Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Stanley Kubrick by Michel Ciment: Part I

In anticipation of Adam Nayman’s upcoming and much anticipated class Kubrick in Nayman’s Terms which starts on April 16th and continues onwards every Monday at 7PM at the Miles Nadal JCC. Here at Toronto Film Review I will be reviewing Michel Ciment’s Kubrick: The Definitive Edition, which I find to be the Stanley Kubrick book. To get ready for this post, which will take me a while to write, I am going to post the Foreword of the book’s first edition, which can be found in the following section.

From this foreword I want to expand a little on Ciment’s approach to film criticism and the modus operandi of the most thorough and pleasant film journal Positif, which he is the chief-editor.

First off: choosing to write a book on Stanley Kubrick is no coincidence as Kubrick just might be the filmmaker absolute over at Positif. In Positif’s 30th anniversary issue the number one film in a poll on "what were the films that have had the biggest impact on you" was 2001: A Space Odyssey. The paperback edition of Positif 50 Years: Selected writings from the French Film Journal has a still from A Clockwork Orange on its cover. And at Positif the critics judge contemporary cinema in relation to Kubrick highlighting filmmakers that share his rigorous approach and singular aesthetic like Terrence Malick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Nicolas Winding Refn, Lynne Ramsay, and Stephen Spielberg.

And just as Kubrick’s aesthetic and narratives have such a looming presence over contemporary cinema, Ciment’s brand of film-criticism has an overarching influence over at Positif and in contemporary French criticism. Ciment is highly esteemed as one of the Honorary Presidents of The International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) and as a professor at the Université Paris. Ciment, who started at the magazine in 1963, now usually provides the magazines editorial stance through his polemic editorials, interviews with directors and film festival coverage. Ciment also shares many anecdotes of being around revered filmmakers in a friendly tone (see his introduction to Film World: The Director's Interviews). While Ciment’s writing shows an interest in history, politics and culture wrapped in a Nabokovian prose which is mixed with humor. For example, he recently denounced documentaries for a preference for fiction films saying, in his inimitable way, that he prefers his Fay Wray to some faits vrais. The only other film critic that I could compare Ciment to would be Raymond Durgnat. Especially as Durgnat seems most in line with the old school vein of Positif surrealism and knowledge of psychoanalysis while also sharing many other cinematic interest. Durgnat also quoted, built upon and argued against Ciment over the course of his career.

Some things that are noteworthy that Ciment brings up in his Foreword includes the challenge of film criticism to find the perfect words to describe scenes from movies, especially when the films are so image- and sound-based. There is an emphasis on a personal response and to gut-reactions when it comes to the films and to not stoop to a snobery, when the focus should be on the films (also see Durgnat’s Films and Feelings). And Ciment brings up his time in London which might have something to do with his and Positif’s long-term championing of British cinema especially against many of the attacks against it from their rivals at Cahiers du Cinéma.

As well Ciment discusses the publication and design aesthetic that he uses that fully uses photographs to add to the criticism and expand on it, which is especially relevant as at Positif they have now started to include color photographs (N.611). And which can be viewed in other books like the Positif-contributor Michael Henry Wilson interview books with Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese.

These are just a few modest observations on the design and thought that goes into book and magazine publishing on film where Ciment and Positif are paving the way for many future endeavors. – D.D.

Michel Ciment’s Foreword to Kubrick: “Every critic, I feel sure, who has attempted to come to terms with Stanley Kubrick’s work has been made painfully aware of the limits of his own discourse. To describe films in words – which is to say, to present to the reader in conceptual terms a series of associations of animated images – is in itself a challenge. With films which their maker has always described as ‘a non-verbal experience’ the tasks is rendered even more difficult. And the refusal often shown by Kubrick to comment on his art comes from his desire to conserve a margin of mystery and uncertainty. His is an oeuvre that both demands and defies analysis.

As long as I can remember, by recalling my own encounters with his films – in particular, the night I wandered through the streets of London after my first viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey, trying to collect my thoughts after an experience unique in my years of film-going – I have dreamt of a book about Kubrick in which images would play an essential role.

Such is the spirit in which this album has been conceived. The illustrations (often frame enlargements rather than a set photographer’s stills, as was Kubrick’s request for his later work) will not only conjure up a shot or lighting effect, a composition or gesture, but provide a critical commentary through unexpected analogies or internal rhymes. And the text itself both influenced and was influenced by the choice of photographs. The book does not claim to be exhaustive, but proposes a unchanging core of Kubrick’s art. Apart from a detailed bibliography and filmography, it consists of seven sections. In five of thses (Kubrick’s odyssey; Reflections on an oeuvre in evolution; Kubrick and the fantastic; Interviews with Stanley Kubrick; Interviews with colleagues), both words and pictures are used. In the other two (Eleven films; Directing), only pictures.

Afterwards, it will be up to the reader-viewer to pursue his own personal thoughts and impressions of one of the most demanding, most original and most visionary film-makers of our time.”

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