What Werner Herzog and Peter Kubelka may have in common: addendum to Unsere Afrikareise

 I just read an incendiary article by Lewis Beale for The Reeler accusing Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn for falling into the same trap of racist solipsism that’s befallen many a Vietnam War movie, including The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now.  There have been some thoughtful responses to it, positive and negative on both the original post and on The House Next Door.  I offered my feedback on the original post (with a plug for Ham Tran’s wonderful recent release Journey from the Fall as a proposed corrective to the problems Beale is talking about).

I came away thinking about not just the racism of Hollywood Vietnam War movies but the more pervasive issue of the  Colonialist Romantic streak that makes me groan at so many Herzog movies, even ones I find hypnotically alluring, like Aguirre, the Wrath of God, as well as their Hollywood counterparts like the incredibly vexing Apocalypse Now.  Herzog will do all he can to critique whatever lunatic dreamer Klaus Kinski is playing, as well as real life counterparts like Timothy Treadwell, but the fact is that he is at bottom fascinated with these nutjobs and more interested in what makes them tick than in the collateral damage they inflict on others, particularly indigenous peoples.   The most interest that a Herzog can stir up in the Other is in its innate exoticism, but rarely engage with the Other as an equal human being, just a bystander or accessory on the road to the White man’s extreme self-actualization.   I’ll credit Kubelka in that he actually acknowledges his own similar impulse in the way he regards Africans, without coming up with an alternative.  But it still just isn’t enough…

928. Unsere Afrikareise / Our Trip to Africa (1966, Peter Kubelka) – Part II. screening notes

screened Thursday June 28 2007 at the Donnell Media Center, New York Public Library

Read Part I

Screen of consciousness notes of a 12 minute film played twice (if you’d rather see what this phenomenological gibberish looks like once processed and packaged for conventional reading, scroll to the next bold section):

Opening sounds of cheering – man stalking game
tourists on boat: sound of a gunshot as a man’s hat gets blown of by a gust of wind
shots of spectators on boat intercuts with wounded animal in its death throes in the water = distance/ detachment emphasized across cuts
zebras blood on its black and white stripes – cut to a black woman’s face – emphasis on skin textures, surfaces
talking of tourists – mystery science theater commentary imposed on the footage
similarly, nightclub music imposed on footage

agitated cobra – cut to: woman’s naked torso
white man offering an African man a smoke – collusion?
two white men eating
shot of animal’s flesh being stripped from its carcass
trapped giraffe – shot of giraffe’s buttocks
woman’s bare breast
man emerging from hut – insinuation of sex
nightclub music
man with a gun – cuts to shot of the prow of a boat = phalluses
cut to: gaping cavity of animal carcass
cut to: woman pounding stick into a mill
cut to: woman’s naked breast
cut to: men eating – consumption

man with his snorkeling gear in nature – looks like an alien
tension between naturalness and unnaturalness – absurdity – the unnaturalness of colonialism
color tones of most animals seem to match with environment (even the zebra?)
missing German language subtext

harsh laughter of Germans underneath footage – film is subversive, critical of their laughter – they are imposing spectators – but so is Kubelka & US

it’s trying hard to break out of a tourist narrative
but it can never assume the eyes of the Other (and it knows this)
it can only reject the security and assuredness of Colonial gaze

animals being flayed – European woman’s nose being bandaged

shot of the Egyptian Sphinx with its majestic pose
cuts to: lion on safari being shot and in its dying twitches
cuts to: tourists lounging on hotel balcony

sexual undercurrent to slaughtering of animals – a bodily violation – rape of nature?
rhythm of unidentified machine contrasts with rhythm of African drummers
“I like to visit your country”
naked African male penis walking past camera

Making sense of all this:

More or less than meets the eye? In a word, after two viewings I can’t raise the level of enthusiasm voiced by Fred Camper or Jonas Mekas in their reviews. But I was sufficiently intrigued, though somewhat frustrated at the onslaught of disjointed sounds and images that often seemed willfully dissonant. One source of frustration was not being able to understand the German that came frequently onto the soundtrack, however in fragments. Though my hunch, proven correct by Michael Sicinski who writes: “[Kubelka] believes subtitles ruin the integrity of the image. But perhaps more significantly, he seems to feel that the pure sound-and-image collisions will be strong enough to have an impact on a viewer, without her or him necessarily understanding the (mostly German) dialogue.”

To a greater extent, however, my frustration stemmed from assumptions I had made about how readily apparent to me the film’s brilliance of design would be, as described vividly in Camper’s write-up:

A hunter shakes an African’s hand and we cut to a zebra’s leg, shaking similarly, as if the hunter were shaking it, but the hunter is nowhere in the shot. When the next shot reveals that the zebra is being skinned, we understand that while the hunter was not literally causing the zebra’s leg to move, there was a deeper causal connection between the two shakes.

I watched the film twice looking for this moment, and it goes by so quickly (I’d estimate about five seconds) that these causal links possibly evoked by the montage simply flew right by. Does this mean one has to watch this film many more times for its meaning(s) to come to the fore? Well Kubelka spent five years putting this together, the least we could do is watch it again and again, right?

Well if I didn’t get the shake between the hunter and the zebra leg, what did I get? The degree to which my notes underscore an apparent sexual theme to the film startles even myself. Sex is not mentioned at all in any of the pre-reading I did, but as the above screen-of-consciousness play by play vividly attests, I was defnitely seeing connections. What’s fascinating about these connections is that they could be used to point to my own preoccupations as much as Kubelka’s. But never mind me – let’s ponder Kubelka for a minute. For one thing, his camera is repeatedly trained on women’s bare breasts and veiled shadowy nether-regions, a man’s penis, and the bare buttocks of… a giraffe! Moreover, out of the 14 hours of footage he reputedly shot, it is these conspicuous fragments that made the final cut. So who’s got the fixation here – Kubelka, or me for pointing out that he’s practically shoving it in my face?

Don’t worry, I ain’t no Kenneth Starr – I just want to understand what all this sexual imagery is doing in a film that is commonly pointed out as a exemplary model of post-colonial filmmaking. Phallic imagery abounds in the film: guns, knives, even the prow of a tourist boat. By cutting from these images to images of African women and slaughtered wildlife, there’s a clear implication that the intrusion of the Europeans is tantamount to a violation, a rape of nature and of an indigenous culture.

– But don’t mistake this film as a scathing diatribe against Kubelka’s traveling companions. Kubelka’s not just an observer-critic, he’s a knowing participant. Just as these guns and knives capture, slay and flay all kinds of African wildlife, Kubelka’s camera captures images with an undeniably tourist gaze: ostensibly Kubelka’s camera hardly ever interacts with either side (what a different kind of film it would have been if he had, not necessarily better but different), it just shoots them from a seemingly objective documentary distance, but there’s no question which side he regards fetishistically. On one side, you have banal, innocuous (at least before being edited) footage of Europeans mugging and posing. On the other side, you have transfixed shots of African natives (especially their naughty parts) and wildlife being killed, cut up and hauled away. These shots amount to self-incrimination: Kubelka’s gaze is as firmly rooted in a post-Colonialist Other-izing as his fellow tourists, and his camera-gaze wreaks as much havoc on his environment as the hunters. The images he captures, the way he looks at things, is merely the internal manifestation of what his gun-toting colleagues externalize so brutally.

And if the camera’s job is to capture the image-prey, it’s the editing that slices and dices the footage up into pieces, reduce them to iconographic, consumable image-objects: the very foundation of the tourist aesthetic (a visit to any online photo site will tell you as much). The point being that Kubelka’s film isn’t just documenting the violation of an environment, it itself is a violation of that environment.

But Kubelka allows himself a saving grace (though exactly what it saves is up to question). By mixing all of this footage up into a disturbingly disorienting non-sequential montage, Kubelka denies himself the key weapon of Western civilization: narrative. And in doing so he takes the weapons of Western aesthetics and its tendency to impose its own order on other cultures, and he throws them in the air and watches them fall however they will.

The result strikes me as a deeply ambivalent film. One the one hand, there’s a strong critical voice that seems unequivocably directed against the Europeans’ presence, behaviors and attitudes in an African setting. But upon further review, that voice seems equally directed against itself for sharing that same perspective that seemingly can’t help but regard its host-object with transgressive fixation. Further complicating matters, the fragmented montage of images and sounds works against any authoritative account as to what this film means, such that we have to regard it first and foremost as sounds and images that could just as easily stand on their own than as a coherent sequence. Which in its own way seems to suggest a certain kind of pre-moralistic acceptance for things just as they are, which may be as much of an antidote as any for the Western modernist impulse towards perfection and dominance that causes so many damn problems to begin with…

Bonus for the die-hards: brief responses to Michael Sicinski

Some of the best writing on Unsere Afrikareise online is attributable to Michael Sicinski, who does more than just throw hyperboles and foreboding praise at the film – he offers some useful contexts and engages openly with its conflicts.

First, here’s some notes he posted for one of his film classes to make up for a canceled lecture (so much the better for the rest of us!)

Kubelka, an Austrian, was heavily influenced by modern music, especially the “Second Viennese School” composers Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. These composers tended to reply on abstract, sometimes-mathematical relationships between notes, and to compress gestural changes within a composition. That is, rather than a theme being slowly elaborated, slowly going through its several musical variations, a composer such as Webern (especially) would reduce the theme to its absolute briefest, densest expression. Then, he would subject it to various permutations, in as condensed a manner as possible. This results in rather jagged, intellectually demanding atonal compositions. Kubelka was interested in applying these principles to composition in film. How much of a visual idea did an audience need to “get” it, especially its abstract components (movement, rhythm, gesture, shape, color)? So, with this in mind, he created his dense films, with the understanding that viewers would need to see them several times to “learn” what they were doing.

There seems to be an inherent contradiction in the last two lines. The second to last line implies that Kubelka was an essentialist, even a primitivist in his aesthetic ideal – a line of thought supported by some of the interview quotes I’ve excerpted in my last post. I don’t discount the possibility that Kubelka’s films can be understood upon first viewing – at least on an instinctual gut reaction – and still require multiple viewings to be able to articulate or rationalize that initial response. My own experience seems to suggest as much.

Also worth reading is Sicinski’s response to Catherine Russell’s book Experimental Ethnography. The entire article is fascinating and makes me want to read Russell’s book, but for this post let’s hone in on discussion concerning Unsere Afrikareise. In this passage, Sicinski and Russell links colonialist fascination with Africans with the modernist impulse for a pure, idealized object (think 20s European artists and their obsession with tribal masks). But Sicinski and Russell part ways in where they locate Kubelka in approaching this dilemma:

[Russell] writes, “Within his ontology of the cinema, these are the signs of visibility, images that are pre-aesthetic. . . .Metonymically linked to the spectacle of nature, they [images of African people] are allegories for the purity of form to which the modernist avant-garde aspired” (132). Much like her criticism of [Bruce] Conner, Russell’s difficulty with Unsere Afrikareise has to do with an assumption that Kubelka is looking for an untainted, authentic culture which can bear the load of modernist signification of purity. If this were so, to choose one example, why would Kubelka include images of Africans killing animals (sometimes alongside the German tourists, sometimes independently of them), with no further explanation?

I split the difference between the two positions — as much as Kubelka does to complicate the modernist idealization/objectification of the African Other with his jarring cuts, and a willingness to fully acknowledge the vivid horror to be witnessed in contemporary Africa, I still detect a certain nostalgic longing for an idealized Africa in certain shots he’s included of women gazing at his lens with an unmistakably attractive dignity and grace. One can say that Kubelka’s film embodies the emergence of the post-Colonialist perspective, precariously poised between acknowledging the perils of its engagement with the Other and yet irresistibly drawn to engage yet again…

PS: Did you know that there are several different species of zebras? And that the ones typically found in zoos are actually the most endangered?

A tribute to the Donnell Media Center

Yesterday I paid a visit to the Donnell Media Center, my bread-and-butter source for videos on DVD, VHS and 16mm for as long as I’ve lived in New York City. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the New York Public Library system is the single best source for movies in the New York metro area. The NYPL catalog holds tens of thousands of movies on DVD or VHS, ranging from video art to independently produced documentaries and exemplary television programs. In addition, the Donnell Media Center reserve collection holds thousands more videos, as well as 8,500 16mm films, including features, independent experimental films and documentaries. And it’s all FREE.

You can borrow a video from the regular collection usually for a week, and then have the option to renew the video two more times, so long as no one else has a hold on it. That means that you can have a video for as long as three weeks, free. Beat that, Netflix! Of course the more popular titles have a waiting list, and some of those can take anywhere from a couple weeks to a few months to become available. But if you’re not in a hurry, it’s fine to place a hold online and wait for it to come in.

The library, situated across from the MoMA, is a few blocks away from my office. When I first visited, I’d wander awestruck through the shelves and shelves of videos. I started off by borrowing recent American releases, then moved on to European and Asian classics — I was especially delighted by their impressive collection of classic Chinese films on VHS and DVD, many of which have been out of print and otherwise unavailable. After a couple of years of browsing the shelves, I started seeking out specific titles, and learned that a number of them were always checked out. In fact, the videos I saw on the shelves constituted only 20% of the library’s video collection – the rest are in circulation. Thus I started reserving titles online, which If you look at my film diary from 2001-2006, it’s pretty safe to say that over 75% of these films were borrowed for free from the library. I roughly estimate that I’ve seen about 1,500 films from the library over the past six years.

By 2004, I was no longer contained to the online circulation catalog, and my searches for particular titles, such as films by Kenneth Anger, Paul Morrisey and Stan Brakhage, had me brushing up against the reserve collection of 16mm films and videos. These are prints and videos that typically can only be viewed in the Media Center study lab (see photo above) a row of booths that have VHS and DVD players, a couple of 16mm projectors, even an old Steenbeck. Since I had no other way to watch their 16mm films, for a couple of years I’d go to the study center on my lunch hour. It was here and in this way that I saw some really great films: Inaguration of the Pleasure Dome, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadaaaasss Song, Blood of Beasts, Fires Were Started, Applause, A Page of Madness, Moana, The Phantom Carriage, The Outlaw and His Wife, Mandabi, Culloden, Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, Un chant d’amour, Hour of the Furnaces, Heaven and Earth Magic

… and how could I forget the two months worth of lunch breaks I spent watching a VHS of Berlin Alexanderplatz – or “Berlin Alexander-kerplatz” as my man John behind the desk would call it. John’s an interesting character in that, as one of the quality control people for the library’s reserve collection, he’s probably seen thousands of these films over the years (and, as his Fassbinder quip would indicate, he doesn’t seem terribly impressed with many of them. Nor did he seem terribly impressed when I started sporting a mustache, as he dubbed me “Chef Boyardee.”) Claudine and Michelle are also very friendly and helpful staff that you’ll regularly see behind the media lab desk.

Having seen so many 16mm prints, I eventually learned how to work the projector myself:

Sadly these 16mm projectors are getting increasingly hard to come by and the Center is very careful about how they’re handled. You’d think that the days of acquiring film prints are over for the library, but Joe who runs the center says that they’re still coming in. In fact, just this past April they acquired Peter Kubelka’s Unsere Afrikareise… which leads me to my review

A special honor

I’m really pleased to announce that the other day I got an unexpected invitation to participate in this year’s special 30th anniversary edition of the New York Asian American International Film Festival, to be held next month. My short East Broadway co-directed by Karin Chien, was selected by Darryl Chin, a longtime film critic and programmer and one of the founders of the NYAAIFF.

This is my fourth consecutive year of participating in the NYAAIFF. ’04 was when East Broadway first premiered; ’05 both On Guard and Dastaar screened; and in ’06 I competed and got second runner-up in Verizon’s trailer contest. How nice that this year I didn’t even have to enter anything. But it’s got me thinking what I could do for next year to keep this streak going…

928. Unsere Afrikareise / Our Trip to Africa (1966, Peter Kubelka) – a preview

TSPDT rank #808 IMDb

I’m planning to see this 12 minute film tomorrow during my lunch break at the Donnell Media Center. As this is an experimental film, I’ve decided to take the same approach in writing about it as my multi-part experiential account of Ernie Gehr’s Still (TSPDT #853), which many of you responded to positively (including Gehr himself!). I’d might as well take this approach since, as with Still, this film is not available on DVD so there’s no chance of producing a video essay.

It’s ever the dilemma, deciding whether to read extensively about a film prior to experiencing it first-hand. However, in the case of experimental cinema, my experience has been that more often than not I end up appreciating the context that pre-reading provides, instead of going into a movie cold. I like having ideas in my head of things to look for, points of view that I can hold and either accept, reject or modify as I experience the film myself.

“UNSERE AFRIKAREISE is about the richest, most articulate, and most compressed film I have ever seen. I have seen it four times and I am going to see it many, many times more, and the more I see it, the more I see in it. Kubelka’s film is one of cinema’s few masterpieces and a work of such great perfection that it forces one to re-evaluate everything that one knew about cinema. The incredible artistry of this man, his incredible patience. (He worked on UNSERE AFRIKAREISE for five years; the film is 12 and a half minutes long.) His methods of working (he learned by heart 14 hours of tapes and three hours of film, frame by frame), and the beauty of his accomplishment makes the rest of us look like amateurs.” — Jonas Mekas, quoted here

Sounds great, Jonas. But wtf is it about?

In 1961 Peter Kubelka was asked to make a documentary about a group of Europeans on an African hunting trip. He accompanied them, recorded many hours of film and sound, and then spent five years editing this material into a most unconventional film. The result, Unsere Afrikareise, is one of the most densely packed 12½ minutes in film history, and makes truly extraordinary use of the creative possibilities of sound…

Images taken at different times and places are cut together, often on matched movements, to create momentary illusions of continuity. The images are disparate enough, however, so that the viewer is never fooled. A hunter shakes an African’s hand and we cut to a zebra’s leg, shaking similarly, as if the hunter were shaking it, but the hunter is nowhere in the shot. When the next shot reveals that the zebra is being skinned, we understand that while the hunter was not literally causing the zebra’s leg to move, there was a deeper causal connection between the two shakes. Kubelka’s juxtapositions are anything but arbitrary; they reveal truths inherent in his material. ..

What is most extraordinary about Kubelka’s achievement is not the specific connections he establishes between elements, but rather the system that the entire network of connections form. Repeated viewings of the film reveal it as too multiple in its implications to be resolvable into a single interpretation. Thematic results of specific articulations are merely a few aspects of many in the film. Kubelka’s almost musical form establishes a grand relation between virtually every image and sound and every other across the entire film. The resulting multitude of connections is expressive of many, rather than a few, possibilities. The viewer is ultimately led out of time, to contemplate these connections in memory, and to regard the film as if it were a monument erected as a record of civilization, not as a statement on it but as a kind of totem for it.

– from Fred Camper’s description for Film Reference.com

In this 2002 interview, Kubelka talks about how Unsere Afrikareise gave him success after years of toiling in obscurity in Austria:

I decided when I was 17 years old, that I would like to make cinema. It was a vocation. I was absolutely sure that I would make cinema even if, at that time, I had seen very little of it. For fifteen years, more or less, I did nothing but think of cinema, intensely. Day and night, my existence was devoted to that. Then, in 1966, I went for the first time to the United Sates on an invitation by people like Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage, whom I had known for years. I couldn’t finish Unsere Afrikareise, because at the time in Austria, they still didn’t have the adequate sound system to do the optical sound. I had done all the creative work in Austria, all that remained was to do the final answer print. In New York, I was able, for the first time, to present personally my films. It was at the New York Film Anthology, founded by Jonas, on 46th street. It was a huge success! Other invitations immediately followed that event, one of which was at Harvard. Harvard organised a series of lectures and they invited me to speak. I told them: “Ok, I will present my films, but I will not do a lecture.” To which they responded, “If you don’t do the lecture, we can’t fit you in the programme.” I therefore accepted. Just before the lecture, I went to Harvard and they put me up in a small house where, without speaking with anyone, I prepared myself thoroughly. I was persuaded that it would be the first and last talk that I would give! But it was like a miracle: we were in the theatre of the Corporate Center and it was completely crowded! They had to transmit the sound outside to those who were waiting. I spoke for about 3 hours and 30 minutes, saying to myself: this is the first and last lecture of my life, I have to say all that I think. Even though, sometimes, I lost my train of thought, it unfolded very well. In the end, I received a standing ovation and I cried! My life had changed!

And yet, Kubelka’s on-again, off-again film career has been anything but prolific: eight films that barely cover a total run-time of an hour. He has alternated his filmmaking with creative work in music, art and cooking. Here he is, quoted again from the interview, on his multidisciplinary interests:

I wanted to release myself from these definitions that one finds on the epitaphs. This act finds its origins in a problem which I always have: how to defend the individual against society, against the group. My example is to take the Lark, a bird which I love a lot. If one takes a lark and asks it whether it can sing, it will answer: “Naturally I can sing! I am a Lark and all Larks can sing!” If one asks the same question to a human being, they will answer: “You know I belong to a species which sing—because the human being can sing—but me personally I do not sing at all. There are specialists who dedicate their whole lives to the practice of singing and they do it so well that it is not worth the sorrow when I sing. Then I attend their concerts, the specialists.” It is the same thing everywhere: the normal human being is specialized and consumes the works of the professionals, the virtuosos. It is certainly not ideal. Naturally, one cannot do everything like a virtuoso. But then, virtuosity also becomes questionable. Now, I am really interested in applied arts because, before, all the arts were applied. There was not this idea of free art, aesthetics, etc, which is not completely free in any case today either. Art is useful; art should always be used for something. But the question of virtuosity, of specialization brings us to this separation between the art that everyone made, popular art, and art where virtuosity starts, the art of the artist. Now one says “Folk art” which is pejorative! When I began this act of de-specialization, I did not have very clear ideas yet, but the ideal was to become again a child who is not yet specialized and thus is open to all the possibilities that the human animal has…

It seems that simplicity, directness and utility are themes that emerge in his approaches to art, and he can be quite eloquent and evocative in arguing on behalf of these values:

There is however nothing more grandiose than a found work of art, which communicates and which I can read, but it’s creation did not have other means, nor another finality, than its own existence. If one can read the poetry in the universe as it is, it is the greatest art. But how can one communicate this knowledge to someone else? It is the first problem of the artist as we see it, the active artist who does something, from whom something is born. And perhaps the first artistic act was to do that: to create a work of art by making this gesture (he points his finger): to point your finger at something whereas the glance of the other follows this indication and understands the work which is there.

In this interview with the San Francisco Bay Guardian, he offers his thoughts on film in the digital age, and why he will never allow his films to be transferred to a digital format:

I do not allow my films to be transferred to video and shown in digital form, which means that if film goes under, I will go under with it. But I don’t do this in order to go under [laughs]. I’m absolutely convinced cinema as a classic medium will stay on, because it has a heart core which cannot be replaced by any other medium.

The editing of my metric films is less arithmetic than geometric, which means I have a body contact to film, I count the frames by taking the material in my hands. There is the possibility of bringing in a body intelligence, and not just a mathematical or literary intelligence which comes from outside and does not really touch the medium. Film is culture, and it is a bending, transparent, three-dimensional object.

When you show film on a [digital] screen in a half-lit atmosphere, it is like representing a painting with postcards. DVD is fine, and the digital medium will develop and find its soul and its heart’s core. But the imitation of cinema is definitely not what the digital medium can do, should do, and will do.

Overall impression:

I am very much looking forward to seeing this film, and I expect it to be an intense and densely packed array of sounds and images. Kubelka himself seems to be a fascinating and idea-filled person. I recognize the gap in our respective attitudes towards the film medium; frankly I feel a bit ashamed of my admittedly cavalier treatment of film on video and my preferences on accessibility and virtuality (as evidenced on this site) over what sounds like his very tactile, reverent and concentrated handling of the film medium. Imagine the patience it must have taken to work on a single 12 minute film for five years… Can’t wait to see it.

Continue to the post-screening review 

Bourgeois, anarchist, aesthete, activist: which liberal are you?

 From Girish’ post on James Naremore:

From the 19th century onward, liberally educated people from a variety of backgrounds have had at least four ways of responding to the onward march of industrial capitalism and state-supported ideology: they can become bourgeois (like most college professors), they can become anarchists (which means dropping out and behaving badly, like Rimbaud, Tzara and the Sex Pistols), they can become aesthetes (like Baudelaire, Wilde, Joyce, Woolf, and all the great modernists), or they can become revolutionary political activists (like Mother Jones, Lenin, Fanon and Malcolm X). One of the best dramatic representations of these alternatives is Tom Stoppard’s very funny play, Travesties, which imagines a crazy encounter between Tzara, Joyce, Lenin and an ordinary bourgeois in Zurich during World War I. For my own part, I often feel as if my personal subjectivity were split among the four positions. At certain points in my history, some of my selves can form alliances, but at other points, which are the true moments of crisis, the bourgeois, the anarchist, and the aesthete tend to get pushed aside by the activist. Where modern society in general is considered, one of the major crisis periods for artists and intellectuals was the 30s. Another was the late 60s, a period that left its mark on radical film theory in the 70s. As I write this response to you [September 2002], American capitalism appears to be pushing the world ever closer to war, and the contradictions in the system are once again becoming apparent. Perhaps a new crisis will develop, in which case it will become increasingly difficult for any of us to maintain a balance between cinephilia and social action.

I’d say I’m 40% aesthete, 30% bourgeois (and climbing :-(), 20% activist, 10% anarchist.

One of the most sobering moments of life is when one realizes that one can no longer deny one’s bourgeois tendencies and predilections.   I use the alibi of needing to be able to communicate with others and thus engaging in discussion on a wide array of consumer products (from clothes to reality TV shows to professional careers) I never much cared for previously.  One can spin all this as cultural literacy, but there’s at least 30% of me left that still thinks this all just stinks.

Woman is the past, present and future of American Film

The Alliance of Women Film Journalists (AWFJ) came out swinging last week when the AFI’s Top 100 films version 2.0 was announced. From their website :

The results are in and, not surprising to AWFJ, not one of the films named on AFI’s Best 100 Films List is directed by a women.“The films themselves are boy-centric, and the only ones that are women driven (after The Wizard of Oz) include: Sunset Blvd; All About Eve; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (give me a break); The Sound of Music; and Sophie’s Choice.” writes Melissa Silverstein on the Huffington Post.“There is more gender parity when it comes to actors and actresses represented,” comments Philadelphia Inquirer film critic, Carrie Rickey, noting that Katherine Hepburn, Faye Dunaway and Diane Keaton are represented by three or more films, as are Robert De Niro and Jimmy Stewart.As counterpoint to AFI’s Best 100 Films List, Rickey, an AWFJ member, initiated AWFJ’s Top 100 Films List, nominations for which were made by AWFJ members, who were not given directives to concentrate on films made by and/or about women, nor to select only American-made movies.

Yesterday the list, taken from the votes of the 27-member group, was announced, and the results were somewhat surprising, intriguing, a bit off the wall – if anything it reflected the quirks of polling a smaller body of voters than the massive AFI project. The full list, with representative comments, can be found here: http://awfj.org/2007/06/25/awfjs-top-100-films-list/

To inagurate the poll, erstwhile film critic Carrie Rickey gave a rousing address:

Two numbers stick in my craw. 6.5 and 29.6.5—repeat after me– 6.5 — is the percentage of the top-250 feature films directed by American women in 2006.29 – repeat after me, 29 –is the percentage of women we see on the big screen.Put another way, men direct more than 93 percent of what we see at the multiplex and at the arthouse, and male characters outnumber females on screen by a ratio of more than two to one. And we all know that when only one in three of the people we see on the big screen is female, we come to believe that women are a minority– when in fact they are the majority.

As I never get tired of reminding my readers and my stepdaughter, who is with us today, such an imbalance gives us 1) a distorted image of the world and 2) militates against equal employment opportunities for women.

You can read the rest of her fantastic speech – including her eyebrow raising mention of a common Hollywood joke to explain differences between male and female storytelling – here: http://awfj.org/2007/06/25/carrie-rickeys-speech-at-awfjs-top-100-films-list-launch/

Last but not least, Erin Hill and Brian Hu of Mediascape gave their own inspired reaction to the AFI 100 by honing in on the problem of lack of a single woman director in the AFI’s results. They offered their own brilliant 100-film overview of American films directed by women, listed in chronological order. Now THIS is a list to raise eyebrows and initiate discoveries in cinema. But as wonderful as it is, I’m sure there are notable exclusions. Can you think of any? [list can be found after the break] Continue reading “Woman is the past, present and future of American Film”

Sing-a-long Beethoven

For my birthday present a few months back, Cindi combined my loves for both karaoke singing and classical music and came up with an inspired gift: tickets to a special sing-a-long performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (“Choral”), last Sunday at the All Saints Episcopal Church on the Upper East Side, performed by the Park Avenue Symphony and your fellow attendees in the pews. It was quite an exhilarating experience (especially as I hadn’t read sheet music in years and I didn’t really know German).

It’s shaping up to be a musical week as we are going to check out Cesare Evoria at Carnegie Hall tomorrow evening. I know nothing about this Cape Verdean singer except that she is supposed to be phenomenal.

I should also mention one of the highlights of my day today: walking down 8th Avenue to the bus stop with my iPod on “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin – it was like a David Lean rock musical playing in my head, and the perfect song to navigate one’s way through a throng of tourists (just pretend one is in a Himalayan bazaar and suddenly this summertime chore becomes exotic) .

Other iPod highlights today: Sleater-Kinney’s “Modern Girl” while at work (reminding me of happy moments waiting for the subway back in my previous neighborhood of Borough Hall, Brooklyn), and riding the bus home listening to the first 20 minutes of a Ramones concert recorded in 1977

currently playing: “Mainline Florida” by Eric Clapton

Quick thoughts following a re-viewing of The 40 Year-Old Virgin (2005, Judd Apatow)

screened June 24 2007 on DVD in Weehawken NJ IMDb

– This feels much looser than Knocked Up – a very thin and basic premise supplemented with thinly drawn sitcom characters.  It’s astounding that they were able to sustain this for the better part of two hours.  How did they do it? By having inherently charismatic actors, and then having them improv, improv, improv those trite set-ups into unexpected  wit:  “we just take everything that’s embarrassing and we move it out of here so it doesn’t look like you live in Neverland Ranch.”

– Something about the rhythm of human speech in this film that gives it the air of freshness.  The actors come off very natural (this can be even harder to do with improv scenarios than with tightly scripted scenes) which is critical since, again, they are playing cartoon types, Steve Carrell in particular.  Catherine Keener is able to add another dimension to her character just in the way she laughs.  Watching her in this made me realize how much she has in common with Barbara Stanwyck – a certain combination of intelligence and lasciviousness.

  – Cinematographically this film is more interesting than Knocked Up, at least in the electronics store where there’s clever use of the TV displays.

– I had forgotten that this film also references “Everybody Loves Raymond” (Carrell watches it instead of the many porn tapes Paul Rudd bequeaths to him; in Knocked Up Paul Rudd has the memorable line about life being like an episode of “Raymond” except without the jokes) – what is it with Apatow and that show?

– Again, despite all the superficial laughs, the disposably witty pop culture humor, there is an undertone of sadness and frustration with tinges of social conservatism as a means of establishing order in a wasteland of permissability.  In both films, the fraternal order is a coping mechanism and a proving ground where regressive men-children can be as stupid and ineffectual as they want to be while offering shoddy support and advice for each other in making forays with the opposite sex and clamboring their way to mature, responsible adulthood.  (The critics who see Knocked Up as more of a male love story than a female are missing the point here — sure the two guys are nostalgic for male fraternity, but there’s no question that the film presupposes their friendship as only a temporary refuge that can never entirely conceal or replace the demands of the mature heterosexual living beckoning to them ever more insistently).  This is really what makes these Apatow films so compelling for me, how much they subtly acknowledge the pain of young adult (male) living – I concede that his take on women isn’t nearly as complex, though he’s made significant strides in that direction between his last two features.

927. Voyna i mir / War and Peace (1968, Sergei Bondarchuk) – Part I

screened Friday June 22 on Ruscico DVD in Weehawken NJ



I’m going to divert from my normal tripartite reviewing format because this eight-hour monster seems to call for a different approach. At this time I’m still not sure how I’ll cover the entire film. My approach for now is to keep it simple, by offering a few thoughts I had from before and after my screening of the first disc of the 4 disc Ruscico set.

Four thoughts going into the screening:

1 – I haven’t read Tolstoy’s novel so I bring nothing to the table in terms of comparing source material to screen. I understand that this is the most extensive effort to date to cinematically enact as much of Tolstoy’s novel as possible. But of course, no matter how faithful Bondarchuk may try to adapt the novel, the result must be judged first and foremost as a work of cinema. So it’s fine with me that I can’t refer to the novel to make my assessments. Let the film stand on its own terms.

2 – I have seen King Vidor’s 1956 adaptation with Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn – it was also part of the Shooting Down Pictures project, ranked on the TSPDT 1000 at #586 – that’s ahead of the Bondarchuk! But frankly my memories of it are rather dull, though I remember enjoying Vidor’s 3 1/2 hour version (still less than half the total runtime of the Bondarchuk) mostly as a matter of spectacle – and Hepburn.

3 – I confess to being somewhat influenced by the reviews of Jonathan Rosenbaum and Dave Kehr as found in the Chicago Reader Brief Reviews Database. Rosenbaum’s review : “Even at 415 minutes (over an hour shorter than the Soviet release) this rarely suggests the vision behind Tolstoy’s set pieces or populist polemics; his feeling for incidental detail is more evident in (non-Tolstoyan) films like The Leopard and The Magnificent Ambersons. This is a landmark in the history of commerce and post-Stalinist Russia, but not cinema. If you’d like to merely sample it, try parts one and three.” Dave Kehr, in his review of the Vidor version, refers to the Russian version as “dull, muddy.” Reading their comments put some apprehension into the prospect of spending eight hours with this work.

4 – Neither the facts of the cost of this production (with inflation taken into account, this is the most expensive feature ever made) nor its intimidating length do much to impress me. In this regard I am probably not of the same mind as the film’s audience at the time of its release, who, by some of the reviews and accounts I’ve gleaned, were more or less dumbstruck by this unprecedented achievement in epic filmmaking. To be honest, I can’t recall the last time an epic film or big budget blockbuster really blew me away. (It might have been when I rewatched Warren Beatty’s Reds a year or two ago). Despite a weakness for Lawrence of Arabia, I’m a staunch subscriber to Manny Farber’s distinction between White Elephant Art and Termite Art, and most of these epics strike me as the former.

Five thoughts after screening Part I:

Continue reading “927. Voyna i mir / War and Peace (1968, Sergei Bondarchuk) – Part I”