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Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online

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Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay

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A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

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Archive for the 'Festivals: Venice' Category

Lubitsch redoes Lubitsch

     

DB here:

All artists rely on predecessors in one way or another. True, at any moment the artist may confront a dizzying array of options; there are a lot of models out there. And sometimes artists work against received traditions rather than building on them. (Usually, though, those assaults on tradition borrow from other traditions, often minor ones.)

Anyhow, it’s a good first move to assume that any artwork we encounter owes something to forebears. If we want to understand continuity and change in film history, then, we can try to know something about genes, styles, received habits, work routines, and other ongoing pressures on moviemakers.

 

Schema and revision

Favorites of the Moon (Iosseliani, 1984).

Among the strategies for making sense of a given film or filmmakers, one I’ve found useful I’ve swiped from E. H. Gombrich. In Art and Illusion, he wrote of schema and revision as one way of thinking about an artist’s ties to tradition. A schema is a pattern that has proven reliable for art-making in the past. His examples are the geometrical templates that became part of the training of Western European artists.

Gombrich suggests that artists adapt the schemas to the purposes at hand–new tasks, or the urge to capture aspects of reality that their predecessors missed.

Once a hack has learned how to make the image of a tolerably convincing head, he may be tempted to use this standard formula for the rest of his days, merely adding just such distinguishing features as will mark the admiral or the court beauty. But obviously once he is in possession of a standard head, he can also use it as a starting point for corrections, to measure all individual deviations against it. He may first draw it on his canvas or in his mind, not in order to complete it, but to match it against the sitter’s head and enter the differences onto his schema.

Hence the Gombrichian slogan: Making precedes matching. You render a version of visual reality in and through the forms bequeathed to you by tradition, adjusting them as you may need.

In film, I suggested in On the History of Film Style, we have several stylistic schemas. A prototype would be shot/ reverse-shot staging and cutting. You can replicate the schema, just running it again, as most filmmakers do. (All those damn shoulders.) You can revise it, as Ozu, Bresson, and other filmmakers did. You can adapt it to the long take, as Hitchcock and Iñarritu did. Or you can reject it, as Tati and Iosseliani did with their extreme long-shots. Iosseliani: “As soon as I see a film that begins with a series of shots and reverse shots, with lots of dialogue and well-known actors, I leave the room immediately. That’s not the work of a film artist.”

Stylistic schemas are perhaps the easiest to spot; when they cluster, we get something like a style in a general sense, such as continuity editing, or more recently what I’ve called “intensified continuity.” Even minor genres, like long-take lipdubs, have their own schemas. And revisions are ongoing. In mother! Darren Aronofsky fills the “free-camera,” run-and-gun handheld style, which usually favors medium shots, with extreme close-ups that put menacing, barely identifiable action in out-of-focus backgrounds. The result can be seen as a revision of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reframings on display in the Bourne films.

There are schemas for narrative too. At the broadest level, the sacred Three-Act Structure can be thought of as a macro-schema; so too the more fleshed-out Four-Part Structure Kristin has proposed. In my new book Reinventing Hollywood, I invoke the schema/revision idea to talk about more specific narrative strategies of the 1940s. Examples are the flashback plot, with a shuttling between present and past, and the network narrative, which brings friends, kinfolk, and strangers together in a limited time or space.

Watching Ernst Lubitsch’s Rosita (1923) again at the Venice Film Festival reminded me that the schema/revision process can take place not just between the filmmaker and tradition but within the work of a director. Once a director develops a “signature style,” that too can be reworked, refined, stretched, or even repudiated. Griffith recast his characteristic last-minute-rescue crosscutting pattern, once by making the rescue too late (Death’s Marathon), and once by multiplying it by four (Intolerance). Ozu not only revised Hollywood continuity principles, but then tweaked and played games with his customized version. Arguably, Hitchcock did the same with his refined point-of-view structures and man-on-the-run plot patterns.

In the Lubitsch case I’m considering, we have a very tiny piece of schema revision, but one that shows him to be a fastidious creator. Having sculpted a small moment one way, he extracted its principles and remade it, for other purposes in another film.

 

The grapes

The street singer Rosita is in the palace waiting for the king. At first she’s awed by the scale of the room, but then she spies a bowl of candied fruit on a little table. As often happens in Lubitsch’s American silents., this plays out through eyeline cutting.

     

Rosita heads out of her shot and a frame-edge cut brings her to the table. She drifts past the fruit, eyeing it, and now the sequence’s rhythm is established.

          

When Rosita leaves the frame, the camera holds on the table and the fruit bowl.

After a beat, she strolls into the frame moving right, pointedly ignoring the fruit. She goes out of frame and Lubitsch holds on the bowl.

     

Then Rosita comes in from offscreen right and plucks a grape as she passes through the frame. Lubitsch holds the empty shot.

     

Rosita comes in again from the left, snags another grape, and walks out frame right.

     

After another beat, she thrusts back into the frame and starts to dig into the fruit.

She’s hungry but afraid of being caught, so she swipes the food as casually as she can. Once she thinks she’s not being watched, she can take what she wants.

Instead of cutting the action up, Lubitsch holds the shot and makes a sort of contract with the viewer. The gag depends on simple spatial continuity; we know where Rosita is when she’s out of frame, so we can anticipate her coming back in and wonder what she’ll do on the next pass. By holding on the table, the camera “knows” she’s coming back and waits for her; the bowl draws her like a magnet. We enjoy the game of expectation Lubitsch has set up.

Simple as it is, this passage shows the patterned nature of a stylistic schema. You could plug different things into that pattern—a bed rather than a table, a gun on a counter, a detective casually looking for clues—but as long as you set up the pause holding on the “empty” frame as the actor passed through to and fro, we’d have a recognizable schema. It’s one that other filmmakers could use.

Or one that Lubitsch himself could cleverly revise. If the Rosita version builds a mild sort of suspense, what if we added a dose of surprise? That’s what happens in Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925).

 

The drawer

Lord Darlington, hoping to drive a wedge between Lady Windermere and her husband, suggests that she look for a check Lord W wrote to the mysterious Mrs. Erlynne. Lady W walks into the study and pauses at her husband’s desk, then goes to sit in a chair nearby.

     

Like Rosita studying the fruitbowl, she eyes the desk drawer holding the check.

     

She rises and, thanks to another frame-edge cut, walks to the desk. But thinking the better of it, she leaves the frame, going out left.

          

The camera stays on the desk. Pause.

Suddenly Lady W bursts into the frame, but from the right side.

Lubitsch, who understood the rules of continuity better than almost anybody, knew perfectly well that she should have come back in from the left. The actor had to go around behind the camera in order to come in from this “impossible” angle. We’d be startled to some extent if Lady W had suddenly burst in from the left, but now the effect is amplified by the unpredictable entrance from the right. To spatial suspense, holding on the desk, Lubitsch has added spatial surprise.

Interestingly, there’s another anomaly here: the early POV shot of the drawer. It represents what Lady W sees, but from the opposite angle, from the “other side” of the desk. A shot respecting her vantage point would have looked like this.

Since this is a silent film, even if Lubitsch had made a mistake during filming, the shot could have been flipped in postproduction to look correct. It’s just possible that this “wrong” POV shot is another schema revision–one that anticipates Lady W’s “wrong” reentry into the desk shot. This possibility is strengthened soon afterward when Lady W tries to open the drawer, in a framing that shows the “correct” angle.

And soon afterward, when Lord Windermere joins his wife, he will look at the drawer from the “correct” angle as well.

     

A spare take of his POV shot could have replaced Lady W’s mismatched one. (Though the fastidious Lubitsch gives us a slightly different angle from Lady W’s, one corresponding to the position of Lord W). It seems likely, then, that Lubitsch simply wanted Lady W’s odd POV shot. Perhaps he saw it as a cryptic hint that something important was about to happen on the other side of the desk, where Lady W will pop in.

 

With Lubitsch, we’re always getting into such pictorial niceties. In any case, having tried out the “waiting camera” schema in Rosita, garnished it with predictable frame entrances and exits, Lubitsch revised the schema to create a different effect. He knew that audiences would expect Lady W to reenter the way Rosita did, and he exploited our expectations to yield a bump of surprise–one that increases the expressive effect of her pouncing on her husband’s secret.

More generally, the concept of schema/revision seems to me a useful tool for studying a filmmaker’s ties to tradition, as well as his or her developing personal style. This is not to mention the role of rivalry, another important pressure for continuity and change in film craft. Once a schema is out there, people can compete for ways to revise it. But that’s a topic for another day.


My frames from Rosita are from the standard, rather bad surviving print. It has recently been restored by the Museum of Modern Art under the auspices of Dave Kehr, and the new version looks very fine. More information here.

The illustration of heads comes from Erhard Schön’s manual of 1538, reproduced in Gombrich’s Art and Illusion (Princeton University Press, 1960), p. 159; my quotation comes from p. 172.

The quotation from Iosseliani comes from “Iosseliani on Iosseliani,” in The 24th Hong Kong International Film Festival Catalogue (Hong Kong: Urban Council, 2000), p. 138.

Kristin provides close analysis of Lubitsch’s silent film style in Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood: German and American Film after World War I, available online here. I discuss this sequence from Lady Windermere in more detail in Chapter 9 of Narration in the Fiction Film. But when I wrote that, I hadn’t seen Rosita. I consider how Ozu varied his bespoke version of continuity editing in Chapters 5 and 6 of Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, available online here.

Fruitbowl, Mary Pickford, Ernst Lubitsch, and Holbrook Blinn on the set of Rosita.

Venice 2017: Crimes, no misdemeanors

Outrage cars 600

Outrage Coda (2017).

DB here:

The period from 1985-1995 was a sterling era for world cinema. Whatever you think of Hollywood of that time (it wasn’t as bad as they say), American independent film was flourishing then. On the global stage, things were even better, as witness the rising careers of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang Dechang, Jackie Chan, Tsui Hark, Abbas Kiarostami, and Wong Kar-wai. It was exhilarating to watch these and other directors turn out splendid work like City of Sadness, A Brighter Summer Day, Police Story, Project A Part II, Peking Opera Blues, Once Upon a Time in China, The Blade, Where Is the Friend’s Home?, Through the Olive Trees, Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, and more.

That’s not all. In Hong Kong, John Woo was redefining the urban action film with the flamboyant, romantic A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989), and Hard-Boiled (1992). In Japan, a standup comedian known as “Beat” Takeshi Kitano took over the helming of a crime thriller, Violent Cop (1989), and decided to continue directing, turning out not only the bored-hitman saga Sonatine (1993) but also the lyrical A Scene at the Sea (1991). Another Japanese filmmaker, Kore-eda Hirokazu, launched his career with the meditative, Hou-ish Maborosi (1995).

I loved these films, and still do. Woo and Kitano belong to an older generation (mine, actually), while Kore-eda is younger. None has gone away. All came to Venice 74 with murder on their minds.

 

Confessed, but to what?

Third Murder 500

The Third Murder (2017).

The Third Murder (Sandome no satsujin) is Kore-eda’s first venture into the crime genre, and he brings to it the same steady humanism we find in all his work. I’ve elsewhere recorded my uneasiness with his current visual style. Unlike the grave, long-take Maborosi, his films of the last decade or so are pictorially conventional, even academic, with their big close-ups, needlessly sidling camera moves, and other features of intensified continuity. But he continues to take narrative risks, and his almost Renoirian willingness to see many moral and psychological points of view make every film fairly gripping.

The Third Murder begins abruptly. An unseen victim is bludgeoned and the body is burned. The killer is the man we’ll come to know as Misumi. He’s captured. Like 99% of people charged with crimes in Japan, he readily confesses. His lawyers face only the question of sentencing: Should they try to get him life imprisonment rather than execution? When one attorney, Shigemori, decides to investigate more closely, he peels back layers of uncertainty about the circumstances, the victim, and the motive(s). Like many a victim in crime fiction, this businessman needed killing.

Following conventions of the investigative procedural, the plot relies on secrets, viewpoint shifts that drop hints, twists that frustrate simple understanding, and flashbacks that make us question what we thought we knew. Shooting in anamorphic widescreen, Kore-eda produces some extreme framings reminiscent of Kurosawa’s High and Low, one of the films he studied while preparing the project. Despite occasionally flashy moments, it’s a soberly told tale, emphasizing characterization and social critique. By the end, Misumi acquires a weary, radiant dignity, while entrepreneurial capitalism and the justice system are revealed as compromised. (In this respect it recalls I Just Didn’t Do It2007, by another 80s-90s director, Suo Masayuki.) In moving to the sordid terrain of the crime story, The Third Murder shows that Kore-eda hasn’t given up his sympathetic probing of human nature and his praise for un-grandiose self-sacrifice.

 

Bullets to the head and elsewhere

Manhunt 500 alt

Manhunt (2017).

Sober and un-grandiose don’t apply to Manhunt (Zhuibu), John Woo’s return to bloody brotherhood and outsize ordnance. After prestige Hollywood efforts like Windtalkers (2002), the nationalistic costume picture Red Cliff (2008-2009), and the ensemble-disaster movie The Crossing (2014-2015), Woo is back with what he does best: showing many people firing many guns, dodging bullets (bad guys have bad aim), diving for cover in slow-motion, floating through hazes of cordite, and instantly recovering from wounds that would finish off you and me. These characters also run endlessly, hop into the path of trains, overturn vehicles, and set loose unconscionable numbers of pigeons.

1990s Hong Kong directors could make cheap pictures look expensive; given bigger budgets, they made expensive pictures look cheap. Here that cheapness shows most in some video-generated shots that recall the bad old days of edge enhancement. But who has time to study such problems when you’re smacked by a fusillade of 3000-plus shots in 105 minutes? Resistance is futile, and the pace doesn’t relent. When the fights and pursuits pause, the dialogue scenes flash by in a flurry of cuts and unfortunate lapses into English. (Much of the soundtrack recalls the eerily dubbed voices on US videos of The Killer.)

You’ve got no time to worry much about all this after an opening that drops us straight into an ambush. Ultra-cool Du Qiu drifts into a bar and quotes yakuza movies before leaving the hostesses to slaughter the gangsters dining there. It does get your attention, and it encourages you to sit through the exposition showing Du as the trusted lawyer for a corrupt pharmaceutical company. He proceeds to be framed for murder and goes on the run. Meanwhile stalwart detective Yamura, charged with bringing Du in, begins to suspect that there’s a bigger scheme afoot. Of course he is right.

This is all completely preposterous and continually enjoyable, with constantly startling action choreography and an overheated soundtrack that at one point breaks into Turandot. Here those damn pigeons don’t just soar into the sky; thanks to CGI, they flap annoyingly into the middle of fight scenes, spoiling a punch or a gunman’s aim. We have, besides our twinned heroes, one corrupt cop, one psychopathic son, one fairly mad scientist, two expert hitwomen (one played by Woo’s daughter), a fleet of black-suited motorcycle assassins, and two docile women who acquire some non-negligible lethality. In the press conference, Woo emphasized his eagerness to create women warriors, and he hasn’t stinted. There are hallucinatory images of a bloody wedding dress to enhance the feminine mystique.

Manhunt is a kind of palimpsest of Asian action movies. It’s a remake of a 1978 Takakura Ken movie released to great popularity in China during the 1980s. Woo, in Hong Kong, had already succumbed to that actor’s spell. What Alain Delon was to The Killer, Takakura is to this, and the steelly self-possession of Zhang Hanyu gives the film a solemnity amid all the flamboyance.

Manhunt 400

Woo has turned the Japanese original into a real Hong Kong movie, vintage 1992. It lacks the mournful homoeroticism of his prime-period work; these two men don’t gaze moistly at each other, but fire quips and complaints in the Lethal Weapon manner. (The bonding is strongest between the duo of female killers.) Still, it’s very welcome, with its proudly retro air and fanboy in-jokes. It earns the right to begin with a reference to a Japanese classic and conclude with a wink to A Better Tomorrow, as if that movie were the next link in a grand tradition.  “Old movies always end this way,” says one of the survivors of the carnage. I wish more new movies did the same.

 

Hitmen in cars getting shot

Otomo Ichikawa 500

Outrage Coda (2017).

Compared to Woo, Kitano is brutally laconic. In Outrage Coda, except for one Wooish slow-mo massacre, violence is brusque, shocking, and over fast. In a film full of bland pans following yakuza cars here and there, the end of one panning movement  bursts into shooting before you realize it’s happening, and it ends just as suddenly. Kitano likes his confrontations, for sure, and sometimes there’s a buildup, but mostly the blood just erupts, punctuating long scenes of gangster intrigue.

Here that intrigue involves three rival gangs, each with bosses capable of remarkable lip contortions: the Hanabishi yakuza family, its once-powerful subsidiary the Sanno group, and a gang of fixers operating in Japan and Korea under the auspices of boss Chang. Add in two cops, one ready to knuckle to corrupt superiors, the other raging against them, and you have the world through which Otomo (Kitano) and his sidekick Ichikawa move. Normal life, as it’s commonly known, has no place here.

The action bristles with schemes, shifting alliances, double-crosses, faked deaths, and power grabs.”Your methods,” remarks one boss to a co-conspirator, “are increasingly more intricate.” Remarkably, after an introduction humiliating the not-so-bright Hanaba during a sexcapade, Otomo isn’t seen that much. Two-thirds of the running time are devoted to the machinations of the gangs and the cops. Otomo and Ichikawa swing into action rather late, their task being to chop through the knots of plot and counterplot.

The opening few minutes spread out the key motifs. A fishing scene displaying Kitano’s characteristic love for boyish pastimes is interrupted by the discovery of a pistol. The credits sequence announces the importance of cars with gorgeous shots of Otomo being driven through neon-lit streets, his ride seen from straight down as lights play over it. Throughout, deals are struck or broken in cars, and one memorable execution makes creative use of a Toyota. Even that banal filler, shots of cars pulling up and disgorging their riders, gets played for variations: distant thunder when bosses arrive for a conference, abstract configurations when rival forces meet on a rooftop.

During the 1990s Kitano was one of those directors working with what I’ve called planimetric staging and compass-point editing. (Wes Anderson, Terence Davies, and others worked the same territory.) Characters face the camera in medium shot, and shots change along the lens axis or at 90 degrees to it. It’s as if we were in between the characters. When I asked Kitano about the technique back then, he claimed that it was his effort at realism, capturing how people faced one another in conversation.  He added that he didn’t know how to direct a scene, and this was the easiest way.

I thought that his images’ paper-doll simplicity suggested a naivete suited to Kitano’s childish hitmen. Moreover, this rigorous, geometrical technique takes on special impact when presenting mobster shootouts. Instead of ducking for cover as Woo’s heroes do, Kitano’s stand up and keep blasting, firing straight out at the viewer in tit-for-tate exchanges. His unflinching framing, refusing Woo’s camera arabesques, gives these encounters a ceremonial gravity, turning them into rituals of professional righteousness. Last man standing, indeed.

The face-to-face shootouts in Outrage Coda adhere to this style, and early in the film so do the conversations. Here is Otomo discovering Hanada in his masochistic rig.

Otomo 500     Hamada 500

But for many dialogue scenes Kitano has gone with more orthodox staging and shooting. We get over-the-shoulder shots for conversation, tight close-ups to emphasize character reactions, and even that commonplace of modern cinematography, the arcing movement around a speaker to pick up a listener in the background. These choices allow Kitano to expose the ripe performances of the two conspiratorial dons Nishino (Nishida Toshiyuki) and Nakata (Shiomi Sansei); their leathery skin, slip-sliding jaws, and shouted outbursts gain a lot from this treatment. Not that I’m really complaining. In a slightly longer film than Manhunt, Kitano gives us around 700 shots, less than a quarter of Woo’s outlay. Each image carries a lot of weight.

Outrage Coda concludes a trilogy, and at the press conference Kitano said that he conceived this and Outrage Beyond (2012) as one continuous phase of the story. He wanted the series to finish. The ending of this installment will fuel much speculation about his next move, and he hinted that he might adapt a forthcoming novel, one that’s a love story. He’s done one before in A Scene at the Sea, and arguably in Kikujiro (1999). His fans, who mobbed him at the panel, are certainly ready for whatever he comes up with.


Thanks as ever to all those at the Venice Film Festival who made our stay so enjoyable. Special thanks to Peter Cowie, Alberto Barbera,  Michela Nazzarin, Jasna Zoranovich, and our colleagues at the Biennale College Cinema endeavor.

For more on John Woo’s style of action cinema, see my book Planet Hong Kong. I discuss planimetric staging and compass-point editing in On the History of Film Style and several blog entries, notably the persistently popular Shot-consciousness (which has side notes on Kitano) as well as entries on Wes Anderson.

Woo 400     Kitano 400

John Woo and Kitano Takeshi satisfy their fans.

Venice 2017: Martel’s drama of expectations

Zama opening shot on beach

Kristin here:

Lucrecia Martel’s Zama (pronounced “sama”) happened to be only the third film we saw at the Venice International Film Festival, on the evening of its first day. As the credits faded, David asked, “Have we just seen a masterpiece?” Neither of us doubted that we had, and we suspected that we had also watched the best film we would see during the entire festival. Of course, we haven’t seen every title on offer here, but having just come back from my twenty-fourth and final film, I don’t doubt that it is.

It is also a challenging film, which we watched a second time to try and grasp the basics of what plot there is. Those of us who admired Martel’s earlier work, particularly The Headless Woman (which we also felt compelled to watch twice, this time at the Vancouver International Film Festival in 2009 and wrote about here), had looked forward to her follow-up film. It was eight years in coming, and it is quite different from her earlier films in several ways.

First, while the three earlier features are set set in modern middle-class milieus, Zama is a period piece. The others had original screenplays, written or co-written by Martel, but Zama is based on a 1956 novel by Antonio Di Benedetto (translated into English in 2016). Martel was also working with a higher budget here, one which required patching together many sources of financing. The result is a co-production involving, Argentina, Spain, France, the Netherlands, the USA, Brazil, Mexico, Portugal, Lebanon, and Switzerland and  a patchwork of sixteen companies. At the press conference (below) Martel said that the long gap between films was not occupied with making all these arrangements and with shooting the film, which was actually a reasonably short process. She did make a few short films during this time and was ill enough to cease working for a while.

The result of the film’s elaborate production situation is not a typical historical epic. There are impressive landscape shots in some scenes, but no uniformed crowds and grand buildings. No vast battles take place; instead there are a few small skirmishes. The bulk of the action takes place in a ramshackle group of buildings thrown up to house the Spanish colonial government of the provincial town of Asunción, already in decline by the 1790s. The money clearly was spent on creating authentic costumes and furnishings, as well as transporting the cast and crew to locations in Paraguay.

 

Frustrations of a colonial bureaucrat

ZAMA press conference

Lola Dueñas (Luciana), Lucretia Martel, and Daniel Giménez Cacho (Zama).

We quickly  learn the story’s basic premise, that Don Diego de Zama is an official stationed in this backwater town and that he fervently longs to be transferred to a more important city–ideally where his wife and children live. He is not in charge of this outpost but serves under a governor whose request to the Spanish crown is necessary for such a transfer.

We are certainly not invited to like Zama when we first meet him. The first shot shows him standing and looking down the river (see top). We later learn that he was probably watching for the boat carrying mail, which he hopes will include a letter from his wife or some official news concerning his situation. He spies on some naked indigenous women smearing themselves with mud, and when they taunt and chase him, he turns on one and slaps her viciously. In the second scene he presides over the torture of a young man who refuses to divulge some unspecified information the governor needs.

As the action proceeds, however, we witness the countless little frustrations, embarrassments, bafflements, slights, and misfortunes that Zama seems to experience constantly. A brandy merchant who arrives with his wares, seemingly one of Zama’s few friends (below), dies suddenly of the plague. Luciana, a wealthy local beauty, teases him with suggestive conversation but ultimately takes a younger man as a lover. A new governor’s arrival hints that Zama is back to square one as far as his hopes for a transfer are concerned. The man takes over Zama’s modest home and office, leaving him to haul his sparse furnishings to a barely habitable inn. When no letter from his wife arrives, Zama imagines a conversation with her in which they lament the long delay in their reunion, though we must suspect that her failure to correspond means that she has given up on him. Through all this we come to sympathize with him. We never learn how long he has been in this posting, but when someone asks he replies glumly, “a long time,” and we believe him.

Zama and brandy dealer

Zama might seem at first to be the epitome of a goal-oriented protagonist, but he is hardly the striving, active Hollywood-style hero. There is nothing he can do to better his current situation or to further his desire for escape. Instead, the action consists of one new, often bizarre challenge after another, creating situations that simply play out, usually to no conclusion. None of these situations furthers Zama’s cause. Gradually we become aware that he is actually loosing ground, as when the new governor reveals that he must write not one but two letters to the king, a process that could take a year or two. The final portion of the film takes him in a radically new direction as he tries one desperate bid to gain stature and perhaps his long-delayed transfer, a bid that only leads to worse troubles for him.

There is little sense of how much times passes in the course of this accretion of frustrating incidents. During the press conference (below), the cinematographer Rui Poças and Martel said that they sought a visual way to convey a sense of Zama’s agonizing wait, a way to give “the sensation of time that has stopped,” as Martel put it. They deliberately avoided some of the conventions of historical films. One of these was to eliminate fires and candles. Martel added, “In order to be able to think, you must be deprived of things.” This rule was strictly obeyed, with one shot that turned out to contain a candle flame in the background being eliminated. When one thinks about it, lamps, candles, and fireplaces tend to figure quite prominently in suggesting the past in films, which became particularly evident, for example, when a great deal of fuss was made about the new ability to shoot dark scenes only by candlelight in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975).

 

Thinking, being deprived of things

Zama, horse looks into camera

As Martel also pointed out, the original novel was told in the first person by Zama, with few descriptions of locales or nature. The film opens the tale out with the occasional landscape views in the early portions and a move into a savanna setting for its last stretch of action (see bottom). For much of the film, however, Martel uses the style I described in The Headless Woman, ” shooting largely in tight shots filmed with highly selective focus.” We stay almost exclusively with Diego, scanning his face for his reactions, so that the film becomes a psychological study, though the title character is a man who manages to keep going by keeping his thoughts and emotions well hidden.

Mexican actor Daniel Giménez Cacho gives a remarkable performance as Zama. We soon realize that the character has very little understanding of the bizarre things that happen around him and of the attitudes that other people have toward him. At times he adopts the faintest of smiles, ready in case what is being said to him is supposed to be amusing. More often he looks mildly worried, as if expecting another mocking remark or revelation of some new indignity to be offered. In his court his face could be taken to convey an appropriate dignity and wisdom (below), but it might just as well be puzzlement over the case before him. With Luciana he seems passive, but his face conveys hints of lust, hope, and an anticipation of ultimate rejection. In a meeting with a superior official, he struggles to ignore the ludicrous presence of a llama (which we had seen outside when he arrived) wandering around the office behind him as he pleads his case.

Zama in wig     Zama with Luciana

Zama & the llama

All in all, despite the fact that Cacho’s craggy, earnest face seems to suggest competence, we emerge from the film with no real sense of whether Zama is in fact competent and unfairly treated or simply a man out of his depth who deservedly remains stuck where he is.

One extraordinary moment which I cannot resist mentioning comes late in the film when a horse in the foreground of a scene turns and looks directly into the lens (top of this section). Its stare is even more enigmatic than Zama’s face, just another little mystery that Martel provides.

It is not surprising that Zama was the first in a series of three novels that have come to be called Di Benedetto’s “Trilogy of Expectations.” The second, El silenciero (1964), and third, Los suidicas (1969), share no plot elements with Zama but are thematically linked to it. It is also not surprising to learn that the novelist first read Kafka in 1954, just before writing Zama.

 

Guy Lodge, in his enthusiastic review for Variety, refers to Zama‘s “unjust placement in a non-competition slot at Venice.” It has garnered quite a few reviews as laudatory as Lodge’s, as well as a few which dismissed it as cryptic and not engaging. A good summary of the coverage, regularly updated, is provided by David Hudson. The film deserves to gain a higher profile in its upcoming screenings at the Toronto and New York festivals. Perhaps it will also pick up a North American distributor. Somehow it should be made available on home video (Criterion, perhaps?), since this is going to be considered a classic.


The most detailed account of Di Benedetto’s life and work available online is an essay by the translator of the English-language version, Esther Allen.

Again, we are grateful to the Mostra and those who serve it, particularly Alberto Barbera and Michela Nazzarin. Thanks as well to Peter Cowie and David’s colleagues on the Biennale College Cinema panel, who have all been good company.

[October 1, 2017: Argentina has chosen Zama as its nomination for best-foreign-language Oscar. I doubt it will make it into the final five, given how challenging it is. Still, maybe it will, and in any case, it’s good to see Martel getting respect in her home country.]

[October 16, 2017: Strand Releasing picked up the North American distribution rights for Zama last month, shortly before its American premiere at the New York Film Festival. It plans a theatrical release in early 2018.]

Zama, men set out to capture Parto

Venice 2017: College days

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At the College press conference: Pedro Costa, Mazen Khaled, Savina Neirotti, Paolo Baratta, Alberto Barbera, Alena Lodkina, and Giorgio Ferrero. © La Biennale di Venezia – foto ASAC .

DB here:

I came to this year’s Venice Film Festival at the invitation of Peter Cowie, who has for years run panels of critics and filmmakers at the Mostra. In recent sessions he’s assembled gaggles of critics to respond to films made under the auspices of the Biennale College Cinema.

College logo 300The College supports creative teams making micro-budgeted first or second features. On the basis of treatments and video presentations, the selectors pick out projects that seem feasible and bring twelve teams to fall workshops, where they work with 18 tutors and trainers. This year’s filmmakers all attest to the strong, provocative challenges they got in the workshops. After three or four weeks, each team submits a draft project. On the basis of the drafts, three projects are picked for final support.

Past films that have emerged on the international scene from the competition include Memphis (2014) and The Fits (2015). Last year, explained Sabine Neirotti, coordinator of the initiative, there were 1400 applications. This year, each selected project project got 150,000 euros funding.

As Peter’s statement puts it, the College exists to “support the making of low-budget films in a period of global recession” and to “find youthful auteurs if the cinema is to be reinvigorated.” The purpose of the panel is to give feedback to the filmmakers, particularly about how their work might fit into the world cinema market.

This year’s panel gave me a chance to make some new friends: Ty Burr of the Boston Globe, Glenn Kenny of the New York Times and Some Came Running, Chris Vognar of the Dallas Morning News, and Stephanie Zacharek of Time. Kristin and I had already known Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times. Doing a festival is fun, but doing it with peppy cinephiles like these is even better.

So what about the films? All seemed to me quite good, and each had some very strong moments. All were clearly personal expressions, but each also wanted to communicate vividly with the viewer. All have ripe prospects at festivals and what might lie beyond–home video, streaming, specialty theatrical. And all struck me as having roots in powerful traditions in film history.

 

Gleams at Lightning Ridge

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Strange Colours (2017).

Strange Colours, directed by Alena Lodkina, is somewhat akin to American indie regionalism. In the Australian Outback, miners dig for opals, and they live isolated, hard-edged lives. Lean and raggedy coots gripping cans of light beer from dawn to bedtime, shuffling along and muttering through overgrown beards, they might seem an alien tribe. Many confess they came here as a last resort and stayed because they liked the solitude. Eventually, the contours of a genuine, robust community come into focus through the visit of Milena, an outsider who has come on a family mission.

Taking a break from university, Milena is in Lightning Ridge because her father Max has had a heart attack. Lodkina’s script avoids those traumatic flashbacks that often supply backstory. Instead, we get gradual exposition about the past, with some patches left sketchy or unfilled. I infer that Milena left her father very young, so that both he and his world come as a revelation to her, and us.

Plainly Max can’t express affection spontaneously; when Milena arrives at his hospital bed, he berates her. On her off hours, she tries to settle into his ramshackle home, and she meets a younger miner, Frank, with whom she strikes up a tentative friendship. When Max comes out of the hospital, he gruffly explores rebuilding his relationship with Milena. He even reveals he has kept an item from her childhood as an heirloom.

Like the other College films, Strange Colours decorates its main line with poetic asides.  The gleaming opals contrast with the flinty lives of the men who harvest them, while cutaway shots of the starry sky resemble the gems embedded in the labyrinths of the mines. Unexpectedly, Max points Milena to the constellation of Orion; this man who seems so much of the earth is sensitive to the stars as well.

The film is full of incident, but without the plotty propulsion of a conventional family-problems movie. A thief is stealing opals from miners’ claims, but this never creates conventional suspense. The thief meets his fate offscreen. Like her father, Milena is taciturn, and a lot of the film involves her pacing through ever-changing landscapes and encountering characters who reveal themselves in quick strokes.

In a way, Strange Colours carries on the tradition of Neorealism, when as Dwight Macdonald remarked, “The talkies became the walkies.” A character explores an environment at a deliberate pace, and we’re invited along. Lodkina mentioned to me that one inspiration for her was Stromboli, hinging as it does on the idea of a woman plunged into an utterly unfamiliar milieu. Neorealism gave film history a new model of cinematic narrative, and it’s bracing to see young filmmakers continuing to see what that model can yield–or rather, refreshing it for new times and places.

 

Bodies of water

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Martyr (2017).

“Our bodies are smarter than our brains,” remarked Mazen Khaled during our panel session. He was referring to his College project, Martyr. At its core is a fait divers: at the Beirut waterfront, a young unemployed man dives off a treacherously high balustrade and drowns. Around this incident Khaled’s team created a sensuous, poignant study of men among men.

An American like me might take the title to refer to a young man caught up in jihad, but it turns out that Islam counts death by drowning as a form of martyrdom as well. This is hinted at in the film’s opening: lyrical imagery of the protagonist Hamad facing the camera, flexing his fingers, and finally floating underwater. The camera probes the textures and edges of his body, both in an abstract space and in the rippling water. Hamad wakes up, suggesting that this has been only a dream, but as Peter Cowie pointed out, it’s more of a prologue, giving us a preview of both the film’s method–patient scrutiny of male bodies–and the plot’s crisis point.

Promising his parents he’ll look for work, Hamad sets out but soon he’s joining his friends at the waterfront. They stretch out, swim, make jokes, and talk of the big dive from the balustrade. Hamad decides to try it, against the warning of his pal. The film enters a zone of floating time, where the moments before, during, and after the dive are gently rearranged and replayed. When he takes the plunge and doesn’t come up, the casual brushing of bodies during sunbathing becomes a desperate, straining mass of grappling arms and bent backs. The twisting torsos of the young men, in images immaculately composed, resemble a sunlit Caravaggio. The homosocial becomes, in death, homoerotic.

What follows is a long cinematic threnody, treating the reactions of Hamad’s family, the preparation of the body, and abstract images on a theatre stage, where figures we’ve seen reenact their roles. Time continues to shift, as images of sun, water, and bodies in space get replayed and reshuffled. Perhaps most vivid is the way that the friends’ patient washing of Hamad’s corpse recalls not only the prologue but strokes and pats we have seen earlier, executed by Hamad and by others.

Martyr is an excellent example of how film form and style reshape the physical realm to create a visual poetry. Thematically, Khaled explains that he wanted to treat this seemingly sorrowful event is a kind of liberation from a life of hopelessness and strife: suspended in water, Hamad seems finally free. At the same time, I saw the film as joining the tradition of Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks, Willard Maas’s Geography of the Body, and Stan Brakhage’s Flesh of Morning–a cinematic exploration of the human body as a landscape, bearing traces of how humans live in and through it.

 

Fantasia on petroleum byproducts

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Beautiful Things (2017).

If Strange Colours resembles a Chekhov play and Martyr suggests a luxuriant lyric poem, Beautiful Things is a sort of symphony. The director, Giorgio Ferrero, is a composer for films and theatre pieces, and he has directed commercials and photo shoots for Nike, Condé Nast, and other companies. His College project has the sleek professionalism you’d expect of someone with this resumé, yet it’s also a monumental four-part critique of the global cycle of commodities, from production and distribution to disposal. The whole thing is staged, shot, and cut with operatic flair and is given, as you’d expect, a galvanizing soundtrack.

The first part, Petrollio, is about oil and is narrated by a driller. Oil is in most products, he tells us; it’s “the blood of the earth” but also the lifeblood of consumers’ lifestyle. Part two, Cargo, is narrated by a worker on a container ship, and he gives us a tour of the vast spaces he works in. Metro (“Meter,” as in music, but also “Measurement,” I suppose) centers on a researcher into anechoic acoustics, probing the sounds that are latent within every manufactured product.

The connections among parts become associative and metaphorical: the researcher’s “coffin” recalls the containers, and his treatment of sounds as acoustic objects runs parallel to the clang of oil drilling and the hum of the ship. A final part, Cenere (“Ashes”), takes us to a recycling plant where a man who designed slot machines now oversees the waste-to-energy chambers. He has learned that “We must burn our own shit.” We see the spidery claw scrunch up all the detritus of capitalism and carry its dangling burden to the flames.

Intercut with these four men are arresting images of their surroundings, treated as abstract landscapes and industrial sculpture. And threaded through each section are scenes of a household stuffed with toys, games, furniture, and the other consumer durables. The couple has gloried in accumulation, and the results are choking them. At the climax, the whole ensemble is blended when a boy (the oil man as a child) treats wrenches as a xylophone, and sounds pile on ferociously, spiraling up to an ethereal audiovisual cadenza. It’s cut off by an epilogue in which our couple dances and play-fights their way through a mall–in search of more beautiful things?

Like any good symphonist, Ferrero knows the power of silence; the soundtrack makes room for dead spots that suggest a world scraped clean of all the clutter. In its knowing combination of movement, color, composition, and musical rhythms and harmonies, Beautiful Things looks back to the “machine music” of Walter Ruttmann’s Melodie der Welt (1929) and other experiments, when the cinematic avant-garde could imagine that films could integrate sound without becoming talkies. This aesthetic surfaced not only in the abstract films of Fischinger but also in Disney’s cartoons, celebrated as the apotheosis of a genuine audiovisual aesthetic. Ferrero is in this tradition. Like an animator, he scripted his soundtrack before shooting his film, timing shots to notes, and he took his inspiration, he tells us, from Fantasia.

 

All three films have a bright future ahead of them. Actually, the future starts now. You can stream all of them, along with other festival features, at the Venice Sala Web, for a small fee, until 19 September. The next 12 submissions have already been picked, and the beat goes on.


Participating in the College was a wonderful experience, and I’m grateful to the Mostra and those who serve it, particularly Alberto Barbera, Michela Nazzarin, and Luca Fabris. Thanks as well, of course, to Peter Cowie and my colleagues on the panel.

For more on the audiovisual aesthetic of early sound cinema, see Lea Jacobs’ Film Rhythm after Sound and our review here.

P.S. 8 Sept 2017: Thanks to Peter Hourigan for a spelling correction.

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Justin Chang, Chris Vognar, Stephanie Zacharek, Peter Cowie, Ty Burr, Glenn Kenny, and DB. © La Biennale di Venezia – foto ASAC.

David Bordwell
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