March 2007

Goodbye, Brooklyn, Goodbye

Sunday marked the end of nearly two years living in Brooklyn. Though I was grateful to be out of the tiny, unkempt living space I was in (finally, no more climbing into my loft bed), I will miss the lively, hip location.  (At least now I get an apartment room with sunlight and great Latin food…)
This was the view from my apartment:

Ironically, I only saw three films in this theater throughout the 18 months that I lived across the street from it.  (For the record, they were Miami Vice, Jackass 2 and Talladega Nights — all excellent).  I found Cobble St. Cinemas and BAM to offer more local charm as well as better viewing fare.

Perhaps even more ironically, I am now living with a film critic in an apartment loaded with screeners — and I barely have time to watch any of them!  Times certainly have changed…

914. The Reckless Moment (1949, Max Ophuls)

screened Friday March 23 2007 on Second Sight DVD (loaned by Antonius Block) in New York, NY

TSPDT rank #507 IMDb

This 1949 melodrama from Max Ophuls’s postwar Hollywood period is usually overlooked in favor of the masterpieces he would realize upon returning to Europe (Lola Montes, The Earrings of Madame de . . . ). But it’s one of the director’s most perverse stories of doomed love, with Joan Bennett as a bored middle-class housewife whose daughter accidentally kills her sleazy suitor, and James Mason as an engagingly exotic Irishman who attempts to blackmail the mother. Naturally, they feel a certain attraction. Ophuls spins a network of fine irony out of the lurid material; Bennett is surprisingly effective as a typical Ophuls heroine, discovering a long-suppressed streak of masochism.

- Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader

I’ve been feeling rather Lucia Harper-ish lately as I’ve been juggling multiple projects along with moving to a new apartment and settling into a new job. I will offer my own reflections on this masterful film later. For now I’d like to present various excerpts from illuminating resources I’ve found online, sequenced in such a way that I feel it reflects a coherent argument of its own for what is special about this film:

First, to give some sense of how far this film has come in the critical consensus:

With Joan Bennett playing the lady in this Walter Wanger film, the nuisance of the dilemma is eminently disclosed. Miss Bennett prettily chews pencils, trying to find a way to cut the household bills, and innocently takes a few baubles to a loan office in hopes of getting a loan… Although it is rather well staged, with credible location settings in Balboa and Los Angeles, it is a feeble and listless drama with a shamelessly callous attitude. The heroine gets away with folly, but we don’t think this picture will.

- from the first-run release review in the New York Times by Bosley Crowther.

Reviews of the Second Sight DVD are generally positive. As always, DVD Beaver runs a thorough spec breakdown. Todd Haynes, who considers The Reckless Moment one of his ten favorite films of all time, gives a wonderful 22 minute introduction of the film, titled “Maternal Overdrive,” a term he uses to describe the state of the protagonist, Lucia Harper.

Though most viewers may find it to be a touch academic, I thought the feature-length commentary track by Lutz Bacher, author of Max Ophuls in the Hollywood Studios was a fascinating behind-the-scenes account of how the particulars of the production – namely the tensions between Columbia Pictures, producer Walter Wanger, Ophuls and the cast and crew – resulted in the finished product. All the more fascinating given that this was a pseudo-independent production with an iconoclastic European director at the end of his rope with the Hollywood system.

According to the DVD Times review of the Second Sight DVD, James Mason penned the following about Ophuls:

A shot that does not call for tracks
Is agony for poor old Max,
Who, separated from his dolly,
Is wrapped in deepest melancholy.
Once, when they took away his crane,
I thought he’d never smile again.

[googlevideo]-8349638851558631086&hl[/googlevideo]

Ophuls’s long tracks and long takes emphasize things that seem neither ephemeral nor trivial, but are imponderable and cannot be “dealt with”: emotions, desires, anxieties, self-awareness, identity.

- from Tag Gallagher’s essay, “Max Ophuls: A New Art – But Who Cares?

I knew that James Harvey had written extensively on The Reckless Moment in his book Movie Love in the Fifties. Though I don’t have a copy of it at hand, I happily found a choice excerpt from this review of the book by William D. Routt for Senses of Cinema:

Over the course of his movie Ophuls shows Lucia (Joan Bennett) going through, in and out of, a variety of public settings – a hotel lobby, a bank, a pawnshop, a post office, a cocktail lounge, and so on. He omits establishing shots, so that we enter these places with her. And she is accompanied, for the most part, by ambient sounds alone (there is hardly any musical underscoring in this film, even at the big moments), often intricately layered, with traffic and bustle and snatches of overheard conversation. But he’s never more intent on her than in those moments when she’s moving around her house, especially those times when she is between rooms and encounters: on the stairs, in the hall, on the way to the door, walking and thinking, then setting her face for the next question, the next lie, the next intrusion on her thoughts – on the stairway landing calling up to quiet the children, then lighting a cigarette, gathering herself together over it, while a distant banjo (David in his room) thrums tunelessly in the distance. It’s extraordinary how absorbing these moments (there are a great many of them throughout) always are – when “nothing happens” except Lucia’s walking and thinking and pausing. The intensity of her concentration, along with her isolation on the screen, draws you in irresistibly (p. 236).

(you’ll have to up the volume to hear the banjo at the end of this clip that Harvey mentions)

[googlevideo]6662904923610990922&hl[/googlevideo]

Here’s a different take on this constant busyness:

Sit-coms and comic strips love the American family because something big always seems to be happening but everything is back to normal by the end of the episode. The Reckless Moment repositions that once-a-day cycle from the mother’s point of view: the family member’s job is to present every passing fancy as an emergency to the mother, but the mother’s job is to maintain stability at any cost. Where Douglas Sirk’s domestic tragedies emphasize suffocation (the enveloping family keeps you warm at the cost of snuffing out flames), Ophuls pecks to death.

The eventual effect of this affection-hungry din is to level all stimuli out. Thus Ophuls’s thoroughgoing use of a narrative technique I’ve never seen used anywhere else in film, fiction, or theater: the deliberate tossing away of obvious opportunities for suspense and emotional climaxes. Drama is replaced by fretfulness:

  • The mother takes a motorboat on a dangerous mission. After she’s safely home, we’re told at some length that the boat has mechanical problems and that she could have been stranded. Why are we told afterwards? Is it important? Probably not, but it nestles in with the other nagging pointless worries
  • A romantic stranger signals his affection by smuggling a gift into the mother’s shopping bag; she finds it and assumes the shopkeeper made a mistake and that she’ll have to return it later. She doesn’t. Has she forgotten? Has understanding dawned offscreen? What will happen the next time her child asks about it? We never find out, because more recent (and therefore more urgent) crises intervene.
  • A small town, full of gossips in that Hollywood small town way, sees her gallivanting around all day with the romantic stranger. Does that put her marriage in danger? Who knows? We’re on edge, but the only on-screen event that might have been provoked by gossip is her father-in-law’s distractingly and uselessly tardy offer of emotional support.

And so on, until it’s completely understandable that someone who needs $5000 overnight would start trying to figure out how to trim the electric bill, and that someone might panic as much over the distinction between “getting” a loan and “making” a loan as about murder, blackmail, and truly doomed love.

Kevin John offers his own thoughts on the character motivation behind Lucia’s perpetual state of preoccupation as a state of both resistance and complicity to the matriarchal role she upholds:

I find that Lucia’s trips to Los Angeles offer a series of delays as a structure of desire. For if the family has become a prison for Lucia, then these trips get her out of the house. Thus what the delays are stalling is the inevitable reinsertion back into the home. That the reinsertion will be inevitable is apparent from the very beginning of the film.

Over an image of Lucia driving across a bridge, a male narrator, whose voice belongs to no character in the film and who never returns, intones: “The Harper family lived in a charming community called Balboa about 50 miles from Los Angeles. Early one morning, Mrs. Harper took her car and drove to Los Angeles and….” At this point, David, who is fishing below, “completes” the narration by calling out to Lucia: “Mother, mother, where are you going?” This device not only suggests an eerie, unseen ideological presence, but David takes it up, cementing the notion of family as oppressive. Since the mere fact of a drive is noteworthy (even illicit, given the stunned, halted cadence of the narration) for Lucia, the synergy between the narrator and David functions as an attempt to reproduce the existing relations of production — i.e. Lucia must ultimately remain in the home.

As in his passage above, James Harvey does a great job explaining Lucia’s state of mind in terms of gesture and staging:

He stops her in the doorway, taking her by the arm. They are both moving like sleepwalkers now.
“I’ll get help”, she protests, “you’re bleeding.” But he holds on to her in the doorway, her back against the outside wall, her face turned toward the house and the call to the police – she doesn’t move.
Then he turns to go back to the body – he has to get rid of it, he says – and she pulls him back by the lapel of his coat and puts her hand inside it again.
He presses his hand on hers over the wound. This choreography of clutchings and pullings and turnings-away is very powerful. It’s not only the first time that Lucia touches Donnelly, it’s the first time she’s touched anyone in the movie – except the corpse at the beginning.

They lean against the wall and he holds her hand to his chest. And as he talks – about his misspent life, his regrets, his feelings for her – she begins to sag beside him, her head hanging, in shame and sorrow, sinking lower and lower as he goes on.

It’s not love they’ve achieved (there was never much hope or question of that) but complicity. And the unresisting way Lucia now accepts their intimacy – like the direct way she put her hand on his wound – reminds you of what’s appealing about her in spite of everything, as well as what’s sort of awesome: her matter-of-factness in the face of enormity. But she is also someone who lives more than half-averted from her deepest, strongest feelings: just as she is so poignantly now with him, outside the doorway – both holding on and turning away at once.

(Harvey pp 240–241)

Aside from the IMDb, extensive production details are available on a site named Cinematography of the Holocaust (!)

Other notable reviews online:

The Big House Film Society

Noir of the Week

Cinematic Sojourns 

More to come…

913. Akai satsui / Intentions of Murder / Unholy Desire (1964, Shohei Imamura)

screened Sunday, March 18 2007 at BAM, Brooklyn NY

TSPDT rank #724  IMDb

I prefer not to take up space synopsizing the story, especially when a great summary is available in the Midnight Eye review by Jasper Sharp

I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure on which the reality of daily Japanese life obstinately supports itself. 

Shohei Imamura, interviewed by Audie Bock in Japanese Film Directors, updated paperback edition, Tokyo and New York, Kondansha International Ltd., 1985, pp. 293 – quoted in Senses of Cinema Great Directors bio of Imamura by Nelson Kim

Many years ago, I was friendly with a well-known scriptwriter, who used to work with Yasujiro Ozu, and was staying with him at his holiday house. I was working on one of my scripts—it was a serious work—and he stood up from the fireplace, which was in the centre of the room, and came over and began reading the script over my shoulder. I thought this was a rather horrible and nasty thing to do, but then he said, “Oh you are still writing about beggars and all those dropouts from the mainstream of society.”

I didn’t like this comment and it really started to get on my nerves because I didn’t think this was the correct way to characterise these people, the ones you call oppressed…When I was younger I was angered about the comments of the big-guy filmmakers. I tried to rebel, but they just laughed at me. Unfortunately I couldn’t really argue because they didn’t treat me as an equal and so their statements hurt me very much.

After the comments from this leading scriptwriter I lay in bed that night and wondered how could I possibly argue against these big people. Then I decided, all right, if they don’t like my ideas and treat them this way then I will only write about oppressed people all my life. I didn’t say this openly, but kept it in my mind. I didn’t have the confidence or the position to argue against them but this is what I decided to do.

Imamura interviewed by World Socialist Web Site

Hey Yasujiro, could Chisyu Ryu ever do THIS?!?!Reading this anecdote in light of Imamura’s films, particularly Intentions of Murder, it’s worth wondering how much Imamura set himself to be a kind of anti-Ozu.  There are certainly similarities between the two directors, most notably their shared concern for the inner frustrations lurking beneath the mundane lives of everyday people.  “Everyday people” seems a most apt description of the respective milieus covered by the two directors, and yet placed side by side, Ozu’s middle-class domestics seem a world away from the grubby, workaday squalor of Imamura’s subjects.

Watching the opening sequence of Intentions of Murder, with its shots of a train passing a Japanese suburb, one can’t help but assume that Imamura is invoking Ozu - except that there’s a creeping sinister feeling that one would hardly associate with an Ozu film.  Imamura captures the passing train with a series of nouvelle vague-style freeze frames, while letting the full roar of the train come through in the soundtrack – it’s a startling juxtaposition of static image and dynamic sound that create a feeling of imbalance and vague dread.  The montage then shifts focus into the humdrum interiors of a Japanese home, finally settling on a live action shot of a caged mouse running tirelessly in its wheel – one of many instances where Imamura employs animal metaphors to describe the condition of his countrymen.

[Imamura] says that while writing scripts at Nikkatsu, he yearned to become a better storyteller, and thought perhaps his understanding of the world was lacking. So he began going to the library to test his own observations of people against the theories of sociologists, ethnographers and anthropologists. Presumably his reading of social science texts influenced the research-experiment quality that characterizes his mature cinematic style: even as the characters rush to and fro, caught up in their mad desires, the director observes them with a scientist’s coolness. (The Insect Woman‘s [1963] original title translates as Entomological Chronicles of Japan, and the subtitle of The Pornographers [1966] is Introduction to Anthropology.)

from Senses of Cinema Great Directors bio of Imamura by Nelson Kim

This clinical coolness might explain why I find Imamura a brilliant filmmaker and yet a difficult one to embrace.  I especially admire his indisputable intelligence and his impeccable integrity as a socially conscious filmmaker, despite – or rather because of – his fascination and embrace of the lower rungs of the social pecking order.   I once criticized Kurosawa’s High and Low (TSPDT #301) for being “too much high, not enough low.”  And I think his frank, unflattering depiction of women in Japanese society to be more constructive than Mizoguchi’s pedestalized myth-making, and certainly equal to the pensive observations of Ozu or Naruse.  Imamura’s consistent championing of the underclass – in a way that is not patronizing but is knowing in a manner both brutal and precise – would be enough for me to put him in the top rung of Japanese directors. So how come I’m not feeling inclined to do so?

Perhaps there’s a cold matter-of-factness to Imamura’s style that resists enrapturing the viewer, at least this one.  One thing that can be off-putting is Imamura’s treatment of his characters.  On the one hand, there are few directors who can make a pudgy, slovenly, dim-witted housewife into the compelling center of a two and a half hour movie.  But as fascinated as we may be by Imamura’s evolving examination of Sadako (Masumi Harukawa in a fantastic performance) we rarely get the chance to connect to her emotionally as we do with an Ozu, Naruse, Mizoguchi or even Kurosawa.  This is no doubt a deliberate measure on Imamura’s part.  Not only are Sadako’s behaviors often unpredictable (she repeatedly forgives her rapist even as her rage against him builds over the course of the story), Imamura rarely shoots his figures in close-up, and even when he does, the faces feel like they’re being scrutinized under a microscope.  It’s this clinical, questiong view that, like Bunuel, resists the easy emotional clinch and gives his filmmaking a certain unassailable integrity, even if it can leave one feeling chilly. 

Imamura compensates by adding many narrative and stylistic twists and turns to the mix.  Scenes of flat documentary realism give way to lyrical erotic dream sequences.  The most brilliant, expressive and wordlessly cinematic sequences in the film happen to be the most horrific — and extended scene that starts as a violent robbery, escalates into brutal sexual assault, and then elides into a bizzarely erotic fantasy involving a silkworm inching up a girl’s naked thigh.  And a sequence in a train that fluctuates from suspenseful pursuit to attempted murder to desperate, primal romanticism.  Japanese film scholar Donald Richie calls this film the quintessential Japanese train picture.  Two of the film’s characters die gruesome deaths within five minutes of each other — the first, involving the rapist, is depicted with a strange mix of sympathy, horror, helplessness and relief.  The second (and less successful one in my view), where a woman gets hit by a truck - comes almost as comic relief.  The film’s final 15 minutes feel like a letdown after these back-to-back climaxes – the film ends on a note of triumph for Sadako that feels soft after two hours of watching her unrelenting struggle under so much petty prejudice and exploitation.  But even when it’s not fully satisfying, Imamura’s mixing of tones is enough to keep an audience on its toes.

Thinking further, my feelings for Imamura are remarkably aligned with those I have for Bunuel.  Both exhibit a remarkable disdain for bourgeois values, which may very well extend to their rejection of easy audience sympathy and sentimental catharsis.  Their modus operandi is disturbance and upheaval of the status quo, and a tough love approach to depicting the outcasts and underdogs that routinely fascinate them.  The older I get, the more their respective worldviews make strike me as mature and realistic rather than cheap and reactionary.  And yet, while their films challenge and stimulate my responses, I don’t get that high from watching their films that I get from an Ozu or Mizoguchi.  In Imamura’s case the one exception is Ballad of Narayama, with its devastating ending on a mountaintop – where life seems to freeze in a transcendent moment.  Maybe that’s the thing with Imamura — for him, transcendence is as cheap as it is hard to come by — better to show life as a constant scrimmage among beetle-like humanity.  Maybe a few more years of life may turn me on fully to his worldview. We shall see.

Some notable Shohei Imamura bios and reviews can be found online:
- Wikipedia
- Masters of Cinema (by Tony Rayns)
- Village Voice (by Scott Foundas)
- Strictly Film School

Avaliha / First Graders (1984, Abbas Kiarostami)

Screened Sunday May 11 2007 at the Museum of Modern Art, NY NY IMDb

Even though FIRST GRADERS is clearly the other Kiarostami film with subject matter closest to HOMEWORK, I was struck at the structural similarities between HOMEWORK and ABC AFRICA. Both start with a reflexive intro that establishes the director’s mission; both contain the director’s visual/verbal presence and occasional direct commentary; both accept and present evidence that might not perfectly illustrate the “inscribed” sociopolitical thesis; and both end with the film’s most aestheticized sequence, shifting the stylistic terms of the piece. By contrast, FIRST GRADERS dips from time to time into a “fictional” shot breakdown instead of a “documentary” shot breakdown; and the fictional elements don’t really shift the terms of the piece – it’s more as if they brush us back a bit, like a pitcher throwing an inside fastball to keep us from getting too comfortable.

- From Dan Sallitt’s comments on my Homework entry

I suppose I agree with Dan — while First Graders depicts the same milieu of Iranian schoolchildren as Homework, the structure of its narrative and sociological inquiry is very different.  At first it feels like the kind of fly-on-the-wall Frederick Wiseman documentary that was critiqued in the Paul Matthews essay I cited in my Homework write-up.  But about a third of the way through Kiarostami makes his artifice more flagrant by staging dramatic sequences where the kids are obviously no longer being caught in an unscripted moment, but are doing things (walking down hallways, interacting with peers) that are obviously staged.  It feels like a warm-up to the blunt epistemological analysis of documentary filmmaking, couched in a much warmer tone that aspires to poetic dreamlike moments towards the end.  I’m not sure if I agree with Dan that the film doesn’t reinvent itself as much as Homework does in its final moment — the shifts in the reality fabric of First Graders happen more gradually and less abruptly.  It’s a more free-flowing work, which doesn’t give it the same intensity as Homework (and unfortunately this plays against the one prejudice I harbor against Kiarostami, that I’m inclined to see his looser moments as a demonstrable lack of disciplined filmmaking — it’s just that I’ve seen him when he is focused and to me it’s simply much more compelling.  Or maybe I’m just looking for one little thing to hold against an artist for whom otherwise I have the highest esteem imaginable).

yes (#9 for 1983 between Homecoming and Nostalghia)

I never thought I’d live to see the day…

that I’d walk out of an Abbas Kiarostami movie. But there it was…

Kiarostami shorts program

screened Sunday, March

Dandan Dard / Toothache (1983) IMDb

yes – this one has a great narrative flow for the first half – comically attributing a boy’s poor dental hygiene to generations of neglect using archival footage.  The second half doesn’t live up as well, but it’s great to see a new shade of Kiarostamian humor.
Be Tartib ya Bedoun-e Tartib / Regulary or Irregularly (1981) IMDb
yes – Five different scenarios (school recess, the queue for the water fountain, bus boarding, cars entering a tunnel, and an intersection) are shown in orderly and disorderly mode.  This is reportedly one of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s two or three favorite Kiarostami films.  It has a great Tati-esque quality to it (which may be why Rosenbaum loves it) in its master shot approach to depicting the comical dysfunctions of mass human behavior.  I think it works mostly as a concept – it just didn’t take off into another level for me.
Hamsarayan / The Chorus (1982) IMDb

YES – Now here’s what I like — exploring the conceptual/technical properities of cinema in a way that is integral to the story being told.  An old man who’s hard of hearing decides to remove his hearing aid when there’s too much noise outside his apartment — but this prevents him from hearing his grandkids when they call out for him to let them in.  Kiarostami does a great job setting up the old man as a sympathetic victim before reversing the roles by inserting characters more helpless than him.  It’s a sweet little movie with a subtly underlaid metaphysical dimension, shot uncharacteristically in soft focus.
Hamshahri / Fellow Citizen (1983) IMDb
as Mike D’Angelo would say, W/O – abrasively noisy documentary about a traffic officer trying to turn motorists away from a congested area.  It just didn’t go anywhere, basically the same haggling for close to an hour.  Perhaps if you understand Farsi you can get more of the nuances to each interaction…

There’s always IMDb Classic Film Board for Sirk commentary

I posted my reflections on There’s Always Tomorrow on my old haunt CFB and received some very good feedback. For posterity’s sake (since IMDb deletes these threads after a couple of months) I thought I’d post them here: Continue Reading »

Great directors’ films on Google Video

Today on my google homepage there was a link to Sashiro Sugata, Akira Kurosawa’s early judo movie (remade by Johnny To as Throw Down), available in its entirety. Made me wonder what other great directors’ films were available for free for anyone who would deign to watch a feature film on their computer screen. So I did a google search for the following directors:

Orson Welles: just one feature, The Stranger.

Alfred Hitchcock: Sabotage, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 version), The Ring, Number 17, Jamaica Inn, Young and Innocent, Secret Agent, Blackmail, The 39 Steps, Juno and the Paycock, The Lodger. Most of these are public domain. Note that some of these are $1.99 through some online video service working through Google.

Jean-Luc Godard: Alphaville and Weekend (in 10 installments):
plus interviews and miscellany if you search by his name

Jean Renoir: just random clips from films

Stanley Kubrick: nada

Federico Fellini: random clips

John Ford: WWII Documentary December 7th
Sergei Eisenstein: Potemkin, Alexander Nevsky, Strike, October, Ivan the Terrible Pts I and II

Yasujiro Ozu:nada (though there’s a 9 min French documentary clip on Setsuko Hara)

Akira Kurosawa: Rashomon, Ikiru, Sanshiro Sugata

Curious: how many of you would watch any of these (or other films) on your computer?

Final Still comparison: views from dayjobs

Ernie Gehr’s circa 1971:

Mine circa 2007:

Still (1969-71, Ernie Gehr) Pt. III: A surprise encounter & a modern-day comparison

Read Part One

Read Part Two

7:30 PM: So I’m walking out of the screening when I spot Robert Cargni of the International House Film Program, who makes the commute to NYC on a regular basis to check out films.  He has to run to catch a train back home, but as he hurries off he points to a short middle-aged man talking to Jack Angstreich (one of the NYC cinephiles profiled in the documentary Cinemania) and says, “That’s Ernie Gehr.” Ernie had shown up unannounced just to eavesdrop on his own screening.

I ended up spending a half hour listening to Jack and Ernie talk. You’d think that, as a cinephile, I could take part in any cinephile discussion, but what they talked about and the way they talked about it made me feel like I was a novice. Ernie expressed dissatisfaction at the occasional jitter of the frame, caused by an unsmooth threading of the film through the gate. He also felt the audio was too loud. The projectionist apologized profusely – apparently the 16mm projector wasn’t as sturdy as what they had in the old days. This triggered an extended discussion about the decline of film as a medium of choice. Ernie is doing preliminary planning of restorations on some of his work but is opting to go with video transfers rather than film restorations due to cost issues. But he’s holding out on transferring to HD because from what he’s been told, the technology isn’t good enough yet to capture the original frames at a comparable resolution. He talked a little about his dissatisfactions with video exhibitions, and how he’d work painstakingly at getting the color and picture levels to his exact satisfaction, but have that work go for naught from one poorly calibrated video projection to the next. Jack seemed very sympathetic, as was I – but then I’m someone who will watch anything on any format and could care less about color correction, even with my own work. When I asked him what he felt about his shorts Serene Velocity and Shift being available online, he said they looked absolutely terrible, and would rather people not see them at all than see them in such conditions. [gulp]

On a happier note, Ernie will have two new installations at the MoMA this coming fall: one in the Morita Gallery and one in the Titus I Gallery. He has also moved back to New York City after 18 years of living and teaching in San Francisco. He is looking for work, but, now in his sixties, he wants to get by on just enough to focus on his two priorities: to enjoy life and keep creating. He is now working on a new project (a sort of sequel to Still, he said) and has been roaming around New York City with digital camcorder in hand (he works completely on his own).

After Jack left I asked Ernie more about Still. One thing I didn’t appreciate about the film until he explained it to me is that he did not create the superimpositions in post-production — they were done in camera by shooting a reel of film at a lower-than-usual expsosure, then rewinding the reel and shooting the same reel a second time with the same framed shot. Given some of the effects and coincidences he achieved (like the two people walking together through different takes), his deferral of post-production and reliance on pure chance to create them was purely impressive (though he affirmed that he had shot many, many more reels of film this way than the eight that made the final cut). But the key takeaway here is that this is a technique that is purely filmic — you simply can’t do this double exposure with video except in post-production.
Gehr made Still at a time when he was young and struggling to get by, working as an assistant at the Filmmakers Cooperative. In fact, Still is shot from the front window of the Filmmakers Cooperative, back when it was located at 175 Lexington Avenue, approximating the view from his desk where he’d spend a big chunk of his day working.

As soon as he said that, the film took off into another level of significance for me, both personal and emotional. It was like another film started playing in my head, one about a young struggling filmmaker toiling away at an unfulfilling office job to make ends meet in a vacuum of alienated labor. This film then was an act of both catharsis and sublimation, taking this everyday entrapment that so many of us have come to accept as life, never mind how it numbs us to our own reality, and asking what kind of art could he possibly make out of it? Thinking about all of this, the film’s rigid point of view looking impassively out of the front window onto that limited view of 174 Lexington Avenue not only is a faithful reenactment of that experience, but also a kind of redemption of it.

At this point one might wonder to what extent such contextual info should figure into one’s appreciation of the film. As far as I’m concerned, it should figure insofar as it moves and inspires me, which is quite a bit.

I was also impressed that Gehr made this film without any funding (indeed, it would be several more years before he secured his first artist’s grant); in fact he secured the equipment to make the film from friends at SUNY Binghampton who would bring the equipment over to him when it wasn’t in use. He was 27 years old when he completed Still. From listening to him it almost sounded like he’s in essentially the same financial situation now than he was over 35 years ago, making this film on a shoestring (I’m not sure how that could be possible with the likes of MoMA commissioning his work). If that is true, it’s also inspiring to think of living with less regard for material comforts and all of one’s attentions set on exploring one’s creative potential. I guess this means a lot to me now because I’ve recently received a hefty promotion at my day job with more opportunities to be creative… but it’s still not the creative work I really want to do, work that I’m afraid the added responsibilities at work will distract me from pursuing in earnest. It’s a romantic fantasy to toss material concerns to the wind and dive into creative activity unrestrained. But from listening to Ernie, such a choice of lifestyle is nothing glamorous whatsoever; for him it’s simply necessary.

174 Lexington Avenue, 1970 vs. 2007 (I’ll get a more time-of-day-appropriate shot when I have a chance):

Ernie Gehr links page by Fred Camper

Want to put on an Ernier Gehr retro in your hometown? His films are distributed by Canyon Cinema

Ernie Gehr entry in Wikipedia

Read Part One

Read Part Two

Still (1969-71, Ernie Gehr) Pt. II: Screen of consciousness

Read Part One

Read Part Three

Read Part One

6:15 PM. The Screening: Sure enough, Fred Camper’s synopsis was spot on: the film is made of eight “scenes,” all taken from the same general vantage point across a busy one-way Manhattan street. Each “scene” is comprised of two single takes of the same length and the same exact point of view, superimposed over each other. The first four “scenes” run three minutes and without sound; the second four run 11 minutes with sound from each take mixed together. Only the last “scene” is a single take without superimposition. Though the “scenes” seem essentially identical, there is a sense of progression from one to the next. With the soundtrack off on the first four “scenes”, the emphasis is on the visuals, and the weird visual effects created by the superimpositions. In a word, the effect is “ghostlike” – cars and pedestrians pass the frame semi-transparently. Cars from different takes that occupy the same position in the superimposition are neither in front of or behind each other – the viewer’s sense of depth perception and dimensionality is skewed. In “scene” #2, there’s an increased number of pedestrians, giving the composition more density. In “scene” #3, we even see two pedestrians from different takes walking side by side like a pair of ambling phantoms.

At this point I recall the most intriguing line from my pre-screening readings, Tom Gunning’s assertion that “Few filmmakers have so strongly imaged the city as a circulatory system, a channeling of flows.” I don’t think it rings true for this film. There isn’t a real sense of circulation because the dominant movement in this film, that of the cars going from right to left down this one-way avenue, is uni-directional. It is also sporadic, given the stoplight-regulated patterns of Manhattan traffic. The overall effect is not of circulation but of a harsh and unpredictable onrush of motion – a pedestrian’s tentative attempt to jaywalk underscores this impression of everyday environmental danger.

During “scene” #4, I’m starting to regret my decision to read up on the film before watching it. I wonder if reading those articles made me overconceptualize the work in my head, that it preempted my ability to receive the film first and foremost as an experience rather than as a concept. A white car parked squarely in the middle of the frame anchors the composition, but I take this observation of a symptom that I’m just reaching for anything of significance where there otherwise may not be any. Overall, I’m starting to feel fatigued by looking at the same spot for 10 minutes now.

“Scene” #5 offers a breath of fresh air by bringing in the soundtrack. Also the colors seem brighter. Also, in the place of that single white care, there are four yellow taxis (two from each take) parked in such a way that they overlap each other in the frame, These new elements have such an effect that I feel like I’m looking at a completely different location. The odd sense of dimension is more striking than ever – bordered by the translucent taxis and the hard black shadows cast from buildings, one piece of sidewalk seems to float like an island in a dimension of its own.

By “scene” #6 I’m just grooving. I’ve become absorbed in the texture of the films and comfortably situated within its parameters. The furniture and Kasto’s Restaurant storefronts are now familiar as friends to me – and I am now really curious what this exact location is and what it looks like today, now that I’ve spent nearly an hour staring at its 1971 incarnation. It feels like I’m hanging out at a real place, and yet at the same time I am still fully cognizant that I’m interacting with a celluloid object with its own filmic properties. The superimpositions are certainly one example, but there’s also sense of sound – the way one hears the Jurassic roar of a city bus a full block away before it actually crosses the camera’s line of sight. The effect is one of vague urban dread. I’ve lived in New York for seven years and I’ve never really heard anything like this – maybe because buses are quieter now, but maybe because this film’s manner of production reorganizes these sensory elements in a way that images and sounds stand out more.

In “scene” #7 Gehr uses the suspenseful sounds caused by the oncoming city bus for dramatic effect – a man in a black jacket crosses the street as we hear a bus approaching. And as he crosses, a superimposed bus from another take runs through him. Nice trick. But then the attention shifts to the girl waiting for him on the other side of the street. They greet each other – the first human interaction in the film – and enter the diner. One realizes how anonymous the street has been all this time, and how much impact a simple thing as two people greeting each other can make to redefine the film… and how hungry a viewer is for narrative that fantasy explanations start to blossoming in one’s mind to account for this couple (friends, lovers, lunch, afternoon delight…)

Scene #8: The filmstock looks grainier and washed out; the audio sounds more canned. Now I realize that it’s a single exposure (not entirely true as there’s one moment of double exposure, as if it to tease). As if to suggest that the novelty is gone, and we’re back to the banality of singular reality. But the eye still wants to see and discern more – searching the shadows and sounds for nuances and details. It’s like the training wheels have come off. The search for every possible thing that’s visible and audible continues within this single square space, but now it’s just our eyes and ears doing the work.

Read Part One

Read Part Three

 

Next »