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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

Video

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

Essays

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

Studying Cinema

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The raptures of rigor: Roy Andersson’s ABOUT ENDLESSNESS at Venice 2019

Wednesday | September 4, 2019

About Endlessness (Roy Andersson, 2019).

DB here:

In the midst of the frenzy of fast cutting in films of the 1990s, a few directors reminded us of the virtues of simply putting your camera on a tripod and letting the action unfold in front of it. Abbas Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Kitano Takeshi, Tsai Ming-liang, and several other filmmakers reminded us that the fixed camera and long take, i.e. the “theatrical” cinema so despised in the 1920s and 1930s, still harbored great expressive resources.

It’s a lesson we have to keep learning–with Warhol and Tati in the 1960s, Akerman and Duras and Angelopoulos in the 1970s, Iosseliani in the 1980s, and not least with one of the greatest exponents of the tendency, Manoel de Oliveira. His 1963 film Rite of Spring initiated his persistent, endlessly inventive exploration of the tableau shot. Doomed Love (1978; briefly discussed here) is a superb example; Francisca (1981) is another, and we were lucky to catch a superb restoration on display in the Venice Classics section. I hope to write about it soon!

After four years of production, Roy Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor was released in 2000 and established his distinctive approach to the tableau tradition. Since then he has made only three features, the most recent of which played in competition at Venice 76. Of course we had to see it, and to visit his press conference.

This is visionary cinema of a unique kind.

 

Landscapes of unhappiness, minor and major

Start with some brute facts. About Endlessness runs only seventy minutes (without credits), and it consists of 32 one-shot scenes. As in Anderson’s other films since 2000, most scenes stand alone, without narrative connection to others.

Some are bare-bones situations, as when a young man watches a young woman watering a plant, or when a father ties his little girl’s shoe in a rainstorm. Others unfold a dramatic crisis. A man bursts into tears on a city bus, complaining that he doesn’t know what he wants. A dentist, put off by a patient’s yowls of pain, simply walks out of the consultation and ends up in a bar.

Some shots draw on our knowledge of a broader story, as when Hitler stalks into one chamber of his bunker and his lieutenants, exhausted by the bombardment, sporadically salute him. He hardly seems to notice. A few tableaux present a recurring thread, like minimalist running gags. A man recognizes a schoolmate, but wonders why the man won’t greet him. A priest feels himself losing his faith, gets drunk while celebrating mass, and consults a doctor for advice. And one recurring image shows a woman cradled in a man’s arms floating in the sky–at one point drifting over the ruins of the bombed Cologne of World War II.

What makes Andersson’s cinema so fascinating is his effort to design intricate, gradually unfolding compositions that harbor powerful emotional expression. Dialogue is at a minimum; objects are arranged with the precision of still lifes. His people are often doughy and plodding, with hangdog expressions and complexions like pumice, living in a world dominated by grays and pastel browns. His movies reveal how many shades of beige there can be.

The grandeur of the distant framings accentuate the impotence of the characters. These sad creatures are caught in strict, unsympathetic perspective, all sharp angles and endless vistas. They stand exposed by flat, minimally sculptured lighting. “I avoid shadows,” he explained at the press conference. “I want to make pictures where people can’t hide. A light without mercy.”

The same mercilessness is seen in the settings, which may look fairly naturalistic but are wholly artificial. Andersson uses miniatures, background painting, and digital effects to create his picture-book landscapes. Streets, cities, train platforms are all the product of years of preparation. Like Tativille in Jacques Tati’s Play Time, Andersson’s sets create a beguilingly realistic version of a wholly fake city.

The sets are calculated to make sense from a single vantage point, as Renaissance paintings are. In a shot like the first one below, moving the camera would reveal the forced-perspective buildings outside.

Some of these landscapes are as eerie as de Chirico’s, but without any of the sensuous shading.

Which means that posture, gesture, and objects near and far have to carry the drama, however anecdotal it may be. The man who thinks his old friend has snubbed him tells us that the friend has a Ph.D. His wife consoles him (after all, they’ve been to Niagara Falls), but he’s still anxious. His puzzled fretfulness is carried by his slumped bearing, his plaintive expression, and his clinging to his slotted spoon. Meanwhile we hear his pasta simmering ever more loudly in the kettle in lower frame right, a light objective correlative to his annoyance.

Andersson teases us by letting us imagine how a micro-story might unfold. In a cafe, a woman sits alone, with no drink in front of her. She’s in the classic posture of waiting, A man eats dinner behind her (his cutlery clinks) and an empty table on far right bears the traces of another customer. In comes a large, lumpish fellow brandishing a bouquet. He hesitantly asks for Lisa Larsson. So it’s a rendezvous?

Nope. A bald man enters from frame left bearing two beers.

The lady doesn’t admit to being Ms. Larsson. Maybe she really isn’t, or maybe she found a better date. In any case, the newcomer turns and leaves, a bit sadly. Of course, there’s always the possibility that the absent customer on the right was his date. We, and he, won’t know.

Note, in passing, Andersson’s use of classic staging techniques. Tableau cinema needs to guide our attention through pictorial tactics such as central placement, frontal positioning, and patterns of blocking-and-revealing. By giving the bald man a central position in the format and letting him mask our view of the man eating in the corner, Andersson makes sure we’ll register the confrontation between him and the intruder.

Most of the tableaux are accompanied by a brief voice-over, a woman saying, “I saw…” followed by a single-sentence description of the action. Andersson claims to see her as a bit like Scheherazade, but she has as little commitment to a full story as he does. Her narration provides very little judgment on the scene but does supply a bit of information–often grim, as when we learn that a busker lost his legs in combat.

Indeed, war is a recurring motif in the film, making it bleaker than any of the other Andersson films I recall. Now the minor miseries and absurdities of modern life sit along a continuum of death  and destruction. A sequence of spontaneous dance here, a father’s awkward love for his daughter there–these don’t wholly compensate for a wartime execution or the bombing of Dresden. The gags are fewer now, and Andersson’s fantastical but stubbornly tangible cities have never looked more oppressive. The idea of endlessness stretches in many provocative directions: the infinite vistas of city and sky, the pinpricks of guilt and frustration in everyday life, the obscene endlessness of war. Lucky are those who can in a gentle embrace float above it all.

 

Andersson’s last film, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, won the Golden Lion for Best Film in Venice in 2014. Maybe this one will too? It’s one of the best new films I’ve seen here this year. More on the others, in later entries!


Thanks to Paolo Baratta and Alberto Barbera for another fine festival, and to Peter Cowie for his invitation to participate in the College Cinema program. We also appreciate the kind assistance of Michela Lazzarin and Jasna Zoranovich for helping us before and during our stay.

We’ve written bits on Andersson’s films elsewhere in our blog entries. See our entries on tableau staging for lots more on how this stylistic approach works. I discuss the technique as well in On the History of Film Style and Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging.

To go beyond our Venice 2019 blogs, check out our Instagram page.

About Endlessness (2019).

Finding a form: The College Cinema at the Venice International Film Festival

Wednesday | September 4, 2019

This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection (Lemagang Jeremiah Mosese, 2019).

DB here:

For the third year I participated in the Mostra’s College Cinema, a wonderful program that funds and guides three features by up-and-coming directors and producers. (Details are here.) I’ve reported on the earlier sessions here and here.

This year my developing reaction to the trio of features was governed by what Kristin and I did the day before our panel. We saw two superb classics: Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem (1970) and István Gaál’s Current (1964). They reminded me of what ambitious filmmaking was like before the arrival of screenplay manuals dictating character arcs and first-act turning points.

In those days, a filmmaker was likely to find a distinct, even unique form for a story. The filmmaker would design the film organically, creating a large-scale shape that would let technique and dramatic structure build in relation to each other, not in accord with standard formulas.

 

Coupling via monitor

A good example is The End of Love, directed by Karen Ben Rafael. The Israeli Yuval and the French woman Julie have a child. He waits in Israel for a new visa, while Julie must manage child care under the pressures of her job in an architecture firm. Each begins to suspect the other of infidelity, and their families in each country add to the tension.

So much for a traditional “relationship” movie, whose ups and downs could have been presented in a standard way. But Rafael and her co-screenwriter Elise Benroubi hit upon a fresh way to trace the couple’s conflicts. Yuval and Julie are keeping in touch via a Skype-like video service, and we are completely confined to their exchanges in this medium. We see only what they see, in a series of to-camera shot/reverse-shots.

Some recent genre films have been “monitor movies,” like Paranormal Activity 4 (2012), Chronicle (2012), Unfriended (2014), and Searching (2018). But these exploit the device for suspense and horror. The End of Love lets the conditions of video communication structure the ongoing drama. A teasing opening suggests that the camera is lying in bed between the couple as they caress themselves; the next scene–a remarkable shot in itself (above)–reveals that video is their channel of communication.

As the film goes along, tensions between Yuval and Julie are presented as much through the mechanics of  video exchanges as through the actors’ (very persuasive) performances. Unanswered calls signal a growing indifference. A mysterious shot wobbling through a dance club suggests either a phone accidentally turned on or a loud, defiant assault on the other person. I was especially taken by the moments when we get slight change of eyelines as characters look from the camera to study the display image of the other person.

The End of Love triggers a lot of ideas about how modern couples are led to expect that technology can overcome family problems. Being always online, always “in touch,” doesn’t mean that you’re engaging authentically with someone else. For all its power, the video hookup in the film creates an illusory intimacy, and its glitches stand for the aggravations, little and big, that come with physical separation. This thematic implication grows organically out of the creative decision to confine our viewpoint to what the camera can see and hear, but not heal.

 

Social drama into community myth

Another vigorous example of letting the material summon up the film’s form is This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection. Directed, written, and edited by Lemogang Jeremiah Mosese, it’s a poetic work that develops its imagery out of a dramatic situation.

The eighty-year-old Mantoa learns that her only surviving relation, her grandson, has died in a mining accident. After being consoled by her priest and the local choir, Mantoa tries to restabilize her life. But when she learns that her village is to be flooded for a dam project, she vows to save the bodies in the local cemetery–and to prepare her own grave.

This tale, set in Lesotho, is framed by a narrator telling us about her and her community. He sits in a blast of yellow light adjacent to a pool hall, and at intervals the story action pauses for his comments. The film takes its time–about 300 shots in two hours–to dwell on the details of her daily routine, such as the portable radio hanging from the wall, or Mantoa’s changing outfits.

But there are also more surreal images, such as Mantoa on a burned-out bedspring being slowly surrounded by sheep. The community that eventually supports her is presented as an almost abstract force, as are the out-of-focus government workers slowly hacking away at the perimeter of the village. The climax of the film makes powerful use of those figures as Mantoa confronts them in her boldest provocation of all.

Again a familiar situation–a tenacious elder tries to halt the destruction of a community (think Wild River)–is given fresh life through formal elaboration. Out of a primal conflict, Mosese generates a work of mythic dimensions. He does it through lustrous visuals, an evocative soundtrack, and a character who creates a legend that will live for generations.

 

Town and country

If The End of Love traces a jagged decline in a relationship, and This Is Not a Burial lifts a social conflict into spirituality, Lessons of Love finds another structure, this one aiming to express the inarticulate feelings of a man stuck in a situation. It’s a circle.

Yuri toils on his father’s farm, while his younger brother and sister try to avoid their responsibilities. Stolid, silent, and glum, Yuri harbors a good deal of anger, occasionally expressed in road rage. He relates to the world almost completely through physical contact.

Director Chiara Compara and her co-screenwriter Lorenzo Faggi start from a classic pattern: the migration of an innocent from the countryside to the city. This pattern is refreshed through a strategy going back to Neorealism: the insistence on the physicality of daily routines. A prolonged moment of Yuri tuning a radio recalls the famous scene of the maid’s morning ritual in Umberto D.

The early stretches of Lessons of Love stress the demands of farm work. The first shot is of a milk can, and soon we see logging, veterinary inspections, the purchase of a cow, and the dull evening meal. But we also get a sense of Yuri’s longing when he soberly eats during a TV love scene, and soon enough he’s visiting a strip club, watching as impassively as he did the TV show.

Through a tissue of routines, Yuri’s vague thoughts about escape emerge, and soon he is considering buying cowboy boots, dating Agata, and getting a construction job in town. That’s when the circular structure gets initiated, and new routines replace the old ones. Again, the details of hard labor aren’t stinted, and Yuri is challenged to break out of his smoldering solitude. Can a man who punches and embraces his favorite cow, and who furiously whacks a driver-side mirror, ever learn to talk to a woman who’s kind to him? The last shot of the film, discreetly echoing the first, provides the answer.

 

A fraught love affair, a defiant elder speaking up for a community’s heritage, and a lonely, locked-in man are familiar enough points of departure for a film. But these three College features offer fresh, rigorous treatment of their stories. Three acts and vulnerable-but-relatable heroes and heroines? Not necessary! There are other ways to go, as young filmmakers can show us.


Thanks as usual to Peter Cowie for inviting me to join the College Cinema panel, and to Savina Neirotti, the Head of the program. Thanks as well to other participants for lively conversation: Chaz Ebert, Glenn Kenny, Mick LaSalle, Michael Phillips, and Stephanie Zacharek. As ever, we appreciate the kind assistance of Michela Lazzarin and Jasna Zoranovich for helping us before and during our stay.

Glenn has a fine appreciation of the College films on rogerebert.com. He too was reminded of Wild River, but no surprise as we’re both nerds in this (and other) respects.

The End of Love (Karen Ben Rafael, 2019).

Venice 2019: In competition (and out)

Monday | September 2, 2019

Ema (2019).

KT here:

Since David’s brief initial post on the festival, we have been watching films and dining with friends. Ordinarily we blog from the press room, but there seems to be a larger number of journalists here this year than in the past, and it has not been possible to find a seat. So we are behind in our reports on the films we’ve seen, but we’re trying to hurry and catch up.

Here some of the films in the main competition and an extra.

 

J’Accuse

Roman Polanski’s latest feature is a handsome, solemn account of the false accusations of spying that led to the conviction of Alfred Dreyfus. As the film begins, in early 1895, an enormous gathering of soldiers and officers witness the degrading of Dreyfus in a public square, with the military buttons and other regalia stripped from his uniform. Anti-Semitism is commonplace through most of French society, and onlookers revel in the convicted man’s disgrace as he is hustled off to solitary imprisonment on Devil’s Island.

Among the onlookers is Georges Picquart, who joins in the general delight at Dreyfus’s punishment. He is soon, however, elevated to run the military counter-intelligence office which had convicted Dreyfus. Documents he examines cast doubt on the original guilty verdict, and in spite of admitting to being prejudiced against Jews, he insists that he can be objective in investigating the case. The film remains largely with Picquart as he doggedly searches for evidence despite considerable opposition from all sides. Occasional brief scenes show Dreyfus in his exile, but this is a not of the wrongly convicted but of the righter of wrongs.

Everyone knows that ultimately Dreyfus was exonerated and the real spy identified. There was a second trial, however, at which he was again found guilty. Picquart suffered the consequences of his efforts to save Dreyfus by being himself wrongly convicted of forging evidence and forced to resign from the army. This is far less known, at least in many countries, and the film makes it clear just how long justice took to achieve. In 1906, both men were cleared and were able rejoin the military.

J’Accuse is a good, old-fashioned Hollywood-style film, carefully and skillfully shot–in contrast to many current mainstream films. The main acting duties are carried through convincingly by Jean Dujardin (best known in the US as the Oscar-winning star of The Artist) as Picquart.

The film is directed with an unostentatious skill, with the framing, editing, design, and lighting all excellent. The period detail is impeccable. One wonders if Polanski had a chance to see some of the 1899 documentary footage of Dreyfus and military personnel leaving the court after his second trial, which was shown at Il Cinema Ritrovato this year. Some of the shots bear a resemblance to those early images. The staging and cinematography bring to mind films of the era, and one scene, in which a fanatic attacks Picquart in the street briefly looks like a chase film of the early 1900s (see bottom).

So far there is no indication that the film is to be released in the US.

 

Ema

I have admired the work of Chilean director Pablo Larraín, primarily No (2012), Neruda (2016), Jackie (2016), and to a lesser extent his early feature, Tony Manero (2008). Given that his three major films were all based on historical events and personages, I was expecting something of the same sort with Ema. I, along with many other reviewers, were quite taken aback and perplexed by it.

I still am not sure what to think of it. While watching it, I could not discern much of a plot or even a coherent character study. Ema is a pyromaniac, bisexual dancer living in Valparaiso with her choreographer husband, Pablo. The couple had adopted a young orphan, Polo, but apparently he had taken on some of Ema’s wildness, burning a house and leaving Pablo’s sister badly scarred. They had then surrendered him to be adopted by some other couple.

Most of the film involves performances of Pablo’s critically acclaimed dance piece, involving numerous performers in front of a giant projected image of the surface of the sun (see top). On her own, Ema performs wild Reggaeton dance moves with her friends (above), seemingly not for an audience (except for chance passersby) but simply to burn off her anger. She claims to want to retrieve Polo, yet her actions hardly suggest that she is any more fit to be a mother than she had been before–especially when she indulges in her delight with a flamethrower she had managed to acquire.

For what seems at first to be a sort of a musical, the film presents us with only a tantalizing shot or two of each of Ema’s energetic, colorful dances. We do get more of her sexual encounters with many other women and the occasional man, mostly in a lengthy, erotic montage sequence that suggests her almost desperate promiscuity.

My initial reaction to most of the film was disappointment and to some extent annoyance over the seeming lack of plot or of purpose to all this, since none of the motifs set up seemed to be progressing toward anything. In the final minutes of the film, however, the whole plot suddenly resolved in a perfectly logical, if disturbing and unexpected, fashion. The rest of the film in retrospect made sense, but it is very peculiar to have a film essentially goad and intrigue and even annoy you while delaying its revelation for so long.

The final shot suggests that Ema has not given up her old ways, and that although she has become part of a family of sorts, similar problems are likely to recur.

Larraín’s brief comment on the film in the festival catalogue suggests that the seeming formlessness of the film is intentional: “A meditation on the human body, dance and motherhood.” There is a definite hint of irony here.

I think Owen Gleiberman’s Variety review captures this “prickly art object, one that refuses to invite the viewer in.” I don’t agree with his point about Ema forming a defiant sisterhood aligned against men. After all, Polo ends up not with two mommies but with two mommies and two daddies. But I buy Gleiberman’s conclusion that “The whole film, let’s be honest, is kind of a stunt. Yet it’s a stunt that stays in your head.”

I would like to see it again … I think.

 

The Perfect Candidate

Haiffa Al Mansour (as she is credited here, though her previous films have Al-Mansour) first came to the world’s attention in 2012 through Wadjda, claimed to be both the first feature film shot entirely within Saudi Arabia and the first feature film directed by a Saudi woman. Its engaging story of a girl who enters a contest for memorizing the Koran because she wants the prize money to buy a bicycle–an object traditionally forbidden to females–charmed western audience achieved numerous nominations and wins for prizes around the world.

After two features made for western companies, Al Mansour returns to Saudi Arabia for The Perfect Candidate, a more grown-up tale of female empowerment.

Dr. Maryam, a young woman doctor who works in a provincial hospital reached by an unpaved, muddy road, ends up almost by accident signing up to run for the local city council. (She, by the way, drives her car along this muddy road as we meet her, a reference to the new 2018 law allowing women to drive.) In her work she confronts prejudice on all sides. An old man injured in a car accident refuses to let her even touch him, despite her being conservatively dressed, including a niqab on her head (above)–and the only doctor on duty. The supervisor turns the recalcitrant patient over to male nurses who botch his treatment.

Despite such obstacles, Maryam takes her candidacy seriously, getting her sisters and female friends to hold a fashion shot/party and managing to get her message across to a condescending TV interviewer–whose talk show is immediately canceled for having her as a guest.

The plot is fairly conventional and predictable, but Al-Mansour does not entirely sugarcoat her heroine’s ambitions and achievements. The ending is one that shows her winning the battle but losing the war. Though the film is mostly upbeat, its message is ultimately more one of hope for the future than of triumph in the present.

The Perfect Candidate is one of the two films by women directors in the main competition at Venice. The other, Rita Kainejais’ Babyteeth, will be shown on Wednesday, September 4.

 

Scarecrows

This is not a film in the main competition, but I wanted to include it briefly here because it also deals with women’s obstacles in a Muslim country, Tunisia. Its profound pessimism is the mirror-opposite of The Perfect Candidate‘s relative cheerfulness. In this case the director is a man, veteran Nouri Bouzid. One would not know this from watching the film, which centers almost entirely around women, with the men who appear briefly being threatening figures.

The subject is the plight of women who had been kidnapped and forcibly married to Islamic militant extremists. When they return to their hometowns, they face ongoing torment–harassment in the streets, pimps pressuring them to become prostitutes,  threats of gang rape, and honor-killings by male relatives. The two returned women are Zina, a slightly older woman who was separated from her child when kidnapped, and Djo, a younger woman who vainly tries to live a normal live outside her house but finds herself constantly in danger.

The only sympathetic man is a young homosexual who, despite being threatened himself, tries to protect Djo from violence.  A female lawyer tries to support the two women and is herself harrassed. Djo’s mother provides a safe home that her daughter finds stifling. To pass the time, the mother makes little rag dolls to decorate local homes and shops. These are clearly the “scarecrows” of the title, symbols of the damaged, wasted lives that the film suggests are beyond saving, despite the women having returned to their homes after untold horrors.

The film is grim indeed, and provides a fascinating insight into the culture of Tunisia, which has often been put forward as the most successful of the north African and Middle Eastern countries that went through the so-called Arab Spring nearly a decade ago.

 

Venice may still not have many women directors in the competition, but when you’re here on the spot, it’s evident that quite a few films center around women in sympathetic and positive ways.


Thanks to Paolo Baratta and Alberto Barbera for another fine festival, and to Peter Cowie for his invitation to participate in the College Cinema program. We also appreciate the kind assistance of Michela Lazzarin and Jasna Zoranovich for helping us before and during our stay.

To go beyond our Venice 2019 blogs, check out our Instagram page.

J’Accuse.

Venice 2019: First glimpses

Saturday | August 31, 2019

DB here:

We’re a bit rushed right now to post, but suffice it to say that we’e already seen Kore-eda’s La Verité, Gray’s Ad Astra, Al-Mansour’s The Perfect Candidate, Sandoval’s Lingua Franca, the restored Oliveira masterpiece Francisca, Larraín’s Ema, and Polanski’s J’Accuse . . . and others. We’ll brief you on these, but I did want to register what fun it was to see a radiant Pedro Almodóvar at his press conference, on the occasion of his receiving the Golden Lion Career Award. A RAI video is here.

We’ll soon be putting up more pictures on our Instagram page.

David Bordwell
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