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On the History of Film Style pdf online

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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Rex Stout: Logomachizing

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics

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 'Narrative strategies' Category

Borat: Keep it stupid, simple

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2020).

DB here:

Defending some of his wildest films, Hong Kong director Tsui Hark pointed out: “Sometimes it’s fun to be stupid.” True enough. But we need to be stupid in sync. When a leader is being stupid and only some of our fellow citizens are, it’s a lot less fun.

The situation invites you to respond with meta-stupidity: Showing how invincibly stupid others are being by doing something stupid yourself. One option is silly satire (Saturday Night Live), but there’s a more deeply disturbing alternative. You can be stupid in a savage, no-holds-barred way.

This can disturb your audience. Shock defeats geniality, obliterates wit. You get called heavy-handed, on-the-nose, over-the-top, and other hyphenated things. You may even move into the realm of the grotesque.

Blunt, tasteless, outrageous grotesquerie has been an important artistic strategy through the millennia. Bosch (below), Bruegel (next), Goya, and other artists  have taken exquisite pains to present giddy images of human folly, bursting the limits of taste and sense.

     

Unsurprisingly, in America the grotesque flourished during the 1960s, in Robert Crumb comix and Paul Krassner’s Disney orgy. Nowadays, Australia’s David Rowe has done fastidious work with slack jaws, skin blotches, and, inevitably, flab.

The realm of the stupid grotesque is one that Sacha Baron Cohen has made particularly his own. It suits our moment.

 

Friction between  parts

The Republican Party’s steamrolling takeover of civil society, begun in earnest in the 1980s but turbocharged under Trump, has created a Golden Age of American agitprop. Responding to the lava flows of vile, vacuous sludge on social media, carefully crafted counterstrikes have shown a fair bit of wit. Call it the spontaneous genius of the American people. That usually comes down to jaunty disrespect.

Caricature is the go-to format for those who can draw. But it’s striking that the photomontage techniques of John Heartfield, aimed at an earlier Reich, have been revived for the Age of Trump. Below, Heartfield’s 1933 portrait of Goering as butcher of the Reischstag, alongside an ailing Trump.

     

Photoshop makes the craft of photomontage easier than in earlier eras, but the trick is still to have an ingenious idea–a play on words, or a reference to a meme. Heartfield’s famous “Hurrah, the Butter’s All Gone!” defiles the guns-vs.-butter motto of classical economics by suggesting that we’re foolish enough to think we can survive on instruments of death. It also quotes Goering’s speech: “Iron has always made an empire strong, butter and lard have, at best, made a people fat.” While suggesting that Hitler’s followers have a hearty appetite for self-destruction, Heartfield has shrewdly created metaphors: handlebars like a corncob, a bandolier like spaghetti, a bomb like a coffeepot, a grenade serving as a doggy’s bone. The baby teething on an axe-blade is a bonus, as are the sprightly swastikas in the wallpaper.

     

In the gentler example, Trump isn’t just any baby, he’s the kid in Home Alone (covert reference to his cameo in the sequel), with the invaders as both the Blump and, for once, a smiling Bob Mueller.

Note that these aren’t deepfakes, undetectable blends. Montage promotes friction between parts. The juxtaposition bears the traces of the act of bringing disparate pieces together. (Trump’s hands are plausibly small, but that icebag is an awkward fit.) The pieces create a coherent spatial layout, but there’s enough mismatch to remind you of the act of assemblage.

Of course montage is also a film technique, and sometimes–as with the Soviet films of the 1920s, or found-footage films like those by Bruce Conner–we sense a jolt or abrasion between shots. By and large, though, a film like Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is less an exercise in montage (despite all its jump cuts) than a faux-documentary mixing the casual norms of prosumer video and quickie tabloid-crime cable fodder.

Instead of the relatively softball treatment of POTUS seen in my images, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm gives us something much closer to Heartfield’s blood and bombs. As in a photomontage, bits of reality are turned into a cartoon that’s outrageous, even offensive. But like Heartfield, Baron Cohen reminds us of one crucial point. Fascism promises to make stupidity fun.

 

Just another movie?

Spoilers ahead, of course.

The grotesque is usually associated with deformation, but Borat Subsequent Moviefilm has a firm structure. At the risk of sounding silly, I insist that it’s a surprisingly tightly-knit classically conceived film.

The hero starts off with a goal. Ex-journalist Borat Margaret Sagdiyev will get a reprieve from penal labor if he will deliver Johnny the Monkey as a bribe to well-known “pussy hound” Mike Pence. Borat’s daughter Tutar joins Borat in the US by smuggling herself into Johnny’s cargo crate, and because she has eaten Johnny, she must replace him as Pence’s bride.

The film falls into the familiar four parts. The setup introduces Borat’s goal and peaks at the invasion of CPAC. As usual, the development section that follows redefines the initial goal. Turned away by Pence’s guards, Borat gets his boss’s permission to offer Tutar to Rudy Giuliani instead. This goal forms the through-line for the rest of the film, as Borat undertakes to make over Tutar into a submissive American woman.

The third section is occupied with various delays and stretches of character change. Tutar starts to liberate herself from Kazach patriarchy and Borat comes to accept his daughter as a person. At the climax, when Tutar decides to offer herself to Giuliani to save her father, he races to rescue her–prepared to sacrifice himself to save her from violation. The epilogue celebrates a new stability with a happy ending, if a worldwide pandemic counts.

The main thread is the familiar device of the naive traveler, the alien who reminds us of how strange our everyday world can seem to an outsider. Borat is introduced to smartphones (though he never figures out the camera), cyberporn, plastic surgery, QAnon, and Covid-19. Tutar learns that her vagina will not chomp her arm, that women can drive cars, and that fathers can walk hand in hand with their daughters.

As in a traditional film recurring motifs–raw onions, a chocolate cake, a plastic baby, strings in the brain–bind the scenes together. Stylistically, the apparently offhand shooting displays classic camera ubiquity. We always have the best view because multiple setups are covering the action (something not common in a true documentary), and probably scenes are retaken. Matches on action are the giveaway.

     

Many of the scenes, particularly those involving crowds at right-wing events, are made to cohere through the Kuleshov effect. Editing allows Pence to appear to react (stonily) to Borat’s appearance in a Trump fatsuit at the back of the hall.

     

Think Rudy really inspected these pages of Tutar’s book? He is very moved by receiving it.

     

And there’s a nice homage to Griffith-style crosscutting, when Borat scrambles to rescue Tutar from the clutches of America’s Mayor.

     

I grant that Borat Subsequent Moviefilm seems pretty episodic when you watch it, but I suspect that’s partly because of the inherent looseness of a road-movie plot, and partly because of the shock effect of individual scenes. That shock depends, I think, on the relentless grotesquerie on display. Classical clarity of presentation enables the film to chart two major types of stupidity at large in our world.

 

Leering in bestial degradation

The aesthetic of the grotesque centers on fanciful but disturbing deformation, an exaggeration that’s at once playful and threatening. Art critic John Ruskin, describing the carved heads he found on the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, was appalled to see them “leering in bestial degradation.” That’s not a bad description of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. The operative word, of course, is leering. The grotesque, as James Naremore points out, mixes fear, disgust, and laughter.

The grotesque breaks categories. Borat’s main disguises as a spare-tired redneck make him implausibly cartoonish. Animals become human (Johnny the chimp is a porn star) and humans become animals, or simply raw material. The producer of Borat’s previous film has been turned into an armchair, with privates preserved.

Species transmogrify. Borat himself–hugely tall, loping like a moose, shitting in front of Trump Tower, with his inane grin and wobbly vocal pitches, high-fiving with hands like seal flippers–is a walking graffito, something you might see scrawled on a remote East European grotto. Tutar, like all Kazakh daughters, is kept in a cage. Grotesque art also breaks taboos. The film wallows in menstruation, incest, masturbation, animated POTUS erections, kinky birth stories, and sex toys, including a gag that pivots on Borat’s accent (Amazon delivers “fleshlights” instead of flashlights). In this context, Rudy Giuliani’s 1200-watt smile becomes wolfishly sinister.

Again, though, narrative processes provide some development. Tutar abandons her cage and (in a sign that Borat is warming to her) joins her dad in the trailer. She becomes a high-gloss Fox-babe interviewer. Borat correspondingly submits to a gender revision, showing up in a bikini to save her from Giuliani. The armor-plated gender roles assigned by Kazakh culture melt a bit in Borat’s odyssey, though again–faithful to the grotesque–father and daughter’s final slow-mo romp through Washington streets is less a lyrical reconciliation after two “character arcs” complete than another bit of tawdry public cosplay.

Eisenstein thought that the grotesque had two registers, the comic (say, slapstick) and the pathetic (say, The Hunchback of Notre Dame). So you could argue that the Borat film moves broadly from the first to settle on the second. In the very last scene, there’s even a hug as a “normalized” Tutar and Borat assume meritocratic professional identities.

Still, this normalization doesn’t really wipe away a cruel Boschian vision of a hellscape seething with grotesques. The film sets up two parallel cultures, Kazakhstan and the USA, each deeply committed to imposing stupidity on its populace.

Kazakhstan is a parody of traditional folk patriarchy as recast by a Communist state. Fathers treat daughters as livestock while corrupt officials execute their enemies. Social life is ruled by a guidebook that Tutar dutifully carries everywhere. It details all the powers due to men and all the roles allotted to women, with special instructions about areas they must not touch.

The USA, for all its wealth, is filled almost completely with deadpan imbeciles who advise Borat on how to cage his daughter and gas gypsies. Women instruct Tutar in finding a sugar daddy and behaving at a debs’ ball. True, Tutar learns that the Kazakh manual is bunk, but her new vessel of truth is Facebook, which assures her that the Holocaust didn’t happen.

Armed only with a barbaric yawp, Borat visits anonymous malls and bland bakeries. This moronic inferno houses the pious women of a Republican club, the well-heeled attenders of a CPAC meeting, and Gadsden flag-wavers. As the virus spikes, Borat takes refuge with conspiracy theorists who claim that the Clintons drain children’s adrenaline and feast on blood. Crashing a Second Amendment rally, Borat can quickly teach the audience a song which urges that members of the press be chopped up “like the Saudis do.”

Does an elderly Jewish woman provide a glint of light? After all, she assures Borat that the Holocaust really happened. But the twist is that he’s comforted because her news vindicates his countrymen’s historic role working in the camps. And the image remains pure grotesquerie: a Nosferatu-like Borat measures the lady’s nose, in an echo of the visit to the obliging plastic surgeon who discusses Jewish noses.

     

If the Kazakhs have been regimented in the service of the state, the American social default is freewheeling, blank indifference. You can tell someone you’re chaining up your daughter, you can send a penis image by fax, you can walk into a conservative gathering in KKK robes, and at best people raise an eyebrow. Stupidity is stolidity. Behind every reaction shot is the unspoken American version of tolerance: Whatever. 

The French call us les grands enfants, the big kids. In a country where you do whatever you want until somebody says you can’t (and then you will demand to do it as an expression of freedom), why shouldn’t a man suggest paying for breast implants by letting perverts watch the procedure? (“The perverts,” the staff member explains, “have to be medical personnel.”) Why shouldn’t a birth counselor overlook the father’s apparent confession of impregnating his daughter? You want “Jews will not replace us” squiggled on a cake, with a happy face underneath? No problem. Why shouldn’t the President’s personal lawyer claim on the record that the Chinese invented the virus and deliberately unleashed it on the world? Maybe. Might be something to that. I’m just saying. Check out the retweet.

The most redemptive moments come with Jeanise Jones. As Tutar’s babysitter she nudges the girl away from having breast implants and sets her on the way to thinking independently. Jeanise also teaches Borat that the pain he feels in his heart is love for Tutar. Another way this is a classical movie: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm has its own Magic Negro.

     

Narrative being narrative, the climax brings a change. Borat returns home, expecting execution, but he learns that his mission has actually been accomplished. His real purpose was to spread the coronavirus, developed in Kazakh labs to punish the world for laughing at the homeland after his first film. He has been the Typhoid Mary of the pandemic (his middle name is Margaret), and with his success Kazakhstan recovers a place of honor in the world community. It has moved forward to the digital age. Instead of playing ostrich, cut off from the outside world, the people are now staffing troll farms.

     

     

Now the daughters have joined globalization and have something important to do: overturn American democracy.

And instead of the Running of the Jew, the honorable tradition revealed in the first film, the homeland can afford to look down on a new scapegoat: America. In a colossal magnification of the grotesque, the ballcap hillbilly and the gun-toting Karen terminate Dr. Fauci.

 

Satire gone gross, pranks and punking pushed to randy delirium: No wonder Sacha Baron Cohen was so suitable for the role of the Yippie Abbie Hoffman in The Trial of the Chicago 7. In Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, I think he has done something important. He has made the 1960s put-on a vehicle of political criticism, by simply demonstrating how scary the pleasures of being stupid can be.

The movie cons its subjects, people say. No, they con themselves, aided by the Whatever principle. It’s not always very amusing, detractors say. Right. The grotesque never is. Being thoroughly stupid isn’t thoroughly fun. We are going to learn this over and over in the days and years ahead.


For enlightening commentary on Heartfield, visit here. On comix, the authoritative source is James P. Danky, Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix (Abrams, 2009).

The standard survey of the grotesque is Wolfgang Kayser’s The Grotesque in Art and Literature. Jim Naremore makes the case for Stanley Kubrick as an artist of the grotesque in On Kubrick (British Film Institute, 2007). My quotation from Ruskin comes from p. 26 of that.

On the camera-ubiquity convention of pseudo-documentary, as it bears on The Office, you can see this entry. There’s also this one, on the Paranormal Activity series. The Kuleshov effect is discussed throughout our entries, especially here and in this video.

A noun, a verb, and . . . copping a feel in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.

Vancouver envoi: What happens in movies happens between your ears

Summer 85 (2020).

DB here:

One of the nicest things anybody ever said to me came from Jacques Aumont, the distinguished French film scholar. He was visiting us in the early 1980s and I showed him a book manuscript I had just sent to the publisher. He read the first three chapters and said, “You remind us of something important. The spectator is thinking.” The book eventually came out as Narration in the Fiction Film.

In emphasizing that the spectator thinks, at least a little, I was driven to pay special attention to openings. The opening is where a film sets up information about its story world, about the action that will take place in it. We usually call this exposition. But a film also attunes us to the how as well as the what: how the story will be told. Exposition, in other words, includes introducing us to the characters and their situation but also to the ways we’ll learn about them. In the book I called the latter the “intrinsic norms” of narration.

But exposition isn’t simply a part of the plot, a chunk of opening material we need to digest. Exposition, the narrative theorist Meir Sternberg shows, is a process. In revealing what we call “backstory,” circumstances that predate the first scenes we see, exposition can go on throughout a film. (Kristin talks about this in her entry on Inception, and in revised form in our Nolan book.) So it turns out that the spectator has to keep thinking, keep reevaluating what’s being told about the story world and the way the story is told.

Three films showcased at the Vancouver International Film Festival set me thinking about these matters. Two depended on surprises, and these stemmed from the way exposition was handled. The third had very sparse exposition, asking us to gradually fill in story background through drifts and whiffs of information. In all cases, our enjoyment depends on thinking.

 

Surprise!

Bettina Oberli’s My Wonderful Wanda updates the ingredients of classic bourgeois comedy for the modern world of migratory caregivers. Josef and Elsa Wegmeister-Gloor oversee their pampered and confused son and daughter. Into the household comes a servant who is exploited for sexual favors by the old man. Wanda, the nurse brought in from Poland, is today’s equivalent of the chambermaid lusted after by both father and son.

As in most domestic comedies of class relations, Wanda the worker is no fool. Her duties help support her father, mother, and sons back home, and she proves herself a shrewd negotiator from the start. When Elsa asks her to perform extra chores, she demands more money. And when Elsa’s stroke-felled husband is willing to pay for sex, she agrees. Their secret bargain will, in good farce fashion, come to light in the most embarrassing way possible.

I went into the film knowing much less of the plot than I’ve just told you, so I want to keep back the rest. (Alas, the trailer overshares.)  I was able to appreciate the way that Oberli’s tight script kept the surprises coming. Her script finds an admirable balance between clear structure and unpredictable turns.

Here the exposition is, in Sternberg’s terms, mostly concentrated and preliminary. The early scenes fill us in on the basic situation. Wanda is among several women met at the bus by Elsa. This is a compact way to suggest how much this class depends on the arrival of emigrant labor. Wanda is then taken to the family’s sumptuous villa. We learn about the situation as she does, and this introductory stretch culminates in Wanda’s introduction to her cramped basement room. In good traditional fashion, the exposition quickly encourages us to sympathize with the protagonist by showing her treated unfairly. On the basis of the information we get, the film’s first “act” becomes a tensely rising action in which Wanda becomes victimized by the petty conflicts that wrack the family.

A second long section begins in a lighter key, with the dismissed Wanda returning after some months, in a scene parallel to the opening. This chunk provides another concentrated dose of information, bringing us up to date on the family’s situation. Comic complications emerge when the family has to cope with a new, more pressing set of demands.

In good Renoirian fashion, Oberli gives everyone a dose of sympathy. The frailties of the son and daughter get nuanced and softened, and we see this coddled pair as less selfish than self-destructive. The action tapers into cringe comedy (drunken embarrassment) and  farce (an errant cow), but it’s steered by carefully modulated character revelation, particularly on the part of Elsa, who is played by an indominatable Marthe Keller.

My Wonderful Wanda keeps surprising you to the very end; it trains us not to take everything for granted.  There’s even a classic theatrical denouement, itself twisty, which is undercut by a final shot of GOFAC (Good Old-Fashioned Art Cinema) uncertainty. Yet after each reversal, you think it had to be that way. What happens later is consistent with the exposition we’ve built up.

 

Surprise, postponed

Concentrated exposition, gathered in an opening or elsewhere, sets our expectations, so new story information can modify or revise them. For instance, when Wanda is summoned late at night to Gunther’s bedside, I assumed he needed meds or some help going to the toilet. The expository scenes had set her up as a traditional caregiver. So I was surprised when she mechanically slipped into what became clear was a sexual routine. That prompted me to recalibrate my sense of their relationship, and it made me aware of the limits of what I’d assumed.

Which is to say that exposition as a process is usually partial. We don’t get everything in the backstory at once, and sometimes what’s suppressed is central (as in My Wonderful Wanda). A more extreme example is François Ozon’s Summer 85 (Été 85). Here the expository information is distributed much more widely across the film. We get the backstory only gradually and piecemeal. Because some important information is withheld, the film nudges us toward certain expectations that need to be adjusted.

Again, I have to be careful about spoilers, so let me talk generally. In the book that I mentioned and for many years since, I’ve written a lot about flashbacks. One common schema for flashbacks is the crisis structure. The plot starts near a story’s climax and then suspends the outcome in order to shift back into the past and show how the crisis came about. The crisis structure can provide a film’s overall intrinsic norm of narration, so we expect that this pattern will carry through from scene to scene.

Ozon, another elegant storyteller, knows we have learned the crisis structure. When the opening of Summer 85 shows the teenager Alex dragged into a corridor and then interviewed by police authorities, we’re encouraged to summon up our experience of other movies. A crime has been committed, and he’s either a witness or a suspect. Ozon sets up a familiar to-and-fro pattern between past and present, an investigation and the mysterious crime leading up to it.

The distributed exposition provides flashbacks that take us chronologically through the events leading up to the night of the arrest. Alex is drawn into a love affair with David, a charismatic older boy. With his mother David runs a shop on the beach. She is slightly scatterbrained and seems unaware of their passions, while Alex’s parents are likewise in the dark (and surely disapproving). When the English au pair Kate shows up on the beach, Alex fears David will abandon him, and we expect that a classic romantic triangle will drive the film forward.

Except that’s not quite what happens. As Alex’s jealousy deepens, we might expect a sort of Patricia Highsmith crime to ensue. Instead, Ozon dares to go with a less brutal but more plausible turn of events–one that makes us reevaluate why Alex is being investigated, and what his actual crime is. By distributing exposition slowly across the whole film, Ozon not only creates a lot of curiosity about what has actually happened, he’s able to arouse expectations that will get challenged by new revelations. He exploits the how of narration to modify our understanding of what has occurred–and, it turns out, why.

I’m sorry to be so cryptic, but I face the reviewer’s dilemma of not giving away plot twists that should take you by surprise. Here, though, the surprises aren’t short and sharp, as in My Wonderful Wanda. They unfold more gradually and allow you time to think–about the characters and their motivations, and about what you took for granted might have happened. You might even feel a bit ashamed for misjudging Alex, who turns out to be loyal and forgiving in ways we might call unexpected. Yes, dancing is involved.

 

Surprise?

My Wonderful Wanda has a straightforward arc of conflict and resolution. Summer 85 is more nonlinear, skipping to and fro through time, but it too can be plotted as a drama of tension and release. What then to say about Kala Azar? It’s another film that teaches us how to watch it, and how to think through it. But it seems to lack those traditional patterns of coherence.

Or rather, it has other patterns. Instead of a drama of conflict and change, it explores a situation built out of routines, gradually revealed and eventually varied. This is another plot strategy, one familiar from “art cinema.” It builds a mystery into not only the story action but into the way the story is told. What is going on? And why am I told about it in this way?

Start with the title. It refers to a severe infectious disease spread to animals and humans by sandflies. It’s currently raging as a pandemic in over seventy countries. But the film Kala Azar is less about the disease (although we spot some lesions on characters who might be infected) than about the relations of humans and animals–specifically, some marginal Greeks scrounging a living on the outskirts of a city, along with the dogs, cats, and other creatures that wander into their lives.

There are three strands of action, each with its own routines. Most prominent are the couple, a young man and woman working for a service that cremates household pets. The couple live mostly on the road in their van, gathering pet remains from households and bringing them back to a central facility. They then return the ashes (not always scrupulously preserved, it seems) to the waiting owners. Another couple, the woman’s father and mother, keep stray dogs in their house. A third line of action involves Orguz, a migrant worker glimpsed from time to time at a chicken farm nearby.

The central couple have started adding roadkill to their cargo, as if believing that these creatures too deserve a serious farewell to life. And at certain points the story strands meet, although glancingly. In something close to a traditional climax, the young man, provoked by seeing a shooting party, takes a decisive action.

All of what I’ve told you is built up through dozens of short scenes, usually without dialogue. There’s probably more going on here than I’ve been able to grasp on one viewing. But the sparse, widely distributed exposition, and the apparent looseness of the plot challenge us to fill in things as best we can. Just as important, by not providing a traditional dramatic arc, director Janis Rafa encourages us to shift our attention to other aspects of her film.

We’re invited, for instance, to examine shot composition, to explore the landscapes on which the camera dwells, to scrutinize textures and gestures. These items are sometimes seen at one remove, through dirty panes of glass or layers of focus or in slim apertures.

     

Entire scenes often chop off faces in order to emphasize the contact that the bodies make with their surroundings, or to turn bodies into pure pattern, as when two grieving pet lovers are shown dressed identically.

     

These visual strategies may seem a bit arty, but I think they build up a tactile sense of the environment of these routines. Rafa has said that she wanted to evoke the “animalistic” quality of the imagery, which isn’t only a matter of a low camera position. The sensuous quality of the vegetation, streams, and roaming dogs comes across strongly. Kala Azar earns its severe gravity through its patient attention to details of a world in which humans and animals interact in very tangible ways. Stray animals meet stray humans, and the visual style registers the encounter with quiet nuance.

 

From concentrated preliminary exposition, to distributed and elliptical exposition, to what we might call minimal exposition: This continuum shows some creative options available to filmmakers in telling their stories. Each one invites us to build up expectations, to reconsider new information in the light of what we knew (or thought we knew), and to assemble a coherent line of action. In other words, we think. That’s not all we do, but it’s a big part of how we watch movies.


As usual, special thanks to Alan Franey, PoChu AuYeung, Jane Harrison, Curtis Woloschuk, and their colleagues for their help during this reliably exciting festival. This is usually the time of the year when Kristin and I wish we lived in Vancouver, and that feeling is sharpened by the health crisis now engulfing so many countries. Cinema helps keep us civilized.

These and other films we’ve reviewed should be making their way to other festivals, so we hope you have a chance to catch up with them.

For more on the narrative strategies I’ve discussed here, see Meir Sternberg’s magisterial Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction (1978). This is in my view one of the great books in narrative theory.

For more on narratives built on threads of routines, see this earlier entry on Chop Shop and other films at Ebertfest. An entry on editing pursues the between-your-ears theme.

Kala Azar (2020).

Vancouver: Stories, spliced and stacked

Sarita (2019).

DB here:

Humans love stories, the more the better. As a result, many storytellers find ways to bring distinct story lines together. The most common way is to link them, through subplots involving major and minor characters. Viktor Shklovsky urged us to think of folktales, novels, and plays as “braided” out of several story lines. At other times, the stories are bracketed within a bigger plot. A character tells others about incidents in childhood, or characters tell completely detachable tales, as Scheherazade and Chaucer’s pilgrims do. Instead of braiding, we get embedding within a frame situation.

I started to think again about these options watching four films at the always exhilarating Vancouver International Film Festival. All were engaging, partly because they often mixed comedy and drama in rewarding ways. They also offer a nice menu of creative possibilities, exploited by ambitious filmmakers.

 

Screen life

An omnibus film can offer a frame story, as the British classic Dead of Night does, but most modern ones simply line up one tale after another, in blocks. Essentially these are short stories, and they tend to follow literary patterns.

One option is the “snapper,” the plot consisting of twists and a sting in the tail, a surprise ending. Edgar Allan Poe may have invented this format, O. Henry canonized it, and Roald Dahl gave it a grisly tenor. Diverting examples of the surprise-ending story can be found in the omnibus Spanish film Tales of the Lockdown (2020).

All five modules are comic, though sometimes in a macabre vein. Produced during the COVID-19 lockdown, somehow staged and shot remotely, each episode is cleverly scripted and elegantly directed. In one, a reclusive Milquetoast is pressed by an aggressive neighbor who wants to sell him a plan to expunge “bad vibrations” from his apartment. The Feng Shui saleslady gets more than she bargained for when she learns the source of those vibes.

In another, an aspiring hitman recruited by The Agency gets a remote tutorial from an experienced killer, who makes him practice techniques on a teddy bear and the dogs he snags from the neighborhood. A third, gentler episode is still tricky: we’re led to presume some things about a couple that turn out to be not valid–at least, not until the end. Sorry to be so elliptical, but films like this oblige you to avoid spoilers.

The most straightforward comedy concerns a woman auditioning by video for a TV part, aided by her husband who decides he could get a role as well. For a local audience, the fact that she is played by star Sara Sálamo and her actual husband, a Real Madrid football player, doubtless adds to the fun. The last episode, a black comedy, presents a rich couple’s extreme reaction to a tenant strike in one of their buildings.

The filmmakers have found many nifty ways to exploit the limited viewpoint enforced by lockdown. Naturally, remote conversations take place over laptops, which motivates minimal change of setting and little need for elaborate action scenes, or even ordinary staging in interiors. Offscreen action is likewise conveyed minimally, just by speech or noise in the world outside. The funniest moments in the fifth episode concern the rich couple learning they’ve received a “package” which we never see and must assume is problematic, since the thug on speakerphone says it’s “middle-aged.”

Confined settings have in effect created five “chamber plays” of the kind I’ve talked about before. This constraint allows directors to design and dress settings and find playful compositions to accentuate the plot twists that keep us glued to the screen.

In all, Tales of the Lockdown is a display of light and lively cinema craftsmanship. It’s heartening to see creative energy maintained in pandemic conditions. It premiered on Spanish Amazon Prime and would be worth looking for on that platform in other markets.

 

Food, memories, and the future

The major alternative to the twisty snapper tale is the “slice of life,” the muted drama of a situation that may change little or not at all. Here the emphasis falls on characters–their relations, their reactions, and their sensitivity to one another. The classic examples come from Chekhov and from Joyce’s Dubliners, but they’re also prevalent in what used to be thought of as the classic New Yorker short story of John Cheever or J. D. Salinger.

Pensive incompleteness of this sort well suits the Hong Kong film Memories to Choke on, Drinks to Wash Them Down (2019). Directors Kate Reilly and Leung Ming-kai have made three of the four stories fictional, treating them as vignettes of restrained realism. A Malay caregiver takes a grandma on an afternoon outing. She wants to go to a political rally where rice will be given out, and she hopes to meet old friends from her village. The old lady is forgetful, and her chatter recycles memories of her youth. The trip turns out to be something quite different, but she doesn’t realize it. The caregiver’s concern turns a simple duty into an act of kindness, as well as a tactful political gesture.

In “Toy Stories,” two brothers meet in their mother’s toy store, which is being sold, contents and all. As with the first episode, memory comes to the fore. The men play games and quarrel about the Power Rangers figures they loved. One, who has a son, tries to find something educational to bring back. He is barely hanging on financially, while his brother has lost his job. A final scene shows a bit of development in their situation, and gives room for a little hope; it’s the only episode that ends, “To Be Continued.”

The third episode is a wistful, Wongkarwai-ish almost-romance. Ruth, an American Caucasian, has come to teach in the school where John, a Chinese, teaches economics. Both are on their way elsewhere–Ruth to teach in Beijing, John to “try something different” in America. They bond over food. (Of course; this is a Hong Kong movie.) From their meeting at a vending machine to the street stalls and cheap restaurants they explore, Ruth learns of the joys of salted egg, pig intestines, and above all yuen yeung, a uniquely local mixture of tea and coffee.

These three stories quietly evoke distinctive Hong Kong culture–the older generation’s memories of moving to the colony, the Gen-X absorption in popular culture, and the particularities of local cuisine. The fourth segment builds on these in looking toward the future.

It’s a documentary showing the barista and cat-lover Jessica Lam running for a local council seat. She faces a pro-Beijing candidate, but she’s more grassroots. She’s also an amateur and runs a fairly minimal campaign. Although she does denounce police violence against demonstrators, the main force of this sequence is the portrait of a sincere young woman trying to improve neighborhood life. This is the only episode with a climax, the election-day vote count. And there is a twist when Jessica gives her final verdict on the results.

The omnibus format has proven a strong option for contemporary Hong Kong cinema, as witness the powerful Ten Years (2015).  Memories to Choke On addresses not state oppression, as that did, but the politics of everyday life, the ways in which the sagging economy and the Chinese takeover ripple through the lives of ordinary people. The impact is quite specific:  local audiences would know that the actor playing John in the third segment is Gregory Wong Chung-yiu, who is at risk of years of imprisonment for participation in a demonstration. Each story is a telling vignette, a slice of Hong Kong life that will engage overseas audiences and instill a mixed nostalgia in everybody who has ever visited what Chuck Norris in The Octagon (a very different movie) calls “the place.”

 

Camp as community

The option of embedding the stories within a frame can blur their edges more or less. Sarita (aka Tell Me Who I Am; 2019), an Italian film about refugees from Bhutan living in a Nepalese camp, could have been a straightforward documentary about problems of exile and resettlement under the auspices of the UN. Instead, it blends real-life stories of the refugees with a young girl’s quest to recover her memory. In what filmmaker Sergio Basso calls a more fanciful and energetic approach than a “tragic” documentary would give, we get a film close to magical realism–with DIY Bollywood musical numbers.

Sarita is more or less happy in the camp. She has friends to play and dance with, a school to attend, and every opportunity to worship her favorite god Shiva. But she often quarrels with her parents and wonders why they can’t go back home, a place she has never known. Shiva wipes Sarita’s memory, endowing her with the drive to ask questions of everyone around her. In this Rip van Winkle device, we are introduced to camp routines, as well as the history of her displaced neighbors.

Sarita visits her beloved teacher, only to find that he is often laid low by his injuries from torture sessions. People tell her of ethnic cleansing in Bhutan, of disappeared relatives and political oppression. Deciding that “building my future is easier than desiring my past,” Sarita turns to her immediate prospects. But her sister tells of the hardships of getting a university education. Taking her grandma to be treated for diabetes, she learns of people sleeping in a clinic as they wait days for treatment.

After the family is assigned a home in Oslo, she acquires a super-8 camera and cassette recorder and begins to document the life she will leave behind. Now the world she rejected seems precious. After Sarita has gone, we see her grandmother and those left behind lingering at a tree, studying mementos of their departed neighbors.

Counterpointing the harsh realities of daily routines and homesickness are moments of song and dance, in bursts of brilliant color and gymnastic choreography. We also get fantasy scenes, satires on overeager bureaucracy (the resettlement officer is a hyperactive Gene Kelly wannabe), and signs that youthful exuberance can’t be contained by drab regimentation. We hear “There is no childhood here” on the soundtrack as kids are shown inventing games and playing jacks with pebbles. The ending, however, has the poignancy of pure realism (even though it’s fictitious).

This film is an extraordinary achievement. Basso and his colleagues made it over ten years–filming without electricity and no funding from national governments or NGOs. Yet the minimal conditions enabled close collaboration with the camp residents. Seeing the children’s dances inspired Basso to make it a musical, and he gained access to local leaders. Thanks to the Kuleshov effect, Sarita even appears to interview the head of the resettlement office. Although the performers had some coaching from a theatre director and a choreographer, they clearly have natural gifts, particularly Sasha Biswas, who carries the film.

In the wake of the coronavirus, seventy Italian independent cinemas cooperated in making Sarita available on streaming platforms. There, Basso reports, it has found an encouragingly large audience. Another item to look for on the streaming menu in your area!

 

Visions of the good life, words of disquiet

One more film about memory, but now the memories themselves are captured on film. And the stories aren’t sealed off in blocks or gently embedded in a wider frame. They’re stacked.

Again, to say too much would soften your efforts to come to grips with the teasing, hypnotic My Mexican Bretzel (2019). Think of it as layered, like a cake.

The image track consists of a Swiss family’s home movies from the late 1940s through the early 1960s. In luscious color we see a couple leading a European life of leisure: summers on the beach, winter skiing, tours of postcard capitals, yummy meals with friends in open-air restaurants. The husband, a genial, brawny fellow, clowns for the camera, but most screen time is given to his wife, a willowy brunette with a radiant smile. The landscapes might have come straight out of Holiday, that oversize American magazine dedicated to worldwide vacationing.

The next layer is a written text, purportedly a diary of Vivian Barrett. This tells of the marriage. Vivian traces the efforts of husband Leon to make and market an antidepressant. Leon’s love of flying during the war has translated into his urge to travel widely, especially on his luxurious yacht. But as the years pass, Vivian starts to record her worries, her dissatisfactions, and the temptation of taking a lover. Her musings are interrupted by remarks she finds in an untitled book by the Indian guru Kharjappalli. (Sample piece of wisdom: “God also doubts your existence.”) The couple’s lives form the outline of an Antonioni film.

Léon is making a record too. He’s wielding the Daddycam as he documents all those vacations and breakfasts and views of Manhattan, Hawaii, Las Vegas, and aqueducts. Vivian has misgivings (“If you film, you don’t have to live”) but learns to use the camera herself, and even steer the yacht.

Finally there is an exceptionally discreet effects track. The home-movie scenes are eerily silent because there’s no voice-over, but occasional noises are dubbed in, and very rarely there’s a snatch of music. On the whole, the absence of musical cues for emotion renders the pictures and the diary texts all the more powerful. (Compare the emotional tug of Jóhannsson’s score for Last and First Men, a film that also “overwrites” mysterious visuals with a text sourced to a woman.) The result is a dry, unsentimental treatment of a crumbling marriage in the midst of Europe’s postwar boom.

Out of 29 hours of found footage Nuria Giménez and her colleagues have fashioned a fascinating film that is at once pure documentary and creative fiction. I like to think of it as another way to assemble a narrative–at one level simple chronology of a cosmopolitan couple’s life, on another the hidden story of voyages to Italy and elsewhere. I kept seeing the ghosts of Bergman and Sanders in this couple on the modern Grand Tour.

 

I knew about none of these films before encountering them at VIFF, which is of course one reason we cherish this and all other festivals. Granted, there’s reassuring pleasure in seeing the latest accomplishments of established and esteemed old hands (here Ozon, Petzold, Vinterberg, Rasoulof et al.). Just as valuable, though, is the jolt of seeing newcomers present beguiling variants on familiar traditions. Three of these films, as far as I can tell, are first features, and they offer fresh takes on stories we thought we’d seen before.

All are graced with sharp cinematic intelligence and offer pointed commentary on lives lived now and back then, close to home or far away. All remind me of why this VIFF wing is called Panorama. Every movie widened my vision.


Thanks, as usual, to Alan Franey, PoChu AuYeung, Jane Harrison, Curtis Woloschuk, and their colleagues for their help during the festival. Thanks as well to programmer and consultant Shelly Kraicer for background on Memories to Choke On.

You can sample the films in their trailers: Tales of the Lockdown is here; Memories to Choke On is here; Sarita is here; and  a particularly shrewd one for My Mexican Bretzel is here (incorporating, I think, footage not in the film). Giménez’s film won the Found Footage Award at Rotterdam. If you insist on knowing about how her film was made before seeing it, you can check this Film at Lincoln Center interview.

I hope other festivals, and streaming services, and even theatres will pick up all these films for wide distribution.

My Mexican Bretzel (2019).

Nero, Archie, and me: Preface to a new web essay

“Frame-Up for Murder” (“Murder Is No Joke”), Saturday Evening Post (21 June 1958).

DB here:

“It is impossible to say which is the more interesting and admirable of the two.” Thus Jacques Barzun on Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, the characters created by Rex Stout. I’d go farther. For me they are among the outstanding figures of American fiction, and Stout is one of the finest American writers of the twentieth century.

Wolfe and Archie are detectives, and Stout wrote mystery fiction. But that just goes to prove that genre work isn’t just good “of its kind.” It’s often good, period.

Stout started as a pulp novelist. He moved to what we now call literary fiction before pursuing a variety of more mainstream genres. He wrote quasi-experimental novels (one is told backward), comic romances, lost-world sagas, and a political thriller, The President Vanishes. (Stout admitted that Wellman’s film version was better than the book.) He introduced several other detective protagonists, but he wisely concentrated on Wolfe and Archie, whom he launched in 1934 and traced through dozens of adventures until his death in 1975.

Here is Stout with his wife Pola and daughter Barbara in 1935.

Are these stories still read? I hope so. When I quizzed the grad students in my seminar this spring, most seemed unaware of what for me–and, I think, other baby boomers–were major figures in popular culture. It’s partly because the ancillary media never did a good job spreading the word. The film Meet Nero Wolfe (1936) was weak, in keeping with the general failure of 1930s films to capture the strengths of supersleuths like Philo Vance and Ellery Queen. (Better were the Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan vehicles.) During the late 1990s, Bantam reprinted the books in quality paperback editions, with introductions by other writers (Westlake, Lippman et al.). There was a solid cable-TV series (A Nero Wolfe Mystery) back in the early 2000s, with a trying-a-bit-too-hard Timothy Hutton as Archie but a near-definitive Wolfe in the form of Maury Chaykin. But that’s all pretty far back now.

O well .  . . . If Perry Mason can come back, maybe Wolfe and Archie can too. And they won’t be scruffy and unshaven. Archie explains: “I was born neat.” So was his prose.

Today, I’m posting a long (22,000 words!) essay on Wolfe and Archie in an effort to show some reasons they and their creator matter. Background follows below.

 

Research? Say rather, obsession

Like most academics, I try to pour my obsessions into my research. My interest in mystery stories (fiction, film, even theatre and TV) is surfacing in my current project, a book studying principles of popular narrative as they emerge in thrillers and detective stories. In a way, the book turns inside out what I tried to do in Reinventing Hollywood. There I traced film techniques to sources in adjacent media. Now I’m looking directly at those media to consider their formal and stylistic strategies, with some consideration of how film shaped and was shaped by them.

My survey covers familiar ground. I consider the classic detective story (the so-called “Golden Age” of Christie, Sayers, Queen, Carr et al.), the hardboiled writers, the suspense thriller, and the crystallization of major techniques in the 1940s (a polemical point with me). Later chapters analyze the heist plot, the police procedural, and particular writers (e.g., Cornell Woolrich, Ed McBain, Richard Stark, Patricia Highsmith). As presently planned, the book ends with an odd-couple pair of chapters: the “puzzle film” trend of the 1990s, and the domestic thriller of recent years (Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train). Some chips from the workbench have littered this blog, as the links indicate.

One of my key questions is: What has enabled readers and viewers to welcome the sort of extreme complexity that we find in movies like Pulp Fiction or Memento? We’re all now connoisseurs of narrative intricacy, in not only crime plots but science-fiction and fantasy ones (which actually often rest on mysery premises; see Devs).

Another theme of the book is one I pitched in Reinventing Hollywood. I argued that very quickly “modernist” innovations in fictional technique were channeled into something more moderate and middlebrow. It’s there that wider audiences gained proficiency in handling flashbacks, ellipses, plunges into subjectivity, opaque exposition, and other challenges to linear storytelling. At the end of the 1920s, while Joyce and Woolf and Faulkner were pushing modernism into ever more recondite byways (Finnegans Wake, The Waves, The Sound and the Fury), other writers were adapting advanced techniques to traditional ends.

And traditional genres. I’ll argue that modernist experiments provided some strategies that mystery writers could recast within the bounds of their tradition. Stout’s first two serious novels, How Like a God (1929) and Seed on the Wind (1930) joined the trend toward mainstreaming modernism. By 1930 he had fully absorbed what the 1910s-1920s writers had achieved. What’s less obvious is the mark of modernist writing on his reader-friendly detective stories. Yet one lesson of modernism, I think, is the need to play with language, to “defamiliarize” literary texture. That, I think, is one of the tasks Stout took on in the Wolfe saga.

I had planned to include a chapter on the Wolfe/Archie series, but what resulted was far too long in comparison with its mates. So I’m posting it online as an essay. A shorter version will show up, somehow, in the finished book.

Luckily, thanks to the Internetz, the essay’s web incarnation can include some illustrations from magazine publication of the stories. Since most of the books’ drama takes place in Wolfe’s office, artists are challenged to find nifty ways to show people grouped around a desk.

I hope, then, that fans of the series will find some ideas and information of interest. Above all, I hope what I’ve said here and there will stimulate novices to venture on one of the great exercises in American popular storytelling. If you don’t care for it, all I have to say is: Pfui.


There are many good websites devoted to mystery fiction. The most comprehensive is Mike Grost’s. You should also look into Martin Edwards’ fine blog Do You Write Under Your Own Name? See also the official Wolfe Pack site, full of links and assorted Stoutiana. John McAleer’s biography Rex Stout (Little, Brown, 1977) is vastly informative. Stout was not only a great writer but also a fascinating man.

P.S. 8 July 2020: I’ve just learned that jazz pianist Ethan Iverson has posted on his site “Comfort Food,”  a superb appreciation of Nero and Archie’s world. He discusses all the books, and even includes a page of Stout’s FBI file!


Fer-de-Lance, serialized as “Point of Death” in American Magazine (November 1934).

David Bordwell
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