pared down nature of the shots over the second half seem to point to his next film, Woman is the Future of Man, in which Hong will reduce his editing and shot set-ups even further.

Hong's handling of sexuality also pivots with this film. Hong's first three films were sexually frank, and all of his films deal with this topic, but Turning Gate is his most sexually explicit. In fact, the scenes are so graphic that an audience may question if they are simulated or not. However, by the end of the film, Gyeong-su cannot get an erection. He states that he is tired of sex and wishes he can "live clean like this and die". From this point on in his work, Hong will eventually reduce the explicitness of his depictions. I would link this to Hong's decreased interest in the whole notion of idealized conceptions of sexuality.

Seon-yeong, the second woman in the story, eventually leaves Gyeong-su at the conclusion. As the intertitle informs us, this reminds Gyeong-su of a story he told earlier of a snake falling in love with a princess but then being left by her at a gate. The final shot shows Gyeong-su come to the gate, and then turn and leave the frame (Figures 5 and 6). The shot remains empty and the film ends (Figure 7). This is both a downbeat, contemplative ending as well as a wry and satirical one. The viewer at once observes the connection with the previous stories (both of the turning gate and the fortune teller Gyeong-su and Seon-yeong have just visited) but nevertheless questions them as yet another romantic myth of the protagonist. Gyeong-su is not a snake and is not destined for a grim future. Seon-yeong is not a princess and destined for greatness. Rather, they are both acting out and performing roles and self-fulfilling prophesies.

But this is coming from a rationalist point of view. The narrative can be taken straight, and Hong includes a number of coincidences that give the film, like all of his work, a certain irrational, dream-like power. The last shot is emblematic. It is a rather simple shot of the rain falling on a gate. But it is also iconic, and has connotations beyond a simple description of its content. As with all of Hong, there is a materialist, rationalist discourse competing with a kind of illogical primitivism. As much as the film is a turning point, Turning Gate still acts as another chapter in the single work Hong seems to be making.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Summer Vacation at the Cinematheque

The Cinematheque has announced its "summer vacation" program, running from July 11-August 17. It includes:

-a Sergio Leone retrospective, with the Dollars trilogy, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Once Upon a Time in America (full version).

-a Hal Hartley retrospective

-a screening of one of my favorite films, The Third Man, as well as Rififi, Walkabout, Woman on the Dunes, and others

plus, this Saturday, a three film marathon of Hong Sang-soo films: Woman on the Beach, Night and Day, and A Tale of Cinema. Apparently Hong will be in attendance for the screening of Night and Day. No word on subtitles, but hopefully.

I will miss most of the program because I will be away, but I should get a chance to see Once Upon a Time in the West and the Hong Sang-soo films before I leave.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

David Bordwell and French Theory

"(Grand Theory is) a trend that dodges the task to which we thought academics had pledged their professional lives: producing knowledge that is reliable and approximately true." (Bordwell, 3)

"(The task of academics) is to continually analyze, reconsider, and mistrust the question at hand." (Cusset, 157)

The selection of film books in the English language sections of the large chains here is fairly limited, but one advantage of this is that you tend to buy the few books that do stand out. Also, I've gravitated back to more philosophical and theoretical texts that I normally don't have time for (lots of time on the subway helps as well). As a result, I have recently bought and read two fairly large and extremely divergent studies: David Bordwell's Poetics of Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2008) and Francois Cusset's French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States (Translated by Jeff Fort) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

Poetics of Cinema (an homage to Russian formalism) is a collection of essays, many published previously, including the 1979 piece "Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice" (which includes a new Afterword). There are fifteen pieces in all, divided into three sections: I Questions of Theory (two essays) ; II Studies in Narrative (5 essays); III Studies in Style (eight essays). It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows Bordwell that the studies in narrative and style heavily outweigh any kind of theoretical discussion. It should also be no shock that the first section is burdened by the usual anti-theory Bordwellian axe-grinding. Even so, the rhetoric on display here is more heavy-handed than usual.

Two examples:

"Attorneys, legal researchers, and forensic scientists have used DNA evidence to free unjustly imprisoned people. Warnings about global change come from the united efforts of biologists, geographers, geologists, and other experts. Medical professionals struggle to eradicate HIV and cancer, and some risk their lives to inoculate children in the inferno of war. It's shameful for comfortable academics to believe that these heroes labor under a flawed epistemology." (5)

"If we invited today's postmodern academics to come up with reliable ways to represent airplane maneuvers, I shudder to think what casualties would result. But maybe not, at least once the researchers got off the ground. If there are no atheists in foxholes, then perhaps there are no culturalists in cockpits." (82)

These two statements reveal, despite his previous objections, the conservative nature of Bordwell's thinking. The very metaphors he chooses are telling. The first quote has the form of "support our troops" logic, and the "no atheists in foxholes" quote is pure religious nonsense that Bordwell accepts as a truism to make his own equally ridiculous "common sense" homily. That such absurd straw man arguments are marshaled out is telling of the type of scholar Bordwell has become. As strong as some of his work is (and most of the essays in this collection are well worth reading, despite the lack of real critical insight), there are other contextual factors for explaining his academic stardom. Someone like Roger Ebert admires Bordwell not only for his scholarship but because of his anti-theory diatribes. For Ebert, "film theory has nothing to do with film" and as a result views Bordwell as the savior of a Film Studies discipline that have distorted the ordinary pleasures of movie-going. And of course, Bordwell returns the favour and quotes in praise of Ebert, despite the utterly pedestrian criticism Ebert dispenses.

In addition to the above quotations, Bordwell includes more subtle argumentation. He talks about "mature" disciplines (22) (which theory dominated Film Studies is not), the "egos" of filmmakers contradicting the reflectionist view of culture (31) (a la Michael Medved), and the "natural" form of inquiry that his method represents. Furthermore, Bordwell contrasts his approach with the theorists' goal of simply "getting a buzz". Embedded in the very language of Bordwell is a deeply conservative idea of what culture and scholarship should be. As a result, he does not mind throwing red meat like the quotes above for the deeply anti-academic press to enjoy. He is one "comfortable academic" who knows his place, and is even more "comfortable" than most because of it.

Francois Cusset's French Theory (first published in French in 2003) offers a far more balanced view. But the book is much more. It is an incredibly detailed and relatively succinct intellectual history of American academia over the past few decades. Cusset explains the goal of his study as follows:

"To explore the political and intellectual genealogy, and the effects, even for us and up to today, of a creative misunderstanding between French texts and American readers, a properly structural misunderstanding -- in the sense that it does not refer simply to a misinterpretation, but to differences of internal organization between the French and American intellectual spheres." (5)

Maybe the only similarity between Poetics of Cinema and French Theory is the organization. Cusset divides his text into fourteen chapters (plus an introduction and conclusion) and organizes these chapters into three sections: "Part I. The Invention of a Corpus"; "Part II. The Uses of Theory"; and "Part III. There and Back". One of Cusset's main points, and one that has not been sufficiently explored, is how French Theory became as widespread within American universities, especially when the same authors were so out of favour in their own country. Drawing quite frequently on Pierre Bourdieu, Cusset grounds such figures as Foucault and Derrida in the particular fields of knowledge of the American context.

Although Cusset does not provide the type of critique that would be popular with the mainstream press, his perspective is critical of the type of excesses that have plagued the theory-centered humanities (for example, his introduction addresses the infamous "Sokal affair"). But more importantly, it is also deeply knowledgeable. When Bordwell dismisses "SLAB theory," anyone familiar with the writers cited will realize how superficial Bordwell's understanding really is (of course, it could be, and probably is, a willful misunderstanding). Cusset, however, has a vast and nuanced grasp of a very wide range of theorists, as well as a comprehension of many artist and art practices. Indeed, it would take a very well-read individual to not learn something from this prodigious example of scholarship.

In many ways, French Theory is all about connections, which is something I have a personal affinity for. Although I have read many of the major figures he discusses, I knew less about the history of these careers and the way in which they interceded with the culture at large. Chapter 7, "The Ideological Backlash," is perhaps my favorite in this regard, if the most known to me personally. Here, Cusset links the rise of neo-conservatism with the rise in French theory in the humanities, because neo-con intellectuals were able to caricature cultural relativists and have the public view them as a threat (not unlike Bordwell's anti-culturalist diatribe). This material was known to me primarily through my viewing of the documentary work of British filmmaker Adam Curtis (whose programs I highly recommend). Reading about Leo Strauss and the Committee for Social Thought at University of Chicago, I kept saying the words in my head with a British accent.

I cannot recommend Cusset's book highly enough. If you have knowledge of the intellectual field it will be a richer text, but even if you are not well-versed, it will still provide a fascinating read if you are interested in the subject. I think it will join Martin Jay's Downcast Eyes as essential reading for anyone studying cultural theory. And one need not be a post-structuralist convert to appreciate Cusset's take. Anyone wanting to truly challenge and critique French theory will find more genuine information here than in the mountainous piles of glib anti-theory dismissals like the ones provided by Bordwell. Of course, this may depend on which definition of an academic you find more appealing: someone who produces knowledge that is reliable and true, or someone who analyzes, reconsiders, and mistrusts the evidence at hand.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

12th Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival

In less than three weeks the Puchon film festival begins, running from July 18th to 27th. The festival focuses on genre films, and there are a number of exciting programs, including a section of the Nikkatsu studio of Japan as well as a Gregg Araki retrospective. The schedule of films can be viewed here. Unfortunately, I will be back in Canada in a couple of weeks and will miss the festival, so I won't be able to give any reports.

Friday, 27 June 2008

THE TERRORIZERS (Edward Yang, 1986)

The Taiwan Film Festival finished today, and I was able to see another early Edward Yang film, The Terrorizers (1986). Last week I saw Yang's Taipei Story (1985), and although it was quite different from Yang's later Yi Yi (2000), there were enough similarities to suggest a cohesion. The Terrorizers, on the other hand, has almost nothing in common with later Yang, and only connects with Taipei Story through the milieu.

The Terrorizers tells a story connecting numerous characters and how their lives intersect. Like many such narratives, the last half is much more compelling, especially on first viewing, because of the difficulty of establishing so many characters and their various interrelationships. Even by the conclusion, there are a number of aspects that I still find puzzling and unexplainable. However, this does not take away from the power of the plot's unfolding. There is not just one but two artist characters in the film: a male photographer and a female novelist. As a result, the unfolding of the character's lives is presented in a very self-reflexive manner, in which art does have a profound influence on lives, even if this impact is mostly on the personal level. In addition to the two artist figures, Yang also includes a character, nicknamed "the white chick" (she is actually Eurasian), who is blatantly symbolic. Despite these distancing devices, the film never loses its sense of lived reality in modern Taipei. That said, it lacks the social zeitgeist quality of Taipei Story.

The influence of the European art cinema is very present here, probably more than Taipei Story. I found the often noted resemblance to Antonioni more prevalent here, as well as a continued affinity with Wim Wenders. But the film that I was reminded of most while watching The Terrorizers was not from the past but rather a work made a decade later, the Korean film The Day a Pig Fell in the Well (Hong Sang-soo, 1996). The rather drab look of both films, along with their multi-character narratives, are initially oft-putting but become gradually more effective as they progress. The figure of the artist is prominent, as is common with both Yang and Hong. The two works also share an interest in surrealism, as evident in the presence of sudden outbursts of sexualized violence as well as unmarked dream sequences towards their respective conclusions.

I doubt if the influence on Hong was direct. But it is interesting to note that both Yang and Hong, early in their respective careers, made similar films that merged European cinematic styles within their own emerging national cinemas. As it turned out, Hong would be more consistent in his output than Yang, although Hong's first film remains the most unlike the rest of his remarkably consistent output. As for Yang, I'm anxious to track down his 90s work to see how he moved from these early studies of modern and post-modern Taipei to the very different Yi Yi in 2000.