Thursday, 7 May 2009

Overview of JIFF Film Critics' Masterclass

I was able to attend all of the films of the JIFF masterclass, although only one of the lectures themselves due to language or scheduling. Raymond Bellour selected two excellent French films: Philippe Grandrieux's A Lake and Chris Marker's Level Five. Grandrieux was chosen by Bellour in relation to the film magazine Trafic, founded by Serge Daney. As Bellour writes in his introduction:

"If I had to define Trafic in terms of its refusals, they would be positioned at two extremes: on the one hand, the facilities that are far too common in journalistic criticism, and on the other hand the closures of traditional academic writing."

"Parallel to a continuous reflection on the great works on cinema ... we have always chosen to support - by asking them to participate, whenever possible, in the life of the magazine - a certain group of filmmakers, including (naturally) experimental filmmakers."

"So it is that, personally, I find myself engaged in a defense of the films of Philippe Grandrieux, which seem to me as essential as they are controversial."

What interests Bellour in Grandrieux is his attempt to use his story as a "laboratory for expression"; in other words, to explore the purely sensational elements usually confined to the avant-garde. A Lake is a great example of this. The story of a family in an isolated setting and the effect of an outsider on this dynamic is compelling itself, but does little to convey the actual texture of the work. As Bellour states, Grandrieux's style is founded much more of the "physical relation of the camera to its objects." Nevertheless, the story certainly maintains importance here, even if it is at the service of sensation (as opposed to the reverse relation of sensation at the service of story which defines most cinema). The very extreme starkness and primal nature of these relationships provides the cinematic technique with its maximum impact.

Bellour's second film choice is a very different work, Level Five, a film essay by Chris Marker revolving around a video game about the Battle of Okinawa. Bellour opens his introduction to the film by asking and answering a question:

"Why, in order to speak today of Chris Marker in the course of a film festival, and within the privileged framework of a Masterclass, do I choose to present Level Five (1996)?"

"Because this film, the last of his cinema films strictly speaking, is for that very reason the one in which we see the best way to inscribe the mutations which cinema has undergone - in a career that is singular out of all others, and within which cinema has always been submitted to paradoxical pressures."

As is usual with Marker, he combines aspects of documentary with a story-line, in which we see an actress deliver a video diary to the director (Marker himself, although this is also a role). Thus the film turns into another Marker essay on the nature of moving images and their relation to social reality, especially memory. But it is also, at the same time, a very powerful about war, and it is this aspect that interested me more than the mediations on the computer. This is precisely because it never feels like a tradtional documentary. It creates a distance, much like the characters have, because of "game" space created. But gradually this fades away, climaxing in film footage of Shigeaki Kinjo discussing his own murder of his family under government decree. The impact of this moment has been created by Marker's structure and his multiple forms of visual imagery, and it makes as powerful a statement for the impact of cinema as one could create.

Another essay film was chosen by Richard Porton for his discussion of "anarchist realism": WR: Mysteries of the Organism. This is a film I've been interested in seeing for many years but had never gotten to, and perhaps becasue of this it was not as intriguing as a hoped for. The film is very enjoyable and fun, and has a kind of anarchist quality that Porton discussed in his talk (which I unfortunately could not attend). However, it is as an "essay" film that it is rather weak, especially compared to a figure like Marker. To be fair, this may be because the ideas Makavejev is dealing with often come across as ridiculous. It is to Makavejev's credit that he himself realizes this, but it doesn't make the opinions on display any more provocative.

The only lecture I was able to attend was Adrian Martin's discussion of the career of film critic/painter Manny Farber, titled "Creative Criticism." Martin begins by outlining two types of criticism: (1) explanatory, descriptive criticism that offers a reading or interpretation of the film, which the critic treats as a finite object; and (2) creative criticism, which aims to recreate, remake or extend the film in a new way by working in a new medium (usually writing, but now visual media as well). There are overlaps between the two (as Martin mentioned, Raymond Bellour is one example), but one of the earliest practicioners of the later form is Manny Farber.

I am quite familiar with Farber as a critic, particularly through Greg Taylor's book Artists in the Audience, which Martin doesn't mention but which makes a similar argument about the critic as artist. What was illuminating for me about Martin's lecture is his presentation and discussion of Farber's paintings in relation to his criticism. On the major points drawn out by this comparison is how Farber, in both his criticism and painting, was most interested in the edges of the frame. Many of Farber's paintings have little activity at the center, instead placing most of the action on the perimeter. Likewise, Farber's approach to criticism and the films he admired shared this same dislike of centered framings. In general, most of what is most appreciated and enjoyed by the mass audience bored Farber, which is what made him one of the first cult critics. Farber did not care for the novelistic or theatrical; what he wanted were multi-suggestive films and images, a rich world of experience. Not stories, but worlds. Things like plot solving actions and character psychology were not important. What makes a film engaging are the digressions that give the world its richness, as well as the presence of performers with a presence or aura: "interesting people doing interesting things". This is what made Farber so distinct and so influential. And while I personally like those influenced by Farber more than Farber himself as a writer, Martin's lecture was a very passionate appreciation, as well as a great introduction for a Korean audience (Farber has still not been translated into Korean, although a few pieces are coming out soon apparently).

To accompany his lecture, Martin chose Maurice Pialat's 1974 film The Mouth Agape. This was my favorite film of the festival and makes me want to track down more of Pialat's films in the future. I had previously only seen his 1985 film Police, which failed to make an impression, but The Mouth Agape is quite astounding. The plot revolves around a woman who is dying and how her family, especially her son and husband, deal with this situation. Due to subject matter and even the time period in which it is made, I thought of Ingmar Bergman's 1972 drama Cries and Whispers. This is because other than subject matter, it is hard to imagine two films being more different in approach. In contrast to the heavy expressionism and symbolism of Bergman, Pialat concentrates much more on a realistic approach.

Now, when I describe the film as using a realistic approach, this does not mean that Pialat is not obsessively shaping this material. Rather, he is shaping the material to achieve a much more authentic world. This is why Martin chose the film to use in conjunction with Farber; not because Farber wrote about this film, but because this film has such affinities with Farber's interests in cinema (also, Farber was an admirer of Pialat's 1991 film Van Gogh). Pialat wanted to record something interesting between actors, and often made his actors uncomfortable and filmed a great deal in order to achieve his results. He also worked his material heavily in the editing process. The Mouth Agape was originally over four hours long and had a much different plot and story, with a greater emphasis on the character of the son. The film he creates is just 83 minutes, but yet is in no way a reduction for the sake of plot clarity or simplicity. Rather, the conventional rhetoric of drama and artificiality is avoided. Pialat is concerned with the edges of the story. Not with the mother and her suffering (although this is shown and presented in quotidian and disturbing detail), but with how the other son, his wife, and the father continue to live their lives, in some ways not noticably affected by the event. Pialat is concerned with creating and presenting a believable world, in which the house itself, which is also a small shop where the father works, is in many ways as important as the characters. As a result, the emotional force of the drama that is presented is enormously heightened. Although I had not heard of the film before the festival, I now think it is one of the great films of the 1970s.

1 comment:

roujin said...

The Pialat films I've seen have all been pretty good. I haven't seen that one, unfortunately.

Naked Childhood, his debut film, is like a rebuke to The 400 Blows (sort of) produced by Truffaut himself.

A Nos Amours is a great film, also with a fantastic performance by Sandrine Bonnaire and another great one by Pialat himself.

Loulou is my favorite so far.

Anyway, I really want to watch more Gandrieux. He really has an eye. I watched Sombre earlier this year and it was quite the experience.