Friday, November 13, 2015

Booklets Across The Atlantic

A quick, brief update in addition to some of the other things I have been writing. Some may remember that a couple years I helped edit a few booklets for the UK Blu-Ray label, Masters of Cinema. Well, I've done two more for them, which are now available for pre-order. 

First up is George Stevens's Shane. For the aspect ratio purists out there (or the 1.66 Nazis), this disc of Shane comes with three different versions: the theatrical 1.66 release, Stevens's intended 1.34 release, and a new 1.66 release to more accurately capture the images, supervised by George Stevens Jr. In the booklet, you'll find a 1954 essay on Shane by Sight & Sound's Penelope Huston, excerpts from an unpublished interview with Stevens from 1968, an unpublished correspondence between Ivan Moffat and Stevens about their idea for a prologue, and an excerpt from a recent essay by Adam Nayman on Reverse Shot on the history of the aspect ratio changes.

Secondly, there is John Ford's iconic Irish masterpiece, The Quiet Man with John Wayne and the recently departed Maureen O'Hara. It includes a new and fantastic essay by Sheila O'Malley, a 1953 profile on John Wayne, a 1955 profile on Ford, and a fantastic profile on the oft-forgotten DP of the film, Winton Hoch, who may have been one of the greatest Technicolor technicians of his day.

Each booklet features amazing materials: essays, archival materials, set photos, all to help expand your understanding of these works. So check 'em out, and enjoy reading!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Classicists at War: An Unfinished Image Essay

In January of this year, I began work on an image essay comparing John Ford's masterpiece The Searchers to American Sniper, Clint Eastwood's recent examination on the wars in the Middle East. Besides their attention to American iconography, both struck me for the core conservative values at the heart of each film that the directors felt they were challenging within themselves, never attempting to simplify their depiction of the world. I also began work because the attacks on Eastwood's film, especially in regards to its xenophobia, reminded me of the years of attacks on The Searchers, where critics and scholars have mistaken Ford's portrayal of racism as a direct reflection of the director's own values. Finally, Eastwood and Ford interested me in what has been called a type of "classicism" of directing, where editing and gestural actions are kept in a balance to turn simplistic images into iconographic and representational ones.

I eventually got busy and abandoned the project. It was too big, too massive in scope, and at some point, I wasn't sure the images could say everything I saw in them. It didn't hurt that my friend and colleague Niles Schwartz published one of the best pieces written on the film. However, I was cleaning out my desktop today and noted a resonance in the images once again, so I leave this as my work in progress.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A Note On Media Literacy

One of the major causes for great social change in Europe in the 18th century was the role of literacy. While measuring actual levels of literacy and its meaning are contested by historians, there is no doubt that literacy reached levels that no longer included the upper class institutions, as evidenced by the numerous pamphlets spreading through France before the storming of the Bastille or the popularity of Thomas Paine's Common Sense. More people read, learned what was going on around them, and made judgements to change the course of history based around the persuasion of language.

However, literacy has always required a two way street of both education and erudition along with understanding of an audience's own proclivities. Write with obscure language and alienate your audience. Write without strong grammar or spelling and lose the other side. Literacy as both a skill of reading and writing takes time to hone and consider, and as a species, we've had numerous millennia to try and reach a state where words can perform actions.

In our myth of cinema's founding, media literacy was not innate. People ran from the train as it arrived in the station. Hungarian film theorist Béla Balázs has remarked upon audiences members confused where the rest of the body of a woman was while her face was in close-up. These problems, however, quickly faded away. We all quickly understood what it meant to watch something, how editing worked, and most importantly, that often the images presented to us contained some sort of reality equivalent, the indexical.

This was a hyperbolic movement of the 20th century, much faster and expedient that textual literacy. The moving image as a democratic force soon took hold as the medium to communicate to masses, be it immigrant families in the Lower East Side, abused plantations workers in Brazil watching on a cloth sheet, or simply now streaming on the Internet. Maybe not everyone can read, but we sure as hell can understand the basics of a movie.

With that rapid expansion, however, the implications of the possibilities by those who were media literate became frighteningly unchecked. We've come to understand what we can show mass audiences and all of its potentials, but in many ways, the speed of media literacy in the 20th and 21st century has not allowed us to look further into why and how we are watching things. And thus, a person can now film himself willingly taking the life of two individuals, and then later his own, and gain an audience to watch his horrific acts. He has his reasons for shooting the video, as we have our reasons for watching. But perhaps we aren't as media literate as we thought. Perhaps we need to consider stronger implications of our democratizing technology, and more importantly, the low bar that media literacy allows for basic comprehension but not human comprehension. Media literacy can cause historical change, but more and more, its only aim is perhaps simply appealing to base emotions, abusing its indexical power to confuse us from reality instead of growing a larger social consciousness. Roger Ebert called cinema a great empathy device. I'm not sure I believe that anymore.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Recent Link Round-Up

New writing from November 2014 to April 2015

For RogerEbert.Com, a report on the 6th Annual Turner Class Movie Film Festival

A new essay on historical thinking, "Race and The American Movie"

For Filmmaker Magazine, Thom Andersen's The Thoughts That Once We Had.

2014 Best Of Writing

-Top 10 for The Film Stage
-Submission to the Village Voice Poll
-Capsules of The Grand Budapest Hotel and Two Days, One Night for In Review Online
-Episodes of The Cinephiliacs with Keith Uhlich, counting down #10-6 and #5-1.

Wrote capsules for The Film Stage's Top 50 of the Decade on Certified Copy, Mysteries of Libson, Cosmopolis, and Moonrise Kingdom.

On L'Avventura and Clouds of Sils Maria

Shirley Clarke's Portrait of Jason and Ornette: Made in America

On Criterion's Box Set of the Documentaries of Les Blank

Jean Renoir's A Day in The Country

Lucercia Martel's La Cienaga

Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant

On Godard's Every Man For Himself and Truffaut's The Soft Skin

Robert Montgomery's Ride the Pink Horse

Reviews of new films: Paul Schrader's Dying of the Light, Gina Telaroli's Here's To The Future!, and Paul Harril's Something, Anything.

Episodes of The Cinephiliacs: Mike D'Angelo on Buffalo '66, Tina Hassania on You've Got Mail, Matías Piñeiro on Duelle, Doug Dillaman on My Neighbor Totoro, Kris Tapley on JFK, Jan-Christopher Horak on Her Sister's Secret, Calum Marsh on The Last Days of Disco, and Kiva Reardon on Leave Her To Heaven.

Capsules from Letterboxd:
Contemporary: Run All Night, Jupiter Ascending, A Most Violent Year, The Congress, Beloved Sisters, Eden, Nightcrawler
Works from India: The Cloud-Capped Star, Gangs of Wasseypur, Jewel Thief, Awaara
Expressive Esoterica: Gone in 60 Seconds, The Avenging Eagle, Junior Bonner, Now I'll Tell, The Son's Return, Bed Time, Mr. Majestyk
Bullshit: Shame

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Michael Mann's Blackhat

Computer technologies, digital networks and interfaces, and mobile communications tend to intensify physical presence by paradoxically putting new emphasis on bodily knowing, communications, and tactile information. 
—Brandon LaBelle, Background Noise

Michael Mann has finally made a film about idealist individuals. Or at least a film about those who break the patterns of the streams they live in, as opposed to accept the inexplicable systems that form their societies. Clouds form abstract shapes above cities, where rigid and jagged materials form distinct lines. Even the streets of Hong Kong and its endless bazaars simply look like a grid from above. There is complex theory and there is chaos theory. Mann knows the world is the former, but he can’t help but shoot his camera up toward the latter—searching the heavens for freedom.

Blackhat is Mann’s first feature film since 2009’s Public Enemies, which was a film about a rebel in a world where systems of organization were developed into making him simply an anomaly to be targeted and erased. The protagonist of Blackhat, Chris Hemsworth’s Hathaway, has yet to be erased, but now simply acts as another cog in a guarded system—he’s a hacker doing time in prisons, spending his days reading up on Foucault. He knows that simply because he’s surrounded by walls doesn’t mean the outside world is anything but a prison without them. When he first steps out onto the runway of an airport, he can only see material of grays and blacks, out of focus and without dimension. It’s simply a mass.

Then a hand grabs his arm, and everything becomes tangibly real.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Comic Ideology: Richard Fleischer's Mandingo

Less a cousin of Django Unchained than 12 Years A Slave, Mandingo addresses the issues of personal pleasure (sexual and violent) against the ideology of the South and slavery. But where McQueen's choice of a hyper-aware beautiful aesthetic created an awkward rift between his distanced attempt at an objective perspective and the cartoonish behavior he documents in the narrative's latter half (mostly thanks to Michael Fassbinder's performance), director Richard Fleischer's choice to embrace the exploitation tone makes this a more nuanced affair in many ways. Because everyone acts like they're in a bad version of Masterpiece Theater (just watch James Mason chomp up every line), the parts where their artifice often breaks feels more in tuned with ideological frameworks as a form of performativity, and thus a the film's sense of psychological nuance becomes a realism. The confrontation between Made and Blanche is full of very careful performance moments where they're intellectual desires slowly fall, and thanks to his zoom lenses, Fleischer captures the psychology changing before their eyes in a way that would make Béla Balázs shout with joy. The face in Mandingo becomes a tool for political discourse.

Fleischer shoots the film in 1.85 here as opposed to his standard Cinema-Scope 2.35, but space is often a factor. White characters are often centered with African Americans pushed off to the sides, the use of mirrors allows shots to run longer and put characters into unique spatial dynamics. And a great late dolly shows a stunning moment as it repeats the opening shot of a character looking down on the slaves, but it's about who's POV this shot ultimately belongs to and what they are looking at, which isn't even revealed until halfway through the dolly. For all its trashy gloss then, it's a film full of subtle details that feel only registered by the camera and thus the spectator gazing into the past. The way that Mason and King discuss "white ladies" is as crass and Othering as their discussion of their "wenches" and "fighting niggers." But often what's striking about the characters—both white and black—is how they look with distrust not because of ideological reasons but their own personal drives. It is simply that the system they live them allows those personal drives to be used for easy exploitation—Hammond discovers Made's fighting abilities while at a visit to a brothel, and will use his prowess to essentially supplant his sexual desire (a choice that comes back to haunt him).

Fernando Croce reevaluates the often dismissive comparison to Showgirls by noting, "both films are descendants of Douglas Sirk's sublime frenzies, utterly unafraid of looking the ridiculous straight in the eye." But it's the moments that are just barely noted—Hammond's quick-haste dismissal of his slave mistress during a moment of violent determination the most damning—that make Mandingo a film that captures ideology without centering it. It's a film that doesn't ask us to gawk at atrocities through a pristine lens (though really a prestige lens), but to really look beyond surfaces to see what really makes a mind work when living in an paradoxical ideology.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Philippe Garrel's Jealousy

Jealousy, a 77-minute brisk waltz through a series of relationships (always ending, never beginning), is my choice for the film of the year. It's a film by Philippe Garrel, a director whose work extends back to the New Wave, but works here like the era never ended. Shot in black and white 35mm, it often feels like a relic of lost time, a slippage of memories carefully stitched together in the hope that one may learn from past mistakes. It opens with a woman crying and closes on a man staring blankly before turning off a light, and in between these shots is a search for truth in others, a fool's ambition.

"Love has its limits," an old mentor relays to Louis, played by Garrel's own son (also Louis). Louis claims his power to love beyond anything, but by this point we know there's a difference between what he says and what he's done. He's gone one wife and one to a second, Claudia (Anna Mouglalis), but it doesn't take him long to begin prospective kisses without any emotional warning. Louis and Claudia profess their undying love in one scene while always searching beyond the frame for something else. They occasionally hint at the deep seeded mistrust underneath their words of desire, which in fact only create the fuel for the titular emotion to begin a search outside their cramped apartment.