Wednesday, April 23, 2008

sans soleil, by chris marker

So this week, we decided to follow up Dziga Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera with Chris Marker's Sans Soleil (1983). As with Man With A Movie Camera, you watch Sans Soleil and you're given the feeling that you've seen everything in the world at least once. Here's a random assortment from the film's opening minutes:

Of course, neither film is really about the whole world, and this is where an illuminating contrast can perhaps be made. Vertov is a Russian, making a movie about Odessa, Kiev, and Moscow: some variety there, but at the root it can be said that he is making a movie about his own homeland. (This is part of what contributes to the overall atmosphere of "boosterism" that seems to vaguely surround the film.) Marker, by contrast, is a Parisian, making a movie about Japan, Guinea-Bissau, San Francisco, and Iceland, among others: and so at the root it must be said that he is making a movie about places that very precisely aren't his homeland.

So, on one level, Sans Soleil can be said to belong to the tradition of the ethnographic documentary. Certainly the film's emphasis on festival and ritual belongs squarely within that tradition:

Documentary in general, and ethnographic documentary in particular, carries with it a variety of tricky ethical problems, ones which have been ably recounted elsewhere. For portions of its runtime, Sans Soleil risks falling into some of these traps. For instance, it's problematically interested in the most alien and exotic aspects of the cultures it looks at. For instance, here's the shrine devoted to cats:

To its credit, though, I don't think that Sans Soleil is interested in committing the other ethnographic sin, that of recasting its subject as "primitives." Tokyo in particular is one of the most hyper-modern cities in the world, and as much as Marker seems interested in the "quaint" spiritual traditions of the Japanese, he seems equally interested in the quasi-futuristic aspects of the Japanese media landscape:

Even Guinea-Bisseau, with its photogenic squalor, is a site that Marker is interested in for its postmodern aspects—the film explicitly remarks upon the challenges involved with completing, taming, or fully articulating the partial industrial infrastructure left behind by the European colonists that revolutions forced out.

But Soleil ultimately wants to subvert the ethnographic documentary even more directly, going straight to its core principles. The film remarks repeatedly on the inevitable distortions that time introduces into our perception of reality. Our memories, of course, have massive powers of distortion, but Marker seems to feel that the meaning of images, too, shift through time, that our ability to treat them as "proof" diminishes with the passage of time and the loss of context, if indeed this ability ever existed in the first place.

There's another film that famously deals with the fallibility of perception: Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, which manages to get shoehorned in to the final third of Sans Soleil in order to underscore this point:

So, ultimately: Our direct perceptions are incomplete, faulty, and subject to the ravages of time—and perceptions we might obtain through, say, film, are not more permanent impressions of "truth," but rather are even more dubious because of the absence of context and the introduction of the distortions inherent to mediation. "Sunless" indeed! This is not exactly the underlying message of most documentaries (although it's not, in fact, a far cry from the underlying message of American Splendor (Film Club XXII)). As messages go, this one may seem bleak, although the film seems to accept these ideas with something like hope. In the end, the unknowability of other people (including Marker himself, and the extra-enigmatic figure of this film, Sandor Krasna) seems to be a source of joy and wonder.

That, at least, appears to be a pleasure that endures.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

man with a movie camera, by dziga vertov

Dziga Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera (1929) is only 67 minutes long, but at the end of it you sort of feel like you've seen everything in the world at least once. Here's a random assortment from the film's opening minutes:

It claims to be an "excerpt from the diary of a cameraman," and you do get a real sense that Vertov enjoyed running around filming just everything he could get his camera pointed at. There's a documentary impulse at work here, but it's a documentary with no subject, or rather the subject is something as vast and grand as an entire urban society.

Vertov seems to be able to find visual interest in just about anything he looks at, although this requires a certain degree of cinematic inventiveness. Indeed, the film repeatedly provides shots of the "man" of the film's title, and shows some of the extents to which he'll go to get interesting footage:

This has the interesting dual effect of causing the film to serve as a documentary of its own production (see also: Adaptation) and simultaneously, to subtly highlight some of the artifice and fiction involved in any documentary enterprise (see also: American Splendor). For these shots, in which our cameraman appears, imply the existence of an unseen second cameraman and camera, which certainly puts the lie to the idea that the film we're watching is the "diary" of a (lone) cameraman...

Beyond the slender thread of this (fictitious?) cameraman wandering around the city, there's no real narrative to speak of: in fact, the film openly declares the absence of story in its opening titles, claiming to be a (bold!) attempt to totally separate the cinema "from the language of theatre and literature." This is part of why we screened it in sequence with The Blood of a Poet (Film Club XXVI) and Meshes of the Afternoon (Film Club XXVII), films which are similarly focused on discovering and exploiting the unique properties of film as an art form. Of the three films, Man With A Movie Camera is the only one that is really a "pure" cinematic experience: there is no real way to imagine replicating even a rough approximation of this film in any other media.

Part of the reason Vertov can accomplish this is because he is a master editor. Editing is pretty much the prime element of cinema that is unique to cinema (everything else can be said to emerge either from theatre or photography), and Vertov was one of the first people to really think about the various effects that editing could generate. (His early days in filmmaking were during a period when celluloid was too expensive to shoot much new footage, and so new films were generated by re-cutting together old newsreel footage.) This film pulls out every editing trick in the book and uses that in lieu of narrative to create a kind of dramatic interest and rhythmic propulsion (it's briskly edited even by today's quick-cut standards). Of course, since this film is so concerned with the process of its own production, Vertov takes his movie camera into the editing lab:

...and even shows us a young Soviet editor hard at work:

Most "meta" film ever? Indeed, and a love letter to cinema of such sincerity and magnitude that I don't think it's been equalled in the intervening eighty years. This is an important film, a perfect addition to my "personal canon" that I worked on a while back.

Next week: another film that could arguably be said to be an "excerpt from the diary of a cameraman," Chris Marker's weird meta-documentary Sans Soleil (1983).

Thursday, April 10, 2008

meshes of the afternoon, by maya deren

This week, Film Club watched a program of Maya Deren's short films. As a follow-up to Jean Cocteau, it worked pretty well: like Cocteau, Deren is interested in using the fundamental grammar of cinema to make us experience things we cannot experience through any other art form.

The most famous shot in Deren's entire body of work is this:

This shot appears in Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), and it's the one you're likely to see in any film textbook that discusses Deren. It's also the cover image of the DVD release of Deren's films that Mystic Fire put out, and it's also in the recent "film issue" of The Believer, as part of a brief photo-essay on "people looking out of windows."

That last appearance raises a good point: in and of itself, this shot is not that unusual or unique, and similar shots have appeared in any number of different films. Ultimately it does little to inform us about what's special about Meshes.

It is, however, a reaction shot, and I don't think I've ever seen it accompanied by the point-of-view shot that immediately precedes it, which is this:

A woman hurrying up the street? OK, also not that illuminating out of context. However, this woman is also Deren herself, and what we're seeing transpiring (from Deren's point of view up here at the window) is something that we've already seen transpire in the film (from Deren's point of view down there at the street). Deren has taken advantage of one of the fundamental facts about film—that, psychologically speaking, we tend to arrange the events we see in a film into a linear, temporal narrative—and exploited this fact to cause us to have the subjective experience of being entrapped in a time loop. Startling, which makes Deren's calm, dreamy expression in the reaction shot all the more memorable and striking.

We've already been on this street not once but twice before in this film: Deren keeps using point-of-view tricks to move us/herself back down there, going through the same basic routine (proceeding up the street, into the house, up the stairs) with new, disorienting variations introduced each time the cycle repeats.

It's not that different, ultimately, from the scenario we see play out in Groundhog Day (1993), although where Ramis and Murray play it (mostly) for laughs, the overall feeling in Meshes is one of mounting dread. For the loop appears to be inhabited not only by Deren and her duplicates but also by some frankly terrifying mirror-faced presence that Deren pursues but can't ever quite catch:

and the flickering, unstable presence of a knife implies that this error in the universe is going to work itself out in violence:

The film only lasts 14 minutes, but it's memorably hypnotic and disorienting. And so Deren's work reveals just how effectively the cinematic apparatus can be used to create deeply unusual effects: because the techniques of cinema are so effective at creating a convincing psychological illusion of "reality," even gently tweaking these techniques can create heretofore unrealized subjective experiences that are profoundly interesting, far more interesting than the use of cinema to tell a straightforward, realistic "story."

Sadly, even though cinematic effects are more, uh, effective than ever, this sort of frontier still remains relatively unexplored, still relegated to the domain of the "experimental" rather than the commercial. Perhaps the most effective purveyor of these kind of experiences practicing today is David Lynch: his three most recent films (Lost Highway (1997), Mullholland Dr. (2001), and Inland Empire (2006)), with their emphasis on duplicates, repetition, sinister forces, and unsettling domestic environments all owe deep debts to Meshes of the Afternoon. Paint the key blue and this shot could fit comfortably in Mulholland Dr.:

However, it looks like next week we'll be thinking more about the early avant-garde and the grammar of cinematic technology: we'll be watching Dziga Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera (1929).

Friday, April 4, 2008

the blood of a poet, by jean cocteau

After a one-week hiatus from Film Club (Spring Break!), we returned with Skunkcabbage's pick to follow up Cronenberg's Naked Lunch, Jean Cocteau's 1930 wonderment The Blood of A Poet.

From the title, Cocteau's film sounds like it's going to be another film about the life of a writer—it isn't, really. One could possibly argue that the film is about writing: there is, for instance, a brief moment where a some of Cocteau's own [untranslated!] writings are inserted directly into the film:

That's not the only place writing interrupts the film, either: it breaks into the narrative a number of times (especially early on) in the form of intertitles. It's not incredibly notable for early films to use intertitles, of course, but Blood of a Poet isn't a silent film, so the intertitles here aren't serving a traditional function, such as conveying dialogue. Instead they're operating in a manner one could describe, perhaps, as "poetic" (Cocteau himself refers to them as "commentaries"). So you get stuff like this:

So possibly about writing, yes, but not really about a writer: although the main character (Enrico Rivero, chosen for his "dispassionate appearance") identifies himself as a writer once, we never actually see him doing any writing, although we do see him working on some drawings:

This would seem to imply that the film is more about the visual than it is about the linguistic. It's probably not an accident that the film's opening shot has a ton of lighting gear visible in the background:

And, indeed, one way that we can enjoy The Blood of a Poet is to disregard the (disjointed) narrative and (indecipherable) allegory and to enjoy the film solely as a series of arresting and enigmatic images. Cocteau, for all his inscrutability and pretention, seems legitimately interested in giving something to the audience: using the cinema generously, by making us see things we haven't seen before. Towards this end, the film ends up being something of a special effects tour-de-force, using illusionistic makeup, cleverly constructed sets, composite shots, expressive processing, editing gimmickry, reversed film, and basically every other cinematic and theatrical trick available in the 1930s to make us see the unseeable. From a modern perspective, it's not too hard to figure out how some of the images and effects were created, but many of them remain pretty arresting:

And it's this tendency towards optic weirdness (and psychosexual ferment) that ultimately bears out the Cronenberg parallel that Skunkcabbage had in mind. At one point, early on in the film, our "poet" ends up with an extra orifice on his hand—not really world's away from the vaginal slit that opens in Max Renn's abdomen in Videodrome (1983):

And our protagonist responds to this bodily mutation with a mix of disgust...

and fascination...

and, eventually, aroused pleasure...

...which is pretty much the key three-way Cronenberg mix right there. Long live the new flesh!

Next week: short films by Maya Deren.