Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Doctor X

Happy Halloween.

There are some films that don't do anything until 45 minutes in, 50 minutes in, two minutes around the 45-minute mark and then 55 minutes in again — just check out Raymond Bernard's The Chess Player [Le Joueur d'échecs, 1927], thou-all those now seeking out more Bernard after catching up with Wooden Crosses [Les Croix de bois, 1932] and Les Misérables [The Wretched, 1934] on account of the fourth Eclipse set from Criterion — or, again, look no further than Jeff Garlin's film-portrait about John Waters. (Okay, I haven't seen it yet, but there it was today at the Princeton Record Exchange...)

Doctor X (1932) is one of those films, but that 45-minute mark, and those last fifteen minutes, are among the greatest in all of American cinema. You know what, I'll go one further — the entire film attains echte Totemischkeit if one douses the soundtrack and watches only the images without cue-accompaniment or dialogue. Someday, at the ciné-club I keep forgetting to found, I'll program just such a screening... for the time being, kill the sound yourselves, the same way you do on your Masters of Cinema editions of Pabst's Diary of a Lost Girl [Tagebuch einer Verlorenen, 1929]. You see, in Doctor X, nearly every shot's imbued...

For those just tuning in to the movies (and, obviously, there's no shame in that), Michael Curtiz is the director of great films like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Casablanca (1942) — although the home-studio of such doesn't freely advertise that the latter film even had a director (cf. The Wizard of Oz — 1939, FYI), because giving directors who never demanded pride-of-place in the first place would only serve to undermine the star-system and the orbiting guilds. Regardless, Curtiz was a good director who enacted a "workman-like best" as necessary and whenever his interest in the material rose to the "suitably piqued" — sometimes fragmentedly so, around given-project-X. In other words, he wasn't Howard Hawks. He was, however, the director of over 170 films — and even if Hawks, the director of under 50 pictures, made more than a few works that on their lonesome could be counted as aggregating the merits of (m)any four or five Curtiz films — there's still much to be said for this Hungarian émigré's prolific and, yes, often estimable output in motion-pictures. Egyáltalán nem of which, incidentally, was said by Steven Soderbergh's The Good German from last year — a work consciously and admittedly infused with "something" of the Curtiz style (or: of an amalgam of the semi-particularly-noir'd-out studio-system aesthetic). (I should clarify the Hungarian means "nothing" or "nothing at all" — should clarify, because I don't want to give Soderbergh credit where it's not due. P.S. — I saw ten minutes of Traffic on TV a few weeks ago, a film I remember not-hating when it was in the theaters — and now it struck me as absolutely disgusting, an unconscionably vile piece of shit.)

The long-and-short, for right now: Curtiz's Doctor X is a film one should not speak too explicitly about, for reasons beyond the language and the times. So I'll leave you with these shots from Long Island, captured with the two-strip Technicolor process, and in close bid you all a day of awe.

Doctor X by Michael Curtiz, 1932:


I've finished a new small movie and posted it for viewing. It's called Study for Teaser and you can download it by going here and following the control-click instructions — or by clicking here to watch it as a stream (same quality as the download — Quicktime, in 320x240). It's silent — no soundtrack.


Recipe: Halloween Punch

-bourbon (choose your favorite)

-nutmeg (however much you feel comfortable with — maybe use sparingly, but who cares)

-ice cubes

Shake above in a mug. Drink while watching Doctor X and the Study for Teaser. Happy Samhain.


Friday, October 19, 2007

The Dangerous Thread of Things

In Memoriam Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007)

Shot 1. Cathexis of super-detail, vibrations of the flora, the nudity en plein air (that becomes exhibitionism not within the context of the film-world but before the eyes of the spectators only), the arcing branches, the citadel impervious — each element the key to the other, every line and canopy alive with the song of the sirens. The following shot commences the quarrel between the two lovers and, closer now, we manage a better view of the details. Draped angled across the chaise-back, a sheet of hazy-sky blue; an assortment of fruit in a bowl on a table to the side; and a woman garbed in sheer accessories that invite the viewer to peer through, to squint, increase focus upon her skinny figure, at the small bare breasts, the pronounced ribcage, the dragon-mark tattoo... as garments the skirt and top are negligible, not even afterthoughts. Tubercular-chic, and so we recall that the romance languages have always pulled the shroud back slightly further than "still-life" in English — an arrangement that Italian names la natura morta, French la nature morte...

The Dangerous Thread of Things by Michelangelo Antonioni, 2004:

A film so steeped in death it will adopt the moribund forms — the telenovella, the cable-channel porno — and cast each away (regurgitation...?) as though it has adopted also a method of showing that has taken on a characteristic of viewing — channel-surfing — and halts finally upon a program about modern dance... although to be sure medium-specific experientiality has well before the film's final scene already bled across all margins.

A film at a remove, a film one must first open oneself to feeling absolutely on the level of form. A deconstruction, and a réassemblage. And yet a reassertion in faith of form, arrived at by mimicking the modern symptoms of "form"'s corruption. Eros is sick once more... Postulation, diagnosis: dialogue has lost its impact, become the aural strips of wallpaper, window-dressing, in the dehumanized entries of cine-/tele-visual expression. Antonioni, then, will sculpt his lines in The Dangerous Thread of Things to express incessant missed-connections of meaning between the conversants, a babble not merely of banal sentiments but of resonances detected in then culled from the audiovisual ether. These are deceptive lines — if they come (re-corrupted) from the porn of Euro-soaps and late-night aids as just so much filigree, Antonioni doubles their ephemerality, and forces us to hear them only as audio, or as the manifest abstractions of abstract ideas.

"Is this an invitation?"

"I hope you don't mind the chaos."

"What kind of chaos?"

"Total chaos."

A superabundant and fractal film of synaptic overload, of "too-much connect" — false masteries — the dangerous thread of things —

The Dangerous Thread of Things by Michelangelo Antonioni, 2004:

— a feedback-film, a scrambled cypher; Eros may be sick but whence the infection? Can't we perceive, in this film-world of The Dangerous Thread of Things (a cautionary title), that "the modern media" and "modern living" have to some extent merged into one, and that these two phenomena have accordingly assumed the roles of both contagion and host? Might we even diagnose this convergence as taking place not only between "the modern media" and "modern living," but also between "the modern media" and its fictions? Take this exchange, occurring well past the soap- and cable-inflected episodes (for we accept this feedback of fiction-onto-life as a given in-and-of-itself in this film-world and in our lives; for convenience here I entertain the consideration of each realm as an entity separate from the other), between the woman from the opening episode (Regina Nemni) and a cellphone that emits the voice of the man (Christopher Buchholz) —

Nemni: "I'm at the beach. The horses have run away again. I have to get them back to the house."

Cellphone-as-Buchholz: "I'm watching the snow fall."

Nemni: "Where?"

Cellphone-as-Buchholz: "Paris."

Not communication; cut-ups — interceptions —

The Dangerous Thread of Things by Michelangelo Antonioni, 2004:

— and so a film that will be silent, despite and very much due to its dialogue, in the way that painting and sculpture will be silent too. Or the Martello tower of Joyce's Ulysses. Or that gaze across the sea in Godard's Contempt [Le Mépris, 1963] that solidifies the certainty of death. "Silencio..."

Le Mépris [Contempt] by Jean-Luc Godard, 1963:

The Dangerous Thread of Things by Michelangelo Antonioni, 2004:

"How come we've never been here before?"

"We haven't been paying much attention..."

"About anything."

"That's right."

Within oblivion, glimpses of the terror and the beauty — in solitude —

Lo sguardo di Michelangelo [Michelangelo's Gaze] by Michelangelo Antonioni, 2004:

— and connection. Think about the brilliant shot halfway through the film that delineates Buchholz and Nemni like mere ghosts inside of a world belonging more concretely (or so the illusion continues?) to the group dining at the table nearby. (Who we must understand are presented as belonging to no one social group in particular, neither "the older generation" nor "the bourgeoisie," not even, should one opt to conclude so, "the contented" — just human beings — and very "concretely" so, for Antonioni's wife Enrica is seated with the group — but Others all the same.) Without warning (but: accept the conditions of the moment in this film; traverse the throughline-as-it-is), Nemni removes a wineglass from her table and rolls it across the restaurant floor — in order, it would seem, to follow its trajectory ("total chaos," to quote the words spoken later by her Antipode?) and, in the process, to inscribe on the virtual material of the screen the course of an arc, a figure immediately absorbed by the camera-mechanism itself, which subsequently swoops upward and back in order to fix with digital-controlled fluidity the nearby diners, and hold them in continuous hyper-focus. (Such, after all, is one power of the new HD medium.)

The Dangerous Thread of Things by Michelangelo Antonioni, 2004:

And so the dolor of tangents. But if we consider Nemni's character and that of Luisa Ranieri as two opposite-poles (materialized in the "twin-towers" in which they reside and signifying another link with the death-zone in Contempt), then we understand their figurative loci, and appropriately, as the double nodes of two intersecting arcs. Nemni activates Buchholz's liaison with Ranieri at the moment she informs him: "That girl is the girl that lives at the other tower." That's all he needs to know — the siren-call issues forth from the one (RN) to draw its quarry to the other (LR), who are as linked in the overarching fiction-of-the-reality/reality-of-the-fiction as they would seem to be in that "vision of they-themselves," i.e., the vista of the materialized sirens at the water (which, as an expression of the restorative qualities of Eros — this is a pagan film too — recalls explicitly the similar vision in Antonioni's earlier The Red Desert [Il deserto rosso, 1964] ). At the scene of the fuck, Ranieri's tower, objects agglomerate in the "real" proportions of fetish — the earring, the toe-ring, the anklet —

Le Mépris [Contempt] by Jean-Luc Godard, 1963:

The Dangerous Thread of Things by Michelangelo Antonioni, 2004:

Il deserto rosso [The Red Desert] by Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964:

The Dangerous Thread of Things by Michelangelo Antonioni, 2004:

— at which shot directly above Buchholz evaporates corporeally from the film. (It's the analogue of the disappearance of Lea Massari in L'avventura [The Adventure / The Fling, 1960], a comparison that The Dangerous Thread of Things' detractors probably regard as unconscionable as the earlier film's contemporary naysayers found the notion of L'avventura-as-high-art ludicrous. Although we must distinguish the two disappearances — again, in an evaluation "symptomatic" of the new, that is the newly ineffectual, modern age — by noting that Buchholz's disappearance is really a reduction-to-voix-off... but a diminishment nonetheless via his re-embodiment as cellphone.)

What's left is the doubled siren of Eros Sick, and Vital. As the two manifestations strip to dance on the sand, the dual personae of the old deity flit tangent-ward once more (Antonioni gives us the one dance, then the next) in the same fundamental rite portrayed by Matisse so well, before at last, in the final shot of his oeuvre, the two that were just equated are, within the same frame, made separate, antipodes, nodes of arcs intersected, once more — Ranieri inscriptive in repose upon earth, redolent of easy id and satiated in movement and fuck; Nemni foreshortened, anamorphosized, memento mori unto herself — and unto the viewer, too — indivisible from the "rictus shiver" with which she was first overcome upon glimpsing the sirens. La natura morta: one shot proposes the prospect of meaning and solipsism in perpetual, moebial interchange; and the sky-blue hue from the chaise of Shot 1 that became the electric-blue of the appointments of the restaurant tables at the conceptual core of the film returns here in the fabric of the sun-shade that casts its penumbral blazon...

The Dangerous Thread of Things by Michelangelo Antonioni, 2004:

La Danse [The Dance] (Second Version) by Henri Matisse, 1910:

The Dangerous Thread of Things by Michelangelo Antonioni, 2004:

Die Gesandten [The Ambassadors] by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533:

The Dangerous Thread of Things by Michelangelo Antonioni, 2004:
The final shot in Antonioni:

L'eclisse [The Eclipse] by Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962:


P.S.: The integral version of Eros — the omnibus film that houses this final, astounding work by Antonioni — can be found here, on Region 3 DVD. More on matters surrounding the integrality ("complete form") of The Dangerous Thread of Things to follow soon. Note that in addition to the Antonioni film, Eros also contains the 42-minute Wong Kar-wai piece that falls chronologically between his supreme-masterpiece 2046 and My Blueberry Nights; it's titled The Hand, and stars Gong Li and Chang Chen. It is absolutely extraordinary. The other film in Eros is Equilibrium by Steven Soderbergh; to borrow a phrase from the Cahiers' Council of Ten, this work falls under the category of: "Pointless to Trouble Oneself With."


Some thoughts on what's happened with the new Stanley Kubrick re-issues — their aspect ratios, their bonus-features, and their cover artwork — also to follow soon, hopefully.


In Remembrance of Beauty:

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1943:


In close: this evening I spoke to Mike Eastman about the death of Joey Bishop. I share here, verbatim, his thoughts on the matter:

"Today when I saw that Joey Bishop died, this is what I daydreamed — around 4pm: I daydreamed that Jerry Lewis's butler came up to Jerry and said: 'Sir, Joey Bishop has passed.'

"And Jerry responded: 'Passed? He couldn't take a shit without Frank giving the okay. He was dead before he started.'"


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Emperor Waltz

It's the 1948 Billy Wilder film that is better than Ace in the Hole, Stalag 17, Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch, The Spirit of St. Louis, Love in the Afternoon and Some Like It Hot, and essentially as good as Visconti's The Leopard [Il gattopardo, 1963].

It stars Joan Fontaine (b. 1917, Tokyo, Japan - ), handwriting exquisite in sibling rivalry, Joan Fontaine, who brought urgency to loveliness and made an art of the non-demurral, Joan Fontaine (elle se penche au bord de la falaise), one of (et on se souvient d'un verre de lait) the greatest (des femmes inconnues) —

"Are you enough, Mr. Smith? Twenty-two fifty a week, with a four per cent commission...?"

"But, Your Majesty — "

The Emperor Waltz by Billy Wilder, 1948:

— in kino veritas.


Monday, October 08, 2007

Leila Attacks

Last week, Chris Marker released a new minute-long small movie to the Internet, which can be viewed here at the Cahiers du cinéma website. Accompanying the video at the same place is a new essay by Marker that provides a little bit of context to this latest work. I've translated his remarks into English, and present them below.


While the recent One Minute Film Festival was taking place (yes, yes, this exists — in America, naturally), the professionals of the profession acknowledged a different sort of minute, specifically, one of silence, in memory of Leila the mouse.

Actually, the mouse... well, Leila was a little rat, but in French those words are terribly lacking in grace; and yet Leila was grace itself; therefore, she will be a mouse for posterity.

Everyone has experienced this phenomenon: whenever a glance is cast your way for a certain length of time, you can feel it, and physically. It's what happened to me one day while I was working at my computers. Someone, somewhere, had fixed their gaze upon me, and so I looked carefully around — not the slightest human in sight. "Human"? Here was the error. As though there didn't exist other gazes. It was upon lowering my eyes that I saw that little creature standing up on its hind legs, so haughtily, and asserting by the repeated wrinkling of its nose an indisputable interest in my humble work. "What are you doing here, you?" — and at the time of posing the question I remembered that, in effect, my neighbor's daughter kept four small rats in a cage. No-one ever knew how the one who hadn't yet gone by the name of Leila had managed to escape, but here she was.

And yet this all happened on a Saturday afternoon, which in the twentieth arrondissement amounts to an early curfew. Put an other way, the humans of the place had gone away for the weekend; there wasn't a single boutique on the horizon where anything resembling a cage could be found; to allow her to roam about the studio was to risk losing her amid the jumble of boxes and piles; and to put her outside would be to expose her to the patrols of cats less responsive to her charm. What to do with her? I transformed a computer box into a temporary shelter, with holes for breathing — I came up with this by recalling some of David Carradine's lessons in Kung Fu — and I shut the lid again. In a flash she had been given her name. Two days earlier, Florence Aubenas [the Libération journalist who was abducted in Iraq, then released in June 2005 after being held for six months] had succeeded in the unprecedented exploit of managing to get a bunch of journalists to crack up in laughter as she related her life as a hostage — to show so much class in describing so much suffering, I found simply dazzling. Yet we recall that her captors had changed her Infidel-name right away to another: Leila. And in the aforementioned flash I saw myself, in the eyes of the mouse, transformed into a captor. Of course it was for her own good, but what was it she saw in me? That this inordinate entity to whom she had gently come to pay a visit had shut her up inside of a box. "Pardon, Leila," were the words that came to me instinctively — and she had been baptized.

Florence Aubenas at the 2005 press conference following her release (photographer unknown):

Happily, things didn't stay this way, and I was quickly able to pass from the involuntary jailer phase to that of devoted friend. I was used to cats; I had taken in a few owls; I knew nothing of the likings of mice — with regard to music, for example. How to make things so that she wouldn't get too bored? One attempt in front of the television had been catastrophic: she simply fell into a catalepsy —which should make us reflect, then, that there's something ontologically monstrous inside of that machine (and it wasn't even Cauet [host of a French talk show called La Méthode Cauet (The Cauet Method)] or Christine Bravo [host of a French variety show called On a tout essayé... même sans le patron (We Tried Everything... Even Without the Boss Around)], just ordinary television). Ahmad Jamal and Bill Evans had more success; mice seem to like piano. Soon the weekend was over; life returned to its course; Leila rediscovered her own hearth-and-home, and greeted me warmly whenever I paid her a visit.

The Ahmad Jamal Trio perform "Darn That Dream" in 1959:

Bill Evans performs "Your Story" at The Molde Jazz Festival in 1980:

Her expedition to my place was proof enough that she had character. My neighbor informed me that she exhibited this in an entirely different way, indulging regularly at her own home in a ritual so cinematographically promising that I swore I'd come by and record it — and if I say nothing more about this here, it's to allow the surprise for future spectators. What's worth noting for the time being is how I made sure to wait patiently for the right moment, taking up my position in expectation of the ritual in question. Yet hardly had I fixed the camera onto her than she executed her routine — as though she had heard "action!" — with the mastery of a real pro.

And that's it in a nutshell. This Leila could have been called Eve, the one from Mankiewicz. The little starlet who finds a pretext for entering into a director's intimate acquaintance, and in doing so sets the stage for a brilliant career. And myself, stupid as any man [bête comme tous les hommes], I coddled her ("Oh, the gentle little mouse...") when she only had her very own glory in mind. And glory there would be. A tabac on YouTube; a DVD in the company of my other animal films; later on — when she had rejoined Guillaume the cat in animal heaven — the One Minute Film Festival; and now the complementary piece for a film at least as mysterious as she — that of Isild. [Marker is referring to Charly, the new and second feature by the extraordinary Isild Le Besco.] A film of claws-out emotion and of truth, which refuses the make-up of seduction in order to reach that incandescent point where the difficulty of being with someone else is no longer a role-playing game but a leap into the void; which breaks with all the codes of cinematographic nicety; and which does not allow itself to be forgotten.

All About Eve by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950:

Backstage by Emmanuelle Bercot, 2005:

Charly by Isild Le Besco, 2007:

All the same, there's something troubling in the story of Leila, that very tiny life that was invited to leave, for a time, some small trace upon my own. I can't swear to the fact that there exists an animal heaven, but I know, wherever her innocent soul might be today, she had some idea that another small animal endowed with character was embroiling her in a new adventure, and she's awfully proud of that.

— Chris Marker

Da zui xia [The Great Drunken Hero] / Come Drink with Me by King Hu, 1966: