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.