Friday, June 28, 2013

the alley behind the marketplace

Q. So, Mr. Lynch, it's been 7 years now. Why don't you make another movie?

A. [I am a spider, and I must rest and build strength before weaving another web. This is true of all spiders. Read the Upanishads.]

Q. Yeah, but so why don't you make another movie, David?

A. [Because lately I've been feeling how James Joyce would have felt if he hadn't passed away so soon after the publication of Finnegans Wake. A real sense of how could I possibly proceed from here, now that I've kicked out all the jams I can kick out without leaving the bounds of narrative filmmaking?]

Q. The fans are wondering whether you'll make another movie.

A. [INLAND EMPIRE wasn't enough for them? I mean, I know some of them didn't like the look, and that everybody pro or con found it baffling, but is there anything else remotely like it? It's so scary and joyous and deeply smart about our globalized, media-glutted age, certainly more right-on than the movies that have tried to get at what's in the air by less oblique means. I built a massive house of fiction for people to lose themselves in, with so many possible routes of entry and egress that it's nigh impossible to have the same experience with it twice. I left in some of my duds and doodles, too, because I was after something more interesting than a masterpiece--a movie about the creative process that really reflects how wild and reckless and spooky the act of creation can be.]

Q.  We're not saying we didn't like INLAND EMPIRE. We respected it, and Laura Dern was amazing. But we're still wondering why you don't make another movie.

A. [Why don't YOU make another movie? That's all INLAND EMPIRE was really trying to say.]

Q. Why not another one, David? For old time's sake.

A. [Okay, fine. Here you go:

You happy now?]

Q. That's like a minute long, David.

A. [Sorta fugged up though, right?]

Monday, June 24, 2013

Undergraduania #2: Re: Vivre Sa Vie

This is another essay--again slightly altered--which I wrote for my film history course, this time taking a playful approach to a filmmaker who demands one. This is much closer in style to what I expect to be regularly posting here than the previous essay.

 9 Godardian Notes on Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie

          1.     description(s) of a film

1. The elliptical story of an aspirant actress driven by what appears to be economic necessity into a life of prostitution that terminates with her senseless death.
2. An ambivalent, clinical study of prostitution in France circa 1962 by a Swiss-French filmmaker with a background in anthropology.
3. A meditation on purity and martyrdom that has kinship with the work of Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson, but unlike them continually evinces a playful self-awareness of its place in relation to film history.
4. An articulation in semi-narrative form of certain key tenets of existential thought, particularly notions of presence, individual responsibility and choice, as well as other contemporary philosophical ideas concerning the uses and efficacy of language.
 5. Jean-Luc Godard’s tribute to the beauty and vitality of his bride-of-one-year Anna Karina, but a tribute laced with an austere, doomy melancholy, so that the line between paean and preemptive eulogy is blurry at all but a handful of moments.

[Originally, I was going to describe Vivre Sa Vie (1962) three times in correspondence with the three views of Nana-Anna’s head in the opening title sequence, but the film is not just three things, and furthermore our 360° tour of her head is not completed until the next sequence, when we see her seated in the café from behind, followed by her beau from a similar angle.]


To me style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body. Both go together. They can't be separated.”—Jean-Luc Godard

Vivre Sa Vie invites a rather theoretical treatment, because it is—aesthetically, intellectually—extremely complex.”—Susan Sontag

To live means to finesse the processes to which one is subjugated.”--Bertolt Brecht

“I move my head, I’m responsible.”—Nana-Anna

All of a sudden, in the good-natured child the woman stood revealed, a disturbing woman with all the impulsive madness of her sex, opening the gates of the unknown world of desire. Nana was still smiling, but with the deadly smile of a man-eater.”—Emile Zola

“I don’t think you should feel about a film. You should feel about a woman, not a movie. You can’t kiss a movie.”—Jean-Luc Godard

“My eyes!”— László Szabó, Tableaux 6

         3.     precise facts

-The film is Jean-Luc Godard’s fourth feature.
-The film is 83 minutes, 46 seconds long.
-I have seen the film 5 or 6 times.
-The film bills itself as “A Film In Twelve Tableaux,” and each tableaux is announced by a title card.
-Susan Sontag’s famous essay, “Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie” is arranged in numbered sections, but has 5 more than Vivre Sa Vie proper.
-Vivre Sa Vie is the French title of a 1935 Joan Crawford vehicle, whose English title is not My Life To Live but I Live My Life.
-Jean-Luc Godard was 31 when the film was made; Anna Karina was 21.
-The film was released in France two days before Anna Karina turned 22.
-Nana Kleinfrankenheim is 145 days older than Anna Karina.
-“Nana” both rhymes with and is an anagram of “Anna.”
-“Nana” is the title and central character of a novel by Emile Zola, concerning the rise and fall of a prostitute.
-The man who plays “Ma Môme” by the singer-songwriter Jean Ferrat on the jukebox in Tableaux 6 and looks immensely pleased with himself is Jean Ferrat.
-La Philosophe in Tableaux 11 is the philosopher Brice Parain, whose English Wikipedia page is one very short sentence long.

          4.     boy in courtyard

    The one in Tableaux 3 in the "concierge" scene, dancing for what I've always presumed to be his catatonically bored sister, while Nana-Anna tries and fails to enter her apartment, whose rent we assume she has failed to pay. This bit is highly typical of the Nouvelle Vague's approach to mise-en-scene, in the way it playfully incorporates ambient life into a scene, even foregrounds it. For a moment we’re smiling or laughing at little Elvis Doinel’s gyrations and not paying heed to Nana-Anna’s desperation. After Nana-Anna invades the office to steal her key, the boy stops dancing. If this were a later Godard film, like Week End (1967) or First Name: Carmen (1983), he would keep going as the action unfolds, oblivious.

        (Come to think of it, my assumption that this is the boy's sister may be off-base. First of all, she doesn't enter the office with him and his parents. Second of all, her haircut and build are androgynous enough that she may well be a boy. That the child continues standing there motionless is an oddball, proto-Lynchian touch. It's almost as though they're standing outside the diegesis.)

          5.     pinball and pool

There are two scenes in the film in which characters play pinball. The first takes place in a bistro, the second in a café “in the suburbs.”  Both scenes involve men with whom Nana-Anna is in some way entangled: in the first (Tableaux 1), she and Paul—her boyfriend/husband, with whom she shares a child--take turns at the controls; in the second (Tableaux 6), Raoul—her future pimp—does the same with one of his girls.
When in Tableaux 9 Nana-Anna first encounters the lighthaired young man she is to fall for in the film’s back half, he’s playing pool.  Perhaps that’s part of the attraction. Pool is a less constrictive game than pinball. One’s agency in the game isn’t limited to two flippers and the spring-loaded launcher; the cueball can be struck from a whole range of angles, and moves other balls with its force rather than ricocheting off everything it touches. It can even fly off the table entirely. For a young woman aspiring toward existential freedom, finding a handsome young man who plays pool instead of pinball is likely to quicken the heart.

          6.     systems followed unsystematically

One reason Godard’s films are difficult to account for in standard ways is his tendency to set up narrative, structural, aesthetic, and thematic frameworks and then undermine, disobey, or replace them when the impulse strikes him. Many of his films only belatedly have discernible narratives; others abandon them entirely. Masculin Feminin (1966) claims to consist of “15 precise facts,” but what those facts are couldn’t be more vague, and only occasionally is the move from one fact to the next heralded by a numerical title card.  How many things do we end up learning about Juliette-Marina in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967)? At once far more, and far less. Histoire(S) du Cinema (1988-98) is in no way a methodical presentation of cinema history from beginning to end, or (as Godard initially suggests it to be) a recounting of a series of possible histories, but a mercurial piece of video art that proceeds by intuitive and poetic association rather than narrative logic. And Vivre Sa Vie claims to be a film in twelve tableaux, each taking a particular stylistic and thematic angle on Nana-Anna’s life. But the inclusion of multiple scenes under the same tableaux stretches the definition of the term, the narration of the quasi-documentary Tableaux 8 begins before the tableaux is announced and ends after the next tableaux begins, and the film’s seemingly austere, Bressonian aesthetic regimen is continually undermined by highly self-conscious camera moves.
Manny Farber: “[T]here is a huge gap between the purported intention of the films and their actuality. And it’s the undeveloped space between intent and end product that gives them their nutty, Dr. Kronkite character.”

Godard seems excited by systems, but he is far too iconoclastic to completely hold to one for a whole film. It is enough to have made the gesture towards a possible way of organizing a film (which is to say, one possible way of viewing the world). This is one of the reasons he gets up some people’s noses: his preference for the anticlimactic, the incomplete, the obscured, the disruptive, the half-formed, the seemingly irrelevant, the sentence that for a second seems to say everything but may not say anything, “not a just image, just an image.” What remains is a restless intelligence unfolding on the screen. In this way, Godard is one of the ultimate manifestations of the camera-stylo. All usual modes of thinking are secondary to the etchings of his cinematic pen. He draws what the philosopher and Godard supporter Gilles Deleuze calls “the borderline, there’s always a border, a line of flight or flow, only we don’t see it, because it’s the least perceptible of things. And yet it’s along this line of flight that things come to pass, becomings evolve, revolutions take shape.” Indeed things do come to pass: we ask ourselves why we’ve been telling stories in the same way for millenia, or just what a “tableaux” can be.
The only time Godard lets a single unified system guide his work is in his Dziga-Vertov period, which is also his most problematic period, the period that…

          7.     nana wonders whether she's happy

…comes closest to what dissenters of his post ’67 work think the last four decades of his career consists of.

      Back to Tableaux 9. It took me a couple viewings to work out what impels Nana-Anna to wonder if she is happy in this sequence, as the title card that introduces the sequence suggests she does. This could be attributed to my being a stupid viewer, and that's part of it, but it's also because the scene foregrounds two crowd-pleasing bits: Luigi’s little boy blowing up the balloon routine, and Nana-Anna’s ecstatic, seductive gambol around the room. Around them is silence broken by seemingly banal banter about cigarettes. I was initially inclined to take this as a patch of Godardian half-dead space, but it’s actually a crucial moment in the film, because we can subtly see the gears turning in her mind—weighing the coldness of Raoul with the seeming warmth of this new young man, who goes out of his way to fetch her cigarettes. It’s the sense of possibility she feels with regard to him that gives her the boldness to strut and preen around the room as she does.

      But, like much of Godard, the film is anti-psychological. We have no direct access to Nana-Anna’s consciousness. The measure of her life is to be taken from her actions and words, not her thoughts. I say it’s the young man, but it could very well be some evocative quality in the brand logo on the cigarette pack he fetches her that compels her to dance. Nana-Anna maintains a threshold of unknowability.

           8.     seeing seeing

           A film of eyes, and what they see. Nana-Anna gazing at men (let’s not forget in this film apparently absent of interiority that we get multiple point of view shots); men gazing at Nana-Anna (Raoul using his to force a laugh out of her). And then those sublime, uncomfortable, funny moments when she trains her eyes on us, watching her, and we realize we’ve been doing that the whole time, and furthermore that we’re not just watching her, but that we’re watching her as she’s being filmed by her husband, that she’s looking as much if not more so at him than at us, and that we’re inhabiting a mechanized version of his eyes. The lynchpin of the eye theme is Tableaux 6. The men in the café watch her, she watches them. And she takes a sustained look at us, as Godard’s camera elegantly pushes in and out, sometimes in subtle sync to “Ma Môme,” in a kind of futile investigation of her face. And then gunshots in the street, and László Szabó (not the chess player) bursts in and exclaims to the barista...

9.   hades and sons

There are two elements in Tableaux 12 that could scarcely be more on the nose. The first is the reading of Poe’s “The Oval Portrait” by Godard, whose voice plainly does not match the face of Nana-Anna’s lover; the second the sign hanging over a warehouse as Nana-Anna is driven to her death.

            The first Sontag finds to be a lapse in an otherwise perfect film. To bring the outside world (not Poe himself, but the relationship between his story and the way Godard has constructed his wife onscreen) into an aesthetic object that for her is otherwise airtight is to mock it, blemish it, taint it with reality.
Sontag seems to be longing for a film by someone with a different aesthetic M.O. If Dreyer or Bresson had made it, certainly this kind of self-reference would have been thrown out as decadent and unserious. But Godard, though certainly an admirer of those filmmakers, would rather evoke than completely inhabit their ascetic purity of purpose. Film and his own life are too intermingled for him to leave the latter out of the former.
I have nothing in particular to say about the sign. It’s cute.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Undergraduania #1: Re: Man with a Movie Camera

This essay was written for a film history course while I was an undergraduate at St. Mary's College of Maryland, and is one of the few essays I've written in academia that doesn't make me break out in hives upon revisiting it. A few sentences have been rejiggered, but it's more or less what I handed in. I don't anticipate writing in this kind of pure academese in the future, as it can get smothering. But this reads okay.

Man with a Movie Camera: Propaganda, Modernity, and Cinema as Truth-Medium

Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) is usually classified as a documentary, but a typical documentary presents us with verbal and visual information about a particular subject, usually arranged in a comprehensible narrative. Instead, Vertov’s film attempts to encompass every conceivable aspect of modern life in just a little over an hour, a kind of Ulysses of the cinema. This totalizing ambition could be said to consist in practice of a trio of overlapping assertions of power: the power of Soviet Russia in the 1920s, the power of modernity in general, and the power of cinema to capture both in concentrated, intensified form.
Like many films of the Montage movement, one of the film’s intended functions was as propaganda for the state. Vertov showcases the Soviet nation’s industrial, technological, social, and economic vitality. Its cities, its public services, its modes of transport, its markets, its factories, and its entertainments are all seen serving the needs of the Russian people with mechanistic speed and efficiency. The people, too, are shown to be going about labor and leisure with spirit and vigor, and rarely without a smile. The vision of Soviet life the film presents us with is highly idealized. Even the one funeral we see is a parade. There are a small handful of sobering moments, like the sight of a disheveled and possibly homeless young man sleeping outside and the desolate faces of a couple filing for divorce. But even those examples are mitigated by our later seeing the young man (or a young man closely resembling him) grinning and laughing at the camera, and the sense we get in the latter scene that having a nonjudgmental legal infrastructure in place to handle divorces is necessary to the functioning of any progressive modern society. Not only does Vertov take only a passing glance at the underside of such a society, but the city that seems to the spectator one unified area (to the extent that a film so editorially disjunctive and nonlinear can be said to construct a coherent space) is actually a composite of several different cities, a patchwork of the best of Russia. The film served to flatter Russian spectators that their country was at the forefront of the 20th century, and emphatically announce to the world that it was competing with a nation of great socioeconomic muscularity and technical ingenuity—that the communist experiment was succeeding grandly.

At the same time, there is nothing especially politically didactic about the film. There are no intertitles contextualizing the images Vertov presents or exhorting the audience to feel anything in particular about them. There is no fictional narrative and no conventional identification. We witness relatable human moments throughout, many of which are affecting and amusing, but quickly we’re on to the next attraction. There are no references to political struggles, and only occasionally in the flux of rapid-fire images are we reminded that we’re looking at the Soviet Union and not some generic thriving modern metropolis. This is one of the things that distinguishes Vertov’s project from that of Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein’s work spins fictional narratives from historical events; though in films like Strike (1925) and Battleship Potemkin (1925) he eschews protagonists, he applies the protagonist/antagonist polarity onto broader social forces, and makes the conflict between the two as emotionally galvanic as possible for the spectator by deploying disjunctive editing techniques and shocking imagery, like animal slaughter and the deaths of children. Vertov thought Eisenstein’s work a half-measure, more like conventional narrative cinema derived from the capitalist West and given a revolutionary tinge rather than a true top-to-bottom revolution of the form. Eisenstein’s films are still appreciated for their technical skill and emotional impact, but their politics are very much tied to their era and seem naïve and simplistic now. By keeping its politics implicit, Vertov’s film serves (and served even in its original context) a broader function than propaganda—it’s a visual essay on the many forms of modernity. The rush of a train, the bustle of an intersection crisscrossed by trolleys, the whir and stutter of a projector, the frenzy of a cigarette assembly line, the glide of a boat into port, the cascade of water over a dam, the gaudy gaze of a storefront mannequin, a goalie diving for a soccer ball, a baby emerging from its mother’s womb, a white mouse crawling from under an overturned cup during a magic show, the mud-caked breasts of exfoliating bathers, the face of a child in a transport of joy—the film is a document or index of these and many other sensations, movements, and textures, arranged for us in intricate, fast-shuffling patterns dictated by themes and visual rhymes. The rapid-fire barrage of images is exhilarating and functions as a kind of visual praise-song to modernity, which in its relentless affirmation and seeming comprehensiveness can be likened to one of Walt Whitman’s more expansive, list-heavy poems.

But unlike Whitman, Vertov—true to both his Marxist-Leninist and Futurist bona fides--is relentlessly materialist, omitting from his vision any kind of recognizable spirituality (to my recollection, the closest we get to the conventionally spiritual is a glimpse of a church) and focusing instead on physical mechanics, the spectacle and visceral force of objects and bodies in motion. As exciting as this is to watch, one might find something slightly uneasy in Vertov’s folding of the human processes of birth, betrothal, and death into this mechanistic vision. The sequence that crosscuts mothers in labor, wedding ceremonies, and funeral processions puts one in mind of the assembly line sequences. Should (the good American humanist within us might ask) this connection between life cycles and mass production be so easily drawn? Aren’t human beings of greater substance than their technology?
 But the film itself throws a lifeline to the humanist, in the form of cinema, personified in the figure of the title. Though subject to the same attention to mechanics as everything else in Vertov’s vision of modernity, cinema is the wellspring of the film’s humanity. The cinema is both an eminent example of mechanized modernity and a means of (re-)introducing a humane sense of play and poetry into same. In addition to an inventory of possible subjects for cinema, the film is also an inventory of cinema’s stylistic possibilities: rapid cutting, canted and skewed camera angles, slow, fast, and reverse motion, freeze frames, and seemingly dozens more. In the film’s most surreal moments, mirror effects fold buildings in two, superimpositions make the cameraman appear to tower over the city and shrink to fill a glass of beer, and with stop motion animation a camera, tripod and carrying case become sentient beings, clowning for both us and on-camera spectators.

The film’s extreme reflexivity locates it as a precursor to postmodernism, but the film is philosophically more modernist than postmodernist, in that there’s never any doubt that underneath the layers of reflexivity and cinematographic and editorial tricks we are seeing the real world, within a constructed text to be sure, but one constructed largely of images whose reality might be mediated but is not mitigated, mutilated, or destroyed by the apparatus of cinema. In fact, Vertov saw his cinema as a means of apprehending kino-pravda (film truth), an augmentation and extension of the eye rather than a deception of it, the tricks his camera performs less a demonstration of reality-defying artifice than of what new ways of seeing the world had been opened up by the advent of cinema. One element of his theory which resonates with the notion floated above of the cameraman as the primary ambassador of the human in the film's mechanized world is that of the truth of the encounter, the idea that there is something inherently truthful about the negotiation that takes place between the filmmaker and the filmed subject, as if putting an image of a person to celluloid is akin to capturing their (essential? objective? factual?) self in motion. Man with a Movie Camera may sideline the spiritual, but it cannot escape metaphysics. Vertov’s method was undergirded by some grand assumptions about truth and being, albeit couched in terms that were half-scientific and half-reportorial. Kino-pravda has its descendants in the Christianity-inflected criticism of Andre Bazin, Jean-Luc Godard’s theoretical interrogations of image and sound, the fetishism of authenticity by such movements as cinema-verite and Dogme 95, and Werner Herzog’s theory of “ecstatic truth.”
But despite all the heavy theoretical baggage that attends Man with a Movie Camera, it is fundamentally an advertisement—for the culture that produced it, for the modern world, and for cinema itself. And it may be the greatest advertisement ever made.