Thursday, December 07, 2006

L'Amour fou

The screenings in the Museum of the Moving Image series "The Complete Jacques Rivette" (something of a misnomer: there will be no complete versions of 'Jean Renoir, le patron,' 'L'Amour par terre,' 'Jeanne la pucelle,' and 'Va savoir') mark the end of a cinephile-era. The most legendary of Rivette's films — 'L'Amour fou,' 'Out 1,' 'Out 1: Spectre,' and 'Merry-Go-Round' — will have been screened in New York at long last, and in good prints at that. So what's left for me now, as movie-mad groundling scouring the augurs of his heroes? Pretty much nothing, beyond a most-complete-version of Feuillade's 'Tih Minh,' and Godard's 'Six fois deux' and 'France/tour/détour/deux/enfants,' which I'm much more likely to see on a DVD before any kind of public screening hits town. With all the aforementioned films almost certainly taking their residence in my nervous system someday — a feeling probably akin to that of the dead in the next world finally getting a chance to be reunited with the deep souls they knew on earth following THEIR respective, and long-expected, expirations — I'll have "seen it all," all of my own personal "cinephilic holy grails" in any case, as Dennis Lim, or someone, has coined. And speaking of coin, the DVD releases are impending, in due time, in due time... And the screening room at Moving Image is already one step further from the cacophonous, bewildered spaces of Anthology, where 'Spectre' came beamed like an artifact in all its pinkness and pops, true archaeology... And yet, something comparable to my excitement for this weekend's screening of 'Out 1' has already arrived with yesterday's release of Lynch's 'INLAND EMPIRE,' which I'll see for a first time next week... — The cinema that moves me most deeply contains the pain and the glory of the Crucifixion. In its form and vision of a world it scars me and turns my gaze upon my own past and future.

Such is the case with Jacques Rivette's 250-minute 'L'Amour fou' ('Mad Love', 1968), which I am able at last to assert as one of The Great Films. The time in my life when I needed this film and both 'Out 1' and 'Céline and Julie Go Boating' most, during a period of crisis, has passed, but the promises made by "the literature" (Rosenbaum, Hughes, Martin, Frappat) have all held true. Much of what I "imagined" them to be, great and secret shows, happened to conform to the actuality of the films, all present there in their images, intimations, forms, ideas — in their aesthetics and in their experiential principles — so either I had a few manic flashes of prophecy or Rivette is the filmmaker who has turned out to be as weirdly in touch with the disposition of me, one spectator, as he has proven to be with his actors on- and off-set. 'L'Amour fou,' 'Out 1: Spectre,' and 'Céline and Julie Go Boating' will always remain mysterious, profound enclosures of self so long as I live, even if they are no longer, strictly speaking, wholly "imagined" films. (Still, there will always remain that one bout inaccessible: Léaud's on-screen breakdown at the end of the work-print of 'Out 1,' although maybe this is the form it's best that prized, diabolical piece of movie assumes.) However, until 'L'Amour fou' becomes available to anyone who wants to see it, and at any time, I'll share some description, clarification, reflection, of a moment, which is to say four hours, in time:

-The print. Beautiful. And the subtitles were good. I think everyone said a silent prayer that the opening '60s-era logo for New Yorker Films implicitly telegraphed: "...who no longer hold the rights for video versions of the film."

-Aspect ratio. The film was screened in 1.66:1, and the compositions looked dead-on. In her book 'Jacques Rivette, secret compris,' Hélène Frappat lists the screen format as 1.85:1, so... I don't know? Hopefully any digital release will take a 1.66 frame, rather than a 1.85, is all I'm saying.

-The opening credits. The first appearance of Rivette's signature opening-credits "design template," which is to say all titles/names/words are announced in a white, Janson-esque font on top of black. The percussion on the soundtrack foreshadows the opening of the long version of 'Out 1,' wherein the body exercises metamorphose into (gradually make themselves known as) dance.

-35mm and 16mm. When I was younger and had read about the film, I had either misread descriptions of the way in which the varying film-stocks interacted within Rivette's film, or I had read descriptions which were not written clearly enough for the "uninitiated" to understand. My confusion took the following route: The film switches between 35mm and 16mm footage? Does this mean two projectors are needed to screen the film? Does this mean it's in the lineage of the same materialist processes that make Godard's own Un film comme les autres so reviled by audiences? It was only later that I realized — and yes, seeing the film confirmed this — that the 16mm footage has been blown up to 35mm, and is incorporated into the montage. The film, then, is, as Frappat succinctly describes: "35mm." Also note that the film, and all its footage-as-shot, is black-and-white. (It also contains some of the most gorgeous cinematography of the 1960s; I'm thinking particularly of the close-up on Bulle Ogier's face while she reclines in the bathtub.)

-What one might talk about when one "talks about 'L'Amour fou'." First it might do to sketch out the premise: Jean-Pierre Kalfon is directing, rehearsing, a stage-performance of Jean Racine's 'Andromaque' with a group of young and beautiful actors (which includes that freckle-shrapneled john from Godard's '2 or 3 Things I Know About Her'). His wife (although the fact that they're not just a "couple," but married, isn't made explicit until around the 2h30m or 3h mark), played by Bulle Ogier (who, if I might interject another parenthesis, has never looked more beautiful than in this film in which her hair is cut in simple bangs, her costume is unadorned, and her eyes are so fetchingly mascara'd), descends from the stage during the opening rehearsal and leaves for home; Kalfon's direction to his wife, who has been cast in a primary role, fails to penetrate. Effectively having left the production for good, Ogier thereby assumes the role of homemaker and paranoid idler throughout the duration of the film. 'L'Amour fou' is thus the document of Ogier's and Kalfon's relationship discord inside their apartment (not "marital" discord — whatever legalities are involved between the two, their relationship is something beyond the traditional assumptions inherent to the term), set against, and existing within a fluctuating state of exchange with, the tumultuous rehearsals inside the barren theater — which are being filmed the entire time by a crew headed by André S. Labarthe.

Bon. This is where things get complicated, and interesting. As such, I'll attempt to be as clear as possible with, however, no guarantees of success. — In 'L'Amour fou' and 'Out 1: Spectre,' Rivette posits freedom and liberation, but the overriding frameworks represent absolute Control. Which in turn represents the structure, the entity, that most terrifies his characters, who flinch at shadows and break down in frustration. The montage of 'Out 1: Spectre' is punctuated by black-and-white still images — photographs, if you will — of the film's characters in conversation, in solitary motion, etc. The images often do not correspond to any scenes, situations, present within 'Spectre' itself; and these still images also "predict" situations that take place later in 'Spectre' while seeming not to originate from any shot that exists within 'Spectre.' The appearance onscreen of each still — accompanied by a loud electronic hum, and occurring at times seemingly key, at other times seemingly at "random," at their "own," in varying rhythm — arrives like an apparition that foretells fates and doom; that describes paths not taken, exhilarations and tragedies unknown. Yet these stills do not exhibit their own sentience nor (perhaps the opposite now, to arrive at the same ultimate idea) do they register an absolute blankness, a non-sentience. Who "shot" these stills, after all — when, and how? Rivette has described them as expulsions of sorts, hailing from some computer-brain outside the film-world, and indeed, they register as the prophecies of an extra-filmic intelligence, one which — most disturbingly, given the concerns of the "plot" and of the characters — has the ability to consider and enact permutations to the fiction; to variously control and concede to the fiction which it has nevertheless set in motion.

In 'L'Amour fou,' the extra-filmic intelligence or entity — which, let me reveal if it's not already clear, is not just Jacques Rivette, but a subconscious within and around Jacques Rivette — sets about juxtaposing Rivette's own 35mm film footage, shot under his own direction, with the 16mm footage of the rehearsals shot by Labarthe, and thereby ostensibly "not under" Rivette's direction at the time of the shooting. To further complicate matters, Kalfon — in character, no less, as a Kalfon-not-Kalfon — is "really" directing these actors (whom Kalfon himself, the "real" person, has chosen): for the production of 'Andromaque' that they rehearse in 'L'Amour fou' is meant actually to be produced and performed in front of a general audience. To summarize: Rivette directs Kalfon, who in turn directs his rehearsals under his "own" auspices, which Labarthe-not-Labarthe (for he too is a character in the "diegesis" of Rivette's film) then captures on film, and which the 16mm announces stylistically as "documentary footage."

More profoundly than in perhaps any other film, 'L'Amour fou' provides a discourse (but, make no mistake, a discourse with a real story, this isn't mere cold "meta-text") on where the border exactly, or non-exactly, runs between fiction and reality in cinema, theater, and life. (More on this below.) In the shuffling of 35mm and 16mm footage, the film asks: "Who is filming the truer fiction?" "Can we see, either somewhere in the magnified grains of the 16mm image, or in its synchronized real-time cut-backs to the more expansive 35mm footage, the precise moment where the reality drops off and the fiction takes over, or vice-versa?" As a result, Rivette's fictional framework internalizes Labarthe's documentary framework, and the juxtaposition of the two stocks created in the editing process (where the entity exerts his influence!) subsumes even the 35mm footage shot by Rivette himself. A "super-story" thus results in which the documentary footage (like the revenant-stills of 'Out 1: Spectre') appears seemingly at the volition of the extra-intelligence, in dynamic rhythm and proportion (the latter the result of the duration of the footage used between each cut), and given the context of its positioning vis-à-vis the 35mm footage the very method of inserting the 16mm footage comes to mean different things at different times. (Particularly in the second half of the film, in which the couplings of footage stand in as metaphorical representations of the two very different and very similar people making up the Kalfon-Ogier duo; recall nuances of earlier conversations between couple and actors; throw Kalfon's direction into relief against his personal relationships with the actors and professional/personal relationship with Labarthe and his crew; provide a glimpse of where the various sexual affairs that take place between Kalfon and his actors begin and end; echo the "needs" expressed by Kalfon and Ogier "in character" during the razing of the apartment; and so on. As Jonathan Rosenbaum so often draws a connection between the concerns of both Rivette and Thomas Pynchon, I would contend that these footage-juxtapositions and their eventual proliferation of meaning beyond one's initial and naturally cursory sense that they "attempt to penetrate deeper into the reality of the rehearsals" underscore certain similarities with Pynchon's narrative aesthetic. Namely with regard to the way in which Pynchon tends to advance his fiction in each novel; no matter how similar the "trajectories" of his books, the reasons why his narratives progress the way they do changes from 'V.' to 'Gravity's Rainbow' to 'Mason & Dixon' to 'Against the Day.') Because such a technique could so easily come off as arbitrarily, thoughtlessly employed meta-wank, or as the repetition of an idea whose one-time expression would have been times enough, the shifting, constant renewal of "meaning" becomes the very validation of its existence — an assertion, or implicit proposal, that parallels the dreams, hopes, and terror of 'L'Amour fou''s protagonists. A dialectic between formal elements, control and non-control, fiction and reality — a series of recursive nestings and escapes given hilarious (the nearly-sold-out audience at Moving Image howled with laughter and appropriately so!) and terrifying acknowledgement in the scene in which Bulle Ogier pulls apart one matryoshka doll after another after another after another, until she's left with a pebble-sized peasant. She later reconstitutes the shells into a towering Gaudí-esque cone on her nightstand, and like Rivette in his film makes (discovers?) something of mystery and wonder in all elements...

Yet perhaps the grand mystery of Rivette's cinema, one which supersedes and indeed envelops that of the liminalities of fiction and reality, is the relationship between creation and destruction, their own liminalities, and their vicinity to (and masked pantomimes as) the main gestures of life: love and self-fulfillment. Creation and destruction are after all the base elements of existence: the beginning and the end, generation and degeneration, alpha and omega. How to organize oneself, how to find structure amid chaos, reverse (deflect, distract?) what Pynchon calls "entropy"? Through fiction, through play. The work of theater encapsulates and recreates the "play" of childhood abandoned in adulthood. It lends order to the chaos it allows, to the chaos it creates. Human beings come together and separate, make love and fall apart.

-The climax. That's why the destruction of the apartment by Kalfon and Ogier near the end is so amazingly moving, particularly in retrospect. It's a scene that really must be seen to be understood, and that being after hours of having watched during the rehearsals a type of "formalized" theater take shape contrary to its best, quasi-sentient efforts. I won't make an attempt to describe the apartment-"wreckage" other than to say it's the purest expression of manic elation in movies, and the melancholy that follows is of a desperation that knows not yet what it has effected, is the fear that does not know its incarnation harbors still worse.

I would also mention that this "destruction" scene does not possess the kind of emotional tenor I had been expecting from my readings of Jonathan Rosenbaum. (Although since, sorry, I don't like to know the plots of films before I see them, it's possible I missed something in a skim.) For anyone expecting a recreation of the most violent freak-out imaginable in the 1967 disintegration of Jean-Luc Godard's and Anna Karina's marriage, you will not discover this — but something else instead.

Note however, that earlier on, the blood is real.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Robert Altman: 1926-2006

A few quickly dashed-off thoughts, following a brief R.I.P. for Gary Graver, the key figure in the late works of Orson Welles (in addition to Oja Kodar and, obviously, Welles himself). The way he worked, and the results he achieved, should be, and should remain, a prime inspiration on how any of us chiefly interested in beauty and truth -- the dignities of the intellect and the soul -- go about this business of cinema-making.


Rivette on Altman: "Altman failed with 'Prêt-à-Porter' (1994) but at least he followed through with it, right up to an ending that capped the rock bottom nothingness that preceded it. He should have realized how uninteresting the fashion world was when he started to shoot, and he definitely should have understood it before he started shooting. He's an uneven filmmaker but a passionate one. In the same way, I've defended Clint Eastwood since he started directing. I like all his films, even the jokey "family" films with that ridiculous monkey, the ones that everyone is trying to forget - they're part of his oeuvre, too. In France, we forgive almost everything, but with Altman, who takes risks each time he makes a film, we forgive nothing. Whereas for Pollack, Frankenheimer, Schatzberg...risk doesn't even exist for them. The films of Eastwood or Altman belong to them and no one else: you have to like them."

There's no doubt that all of the tributes soon to follow will single out 'M*A*S*H,' 'Nashville,' 'The Player,' and 'Short Cuts' as the career milestones of this extraordinary filmmaker. But I'd take this tiny Tuesday-afternoon moment to single out a few of the maybe less-spoken-about Altman films that have meant a lot to me, and which I'd rate among his best works. (With the exception of 'McCabe & Mrs. Miller,' which is a masterpiece -- but I assume everyone has already seen it and, therefore, knows that.)

-'California Split': Which just ended a brief revival at New York City's Film Forum in a new 35mm print. The DVD for this film, released by Sony/Columbia and now thankfully out-of-print for the time being, excised (at least) two scenes as a result of the studio's unwillingness to pay video-exhibition clearance for (at least) two songs, one of which was "Happy Birthday." Hopefully Sony won't spit on the icing of future editions. (Words of Chris Morris come to mind: " an effort to snuff his very -naff- little candle.")

-'Secret Honor: A Political Myth': A tremendously flawed film, but maybe the most courageous one Altman ever made. If the picture goes on for a half-hour too long, it's because Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon is unstoppable. It's a performance that transcends valuations of "a great performance" or "an awful performance" and instead becomes its own self-medication, existing outside any tawdry claims to presenting an accurate "impersonation" of Nixon; -- existing purely as the claim to its own right-to-exist. In the process the depths of the actor -- and Philip Baker Hall specifically -- are laid bare. Crazily-somehow, and just plain crazily, given Altman's computer-regulated surveillance-cam apparatus. 'Secret Honor' is Samuel Beckett meets Coppola's 'One from the Heart.' (We should note it's because of 'Secret Honor' that PBH first came to P. T. Anderson's attention. As a result, the former's unforgettable casting in 'Sydney' (Hard Eight), 'Boogie Nights,' and 'Magnolia.')

-'Tanner '88': The magnum opus masterpiece. Not only does it contain Altman's most powerful purely dramatic moments, and not only is it the finest cinematic treatment of campaign-trail machinations, it also completely reframes the aesthetics of video technology as they had previously existed in (a) American television (b) cinema. All the glassy obfuscation within the frame seems a permeation of the spin of the political world and the two-truths, three-truths of the real world, our society, to which politics would not simply react but also, trying its damnedest, attempt to counteract, to neutralize. At something like five hours long, it has the pure duration-depth of a Feuillade serial or Rivette's 'Out 1: Spectre,' but, although it's just as scary and heart-breaking, it really deserves no comparison.

-'Vincent & Theo': The best film about Van Gogh, next to Pialat's ('Van Gogh') and Minnelli's ('Lust for Life'). Unfortunately, the "long version" of the film only exists on DVD somewhere in Europe, and with the Scope frame cropped to 1.33 at that. So I wonder: Was this authorized by Altman? Does the long version exist only (and integrally) as a television-work, with all framing intended and intact? I have no idea. The two times I did see the film (the short version, which is out on DVD in the US) were both on The Sundance Channel many years ago -- total sunshine and blood-on-the-walls by turns in maybe the best performance Tim Roth's ever given.

-'Cookie's Fortune' and 'Dr. T & the Women': Altman plunges into myth x 2 -- tackling Salomé in the first film and fertility-cults in the second. That said, all this only makes perfect sense given that 'Cookie's' takes as its setting swamp-town rural America, and 'Dr. T' the Texan suburbs of pre-fab McMansions. Two horribly underrated films which yield more rewards (and reveal more complexities) with every viewing.

-'The Company': Maybe the most radical thing in American movies in 2003 was Altman presenting a no-frills storyline (another of his troupes stages another of its shows; Neve Campbell -- at her finest -- falls in love with a boy and the boy loves her back, naturally and without complication; The End.) to create a film (shot in HD) that extols (and makes as its subjects) breathing-space, bodies, time's passage, bodies relating in space. It also contains the only David Lynch hommage that is NOT embarrassing to watch: the "blue dance," scored by none other than Angelo Badalamenti. In 'The Company,' Altman reminded us that he's the only major American filmmaker besides Abel Ferrara among whose principal questions to the self is: "How is a human body positioned within the frame?"

-'Tanner on Tanner': An unwatched television film that became a $5 discount DVD -- but what an unwatched discount flick it is!! Hardly an 'AfterM*A*S*H' to 'Tanner '88,' the new film concerns itself with the here-and-now: the 2004 presidential campaign (ending still unwritten at the time); pro-sumer DV technology; the "documentary craze" in American movies -- and American life. Episode 3 in particular is one for the record books: Altman (via Michael Murphy as before) gets the politicos to drop their guard (to the extent they're able) behind the scenes at the '04 Democratic Convention and presents something like a clear consensus opposition to the "war" in Iraq. A clarity of protest that, in the multifarious web of media coverage and before all the "official" broadcast cameras, was... glassily obfuscated.

-'A Prairie Home Companion': Whispered rumination, quiet elegy. A cork on the water. Altman returned to the narrative pare-down of 'The Company' but here put forth a sort of state-of-the-union address: on American culture as a whole (outside of the "news-narrative at this hour"), and on the director's own mortality. The troupe in 'APHC' are like heavenly bodies set in motion by a great Creator, revolving inward on the inescapable black-hole. The big run-out-groove, in other words -- at least, that's maybe how the director of 'Kansas City' and -- lest we forget -- 'The Long Goodbye' might have thunk it.


Monday, July 10, 2006

The New World [2h 15m Version]

Brad Stevens wrote the following at a_film_by, which helps recontextualize Terrence Malick's 'The Thin Red Line' -- a film which I've seen three times, but found achingly mediocre on the last viewing. (See the archives.) Nevertheless, his comments are intriguing.

For the record, I've seen the 2h15m cut of 'The New World' once, and I liked it very much. I'm waiting for Malick's full-on 3-hour version to surface on DVD before I watch it again.


"I've had reservations about Malick in the past, but THE NEW WORLD
seems to me to be a masterpiece. Not simply Malick's finest
achievement, but the film that finally makes some kind of overall
sense out of his previous work. Last time I saw Jonathan Rosenbaum in
London, he had seen THE NEW WORLD, but I hadn't, and he told me that
he didn't think much of it. If I remember correctly, his comment
was, 'innocence can only get you so far where American history is
concerned'. But I don't think that the film supports Captain John
Smith's 'innocent' view of Pochahontas - on the contrary, he is shown
to be projecting his own narcissistic ideals onto her, in much the
same way that Holly projects her romantic ideals onto Kit in
BADLANDS. Kent Jones, in a recent FILM COMMENT piece, pointed out
that the various performers in THE THIN RED LINE often seemed to be
acting as if they were in different films. The comment was intended
negatively, but it seems to me that this is very much the point about
Malick's work - that he is constantly presenting us with characters
who see themselves as the stars of their own films, the key figures
in their own private narratives, and regard everyone they encounter
as merely representations of their own desires. THE NEW WORLD makes
it absolutely clear that Pochahontas cannot be reduced to a symbol,
that she is ultimately as unknowable as the maze which we see her
circling during the final scene."

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


A few notes from the end of the rope: When the cinema yields intimations of sickness, they are best divined from some place beyond despair, because what appears onscreen is, after all, so often a construct of a massive budget (at least by the standards of a novelist or a poet, who needs only buy paper and ink), or of an aesthetic of clear-headed logistics made necessary by the financial constraints involved, that, it should go without saying, the work arrives like an insult to the wretched. These qualities do not apply for every film; when a picture comes to us bearing only the INTIMATIONS of the abyss, rather than some kind of laid-bare bleeding (as in Rivette's 'Out 1: Spectre' or Cassavetes' 'Faces'), it's generally due to the fuss and muss of careful planning, hundreds of camera set-ups because there existed in the production not only a certain luxury of time but authorial ease of mind which allowed attention to technical concerns, narrative clarity, structure... No matter how deep beneath the surface runs a dread paranoia or the seppuku bogeyman, a facility at the business of movie-making will remove these matters to a place somewhere at the author's arm's length (and if he can tolerate such a removal these concerns should probably not be any closer anyhow) and, this being the case, all things can be conquered. Such is the consummate professionalism that I have been told, and have witnessed, is a staple of Klieg-lit studio cinema.

In 'Spies' ('Spione', 1928) Fritz Lang's method is as meticulous as anything out of the Japanese sensibility. Space is delineated in careful cuts from angle, angle, angle, tracing a 180-degree arc around a central character. Reverse-shots (always plural even in a single sequence) come to us confrontationally, as counterpoint. The effect is a commingling, a dancing intercourse of points-of-view that at times suggests rape. In one sequence, important documents detailing a "Japanese secret treaty" have been torn from the pouch of an exposed valise, knifed away in fact -- ultimate sexual rebuke for the quasi-eunuch Japanese for whom the potential loss of the documents also means, in his own words, a refutation of identity, an unworthiness in being called Japanese. The thief, a nymphomaniac Germanette, reclines in a repose that carries all the graphic shock of a stained affiche, and fingers her reward -- a string of pearls resembling so much ropey come.

No trust in the cops or the banks either. "Turn the keys to your safes over to us!" Who are the real criminals in Lang's film? The big budgets can show us how a society falls apart -- but Berlin on the eve of inflationary demise is not the same as the individual stories of ruin. Lang would, of course, give that to us three years later in 'M' -- but then Himmler took the cameras, his giggles aligned with our screams, and --

-- how long before we the people were again the auteurs of our own prisons...?

Thursday, April 27, 2006


The reputation of Fritz Lang's 1927 film is built on its qualities as a dreamscape, a design portfolio, and its ease of access as a parable of Good vs. Evil, Working- vs. Ruling-Class, Heart vs. Mind. Its delineation of ideas and its "message" are strikingly... simplistic, and I'm inclined to believe Lang's purpose in creating so airtight a "perfect fantasy" was to put together an irresistible family-night event. Here blue-collar fathers could dream of utopia, and white-collar Herrmeisters could entertain the notion of final redemption, heavenly forgiveness...

The mise en scène exists almost exclusively for atmospheric effect. A moment of exception comes in Gustav Fröhlich's first sighting of the waifish Brigitte Helm, a pseudo-Christian demagogue (later chased by Rudolf Klein-Rogge through catacombs that evoke the early Christian mystery-cults' persecution), in which Fröhlich places both hands over his heart. A reverse-shot of Helm, a group of children, and a few garden-aides, positioned in a heart-shaped formation, completes the sentiment.

That's just about everything I have to say about 'Metropolis'. I wish there were more.

Monday, April 24, 2006

La Belle noiseuse

Notes on Jacques Rivette's 'La Belle noiseuse' ('The Beautiful Nuisance', 1991) —

"Breaking through". One place to another. Places. Two houses, connecting path: guest-house and Frenhofer's. Past, or the memory of the past, within the present. Frenhofer-Piccoli's room and Liz-Birkin's: two bedrooms, separate beds, a doorway in-between. The softened hues of Liz's room, the blues of Frenhofer's, matching the hue of the shirt. Nicolas's sister: "This room reminds me of the studio we used to have... I hated that room..." Marianne-Béart and the fetus-crouch. "We must go further." The mark of one woman on the other: Béart's buttocks (fetus-crouch, all asshole) effaces Birkin (crab-hand reaching out of ass; a blue that again matches the hue of Piccoli's shirt); Birkin's dirty footprint effaces the white paper of a sketch of Béart. Béart rejects Birkin's treating her "like a doll". The posture, movement, t-shirt of Nicolas-Bursztein, a smug pragmatism, the concerns for business, a rage against Frenhofer's methods: a mirror opposite of Frenhofer. The relationship between the cinema-screen and the canvas: a précis on framing, point-of-view, and the manufacture of new worlds (Frenhofer attempting to 'reframe' Marianne after drunkenly falling off his stool); acting and "method-of-acting" in relation to bodily "work"; filmed work vs. commedia dell'arte / the Clown. "Chance" re-examined, 're-framed' by painting, -capturing- the moment, the ephemeral, point-of-view-as-singularity in space-time. The position of Liz's painted face (a) on the canvas whereupon she appears as half-crab, painted over as mentioned with the Béart-crouch, before the canvas is adorned with the violent red vaginal slash; (b) on the canvas at -which position within Rivette's frame- during WHICH particular shot/point of the process of reconfiguring the painting with Béart's presence. A floating, disembodied head, made more bobbing and dislocated in each shot during this sequence as its position in the frame changes position like a broken clock-hand. "Ten years ago you weren't afraid to go farther" — a painting of madness, a cinema of madness: Rivette reflects upon his current aesthetic vis-à-vis his '70s aesthetic (or up to the point of 'Le Pont du Nord' in 1981).

Monday, April 03, 2006

Die Nibelungen: Kriemhilds Rache

"Thank you, Kriemhild. Never were we one in love, but at last we are united, as one in hate!"

"Never was my heart more filled with love."

Some of the final (intertitled) dialogue in Fritz Lang's 'Die Nibelungen: Kriemhilds Rache' ('The Nibelungen: Kriemhild's Revenge', 1925). The first line is spoken by the king of the Huns, Attila (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), and the second is the response of the widow of Siegfried, Kriemhild (Margarete Schön). The two look on as their enemies within the clan of the Nibelungen burn up barricaded inside the Huns' palace and feast-hall. The clan's gesture is one of defiance — refusing to meet death on the blades of the Huns surrounding the keep — and of ultimate loyalty — not to the king proper, but to Hagen Tronje (Hans Adelbert Schlettow), a proto-Cheney in his "official" standing at court as regal advisor, although all affairs of state requiring the decisive execution of power are his to activate. This final blood-pledge, literal trial-by-fire of loyalty, comes at the end of a series of reneged oaths that runs throughout the two 'Nibelungen' films, and really pile up in the latter installment. Here Kriemhild/Schön accepts a proposal from Attila/Klein-Rogge on the sole basis that he will avenge her late husband's death at the hands of the king and his advisor. He gives his oath, and it goes unfulfilled; he refuses to commit the murders when the entire Nibelungen court arrive at the Huns' camp (with the purpose, no less, of taking Kriemhild back by force) and so must be treated in accordance with his people's rules of hospitality. Kriemhild approaches the serfs, who are, of course, all too eager to carry out her charge after she promises large sums of gold. She keeps her contempt for their filth in check; at home in Worms, she delighted in mixing with the underlings, standing at the side of Siegfried and heaping upon their subjects countless handfuls of Nibelungen treasure, moved by charity and goodness of heart. That treasure now, however, lies sunken in murky depths (not far from home); Kriemhild's heart is likewise consumed, enveloped and smitten with the promise of vengeance — a grand, architectonic vengeance — the mad vision of bringing an entire army down against her house. A desperate vengeance, too — at the first proposal of her marriage to Attila, she even enlists the matchmaker, an ambassador of Worms to the Huns, in a pledge to murder Hagen Tronje.

Perhaps Kriemhild could commit the murder herself — but that would deny the ritual with which the action must be suffused, the intrigue, the deception — the craftiness and, yes, the suggestion of certain wiles: the visual leitmotif associated with Kriemhild are the archways through which the characters pass, before which they confront one another — leering abyss, vagina dentata. All trajectories lead to climax: Even three levels of oaths defaulted seem somehow necessary for the degree of rapture she experiences standing before the deathly conflagration. Hagen Tronje had murdered Attila's heir shortly after the start of the hospitable feast, with a swat of the sword right there on the table. To watch Hagen Tronje burn is, for Attila, the vicarious act of revenge; for Kriemhild, it is something deeper, and darker: an avenging, and a final consummation with the -idea- of vengeance.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Die Nibelungen: Siegfrieds Tod

I recently rewatched 'Siegfrieds Tod' ('Siegfried's Death', 1924), the first film in Fritz Lang's two-part "Germanic saga" 'Die Nibelungen' ('The Nibelungen'). I have some difficulty describing what I took from the picture this time. Is Lang's film the barest, broadest archetypal outline of The Tragic Form, or is it incapable of standing alone, as anything but the Act One for its sister film's Two and Three? Do the characters possess any psychology at all, or all the psychology imaginable via the formulation "woman is the future of man"? At what degree of oppression, infection, must a vision of the world stagnate that an eye-socket goes empty and fills up with hair?

One thing is certain: Perceived at its most rudimentary level as an exploration of The Tragic Form's tenets, the film illustrates how Doom moves like a virus — as deception starts to multiply and blood to boil and flow, every surface in the frame becomes progressively more overtaken by zig-zag patterns, swirls, psycho-hypnotic ornamentation. The answer then to "Why doesn't Lang put Wagner to use"? Because in the architecture of Wagner one can find arias; the architecture in Lang is built out of shrieks. Of all the filmmakers on earth, Lang would have been ideal for bringing us the court of Vlad Ţepeş.


Chris Marker's 1985 meditation on Akira Kurosawa and the location shoot for his film 'Ran' ('Chaos', 1985) is about young men preparing for war in a way that Kurosawa's movie is not. No, I don't mean to draw any comparisons between the logistics of "shooting a film" and those of "waging a military campaign" (although similarities between the two undertakings will always be present). I'm thinking of the plenitude of telephoto close-ups on the faces of the countless extras, all male, twentysomething, which betray the same expression of boredom, confusion, and even "resigned anxiety" that we can imagine the real-life feudal soldiers felt just before charging across a field to experience agonizing death. (Notions of Zen control, which Kurosawa himself cites on the soundtrack of Marker's film, be damned. As Kurosawa understood, they're no good in the end; as Kobayashi understood, useless at the beginning too.) If we believed in time-warps — and Chris Marker does — these moments might make us mistake what we're seeing for actual 16mm footage shot in 1560, so complex are the countenances beneath authentic headgear. The souls of the soldiers are not Kurosawa's concern, however; he's making a different film.

He is in fact recreating a holocaust — on the heels of 'Kagemusha' ('The Shadow Warrior', 1980), for the second time in a row. At one point Marker introduces footage from the 1923 earthquake which essentially leveled all Tokyo and the rest of the isle of Honshu. His narrator relates the story of Kurosawa's older brother guiding Akira among the carnage, and suggesting he keep his eyes open to confront the horror, stare it down, assuage fear of what would otherwise be the unknown. Within the montage of broken, bloated bodies yielded up by the quake, Marker cuts to an image of a human being who has been rendered by flames a charred human "form". It is a moment that grimly, but eloquently, recalls (from a vantage in the future looking backward, working future-ward again from 1929) the genocides of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and reminds us that what the Kurosawa brothers saw that day, what Japan saw, what we see in this footage, is not the final statement of death, of chaos, nor the material of a final assimilation. Marker cuts out of the black-and-white film of the quake to a color close-up shot on the set of 'Ran' of two slaughtered soldiers — in mannequin form. On a recording on the soundtrack, Kurosawa notes his own profound fear of violence.

Why then did he make the films he made? Because history is a nightmare from which Kurosawa too was trying to awake.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Der muede Tod

Fritz Lang's 1921 film 'Der müde Tod' ('Weary Death') still fascinates. The picture is a link between the early silents, with their concern for phantasms and the fantastic, and the so-called "Expressionist" cinema that would follow — and of which Lang would be the champion pioneer. The in-camera exposures and tricks-of-scale demonstrate a filmmaker ready to excite his spectators; the architectural angles (gentle by certain standards set later on in Lang's cinema), the trap-doors, and the spear-like candles in Death's chamber (each representative of one human life) evince the emotional aims of this young director: to articulate, through lighting and décor, a morality beyond psychology; to pin-point the location of hope within the fatal.

For it is the -hope- of so many Lang-protagonists simply to -escape-, to find the "way out" of a structure or, more broadly, a system — one might say a -world- — that exists to oppress or, more specifically, to contain. I was struck revisiting 'Der müde Tod' by the layout of the film, predicated by its central premise: The love of Lil Dagover's life, Walter Janssen, has been whisked off by "Death" (Bernhard Goetzke). Overcome with grief, she attempts to poison herself, and as a result enters the netherworld wherein she pleads with Death for the return of her lover to the realm of the living. Death will grant her wish — but only if Dagover can succeed during one of three successive "scenarios of reincarnation" in saving Janssen (similarly reincarnated each time) from a grisly demise.

Three successive attempts: like the levels of a video game, or a shifting hallucination. More exactly, Lang (and his screenwriter/wife Thea von Harbou) express human consciousness as an entity without a singular corporeal seat, whereby cogito is something appended to nested "matrioshka dolls" of differing outward appearance. We might have existed at different times, in different places, any of which may be a dream state or fiction, "contained" (see above) by a more expansive, more complex fiction: Philip K. Dick (never to say the Wachowskis) avant la lettre. Each of the three scenarios into which Dagover is plunged — comprised respectively of a Persian caliphate, the Italian aristocratic milieu circa mid-millennium, and an ancient Chinese court — take place in or around palaces (all early occurrences of Lang's conception of the physical labyrinth as Danger materialized), and involve progressively larger casts of characters and more complex plots. There's no beating Death; three times he wins out.

Ultimately, Dagover is reunited with Janssen. She suicides to get there.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Thin Red Line

Looking forward to 'The New World' (and the new 2-hour cut) I sat down for a refresher with Malick's previous films. I had been planning to write about 'Days of Heaven,' but ended up getting out of sorts during the viewing.

With 'Days' a bust, I got around to 'The Thin Red Line.' Seeing it again I find it anemic.

(1) The faces. Jared Leto. Woody Harrelson. Ben Chaplin. Elias Koteas. Nick Stahl. Jim Caviezel. Penn. Clooney. And some ugly extras to provide "realist" modulation. The star lineup betrays Hollywood glamour willing to "sacrifice" the terms of the typical easy shoot to "work hard" for a "brilliant director." The result is a battalion of pussies, star-pupils working toward the proverbial 'A'-for-effort.

(2) John Travolta. What goes on in this man's mind when he steps in front of a camera? What force does he believe he's channeling? Was his the main name that convinced Fox to come aboard with the money? No wonder that scene stayed in the picture, the one with him and --

(3) Nick Nolte. At what point did Malick decide to let go of the reins, and let the meditation-on-Man-in-war become a simple Hollywood war-film, rife with archetypes, clichés, artery-popping "GODDAMMIT!!!"s every six seconds? Nolte's performance is the crux of this crust -- playing Colonel Kilgore and Buck Turgidson and every other movie-military zealot out of the collective memory, he sputters unchecked by the director who, by the way, it's inconceivable to surmise is supplying "meta"-commentary on The Hollywood War Film at any point in the fiasco. Seeing Woody Harrelson's histrionic order-barking, followed by a ridiculous scene in which, his genitals blown off by a grenade, Woody moans "I can't fuck no more!" in some meaningless perversion of Kubrick, only added to my impression that Malick pretty much let the troupe go freestyle. "Terry's great to work with; he lets you try out anything..."

(4) The editing. The collage effect works to the advantage of the film, providing rhythm to the mise en scène's main idea of "man as organic occurrence," while all the cutting-away-and-back in the battle sequences works to the film's disadvantage -- or rather, to the disadvantage of any exploration of the equal human presence on both sides of any conflict. The Japanese here are Japs -- gibbering, fervent, Other; the Americans are post-trauma sadists, whose here-and-there murders of soon-to-be-prisoner Japanese -after- the firefight clears gets covered up by the filmmaker (because the troops "know not what they do"? in order to convey the consequences of "the heat of the moment" in which the perpetuation of life becomes a willy-nilly thing?), not only by means of the indistinctness of the smoke, fog, and mud, but by the reduction of these acts to downright visual sluice: a jarring, arrhythmic montage wherein the murder act (money-shot) gets sandwiched in a 3- to 4-second collision of masters, angles, and inserts, and is granted literally no more than 4 or 5 frames before a cut out to the next sequence. -- Small wonder the DVD is branded under "Fox War Classics."

Friday, January 13, 2006


To revisit Terrence Malick's first feature, 'Badlands,' is a thrill, and I only wish I were immediately able to see it again on the big screen. Not just to bask in the quality of the natural light, or to become more absorbed in the filmmaker's (tremendous) trademark microcosmoses-made-macro, but simply to take on the succession of stills, presented in detail, as Sissy Spacek tries out her dead father's stereopticon. In voiceover she muses upon the "vistas" experienced with the device; one image in particular, of a railroad track receding off-center to the horizon, stands in for the whole Malickean metaphysics -- space, time, and their relationship at any given point to the whole of American history. The image is brief, but it's a large one -- deserves to be larger than DVD allows.

Martin Sheen reads someone's discarded late-payment notice lying inside of a trash can. His partner snatches a folded-up magazine from the ground, skims the page. As he chucks it to the garbage-truck, the opening credits appear on-screen: it's our turn. Malick has always shown a wry sense of humor -- and 'Badlands' may be his funniest picture -- but this round-the-table reading exercise reminds us that at least some of his films' intimacy stems from their inclusiveness with regard to the audience. Those shots of beetles aren't called "magnifications," after all; they're "close-ups."

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


The third film in Spielberg's 9/11 trilogy, 'Munich' finds the director dispensing with the overwrought allegory of 'The Terminal' and the brilliant, multivalent allegory of 'The War of the Worlds,' to return to that zone of 'historical re-enactment' wherein his least risky pictures have always been produced. Regardless of what Newsweek would have me believe, I can't say 'Munich' revealed to me anything new about the Israeli v. Palestinean conflict, let alone changed my perspective on the so-called "war on terror" -- indeed the main idea of the film might be expressed as: "here and elsewhere are humans, families" -- but Spielberg's latest does contain material worth discussing, in fact contains more -discrete- moments of interest than either of the preceding films. The movement from the "general" to the "specific" has in any case been marked out almost as an overt concern in the films' titles alone: the "terminal" --> the war of the worlds --> Munich.

This winnowing down to the specific carries right through to the final shot of the newest film, to an image that was the implicit subject of the trilogy all along: the World Trade Center, the films' ultimate "structuring absence." The crane shot that swept past the consumerist ocean of Times Square up to the empty night-sky void at the close of 'The Terminal' suggested the hole left in the city's skyline by the towers' collapse (while cannily linking the proliferation of globalized commerce to the destruction). In 'The War of the Worlds,' the electromagnetic vortex that opened up over lower Manhattan, and the chaotic turmoil that exploded throughout New Jerseyan (and, eventually, American) communities evoked not only the WTC attack, but the subsequent retaliation -- and implied that all acts of war not only begin, but also progress, with the mass murder of civilians. Why then did seeing the towers at the end of 'Munich' move me so little -- as little as seeing them at the end of Scorsese's 'Gangs of New York'? Is it because 'the unseen' has proven itself more resonant for the audience than 'the explicit' time and again throughout the history of the cinema? Or because the causal leap from the events of the Munich Games and the assassinations that followed, to the notably more complex political climate of 1999-2005, seems simply too arbitrary, insubstantial -- is it that the line from Munich to Manhattan isn't as direct as Spielberg suggests? Given these uncertainties, the appearance of an intact (digitally inserted) Trade Center comes not as the powerful summation of a thesis, but as a vague "warning to the world" -- with Spielberg also extending the rather pat assumption that there not only exists an easy equivalence between Middle East '72, Europe '74, and New York '01, but that Americans might also be able to lay a large portion of responsibility for the 9/11 attacks on the great Jewish diaspora. As if these parting sentiments weren't bizarre enough, Spielberg flattens the perspective of the shot so that the towers, looming in the background of the frame, and despite their position across the East River, seem close enough to the foreground promenade that any passers-by might touch the buildings' surface like they were already "monumentalized," commemorated in obsidian -- as though their fate was implicit in their form. The memorial at the end of 'Munich' is therefore neither an expression of defiant mourning (the end of 'Schindler's List') nor a totem of hard-earned victory (the end of 'Saving Private Ryan') -- it's the death-knell made material. Whatever Spielberg's intention, I myself am unable to comprehend (or just fathom?) the muddle of this toll.

Earlier I wrote about "discrete moments." These manifest themselves in the following aspects:

-"Le Group." Eric Bana breaks bread with "Papa's family" -- Michel Lonsdale, Mathieu Amalric, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, and a profusion of 8-year-olds. Lonsdale stresses the importance of the homelife, of independence and resilience before states (le Group started out as a Resistance cell before shifting to an intelligence/assassination unit without national allegiance), chastises his insubordinate son. In short, Spielberg quotes here from the colonialist dinner in Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now' "Redux." The purpose, perhaps, is to draw some contrast between the old and the new: Governments that once needed to rely on internal ministries, or agencies, in the flexing of statecraft... can now outsource the trickiest imperatives to an NGO.

-The light. Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg's regular DP, fills the spaces in 'Munich' with either moonlight, or an unusual diffraction of the sun's rays. We've seen this particular effect before -- this -smearing- of the light -- in 'A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,' in 'Minority Report,' in 'The War of the Worlds.' It signifies the presence of the beyond -- the beyond-the-screen, The Public -- for it's no secret that Spielberg approaches each film with the audience foremost in mind. He uses Kaminski's luminescence like an ever-present skein, a "film" that distances the spectator from the image even as it lulls him or her, as in a dream, into believing in the images' "realness," hoping for their "paradise." In 'Munich' the daylight dazzles; pooling up in windowpanes it blinds; it bathes, and distorts, bodies. The cell members are smiters, agents of fury. The light in 'Munich' is Yahweh's light.*

-Bodies. Are the murders of Ciarin Hinds and Marie-Josée Croze parallel sacrifices on God's altar? Spielberg gives us the naked male and female body, both desecrated and come to rest in states of sexual repose. When Bana attempts to cover Croze's slaughtered form with her robe, Hanns Zischler forcefully uncovers the body as though only so grotesque a maneuver could vindicate Hinds' earlier demise. With his action bearing all the force of a symbolic rape, Zischler later regrets uncovering Croze's body, and slips into melancholy. Later that morning, Zischler's body is discovered on a bench near the Thames, a knife-wound having punctured the chest. The surviving cell members speak of the death in terms of murder, but everything in Spielberg's staging of the discovery -- played out in a single long-shot -- suggests post-coital melancholy and suicide: the early-morning blue light, Zischler's back turned toward the audience, the human forms presented in silhouette, the telephoto presentation, the inexorable rushing of the river. One might note, in fact, that the only actual sex acts presented in the film take place between the emotional cipher Bana and his wife, played by Ayelet Zorer. In the first, Bana has to enter Zorer from the side, as his wife's pregnant belly prohibits his mounting; in the second, he thrusts in missionary while flashing back to the death of the Olympic hostages. Sex in 'Munich' is either inutile, or tied up in bloodshed. All vectors in Spielberg's vision of the body lead toward death: no legacies -- moreover, no heaven on earth.

-A political thriller. The film is perfectly paced; the suspense, as they say, "is taut." Yet Spielberg's picture does not "thrill politically." In chasing the perceived triumphs of Pontecorvo, Schlöndorff, and Costa-Gavras, our filmmaker fulfills the requirements of thriller convention by steadily ratcheting up and releasing emotional tension; surpasses his predecessors by maintaining a real spatial fluency in the myriad open-air set-pieces; and finally bucks the mores of the genre completely by throwing ideology in earthly political terms out the window, in favor of a message which reads: "Peace; that is, death." This being the case, Steven Spielberg has either made the most daring, or stupidest, film of his career.

* Nade Dieu is blinded by this light, though the quality differs (greatly), in Godard's 'Notre musique.'