August 16, 2009

Menander and the spirit of comedy

"The sum of all philosophy is this:
Thou art a man -- there breathes no other creature
more liable to sudden rise and fall."

I discovered this argument in Farquhar, but I'm sure it exists elsewhere: Aristotle was not a poet, and his philosophy of poetry, which remained standard for the classical art for so long a time, is empty. But this isn't an argument against dated ideals of narrative and form; it is rather a lament that so few philosophers are poets and so few poets philosophers, though both often like to think of themselves as the other. I write this out of admiration for those who have been both, and in particular those comic poets close to my heart who navigate wit and buffoonery with enlightened fire and a sophisticated understanding of the human condition -- whatever that may be. I don't mean the didactic or sentimental writers who show good conquering bad; I don't mean social satires or farces of manner; I mean the immortal comic spirit Absurdity, which recognizes that we are all hopeless, forsaken idiots -- with dignity. We are fools who think ourselves wise; beasts who thinks ourselves beauties; apes who think ourselves gods; mortals who think ourselves eternal. We are not ourselves but our dreams. Comedy expresses this truth (but not with jokes; comedy needs no jokes); this spirit needs compassion, patience, humility, sincerity. There one finds the philosopher of the poet.

You have my admiration, lost Menander. You too, Marivaux. And you, Lubitsch. May your philosophy keep me humble, your comedy keep me a fool.

August 11, 2009

by the bluest of seas

Reading through various professional and not-so-professional online writings about By the Bluest of Seas (1936), I still find myself unsure what to say about the film. Something helpful -- Eisenschitz writes:
No lesson taught, no exemplary characters: a loose sequence of events within a tight structure. From Miss Mend onwards, Barnet made his films by setting in motion a variety of characters and events, quite independent of each other, then organizing their intersection. The structure is as rigorously planned as in By the Bluest of Seas, which ends as it began, with all the narrative relationships, the dynamics of scenes and gags, arranged symmetrically. But within this scrupulous equilibrium, everything is constantly displaced. Once the point of a scene or a shot is established, it is immediately side-stepped, as if being shown through the wrong end of a telescope, or at least not developed. The rules of American (and indeed of Soviet pre-war) cinema -- maximum impact and maximum economy, following the shortest line from one point in the story to the next -- were not Barnet's, even if he knew how to make use of them.
I think this description is accurate, although it turns what I saw as utter simplicity into something more formal and dynamic. There are so many bizarre details in By the Bluest of Seas that are just sort of skipped over, lost to the simplicity of the characters and story. For example, Yussuf and Aliosha are arguing in the ship's cabin, a storm kicking up on the seas around them. Water starts spilling in from the deck. A rather large wave of water splashes down between the two and, suddenly, Misha is standing there, the object of their argument. Do they see if she's unharmed? Do they pay any attention to the storm that is putting them in danger? They smile and talk about their relationship, the conflict of the whole film. All the characters are reduced to this simplicity, thinking only of their love and nothing else. All narratives, in some way, simplify their characters and situations, but I could not have expected this. And I'm still not sure how to think about it.

Iosselliani writes:
I fell in love with [Barnet] the first time I saw By the Bluest of Seas. It was in the editing class given by Felonov, an excellent teacher, who told us: ‘There is no logic to this film, none at all, and no measurement, but it is very well filmed.’ (He was used to measuring everything and thought that all films were calculated). ‘It is very well made. I am not teaching you the craft in order to follow this example. I noticed how much you liked it’ (I had badgered him to let me see it again on the editing table) ’so here it is, but don’t take it as an example. Even though it is better made than, say, Ivan the Terrible.’
If there is poetry in this simplicity, I think it is precisely in the film's illogical rhythm and bizarre details. Logical connections absent, poetic connections are really all that remain. As illogical and bizarre as the moment when Misha breaks her necklace-present is, it remains hypnotic and attractive.

Several writers highlight the film's cinematography, but I don't think I can support their arguments. The camera is generally as simple as the story (although the editing is more complex). It seems the film was shot in a color version, but only black&white survives -- could it be the film looked better in color? Considering the location, I imagine so. I'm not sure it's fair to judge the film's camera (whether praise or dismissal) based on the b&w.

Just about every writer says that Barnet is a "lost Soviet master." I can't support this argument either. Although we tend to think of early Soviet cinema as a highly modern, politicized, montage cinema, we forget that such films made up a small portion of total Soviet output; thanks to the film critics, who brought the intellectual Soviet cinema to an international audience and enshrined them in film history, most early Soviet cinema is completely unknown to the world. Barnet may not have fit well into the montage aesthetic (which is what, people argue, keeps him out of the canon); but how well did he fit into the commercial aesthetic? Until we know about the commercial domestic Soviet cinema, we ought to be cautious about approaching Barnet. He seems to me much more in the domestic mode, and By the Bluest of Seas reminded me at times of a couple of other bizarre quasi-musical socialist realist films of the period, Jolly Fellows (1934) and Circus (1936). Where does Barnet fit in? Also, what was the co-director's (Mardanin's) contribution to the film? No one seems to mention him.

Overall, I approach this film with a lot of hesitation. I can't articulate what has made this film enduring nor where it belongs in history.

[Written in response to sidehacker's MoM.]

August 05, 2009

cafe lumiere

Although I know I have become more mellow when watching movies, I did not expect such plain evidence: a year ago I would have hated Café Lumière (2003); not only do I have the patience for it today, I find that I (almost) kind of love it.