Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Happy New Years! (TFR Top Ten of 2011)

Instead of the typical Top Ten, each entry is organized through thematic categories: (1) the presentation of the unconscious mind through cinema by the world's best Québécois directors, (2) Hitchcockian French thrillers starring the great Guillaume Canet, (3) late works by masters of American cinema, (4) these short films are precursors of what is to come out of Canadian cinema, (5) hybrid films that take the luster of mainstream movies, inflicting them with a singular and vibrant sensability, (6) horror, action and the supernatural reigns supreme, (7) some might call these middle-brow but they are undeniably well crafted and complex, (8) funny, smart, personal and full of feeling, (9) formally invigorating world cinema, (10) social activism, political documentary and anarchist films has been pushed to the margins of experimental cinema - these have been the most challenging.
Following the Top Ten there are a few other lists: best new film books, favorite local film critics, upcoming series etc...
I hope you've enjoyed reading Toronto Film Review and that you keep checking it out in 2012 - there is a lot more film coverage and book reviews to come. A special thanks goes out to everyone who contributed and helped. And make sure to check out the twitter account, TOFilmReview. - D.D.

"You know what, my films resemble more and more what children make in their rooms, when they make little expositions with rocks and seashells: I see more and more clearly my films, and more so the next one, like expositions of little things that I want to share." - Lars von Trier

Top Ten of 2011
 1.       Café de Flore (Jean-Marc Vallée)
          Curling (Denis Côté)
 2.       Espion(s) (Nicolas Saada)
          Une vie meilleure (Cédric Kahn)
 3.       Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman)
          Twixt (Francis Ford Coppola)
          The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
 4.       The Fuse: Or How I Burned Simon Bolivar (Igor Drljača) 
          Coorow-Latham Road (Blake Williams)
          Up In Cottage Country (Simon Ennis)
          La Ronde (Sophie Goyette)
          Three Mothers (Rafal Sokolowski)
 5.       Melancholia (Lars von Trier)
          Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
          You Are Here (Daniel Cockburn)
          Hors Satan (Bruno Dumont) 
          Un été brûlant (Philippe Garrel)
 6.       Super 8 (J.J. Abrams)
          Scream 4 (Wes Craven)
          Le Gamin au vélo (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
          The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 1 (Bill Condon)
          Attack the Block (Joe Cornish)
          Kill List (Ben Wheatley)
          Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)
 7.       Restless (Gus Van Sant)
          The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar)
          Pina (Wim Wenders)
          Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)
          Shame (Steve McQueen)
          The Adventures of Tintin (Steven Spielberg)
 8.       Hall Pass (Bobby and Peter Farrelly)
          How Do You Know (James L. Brooks)
          Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
          Bridesmaids (Paul Feig)
          We Bought a Zoo (Cameron Crowe)
          The Descendants (Alexander Payne)
 9.       Ne change rien (Pedro Costa)
          To Die Like a Man (João Pedro Rodrigues)
          The Strange Case of Angelica (Manoel de Oliveira)
          Mysteries of Lisbon (Raoul Ruiz)
          The Future (Miranda July)
          Le quattro volte (Michelangelo Frammartino)
          The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (Andrei Ujica)
 10.      Seeking the Monkey King (Ken Jacobs)
          The Forgotten Space (Allan Sekula and Noël Burch)
          Vapor Trail (Clark) (John Gianvito)
          This is not a Film (Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi)
          Slow Action (Ben Rivers)
          We Can't Go Home Again (Nicholas Ray)
          Too Many Things (Donigan Cumming)
Best new and discovered film books and writing:
  • Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy by Saul Austerlitz (Chicago Review Press, 2010).
  • The Film Comedy Reader edited by Gregg Rickman (Limelight Editions, 2004).
  • Comment Woody Allen peut change votre vie by Éric Vartzbed (Éditions du Seuil, 2011).
  • Apichatpong Weerasethakul edited by James Quandt (Austrian Film Museum, 2009).
  • Splitting the Choir – The Moving Images of Donigan Cumming edited by Scott Birdwise (Canadian Film Institute, 2011).
  • Pencil, Ashes, Matches & Dust by Donigan Cumming (Editions J’ai VU, 2009).
  • Trammel up the Consequences by Robin Wood (Lightstruck Film & Media Book, 2011).
  • Monte Hellman - Sympathy for the devil by Emmanuel Burdeau (Capricci, 2011).
  • Monte Hellman: His Life and Films by Brad Stevens (McFarland & Company, 2003).
  • Masters of Cinema: Francis Ford Coppola by Stéphane Delorme (Phaidon, 2010); as well as his writing and direction of Cahiers du cinéma.
  • When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade by Dave Kehr (University Of Chicago Press, 2011); as well as Kehr's weekly DVD review column in The New York Times.
  • The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 by Andrew Sarris (Da Capo Press, 1968).
  • Films And Feelings by Raymond Durgnat (MIT Press, 1971).
  • BFI Modern Classics - WR: Mysteries of the Organism by Raymond Durgnat (BFI, 2008).
  • Joseph L. Mankiewicz et son double by Vincent Amiel (Presses Universitaires de France, 2010).
  • World Film Locations: Tokyo edited by Chris MaGee (Intellect Ltd, 2011).
  • Optic Antics: The Cinema of Ken Jacobs edited by Michele Pierson, David E. James and Paul Arthur (Oxford University Press, 2011)
Best North American Repertory:
  • Anthology Film Archives.
Favorite local film critics:
  • Adam Nayman:
who writes for the Toronto alternative paper The Grid as well the more worthwhile Cineaste and Cinema Scope. His polemical pieces alongside his vocal position on certain kinds of filmmaking definitively elevates film criticism and the film critic to a higher plane. But more so then his writing, Adam's extracurricular activities like his classes at the Miles Nadal JCC have been one of the highlights of 2011. Who can forget the janitor cleaning the alleyway while the stragglers finished watching Goodbye, Dragon Inn or the ridiculously popular class on Woody Allen. More so then reading film criticism, the classes seemed like the next logical progression of it - the living incarnation. The classes are great as Adam's tone blends the informal and the academic and he illustrates the comments with film clips from a ripped DVD - everything seems to be light years ahead of the curriculum at the University of Ottawa. And going to The Pump and Shoeless Joe's after for pints with a group of people and friends is always a lot of fun. Adam's classes included New Wave Foreign Cinema Lectures In Nayman’s Terms and the two part series Love Em or Hate Em: Controversial Directors and MORE Controversial Directors. And Adam has a new class scheduled for the spring of 2012 at the JCC on Stanley Kubrick, with each class dedicated to a specific film. I know that I am speaking for more then myself when I say, we can't wait!

  • Andrew Parker:
  • for his writing at Criticize This! and Dork Shelf as well as his programming series Defending the Indefensible at the Toronto Underground Cinema. If you were to have told me a year ago that the state of Toronto's weekly film criticism is in good shape and that the best writing could be found on website's with silly names like Criticize This! and Dork Shelf, I would have probably laughed at you. But lo and behold, I was wrong. Andrew is the kind of guy that still writes his reviews longhand with an old pen and notepad. And Andrew's weekly reviews, which run around the one-thousand word mark, of the majority of new releases provides the most thorough readings of what is playing on Toronto's screens. With a special attention to the films that can gain from this critical support like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Beauty Day. As well he seems to be ahead of most trends as he can tell you why movies like Like Crazy and Margaret are terrific and his opinions stand out as he can also say why most commercial drivel is bad.

  • Along with Andrew's series Defending the Indefensible, there is also John Semley's (A.V. Club Toronto) new series Remake/Remodel, both of which I recommend and that I look forward to starting up again in the new year. As well there is a new class that seems interesting as part of the Media Mondays at the JCC, Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism presented by Kevin Courrier which will be running from January 16th to March 26th each Mondays starting at 7:00PM - except for February 20th and March 12th. As well, like always, there is Early Monthly Segments and Pleasure Dome for your experimental film fix, and the monthly film-blogger pub nights for some camaraderie. And while I am shouting people out, might as well bring up the Cinema Scope Twitter account CinemaScopeMag, which is a lot of fun too.
  • Most anticipated films of 2012:
    • Abel Ferrara's 4:44 Last Day on Earth and Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises. As well Kazik Radwanski and Antoine Bourges from Medium Density Fibreboard Films (MDFF) should hopefully have their current projects finished in the new year - I look forward to catching these two on the festival circuit.

    Thursday, December 15, 2011

    La Ronde and some recent Québécois films

    Congratulations to Igor Drljača and Sophie Goyette for their respective short-films The Fuse: Or How I Burned Simon Bolivar and La Ronde for making it onto Canada’s Top Ten short film selection for 2011. They will be screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of Programme B on Sunday, January 8 at 8:30PM, which I highly recommend going to.
    I am also still writing a third review of a few other Canadian short-films: Simon Ennis' Up in Cottage Country, Rafal Sokolowski's Three Mothers and Blake Williams' Coorow-Latham Road. - D. D.

    "More than a nouvelle vague, their cinema is perhaps foremost, and more importantly, a new cry. It is our job to know how to listen."  - Helen Faradji
    In her article Les cinéastes cinéphiles from the dossier on the Renouveau du cinéma Québécois in 24 images (N.152), Helen Faradji discuses Gilles Deleuze's concept of maniérisme to describe a group of feature-filmmakers that are revitalizing the Québécois cinematographic landscape. The filmmakers highlighted are Denis Côté, Maxime Giroux, Rafaël Ouellet, Myriam Verreault, Henry Bernadet, Xavier Dolan, and Stéphane Lafleur. Though I would also include Guy Édoin, Philippe Falardeau and, especially, Jean-Marc Vallée.
    Faradji uses the term maniérisme to speak about a third state of the image, “when the root of the image is always still an image.” The term maniérisme, which is derived from the Italian expression bella maniera, is appropriate to label these filmmakers. Like Baroque painters, they reject the rule that art should be an imitation of nature. Deleuze further expands on this style in his book The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque proposing that mannerism is about altering, twisting and folding visions of reality. This is something that these filmmakers also do as they meticulously set their scenes and place their camera - twisting and distorting reality for it to conform to their vision. The distinct character of this group of contemporary Québécois filmmakers can be traced to three attributes: mannerism as an operative function to capture reality while at the same time changing it, a keen awareness of contemporary cinema - what is good, and what they like - and unique funding opportunities (SODEC, NFB etc).
    Though the films of these diverse filmmakers are different, Faradji highlights reoccurring commonalities:
    “No sunny roads or alleyways with bystanders, but instead new locations (countrysides, suburbs, dumps, etc.) usually in dead mid-season. No idle chatter, stories that lead the viewer by the hand or didactic montages, but instead there is silences, contemplation, and narrative “holes” that force the viewer to focus his attention on the qui-vive […] While it first appeared a priori difficult to account for different approaches and tone of these filmmakers, their reunion under the banner of maniérisme, as well as their different use of formal elements, seems like the cement of their shared identity.”
    I propose to put forward two up-and-coming Montreal short-film directors to Faradji’s cinéastes cinéphiles banner and they are Anne Émond and Sophie Goyette.
    Émond’s short film Sophie Lavoie is exceptionally well-done in its minute social observations through indirect means as in a single-long take it explores the thoughts and feelings of a young woman (Catherine De Léan) as she is getting an STD test. It is about "modern love" as Émond describes it. While Émond also moved to full-length features as her Nuit #1 premiered in Canada First at TIFF 2011 and is being released in Montreal on December 16th. Nuit #1 is about a young woman who picks up a guy at a rave and then how she deals with the nights after effects. While there is also Goyette whose La Ronde I will be reviewing below. But to confirm these two and their generations passion for filmmaking here is a quote from an interview between Goyette and Sonia Sarfati from La Presse Suisse, “I adore writing, and directing is another form of writing. So I can’t really see myself giving my scripts to anybody else, just like I can’t see myself directing something somebody else wrote.” Émond and Goyette truly captures this new Québécois mannerism. They have a story to tell and a desire to share it through cinema.
    Sophie Goyette’s fourth short-film, and longest to date at twenty-three minutes, La Ronde is a rural Québec drama set in Laval about these identical twins Ariane and Alex Valencourt whose father Michael, who was suffering from schizophrenia, recently attempted suicide. They now have to decide if they want to ‘pull the plug’ on their father who is being kept alive by life-support systems. The twenty-three-year-old Ariane (played brilliantly by Éliane Préfontaine) has a plane ticket and she is ready to leave, while Alex does not really wants to go, even though he only works at a late night diner. Similarly to Sean Durkin's Martha Macy May Marlene and Steve McQueen’s Shame, the film explores the breakup of a family and how it affects both siblings differently through how they deal with the solemnity of the grieving process.
    La Ronde begins with an amazing circular shot of Ariane in her family home while she plays the piano. This sequence is similar to the opening of Catherine Martin's Trois temps après la mort d'Anna where a gifted violinist Anna performs a complex Beethoven concerto while her adoring mother Françoise looks on. You can tell that Ariane’ home has not been inhabited for a while, or at least has not taken care of, since it is messy and full of empty beer cans. The kitchen sink is full of dishes and for dinner Ariane makes a microwaveable dinners. There is a loneliness to the scene of her prodding the layer of plastic over the tray. Then Ariane walks through her father’s room where she listens to his voice on the answering machine and spells his deodorant. Ariane's grief is presented with an understated sensitivity. And then she is off into the night on her electric scooter.
    Ariane used to be the local high school football coach and she catches on the school’s playing field a few of the boys drunk. The beer cans are littered around and the boys are stumbling and then one of them barfs. Ariane brings the sick boy back to his parent’s house. And in the conversation with the kid’s father, who thought that his son was staying at a friend’s place, the viewer learns about Ariane’s father and the reason for his hospitalization – a suicide attempt. This father and Michael were co-workers in a nearby industrial park, which is a major contributor to Laval’s economy.
    Ariane then drives off to the top of a cliff, which looks down upon an industrial park. Where she stands a bit too close to the edge in is a close-up of her feet kicking little rocks off. She then decides to back away and drive off. Except that her scooter dies - it no longer works. All of this loss and stress has been building up in her and this is the breaking point. She has lost her parents and does not know what to do or where to go. In a vulnerable cry for help and protest Ariane yells out "câlisse". 

    And then, what does Ariane do? She kicks her helmet off the cliff à la Football kickoff and keeps moving onward into the night and forward in her journey.
    Walking on the side of an off-beat road, Ariane gets picked up in a car by a mysterious man (is he a criminal on the run?). After driving for a while they run into a dead deer lying on the middle of the road. The man wants to drive on top of the deer but Ariane decides to get out of the car to pull it out of the way. This appreciation of life, of all different species, reflects the films Christianity, the dominant Québécois religion. This was hinted at earlier while they were driving and passed a a brightly lit cross.

    While preventing this deer from being run over Ariane sees and hears something from off in the forest, which she decides to follow. In one of the most spellbinding sequences in the film Ariane follows this apparition. In a point-of-view shot through a dark grassy field with a path illuminated by a flashlight the soundtrack also shifts to the conversation between the brother Alex and a doctor discussing cutting off Michael's life support. When Ariane finally gets to what she has seen, it turns out to be a cow. The films mysticism and contrasts gives the impression that it is the father re-incarnated in the out-of-place farm animal. The texture of the scene feels very sci-fi supernatural or more concisely like Apichatpong’s oneiric Tropical Malady. As well this focus on animals seems like general trend in Québécois cinema as an owl played a large role in Halima Ouardiri’s Mokhtar as well Denis Côté’s new film Bestiaire (which is premiering at Sundance) is a documentary consisting solely of animals filmed in a Montreal zoo.

    There is a beautiful exposition shot of a brick wall with statues of white doves flying to the light, and then Ariane makes her way to the family’s tombstone. She spends the night there and in the morning she scratches out with chalk Alex and her name. She then calls her brother and says, "Je suis ici avec tois," “I am here with you”. To end La Ronde, Ariane is able reconcile her demons and find solace - her views making a full circle.

    David Davidson

    Sophie Goyette’s other short films include En parallèle (2008), À l’État sauvage (2009) and Manèges (2009). As well she is currently completing a new short, Le futur proche, and writing her first full-length feature film. La Ronde had it’s world premiere at the Big World for Short Films program at the Locarno Film Festival 2011 and also played in TIFF Short Cuts Canada and in the Focus Section of Montreal Festival du Nouveau Cinema.

    Thursday, December 1, 2011

    Ken Jacobs and Experimental Cinema (Toronto 2011)

    So far 2011 has been a good year for experimental film in Toronto. To list some of the highlights: In collaboration between The Free Screen and the Images Festival the Lightbox hosted a book launch, with two screenings, of Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000 with Kathy Geritz in attendance. Hot Docs programmed Allan Sekula and Noël Burch’s The Forgotten Space. The CFMDC and the Cinémathèque Québecoise released the complete work of Joyce Wieland on DVD, a first, and there was also an accompanying screening at Jackman Hall. Andréa Picard’s Wavelengths program (see: Bart Testa’s coverage) curated Ben Rivers’ Slow Action at Gallery TPW. Early Monthly Segments1 - a monthly experimental film series programmed by Scott Berry, Chris Kennedy and Kate MacKay - had an Owen Land memorial screening. The Pleasure Dome had the projection and book launch of Splitting the Choir; The Moving Images of Donigan Cumming, co-presented by Scott Birdwise. And to sidestep from these Toronto screenings, I went to New York for a week in October. Where I got to see Harun Farocki’s Images of War (at a Distance), which included Serious Games I–IV (2009–10). As well the Anthology Film Archives was having an Adolfas Mekas memorial retrospective where I got to see The Brig (1964).

    Now to top off these screenings there were the Ken Jacobs' projections and performance in Mississauga2 and Toronto on November 18th and 19th, which was part of the University of Toronto Arts Council 2011 "Speaker in the Arts" Series. Where Jacobs’ held a Nervous Magic Lantern performance and screened his 00's digital work, including his much anticipate Seeking the Monkey King, which recently played in Zuccotti Park in New York in conjunction with the Occupy Wall Street protests.

    How to best describe one of Ken Jacobs' Nervous Magic Lantern performances? It was to take place in the evening time on a Friday. I was surprised to see this university classroom - out in Mississauga! - so full with students. Nearing the 8PM start time the last minute stragglers were being rounded up by Jacobs who was helping them find a seat. The seating was arranged so that the chairs were centered and that the front rows had fewer chairs, so that the quantity progressed outwards with more chairs adding on to the edges. As well each row was higher then the previous one. It was kind-of like a pyramid of people facing forward. With the Nervous Magic Lantern set up at the center, back of the hall where Ken's long-time wife and collaborator Flo Jacobs was sitting.

    The Magic Lantern is a pretty primitive device whose origins are the 18th century lamp image-projectors. Wikipedia describes how they operate as such,
    "The magic lantern has a concave mirror in front of a light source that gathers light and projects it through a slide with an image scanned onto it. The light rays cross an aperture (which is an opening at the front of the apparatus), and hit a lens. The lens throws an enlarged picture of the original image from the slide onto a screen."
    The Nervous Magic Lantern has a rotating propeller that serves as a shutter over the lens, which gives the image a strobe-light effect. For Jacobs, the light source magnifies these various plastic slides that he changes sporadically over the hour-long performance. The light stops being projected between the slides and the room is in pitch-black3. I counted around twelve changes. These plastic slides, which the light passes through and are then projected onto the screen, are all different. They are hand-painted in a style that recalls the Abstract Expressionist - by that I mean colorful, formalist and non-representational - though one can always tease out specific images from them. As well these plastic slides are doubled and can be indented, bubbled, scratched and further manipulated. The pulsating image gives off a sense of three-dimensionality. While Jacobs can, and does, move the slides around to give the image a sense of motion - a form of motion that seems infinite as the objects always seem to be moving while never actually going anywhere. The image is being projected at the front of the classroom on a projection screen as well as the surrounding chalkboard and wall.

    Michele Pierson writes about the genesis of the Nervous Magic Lantern performances in his Introduction: Ken Jacobs – A Half-Century of Cinema in the new Oxford University Press book Optic Antics: The Cinema of Ken Jacobs (2011)4, which is edited by Michele Pierson, David E. James and Paul Arthur,
    “From the mid-1960s, Jacobs became increasingly involved in the development of a variety of performance projects: shadow plays (THE BIG BLACKOUT OF ’65: Chapter One “Thirties Man” [1965]), multimedia light and sound shows (THE BIG BLACKOUT OF ’65: Chapter four “Evoking the Mystery” [1968]), and diverse types of projection-based performance (including, in the early 1970s, a marathon multiple projector film performance at the Bleecker Street Cinema. […] Sometime in the late 1960s he began using the term paracinema to describe these works. Some, like the shadows plays and, much later, Nervous Magic Lantern performances, create the conditions for a cinematic experience entirely without film, while others exploit the creative potential of projection to make film newly and strangely resonant. Jacobs’ conceptualization of paracinema as a kind of parallel cinema, running alongside the cinema everyone already knew, brilliantly foregrounded the extent to which the technological and material parameters of cinema could still be considered up for grabs […] Precursors for the Nervous Magic Lantern performance are not to be found, as they are for the Nervous System, in the analytical experiments of Eadweard J. Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey, but in Thomas Wilfred’s colored light shows.”
    Jacobs' Nervous Magic Lantern paracinema have a unique quality to them as you are watching something pass before you that is unlike anything that has shown before or will show again. Jacobs' describes them in the Rountable on Digital Experimental Filmmaking5 in October (N.137) as, “each time I do it, I improvise. I can’t repeat what I did a previous time,” which is removed from the definitive performances one can find on the DVD transfer Celestial Subway Lines/Salvaging Noise (with John Zorn and Ikue Mori) (2005). All the while there is also something about sharing the experience with others, being in the same room with Jacobs, the uniqueness of the score (Jacobs has different scores), physically being under the light that is projected onto the screen, and sharing in the improvisation on how Jacobs' spins the projected plastic sheet - that contributes to a palpable sense of anticipation and then awe.

    At the performance there were a few introductions by three different professors, all brief and generous, and then Jacobs introduced the work. He discusses his studies with Hans Hofman who taught him how to better utilize the flatness of painting while being able to give it depth. His speech was evocative of Clement Greenberg’s essay Modernist Painting but transplanted Greenberg’s ideas towards image-projection instead of painting as Jacobs’ emphasis was on image self-criticism, focusing on what makes it medium-specific – it’s flatness – which removes it from the representational and literal while instead rendering it abstract.

    One thing about Jacob's work that is interesting is how it mixes formalism with the personal and the social. An example of this is the use of sound in the Nervous Magic Lantern performance. The audio soundtrack is a recording of Jacobs going out and being on the New York City subway. What do you hear? There is the whizzing of the subway, footsteps, people chatting, singing, and music. It continues as such until near the end, where Ken leaves the subway, goes up stairs to his apartment and he chats with his wife Flo. She asks him if he brought up the mail? No, he didn’t. There was only one envelope – the punch line of the performance. The Subway station sounds, just like the neighborhood in Window or the references to New York in Blonde Cobra, give Jacobs’ work a particularly New York City, American quality. As well the conversation with Flo continues the interlacement of his wife and family within his work. The formal-aesthetic qualities come from the visuals created by the Nervous Magic Lantern (as described above). This hybrid of elements leads to interesting results.

    1. The Early Montly Segments will be closing up for the year on Monday December 12th with a screening of Jack Chambers’ Hart of London, to coincide with an exhibition of Chambers’ artwork at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
    2. The performance took place on the UTM campus, where in the Blackwood Gallery there was a looped projection of Daïchi Saïto's Never a Foot Too Far, Even, which was well worth checking out.
    3. The use of non-images has been consistent for Jacobs’, which started in his early work when he would not splice out the flameouts (the black frames at the end of film reels), “I kept them in my films for a number of reasons. I wanted to say, “This is film; this is the character of film. What I’m showing you are unedited rolls from a camera; I left the flash frames in: that was part of the statement. And now you can make it happen digitally, and it doesn’t connote anything. It doesn’t signify. It’s just an effect.” Jacobs’ also writes,
    “But the marks of these older technologies mean something. They ring a bell, they do something. I studied decay, OK? My Tom, Tom, The Piper’s Son is really about decay, among a lot of other things. It wasn’t about nostalgia, it was about asking, What is this old stuff? What is it made of? What is its character as a series of light impressions?”
    4. So what are the key Jacobs’ references? This new book Optic Antics: The Cinema of Ken Jacobs (2011) - a word play on Jacobs’s Ontic Antics (2005) – is going to be important for all future Jacobs’ scholarship. Especially as Pierson’s introduction increases the knowledge surrounding Jacobs as his research includes a lot of unpublished material. As well there is the 1979 Lindley Hanlon interview with Ken Jacobs. And there is the catalogue Films The Tell Time: A Ken Jacobs Retrospective, which is edited by David Schwartz and has contributions by Tom Gunning.
    5. The Roundtable on Digital Experimental Filmmaking included Flo and Ken Jacobs, Luis Recoder, Lynne Sachs, Mark Street, Malcolm Turvey and Federico Windhausen (who does a good job at guiding the conversation). In it Sachs’ brings up an interesting point, “I think one of the interesting directions that the digital world is taking us toward is a fetishism of decay […] The desire for decay is a nostalgia for the aura of the original and its physical transformation.”

    Ken Jacobs’ Life and Career
    Stan Brakhage’s book Film At Wit’s End1 (1989) is one of the earliest published resources to describe Jacobs biographical information at length. Jacobs was born Jewish in 1933 in Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York and his childhood was rough. When Jacobs was fifteen his public school got him an access card to the Museum of Modern Art where he could go see films like old classics and the French avant-garde. Jacobs has always had a leftist, anti-military attitude. But even so, he was forced into being drafted after high school where he served his time in the Coast Guard, which was a position that he was told is essentially defensive and “does nothing.” In 1956 his stint was over and Jacobs returned to New York. The living conditions in New York at the time for artists were miserable, Brakhage describes it as, ““Jungle” is not the term to describe it because there is no jungle so dirty as a lower east side apartment in the 1950s.” During this time Jacobs met Jerry Sims, who would be important to his artistic development, along with the journalist-photographer Weegee (The Naked City) and the artist Hans Hofmann, who was one of his teachers. Jacobs with Larry Gottheim would start a film department and teach at Harpur College, New York and St. John’s College in Queens. Since then Jacobs has kept teaching, making cinema, performing, and has had a family.

    How best to talk about Jacobs work and career?
    (1) There are the early, less polished works starting with Orchard Street (1955). This period includes Jacobs' collaborations with his friend of the time Jack Smith who acted in some of his films like Blonde Cobra (1959-63), which was made out of footage from Bob Fleischner’s Blonde Venus and The Cobra Woman. Brakhage refers to Blonde Cobra as "one of the masterpieces in the American cinema." There is something quintessentially beat about this period through its forming of a junk aesthetic. Pierson describes Jacobs and Smith’s collaboration as their “shared attraction to the marginal produced a collection of films more explicitly antagonistic to prevailing social values than anything the art world could accommodate.”

    (2) Things would change once Jacobs' got his “lucky break” (as he puts it) and met his current wife Florence Karpf. The Jacobs had a falling-out with Smith after the arrest of Ken (theatre manager), Flo (ticket seller), and Jonas Mekas (programmer) over the premiere of Flaming Creatures (1963) at the New Bowery Theatre on St. Mark’s Place in March 1964. The work Jacobs created in the wake of this event, where he was in-and-out of court hearings, like Window (1964) and Nisan Ariana Window (1968) and Spaghetti Aza (1976) Jacobs describes as "chamber works"2 and "pockets of sanity." The films are calm places to forget about the American army that was at war with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia from 1955 to 1975. And there is a stronger impression of his own filming, instead of using found-footage, and that primarily consisted of his New York City surroundings and an engagement with his new family, which included his wife Flo and his newly-born children Nisi and Azazel.

    (3) Tom, Tom, The Piper's Son (1969) is the work that Jacobs is most readily known for along with Star Spangled to Death (1956-60/2001-04), which is “the greatest found-footage film” according to Jonas Mekas. In Tom, Tom Jacobs makes the viewer more conscious of film as a manipulative element that consists of celluloid through obvious filmic flips and turns. Brahkage describes it, “Ken’s Tom, Tom is probably an ultimate comedy. It takes a simple comedy that was cranked out in the dawn of the film industry and reaches all the way to the fullest possibilities of comedy that I have ever seen in one film.” While Pierson describes Tom, Tom as a structural film, to use P. Adams Sitney's term, “a new focus on and exploration of the structural features of the medium.” There are now at least two digital versions of it: A Tom, Tom Chaser (2002) and Return To The Scene of The Crime (2008). While Jacobs' Perfect Film (1985) continues his appropriation of old archive footage as he gathers material of news-reporters talking to witnesses and a police sergeant about the Malcolm X assassination in Harlem. Jacobs' comments on it,
    “For the straight scoop we need the whole scoop, or no less than the clues entire and without rearrangement. O, for a Museum of Found Footage, or cable channel, library, a shit-museum of telling discards accessible to all talented viewers/auditors."
    Which brings us to Jacobs' digital work…

    1. The other filmmakers brought up in Film At Wit’s End along with Ken Jacobs include Jerome Hill, Marie Menken, Sidney Peterson, James Broughton, Maya Deren, Christopher MacLaine and Bruce Conner.
    2. “He [Jacobs] calls the films he began making with this camera in the year the Flaming Creatures trials took place – Window (1964), We Stole Away (1964), The Winter Footage (1964), Winter Sky (1964), and The Sky Socialist (1964-68) – chamber works. In his words: “Composers, I knew, would sometimes take their most personal thoughts and feelings and experimental ideas and work them out in chamber works rather than concert hall ideas.”” According to Michelle Pierson in Optic Antics.
    Digital technologies
    Jacobs has been using digital technology since 1999, starting with Flo Rounds A Corner (1999). On the subject, “digital technologies were revolutionary and that they fundamentally changed filmmaking,” with came about through the rise of cheaper digital cameras and editing software like Final Cut Pro. This do it yourself software culminates for Jacobs in his recent six-part 3D Occupy Wall Street series, which is available on YouTube under his username Nervous Ken1.

    Malcolm Turvey’s recent article Ken Jacobs: Digital Revelationist from October (N.137) situates Jacobs in the realm of digital experimental cinema. Turvey sees Jacobs work as part of the distinct tradition of revelationism,
    “and Jacobs is one of this tradtition’s most important and brilliant contemporary practitioners, extending it into the digital era […] What distinguishes revelationism is its embrace of both the cinema’s capacity to reproduce reality, as beloved by realist such as André Bazin and its ability to transform reality, as celebrated by modernist like Rudolf Arnheim.”
    Turvey also looks at the ‘indexical’ quality of digital photography and cinema by arguing against Mary Ann Doane’s essay The Indexical and the Concept of Medium Specificity as digital videos remnants are, “mechanically generated non-contact physical traces.”

    1. The nervousness of Jacobs’ account name in relation to the protests that he is filming might be a nervousness of social anxieties. Instead of the optical nervousness of his entitled performances that is derivative from,
    ““Cézanne’s nervousness” Picasso spoke of wasn’t nervousness at all but his efforts to put down the elusive contours of objects studied very closely as seen with two eyes […] What Cézanne’s apple means to me is that painting is being used less to tell us the facts about the apples than about what it is to see with two adjacent eyes reporting similar but conflicting and forever unfixable (on a flat plane: the canvas, the movie screen, the monitor surface) aspects of three-dimensional reality.”
    From the Nicole Brenez contribution in Optic Antics.
    Jacobs' 00’s digital work
    On Saturday night, November 19th at University College (Room 140) St. George Campus there were the screenings of some of Jacobs' 00’s digital work: Capitalism: Slavery (2006), The Surging Sea of Humanity (2006), Capitalism: Child Labor (2006), Another Occupation (2011), and Seeking the Monkey King (2011). It was a throbbing lights series - not for persons afflicted with epilepsy - that uses Jacobs’ patented eternalism, “a method for creating an appearance of sustained three-dimensional motion-direction of unlimited duration, using a finite number of pictures.”

    With Michael Moore-like titles Capitalism: Slavery and Capitalism: Child Labor, Jacobs uses the tools and techniques from his other work to offer a social critique in a series that is ostensibly more political then it has been in the past. There is a focus on infrascenic movement, to use Nicole Brenez’s term, where Jacobs “finds irrational, inconceivable movements that nonetheless form the objective material of human circulation.” It is insightful to bring up Brenez as she describes one thing useful in better understanding Jacobs, which is that he is “the creator of a theory [visual study] that is as important for its technical initiatives as for its textual and filmic manifestations.” Visual study being, “the study of an image using the very means of the image itself.” This study of an image through use of the image itself is what Jacobs accomplishes in these Capitalism films and in The Surging Sea of Humanity, which uses an old 19th century picture by B.W. Kilburn of a crowd of bowl-hat wearing industrialist flâneurs and then superimposes the picture on itself with some Tom, Tom manipulations. While in Another Occupation Jacobs’ takes archive footage of a Huckleberry Fin upstream journey into a military occupation and slave plantation. The video is interlaced with anti-military comments and has some Disorient Express (1996) footage alteration.

    To finish it off there is Seeking the Monkey King, which consists of twelve pictures of crumpled gold and black aluminum foil with a digital strobe light effect. There is a slow momentum of the enlarging of the scale of the images. And with J.G.Thirlwell’s music the piece is especially haunting. Where through text Jacobs offers scathing political criticism of American president Barack Obama’s failings mixed with references to his own cinematic evolution from his teenager days seeing the French avant-garde at the MoMA (À nous la liberté) to the heyday of the underground film (Deren, Brakhage). As David Phelps writes about Seeking the Monkey King over at Mubi,
    "As younger, American avant-garde masters—Dorsky, Klahr—pursue the veil of illusion, a sublime presence blind to history, Jacobs makes movies that work to break through the patina of beauty, only to reveal the ultimate illusions of movie-making, the third dimension of a figurative space and movement out of single, still images."
    The works of Jacobs are spellbinding adventures of perception that continue to provide fresh experiences while still being able to comment about the state of American politics.

    David Davidson

    Thursday, November 17, 2011

    Going to Tokyo?

    If you live in Toronto and are interested in Japanese cinema make sure to check out the Shinsedai Cinema Festival, which is programmed by Chris Magee and Jasper Sharp. The festival will take place some time in July 2012 at the Revue Cinema. - D.D.

    Title: World Film Locations: Tokyo
    Editor: Chris Magee
    Publisher: Intellect Ltd.
    Pages: 128
    Price: 18$
    More a tour guide then pure film criticism, Intellect Books' new series World Film Locations - with ones on London, New York, Los Angeles, and Tokyo - are a welcome introduction through the movies to the famous buildings and neighborhoods of these various cities. The books are divided into six separate sections dedicated to the different districts. All of them being preceded by a map of the city with numbered indicators locating where the scenes took place. Each entry includes a description of, and pictures from the scene. As well a current picture of the location that allows you to compare how it is presented in the film with how it looks now.

    Chris Magee who edited the boook also writes a nice introduction and pieces on Tokyo March (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1929), a rare pre-war portrait of Tokyo; Pom Poko (Isao Takahata, 1994), Kikujiro (Takeshi Kitano 1999), Fear and Trembling (Alain Corneau, 2003), Confessions of a Dog (Gen Takahashi, 2006), and Retribution (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2006). I would also recommend Marc Saint-Cyr's piece on The Yakuza (Sydney Pollack, 1974). A lot of the contributors to the book also contributed to the other Intellect book Directory of World Cinema: Japan.

    The essays in the book help contextualize the films within Tokyo's cultural and political history, within the genres of Japanese cinema, the restrictions of filming in the post-WWII era, the director Yasojiro Ozu, and anime. The essay's include Jon Jung's Tokyo: City of The Imagination, Eric Evans' Worst of Times/Best of Times: Post-War Tokyo in Film, Samuel Jamier's Tokyo Must Burn! The End of The World Through Anime Eyes, John Berra's Tokyo Stories: The Humanistic Cityscape of Yasujiro Ozu, Roberta Novielli's Strangers Among Us: A Cinematic View of Immigrants in Tokyo, Steven Sarrazin's Shinjuku: Dawn is West, and Reiko Tahara's Edo: Old Tokyo resurrected on film.The two page long entries are well researched and well written. While the choices of films are interesting as they include political works and documentaries. While also including some unexpected Tokyo films like those made by foreign directors to the city like Samuel Fuller's House of Bamboo (1955), Wim Wenders' Tokyo-Ga (1985), Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003), and Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void (2009).

    The entries try to do justice to all of Central Tokyo's twenty-three wards, and beyond. But it just so happens that some of the wards are more cinematic then the others ; so they get more attention. And the contributions by locals and people that have visited the city give the book an insider-like quality. As if you are walking the backstreets of the city with your own personal guide. There are recommendations of where you can go for a drink or a meal (the famous La Jetée), what hotel to stay at, where to shop, and information about the subway stations. I would recommend World Film Locations: Tokyo, and all of the titles in the series, to any cinephile that will be traveling to these cities. - David Davidson

    Tuesday, November 8, 2011

    Igor Drljača's Sarajevo Memories

    This is the first of three reviews on new Canadian short films. – D. D.

    Igor Drljača was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1983. He left the country on May 1st 1992 on a military plane due to the violence of the Bosnian war, like so many other families. He recalls the flight out of the country in a military plane that “was not a cool looking MIG I had imagined,” where everyone had to sit on the floor. He arrived in Canada in 1993 where he has since completed his Bachelor’s and Master’s in Film Production from York University. His short films include Rana (05), The Battery-Powered Duckling (06), Mobilni Snovi (08), On a Lonely Drive (09), Woman in Purple (10), The Fuse: Or How I Burned Simon Bolivar (11), and he is currently in post-production on another short film and his first feature-length film (hopefully completed by next year) which will be “about a man that’s now in Toronto but was involved in the Bosnian civil war so it deals with themes of immigration, themes of isolation, themes of trauma, war trauma especially. Sort of these universal elements that a lot of people in Toronto can relate to, a lot of refugees.” Much of the subject of Drljača work blends the personal with the political, mixing a child-like pleasantness with serious subjects and his approach to filmmaking blends the traditional with the avant-garde and documentary.

    An exposition shot of a crater-ridden apartment complex in today’s post-war Sarajevo opens Woman in Purple. A young boy Mirza (a sorrowful Haris Begic) lives with his grandmother, who asks him a few questions as he is on his way out: Did you eat yet? How will you buy food later? Remember to visit your mother later. When will you be back home? One thing that sticks out in this scene is the long and heavy silences, as if these questions have been asked hundreds of times before. They also recall the trauma of the war when such things were of grave concern. During these moments of silence the only thing you can hear is the television that is turned on in the background.

    Mirza goes to the park to watch some older boys play basketball. He is bored. There is nothing really for him to do. A local drug dealer approaches Mirza asking him to do a few rounds for him. The addresses that Mirza will need to go to are on a note that the dealer gives him. What Mirza will have to do consists of receiving cash and dropping off the packaged drugs (Marijuana? Cocaine?). Mirza goes with it, as he has done before, but this time he makes sure to get paid first. The day goes by smoothly - one of the clients even buys him a wrap - but similarly to the beginning of Cristian Mungiu’ 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) the suspicion that something might go awry has a looming presence. At the end of the day Mirza meets up with the dealer at the basketball courts where he makes a significant decision in regards to his future, he chooses not to continue doing jobs for the dealer. He does this by hitting the basketball that is in the dealers hand and starts playing all by himself on the opposite side of the court. The hitting of the ball is an act of social protest and an intense moment of everyday heroism worthy of the films of Mike Leigh. The film’s score which was full of natural street noises so far breaks out into a storm. The films end with Mirza sitting in a grassy cemetery, surrounded by the Sarajevo hills and mountains, watching a plane fly out of the city. In an astonishing reverse-shot you see that he is sitting beside his mother Hasanovic Sanela tombstone. She died in 1996.

    The script of Woman in Purple is by Drljača and Hrvoje Župarić. Drljača in Woman in Purple uses a wide frame (2.35:1) and shoots in long shots as he follows Mirza walking in hand-held shots from behind the head. Mirza’s silence emphasizes the films visual storytelling qualities. The Sarajevo City Film Grant helped financed the film. A short note, the fact that Drljača is a Toronto resident and films in a different country has led some commenter’s to place him within the context of First Generation directors alongside Nicolás Pereda and Chris Chong Chan Fui. As Kazik Radwanski describes these First Generation filmmakers, “These temporary-residents play a role in Canadian cinema: their films maintain a connection to Toronto, while defining their own territories and landscapes.”
    To contextualize Drljača’s short films within contemporary Sarejevo culture I am going to bring up the Serbian-American poet Charles Simić, from his recent article The Bright Side of the Balkans (The New York Review of Books Aug. 18th, 2011). In the articles Simić describes his experiences going to Sarajevo to attend an international poetry festival. He describes many things from his visit there. Like the recent arrest and trial of the general Ratko Mladić, who with Radovan Karadžić led the siege by the Serbian forces that caused extraordinary suffering, which lasted from April 1992 to February 1996. Simić describes the city,
    “Since a great deal of what had been blown up has been re-built, the city appeared to be thriving, and given the warm and sunny weather during my visit and the sight of many people strolling in the streets or sitting in cafes chatting amiably, everything that occurred here fifteen years ago seemed inconceivable.”
    On the themes of their contemporary poetry, Simić notes that much of Bosnian poetry is about the war unlike the poetry of the Serbs and Croats. On the residing emotional and intellectual impact of the war, Simić notes,
    “Two survivors of the Sarajevo siege described in a calm, matter-of-fact way what life was like without water and electricity and with constant fear that members of their family might die as they stepped into the streets.”
    And in regards to the younger generation Simić writes,
    “Still, two out of three of them [the young men and women], according to a poll I saw in the papers when I was there, want to leave because there will be nothing for them to do when they finish school. They no longer need visas to travel to other parts of Europe, but since neither they nor their parents have enough money, fleeing the country, as thousands of others had done in the past, is no longer a realistic option.”
    The Fuse: Or How I Burned Simon Bolivar is a personal documentary on the ravages of the war that blends home video with achieves footage from Drljača nineties boyhood in Sarajevo. The film separates the footage and progresses the chronology through black inter-titles with the location, city and date. “It’s like an homage sort-of to my childhood,” which took about three years to make says Drljača. The Fuse recalls the found-footage documentary by Andrei Ujică, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010). And Andrew Parker in the Toronto Now writes about The Fuse, “Powerful first-person footage and youthful exuberance add up to a short that’s far better than the program [2 in Short Cuts Canada] it’s in.”

    The Fuse opens with Igor as a little boy in his childhood apartment introducing himself and his family to the camera. It proceeds to footage of children standing around the Simon Bolivar bust in his school and then to shots of the students singing and dancing until the camera eventually finds itself on Igor pixilated in the middle of a crowd. Through a voice-over Drljača starts to recollect that week’s art assignment “to paint the arrival of spring,” but when he was painting “that large tree next to his cottage, that always blooms first” he ran out of pink-paint and it didn’t look right. He remembers this experience vividly,
    “During our lunch break, Aco, who sits in the first row, said that he saw the teacher marking our paintings. He said that I received a C. But I had never received a C in art. I still hadn’t seen my mark, but I was getting more and more nervous. That night, I thought: Dear God, I’ve never asked for anything before. I am not sure whether to believe in you. Mom and Dad say that you don’t exist. Both of my grandmas say that you do exist. And if by chance you do exist, I’d like to ask you for one big favor. I don’t want to go back to school; I don’t want to see my grade. So if you are able to help me out in any way. I’d be forever grateful.”
    Cut to a shot of a teacher on television reading off a message: “All schools in region: Sarajevo, Mostar, Doboj, Tuzla… are on strike.” And then the military trucks and tanks start to roam through the streets of Sarajevo. His family is watching the news of the outbreak of the Croatian War, March 3rd, 1992. The city is no longer safe and his family is no longer leaving their appartment. Footage of bullets going by close to his apartment window is especially frightening. It’s a strange feeling watching the unfolding of a war from the perspective of the residents and how they see it happening on television. There is one especially wrenching shot of a hurt little black dog with his limbs twitching. But still life goes on, the family celebrates Igor’s brothers Dado’s birthday. And also the kids find ways to have fun, “Along with the other children, I excitedly collected shrapnel and shell casings.”

    Igor leaves Sarajevo with his mother and brother on May 1st 1992 on a military plane. The last shot of The Fuse is footage of a building burning (is it the school?) in bright red fire and dark black smoke. This is the last footage his father would have filmed and brought with him when he joined the rest of his family in Canada. “After we were able to reach him on the phone. He told me that a few days earlier, my school, Simon Bolivar, had burned down. At that moment I realized that I no longer had to worry about my mark in art,” Drljača says in voice-over narration. This child-like optimism and ability to move forward after trauma gives Drljača’s work an enduring quality. Drljača cinema is one of perseverance and that of being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. - David Davidson

    Wednesday, November 2, 2011

    On Donigan Cumming’s Karaoke (1998)

    In anticipation for the Pleasure Dome projection and book launch of Splitting the Choir; The Moving Images of Donigan Cumming, which includes Toronto's premiere of Too Many Things, on Saturday November 5th at 7PM at the CineCycle (129 Spadina Ave) ; here is a guest contribution by Canadian Film Institute programmer Scott Birdwise. – D.D.


    In an introduction to a public screening of Karaoke in Toronto in 2008, experimental filmmaker and writer Mike Hoolboom posed a question to Donigan Cumming, “Why conjure this universe of a body, this landscape of flesh.”1 To my understanding, Hoolboom’s question, perhaps inadvertently, cuts to the very heart of the matter of the documentary example. A description of the video will help set up my explanation.

    Karaoke opens with an extreme close-up study of an elderly man’s face: with his eyes closed, the man licks his lips; the camera jostles slightly, suggesting it is handheld; the image is almost imperceptibly in slow-motion. Given the man’s apparent age, his reclined posture suggesting infirmary, and the emphasis on his fragile bodily-being (his labored swallowing), it seems, for all intents and purposes, that he is quite sick and unconscious – perhaps even near death. Is this, as Cumming puts it, a “deathwatch?”

    The oral component of the video is somewhat distorted: the audio track hisses, faint sounds, clicking and clacking in general proximity, are heard – is this the diegetic room sound recorded by Cumming’s camera’s built-in microphone? Perhaps. But while the sound first seems to correspond to the elderly man’s action, his lip-licking and swallowing possibly the source of the audio, it quickly becomes evident that the sound we hear is not necessarily coming from him, or even from the room, at all. The audio and the visual do not seem to be in synch; they may be from different temporalities, perhaps even different spaces entirely. It really is difficult to tell.2

    While the handheld camera lingers over the elderly man’s face with a kind of special emphasis given to his oral region (his mouth), moving slightly back and forth and continually reframing as handheld shots do (a trope of observational cinema), a song emerges from the off-camera audio: a strange combination of Christian pop music and Inuktitut singing.3 The off-camera voices of two women, presumably of Inuit origin, join in with the music, singing along to the lyrics praising Christ, declaring his love and how they are blessed for partaking in it – as one line exclaims (with English subtitles) “How the message will be understood!” At one point early in the song, the recorded music cuts out: it is here, via this aural cue, that the viewer recognizes that the Inuit women’s voices heard are not part of the music recording; they seem, in fact, to belong to the same space as the old man (who, importantly, it seemed at first was singing but in fact was merely breathing). The women are singing along to the tape beside the old man in a kind of impromptu karaoke performance.

    About half way through the three minute duration of Karaoke, the camera begins to deliberately and purposively scan its way over the horizontal plane of the old man’s body, arriving at his feet. As it turns out, the elderly man seems to indeed be listening to the karaoke performance with some measure of interest: he is tapping his foot in time with the song. This is the “punch-line” of the video, the moment of truth revealing that the opening half of the video is a kind of set-up, the necessary opening of the gag. As Cumming puts it, “In Karaoke, the horror of a deathwatch is pure illusion. The transgression is a set-up, which turns on the spectator when the camera gets down to the feet. Nelson [the elderly man] is not dead! He is tapping his toes!”4

    From here, again in an almost imperceptible gesture, the tape in fact begins to repeat itself backwards, audio included. This switchover almost passes unnoticed – in fact, I would argue first-time viewers often miss it – as the camera lingers over the tapping foot only to return to the “grizzled face” of the elderly man, licking his lips and breathing, in slow motion. With this, the tape ends.5

    If we consider Karaoke a kind of documentary, exhibiting its means without end, then we are forced to take seriously Hoolboom’s inquiry. Hoolboom again: “[Karaoke] is shot very close up, refusing the surroundings, the room, the context. Why conjure this universe of a body, this landscape of flesh? Who is this man…?”6 Hoolboom’s query points to the foundational problematic of the documentary logic of example, which Karaoke exposes via my Agambenian reading of its strategies. The central problem: how is “a landscape of flesh,” that is, bare life, produced, and how is it overturned; or, rather, how is a form of life founded that does not fall back into the trappings of the citizen?

    The elderly man framed by the extreme close-up of Cumming’s camera is presented to the viewer in a kind of extreme biological proximity at the expense of knowing who and where he, the would-be subject, is. The epistemological grounds of knowledge related to context and the like are refused for the ontological priority of the body: here he, or perhaps it, is. The elderly man is first and foremost an object of display and his being is reduced to maintaining his very existence: he breathes, he licks his lips – his life is stripped of context, it is bare life. As such, his position relative to the documentary logic of example is analogous to what Agamben considers the foundational gesture of Western politics and metaphysics: the inclusive exclusion of bare life. In this case, Cumming refuses the elderly man’s life-world by way of the close-up, framing and including him as bare life by excluding his environment. The elderly man is the environment, a “landscape of flesh.”

    The elderly man’s existence, his existence as such, that Karaoke establishes at the outset and which seems to teeter on the brink between mere being (life) and non-being (death), or, even more to the point, the human (a speaking-being with subjectivity, desire, and history) and the inhuman (a mere “landscape of flesh”), finds an instructive parallel in what Agamben identifies as one of the paradigmatic figures of the twentieth century: the Musselmann. The Musselmann, for Agamben, is the exemplary figure of the concentration camp, whose total degradation and malnutrition has wasted away the speaking subject to the limit-figure of life and language at the brink of death and speechlessness.7 A kind of living dead – who/which is the site of confusion between the categories of life/death and human/inhuman as figured in the extreme biopolitical decisionism of the Nazi regime – the Musselmann is part of the administered process of the killing machine of the concentration camp, wherein the prisoner passes into the threshold of the Musselmann and thus does not die as a Jew or human being, but as mere biological existence, bare life. The Musselmann, then, is a (non)subject without context, history, personality, or desire; it is biology, possible motor skills, and the barest minimum of needs. This seems to be the transgressive status of that withered face in Karaoke: it is the death scene-and death seen, what Cumming calls “the horror of a deathwatch.” Or is it?

    As argued above, the Musselmann comes into existence by way of the concentration camp. Agamben is quick to argue, however, that while the Nazi concentration camp is a historically specific phenomenon, it is nonetheless the hypostatized manifestation of a much more general logic. Agamben:
    The camp is the paradigm itself of political space at the point in which politics becomes biopolitics and homo sacer becomes indistinguishable from the citizen […] If the essence of the camp consists in the materialization of the state of exception and in the consequent creation of a space for naked life as such, we will then have to admit to be facing a camp virtually every time that such a structure is created, regardless of the nature of the crimes committed in it and regardless of the denomination and specific topography it might have […] From this perspective, the birth of the camp in our time appears to be an event that marks in a decisive way the political space itself of modernity.8
    The camp can appear and manifest an otherwise latent state of exception anywhere, isolating bare life, zoe, from the qualified life of the citizen-subject, bios. The camp is mobile and can temporarily install itself in such spaces as airports, shopping centres, soccer fields, and even living rooms – it is the potential for a kind of sovereign violence that confounds the distinction between the oikos (the home) and the polis (the city, public space) where all public citizens are potentially private prisoners. In this way, the camp is what Agamben calls a “dislocating localization” that scrambles the co-ordinates of a seemingly determinate topos – a space and place – in order to suspend law and order and institute the “inscription of life” into the paradoxical order of sovereign violence.9

    In Karaoke, Cumming’s camera, his frame, imposes a kind “dislocating localization” upon the profilmic space: the frame excludes “the surroundings, the room, the context,” rendering the elderly man as “this landscape of flesh,” bare life on the brink of death. As an object/subject held up by the documentary as an example, what Karaoke seems to present is the fact of the elderly man as such. However, is the man merely a “moving still,” that is, a being (moving) on the brink of death (still)? As we shall see, and as was suggested above, the “fact” of the elderly man – the “deathwatch” of bare life – is problematized by the same “violence” and power of the frame which presented it. Indeed, the frame, the logic of the camp as dislocating localization, becomes the very means by which Cumming repotentializes the world: the camp becomes the “constructed situation,” as the presence of fact gives way to the mediality of potentiality; as action falters the gesture appears. This is the gag of/in Karaoke.

    The gag of Karaoke, of course, is that the seemingly unconscious subject-object, the ailing man as bare life, is revealed to be engaged with his milieu, tapping his foot as he enjoys the off-camera music. The movement of the frame thus establishes a kind of newly invigorated ontological context for the world in which the video takes place. The significance of the gesture of foot tapping is not that it has the priority of being the new fundamental reality or fact to which the video bears witness, but that, in Agamben’s words, it “defines a life – human life – in which the single ways, acts, and processes of living are never simply facts but always and above all possibilities of life, always and above all power.”10

    If the camp is a mobile space of exception that organizes its own form of disorganization (a zone of indistinction between citizenship and the natural body), that realizes the nihilistic potential for sovereign violence at the heart of everyday law and order (a pure political violence), and that isolates bare life in the ruthless alienation of the human being from its form (by way of transforming experience into spectacle), the “constructed situation” takes this alienation and violence and turns it on its head in a liberatory gesture. It is the constructed situation which can take “this biopolitical body that is bare life” and transform it into “the site for the constitution and instalment of a form of life that is wholly exhausted in bare life and a bios that is only its own zoe.”11

    Following Debord and the Situationists, Agamben defines the constructed situation in the following way:
    The situation is neither the becoming-art of life nor the becoming-life of art. We can comprehend its true nature only if we locate it historically in its proper place: that is, after the end and self-destruction of art, and after the passage of life through the trial of nihilism… [at] a point of indifference between life and art, where both undergo a decisive metamorphosis simultaneously. This point of indifference constitutes a politics that is finally adequate to its tasks. The Situationists counteract capitalism [and I would add the state of exception, the logic of the camp] – which “concretely and deliberately” organizes environments and events in order to depotentiate life – with a concrete, although opposite, project.12
    The constructed situation mobilizes the “dislocating localization” of the frame and its intrusiveness, its manifestly interruptive nature in a given milieu (breaking the supposed unity of the moment for aesthetic reasons [a nice picture]), and makes of it an opportunity for experimentation in the zone of indistinction it opens between art and life. In this way, the constructed situation transforms life at the level of experience rather than representation or contemplation: life and theatre intersect to mutually transform and repotentiate one another. To put it another way, if the generalized state of exception and spectacle in which we live has already falsified experience and inclusively excluded life, then the constructed situation uses an apparent falsity – its constructedness – to highlight this very spectacle and fragmentation, and thereby put it to an alternative use, albeit one not directed toward a specific end.
    Central to Agamben’s conception of the constructed situation is the gesture. Indeed, in explaining the constructed situation, Agamben argues that
    Gesture is the name of this intersection between life and art, act and power, general and particular, text and execution. It is a moment of life subtracted from the context of individual biography as well as a moment of art subtracted from the neutrality of aesthetics: it is pure praxis.13
    Just as the constructed situation emerges from a “dislocating localization,” the gesture exhibits itself as a kind of action that, in exhibiting itself, suspends its commonplace function as a means to an end and becomes a means without end. For Agamben, as I outlined toward the end of the previous chapter, this is the very promise of cinema – the paradigm of (a potential) situation-constructing apparatus (and not necessarily a storytelling medium at all) – itself: to exhibit the very movement of humankind in a state of suspension freed from immediate ends, that is, to show in an immediate way the fundamental mediality of humanity. As Stephen Crocker states in his article “Noises and Exceptions: Pure Mediality in Serres and Agamben,”
    What the late nineteenth century interest in gesture seems to promise, and what, Agamben argues, remains the promise of cinema since, is some understanding of the world’s movement exempted from all-purpose and displaying nothing more or less than the taking place of life in a ratio of time and movement. As such, cinema gives us the world in the form of a gesture. Cinema brackets out the significance of the event so that the pure act of its enunciation can come forward.14
    The constructed situation as, with, and by the gesture does not operate on a representational so much as a kind of para-phenomenological level: whatever “understanding” it generates is not something one possesses, as a collection of facts to be decided on in sovereign fashion, but is rather something one does: it is an orientation, an attitude, of the political body opening to the world.

    Cumming’s Karaoke is exemplary in its exhibition of the very gesture that Agamben identifies with the constructed situation. First, the video brackets out the context in its suspension of typical documentary markers of place, “refusing the surroundings, the room, the context.” What transpires is not a narrative or argument in any conventional sense; rather, a situation develops. The viewer is confronted with what seems to be the exhausted figure of bare life, of mere life, struggling to simply be. Is this the barest expression of an existential dilemma? Perhaps, but then, as the camera tracks to his tapping foot, the elderly man’s gesture opens up the question of the political. Neither a fact nor reducible to individual expression (as Hoolboom asks, “Who is this man?”), and not the expression of an autonomous, modernist aesthetic (the “aesthetic dimension” of dance), the gesture exhibits the mediality of the elderly man and the ultimate inseparability of his life (zoe: his breathing, his bare existence) from his being a singularity.15 “It is a moment of life subtracted from the context of individual biography as well as a moment of art subtracted from the neutrality of aesthetics.” 16

    The gesture of tapping his foot to the music is an expression, an exhibition, of the elderly man’s “form-of-life.” This is crucial in understanding how Karaoke moves from the fact of a “landscape of flesh” to the potentiality of a subject and the inseparability of his being from his body: “this being that is only its bare existence and…this life that, being its own form, remains inseparable from it.”17 In this sense, it is the degree to which the subject of Karaoke evades being knowable “factually” or as a citizen-subject that he exists as a “form-of-life;” his life is connected to possibility: the elderly man’s political existence depends on his irreducibility to factual existence. The “horror of a deathwatch” as fact gives way to the “gag” of the gesture; bare life opens to what Agamben calls the “absolute and complete gesturality of human beings.”18 In the gag, the elderly man, Nelson Coombs, is thus not the documentary example of a victim, bare life, but an exception. He is an exception precisely because, in the apparently closed-in world of the frame, he is epistemically undetermined; a weak symbol in his potentiality; a “whatever-being” occupying the zone of indistinction between the example and the exception.

    Furthermore, the reverse playback of the video deconstructs any pretences of non-mediated presence. Cumming makes Karaoke, the video, gesture itself, undoing its “action” by reversing it back to the beginning. Effectively, Karaoke splits itself in its doubling: it makes itself an example, a paradigm, beside itself. The reverse playback is another example of the ongoing and endless deferrals in the video, challenging any sovereign decision which would ground the political in a limited, instrumentalist frame. In this cinematic gesture of a means without end, Cumming makes the mediality of Karaoke immediate.19

    Karaoke suspends the instrumental use of documentary: it never arrives at a definite conclusion, a clear cut end. In the video, being and appearance continually shift, as the “deathwatch” gives way to the punch-line of the gesture of the tapping foot, which in turn moves into an exhibition of the medial nature of the video as it plays back in reverse. The extreme close-up on the elderly man’s face which, while “violently” refusing context, would seem to privilege a kind of epistemology of proximity, yields no such thing. Rather, as the camera tracks, the video exhibits the “gag”: a gesture not circumscribed by the clichés of bare life and citizenship so naturalized by the documentary form. The close-up of Karaoke does not establish the presence of a citizen-subject but exhibits a “form-of-life” that is “not the sphere of an end in itself but rather the sphere of a pure and endless mediality.”20 As a means without end, Karaoke and its exhibited example are held up for free use, never exhausting their potentiality in appearing. In contrast to a specific meaning, mediality is the message: Karaoke redeems as the true vocation of both humanity and the documentary project the endless, repetitive and seemingly futile Sisyphean execution of a task without proper completion: an inoperative operability, a non-work: means without end.

    Scott Birdwise

    1. “We're going to watch a three minute movie you made ten years ago called Karaoke. It's shot very close up, refusing the surroundings, the room, the context. Why conjure this universe of a body, this landscape of flesh? Who is this man, and why is the tape called Karaoke, (after all, he never utters a word, nor do you)?” http://www.mikehoolboom.com/writing/Books/Practical%20Dreamers%20launch.htm
    2. Cumming interview with Hoolboom: “The tape starts with the cassette being loaded and a tight shot of Nelson’s head, as he licks his lips. The movement of his tongue is slightly accentuated in the edit with some slow motion.” (10) http://www.donigancumming.com/dcpdf/DCe-2006_Hoolboom.pdf
    3. Cumming informs us that the singing is in Inuktitut in the Hoolboom interview. This opens up thinking about a provocative ethnographic intertext to read with Karaoke, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922). For starters, both films partake in a kind of cross-cultural encounter; furthermore, music – and the apparatuses for playing recorded music – figures strongly in both. Also, in both films there is the problematic relationship of staging and re-enactment. Pursuing the specifics of this interesting comparison is, however, beyond the scope of this thesis.
    4. Hoolboom interview, 10.
    5. It should be noted that Karaoke, as part of the “Moving Stills” series, was originally shown in an art gallery context, in a room alongside the other videos in the series. Each video, projected at a large size, ran in a continuous loop, alternating between their respective soundtracks. This presentation format reinforces the formal repetition of the work that is arguably lost in a single channel, non-looped, screening.
    6. Hoolboom interview, 10.
    7. For his most sustained discussion of the Musselmann see Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, chapter II, The Mussleman.
    8. Giorgio Agamben, “What is a Camp?” in Means Without End: Notes on Politics, 41-42.
    9. Ibid., 45.
    10. Agamben, “Form-of-Life” in Means Without End: Notes on Politics, 4.
    11. Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 188.
    12. Agamben, “Marginal Notes on Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle” in Means Without End: Notes on Politics, 78-79.
    13. Ibid., 80.
    14. Stephen Crocker, “Noises and Exceptions: Pure Mediality in Serres and Agamben,” 12 http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=574
    15. Agamben, “Notes on Gesture” in Means Without End: Notes on Politics, 58.
    16. Agamben, “Marginal Notes on Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle” in Means Without End: Notes on Politics, 80.
    17. Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 188.
    18. Ibid.,60.
    19. Indeed, as Cumming makes clear in the interview with Hoolboom, the encounter itself was staged for his camera; that is, the performers in Karaoke had already listened to the song, sang, and tapped along. Cumming asked them to do it again, this time with his camera running. Thus, the repetition in/of the video replicates the founding repetition of the performance.
    20. Ibid., 59.

    Tuesday, October 25, 2011

    Nick Ray at Cahiers du Cinema (circa 1950s)

    The TIFF Bell Lightbox is currently running a Nicholas Ray retrospective The Cinema Is Nicholas Ray as part of its Hollywood Classics series. The series is programmed by James Quandt, scheduled over two seasons and is centered on the recent restoration of We Can't Go Home Again*, which will be playing on Sunday October 30th at 4PM and will be introduced by Susan Ray. "Poetic, pessimistic, high-strung and humanist, Ray's films are set in a lonely place and on dangerous ground - the wounded psyches of often solitary nomads, strangers who keep looking for a home in a world to which they "have not been properly introduced,"" Quandt writes in the 180°. These screenings will offer Torontonians a glimpse into Ray's mesmerizing work. We Can't Go Home Again, which has recently been restored, and Susan's own Don't Expect Too Much, a companion-piece documentary on We Can't Go Home Again are the kind of films by Ray that Bill Krohn compares to flying saucers, "you catch glimpses of them or hear about them from people who've seen one." The rare prints and the fact that they are only shown once or twice give these Cinematheque screenings an aura-like quality.

    Since the Godard line that "The Cinema is Nicholas Ray" is quoted ad nauseam (The Dreamers, the bulk of journalistic reviews) I thought that I would take the occasion to look at what else the Young Turks had to say about the auteur with whom most of them fell in love with when they first discovered They Live By Night at the Rendez-Vous de Biarritz in 1950. A great resource for their writing** is the anthology edited by Jim Hillier, Cahiers du Cinema - The 1950s; Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave (1985)***. In the book's section on American Cinema there is a dossier on Nicholas Ray which includes reviews by Jacques Rivette on The Lusty Men, Francois Truffaut on Johnny Guitar, Eric Rohmer on Rebel Without a Cause, Jean-Luc Godard on Hot Blood and Bitter Victory, and an interview from November 1958 between Charles Bitsch and Ray (one of the first American directors to be interviewed in the magazines, as the editorial staff had no real contact with the foreign trade press). Within these pages - beautifully translated and with foot-notes by Liz Heron and Tom Milne - you can find what made the French film critics at Cahiers du Cinema so exciting to read at the time - and I believe more importantly - retrospectively and currently.

    So what were the films that Ray made in the '50s? There is Born to Be Bad and In a Lonely Place ('50); On Dangerous Ground, Flying Leathernecks and The Racket ('51); Macao and The Lusty Men ('52); Androcles and the Lion ('53); Johnny Guitar and a teleplay High Green Wall ('54); Run for Cover and Rebel Without a Cause ('55); Hot Blood and Bigger Than Life ('56); The True Story of Jesse James and Bitter Victory ('57); Wind Across the Everglades and Party Girl ('58). In terms of his contemporaries, Jacques Rivette in The State of the American Cinema (Cahiers N.54) writes, "At present the undoubted spearheads (...) of the age of the auteurs are Nicholas Ray, Richard Brooks, Anthony Mann and Robert Aldrich," while Truffaut places him in the "Wise, Dassin and Losey generation." Even more so then these other directors, Ray stood at the fore-front of this new generation of Hollywood film-makers that came on the scene after the war. He stood as a harbinger for the modernity that was to be felt in the world of cinema.

    From De l'invention (Cahiers N.27), Rivette reflects the magazine's generosity in discussing Ray,
    "Without any doubt, the most constant privilege of the masters is that of seeing everything, including the most simple mistakes, turn out to their advantage rather than diminishing their stature. If you are now surprised to see me give the benefit of this law to Nicholas Ray's latest film it means you are ill-prepared to appreciate a work which is disconcerting and asks for, not indulgence, but a little love."
    From L'Amirable Certitude (Cahiers N.46), Truffaut writes,
    "Nicholas Raymond Kienzle is somewhat, in fact very much, the passionate discovery of the 'young critics'. Nick Ray is an auteur in our sense of the word. All his films tell the same story, the story of a violent man who wants to stop being violent, and his relationship with a woman who has more moral strength than himself. For Ray's hero is invariably a man lashing out, weak, a child-man when he is not simply a child."****
    And here is Truffaut at his more aggressive,
    "You can refute Hawks in the name of Ray (or vice versa), or admit them both, but to anyone who would reject them both I make so bold as to say this: Stop going to the cinema, don't watch anymore films, for you will never know the meaning of inspiration, of a view-finder, of poetic intuition, a frame, a shot, an idea, a good film, the cinema. An insufferable pretension? No: a wonderful certainty."
    In Ajax ou le Cid? (Cahiers N.59), first off Eric Rohmer discusess (see: deplores) the translation of Rebel Without a Cause into French La Fureur de Vivre [The Rage to Live], as well he reads Ray's "masterpiece" as "a genuine drama in five acts," which is a surprising look at the film and an ambitious one. Rohmer, who has always been more conservative than his peers (in terms of both taste and filming approaches), proves to be just as insightful and adventurous in his prose as the other writers,
    "It is impossible to attach any convenient label to his [Ray's] position, as one can with John Huston. It isn't problems that interest him, in the manner of Brooks, but human beings. There is not a trace of the psychological complexities so dear to Mankiewicz. None of those instantly dazzling flashes of lyricism, as in Aldrich. His tempo is slow, his melody usually monochord, but its delineation is so precise, its progress so compulsive, that we cannot allow our attention to stray for a moment."
    Jean-Luc will be Godard (where at this point in time, he thinks, that D. H. Lawrence's The Plumed Serpant is "the most important novel of the twentieth century"), which means wildly ambitious. Here he is from Rien que le Cinema (Cahiers N.68),
    "After seeing Johnny Guitar or Rebel Without a Cause, one cannot but feel that there is something which exists, only in the cinema, which would be nothing in a novel, the stage or anything else, but which becomes fantastically beautiful on the screen."
    Though disappointed about Hot Blood he can still find some merits,
    "In short, [Hot Blood] is a semi-successful film to the extent that Ray was semi-uninterested in it."
    And on Bitter Victory from Au dela des etoiles (Cahiers N.79),
    "It is no longer a question of either reality or fiction, or of one transcending the other. It is a question of something quite different. What? The stars, maybe, and the men who like to look at them and dream."
    And on the acting,
    "Bitter Victory is exceptionally well acted by Curt Jurgens and Richard Burton. With Et Dieu... Crea la Femme, this makes twice one can believe in a character created by Jurgens. As for Richard Burton, who has acquitted himself well enough in all his previous films, good or bad, when directed by Nicholas Ray he is absolutely sensational."*****
    To conclude, here is Truffaut from the 1973 documentary I'm a Stranger Here Myself where he further explains this Cahiers obsession towards Ray,
    "What attracted us was that there was something European about this man from Hollywood. European in what way? Perhaps in the frailty, vulnerability of his leading characters. His male characters weren't 'macho'. There was this great sensitivity, especially in dealing with affairs of the heart, which lent a sense of great reality. At a time when Hollywood movies were rarely personal or autobiographical, you always had the feeling that the love stories in Nicholas Ray's films were true stories."
    * Some new writing on We Can't Go Home Again appears in the latest issue of Cinema Scope (N.48), which includes a piece by Susan Ray, Out of the Box, (Susan also has a long autobiographical introduction in I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies), and Gabe Klinger, Nicholas Ray’s Film Maudit Restored. It's also worth highlighting here another overlooked Ray title, The Janitor (which is available on YouTube). Brad Stevens writes about the film,
    "What fascinates me about this short is the way it clarifies the structure of Ray's last few films, which are full of clashes between superego and id figures (Walt and Cottonmouth in WIND ACROSS THE EVERGLADES, Tommy and Rico in PARTY GIRL, Inuk and the trooper in THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS, Leith and Brand in BITTER VICTORY, Christ and Barrabas in KING OF KINGS). Here, Ray plays both the id and the superego, suggesting just how personal this theme was to him."
    ** In addition to the selection of pieces in the book other Cahiers articles of note include Jacques Doniol-Valcroze on They Live By Night, Paul et Virginie se sont maries la nuit (Cahiers N.5), Truffaut on They Live By Night, Les Extremes me touchent (Cahiers N.21), Eric Rohmer on Bigger Than Life, Ou bien... ou bien (Cahiers N.69) and Venise 1957 (Cahiers N.75), Luc Moullet's Filmographie de Nicholas Ray (Cahiers N.89), Fereydoun Hoveyda on Party Girl (Cahiers N.107), Jean Douchet and Jacques Joly Nouvelle Entretien avec Nicholas Ray (Cahiers N.127), Bill Krohn on We Can't Go Home Again (Cahiers N.288), and part of Ray's late period script Mister, Mister with an introduction by Wim Wenders (Cahiers N.400).

    *** Other good resources on Ray include Bernard Eisenschitz' peerless Nicholas Ray: An American Journey and Patrick McGilligan's new Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure Of An American Director.

    **** This passage on hidden narratives is similarly brought up in the magazines contemporary writing, here Jean-Philippe Tesse from his review of J.J. Abrams' Super 8, Leve les yeux (Cahiers N.660),
    "Abrams has been to able to reconcile his storyteller-recycler spirit all the while plunging into the childhood cinema experiences of reactivating it's magic. And, certainly, he does this by re-taking brilliantly the secret scenario of all of his films: the curring of the hero by the irruption of the supertural within his neighborhood."
    ***** Here is Stephane Delorme on contemporary actors from his review of Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, Requiem pour un reve (Cahiers N.664),
    "Like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, Natalie Portman plays in a sense her life: good comedian, appreciated, who never really craved the screen, child-star (Luc Besson's Leon) reduced to these roles of the princess in the Star Wars films without ever imposing herself (...) The troubling emotion comes from these effortless lost gazes and raised eyebrows of inquietude and concentration. As well we are on Natalie Portman's side, we want her to succeed. Aronofsky is the best American casting director."

    Monday, October 17, 2011

    On Content

    A new guest contribution by Daniel Gallay. – D.D.

    Content: A Brief Statement
    (or: “You know nothing of my work! How you got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing!”)

    I’m convinced that there isn’t a word more accurate than “bankrupt” to describe certain experiences I’ve had in the cinema. There have been films I have seen that as I watched them, I felt a certain suspicion. Not only was I not able to ignore this suspicion, it became the central element of the experience. I felt, almost from the outset, that there was a hollowness to what I was seeing and that beyond the surface of the image lay nothing at all. The images, although imaginative and aesthetically sound, carried with them no substance or presence of any content. In one such film, this was the intent of the director, and there is a story to illustrate why. This director, as was fairly common during the period, experimented with LSD under the supervision of his psychoanalyst (Cary Grant did this also, and praised it as a tool of self-realization). The experience this director had was one where the definition of all things fell away and he was left in a hellish landscape where nothing held any meaning whatsoever. The experience led him to the conclusion that since the definition of any object is always provided and constantly renewed by the viewer of the object, objective meaning, by the very nature of perception, is impossible. He found that this then freed up his ability to create images since he wasn’t bound by having to attempt to instill objective meaning. “The fire and the rose,” he said, “became one.” This is problematic, if only because it is the perfect definition of solipsism, but it brings me to the point of my statement. My point is this: Is there not an element of an experience that is common to all those who experience it? Take this essay as an example. As you experience it, my consciousness (or perhaps, more so, the consciousness of the essay, which may or may not be my own) and your consciousness are present. There is the presence of each independent of the other, but there is also some point at which they touch and overlap. As each person reads the essay, each of their experiences will differ; these experiences will not be necessarily definable, but necessarily existent. That perhaps is a definition of content – the overlapping of one consciousness with another where a personal experience can take place. The infusion of an object with consciousness relies to a great extent on the intentionality of the creator – if the intent is shallow, the results will likely seem shallow; alternately, if the intent is joyous, the results will likely seem joyous. So, as in the story of this director, if there is no intent, there is also likely no content. If there is no content, then the object will be hollow, and the experience of it will be likewise. If nothing is returned for the viewers’ investment of consciousness, bankruptcy results. It’s perhaps the most unforgivable form of thievery – a thievery not just of time, but, more importantly, of spirit.

    Daniel Gallay