October 27, 2009

under the bridges (1945)

"Unter den Brücken is actually my favorite film. Anyone who sees it today would not be able to understand that at the time, when there was no future any more and Germany's final collapse was a question of days, it was possible to film such a simple, almost idyllic story.... When I really think about it, what we did arose from the film makers' stubbornness to allow any of the horror which surrounded us to seep into our work." -Helmut Käutner, director


Under the Bridges is available on an R2 DVD by FilmMuseum.

I found the Käutner quote in Silberman's German Cinema: Texts in Context, in a note to Ch.6 (about Käutner's
Romance in a Minor Key). It comes from an interview Käutner did with a certain Henning Harmssen, though I can't find the text of this interview on the web. Please tell me if you know where to find the full interview (in English).

For more on Käutner, see: Who is Helmut Käutner? review, Film Reference, Film Among the Ruins. For a review of
Under the Bridges, see Shooting Down Pictures.

Although there seems to be academic interest in Third Reich films, there isn't much critical interest. The reasons are clear, but perhaps mistaken. We politicize and other Nazi Germany, and it might be difficult to approach these films in any other way; but the skill I witnessed here warrants investigation. What fascinates me most, illustrated by the director's quote above, is the desperate affirmation of life in a time of death -- and this perhaps is what draws me to escapism, that wonderfully dark void beneath the naive charm. With simplicity and beauty, terror; one crosses to death not with tears but with song. Am I alone in this affinity?

October 21, 2009

le pont du nord (1981)

There doesn't seem to be much written about Le pont du nord (in English). Most of the reviews state the obvious facts and obsess over the nebulous plot. The most interesting mention of the film is made by Deleuze (interesting, but not very helpful). For such a rich and difficult film, this lack of academic interest is unfortunate, and I am left with the feeling that I missed the film's most vital and interesting points.

Rivette is a tough nut, and I don't have the energy to crack him. But a couple of things really appealed to me about Le pont du nord. First is the theme of play, common in Rivette. The two women, Marie and Baptiste, are drawn into the abstract mystery as players and participate as though it were a game. The game itself is mediated by the map of Paris. See, they're playing:

According to their explanation of it, they are supposed to get through each trap without getting caught in them, and after that they win. Most of the traps are obvious (Prison), but some of them are curiously mundane (the Inn). The traps are located in Paris, according to the map the pair have gotten hold of which divides Paris into a nautilus-like spiral. (The game is called Game of the Goose in English. I have never before heard of it.) This mapping from game to city seems like it might be an important symbolic point. More on this later.

The two women bounce around Paris to complete their goal and get further and further involved in the sinister, completely senseless mystery. Game and reality intertwine. How does play function in reality? Play and sobering life cross at several crucial moments (more so as they near the end), but unlike other narratives which approach this conflict, in which the play and reality eventually clash to the demise of one, here they complement, blend to the point of being indistinguishable. Importantly, the film ends with play; Baptiste gets a lesson in fighting imaginary foes. What is real? What has happened?

The blend of play/life calls into question the experience of film. As people seem to take note of, Le pont du nord is an unpolished production -- one catches glimpses of the camera, mic, and moving corpses. Everything feels relaxed and amateur. Everything, if I may say it, feels like play. This connection is an important one. As viewers at play in cinema, we (usually) ask that reality (in the form of the filmmakers, or references to the world as it exists beyond the narrative) be completely absent from our experience. Does the knowledge that the filmmakers are playing (which is a reference to reality) change the way the viewer plays? (It does, of course, and people have noted this for a long time; I'm just rephrasing the question; playing with my perspective.)

The other important point I seized upon is the use of space. Marie, having just been released from prison, likes "wide open spaces." And, appropriately, the film is nothing but wide open spaces, being shot almost entirely outdoors. Parisian streets dominate the film, dominate the whole experience. Aside from the psychological impact of spending two hours in the streets, however, Rivette is making (I suspect) a deeper comment about Paris.

Several reviewers (including Deleuze) have noted similarities between the film and Don Quixote. Having not read the book (and not being a lit person), the allusion doesn't mean much to me. But yet, somehow, I want to connect Don Quixote's displacement in a changing landscape to Le pont du nord. Present throughout the film are cranes and construction sites, in various stages of construction or demolition. And with the dragon Baptiste battles the environment becomes a full faux-sinister comment on modernity (what?). Rawr:

What does this have to say about Paris of the time? About the social climate? Rivette was definitely saying something; indeed, for all its negativity the NYTimes review provides us with a very important clue:
At the press conference after yesterday's press screening, Mr. Rivette reported that the film was a collaborative effort, made last year in Paris by him, Bulle Ogier and Pascale Ogier (Bulle's daughter), and Suzanne Schiffman without a script. Together, he said, they wanted to make a film about what it was like to live in the France of the then-President Valery Giscard d'Estaing. They were convinced, he said, that President Giscard would be re-elected.
Paris under President Giscard. I certainly don't know anything about this. Is the film critical or optimistic? I wish somebody who knew this stuff would come in and help me out.

Thus the mapping of Paris takes on a new importance. What do those traps signify? The Prison? The Inn? The Bridge? Why is Baptiste so terrified of surveillance? And Marie of enclosed spaces? What are these wide open spaces? The dragon? The stone lions (all male; symbolic of power; which Baptiste seems to find annoying)? How does it all relate to Paris?

Je ne sais pas.

Where are you, scholars? I demand this film be un-puzzled for me.

Links to (mostly blog) reviews:
Fabrice Ziolkowski
Cinema Talk
Only the Cinema
The Face Knife
Wonders in the Dark

October 18, 2009

film as play

In philosophy, the notion of art as "play" has appeared as early as Plato and Aristotle, and has an important place in Kant's aesthetics. Others have shared this idea. Consider these two quotes from the fifteenth letter in Schiller's On the Aesthetic Education of Man:
1. Man is only serious with the agreeable, the good, the perfect; but with Beauty he plays.
2. Man plays only when he is in the full sense of the word a man, and
he is only wholly Man when he is playing.
Not that his are arguments I want to make, but play forms a vital part of Schiller's philosophy. It forms a vital, if small, part of the philosophy of art in general. Why then have I not seen it earnestly applied to film?

Film and play seem a natural fit. Although the rigid commercial production of a film may diminish the chance for play by filmmakers (who has time for play with a deadline and budget?), the spectator at least sits in a theater determined to depart into imagination. At the cinema, we are all at play. We project ourselves into the image, are consumed by it. And, as with all play, we play with film to grow: we experience all sorts of new situations, emotions, ideas.

I have felt remarkably clear-headed in these few days I've thought of film as play. Films become less heavy. They are no longer the monoliths of ideology recent film theory says they are; enculturation is no longer a sinister perpetuation of existing structures, but a curious exploration of worldviews. (This is not to say that those worldviews aren't harmful....) But I think it is the scientist in me that finds this idea most appealing. Play has many legitimate biological functions, and, by thinking of play as a biological product, one can map our genetically prescribed rules to their cultural consequences (like film, or art in general).

According to a few quick google searches, lots of people have been researching the biological, cultural, and social functions of play recently. I hope this interest crosses over to film soon. That it hasn't been important before now is odd, especially considering the rise of interactive media like the internet and video games; video game theory has been heavily influenced by film theory, so why hasn't film theory yet embraced video games? Good question. I think I'll go play Monkey Ball.

I read Friedrich Schiller's On the Aesthetic Education of Man by accident after finding it in a pile of Russian history books. It's not an easy read, and, unless you are interested in Schiller or philosophy, I'm not sure it's worth it. Consider this a mild warning from a mild mind.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good overview of Kant's aesthetics. More film people ought to have philosophy backgrounds (rather than half-learning the philosophies of complicated critical theory, which is what I am being exposed to in class right now).

Here's a thoughtful look at video games and the philosophy of art. This is a subject I need to explore further. The author's reading list looks great; that Homo Ludens book in particular interests me.

Finally, while browsing articles on the subject of art as play on the internet, I came across the Marxist thinker Plekhanov, and the essay Historical Materialism and the Arts. There is something refreshingly honest and naive about his Marxist approach, absent the complicated cultural criticism Marxism has become since the latter half of the 20th century. I am particularly interested in his thoughts on art as imitative and/or antithetic. This link is sort of off-topic and I expect it won't grab many people's attention, but I think it's worth reading.

October 14, 2009

la bohème (1926)

Have I never noticed Gish before? I suppose I have (what else but Gish to love in True Heart Susie (1919)?), but all her minute girly gestures struck me hardest here (perhaps because the picture does not have much else going on...). Gish, you intrigue me.

There are things that both draw me to and repulse me from hardcore Woman's Pictures like this. There is something wonderfully compelling about classical, honest tragedy on film, something beautifully perverse about pretending to sacrifice one's life for love. But why is a woman sacrificing for a man, especially one as boring as John Gilbert? Sure he cries and repents at the end, but he's still soaking up her glory, unforgivably forgiven for his earlier jealous thrashing. Not a fellow worth dying for.

And yet... No, Gish dies for vanity. She dies a woman's dream, a martyr for her man, a virgin saint who cares nothing for herself and everything for her love. To project yourself as a martyr -- is there no better way to please your ego? To satisfy your vanity? I suppose this is the ultimate appeal of the Woman's Picture; housewives weep as they imagine their own sacrifices embodied by Gish. Women die for love, men for courage, intellectuals for wisdom. We all die for vanity.

The early Hollywood perception of artists is, in many ways, odd, perhaps mostly naive. There seems to be no reason (save perhaps fidelity to the source material) for this film to be set among artists, except to exploit the cliche that they are poor and starving (which is a major impetus for the characters, after all). Disappointingly, the film only lightly suggests that artists live without much regard for broader social norms (another favorite cliche; see: Design for Living (1933), a much more satisfying bohemian portrait), and, beyond the first 15 minutes, the film seems to avoid references to art altogether. If one is to set a film in the Latin Quarter (even if it is to be a hardcore Woman's Picture), one ought to have some fun with it.

And Edward Everett Horton as an artist? Wrong, wrong, wrong. And so right! (Again, see: Design for Living.)

Back to Gish: what to make of the innocence fetish? She is eagerly fetishized by the camera, but instead of a sexual body (today's norm) it's a virginal face. I had never thought about it before, but this is really off-putting. I would rather ogle legs than innocence, knowing then at least how I feel about the image; but a Gish close-up is an uncomfortable mix of the filthy and pure, the sexual and impotent. She is the virgin whore. Angels are masturbating to her image. This is too much for me. Must the camera linger over her features? Must light caress her shape? Must men always fall at her feet?

And yet... Gish, you intrigue me.

October 01, 2009

my nights are more beautiful than your days (1989)

Screen grab stolen from Lauren. Read her short review.

I felt reckless after watching this movie. I wanted to channel their insane passion, their disregard for everything but love. An unfortunate desire for such a dull life. Brushing my teeth more vigorously did nothing but fleck my mirror with toothpaste. There is no room for reckless passion in my life. *sigh* But I suppose there is room for more Zulawksi.