Sunday, June 29, 2008

Razzle Dazzle

A New Historicist of the film avant-garde, Ken Jacobs isn't interested in simply deconstructing his text, but in situating it within its historical and material circumstances and using those circumstances to comment on the text's relationship to both the ideological conditions surrounding its creation and to their present day counterparts. In his latest work, Razzle Dazzle, Jacobs spins obsessive digital variations on a 1903 Edison short of the same name - depicting a circular fairground amusement ride - breaking down the image into every imaginable configuration - blow-ups, slow-mos, digital tomfoolery - until the image is rendered a near-complete abstraction - and flooding the screen with a oozing, unnatural red, as if scorching the film with acid or setting it afire.

But just as this strategy of obsessive deconstruction seems to exhaust the film's possibilities and threatens to reduce the project to complete meaninglessness, Jacobs cuts away to a series of situating near-contemporary texts - a set of stereoptican slides from the time period just before the advent of cinema - which he digitally manipulates so that they take on the third dimension generally denied to projected images. Continuing his exploration of a signature concern - the relationship between the perception of rounded reality and its necessarily flattened depiction when filtered into photographic image - the filmmaker sets these intertextual intrusions in surprising counterpoint to the Edison film which never registers as anything more than a series of splotches on a screen. If Jacobs strips the Edison of its myth-making illusion, then he illustrates how through the advent of digital technologies, a flat image can be made to move in the opposite direction, taking on the highly artificial (and highly potent) existence of a false reality, the primitive mode of representation transformed into Bazinian verisimilitude, actualité become actuality.

Signaling the film's final turn into explicitly political territory, Jacobs introduces a last set of intertextual elements, starting with a voice recording spoken by Edison himself extolling the virtues of imperialist expansion, a cause that had recently found its ideal expression in the Hearst-sponsored Spanish-American War. From here, a fresh set of contemporary films, depicting the war and its aftermath - a soldier leaving his wife to fulfill his patriotic duty only to return home wounded but full of honor, several battlefield pieces - appear and make explicit the links between the sort of jingoistic attitudes that allow for the perpetuation of such wars and the conditions surrounding the creation of Edison's fairground film. Created under the auspices of a pro-imperialist patriotism, Razzle Dazzle shows the domestic flipside of the coin: the mindless leisure that Americans are free to enjoy at home and the attitude of effortless entitlement that constitutes the tainted legacy with which the United States hoped to stamp the rest of the world. Any resemblance to the country's current international situation is, needless to say, wholly intentional.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Eight Miles High and The Order of Myths

My latest reviews for Slant Magazine cover Achim Bornak's disappointing biopic Eight Miles High and Margaret Brown's intriguing documentary The Order of Myths, both of which open in New York in July. Please follow the links to access the reviews.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Human Rights Watch International Film Festival

As part of Slant Magazine's coverage of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, I reviewed two films: Geeta V. Patel and Senain Kheshgi's Project Kashmir and Roger Weisberg's Critical Condition. Please follow the links to access the reviews.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard

If for Jean-Luc Godard, everything is, in fact, cinema - that is, the dividing line between personal life and on-camera expression, between documentary and fiction, is hopelessly blurred - then Richard Brody's approach to his subject in his new critical biography makes plenty of sense. Organized around the individual films in the director's oeuvre, Brody's book provides biographical information only in so much as it relates to what we see on screen - it's as if he's giving us a set of biographical footnotes to his readings of the films. And while this approach is largely refreshing in its resisting the cult of personality surrounding the legendary auteur that has completely overshadowed his actual cinematic output in recent years, it also gives Brody license to offer the occasional overly reductive (if nonetheless fascinating) reading of one or another of Godard's works. (In particular Brody reads most of the director's 1960s films principally as expressions of his troubled relationship with Anna Karina).

The primary narrative arc that Brody traces, though, is one of a complex negotiation between artist and medium, a story of all-consuming passion followed by disillusionment and finally a re-establishment of relationship on a new set of terms. From Godard's early cinephile days with the Cahiers group (when he extolled the virtues of Hawks and Hitchcock), Brody charts a growing dissatisfaction with standard cinematic forms which pushed the filmmaker in search of new modes of expression throughout the '60s. But he also traces Godard's growing political conscience which led him to reject his beloved Hollywood models as emblematic of an oppressive imperialist program at the very moment when all of France seemed to be convulsed with revolutionary fervor. Following the May '68 uprising, Godard began to question the primacy of the cinematic image, stripping his films down to an aesthetically drab, text-driven model which hammered home its didactic points with (in Brody's reading) little artistic interest. The book's long final section - and Brody, as a corrective to the dominant assessment of Godard's oeuvre, devotes more than half of his book to the filmmaker's '80s and '90s work - tracks the artist's slow rediscovery of the medium - assisted by his partner, the filmmaker Anne-Marie Miéville - a period filled with fascinating reflections on historical memory and the artist's role within the corporate mechanism as well as exhibiting a new-found lyricism, inspired by Godard's withdrawal from Paris and relocation to the relative purity of rural Switzerland.

One of the most fascinating threads running through Brody's book is the author's assertion of Godard's essentially conservative worldview, a way of looking at things that finds some rather odd and troubling expressions in the filmmaker's work. The common view of Godard may be of a confirmed leftist, but his was a slow-developing political consciousness and, even as he moved toward a more committed stance throughout the '60s - mirrored in his increasingly radical formal breakthroughs - he espoused an inarguably conservative conception of the patriarchal order, which presented the monogamous, subservient wife as its central figure. Later, after the filmmaker's radical period, this conservatism resurfaced, taking the form of an embrace of classical culture (including its more questionable assumptions) and a rejection of the plurality of urban modernity in favor of the supposedly purer virtues of an idealized nature.

But oddest of all are the expressions of anti-Semitism that crop up in Godard's work and in particular the filmmaker's reading of the Holocaust in relation to the history of cinema. According to Godard, 1945 represented the turning point - the authentic death - of the medium, and the industry's failure to provide images of the concentration camps during the war signaled the end of the medium's viability. From there, Jewish-dominated Hollywood, committed to a program of historical amnesia, consolidated its control of the world market and the art form began to die a slow death - all great films made since the end of the war being essentially laments for a defunct golden age. But Godard goes further in making explicit links between Nazi persecution of the Jews and the contemporary Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although Godard insists he's an anti-Zionist and not an anti-Semite, Brody cites a handful of genuinely anti-Semitic flowerings in Godard's recent work, even if the filmmaker's attitudes toward Judaism are more complex than the reductivist understanding usually signaled by that term.

This tracing of a single motif across the director's life and (especially) work is typical of Brody's approach, a strategy reflective of the author's reserved admiration for his subject and carried out with a typically probing intelligence. If at times, this approach borders on the schematic - a forcing of details to fit a seemingly pre-determined conclusion - it nonetheless deepens our understanding of the filmmaker's work. And by positing Godard's recent output as the culmination of his art, Brody forces us to reconsider our entire conception of a massive body of work that few people know in its entirety. This last achievement may, in the final analysis, prove to be the book's singular contribution to the body of cinematic literature.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Vive L'Amour

For that handful of fortunate viewers who caught Tsai Ming-Liang's Vive L'Amour back in 1994, it must have seemed rather extraordinary; certainly not without precedent, but decidedly singular in its conception of alienation as chiefly an aesthetic problem. True, Tsai's debut feature, 1992's Rebels of the Neon God had introduced much of the filmmaker's cinematic template - his static, long takes, his youth-centric Taipei milieu, the wordless interactions of his characters - but the earlier film was still reliant on a musical score - a robotic, bass-heavy throb repeated ad nauseum - and Tsai was still willing to treat young adulthood as a not entirely anti-social state-of-being. Hence that film's settings take in the familiar congregating centers of youth culture - the video arcade, the skating rink, the café - while the musical interjections neatly fill in the work's "dead spaces," absolving the viewer of the need to experience the full weight of empty duration.

To read the rest of the article, please continue to Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

Friday, June 6, 2008

A Keen Failure: Mother of Tears

Depending on your point of view, Dario Argento's Mother of Tears is either a delirious romp, complete with wonderfully ludicrous dialogue and generous helpings of stylized gore, or an okay bit of hokum that might be enjoyable if it weren't so disgusting. If I incline to the latter view, it's principally a matter of taste, but I find it difficult to embrace a film whose effect depends so heavily on finding humor in exaggeratedly bloody spectacle (an all too common strategy among contemporary filmmakers) as well as the intentional "badness" of the film's narrative presentation. To be sure the picture shows a vivid imagination at work; would that it was placed in the service of less dubious ends.

To read the rest of the article, please continue to The House Next Door.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Wedding Director and Red Roses and Petrol

This week, I make my Slant Magazine debut with a pair of reviews - one positive, one overwhelmingly negative - covering two new releases. Marco Bellochio's wonderfully dreamy concoction The Wedding Director plays for a six days at the Museum of Modern Art in New York starting this Wednesday, while Tamar Simon Hoff's disastrous Red Roses and Petrol opens on Friday, June 27th in limited release.