February 2010

The Shooting Down Pictures YouTube Film Festival

To think that it’s been over a year since the YouTube shakedown of 2009, when I temporarily lost my account during a particularly zealous effort to manage the content on YouTube containing copyrighted material, such as my video essays.  Well here we are a year later, and if anything there is even more copyrighted stuff to be found on the site – and we’re not just talking videos like mine that re-appropriate media, but entire feature films.

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998 (133). Tale of Tales (1979, Yuriy Norshteyn)

Screened February 8, 2010 on veoh (see embedded video after the break)

TSPDT #992  IMDb Wiki

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First off, I want to encourage everyone in New York City to take advantage of an opportunity that I will sorely miss: an in-person appearance (alternative link to event) by  Yuriy Norshteyn. This legendary 68-year old Russian animator rarely comes to the US; he may very well be traveling to raise funds for his first feature film The Overcoat, which he has been working on for nearly 30 years. In any case, please go in my place, as I will be on a flight to Berlin as he makes his appearance at the SVA Theater:

Monday, February 15: School of Visual Arts Theater (333 W. 23rd Street, between 8th/9th Ave.) This event is billed only as a Q&A so be aware that there may not be a screening. No price is indicated so I’m also assuming it’s free.

To be honest, I am a recent convert to Norstein, like, as of this week. He has been touted on this site before, as one of the 100 Most Important Directors of Animated Shorts, as voted on by my colleagues at IMDb. Still, when Tale of Tales appeared for the first time on the TSPDT 1000 upon its most recent update, I had never heard of the film, despite it being voted the greatest animated film of all time at polls conducted by two animation film festivals.

So I won’t pretend to be an expert on this film when I’ve been acquainted with its filmmaker for all of a week, and when there is already a book length study by animation scholar Claire Kitson available, which I will seek out. I will only say that I’ve seen this half-hour masterpiece four times in four days, and it feels like it’s stayed with me for four years. It’s as if Norshteyn sat with these images all his life, drawing them with such lucidity and palpable depth of feeling, that they make even the untold hours of ingenuity and laborious craft behind Pixar films feel relatively disposable. It summons a concept of the fermented image: a vision that has stayed with a person for as long as they’ve been breathing, and perhaps beyond that, like the wolf that lurks throughout the film, a folkloric figure as old as Russian blood.

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It’s a vision that nurtures, like the suckling breast that satiates the infant who sees the wolf just as its eyes pull into sleep.

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The whole film seems to be a drunken/lucid suckling of images, images that have nourished a lifetime of sublime melancholy and wonder, reflected in so much of what’s on screen. And the way each image is rendered with a delicacy verging on dissolution conveys a yearning for that same image, as fragile as the decaying memorabilia of one’s childhood:

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or one’s memory rendered through a ghostly gauze – such as these tangoing couples about to be severed by the War raging around them…

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Another recurring motif feels slightly more contemporary (with sharper lines, brighter hues and more fashionable clothing), involving an apple-loving boy who fancies himself feeding crows in the tree boughs as his parents loiter on a bench below:

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The film cycles through these visuals in such a way that the repetition invokes instant affection and nostalgia, as with films by Duras or Wong Kar-wai. The wolf figures as the protagonist, the only one who seems to traverse from one zone of memory to another, often by crossing through forests that at times give the only acknowledgment of late 20th century modernity:

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But his experiences of the hopscotching bull, the dancing phantoms, even the snowbound family, are all mediated by some sort of illuminated threshold: an entrancing fire on the hearth, or light raptruously emanating from a doorway or from a manuscript, as if these visions are liminal states into which he is lulled repeatedly. But it still doesn’t account for other images that seem to inhabit an interzone apart from the more sharply defined worlds, an eden blanketed in Tarkovskian dampness and mist:

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And all these visuals still don’t account for images that I didn’t capture because they only make sense in motion: soldiers marching into a swallowing blackness; windows boarded up without hands or hammers; a pile of wood suddenly combusting; a tablecloth that seems to billow under the breezes of history. Or the sounds: a record skipping as men disappear from their lovers’ embrace; the wolf blowing on his hands as he tries to handle a hot potato. And the lullaby that begins the film and tips the film’s hand as a lullaby to all of us, whisking us to a world of beauty whose liquid lucidity can only exist in sleep, except when an artist is somehow able to extract these moments from a lifetime of dreaming. Again, it would be a privilege to meet such a person.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE (AND WATCH TALE OF TALES)?

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LOVE STREAMS screening postponed

Due to unforeseen circumstances the screening of Love Streams has been postponed to a later date. Will announce once it is scheduled.

997 (132). Subarnarekha / The Golden Thread (1965, Ritwik Ghatak)

Screened February 3 2010 on YouTube in Brooklyn, NY

TSPDT rank #784  IMDb Wiki

Be sure to also check out Ritwik Ghatak: An Online Primer

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After watching the rigorously choreographed long-take mastery of Berlanga’s Placido, my encounter with Ritwik Ghatak was a jolt. His splintered account of family dissolution in Bengal following the 1947 Partition feels perpetually jostled, mirroring its characters sense of displacement and desperation to resettle themselves both physically and emotionally.

Discombobulation is apparent from the first scene: displaced villagers from the Bangladeshi side of the partition have tried to carve a colony for themselves on the outskirts of Calcutta, to the chagrin of the locals. Even among the migrants there are factions of locality and caste as a way to prioritize resettlement; as one landlord asserts: “If we can’t keep the differences, then what are we left with?”

Skip ahead to 3:30 in the following clip:

WATCH SUBARNAREKHA, PART 1:

Note how the sequence begins with a sense of patriotism and resolve: Haraprasad the teacher initiates a new school for the colony children.

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It cuts from this composition that conveys a ceremonial sense of a community planting itself (note the flagpole squarely in the frame) to this more intimate shot giving a variation of the same idea, a child, hand planted on the adult.

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But then there’s an abrupt cut to a completely different space (is it the same village?) where a low-caste woman pleads a landlord to take her and her son.

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After a quick refusal the film explodes into chaos: her son suddenly runs offscreen and people begin to scatter in all directions across the frame. A man grabs the woman and the camera sweeps leftward as he drags her to a truck ready to deport all the low-caste migrants from the village.

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The camera finishes its leftward sweep by craning upward to look down at the truck; the gesture is simple but combined with the onscreen activity, it conveys a sense of epic tragedy.

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Then the shot cuts back to the earlier shot of the teachers sitting planted, as if they were spectators to their own village’s ethnic purging. Ghatak has established two visual spaces within the village and only now is he suturing them together, one fragmented space watching the other. It undermines the rosy words of peace and harmony uttered by the teacher, and establishes a theme of narrative, spatial and tonal fragmentation that continues throughout the film.

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Another example: Ishwar, one of the villaged teachers, depressed over his lowly status as a migrant, runs into a college classmate, now a wealthy businessman and who offers him a job. Note how the angle on Ishwar shifts dramatically across the reverse shot at the moment he is offered the position:

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The film is rife with angular shots expressing weird geometries; you would assume that Ghatak was co-opting his French New Wave contemporaries, but really it traces back to his love of Eisenstein and Soviet Constructivism.

A less propitious, but more striking example comes later, when Ishwar tells his sister Sita that she’s been betrothed against her will. Skip to 0:30 in this clip and see what Ghatak does with cutting variations of essentially the same shot of Sita to convey her sense of alarm (see Omar Ahmed’s comparison with how Scorsese uses the technique, after the break):

Again, the film is filled with these irruptions: one of the film’s happiest sequences, of two children frolicking through an abandoned airstrip, is abruptly ended when one of them is called away. The other child plays on her own; the music resumes the mood that the two of them had established until WHAMMO!

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The film’s only real moments of sustained tonal clarity come in the songs sung by the adult Sita, which amount to arias in this historical opera. But even these songs can have a disruptive effect on the narrative. One of her most beautiful and mournful songs comes right after Ishwar has been awarded a promotion; he searches for her to share the news, finding her along the desolate banks of the river (1:50 in the following clip):

If anything, the protracted mood of this scene establishes the feeling of loss and longing that underlies the entire film.

Since I brought up the elements of the musical genre that Ghatak incorporates, I should also mention how unabashedly Ghatak embraces melodrama as well as Greek tragedy. The film is a roiling mix of genres as well as moods. And on a subtextual level, it’s more densely packed than I can manage to unravel in this post, connecting Oedipus, Hindu mythology, Marxist theory and the tragedy of Indian history in such a way that only a cosmopolitan scholar, artist and activist such as Ghatak could manage.  And yet, despite boiling all these elements into a raging stew that reflects the tumult of the world around him, he can also offer images of breathtaking simplicity, conveying all of his hope and sadness:

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Ritwik Ghatak: An Online Primer

You might have been a bit more indulgent towards us if you only knew how many fences we have to cross to make a film. […] Filmmakers like us will be gratified if people just accept the fact that we are fenced in. […] You are a fence yourselves, the most ominous, perhaps.

- Ghatak, quoted by Megan Carrigy, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

(More words from Ghatak at the bottom of this entry)

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A Pre-Valentines Treat: Cassavetes’ LOVE STREAMS screening (free!)

Part of THE COLLOQUIUM FOR UNPOPULAR CULTURE: THE SPEED OF YOUR HAIR (A series on love)

“You eat,” Luke said, “at the speed of your hair.”

“What does that mean?” said Nicole.

It took an effort of will not to say, “It means I want to spend the rest of my life with you.  I want to be with you when you are old, when your hair is grey…”  What he actually said was: “I don’t know.  It just seems true.”  His plate was empty.  He watched her eat, looked at her hair.  He is in love with me, Nicole said to herself.  She looked up again.  Their eyes met.  It felt as if they were kissing.  Luke poured another glass of wine for himself.

“Gulp,” she said, touching his hand.  “Gulp.”

Love Streams (1984)

LOVE STREAMS (dir. John Cassavetes, 1984)

WHEN: 7pm, Tuesday 9 February 2010
WHERE: Room 471, 20 Cooper Square (Bowery and East 5th)
ALL WELCOME.  Refreshments – stiff, copious – provided.

“Making a film has been compared, by many good directors, to a love affair.  What hasn’t been said is that this film, the recipient of the love, is the victim of an organized orgy.” (Cassavetes)

LOVE STREAMS is John Cassavetes’s last film.  He made it as he was dying of cirrhosis of the liver.  Critically disavowed, yanked off screens after just a few weeks, only briefly available on video in the States, it’s the story of the close relationship between Robert, a feckless lush (played by Cassavetes) who’s “writing a book on night life”, and Sarah (Cassavetes’s real-life wife Gena Rowlands), who describes herself as a “very happy person”.  Both are alive, lonely, lost.  Both, in their different ways, are quietly howling with grief.  Then comes the goat.

John Cassavetes’s films, Jim Jarmusch has written, are about “love, about trust and mistrust, about isolation, joy, sadness, ecstasy and stupidity”.  For that reason, their stylistic distinctiveness, and for their fierce and galvanic independence, they’ve long been touchstones for equally fierce, equally galvanic directors such as Claire Denis, Olivier Assayas and Pedro Almodovar.  LOVE STREAMS, in its rawness and desperation, its wild-eyed confrontation with human isolation and need, is hard to watch and equally hard to look away from.

LOVE STREAMS will be presented by Kevin B. Lee, a critic, filmmaker, and programming executive for dGenerate Films, a digital distribution channel for Chinese independent films. He contributes to ‘Time Out New York’, ‘Cineaste’, ‘The Moving Image Source’, and his blog Shooting Down Pictures, among other publications.

Chinese Documentary Master Zhao Liang in New York This Weekend

Petition (dir. Zhao Liang)

This entry is mostly lifted from an announcement posted at dGenerate Films.

In the recent Top Ten Chinese Films of the 2000s poll, one of the top-ranked documentaries was Zhao Liang’s Petition: The Court of the Complainants. A pretty impressive showing, given that the film was just released last year and has been seen by relatively few people, even in Chinese cinema circles. Tonight folks in Minneapolis will have a chance to see what some are calling the most exciting Chinese documentary since West of the Tracks.

Zhao Liang will be visiting New York City this weekend to present his films Petition and Crime and Punishment at the China Institute in New York, and the Center of Religion and Media at New York University. I’ll be at both so hope to see you there.

Information on his films and a schedule of his programs after the break. Continue Reading »

996 (131). Plácido (1961, Luis Garcia Berlanga)

Screened January 30 2010 on .avi downloaded from the website that dare not speak its name in Brooklyn, NY

TSPDT rank #763  IMDb Wiki

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As with my previous entry on Douce, the only print of this film that I could access has no subtitles. My original plan was to enlist a Spanish-speaking friend to watch it with me and offer live translation. But having watched the film, I wouldn’t wish to force anyone to help me through the muy rapido Spanish dialogue. Just listening to it recalls the breathless banter of 30s screwball.

The online synopses I could find (most of them posted after the break) offer only cursory summaries of the plot, leaving much of what transpired onscreen lost to me. So much the better to appreciate the film’s cinematic qualities.  As I mentioned, the film’s spitfire dialogue recalls the comedies of Capra and Hawks; some associate the film’s Christmas setting and main plot (a guy desperately trying to save his livelihood after the bank calls in his loan) to Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Others connect the film’s subplot about the rich townspeople’s bogus, self-serving acts of charity towards poor people during Christmas with that other great Spanish film of 1961, Bunuel’s Viridiana. But the film’s satirical depiction of people engaged in a manic farce while hosting out-of-town visitors had me thinking of another great comedy of the same year, Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three.

Watching the film, despite feeling that the film moved at a brisk clip thanks to the speedy dialogue, I began to notice how long the takes were, with many shots lasting over a minute or more. I went back from the beginning and counted no less than 25 shots, each lasting one-to-three minutes long, which altogether account for over a third of the film’s 80 minute running time (title credit sequence not counted). There are roughly an additional 17 shots lasting 30-59 seconds. Overall, there are a total of 158 shots in 80 minutes, averaging 30 seconds a shot.

Why does Berlanga rely so much on long takes? On the practical side, it’s simpler, faster and more economical to set up a single master take than to do multiple camera set-ups for a given scene. But Berlanga is no slouch. Just watch this one-take scene. Clocking in at almost 3 minutes, it’s one of the longest shots in the film. Try to figure out how many actors are in the scene, and how many camera positions he’s able to achieve in one take:

By my count I have a dozen characters, and about half a dozen unique looks at this one room. Berlanga is very resourceful, relying on what I think is a single dolly track to roll the camera up and down the room , rotating the camera horizontally so that it captures a total of about 120 degrees of the room over the course of the scene.  But perhaps what’s most impressive is his staging of actors in several different configurations so that there’s an exceptionally dynamic sense of dramatic movement as well as shifting social dynamics from start to finish. Masterful use of foreground and background, not to mention lateral movement, to emphasize contrasts between divisions of people within a single room.

Believe it or not, this scene is preceded by a one-shot scene lasting 80 seconds, and followed by another one-shot scene lasting three and a half minutes. This dynamically staged long-take technique pretty much dominates the middle stretch of the film, where in one scene after another, people are thrown into different, contentious combinations, their fortunes and emotional states apparently in constant flux.

But Berlanga is no one-trick/ long-take pony. In other scenes, he’ll incorporate flash cutaways lasting just a second or two. There are a couple of sequences that use this technique liberally: the arrival of the charity benefactors at the town’s train station; and a charity auction where a man appears to be pressured to bid for something he doesn’t want to save face. Interestingly, both of these scenes amount to public ceremonies, as if to suggest that they elicit heightened states of excitement and anxiety.

Berlanga’s filmmaking was already quite deft 10 years earlier when he made Bienvenido, Mister Marshall!, employing freeze frames, fast motion and other comic editing tricks at a level on par with Preston Sturges. But his handling of dialogue scenes catered more to conventional Hollywood decoupage techniques. Compare what goes on in the above clip from Placido with how the following stills, captured from one scene in Bienvenido Mister Marshall!, cuts from master shot to individual close ups before returning to the master:






As another point of comparison to Berlanga’s shooting and in-camera editing technique, I pulled up Wilder’s aforementioned One, Two Three and played through the first half of the film, as well as the famous extended climactic sequence whose energy and incredible use of interior spaces to move action along is worthy of comparison to those in Placido. Scanning through about 80 minutes of footage, only once did I find a shot that lasted more than one minute. Here’s a representative capture from that sequence:

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Even though the pacing is manic, the space isn’t nearly as compressed as the interiors in Placido. This film is set in large modern office spaces whose expanse suits a wide Scope frame.  Some of the energy is conveyed from a host of characters rushing in and out of Cagney’s office with their crises of the moment, with Cagney riding the eye of the storm.  For the most part the The film employs an arsenal of shots at different lengths (wide/ medium / close-up), tracking shots, shot/ reverse-shot dialogues, woven seamlessly and coherently even as it conveys the chaos at hand.

Interestingly, despite an ensemble of over a dozen characters interacting with Cagney over the course of this sustained climactic act, there are hardly ever more than two or three characters engaged with him at a given moment, which allows for Wilder to parse the manic activity he’s concocted into a coherent stream. Compare this to the above shot in Placido, where a dozen characters appear in one shot and alternate in their interactions, no one of them dominating the proceedings.

Wilder’s approach creates a more adversarial feeling between characters, setting up clear oppositional dynamics, mostly between James Cagney’s blow-hard Coke executive and everyone around him, with whom he dispatches one at a time. Berlanga’s technique of shooting dialogue scenes emphasizes more of a holistic social environment. Even as people contend with each other inside the frame, the camera acts as a needle to weave them together into a tapestry of comic dysfunction.

Interestingly, Berlanga’s film El Verdugo, made two years after Placido, employs a widescreen camera approaching the Scope compositions of One, Two, Three. While Berlanga largely retains the use of long takes often exceeding a minute, instead of compressed compositions of people, he more frequently exploits the wide screen to emphasize distances between people, especially with the main characters, who are undertakers, and thus relatively ostracized within society:

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Thinking further on my account of Berlanga’s work in Placido, I’m now curious to compare his approach to ensemble scene-making to that of perhaps the most famous American ensemblist, Robert Altman. I don’t seem to have a DVD of Nashville or Short Cuts on me (!), but I would wager that even Altman doesn’t let his shots go as long or involve as sophisticated blocking as you see with Berlanga. Altman, a TV director, relied on multi-camera setups that he could use to cut from shot to shot, always looking for a shot to materialize (as in a sports event) rather than constructing it through blocking and framing.

Speaking of sports, I was playing with this sports analogy: that Wilder shoots dialogue like a lightweight boxer, dancing quickly across the canvas of his wide shots before settling into a series of shot/reverse shot flurries; while Berlanga is more akin to a heavyweight, lumbering steadily across the canvas, pushing you around the ring. Not sure how well this holds up, but it gives me an excuse to put up this clip:

Finally, I would like to say that I think enough of this film after one impaired viewing that I’d like to see it again with subtitles. I’m hoping someone might come through and offer timed fansubs. In fact, I’m willing to offer $140 US (which translates to about 100 Euros) to the first person who can provide timed fansubs for this film.

To take part in the Shooting Down Pictures Fansub Challenge, all you need is a copy of the movie Placido, which you can find via torrent, and a PayPal account for me to send the money if you’re the first one done. If you’re interested but don’t know how to access the movie via torrent, send me an email or DM me on Twitter (at alsolikelife) to let me know you’re interested, and I’ll hook you up. Offer good only until February 28, so better get cracking!

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