Friday, September 21, 2007

An Injury to One

An Injury To One
Direcetd by Travis Wilkerson

I have a certain amount of class rage. I don’t have any complaints about my own life. Whatever hardships, pain, loss, troubles, indignities, and so on, that I might have endured, I regard as a natural part of human life, and a relatively privileged existence I’ve had, really, especially for one who would be considered most definitely underpriveleged in this culture. I feel lucky and always have. But I do have a certain amount of class rage.

What this film does is endorse my rage, pure and simple. I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that An Injury To One is about the murder of IWW activist Frank Little in Butte, Montana in 1917. Who did it? That’s what the film is about. And why they did it. And what else they did. And what that means.

What does it mean?

I don’t know. I don’t think there is a reason or a meaning for everything that happens to me, or for everything that I do, or, for anything else, necessarily. I do think that there are those who would rule us all, and don't mind what they do in order to achieve that. I love this film because it confirms just how serious all of this is, for me, more serious than my own rage. Whatever my own rage is.

An Injury to One takes me out of myself, just as looking up at a big sky full of stars takes me out of myself and into something bigger and more profound. The struggle for such pleasures to be contained in the context of a meaningful life for all is not a hopeless one. And this film reminds us, should we need it, of the penalties that can be paid by those who fight for it.

The story of Butte, Montana, of the Anaconda Mining Company, and of the Wobbly organizer Frank Little, is a telling account of a significant moment in American labor history. It is given flavor by the involvement of Dashiell Hammett as a Pinkerton detective in events related to Frank Little's murder and possibly in the murder itself. Clearly, there was some inspiration for Red Harvest here, if inspiration is the right word. The formal beauty of An Injury to One somehow transcends the despair that is intrinsic to its story. There is music by Will Oldham, Jim O'Rourke and others, contrubting to that formal beauty.

An Injury to One does not seem to be available commercially, except for a direct purchase from Icarus Films at $390 for a DVD or VHS recording. I was just lucky to have been curious enough to record it when it played on the Sundance Channel, last year, I believe, or, possibly 2005,

Tuesday, September 4, 2007


Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey
Director: Steven M. Martin

Somewhere early on in this amazing documentary, theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore was playing the famous instrument in the 1930s, when I began to hear Jimi Hendrix. And I saw the whole history of electronic music spiral through my imagination. Trombonist/guitarist Eddie Durham plugging his guitar into an amplifier so that he would not disappear in the fabulous textures of the Count Basie Orchestra. Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker and Les Paul. The electric guitarists of jazz, blues, rock and related musical genres. Hendrix. The Beatles and George Martin. Everything that came after that, including techno. trance, jungle, industrial music, electonica, hip-hop, trip-hop. And before them all, Léon Theremin. It gave me goose bumps.

What is amazing about this film, though, is the story of the man who invented the instrument named after himself. The film starts with him describing his memories of being born. The story doesn't get any more commonplace as it continues. Theremin invented the theremin, the "thereminvox," in 1919 in Russia, during the Russian Civil War. He found his way to the United States, where he patented his invention in 1928. He married a young African-American ballerina, Lavinia Williams, causing a huge scandal in his social circle in New York City. He was kidnapped out of his apartment in Manhattan by KGB agents in 1938 and taken back to the USSR, where he remained for many years. At first he was imprisoned, and later labored in a gold mine. He was "rehabilitated" in 1955. He invented the first ever bugging device for the Soviet Union, and was awarded its highest honor by Joseph Stalin. He invented the first motion detector for automated doors. He invented an early version of the burglar alarm. In 1991, he returned to the United States and was reunited with Clara Rockmore. He died in Moscow in 1993, aged 97.

Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey has lots of footage and still photographs of its subject, including material from his early days in New York, with the young Clara Rockmore playing a theremin.

Clara & Léon

In fact, Clara Rockmore is a major figure in the documentary, linking the past to the future. Robert Moog is also an important figure in it, as the film shows how the theremin was adopted by film composers and electronic innovators like Moog. Later, Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys appears in the film's most invigorating sequence, explaining how the theremin became a crucial componet in the recording of "Good Vibrations," a seminal moment in pop culture history. The film also features Theremin's niece, Lydia Kavina, another theremin virtusoso whom Theremin himself trained.

Robert Moog describes how he was inspired as a teenager to build theremins of his own, using instructions found in a magazine; from there he went on to create the first synthesizer, and to make a significant contribution to the evolution of electronic music. Also, the film shows scenes from films such as Spellbound, The Lost Weekend and The Day the Eart Stood Still, in which the theremin was used to great effect. And it leaves no doubt that the revolution in music from acoustic to electronic that characterized the second half of the twentieth century began with this strange and fascinating man.

The film creates an impression of Léon Theremin the man as half mad scientist and half egomaniacal, driven artiste. Scenes towards the end of the film, showing his reunion with Clara Rockmore, are poignant in spite of the fact that Léon was apparently kind of a jerk. It is Clara who really wins the heart of the viewer, and anchors the story in terms of both its narrative and its emtional arc. She is just fabulous.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Insert No. 1

Something I think about a lot is the difference between seeing movies in a cinema with an audience, and seeing them at home alone, or with family and/or friends. Also, I think about the difference between seeing widescreen versions of films on a television monitor, and fullscreen versions, aka pan and scan.

Sometimes, I consider the proposition that I have not seen most of the films that I have seen, because of these concerns. The issue is brought home most clearly when you see a film on a small screen that you have already seen on a large screen. One film that comes to mind is John Schlesinger's Marathon Man, which I found truly hateful on the big screen. I thought that the violence was gratuitous in the worst way -- this from someone who had not had difficulty with the violence in Sam Peckinpah's films, for example. My second viewing of Marathon Man, was on a small screen and presented no such problem. Perhaps I had absorbed the ugliness of it at that point, and that was why, but I really did feel at the time that it was to do with the scale. A more recent example was my experience of Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans, a great favorite of mine, even though it was thoroughly disparaged by many whose opinions I respect. Innovations in sound created a whole new level of intensity in relation to the amazing ferocity of Wes Studi's portrayal of Magua. This was not gratuitous. The impact of Studi's portrayal added power to the overall impact of the film, and informed the narrative in a way that greatly enhanced the levels of feeling elsewhere in the narrative, and especially in the love story. Likewise, the visceral impact of another widely disparaged film, Ridley Scott's Gladiator, added a greal deal to the power of the narrative. In both of these cases, the film I saw in the movie theater was not the film that I saw on the television monitor. I have a pretty decent TV, the best non high def TV on the market, according to consumer reports, and a big enough screen to watch letterbox versions of movies without losing the power of the image. I did find that improvements in sound helped in the case of Mohicans. But it has never been the film that I saw at the Uptown, just down the street, where they first showed Star Wars in DC, and where I first saw Gladiator. I did not see Star Wars there, and I found it less than compelling on the small screen. Yawn. Sorry.

I recently recorded Children of Men off cable and watched it again, having seen it on the big screen when it opened. Not only was it on the small screen, it was the fullscreen version, so that you didn't even get to see the whole movie, just a cropped version of it. I must say that the amazing direction and cinematography retained their impact in spite of this.

Of the films that I have written about on this blog, none were viewed on a large screen (in a cinema). All The Movies Begin material, Baraka & The Story of Jazz were all seen for the first time on a TV screen. Baraka was seen in its letterbox version and The Story of Jazz in its widescreen version. It's been said that Baraka is breathtaking on the big screen and I don't doubt it. However, I did not find it insufficiently breathtaking on the smaller screen, I found it limited in terms of imagination.

I spend a lot of time at TCM. One has more of an illusion of experiencing the real thing, watching old black and white movies there, that were made before the advent of CinemaScope and so on. I've been around long enough to remember the old movie palaces, We had one in Swansea: The Plaza. We had cinemas up the wazoo. Downtown, there was the Plaza and The Albert Hall, the two primary first-run houses. Features would run for one week and then be gone. The Carlton and the Castle both combined first-run features with either B-movies or reruns, as well as having straight reruns. The Elysium and the Rialto were both double-feature repertory houses. Their programs changed every three days. And there were a great many others in the suburbs. It was a film culture, before the impact of television set in. There were many wonderful aspects to it, but it could also be very annoying. Audiences could be irritating, and that remains true today. I am very happy with TCM.

When I first lived in DC, I had come here after living in London, a great movie city. I was used to bopping around to out-of-the-way places to catch movies. I didn't know that I wasn't supposed to go to certain areas in Washington, and there were times when I watched a film with an entirely African-American audience. That was a whole other experience. I remember seeing Jack Starrett's Race with the Devil in that way, with my then-wife Andrea. It was amazing. The level of audience participation was unusually high, and it brought an extra dimension to the experience.

I saw Carrie and Jaws in packed houses with mixed, but largely African-American audiences at more mainstream movie theaters in the city, and the adrenaline levels went through the roof. That was a lot of fun.

My main complaint these days is the lack of letterox versions of old movies, and of newer movies, too, but especially the older ones. I've recorded fullscreen versions of Raoul Walsh's The Tall Men and Frank Tashlin's The Girl Can't Help It, somewhat reluctantly, because I recall so vividly the experiences of these films at the movies; and I've decided not to record (or watch) other films because I really want the widescreen versions. That's all for now.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

5 more Italian Films

Here are 5 more Italian films for the list I made for my friend Ray DiPalma (see previous post). First, let me say that a list of Antonioni films, period, would be perfect as a complete list, as far as I'm concerned. Likewise, a list of Spaghetti Westerns. Or, a list of every Italian film Sophia Loren ever made, if we want to go there, and I do.

My pal Ray, today

(1) Roma, città aperta / Open City (1945)
This makes my list as the Italian film that I have not seen, that I would most like to see. I just missed it at TCM recently. I'll make a DVD, next time. No list of Italian movies would be complete without at least one featuring the great Anna Magnani, as this one does. It's one of the great classics of Italian Neorealism, I do believe.

(2) La Dolce vita (1960), Federico Fellini
More telling than ever in this age of celebrity, which was in full swing back in 1960. Who can forget Anita Ekberg in the Trevi fountain? Water+light+glamor+sex=the definition of celebrity. Like many "blonde bombshells," Ekberg never got the credit she deserved as an actress. Society of the spectacle? Forget Guy Debord, it's all right here. Just kidding about Debord… "a social relationship between people that is mediated by images." Fellini saw it coming, saw it right there, in fact. Plus, there's Marcello Mastroianni, there's Bach…

(3) La Maschera del demonio / Black Sunday (1960), Mario Bava
How many mediocre scripts did Bava turn into movies that were compelling just because of the stunning color? A bunch. This one's in black and white, though. Such black and white, light and shadow, so beautiful, so full of atmosphere, so… composed. So moody, baby. Was this the film that made Barbara Steele "The Queen of Horror." I believe so.

(4) L'Eclisse / The Eclipse (1962), Michelangelo Antonioin
I had started to write about The Passenger, but then I thought that it was not an Italian film, only one of the greatest movies ever made, with an Italian director. Caertainly, there is a strong argument for L'Eclisse as one of the "greatest movies ever made," whatever that means. What it means in this case is amazing long takes, visual psychology, character created via cinematic poetry, all so hypnotic, so haunting.

(5) My Name Is Nobody / Il Mio nome è Nessuno (1973), Tonino Valerii
This film bugged me when I first saw it. How can you mock something (earlier Spaghetti Westerns) that is already a mockery (of Western movie conventions)? But then I thought about it, and it cracked me up. It's a mockery of a mockery, homage to the homage, homage to the mockery, a mockery of the homage, and it flies right back to Laurel & Hardy, as well as William S. Hart. Kaboom. Fonda is splendid. Terence Hill is all kinetic comedy, and dazzling action. No, they are not Spaghetti Westerns, that's a misnomer. They are Layer Cake Westerns, and this one has more layers than most. What fun. What great movieness.

more subberstamp work by Ray DiPalma

Friday, August 17, 2007

18 Italian Films

My friend Ray DiPalma mentioned that he was interested in seeing lists of Italian films. I know that Michael Lally is making one at his blog, so I thought I'd do one here. Mine is not an "18 best" or anything like that, although some of them would be on that list, too.

(1) Cabiria (1914), Giovanni Pastrone
Memorable for its great Temple of Moloch sequence, for its amazing camerawork, lighting and set design, Grand Opera acting, Hannibal crossing the alps, it's just full of goodies. A great silent epic.

(2) Stromboli (1949), Roberto Rossellini
Ingrid Berman as a Lithuanian WW2 refugee who marries an Italian soldier and goes to live in the town of Stromboli on an almost deserted island with an active volcano. It's kind of a spiritual quest set amid peasant life and ideological struggles. Bergman gives an unforgettable performance.

Ray, back in the day
photograph by Jos C Brilliantes

(3) La Donna del fiume / Woman of the River (1955), Mario Soldati
This was no masterpiece, but a workmanlike melodrama, imitating Bitter Rice with Silvana Mangano from six years earlier, both films featuring gorgeous peasant women working in water. This one caused a hormonal stampede in my 14 year old ecosystem, from which I never truly recovered.

(4) La Romana / Woman of Rome (1955), Luigi Zampa
Saw this back then, too, and don't remember it that well, but I remember Gina Lollobrigida being really good in the title role, as Adriana, a young woman who loses in love and then gets involved in prostitution. It was based on the novel by Alberto Moravia.

(5) Un maledetto imbroglio / The Facts of Murder (1959), Pietro Germi
Another movie I don't remember well, but I do remember its effect. It was very powerful, grotesque, funny, and extremely well directed, although maybe it was the editing as much as the direction that was so good. All about crime and the Roman proletariat, with Germi in the lead, and Claudia Cardinale in one of her earlier roles.

(6) La Notte / The Night (1962), Michelangelo Antonioni
Boredom and lust in the impersonal ambience of modern Rome. A very, very slow film, which I totally loved. Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni are perfect. Antonioni is a poet.

(7) Ieri, oggi, domani / Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1964), Vittorio de Sica
A sex comedy with Mastroianni and Loren having a lot of fun in three segments.

(8) L'ape regina / Queen Bee (1963), Marco Ferreri
As one IMDB reviewer put it, "Also the sonorous column did not escape to the attention of the censori. The scene of the carretto that it transports the rests of emains, was in origin commented from a “music too much similar to the boneses noise that dance, too much tintinnante” and, therefore, the cancellation was decided some." This is another one I don't remember well, but remember liking well. I went looking for memory help at the IMDB and found this crazy stuff. Queen Bee is another sex comedy.

(9) The Good, the Bad & the Ugly / Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo (1966), Sergio Leone
What can I say. This whole list could havc been Spaghetti Westerns. Here we have Clint at his Clintiest, and Leone and Morricone are just insane. Icons magnified beyond belief. It's mocking and elegaic at the same time.

(10) Teorema / Theorem (1968), Pier Paolo Pasolini
Famous for its extremely spare dialogue, Teorema has Terence Stamp and a stranger who seduces an entire wealthy Italian household, from the maid all the way up the hierarchy to the father. Lots of slow panning shots across the landscape in between boinks. I saw Terence Stamp once on a deserted street in London. I saw those eyes, man. He could seduce an entire species.

(11) Once Upon a Time in the West / C'era una volta il West (1968), Sergio Leone
Leone's masterpiece is stately, and detailed to the point of absurd exaggeration, but it never lets up. It's an ode to Westerns, a film in love with icons, with landscape, with ambiance, and with feeling.

(12) Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion / Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto (1970), Elio Petri
Gian Maria Volonté as a fascist cop. Amazing film. Corruption abounds. A deeply sarcastic, grim, political satire, a riveting, byzantine drama, a black comedy, and more Morricone.

(13) Love and Anarchy / Film d'amore e d'anarchia, ovvero 'stamattina alle 10 in via dei Fiori nella nota casa di tolleranza... (1973), Lina Wertmüller
This is my favorite Lina Wertmüller film, made at a time when she was just doing it, as they say. Giancarlo Giannini is a dumbass anarchist who sets out to assassinate Il Duce. Mariangela Melato is the prostitute whom he loves. Violent and chaotic, the story just grabs you where you live, and drags you into a wild conflict between love and social justice.

(14) Il Portiere di notte / The Night Porter (1974), Liliana Cavani
Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rambling in an erotic psychodrama, set in Vienna during the Nazi era. Bogarde is remarkable, his performance constructed through facial expression and body language, much more than the delivery of dialogue. A brilliantly painful film.

(15) L'Innocente / The Innocent (1976), Luchino Visconti
This was not Visconti's masterpiece. That would be The Leopard. L'Innocente was his last film, with Giancarlo Giannini as an upperclass brute fucking Jennifer O'Neill while married to Laura Antonelli. It's a brutal, serious sex comedy, sans comedy, but with lots of exquisite detail. I remember the camera carsessing Antonelli's clothes like a fetishist in love.

(16) Cristo si è fermato a Eboli / Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979), Francesco Rosi
Gian Maria Volonté again, this time as Carlo Levi in a film that contemplates philosophical issues in the context of peasant life during the Fascist rule in Italy. A nice piece of late neorealism.

(17) Il Postino / The Postman (1994), Michael Radford.
Yes, an Italian film directed by an Englishman. Its lead actor, Massimo Troisi died twelve hours after shooting ended. He had a heart condition, but didn't want to interrupt the filming because he believed so strongly in the project. Il Postino is insistently naïve and unabashedly sentimental. Philippe Noiret's Pablo Neruda is totally charming. Troisi is a heartbreaker.

(18) Malèna (2000), Giuseppe Tornatore
Monica Belucci is the object of desire in this symbolic story of a woman alone, struggling to survive in a small town at the end of WW2, while her husband is at war, and presumably lost. She suffers endless degradation, worshipped all the while by a young boy who follows her everywhere.

These are my Italian films.

rubber stamp work by Ray DiPalma

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Story of Jazz

Masters of American Music: The Story of Jazz
Director: Matthew Seig

This 93-minute documentary preceded the Ken Burns jazz project by eight years, and used a similar format, although not as creatively. Employing soundtrack, film, still photography and talking heads, director Matthew Seig traces the history of jazz from Congo Square to Ornette Coleman, approximately. There is footage of the usual suspects (sometimes it’s the usual footage), all of which is a delight, and a whole raft of testimonials, from Bud Freeman to the inevitable Wynton Marsalis. They are all pretty terrific, too. Roy Haynes is my favorite among them; with a few choice words, tone of voice, facial expressions, and the shifting of the gum in his jaw, he just nails it. Diz is awesome, too.

It’s just too bad that America is so bored by its own history that it even ignores the present.
Our addiction to instant gratification recalls the rat in the famous experiment, that continued to nudge the pleasure button, neglecting its own need for food and sleep, until it died. We need history because it provides a deeper pleasure by providing context and continuity, if pleasure is all we care about. There should be so much more on this subject, more documentary films, more photographs, and more books. Why were there not more feature length documentaries made in the 1930s? The 1940s? The 1950s? The 1960s? The 1970s? The 1980s? The 1990s? Is the answer the same in every case? Why was Don Cheadle not cast as Albert Ayler in a biopic, ten years ago? Why does Cecil Taylor not have his own TV showcase? Why does Wynton Marsalis not have his own TV show? We all know the answers, of course. If there were an Albert Ayler biopic, either Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler would be cast as Albert, no doubt.

The Story of Jazz is an excellent piece of work, good for personal viewing, and a perfect classroom introduction to the culture of the music know as jazz. There’s a good script by Chris Albertson, intelligent structure, and there ‘s Louis Armstrong, , Willie "the Lion" Smith, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. Dig it.


Thursday, August 9, 2007


Director: Ron Fricke 1992

Thinking of the possibilities of film, especially those not realized to any significant degree, one must approve of Baraka, a film that is both loved by many and despised by many. I am in neither camp.

snow-monkey in hot springs

Here is Hal Hinson of The Washington Post, reviewing it in October, 1993.

“Shot in 24 countries on six continents over a stretch of 14 months, this completely wordless, plotless film by director Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magidson fulfills the "magic carpet" promise of the movies to a previously unimagined degree. Floating high in the air, you peer over the edge of a gurgling volcano in Hawaii, then sweep down to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, or Ryoan-Ji temple in Kyoto, or Lake Natron in Tanzania, or the fire plains of Kuwait, their oil fires burning like the eternal flames of the dead.”

& again:

“Definitely, Baraka is from the Joseph Campbell school of mystical-mythical pseudo-anthropological neo-Jungian New Age filmmaking. And yet very few artists of any kind possess the determination that this team shows to get it not just right but perfect. As a result, nothing in this epic visual poem is less than extraordinary. The film's curious, gliding camera (Fricke serves as his own cinematographer), Michael Stearns's eclectic, ethnic score, the slow, silken rhythms of the editing, the choice of subject and location, all these things contribute to the movie's spell.”

& here is an IDMB critic:

This slick collection of 'breath taking' landscapes and decontextualized, largely aboriginal peoples, attempts to thread together a global panorama that ends up levelling all of human culture in its mawkish will to universalize. It winds up playing like an extended tourist board advert, or else the bloated music video to a new age concept album, and winds up reeking of saccharine, entirely apolitical, sentiment. As such it would no doubt appeal to those desperate to find a shred of profundity in their entirely meaningless existences, but for the rest of us there can only be a sense of nausea at this cinematic violation of human rights. It is only its well meaning political correctness that seperates it from the numbing Faces of Death films of the nineteen eighties. Avoid at all costs if you have a shred of integrity.

Bromo caldera volcano, East Java


Summary: Nature is GOOD. Primitive tribes are GOOD. The Holocaust was BAD. So is WAR. Our everyday life is TOO FAST and leads to the TORTURE of BABY CHICKENS. PEOPLE, although not YOU because you are GOOD because you felt bad about the BABY CHICKENS, should SHAPE UP BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE.

& here is my old friend “tedg” at IDMB

Native people are not intrinsically wonderful. They are as evil and ecologically inept as we. The magic is in the difference, not the being itself. Romanticizing something as is done here, does a great disservice because what we see has nothing to do with what or who they are, and everything to do with excuses we make to ourselves in order to exist.

Friends, when you watch these "natural" people, take a moment to consider that everything you see is posed. Every scene was prefaced by the director arranging and prodding and placing them and us just so.

Consider that every photo you see here of nature is perfectly framed to be wholly contained in the boundaries of the screen: Nature isn't like that, it’s an infinite flow. What we have here are the motivational posters neatly snipped from nature and bounded. These are sound bites and as a result are every bit as repulsive as political utterances from the "other side."

One scene is a ritual ceremony of lovely native women undulating. Its truly wonderful cinema. No mention of the ritual itself: celebrating the scarring closed of pudendal lips after circumcision. There's a nice scene of an Australian marking his face with color. It says a lot that the color is acrylic and the instrument he is using is a plastic comb.

I like “tedg” – (s)he’s one of my favorite IDBM reviewers. “the red duchess” is my absolute favorite, though. (see link)

Most of the IDMB reviewers who love Baraka really go over the top, but we won’t hear from them today.

Baraka was filmed in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Ecuador, Egypt, France, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Kuwait, Nepal, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey, and the United States.

Very early in the film there is a snow monkey sitting in a hot spring, just grooving, in the mountains of Japan. The monkey looks so intelligent. Eventually, (s)he looks up at the sky and closes his/her eyes. Meanwhile, there is a snow leopard somewhere in the background. It’s one of my two favorite segments in the film. When the film moves on and unfolds, it is easy to imagine the whole spectacle as a dream the monkey is having.

Director Ron Fricke was the cinematographer for Koyaanisqatsi, the first of the Qatsi films by Godfrey Reggio. Koyaanisqatsi has been compared to a coffee table book. I have not seen Koyaanisqatsi, but I do like (some) coffee table books. I was sufficiently put off Reggio’s film by the fact that Philip Glass composed the music for it, that I did not see it. Criticisms of Baraka made it seem like something that you’d want to hide under the coffee table. What I liked about it was very simple, the basic idea of a wordless film without a literal narrative. Fricke claimed to not have an agenda, but there does seem to be one, satirized in the “NATURE is good” comments above. I didn’t care about that. I didn’t care that the narrative was lacking in any real point of view about its images, such as the oil fires of Kuwait, burning on after the 1991 Gulf War. I’ve seen Baraka several times now, and it always creates a fantasy of having the opportunity Fricke had, making this film, and of what I would do with it. I’d have more monkeys. And poets.

The one sequence I do love in the film is
the Balinese Kecak Dance.

"Kecak (pronounced: "KEH-chahk", alternate spellings: Ketjak, Ketjack, and Ketiak), a form of Balinese music drama, originated in the 1930s and is performed primarily by men. Also known as the Ramayana Monkey Chant, the piece, performed by a circle of 100 or more performers wearing checked cloth around their waists, percussively chanting "cak", and throwing up their arms, depicts a battle from the Ramayana where monkeys help Prince Rama fight the evil King Ravana. However, Kecak has roots in sanghyang, a trance-inducing exorcism dance."

Kecak Dance, Bali

You can see this at youtube:

At the end of the movie, one really does have the urge to go make something like it, but better, using all of the possibilities of film. Looks like "tedg" did have a good argument (see post on The Movies Begin 1), when he argued for a more imaginative kind of filmmaking than that to which we've grown accustomed. At least, it's possible to get a tangible sense of that, after watching Baraka, whatever it's flaws and virtues might be.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

The Golden Age of “Foreign” Film

(The film still shows Zbigniew Cybulski and Ewa Krzyzewska in Ashes and Diamonds.)

Let’s begin by asserting that the idea of a “golden age” is corrupt from the get-go, that it’s just another form of abject nostalgia. Then, let’s disagree with that, immediately and emphatically. There was a golden age of “foreign” film. It began with the Italian Neo-Realist films of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, and the rise in prestige of Japan’s Akira Kurasawa and India’s Satyajit Ray, and continued with the arrival of more directors, Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, and Michelangelo Antonioni, and the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Then came the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague), and art houses were everywhere. Anna Magnani, Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, Toshiro Mifune, Jeanne Moreau, Brigitte Bardot, Jean-Paul Belmondo were all huge stars who “crossed over” into English-language movies. The cult of the auter was accompanied by the cult of the film critic. In the US, Dwight MacDonald, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris wrote their own bibles. Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Luis Buñuel, and the aforementioned big-name directors received massive amounts of attention. Debate and controversy abounded. Somewhere in the middle of all this came Susan Sontag with her valorization of the new cinema, and especially of Robert Bresson, Bergman and Godard. Somewhere in the middle of all this came a significant moment, involving a propensity to recognize film as a legitimate art form, perhaps even equal to the “legitimate” theater. This was part of a larger moment.

In the 1950s, the music of the Dave Brubeck Quartet and the Modern Jazz Quartet, with their references to Bach and other “classical” composers, had led the guardians of art and culture to consider the possibility that jazz was “serious” music, as though West End Blues and Black and Tan Fantasy, Ornithology and Off Minor were somehow not serious. Nevertheless, a door was opened.

The folk music revival of the fifties and sixties rescued several old blues guys from obscurity, and, combined with the years of field work done by Alan Lomax, this gave a degree of artistic merit to the blues, albeit based in the idea of “social value “ deeming artistic credibility.

Even rock music got the treatment, as Bob Dylan and Lennon & McCartney were recognized as more “adult” and more “musical” than their rock’n’roll forerunners.

Meanwhile, the jury was still out on the subject of photography.

But film was in. And what was more , work that had been done at the French film magazine Cahiers du cinéma was taking its effect. Edited by future film director Éric Rohmer, with writers such as other future film directors, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut, it produced criticism (in the 1950s and 1960s) which honored the achievements of directors who had worked in the old Hollywood studio system. These included Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks, Samuel Fuller, Robert Aldrich, Nicholas Ray, and Anthony Mann. Film culture had arrived, bigtime.

New films by the directors of international cinema were greeted with acclaim and/or dismay; they were widely debated as to their substance, their meaning, their significance, and their importance. By the 1970s, I found the situation ironic, and not in a good way. The works of directors I had admired so much, ten or more years earlier, and still did admire, were now being used as a measure in order to dismiss most new American films, and even some European films, such as Sergio Leone’s , and other “spaghetti” Westerns. I came to dislike the words “cinema” and “film” and preferred “movie” as a usage that would distance me from the snobbery which I found ugly and stupid.

So much has changed since then. Terms like “film noir” no longer have any true meaning: they are just marketing tags. And the products of international cinema are hard to come by, much of the time, unless you are a devoted follower of film festivals. The golden age of international film did a slow fade through the 1908s into the background, where it has remained. I think that Star Wars was the turning point, the beginning of the age of special effects, with endless explosions, car chases, and more and more special effects. It is the cinema of endless orgasm, no foreplay, no actual sex, and no post-coital cigarettes (God forbid).

There have been recent, international films that have had some currency, such as Amélie, but Amélie is a very long way from Hiroshima mon amour and Vivre sa vie.

However, Godard (77years old) and Resnais (85 years old) do survive. I recently saw Coeurs / Private Fears in Public Places (directed by Resnais) at the Avalon. It was a good film, a character study mostly, that could have been made by any number of directors. This, too, was a long way from Hiroshima mon amour.

Godard is still going strong, but the hostility that greeted his WeekEnd in 1967 now seems to be universal. His extended TV series/video essay Histoires du Cinema was screened at The Museum of Modern Art as each episode appeared, between 1988 and 1998, but it remains unavailable on DVD, perhaps because it has been compared to Finnegan’s Wake. Not even Godard’s 84 minute 2004 condensation of the series is available.

Of this latter work, film critic Robert Keser had this to say:

“I need a day to tell the history of a second, a year to tell the history of a minute, a lifetime to tell the history of a day.” That’s the film artist’s dilemma, or one of them, according to Jean-Luc Godard in his intense and visually stunning Moments Choisis des Histoire(s) du Cinéma. With the authority of his half-century of filmmaking, from his jump-cut debut Breathless to last year’s Dantean Notre Musique, Godard here compresses into 87 mercurial, stimulating minutes his decades-in-the-making labor of love called Histoire(s) du Cinéma, which otherwise runs to eight parts and exceeds five hours. What he has produced is less a summary than a tasting menu of the greater work, his attempt to place cinema “against the unfeeling vastness of time.”

However, Notre musique (also 2004) is available on DVD. Structurally, it is based on The Divine Comedy. Is it enough to say that in the third part Paradise is walled off and guarded by U.S. military forces? Someone named “cnamed” at the IMDB had this to say about it: “He has begun to rely again on Borges, which is always good, and there is much less Merleau-Ponty.” I’d like to know more about that. There is Merleau-Ponty’s idea of every object being a mirror of all other objects, and Jean-Luc does talk in Notre musique about Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday as being the same character as each other. But it’s been many years since I swam in the waters of existentialism, and I doubt that “cnamed” was being that literal. Of course, there are doubles in Borges, too, but I don’t know – maybe I’ll send an e-mail to “cnamed” to see what (s)he says.

Still photograph from Godard’s Moments choisis des histoire(s) du cinéma (2004)

Godard has a new “documentary” called Vrai faux passeport (2006), but there is no sign of that on the radar,

There are at least five other “golden age” survivors still kicking.

Andrzej Wajda (81) has a new movie, Katyn coming out in Poland this September. I had no desire to see his last film, Zemsta / The Revenge, a farce based on an 18th century Polish play, featuring Roman Polanski. The last Wajda film I saw was the excellent Danton (1983), with Gérard Depardieu in the title role, which had some compelling parallels in the story of Danton and Robespierre with real life conflicts between Solidarity union leader Lech Walesa and the dictatorial Polish leader General Jaruselski. Wajda was always a very politically conscious filmmaker. Popiól i diament, better known as Ashes and Diamonds, was always one of my favorite films of the early “golden age” and maybe the most brilliant film ever made about postwar Europe. Wajda made a lot of films during the last twenty-five years, but few of them seem to have made it to DVD.

Nagisa Oshima (75 tears old) is still with us, but has not delivered anything since Gohatto / Taboo (1999). I know nothing about this film, except that it is available on DVD. I’d like to see his prior effort, 100 Years of Japanese Cinema, but it was made for TV and is not available.

Agnès Varda (79 years old) is still working regularly, and gave us Quelques veuves de Noirmoutier (2006), a 70 minute documentary about the island of Noirmoutier, which she had visited frequently with her late husband, the director Jacques Demy. From what I can gather, the film is about the lives of fifteen widowed women. Don’t worry, it is not available.

Éric Rohmer (87 years old) has completed a film,
Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon, based on novels written by Honoré d'Urfé at the beginning of the seventeenth century, coming to your local cineplex momentarily, no doubt.

And one of my personal favorites, Claude Chabrol (aged 77), has a new movie, too – La Fille coupée en deux, for which the IMDB offers the following plot keywords: Extramarital Affair / Bookstore / Birthday / Lyon France / TV. Who can resist? It’s a thriller, as so many of Claude’s films have been. This is the fourth film Chabrol has made since the last one I saw, Le Fleur du mal (2003). Does the title remind you of anyone? The IMDB plot keywords for this one are: Attempted Rape / Beach House / Croissant / Dark Secret / Desire. It’s an upper-bourgeousie melodrama about family secrets, with the fabulous Nathalie Baye as the central character, who decides to run for mayor and opens up a can of not always convincing plot developments. It’s not one of Claude’s best, but I loved it. There’s always stuff going on. As one critic pointed out, “The deliberate Renault Twingo product placements are quite funny as they get more elaborate as the film progresses."

Allez vous, Claude!

Antonioni & Bergman

Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman

Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman both died on Monday, July 30. Antonioni was 94, Bergman 89. These two revered directors were part of a kind of golden age of “foreign” films, both of them tremendously creative, imaginative filmmakers, and each of them had a reputation (not always undeserved) of being a dealer in angst. Yes, there was angst-a-plenty, but so much more besides.

My favorite Antonioni movie is The Passenger / Professione: reporter, with Jack Nicholson (giving his most understated performance ever) and Maria Schneider. It is visually amazing and just full of cinematic and narrative goodies. It has one of my favorite exchanges of dialogue, ever, between David (Jack) and The Girl (Maria):

“People disappear every day.”
“Every time they leave the room.”

I’ve seen all seven features that Antonioni made between 1960 (L’Avventura) and 1975 (The Passenger), but none before (he made his first documentary short film in 1943), nor since (his last work was a segment of the 2004 compendium film, Eros). Now I’d like to see everything.

I showed Blowup to one of my classes about four years ago. I thought, it has sex, nudity, mystery, a little violence, a photographer as the main character (a bonus for art students, you’d think), and some live, classic rock – The Yardbirds. Not to mention the fact that it’s a totally original piece of work, and so on. Plus, I’d prepared my students for it very well. They hated it. They were numb with boredom within half an hour. You could see it on their faces. Not one of them liked it. They’d have preferred Weekend at Bernie’s II, I’m sure, or, anything cheesy that they could have laughed at. I wasn’t disappointed in them. I was disappointed in where we were, in where this culture was.

I’ve seen a whole lot of Bergman’s films. I don’t have a favorite, although I’d name Shame / Skammen, if I had to pick one. It’s a very dark film in every sense, about war. There was something about its (physical and psychological) landscape that resonated with me, maybe having to do with the world into which I was born. I saw his last film, Saraband (2003), which was made for television, an unacknowledged sequel to Scenes from a Marriage (1973), which originally was a Swedish television miniseries. It was a perfect epilogue to his extraordinary career.

I have a great sentimental attachment to these two directors, and I value their works to no end. I am sorry that they have departed from this life.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Movies Begin part five

The Movies Begin: A Treasury of Early Cinemas (1894-1913) Volume Five: Comedy, Spectacle and New Horizons, 1908-1913

This is the last post in a series of five on this subject. There may be some value in scrolling down to the first entry and starting from there.

Max Linder was the first great comic genius of the silent era (before Chaplin and Keaton). This disc contains Max reprend sa liberté / Troubles of a Grass Widower aka Max and the Fowl (1912), in which Max is left alone after his wife leaves him, and has to fend for himself, with dire results. It is sophisticated fare for its day, and still very funny.

The disc contains three other comedies, including the debut of the Keystone Cops in Bangville Police, with Mabel Normand; and Jean Durand’s Onésime horloger / Onésime, Clock-Maker (1912), written by Louis Feuillade. This features Eugene Bourbon as the title character, who speeds up time in order to get an inheritance as quickly as possible. Durand uses time-lapse photography to create variations on the film’s one joke, which has everyone careening around like mad. This was another film beloved by the Dadaists and Surrealists, and was a model for René Clair's experiments with motion in Entr'acte (1924), based on a screenplay by Francis Picabia, and featuring cameos by Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. Bourbon’s performance in Onésime includes a head-scratching mannerism that would be made familiar by Stan Laurel. It’s dated now, but great fun,

Luigi Maggi’s Nerone / Nero, or the Fall of Rome (1909), is a color tinted 14 minute drama that in some ways anticipates Giovanni Pastrone’s great epic Cabiria (1914). It’s slow going, but has something of the feel that has informed all the cinematic depictions of Rome.

Winsor McCay was American cinema's first great cartoon animator. This disc contains Winsor McCay and His Animated Pictures, a showcase for this creator of Little Nemo and Gertie the Dinosaur. If, like myself, you are unfamiliar with McCay’s work, this short film will make you want to see more, I would think.

There is a D.W. Griffth short on this disc, too, The Girl and Her Trust (1912), featuring Dorothy Bernard. It’s an excellent demonstration of both Griffith’s technical finesse and his ability to create authentic movie drama. The cross-cutting, the close-ups, and location shooting are all there, crude as they may be by today’s standards, and they work exceedingly well. Two things are obviously true as evidenced by the films in this anthology. One is how much movies have changed. The other is how they have not. And there’s a good deal of pleasure (and personal education) in finding out how.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Movies Begin part four

The Movies Begin: A Treasury of Early Cinemas (1894-1913) Volume Four: The Magic of Méliès

Georges Méliès was a supremely talented artist who made extraordinarily boring films, with some notable exceptions. Mr. Stop Motion was the master of the double exposure and a clever editor, but the “magic” in his films was often very literal. Much of his work serves as a perfect example of film in service to theater. He simply set up a stage show in front of the camera and filmed it. Worse, he was an illusionist, and many of his films are just magic tricks done for the camera and enhanced by special effects.

One of the exceptions to this is the deservedly famous Le Voyage dans la lune / A Trip to the Moon (1902), which is on the first disc of this anthology. Disc four is all Méliès, and it includes L’ Voyage à travers l'impossible / The Impossible Voyage (1904), a wonderfully imaginative, hand colored science fiction movie in which the special effects really are magical. As with A Trip to the Moon, it was based on a Jules Verne story. The sets and model-work are very creative, and, although it is as cinematically static as his other films, this 24 minute romp involving trains, automobiles, dirigible balloons, submarines and boats is totally silly and very entertaining.

The last item on this disc is Georges Méliès: Cinema Magician, a documentary by Luciano Martinengo and Patrick Montgomery, which I found impossible to watch, just because it seemed to consist mainly of more footage of Méliès performing magic tricks for the camera. After about seven or eight minutes, I gave up.

There’s no doubt that Georges Méliès is a significant figure in cinema history. A Trip to the Moon alone would guarantee that fact. He was the first to use production sketches and storyboards. Edison discovered stop-motion, but it was Méliès who explored its possibilities. In his bio at the IMDB, Chaplin is quoted, calling Méliès “the alchemist of light,” and D.W. Griffith, too, who said, "I owe him everything."

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Movies Begin part three

The Movies Begin: A Treasury of Early Cinemas (1894-1913) Volume Three: Experimentation and Discovery, 1898-1910

The oldest extant piece of writing contains a recipe for beer. No surprise, then, the very first advertisement ever put on film was for Dewar’s Scotch Whiskey (1898). It is on this disc. Also on this disc are two serious contender’s for my favorite works in this entire 5-DVD anthology: A Visit to Peek Frean and Co.'s Biscuit Works (1906), made by the Cricks and Sharp company, and A Day in the Life of a Coal Miner (1910), made by Charles Urban for the Kineto company. These two films constitute a crucial link between the “actualities” of the Lumière Brothers and others, and modern documentary film.

Featuring the use of indoor arc lighting, Peak Frean is a very plain film, twelve minutes long, showing people at work in a biscuit (cookie) factory. It is totally fascinating. This is a direction that film might have taken, simple documentation, showing the lives of men, women and children in their everyday endeavors.

The world of my childhood was closer to the realm of Charles Dickens than it was to the world I live in now; it was chronologically closer, too. I believe that documentary details of daily life back then would make very compelling viewing today. Just showing what people did and how they did it. The value of many period movies is based in recreating such details, such as the endless flow of movies set in the 1940s and 1950s, for example. I don’t believe that the hook of sociopolitical commentary is necessary to make such material compelling.

At least, we have everyday life of today covered: endless car chases, massive explosions, people turning into spiders, zombies roaming the streets. But I digress. Peak Frean and Coal Miner are sufficient evidence that minimal staging (people doing what they actually do, although inevitably conscious of being filmed), is more than enough. There’s an excellent account of and A Day in the Life of a Coal Miner by Ion Martea at Culture Wars, here:

There is a lot more on this disc, including short films by Cecil Hepworth and Ferdinand Zecca, the Edison Manufacturing Company’s ads, and Albert Capellani’s Aladin ou la lampe merveilleuse / Aladin, or the Wonderful Lamp (1906), with hand-painted color film and twelve minutes worth of vaudevillian antics. And there is the pièce de résistance, Edwin S. Porter's The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906), accurately described as, “…a stunning visual fantasy adapted from the comics of Winsor McCay.”

There’s a lot of experimentation and innovation in the films on this disc, and it does give credence to the claim that mainstream movies have been limited to particular narrative focus, but I would argue again that many of the possibilities indicted on this disc have been subsumed in that process, rather than eliminated. Watching these old movies really does give a fresh perspective to our views of film in our own time. It’s a journey worth taking.

The Movies Begin part two

The Movies Begin: A Treasury of Early Cinemas (1894-1913) Volume Two: The European Pioneers, 1895-1906

This disc contains the vital pioneering works of the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, as well as several early British innovators: Robert W. Paul, George Albert Smith, Frank Mottershaw, James Bamforth and James A. Williamson. Many of these short films are what were known as “actualities” – minute documentaries. There are experiments with stop-motion and special effects, even at this early stage.

Here is the first part of the description on the back cover of this DVD, regarding the Lumière films:

“While some consider the cinema a distinctly American invention, the most influential figures during its infancy were two brothers in France: Auguste and Louis Lumière. In the beginning, they dominated world film production and distribution. Through the magic of cinema, such ordinary sights as the demolition of a wall, the arrival of a train, a family enjoying breakfast, or workers exiting a factory were transformed into mystifying spectacles of light and motion, having their premiere on December 28, 1895.”

“Mystifying spectacles of light and motion,” does characterize the aesthetic value of these films. Beyond that, there is the historical value, and the not inconsiderable impact of getting views of “real life” and real people from more than a hundred years ago.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Movies Begin part one

The Movies Begin - A Treasury of Early Cinema, 1894-1913 (1903) 5 DVD boxset, Kino Video, 2002
Volume One: The Great Train Robbery and Other Primary Works, 1893-1907

If cinema has a prehistory, this would be it. Watching early silent films involves some adjustment in expectation. Having a serious interest in the origins of the art does help, and I don’t mean a purely academic interest, I mean an interest in elements of these early films that may enhance our appreciation of the art.

In a review of Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1915), an IMDB writer had this to say:

“I suppose it behooves us to know the history of cinema. Its not that long and some of this early stuff had unintended and possibly outrageous influence. The situation was that in the ten years prior there were all sorts of possibilities for film. It could have been an extension of painting, of dance, of photography (which then had a strong artistic tradition). But Birth of a Nation terminated all futures (at least until recently) and froze film as an extension of theater. That's a crying shame.”

There are many radical reviewers at IDBM, and “tedg” is one that I value, even though I disagree with him much of the time.

Les Vampires is a serial of ten epsiodes about a government investigator, played by Édouard Mathé, who tracks a gang of thieves and murderers – Les Vampires – in the Paris underworld, including the fabulous Irma Vep, played by Musidora. André Breton and Luis Buñuel were both avid admirers of this work.

I’m pretty far from convinced that the cinematic developments created by Feuillade, and by the makers of what were considered the first feature films had “frozen film as an extension of theater” as “tedg” claims. Enrico Guazzoni’s two-hour costume drama Quo Vadis? (1912, no longer in existence), Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914), two hours plus, and The Birth of a Nation (1915), two to three hours, depending the version, were the first feature length movies.

In purely cinematic terms, Griffith had been central in the evolution of a new vocabulary long before he made The Birth of a Nation. Even if his decisions about what to film were pedestrian, his decisions about how to film were a major contribution to the art. As far as narrative was concerned, that had been there all along, even with Lumiere’s workers leaving the factory and the train coming into the station, there was narrative. Maybe these innovators initiated a less than ideal form of narrative, one that was overly literal. I’m not so sure. Here is more from “tedg”:

“In fact, the pattern even extended to vast periods of time just watching people walk, climb (we have to see the whole thing) and run. In modern times, this extended to the convenient TeeVee filler of watching the detectives walk to their car, get in, start up and drive away. We have to see the entire thing. There's no art here, no innovation in framing, tone... any element. Just a history lesson in how the banal became acceptable.”

I admire his vigilance. I share his desire for imaginative filming and editing, and I do think that it has been most unfortunate that the domination of storytelling has forced certain kinds of filmmaking to one side.

However, there is a rich tradition of “alternative” cinema, from the work of Man Ray through Stan Brakhage, to Andy Warhol, Michael Snow, Chantal Akerman, and beyond, in which all kinds of possibilities have been explored and augmented. More significantly, the history of commercial cinema has endless examples of innovation that have extended film as an extension of painting, dance, photography, poetry, and so on. In fact, watching the movies on this DVD is fascinating for its own sake, but also as a reminder of the riches that followed these pioneering efforts.

The Movies Begin starts with a few Eadweard Muybridge sequences, then there’s a selection of Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscopes, a bunch of famous Lumieres. It ends with some celebrated landmarks of film history: Georges Méliès's A Trip to the Moon, Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery, and Ferdinand Zecca's Le Scarab’ee d’Or / The Golden Beetle. I was unfamiliar with the Zecca’s work, and amazed by Le Scarab’ee d’Or, a colorful pantomime with an amusing feminist sting in its tail.