July 2009

Ingmar Bergman: an Annotated Webliography and Top 10 Quotes

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It’s been exactly two years since Ingmar Bergman passed away at the age of 89, leaving us with dozens of films, many of which are considered among the greatest ever made. On the anniversary of his death, it’s my privilege to present a compilation of the most valuable resources on Bergman available online, as well as ten of the most illuminating quotes about him, from filmmakers, scholars, and Bergman himself.

This array of information was compiled by a longtime friend on the IMDb Classic Film Boards who goes by the handle Antonius Block. Back when I was a regular on those boards Antonius was widely regarded as the person to go to about all things Bergman. Back then I was a bit of a Bergman naysayer, and Antonius patiently weathered many a row with me over some of his favorite films. Over time I’ve come to appreciate Bergman’s special qualities, much of which is reflected in the links and text that Antonius has resourcefully assembled:

When Kevin asked me recently if I would compile an annotated ‘webliography’ of web resources and quotes by and about Ingmar Bergman for Shooting Down Pictures, my answer was a resounding yes. As it turns out, that initial enthusiasm somewhat exceeded my findings. While there are indeed a couple of excellent websites devoted to sharing useful information about Bergman, much of what I found doesn’t seem worth including here. Other resources I’ve used in the past have disappeared, or become seemingly defunct, like the Ingmar Bergman Yahoo Group (http://movies.groups.yahoo.com/group/BERGMAN/). At any rate, my hope is that by paring away some of these lesser resources, this webliography will be more useful — a fundamental quality that Bergman always wished his own films to be.

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979 (111). Blast of Silence (1961, Allen Baron)

Screened July

TSPDT rank #965  IMDb Wiki

An early landmark in New York City’s storied history of low-budget indie filmmaking, Blast of Silence may be most famous for its wall-to-wall second person voiceover narration (“You can depend on yourself, no one else. You learned the hard way… When people look at you, Baby Boy Frankie Bono, they see death.” ). It’s a neat trick that sets an otherwise mundane hitman plot over a dense interior landscape of self-loathing, paranoia and motivational self-talk. But it barely makes the top five things I love most about this film.

For one thing, Meyer Kupferman’s multifaceted jazz score, moving deftly from vibraphone cool to trumpeting distress, does as much to express Frankie Bono’s inner state. Mixing hard bop discord with symphonic lyricism, it foretells what Bernard Herrmann would do in Taxi Driver. The numerous authentic locations, from the storefronts on Fifth Avenue to the beatnik streets of the West Village, set the voiceover’s raging sociopathy against a documentary sense of the real world, making its unease all the more pervasive (yet another of several cues Scorsese took from this film).

All of these elements come together less than 20 minutes into the film, in a stunning five minute sequence that has the anti-hero simply walking through an iconic Christmas-in-Rockefeller Center setting. The voiceover gets softer and more taciturn; the music settles into a Christmas choir followed by a pensive flute melody. Shadows grow long as day turns to night; the warm glow of toy store windows ironically cast him into a stark silhouette as he walks past, trying to recapture the seminal sensations of his childhood. The real-but-unreal storefront utopia of Fifth Avenue is transformed into a dreamscape of lostness. It’s nothing less than the ultimate cinematic depiction of the Christmas blues.

Another innovative sequence follows: the hitman accidentally runs into childhood friend who invites him to a Christmas party that eventually has him pushing a peanut with his nose across the floor as a roomful of strangers laugh and cheer. It’s a stunning moment of debasement for such an iconic figure, at once mocking the lone gunman myth while also unmasking him to be a lonely, desperate figure terminally unable to relate to others. This leads to another genre stunner, when he manages to take a girl home, only for his awkwardness to lead to an attempted rape.

Having done so much to overturn the criminal anti-hero’s swagger in its first half hour, it’s a shame that the film doesn’t know quite where to go from there. Like its character, it reels from having gone so far into the uncomfortableness of the real world, and withdraws into its hired killer plot for the rest of its fairly predictable arc. But these breakthroughs are more than enough to seal the film’s status as an ur-text of urban alienation cinema.

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Best of the Decade Derby: Quick notes on Pixar, Hollywood classicism and animation after watching The Incredibles

I watched The Incredibles for the first time a few days ago. Pixar sure has a way of spoiling one with its consistent ability to amaze (Cars being the one exception in my book). What I loved about The Incredibles was that in its attempt to lampoon Hollywood action blockbusters, it applies such knowingness and such attention to detail to the genre that it effectively surpasses its object. It had me all but convinced that if I have a Hollywood film in my top 10 for the decade, it ought to be a Pixar film.

The Incredibles has a story that is impeccably constructed and advances deftly from one movement to the next while developing a wonderful, amusing and fairly complex family dynamic among its main characters. The issue of social misfits possessing exceptional talent and the struggle to apply it to a less than receptive world is a mainstay for just about all of the features directed by Brad Bird: this, Ratatouille, and The Iron Giant (a pre-Pixar production). Here it gets into some messy territory by villainizing its one main character who isn’t born with exceptional gifts and has to work hard to compensate for his lack. I think Bird deals with the problems of supertalents more delightfully in Ratatouille, by just focusing on an underdog rodent trying to break into the restaurant business by working harmoniously with others. Even though The Incredibles is about people who save the world, the narrative conflicts deal more with the primacy of the nuclear family, while society is portrayed as a bunch of ungrateful sheep. On the whole, Ratatouille takes a more favorable view towards the world at large as it tries to assimilate its hero within it.

So I’ve basically talked The Incredibles out of consideration for Best of the Decade Derby, even as I’m bolstered to include a Pixar picture. The dilemma remains, which one? I’m between Ratatouille, WALL-E and Up. My main interest to favor Ratatouille is because the four-cylinder narrative efficiency on display in both of Bird’s Pixar movies are really Hollywood classicism at its best. What other Hollywood films from this decade could compare in terms of old-school excellence?  Million Dollar Baby, Two Lovers… Strangely, the quintessential Hollywood craftsman Spielberg doesn’t really offer much in this way in the past decade, Catch Me if You Can excepted – A.I., Minority Report and Munich consciously subvert the idea of a neat three-act structure, falling in line with the philosophical underpinnings of each film.

WALL-E at first feels incredibly innovative with its long stretches without dialogue, but it’s really just classic silent filmmaking. I’m inclined to think that in terms of narrative rhythm and structure, Up is the most innovative thing Pixar has produced. It establishes its story in such an unexpected, beguiling way, first with the newsreel, then with that devastating montage (if you’ve seen it you know what I’m talking about – I tear up just thinking about it). What I love about Up is the ease with which it moves through its story; it really takes its time like few great Hollywood films I’ve seen, maybe with the exception of Judd Apatow.

And then there’s the troubling thought, that much about what’s great about Up is really indebted to Hayao Miyazaki. Not just that Miyazaki made two films about floating castles that resemble Up’s flying house, but also a sense of whimsicality, a penchant for the lyric image and wistful sentiment that drifts through life as a cloud. I need to see Howl’s Moving Castle again to see how this figures into all of this…*

* – For the record, I watched Spirited Away some time ago for the BoDD project and was amazed but not top 10 amazed. It’s a dreamy film for sure that blends classical structure with lyrical digression, and it’s simply ripe with invention. What I can’t quite figure out is why it doesn’t stay with me as much as I would expect it to for a film with such furtive creativity. The heroine gets returned to the real world, and she’s certainly more mature than when she started. And so…?

Check out the wonderful essays, interviews and podcasts at dGenerate Films

I can’t believe I haven’t posted about these wonderful podcasts and interviews available on the dGenerate Films website, especially given that I’ve worked so much on preparing, recording and editing them. But yes, I’ve started a new series of podcast interviews over there called CinemaTalk, an ongoing series of conversations with esteemed scholars of Chinese cinema studies. These conversations are presented on dGenerate in audio podcast and/or text format. They are intended to help the Chinese cinema studies community keep abreast of the latest work being done in the field, as well as to learn what recent Chinese films are catching the attention of others. This series reflects dGenerate’s mission to bring valuable resources and foster community around the field of Chinese film studies.

The first one we did was with the one and only Chris Berry, Professor of Film and Television Studies in the Department of Media and Communication at Goldsmiths, University of London. I spoke with Chris about various topics from his current work and areas of focus, to comparisons between contemporary Chinese cinema and the Fifth Generation filmmakers whom he helped to champion in the 1980s and 1990s, to which recent Chinese films that have excited him the most.

You can go here to listen to or download the podcast audio, as well as read the full transcript.

Next we interviewed Lu Xinyu, Professor and Director of the Radio and TV Department, School of Journalism, Fudan University, Shanghai, China.  Professor Lu is widely regarded as the leading scholar on independent Chinese documentaries.  Her influential book Documenting China: The New Documentary Movement (Beijing, SDX Joint Publishing Company, 2003) was the first book to systematically theorize the New Documentary Movement in China from the beginning of 1990s.  She spent the past academic year as a visiting scholar in the department of cinema studies at New York University.

In this interview conducted by dGenerate’s Yuqian Yan, Lu Xinyu told us about her current work during her visit in New York and how she was attracted to independent Chinese documentary from an aesthetic and humanist background.  Starting from Aristotle’s poetic concept of “tragedy”, she led us to understand the New Documentary Movement as a unique art form that depicts the tragic life of ordinary people in the rapidly changing Chinese society.  The interview was conducted in Chinese.  Click here to listen to the audio and read a full English transcript.

I must also mention the outstanding series of blog articles the site has been getting from Shelly Kraicer, programmer at the Vancouver International Film Festival and passionate expert on Chinese Cinema. He’s already posted three essays, each of them both informative, insightful and fun to read. They are titled, “An Independent Scene, Thriving Miles from Main Street,”Does China’s Past Have a Future?” and “Between the Cracks of Capitalist China.” By all means check them out.

978 (110). Oci ciornie / Dark Eyes (1987, Nikita Mikhalkov)

Screened July 13 2009 on a DVD burned from a digital file created from a dub of an out-of-print VHS rented from the now defunct Kim’s Video, in Brooklyn NY

TSPDT rank #964 IMDb Wiki

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Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady with a Dog” is arguably my all time favorite short story. It’s so many beautiful things at once. Descriptions as light and delicate as snowflakes are combined with a hearty narration that’s both impassive yet empathetic. In a half-hour’s reading time you marvel in a symphony of moods: melancholy, sarcasm, infatuation, disdain, lust, hope, despair, and finally a sense of love that’s as helpless as it’s hopeful. Josef Heifetz made a masterful Soviet film adaptation 50 years ago, but I would love to see another version – possibly even set to contemporary times, since Chekhov’s brilliant diagnosis of the social circumstances that breed love can be applied practically anyplace and anywhere. I’d certainly welcome such an effort over Nikita Mikhalkov’s supersized and superficial international prestige parade, a film so bombastic and unsubtle that it’s everything Chekhov isn’t.

For one thing, it stitches “The Lady with a Dog” with elements of three other Chekhov stories, forming a gargantuan picaresque whose sprawl undermines the intimacy that’s a Chekhov lynchpin. (Compare to what Robert Altman does with Raymond Carver’s stories in Short Cuts, which builds its landscape on carefully observed moments and interactions within each scene.)  This romp through 19th century Russia is driven by Marcello Mastroianni in a shamefully hammy performance, leveraging his brand name charisma with broad gestures and slapstick.

Setting the non-Chekhov objection aside, the film could fit within the other Mikhalkov films I’ve seen (A Slave of Love; Burnt by the Sun) as another runaway dream of what Russia was, is and could be. It easily courts and exploits nostalgia, though not without some  tweaking of those impulses. I can’t say I appreciate the stylistic idiom Mikahlkov chooses to explore his ideas, such as his characteristic warm orange hues that seem to swaddle viewers in a giant fuzzy blanket of period splendor. The film struggles to establish its position with Mastroianni: it obviously wants to skewer his Italian playboy’s narrow, over-romanticizing regard towards his adopted Russian homeland, but at the same time it obviously wants to capitalize on Mastroianni’s charm, playing up his goofy charm, which muddles its critical program. Finally, when the film gyrates through a trifecta of 11th hour ironic whammies, it feels like a cheap, desperate bid for profundity, to whack the viewer into a metaphysical contemplative stupor lest they were having too much fun. Chekhov be having none of that.

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Best of the Decade Derby: Elizabethtown Liveblog with Vadim Rizov

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When I approached multivalent critic-at-large Vadim Rizov about doing a Best of the Decade Derby movie liveblog with me, he proposed Cameron Crowe’s last feature, the much-maligned Elizabethtown. I thought, there’s a choice with a pair of big ones hung on it. Little did I realize (5 minutes before we started watching, to be exact) that this wasn’t actually a film he considered one of the ten best of the decade (or 20 best, for that matter), but for some reason he really wanted to revisit it. Maybe he misheard the project as Most Underrated of the Decade Derby, but in any case, I figured it was worth watching Elizabethtown for the first time, since Crowe’s three features prior had fascinated me for various reasons.

Vadim also alluded to this choice as some kind of reprisal for Mike D’Angelo’s liveblog with me on 25th Hour. I don’t remember the exact reason he gave for that, but as it turned out, the two films have remarkable points of intersection. Both are about young adult men who experience a major fuckup in their career, leading to a radical period of reassessment and revisitation of the past. Both climax with long sequences driving cross-country, the men dutifully following the voiceover guidance of another person who effectively function as guardian angels. Though the chief difference between the two is that one cross-country drive to destiny is real, the other imagined.

Anyway, Vadim and I both agree that Elizabethtown is more ambitious and more flawed than any of Crowe’s films, and even though much of it doesn’t work, there are several moments where he achieves unprecedented levels of depth, craft and maturity in his career. I would very much look forward to seeing him apply these advances in another feature, should he ever get the opportunity to make another one after the commercial disaster of Elizabethtown. Continue Reading »

977 (109). A Letter to Three Wives (1949, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

Screened July 11 2009 on 20th Century Fox DVD in Brooklyn NY

TSPDT rank #957 IMDb Wiki

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Joseph Mankiewicz’ wittily scripted, innovatively structured survey of distaff marital life at the brink of the Eisenhower era pits three middle class wives against an impossible feminine ideal. Addie Ross, the omniscient, goddess-like narrator who opens the film with withering remarks about the lives of the desperate housewives she calls friends, is as much of a structuring absence as Citizen Kane‘s Rosebud. She’s never seen, only talked about as some otherworldly feminine ideal who inspires men and terrorizes women. It’s her letter to the three wives, announcing that she’s run off with one of their husbands, that sets off a  chain of collective flashback introspection; the wives are so awestruck that their response is to ruminate in their domestic failures rather than kick some adulterous ass. She’s a gimmick, but one that aptly grounds Mankiewicz’s suburban landscape as a projection screen of insecurities. Even domestic sounds like a ferry horn or a dripping faucet set loose vexing thoughts about infidelity and emptiness among the three wives.

Though they share the same anxiety of being unfit to hold a good man, the three wives each represent a different slice of the upwardly mobile post-WWII woman. Jeanne Crain is a pretty, stay-at-home type of modest background, grateful and anxious about landing the picket fence package. Ann Sothern is the career girl both proud and worried that she makes more than her man, while on the brink of compromising her values for a paycheck. Linda Darnell is the unrepentant maneater who plays the sexist cards she’s dealt with masterfully, but can’t get over the golddigger persona she feels saddled with.

Mankiewicz delights in poking and celebrating the pride and pretensions of each type, succeeding especially with Sothern and Darnell. Some may see their outcomes as regressing into conservative notions of marital subservience, irreconcilable with the self-sufficient superfigure of Addie Ross. But it’s worth putting it out there that feminist ideals can bully women as much as galvanize them. The film, which neither completely skewers nor validates the domestic American dream, hit a nerve with viewers back in 1949; 60 years later, its visually expressive, vocally incisive inquiry into a woman’s place in this world isn’t as obsolete as one might think.

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976 (108). Tout va bien (Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin)

Screened July 5 2009 on Criterion DVD in New York, NY

TSPDT rank #948  IMDb Wiki

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I watched this film days after working on a lengthy essay on Jia Zhang-ke’s 24 City, which keyed me to notice multiple parallels between the two films. Both films are politically conscious works made at a time when their directors were/are trying to make their work appeal to a wider audience. Both deal with depicting the plight of factory labor, with an intent to spark political or social consciousness in the viewer.  Both attempt to utilize elements of mainstream filmmaking, most notably the casting of stars recognizable to their target audience (Jane Fonda, meet Joan Chen).  At the same time, both films utilize arthouse cinema techniques, as well as documentary techniques like on-screen interviews, to challenge the viewer’s engagement with mainstream cinema itself. And, perhaps most important of all, both films emphatically view politics and history in terms of performance: recollections and speech acts delivered for the camera, with a directorial emphasis on the act of representation.  It was interesting to read contemporary reviews of both films that found them to be ultimately unsuccessful acts of compromise between commercial, political and art cinema.

I find the matter of evaluating the success of either these films inconclusive, simply because the criteria for evaluating commercial, political and art cinema respectively are largely incongruous. What would it mean for a movie that denounces capitalism to be a box office hit? Or for a film whose aesthetic beauty distracts us from being stirred to take political action?  It’s a credit to Tout va bien that it’s highly sensitive to these kinds of contradictions and weaves them into its design.  It takes two of the biggest stars of its day and for half the film relegates them to minor characters, while a collective labor revolt in a factory takes center stage.  It’s a subjugation of audience prejudice, as opposed to more conventional subterfuge (i.e. how white characters would star in stories about black civil rights, a la Mississippi Burning or Cry Freedom).  It’s also not afraid to depict this ostensibly noble uprising as a cruel, chaotic and tedious affair of disunity and brinksmanship negotiation. These scenes lack pleasure while actively commenting on its lack of entertainment value, using compositions to compare with the Keystone Cops or Jerry Lewis. If screwball comedies channel social dysfunction into entertainment, Tout va bien breaks that sublimation, linking them only through a disharmony of critical juxtaposition.

There’s a lot of great stuff like this going on throughout the film; of its many virtues there’s also one of Godard’s strongest female characters.  Though Jane Fonda is relegated to the sidelines for half the film, she delivers a knockout monologue involving a photo of a penis. For all the radicalness of Godard and Gorin’s collaborations, this feels to me like one of Godard’s most accessible and lucid political works, moreso than his late period works. It culminates in the famous 9 minute supermarket checkout uprising, which in its own way marks Godard checking out from political radicalism.  Less a call to arms than an allegorical enactment of May 68 and its aftermath, it visualizes the hopelessly institutionalized and commercialized times we live in, and the inevitable reprise against it, with a sober, aestheticized objectivity. In one long, majestic take, the camera depicts this cycle by tracking back and forth, a pendulum that still swings today.

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Best of the Decade Derby: Miami Vice roundtable podcast

Last week, in anticipation of the premiere of Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, a bunch of us Brooklyn cinephiles gathered to watch his last feature, the amazing Miami Vice. Afterwards several of us gathered to discuss the film and its director. Participants were Keith Uhlich of The House Next Door and Time Out Magazine, Daniel Kasman of The Auteurs Notebook, Evan Davis of Film Comment, Gina Telaroli of Project Film School and Take Part, and Matt Noller of Slant Magazine.  Among the topics we discussed in this free-flowing conversation were its unique sense of narrative, Mann’s use of digital compared to other digital features, how it compares to Mann’s earlier films, and our favorite moments in the film.

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975 (107). The Far Country (1955, Anthony Mann)

screeened June 28 2009 on Universal DVD in Brooklyn NY

TSPDT rank #958 IMDb Wiki

Among the many things that distinguish Anthony Mann’s collaborations with Jimmy Stewart are their thorough revisioning of the rugged individualist ideal. The Far Country suffers for being a bit transparent and moralistic in this mission, especially compared to Mann-Stewart masterpieces like The Naked Spur or Bend of the River, where the critique of Western self-reliance is done more through actions than words.  The soundtrack is a thicket of toughtalk among a roughewn ensemble of pioneers negotiating civilization out of a bloodsoaked, greed-infested frontier.

Their chatter ironically surrounds Stewart’s antisocial cattleherder who’s looking to get as far away from people as soon as he cashes in on his cattle driving and prospecting.  In Mann’s Western’s, Stewart discovered dark anti-hero dimensions to his aw-shucks persona, and in The Far Country he pushes deep into the realm of assholery, taking sadistic delight when others are trapped in an avalanche after disobeying his directions. Try as he may to break free from people, the expansive Alaskan wilderness proves to be a closed space that brings him to a full reckoning with his civic duty, defending a helpless town against a capitalist developer wielding thug power.

The film isn’t terribly sophisticated in depicting the dynamic between exploiters and exploited, pitting Stewart as the inevitable superman who alone has the power to galvanize an uprising. Stewart finally comes around when he is assaulted not once but twice, which makes his path to moral redemption feel overextended. But for a good stretch, the film thrives in a wilderness of moral ambiguity reflected in both Stewart’s callous actions and his unforgiving surroundings.

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