Goodbye to Language
Jean-Luc Godard's latest free-form essay film may be, more than anything else, a documentary of a restless mind.
* This filmography is not intended to be a comprehensive list of this artist’s work. Instead it reflects the films this person has been involved with that have been reviewed on this site.
Why whales are beaching themselves; The Lone Ranger was black; Matt Singer out, Sam Adams in at CriticWire; when is Jia Zhangke going to tell us what he really thinks?; Sweet November, from 1968.
Kevin B. Lee reports on the film series at MoMA that he co-curated.
Barbara Scharres reports on the winners at the Cannes Film Festival.
Barbara Scharres has a few choice words for François Ozon's "Young & Beautiful" and Sofia Coppola's "The Bling Ring," but finds a gem in Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station."
Barbara Scharres sets the stage the 66th annual Cannes Film Festival.
• Grace Wang of Toronto Running concurrently with the Hong Kong Internatiomal Film Festival is FILMART, an industry film event that attracts buyers, sellers, producers, filmmakers, promoters, journalists, and all kinds of film people. This is a side of cinema not as visible to the public, but just as important. Here the new blockbusters and indie sweethearts of next year are seeded and funded.
Ever since David Thomson's "A Biographical Dictionary of Film" was published in 1975, browsers have said that they love to hate Thomson's contrarian arguments -- against John Ford or Frank Capra, Coppola or Kubrick, for example.¹ Fans and critics can cite favorite passages of resonant beauty, mystifyingly vague and dismissive summary judgements, and entire entries in which the man appears to have gone off his rocker. And that's the fun of it.
To be fair, Thomson broke faith with (or has been suffering a crisis of faith in) American movies at least far back as "Overexposures: The Crisis in American Filmmaking" (1981), and he's been writing about his crisis ever since. To put it in a sentence that could serve as the ending of one of his entries: I am willing to believe that he loves (or once loved) movies even if he doesn't like them very much. (Wait -- how does he conclude the Katharine Hepburn piece? "She loved movies, while disapproving of them.")
When I encountered the first edition of this book, the year I entered college, I immediately fell in love with it because it was not a standard reference. It was personal, cranky, eloquent, pretentious, pithy, petty, ambitious... It was, as I think Thomson himself suggested in the foreword to the first or second edition (this is the fifth), more accurately titled "An Autobiographical Dictionary of Film." Many times over the years I have implored my employers or partners to license digital rights to Thomson's book so that it could augment and be integrated with other movie databases and references (at Cinemania, FilmPix, Reel.com, RogerEbert.com)... but we've never done it. What, they would ask, is the "value-add"? (Really. Some people used to talk that way.) As a reference, its coverage is too spotty (Ephraim Katz's Film Encyclopedia is much more comprehensive but also has loads of incomplete filmographies), as criticism it's wildly idiosyncratic (nothing wrong with that) and as biography it's whimsically selective and uneven, leaving as many holes as it fills.
We tend to remember long takes that call attention to themselves as such: the opening shots of "Touch of Evil" or "The Player"; the entrance to the Copacabana in "GoodFellas"; all those shots in Romanian movies, and pictures directed by Bela Tarr and Jia Zhangke... And then there are the ones you barely notice because your eyes have been guided so effortlessly around the frame, or you've been given the freedom to explore it on your own, or you've simply gotten so involved in the rhythms of the scene, the interplay between the characters, that you didn't notice how long the shot had been going on.
For this compilation, "Deep Focus," I've chosen eight shots I treasure (the last two I regard as among the finest in all of cinema). They're not all strictly "deep focus" shots, but they do emphasize three-dimensionality in their compositions. I've presented them with only minimal identifications so you can simply watch them and see what happens without distraction or interruption. Instead, I've decided to write about them below. Feel free to watch the clips and then re-watch (freeze-frame, rewind, replay) the clips to see what you can see. To say they repay re-viewing is an understatement.
Click above to REALLY enlarge...
UPDATED 01/28/10: 2:25 p.m. PST -- COMPLETED!: Thanks for all the detective work -- and special thanks to Christopher Stangl and Srikanth Srinivasan himself for their comprehensive efforts at filling the last few holes! Now I have to go read about who some of these experimental filmmakers are. I did find some Craig Baldwin movies on Netflix, actually...
Srikanth Srinivasan of Bangalore writes one of the most impressive movie blogs on the web: The Seventh Art. I don't remember how I happened upon it last week, but wow am I glad I did. Dig into his exploration of connections between Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" and Jean-Luc Godard's "History of Cinema." Or check out his piece on James Benning's 1986 "Landscape Suicide." There's a lot to look through, divided into sections for Hollywood and World Cinema.
In the section called "The Cinemaniac... I found the above collage (mosaic?) of mostly-famous faces belonging to film directors, which Srikanth says he assembled from thumbnails at Senses of Cinema. Many of them looked quite familiar to me, and if I'm not mistaken they were among the biographical portraits we used in the multimedia CD-ROM movie encyclopedia Microsoft Cinemania, which I edited from 1994 to 1998, first on disc, then also on the web. (Anybody with a copy of Cinemania able to confirm that? My Mac copy of Cinemania97 won't run on Snow Leopard.)
Ow, my brain hurts. So, let's just get these out of the way, shall we? In the annual Village Voice/LA Weekly Film Poll, announced just before Christmas, 94 critics (including me) came up with 160 nominations for best films of 2009 -- and voted in a bunch of other categories, too, including Best Film of the Decade ("Mulholland Dr."). [My decade favorites are here.]
Meanwhile, Film Comment polled another big batch o' crix (a lot of the same ones, in fact) and came up with a somewhat different 20 Best of 2009 list -- and 150 Best Films of the Decade (topped by... "Mulholland Dr."). Just for fun, let us compare the two groups' Top Dozen for both year and decade:
The tong hackman is a little orange-blonde tattooed biker, most often dressed in a pair of black shorts, sandals that match his hair, and nothing else. He picks up a girl who has split with her motorcycle-riding boyfriend and becomes the Poutiest Girl in the World. They shack up on his father's land in a one-bed structure covered with a clear plastic tarp. She throws tantrums and torments him. There is a lot of drinking, smoking, fishing and cell phoning. He attacks his business with methodical professionalism, hacking and beating those who can't pay their debts to his boss. A gang of others arrive with machetes to take their revenge. Things get hot, and the boss tells him to get out of town to Guangzhou and hide out for a while. But what about the girl?
That's a basically accurate plot description of Yang Heng's "Sun Spots," a striking Chinese film that received its world premiere here at the Vancouver International Film Festival. But now let me come at it from another direction entirely....
Mike Myers' "The Love Guru" was chosen worst picture of the year in the Second Annual Ninth Annual Village Voice/LA Weekly Film Poll, in which I was but one of 81 balloteers. I may have been fortunate in that I didn't see it. Nor was I exposed to runner-up Alan Ball's "Towelhead," which was followed by a multiple tie for third-lousiest between "Burn After Reading," "Changeling," "Doubt," "Gran Torino," "Rachel Getting Married," "Step Brothers," and "Synecdoche, New York." The reason I mention this first is that most of these films (OK, not "Love Guru") were also chosen by some as among the best movies of the year, and they were directed by a few critical darlings: Joel and Ethan Coen, Clint Eastwood (twice), Jonathan Demme, Charlie Kaufman...
This year's poll favorites:
10) "Synechdoche, New York" (Charlie Kaufman, USA)
9) "Let the Right One In" (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden)
8) "Wendy and Lucy" (Kelly Reichardt, USA)
7) "Milk" (Gus Van Sant, USA)
6) "Waltz With Bashir" (Ari Folman, Israel)
View image "Zabriskie Point" -- an Antonioni movie on the cover of LOOK magazine in 1969: "Had he violated the Mann Act when he staged a nude love-in in a national park? Does the film show an "anti-American" bias? As a member of the movie Establishment, is he distorting the aims of the young people's 'revolution'?"
Watching Ingmar Bergman's "Shame" (1968) over the weekend (which I was pleased to find that I had not seen before -- after 20 or 30 years, I sometimes forget), I recalled something that happened around 1982. Through the University of Washington Cinema Studies program, we brought the now-famous (then not-so-) story structure guru Robert McKee to campus to conduct a weekend screenwriting seminar. McKee, played by Brian Cox in Spike Jonze's and Charlie Kaufman's "Adapation." as the ultimate authority on how to write a salable screenplay, has probably been the single-most dominant influence in American screenwriting -- "Hollywood" and "independent" -- over the last two decades. Many would say "pernicious influence." (Syd Field is another.)
It's not necessarily McKee's fault that so many aspiring screenwriters and studio development executives have chosen to emphasize a cogent, three-act structure over all other aspects of the script, including things like character, ideas, and even coherent narrative. Structure, after all, is supposed to be merely the backbone of storytelling, not the be-all, end-all of screenwriting. But people focus on the things that are easiest to fix, that make something feel like a movie, moving from beat to beat, even if the finished product is just a waste of time.
The film McKee chose to illustrate the principles of a well-structured story that time was Ingmar Bergman's "The Virgin Spring."
"Shame" is another reminder that Bergman's movies weren't solely aimed at "art" -- they were made to appeal to an audience. Right up to its bleak ending, "Shame" is a rip-roaring story, with plenty of action, plot-twists, big emotional scenes for actors to play, gorgeously meticulous cinematography, explosive special effects and flat-out absurdist comedy. I don't know how "arty" it seemed in 1968, but it plays almost like classical mainstream moviemaking today. (And remember: Downbeat, nihilistic or inconclusive finales were very fashionable and popular in mainstream cinema in the late 1960's: "Bonnie and Clyde," "Blow-Up," "Easy Rider," "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry"...),
It's important to remember that Bergman and his fellow Euro-titan Michelangelo Antonioni, who both died on the same day last week, were big-name commercial directors -- who also helped moviegoers worldwide see the relatively young, originally low-brow, populist medium in a new light: as a (potential) art form. (The Beatles, who in 1964-'65 were the most popular youth phenomenon on the planet, even wanted Antonioni to direct their second feature, after "A Hard Day's Night"!) And if they hadn't been so popular and famous, they would not have been so influential. These guys won plenty of high-falutin' awards at film festivals, but they were also nominated for Oscars in glitzy Hollywood.
From "Syndromes and a Century."
Manohla Dargis (one of my favorite critics) does a fine job of putting the New York Film Festival into perspective in today's New York Times. This is very much the kind of realistic historical and aesthetic evaluation I've been hoping somebody would write, ever since I posed my own questions about the role and relevance of today's NYFF, in posts and comments here and here. Dargis writes: Good, bad and sometimes just blah, most of the selections in the coming week support Mr. Peña’s assertion that the festival represents something like the state of the art. Too bad the fine art has to share precious shelf space with white-elephant frippery like “Little Children��? and “Marie Antoinette.��? Along with the similarly audience-friendly film “The Queen,��? which was released in theaters the day after it opened the festival, these selections feature the bulk of the recognizable faces in the event. All three are red-carpet bait, the sort of star-gazing entertainments that attract the mainstream-media attention that is so crucial for festivals from Cannes to Los Angeles. All three are also being released by a studio or studio division, and are among the small set of English-language films that will dominate awards chatter until the Oscars in February.
Given the increasing competition for the audience’s attention, it would be easy to justify putting any one of these three in the festival: films like “The Queen��? sell tickets (and newspapers), and probably make board members happy. But it is harder to justify programming all three in a festival with just 25 slots in its the main section. The New York Film Festival isn’t a grab bag; it’s an elitist event for film lovers willing to shell out as much as $40 a show. In a D.I.Y. world with too many choices, including an estimated 600 film festivals, some of which have seriously deep pockets and no qualms about pandering to their audiences, elitism is a virtue. It’s also this festival’s greatest strength.
The public’s appetite for serious work of the sort that has defined the New York Film Festival since its inception in 1963 has diminished, at least in theatrical terms. The generation that watched Jean-Luc Godard’s “Masculin Féminin��? at the festival in 1966 and continues to get to Lincoln Center this time of year, still sometimes frequents its local art-house theater. Not so, apparently, that generation’s progeny: a similarly large and dedicated younger audience for filmmakers like Mr. Weerasethakul ["Syndromes and a Century," also shown in Toronto], whose films show at prestigious festivals the world over, racking up ecstatic reviews along the way, has yet to emerge in America. That said, the vanguard of fiercely engaged cinephiles blogging online about the latest in Korean cinema suggests that a new generation of passionate filmgoers could emerge with more nurturing.
There are a multitude of complex, interconnected reasons why foreign-language cinema has taken such a hit, including its displacement by American independent film in the public’s over-multimedia-stimulated imagination. In this climate small distributors are finding it difficult to take chances with challenging, difficult, thoughtful (each adjective another kiss of death) foreign-language films, even when individual titles come equipped with glowing notices and the imprimatur of a world-class festival like Cannes. When even well-received American independent films like “Old Joy��? and “Mutual Appreciation��? are facing a tough market ride, it becomes increasingly difficult for a director like Mr. Weerasethakul to get a toe in the distribution door. His films don’t look, sound or play like the usual Hollywood or Sundance fare; they are, like their director, sui generis.
It’s great that “Syndromes and a Century,��? which has yet to find an American distributor, is on the menu this year; too bad that the entire program isn’t similarly adventurous. It has always been the case that some good films, like Jia Zhang-ke’s “Dong��? and Tsai Ming-Liang’s “I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone,��? both of which showed at recent festivals, don’t make it into the New York lineup. ["Dong," shown in Toronto, is a companion piece to "Still Life," which won the Venice festival this year and was belatedly added to the Toronto line-up, but neither "Still Life" nor "Dong" is in NYFF.] Festival programming is always a matter of timing, taste, desperation, politics and logistics, not to mention worthiness. But if the New York Film Festival is going to remain relevant in these difficult movie times, it needs to work harder to secure the best, and it needs to nurture a new audience, not just dine out on the faithful. Whether it scales up or retains its modest proportions, it needs to embrace the very exclusivity that makes it occasionally maddening and generally indispensable. Brava! As a recent NY commenter here at Scanners recently reported, the NYFF is running a trailer for itself saying something like: "Some people accuse us of being selective and having high standards, but that's what our audience expects from us." I'm all for elitism -- as long as it implies having standards. Simply having a small number of slots does not alone make a festival "selective" or "elitist" or "prestigious" or "exclusive." It makes it limited. And that's fine. Telluride (held over Labor Day Weekend) doesn't have all that many slots, either. A festival is defined by what its programmers do to fill the slots that are available. As a film festival programmer myself (from the epic Seattle International Film Festival to the "exclusive" Floating Film Festival), I know how hard it is to program these events, whether you have hundreds of showings or only a few, so I am fully sympathetic. But any festival needs to figure out its identity and its role in the film culture (based, in part at least, on its location and its desired audience). I think Dargis's assessment of NYFF is right on.