Monday, June 30, 2014

Pendant Les Travaux, Le Cinéma Reste Ouvert

After a brief introduction and pop song, the hosts Jean-Baptiste Thoret and Stéphane Bou of Pendant Les Travaux, Le Cinéma Reste Ouvert go about answering a relevant film history question. It’s worth contrasting with Michel Ciment’s Projection Privée as they are both hour-long shows on directors both important and esoteric. Thoret and Bou’s show has a youthful and energetic quality while Ciment’s show is older and more mature. If Ciment's show sometimes feels like a mouthpiece for Positif, which unconditionally promotes its collaborators and its friend's films – almost like a Eyes Wide Shut conspiracy –, instead Thoret and Bou interrogates this ethos and proposes a counter-canon, which proposes a different way to look at films. Thoret has written books on Seventies American cinema, Michael Cimino, road movies, Brian de Palma, and Dario Argento; which provide the background for the show. Along with a focus on a less well-known French directors like Alain Guiraudie, Jean-Claude Brisseau, and Marcel Ophüls. The show treats contemporary questions like how cinema can interrogate capitalism and politics, blockbusters and video games, philosophy and digital cinema, criticism and cinephilia. Some of its impressive guests include Ciment, Jean-Loup Bourget, Nicolas Saada, Emmanuel Burdeau, Antoine de Baecque, Laurent Vachaud, Vincent Malausa, and Nicole Brenez. The show has been around for two years and now since France Inter has gotten a new director it might get cancelled. If you would like it to return please sign this petition. It looks like Bou has two new shows now with Florence Colombani, Citizen Cannes and Le Festival en 18 Palmes, which is great and that are well worth listening to, but hopefully Pendant Les Travaux, Le Cinéma Reste Ouvert returns in the fall.

The Best of Pendant Les Travaux, Le Cinéma Reste Ouvert

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Michael Henry Wilson, le meilleur

A sad day. One of the great film critics, Michael Henry Wilson, has left us.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Cinema Scope - Summer 2014

Blake Williams on Adieu au Language

"But Adieu is also (perhaps more) analogous to something like Michael Snow's *Corpus Callosum (2002): a container for mischievous formal experimentation that allows its maker an opportunity to blow wide open all assumptions surrounding the material capabilities of the medium. (To which Clement Greenger said, "Amen.") ... Dutch angles create the impression that figures and objects might slide out of the frame at any moment, while an upside-down shot of a car screeching to a halt is as gravity-defying as anything in Cuarón's 3D outer-space blockbuster."

To read all of Blake Williams' great review of Jean-Luc Godard's Adieu au Langage pick up the Summer 2014 issue of Cinema Scope.

State Farm Commercial (w/ footage from Blake Williams' The Storm)

Monday, June 23, 2014

Last Poems - Films by Zofia and Sofia Bohdanowicz

Sofia Bohdanowicz's short films Dundas Street, Modlitwa, Wieczór, Dalsza Modlitwa, Last Poem have been gathered into a series and are being programmed by the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland to be screened at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Saturday, June 28 at 7:30pm.

I HATE MYSELF :) at Camera

MDFF and The Seventh Art present the Canadian premiere of I Hate Myself :) at Camera on Wednesday, June 25th. Director Joanna Arnow will be in attendance and a Q&A moderated by cléo's Kiva Reardon will follow the screening.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Hors-champs: Yann Gonzalez

A fascinating Hors-champs interview with the director of Les Rencontres d'après minuit, Yann Gonzalez :

Friday, June 20, 2014

Foreign Parts: Ethnographic Memory

This essay discusses Foreign Parts (Véréna Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki, 2010) and its relation to architecture, society and cinema. Foreign Parts is a documentary on an automobile junkyard and its inhabitants. The film is important for historical reasons as it documents the Willets Point neighborhood before legislation was passed by the City of New York that planned to tear it down for redevelopment purposes. The filmmakers Véréna Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki give integrity to its residents by allowing them to speak for themselves and by presenting them in their lived immediacy. The avant-garde approach to the documentary owes to the unique methods of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab.
This essay will argue that the emphasis in Foreign Parts on oppressed peoples offers a harsh critique of American Neoliberalism that outcasts these citizens in the name of urbanization and gentrification. Furthermore, the essay will explore the ideas of the Marxist geographer David Harvey and the urban development theorist Jane Jacobs. Their theoretical concepts of the body politic and of healthy communities will provide a unique perspective onto Foreign Parts.
Finally, this essay will conclude by arguing that Foreign Parts, through its content, form, and theoretical implications, provides a radical critique of neoliberalism that offers itself as a site of resistance and empathy.

Foreign Parts: Close Analysis
Foreign Parts begins with a truck being torn apart: it is brought up into the air by machinery, its motor is taken out, yellow fluids drip from it, pieces are hanging off, its gas tank is removed, and its windows are broken. The setting is an automobile junkyard where damaged vehicles are torn for their usable parts, which are then categorized and then later sold. The rest of the car is scrapped. There are some cars that arrive to the junkyard to be taken apart while others are there to be repaired. These foreign parts and this labor are what make the 39th Avenue, Willets Point in the Queens borough of New York so unique.
Willets Point is like a wasteland. There are no sidewalks but instead just dirt and crater-sized puddles. The neighborhood is next to an inlet of Flushing Bay and when it rains there is mass flooding since it does not have a proper sewage system. The neighborhood gets really dirty. Foreign Parts takes place in the streets, cars, junkyard, auto-repair shops, offices and restaurants of Willets Point. The architecture of the over two hundred buildings is old, industrial and decaying. The storefronts are short and are made of brick. There are protective steel railings that secure the shop doors. The stores look different from each other, as some are a drab gray while others are colorfully painted. There are graffiti-designed store displays, regular business signs and large corporate billboards. The scenes of people opening up their stores and just hanging out, waiting for some business as they listen to music are reminiscent of the relaxed atmosphere of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989).
The class disparities are evident in Willets Point. A journalist who is doing a report on the neighborhood brings up how its richer surrounding communities can afford to go to the LaGuardia Community College while the residents of Willets Point cannot. The people in the neighborhood do not have many options for a prosperous future. The shop employees include a high number of uncertified and immigrant workers – the type of people that cannot get work anywhere else – and the businesses are passed down from one generation to the next. If these residents are to be displaced there is a high likelihood that they would only be worst off. These bleak social realities are in contrast to the rich visitors who go see games at the neighboring Mets Citi Field ballpark.
One of the subjects of Foreign Parts is labor. This includes paperwork and smaller trades like selling merchandise and mechanical responsibilities all the way to auto repair and the use of heavy equipment in the junkyard. The junkyard is not strictly regulated so with these tasks there comes some health concerns.
But there are larger issues surrounding labor and class and race and gender that are called into question by how they are represented in Foreign Parts. There is an older woman that walks around and begs. There is a young African-American man that works at a garage. There is Mexican cook at a restaurant. There is a young group of Jewish-Americans that pray to help their business. There are also the politicians who have meetings and write policy. The lone legal resident of the junkyard, the eighty-year-old Joseph Ardizzone, spends his time protesting the Willets Point redevelopment project. Foreign Parts even ends with the last line of dialogue on the audio track with a resident accusing the New York mayor Michael Bloomberg of being “a traitor to the American Dream.” These are just some realities that are presented in Foreign Parts and through their directness and by contrast it is up to the viewer to decide their meaning.
There is also the labor of the filmmakers who follow the residents at length. Foreign Parts was filmed on and off between 2007 and 2009. Willets Point is a rough and unwelcoming neighborhood. Police do not even go there at night. (Paravel speaks of getting Sniadecki to help her with this project for security reasons).  There are some moments where the filmmakers are even seen carrying their recording devices as they make their way through Willets Point.

Film Form: Sensory Ethnography Lab
The particular filming style of Foreign Parts is unique with its long silent observatory scenes of people performing tasks. This style allows the filmmakers to bring the viewer directly into the actions and lived experiences of the Willets Point residents. This unconventional approach to the documentary, which prefers experimental observation to standard talking-head interviews, is part of an emerging trend in documentaries that is coming out of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. Lucien Castaing-Taylor oversees the department, who with his fellow professor and co-director Ilisa Barbash even wrote a book on the subject, Cross-Cultural Filmmaking: A Handbook for Making Documentary and Ethnographic Films and Videos. The breakout film of Castaing-Taylor and Barbash, Sweetgrass (2009), which is about the dying profession of sheep herding in Montana, can almost be seen as a manifesto or template film for this emerging school of filmmaking. This group includes Paravel, Sniadecki and also the sound recording and editing specialist Ernst Karel. The Sensory Ethnography Lab is a graduate facility and because of this more recently its students and their films have also begun to appear at film festivals with the most recent addition being Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez with their documentary MANAKAMANA (2013), which is about a variety of passengers that go up-and-down a chair lift in India.
The approach of the Sensory Ethnography Lab combines a mixture of visual anthropology with the ethnographic film. The lab’s stated mandate is to foster “creative work and research that is constitutively visual or acoustic—conducted through audiovisual media rather than purely verbal sign systems.”[1]  It is this emphasis on creating these non-verbal, purely visual and sensorial experiences that make these documentaries stand out so much.
It is interesting to bring up Paravel’s background in philosophy and her studies under Bruno Latour to discuss Foreign Parts. The French philosopher building on the ideas of Alfred North Whitehead and William James proposed a new form of Radical Empiricism. To say it simply: How do we know what we know? Paravel’s camera in its close inspection tries to take into account the basic elements of sensory data. It is almost like the camera in Foreign Parts has its own consciousness as it tries to take in all of the small details that make up Willets Point. This kind of cinematography does not try to make sense of all the visual information but instead tries to capture the objects and space in their immediacy. In Foreign Parts when the car parts are the subject of close-up shots as something is happening to them it is as if the camera is searching for the object’s mode of existence. It is through this attention to the phenomenology of objects where Foreign Parts becomes more than just aesthetic in its presentation but metaphysical in its inquiry. Objects are shown to have a multiplicity of uses and relations.[2]
In his new book American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn, Scott MacDonald devotes a chapter to the Sensory Ethnography Lab where in it he argues for the emerging importance of its innovations. For MacDonald, the lab is important in its continuation of a particular experimental Cambridge-based documentary tradition by its combination of innovation in aesthetics and ethnography. These films are unique in their ability to render sensory experience that can only be captured by way of cinema and its images and sound design, which differentiates it from the written format. For MacDonald this is important because, “These films exemplify the commitment of the SEL to a sense of culture as continuous transformation, interpenetration, and imbrication.”[3]
This form of representation can be problematic, as sometimes the subjects are not allowed to wholly communicate their realities. At times Foreign Parts can give the impression of being insensitive to the plight of the residents, as it seems more interested in the activities of the neighborhood’s machines. There are other examples of how the Sensory Ethnography Lab films disregard the personal for the social. Paravel’s earlier project 7 Queens (2008) has her walking through some of the neighborhoods along the Number 7 subway line in order to experience the myriad of ethnic communities that are serviced by the line. But through this mobile cinéma vérité perspective the local residents who are subject to complex social realities and unique personal histories become reduced to mere visual signs.
But Foreign Parts, more so than any of these other Sensory Ethnography Lab films, does not fall into this trap as it emphasizes the ethnic diversity and social realities of Willets Point. It does so by allowing for more direct access to its subjects with several interviews. It is this direct contact with its subjects that is lacking in the more visually radical next film by Paravel and Castaing-Taylor Leviathan (2012) about a fishing barge. For example in Foreign Parts there is the couple Luis and Sara who become the structural arc of the film, there is the elderly beggar woman Julia who is the recipient of the community’s charity, a young man who shows off his expensive basketball shoes, its Jewish residents who pray in one scene, and there are many other resident workers, their families and pets.[4]
             The attention in Foreign Parts to the small details and their symbolic meaning connects it to a larger documentary tradition. An interesting interpretation of Foreign Parts is that the junkyard is a metaphor for the process of filmmaking. MacDonald writes,

Paravel and Sniadecki “take Willets Point apart”—recording images that represent one or another dimension of the place and warehousing the results—then, during the editing process, they put the usable parts together into a piece they hope can move those who see the results.[5]

Its structure and editing is reminiscent of the cinéma vérité observatory documentaries of Allan King and Frederick Wiseman. For example, since Willets Point is near LaGuardia Airport there is the reoccurring motif of a plane flying overhead. This small image can represent many things. Like the fast-pace of the international world around them, a dream for the Willets Point residents of escaping to where things would be easier, and it could be seen as a film-reference to the airplane scene in James Benning’s Los (2001).[6] As well the social diversity of Foreign Parts is reminiscent of Chris Marker and in particular to The Sixth Side of the Pentagon (1968), which delves beyond generalizations and showed the real diversity of the Vietnam protesters.

Social Realities
The New York Times ran a feature article on Willets Point, “The End of Willets Point” by Sarah Maslin Nir in the November 22nd, 2013 issue. Nir highlights some of the local characters that make up its community as well as some of the benefits and drawbacks of the current state of the borough before the city starts to overhaul it with its three-phase $3 billion plan. The new plan will force its current residents and businesses to vacate so that the Willets Point Development and New York City’s Economic Development Corp. can build new apartment buildings, schools, a retail area and a park. The particular area of Willets Point in question is the space across from the Citi Field ballpark from 127th to 35th street. What the current residents like about Willets Point is its strong sense of community, a pride in their heritage, and their quality time spent together where they have fun (even though, for example, the playground is made from hobbled cars).
The Willets Point neighborhood consists of workers that are supporting themselves and their families and with this imminent migration most of them would likely have nowhere else to go. For example, there is Flaco whose job is to entice drivers to enter Willets Point for cheap and quick repairs. Also, there is the young woman Rosa who supports her family by selling food from her minivan. But the community is not perfect and there are still some problems like lower standards of living, strenuous weather conditions–the summers get too hot, and the winter is too cold–there are serious drug addictions, theft, crime, and for those that do not even have a car to sleep in there is homelessness. The development planners and the government will apparently pay up to a year of the residents’ future rent and are planning to build ‘affordable housing’ in the neighborhood. But nothing is really happening, at least not quickly enough. Since Willets Point official dislocation there have still been coalitions of business owners that have stayed and are defending their property rights with a poor success rate.

Neoliberalism and the Body Politic
This prioritization of wealth to the disregard of the lower class is just an effect of neoliberalism. In A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey provides a micro-history of the political-economic developments of neoliberalism, which he defines as,

The first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.[7]

For Harvey, it is the years 1978-80 that are the revolutionary turning point in the world’s social and economic history. In the year 1978, Deng Xiaoping took steps towards the liberalization of the communist-ruled Chinese economy. In 1979 Paul Volcker, from the US Federal Reserve, changed its monetary policy and in 1980 Ronald Reagan became the American president. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher was elected the Prime Minister of Britain. For Harvey these events of the growing ideologically conservative influence are the major steps towards neoliberalism, which favors a deregulated market with less government intervention and social planning.
The problem with neoliberalism is that it has become so omnipresent that it has become an uncontested and hegemonic discourse. It is now an Ideological State Apparatus, to use Louis Althusser’s term. Harvey writes, “It has pervasive effects on ways of thought to the point where it has become incorporated into the common-sense way many of us interpret, live in, and understand the world.”[8] It is not innocent, either. Harvey writes,

The process of neolibralization has, however, entailed much ‘creative destruction’, not only of prior institutional frameworks and powers (even challenging traditional forms of state sovereignty) but also of divisions of labor, social relations, welfare provisions, technological mixed, ways of life and thought, reproductive activities, attachments to the land and habits of the heart.[9]

Willets Point is just one example of the negative effects of neoliberalism and how it affects the regular, disadvantaged populace. In his article “The City as a Body Politic,” Harvey examines the city as an urban space and looks at it from the prism of ‘body politics’.[10] This is a useful concept to examine the condition of a city especially in regards to what Harvey defines as ‘wounded cities,’ which are cities that can be physically or economically damaged. The bleak social realities on view in Willets Point align it more towards being a wound.
             Harvey describes cities in their capitalistic form as hyperactive sites of “creative destruction,” that go hand-in-hand with incessant capital accumulation. Cities are both a vulnerable and resilient form of human organization. They can easily be damaged just as they can quickly recover from these damages. Just like how the body can be wounded by natural causes or by physical damage they can (sometimes) also be cured. The two different forms of strikes against a city that Harvey highlights are natural disasters, which include earthquakes and tsunamis (e.g. Hurricane Katrina), and strikes directed by human agency, which includes wars and environmental accidents (e.g. Irak, Kiev). But there are also economic strikes against the city created by a history of capitalism, a growing neoliberalism, and its governmental planning that disadvantages the poor.

Jane Jacobs and Urban Redevelopment
The concept of neoliberalism and the wounded city can be connected to Jane Jacobs’ theories of urbanization. Jacobs is famous for her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities in which she discusses the peculiar nature of cities, the conditions for city diversity, forces of decline and regeneration, and different tactics to address these problems. It is the sense of community and the relationships between the people that form there that for Jacobs is the most important. The urban downtown should be an integrated community for it to be safe and to improve its standard of living.[11]
One example that puts Jacobs’ ideas into practice is her clash with the New York City mayor Robert Moses in the 50s and 60s. Moses wanted to redevelop Manhattan by building highways for easier automobile transit and to do this Moses wanted to tear down major neighborhoods in Manhattan, which included Greenwich Village and Washington Square. Jacobs, however, posited that the infrastructure would harm the local neighborhood’s sense of community, which in reality was thriving. Jacobs became an activist for this cause and rallied public support that was able to prevent the redevelopment and would eventual lead to a landmark preservation bill a few years later.
Jacobs attacked the orthodoxy of the city planning of the times. Her voice of protest was one among the many of the period that is known for its radical spirit. The problem was not that these residential neighborhoods were poor and crime-filled, Jacobs argues, but that they were just broadly characterized as such, with a disregard to their actual living conditions, which Jacobs posited was very safe and friendly. Jacobs emphasized that the life of a city is in its strong communities and that they should not just be pushed outwards to the suburbs. This idea was in opposition to Moses who wanted to increase automobile traffic, which would only become a bigger problem as time would pass. Jacobs writes about the problems with this automobile-oriented form of city planning,

Automobiles are often conveniently tagged as the villains responsible the ills of cities and the disappointments and futilities of city planning. But the destructive effects of automobiles are much less a cause than a symptom of our incompetence at city building. Of course planners, including the highwaymen with fabulous sums of money and enormous powers at their disposal, are at a loss to make automobiles and cities compatible with one another. They do not know what to do with automobiles in cities because they do not know how to plan for workable and vital cities anyhow – with or without automobiles.[12]

Jacobs principal argument is that cities need, “a most intricate and close-grained diversity of uses that give each other constant mutual support, both economically and socially.”[13] There needs to be a city planning theory that accounts for its slums and city decay that emphasizes its re-integration by way of nurturing its diversity and sense of community. City planning needs to be practical and neighborhoods like Willets Point need to be better taken care of. This brings us back to Foreign Parts.

The emphasis of city planning should be on better communities. In Foreign Parts there are scenes of parents spending time with their children, groups of people playing together, children biking around, and pets that give character to the neighborhood. With a simple dismissal that Willets Point is a ‘dirty slum’ this natural life and activity is unfairly swept under the rug. Even though there are difficulties, there is a real community that has formed at Willets Point where people look out and support each other. There is the sense that this mix group of people is somehow united. There are scenes of them celebrating and doing other activities together. The fight of the legal proprietor Ardizzone to stop the redevelopment seems to be that of a communal one – this is what everyone wants. But it is not easy. Foreign Parts attempts to render the politics of this space through its attention to these acts of resistance.
            There are scenes in Foreign Parts where the sky in Willets Point is a bright blue color and everyone seems to be in a good mood. The documentary has an oblique structure where it begins at the start of a working-day and ends at dusk, the weather is bad at the beginning and becomes good by the end, and a couple encounter problems and then they unite. Like other directors that film these vanishing neighborhoods–the slums that fall prey to urban redevelopment–like Pedro Costa and Mahamat Saleh Haroun, the point of Paravel and Sniadecki’s Foreign Parts is to remember and eulogize the people and the place as it was and by picking sides with the losers of the progress of capitalism there can be a trenchant critique of its underlying motives as well as a site of resistance.

[1] MacDonald, Scott. American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn. Berkeley: University of California Press (2013).
[2] Latour, Bruno, “Reflections on Etienne Souriau’s Les differents modes d’existence.” In The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, edited by Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman. Melbourne: re-press (2011).
[3] MacDonald, Ibid.
[4]  All of the participants of the documentary are acknowledged in the film’s closing credits.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Benning’s style of filmmaking that consists of a static camera and long takes usually along with an environmental critique has a major influence on the Sensory Ethnography Lab along with the bulk of contemporary experimental cinema.
[7] Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press (2005).

[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Harvey, David, “The City as a Body Politic.” In Wounded Cities: Destruction and Reconstruction in a Globalized World, edited by Jane Schneider and Ida Susser. New York: Berg (2003).
[11] Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage Books (1992).
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Cahiers du Cinéma on The Turin Horse, Leviathan, Story of My Death

Cahiers du Cinéma can be really critical, just like anyone else, and their takedowns are generally reserved for their ‘Notes sur d’autres films’ section, which necessitates the succinctness of their arguments and limits the space these films get in the magazine. I don’t necessarily agree with these takedowns of The Turin Horse, Leviathan, and Story of My Death, which are generally well regarded. But to give a more accurate portrait of Cahiers today under its Stéphane Delorme editorialship, which I’ve been doing here at Toronto Film Review, it would be a form of whitewashing to not include some of their more controversial critiques, especially since they express some of their guiding ideas, and are written by some of their prominent film critics (including its chief and adjoined editor). It is worth noting too, that the debates surrounding films are different in North America, which on a whole prefers consumable entertainment and is guided by an industry of profit, than they are in France, which has a longer history of art and culture. As well I’m putting them up for anyone just curious about what they had to say about these films, which are too little seen anyways… And, it’s worth remembering, that these are just one opinion on the films, and they could be wrong, like they were about Jean-Marc Vallée’s masterpiece Dallas Buyers Club. – D.D.
The Turin Horse by Béla Tarr. Notes sur d’autres films review by Nicolas Azalbert (Cahiers, December 2011, N.673).
How could the horse, which its owner beat and that was embraced by Nietzsche at the Carlo Alberto place in Turin on January 3rd 1889, find its way to an isolated farm in Hungary's countryside? If this starting point for the new film by Béla Tarr doesn't hold up, it falsely allows the filmmaker to connect himself with philosophy. Nietzsche stopped writing after his encounter with the animal and Béla Tarr announced at the Berlin conference that he will stop making films. By associating himself with the philosopher of the death of God and the eternal return, Béla Tarr is trying to present himself like a philosophical director. He takes these two concepts and makes them his own to turn them into sad and repressive passions, when they were actually for Nietzsche joyous and liberating. The grey cinematography of the film, the silence and dejection of the abandoned father and daughter in a no man's land, and the wind that ceaselessly blows are here the signs of the absence of the divine. The quotidian repetitions throughout the six days that span the film, from the dressing of the handicapped father by the daughter and the dinner that consist uniquely of a potato, are the signs of an eternal return. When Nietzsche defined art like the invention of new forms of life, the film of Béla Tarr only represents the habit of repetition while taking suffering and sadness as values. The philosophical imposture that consists of passing Nietzsche off like a nihilist corresponds to an auteurial posture that consists of passing off a caricature for the real thing. The simplification of the traits has only the goal of enlarging the effect of the signature. The long-take is henceforth a trademark deposited by Béla Tarr. Time is no longer deployed, but instead only an idea of time and of style, which was already there in Sátántangó, has erased itself through the systematization of the process and a willingness to display. That certain people cry that this is a masterpiece in front of this theatricalization of misery only proves that the enterprise of falsification has well worked.
Leviathan by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel. Notes sur d’autres films review by Stéphane Delorme. (Cahiers, September 2013, N.692).

The pompous Leviathan finally arrives here with its grand reputation, which it gleaned throughout its festival run that lasted a whole year (cf. Cahiers N.684). Once it failed on our screen, this documentary, which is less experimental than formalist, reveals all of its vanity. The dispositif gives the illusion of ten minutes of gripping real time, but it is incapable of holding the viewer for its entire duration. There are a dozen of little cameras that are harnessed on and around the boat to film... but to film what exactly? There are those that compare Leviathan to La Région Centrale (1971), but the flowing masterpiece by Michael Snow explored a desert that was free of all humans, with the genius of rhythm and a structure that didn't beg for holier than though metaphysics. In love with their own images, the directors of Leviathan multiply their images without any order and with inept angles as they embark as ethnologist to follow the work of the fishermen. And on this account, the project feels wrong: the fishermen are pushed back to the rank of the fish (in the credits they are cited indistinctly) and they fall asleep, stunned in front of their television. These aesthetes prefer to pretentiously entitle their "documentary" Leviathan, the biblical monster designated in a haphazardly way to refer to the boat that is traveling the waters. But what exactly is this infernal world that it's referring to? The "modern world"? The "human condition"? We shiver in front of such audacity. The interest of the directors is to keep everything sludgy with their title that's spelled in gothic letters. But the most disagreeable thing about this project, which does not have a tail or a head, is the place reserved for the spectator. We are quickly emerged alongside the seagulls, going in and out of the water (gurgle), or alongside detritus. The directors weren't there themselves, and for no moment do they ask themselves if the audience would like to be there. What will be their next project? Leviathan 2: the inside of a garbage truck.
Story of My Death by Albert Serra. Notes sur d’autres film review by Jean-Philippe Tessé (Cahiers, October 2013. N.693).

Albert Serra has realized two magnificent films, Honor de Cavelleria in 2006 and Birdsong in 2008. Two films that were full of light, that expressed the flow of figures like Don Quixote or the three kings in a cinema at dawn, which was radically new and that exploded in a intelligent fantasy that was matched by a visual splendor. On top of being the auteur of these two wonder, Albert Serra is also a sympathetic young man, funny and smart, and, frankly, he is cool. Therefore there is everything to please, everything to be in awe of. He is gracefully introduced by the international film festival circuit, welcomed with open arms by the institution that is in awe in front of his caprices (a film of 101 hours, retrospectives and carte blanches pretty much everywhere), encouraged by the intelligentsia snob that whispers in his ear that he's a genius… The Catalan has finally cracked. You want some unclear hermetic genius? Here you go: with the pompous and gratuitous title Story of My Death, a film of 158 endless minutes that brings together Casanova and Dracula randomly as if it could have potentially been about the marriage between Popeye and Marie-Antoinette. These two and a half hours bring about a mortal boredom (let's insist: mortal) and would perhaps only bring pleasure to fans that can't wait to discuss it, just to prove that they are as clever as what is actually an ineptitude that has nothing to impart, except for surely a despair, that like the film by Serra, and are envious to die watching this bloated caricature of radical chic cinema, which is as pretentious as it is insignificant. It's not just that its content is bad and full of shocking puerile surprises (Casanova shitting while laughing for five minutes: very interesting), what hits the hardest is the ugliness of its lighting (the image is really ugly, underexposed and incoherent) in a film that is wrongly framed (attention, its concept: Serra filmed in 1:33 and then reframed it in Scope - result, it's ugly). The actors are well casted, and there are some scenes that escape its carnage, and the title, unfortunately rings true: for everything else, we can't but hope that Serra, after such a disaster, will have the intelligence to question himself again (Story of My Rebirth?) instead pleasing himself in a greedy system where he is a permanent object where the beneficiaries keep telling themselves at these cocktail parties worldwide that they are the last of the underground.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Projection privée : Pierre Berthomieu

This week, one of TFR's favorite film-critics, the great Pierre Berthomieu, is featured for an entire episode of Michel Ciment's France Culture podcast, Projection privée! This is a reason to rejoice!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Monday, June 9, 2014

Stéphane Delorme on Restless

One of the major through-lines in Cahiers' special 700th issue are strong and heartfelt responses to films. Some recurring remarks are about the liberty and free spirit of what is being shown, the seriousness of the experience and what the film means, the complexity of contemplative film-going experience, and the affect and importance of a beautiful gesture. This, in short, broadly characterizes where Cahiers is at today.

This review of Restless by Stéphane Delorme beautifully illustrates the sensitivity of the magazine today. It is as if the generosity of the artist - its director, Gus Van Sant - is re-energizing the magazine, and making sure that it is the best that it can be. Imagine Cahiers is like a flower, a beautiful pink tulip, which is nourished by the creation and viewing of these perseverant and poetic films that gives the future hope. So the more of them that are made, the better it gets. But also that when cinema strays from this path and nihilism, disdain and formalism takes over, it withers a little, which it necessitates Cahiers to fight back.

In his editorial Le style et le geste, building on Céline and Roland Barthes, and writing on Nagisa Oshima who then recently passed away, Delorme properly defines the politique des auteurs as
talking about the “morality of the mise en scène.” This engagement can otherwise be said by one word: its gesture… The idea of the gesture also has the advantage of bringing up the idea of an event, which connects the films, scenes, and shots. An auteur doesn’t only make one gesture. A film is the ensemble of them, and it is these gestures that we review when we critique a film. 
Delorme brings this level attention to his reviews, and that of the Restless one in specific, which creates a model that raises the level of writing by his fellow critics. Of note in this review is its focus on youth, people, love, and death – all key facets of cinema and life. This criteria of evaluation recalls how it was put into practice in Delorme’s review of David Lynch’s last film to date Inland Empire, Une femme mariée (n.620), where after discussing its key features - how it's haunting, and creates fear and affects - he concludes, “The temptation of adultery or not, dryness or not, there is for sure the story of an amour fou in Inland Empire, but it takes place on the other side of the screen, between the director and his actress, Laura Dern.”

This Restless review from the May 2011 Cannes issue (N.667) isn’t even the official Cahier Critique (that would be by Dominique Païni’s in N.670, and it’s also worth checking out Marcos Uzal’s Trafic N.81 review). I’ve translated it below. It illustrate the heartfelt and lyrical aspects of Delorme's writing, which is seamlessly incorporated into traditional film criticism (e.g. the discussion of a director and his films). It’s one of Delorme’s best and most personal recent contributions, alongside his piece on L’enfant secret. Vant Sant, whose Elephant made Cahiers' Top Ten of the decade (whose directors have all slowly been getting événements), has been over time, surprisingly, the source of some of Cahiers most generous and touching critiques (see in particular what some of their past writers have said, whether it is Serge Daney or Stéphane Bouquet and Jean-Marc Lalanne). Some filmmakers have a way to bring out the best in people. Gus Van Sant is one of them. - D. D.
Gus Van Sant, calme and without rest

Why do we like a filmmaker? We can easily ask ourselves this question in front of the Gus Van Sant’s beautiful new film. We do not find the shock that, from Gerry to Last Days, in three films made this director from Portland the most important one of his generation. But we find something else that no other direct has to offer today: an assurance, confidence, and perseverance in oneself to make works guided by personal wishes and challenges that he wants to take on. 

It was a few years ago that he was at the top of his game with Elephant, Gus Van Sant didn’t try to outdo himself by getting locked into the posture of an auteur or of a superauteur which happened to other past Cannes prize winners and that paralyzed them formally by this quick ascension (Wenders, Moretti, Almodovar – as we anticipate for their new films). Gus Van Sant seems not to be a victim of this pride and complex, public recognition doesn’t seem to affect him: he has nothing to prove, he lands and shows up again surprisingly, in the hippy streets of San Francisco (Milk), in a line waiting at a busy Starbucks (an unrealized project with Tom Hanks), or in a pathetic melodrama à la Love Story (1979), because most people would be able to compare Restless to the Arthur Hiller film.

We like a filmmaker for his gesture of picking what films to direct, just as much for their style. When Coppola takes up projects in the Eighties, without even worrying about how they are just jobs, he then produces some of his best films while multiplying his filming style; he makes a Disney (Jack), and then stops and starts over again to make films at his house. Or like with Lynch when he goes from Lost Highway to The Straight Story. There are a lot of filmmakers that once they reach 50 years old (Gus Van Sant is already 58) don’t bother about gestures, and start to advance while looking behind them, contemplating the vestiges of what they’ve already done. On the other hand, for some, the gesture seems to be guided by a personal challenge, which is hard to necessarily convey, that prevents the oeuvre to just lie down in its own bed. The renewing of the game isn’t that of the director of the classical studio era who was tied to projects as he held his singular identity (the standard model of the auteur, Hawks); it’s a choice, a necessary capacity to accelerate and decelerate, to navigate, follow ones course, through warm and cold currants, without ever stopping swimming through the river.

Why Restless? But also why Good Will Hunting? Or Gerry? Or the aberrant remake of Psycho? There is, first off, the desire and the challenge to realize an intimate film on a heterosexual amorous couple, something the director has never done before, and to tell this 'love story' in a Hollywood fashion. We can just imagine the criticism this will get from the fans of Last Days who will denounce it for its lack of ambition. But Gus Van Sant rediscovers the form of the walk-film, which follows the principals of the pre-mortem of his 'young death' trilogy (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days): the story is that of a man who, haunted by the death of his parents, falls in love with a young women that has only a few more months to live. The director from this then tells the story of their friendship during those few months.

It would be a shame, though, to reduce this subject to the theme of the countdown from the films in the previous death trilogy. We would miss the originality of the usage of the inevitable from that trilogy. We would also miss the originality of Restless. What he’s trying to do is more difficult than trying to accomplish a fourth opus with a Steadicam held by Harris Savides on unhappy adolescents. This is because Gus Van Sant is horrified of routines. The challenge is to bring out the melodrama from this heavy subject, from an adolescent with cancer towards the sentimental comedy. The challenge is to blend the tones. There must be a maximum balance that needs to be achieved that can hold this fragile equilibrium, which takes into account the fragility of the the physicality of the actors as well the extreme finesse of the choices of the director. This airy equilibrium nourishes itself on the trivial, bad taste and a perverse fascination that is brought out with this closeness to death. Gus Van Sant then finds two aesthetic challenges in Restless: the pleasure of pure constraint which he rarely ever stays to (here a love story); and the mixing of genres (melodrama and sentimental comedy), a mixture that he had previously created a perfect model for, though perhaps in a mode less fluid, with his dream-like My Own Private Idaho (1992).

But we can’t stop there. Gus Van Sant (more and more?) is making a moralist oeuvre. He wants to be useful: Milk was a film to make because there was a cause to defend and we were surprised to find a variety of edifying sentiments (the gay adolescent who is handicapped that calls at night time to find comfort). Restless proposes an edifying apprenticeship: the apprenticeship of life after death, in a follow up that isn’t as poisoned as his previous trilogy. It’s almost the antidote. Like with Larry Clark, this fascination for adolescents doubles because it comes from an ethical stance of good will and protection (as if the directors were saying: “beware”). The film wants to be happy, it offers the hero a reconciliation after the sudden death of his parents. He fell into a coma during the accident that was the cause of their death, he suffers from a double culpability, which is that of surviving and that of not assisting their burial. All of the film lies on this traumatism, and on this healing. He hadn’t had the time? Now he has all of the time (three months) to say goodbye to this young girl that he meets just in time to see her off and to accompany her. It is she that dies but it is he who will rest in peace.

To do this, the filmmaker choses to go into an unexpected terrain, even though if it has already been there deep down in certain of his films, that of wonder. This sense of wonder culminates with a great scene in the forest during Halloween, where the boy is disguised as a Japanese aviator and her as a geisha, and they reenact a scene from a Japanese ghost film. The decision to cast Mia Wasikowska is judicious, because it seems like she is still wearing the fairy-like costume from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland: a young actress of a rare intelligence, she brings a conviction that interrupts the potential pathos of the subject. A haircut like that of Jean Seberg, a head like a sparrow, boy’s clothes, she has a androgynous figure, which was already apparent under Alice’s amour with the false impression of a Johnny Depp. The male hero (Henry Hopper) resembles a king without a crown, who lives with his aunt in a large house that seems like it’s right out of Last Days. There is a third character, who is really bizarre, which accentuates this Japanese imagination: Hiroshi, the ghost of a kamikaze, who accompanies the hero since the death of his parents. This companion enchants the reality of the young man, but he also weighs the idea of death upon the story. In the extraordinary opening of Elephant, a son interrogates his father about his activity at the Chuuk Lagoon during the Pacific War, before answering him, this adolescent: “I went there” – but how could he? This enigmatic remark resonates with the omnipresence of war, and the uncalled for intrusion of archive images of the atomic explosion at Nagasaki.

The enchantment of Restless relies also on the mise en scene which is unique to this filmmaker: the autumnal colors that pass through the trees to the generous night-robe that Mia Wasikowska wears, the framing that are like friendly gazes posed upon the characters just like a friend’s hand on one’s shoulder; out-of-focus images that find themselves as the scene unfolds, like when the couple find themselves in front of the parent's tombstone, beside a naïve sculpture of two sheep that are side by side. There are also conventions, notably the music, but they are compensated by genius ideas: like the first medical attack of the young girl, who in the middle of a sentence, without even screaming, falls down backwards in a gesture of an infinite violence; or when, before dying, in a scene that counteracts all of the hospital scenes in every Hollywood film, she just simply asks him, “Ok?”, in the vein of “can I go now, will you be fine?”

But the strangest thing, in this luminous film, is the presence of Henry Hopper. With each expression, his face threatens to take on the traits of his father, Dennis. All it takes is for him to squint his eyes a little, and we are back in 1955, the era of Rebel Without a Cause. When the end credits of the film finish and there appears its dedication to Dennis Hopper, a deeper emotion engulfs the whole film, as if this story is the backdrop for this character. The resemblance between the father and son contributes to its power.

Stéphane Delorme