Monday, August 24, 2009

On the Interview in Film Criticism

While it won’t do to condemn wholesale an entire mode of film journalism, the undue emphasis on the director interview in contemporary criticism represents something of a troubling phenomenon. Of course the practice of a critic (or fellow lenser) sitting down for a tête-à-tête with a filmmaker is hardly unique to modern-day critical practice. But while classic and instructive examples of director interviews abound, and although the approach even at its most watered-down may yield some limited useful insights, when it becomes a substitute for actual criticism then this misplaced emphasis becomes more than a little worrying. (Even Cinema Scope, otherwise the most valuable print film journal of the day, loads its pages with so many interviews that I often leave half the magazine unread.)

Actually the real problem with the director interview – and particularly its most common form, the short-discussion-of-a-single-film – is that it presumes to place the filmmaker’s reading of his own work as the standard by which the final product ought to be judged. Joseph “Jon” Lanthier got at something like this quandary in a recent piece at the Bright Lights After Dark blog, although his discussion centered on the potentially damaging effects of the director’s statement provided in the film’s promotional packet rather than the interview. Lanthier based his argument on the horde of unfavorable critical comparisons of Carlos Sorin’s recent film The Window to Bergman’s classic Wild Strawberries, a comparison he found dubious but which was encouraged by Sorin’s own statement in the press notes. By taking up Sorin’s example, the critics judged The Window as an (unsuccessful) attempt to re-create something of the achievement of the Swedish classic, instead of judging the more recent film on its own merits. But as Lanthier correctly notes, “The role of the critic… should not be to didactically engage artists with respect to their "goals" -- after all, the best and most erudite of intentions does not make a great film.”

But such mistaken attitudes run deep, a throwback, as Lanthier suggests, to 19th-century romantic notions of the artist as godlike creative force. Bluntly stated by critics such as Barry Salt – who proudly offers “the degree to which the film-maker has fulfilled his intentions in the finished film” as one of his three criteria for the “objective” evaluation of movies and which renders his classic 1983 text Film Style and Technology as useless as criticism as it is valuable as history – this adherence to the myth of authorial intent finds its most widespread contemporary application in the prevalence of the director interview. Even a quick glance at a recent Q-and-A in the first rate online film journal Reverse Shot (no mere puff piece, this) reveals the ease with which the interviewer tends to seek out the filmmaker’s direct help in reading his work. Discussing the recent film Lorna’s Silence with the directors, the Dardenne brothers, Damon Smith asks the duo, “would you say that Lorna engages in an act of faith, then, when she decides to help Claudy- when she gradually comes to recognize his humanity?” a question that not only attempts to use directorial intent as the basis for interpreting one of the film’s key moments, but which plays neatly into the filmmakers’ well-known predilection for viewing their work in religious/spiritual terms. Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s thoughtful response to Smith’s question may offer new ways of looking at the film, but because of the false authority that tends to adhere to an artist’s direct word, such a line of inquiry ends by being far more damaging than it is useful.

None of which is to say that a film – or any work of art – should be viewed as a thing apart, untouched by a myriad of circumstances – economic, social, personal – that need to be taken into account in its evaluation. Nor is it desirable that the film be judged strictly on what flickers across the screen with no regard for any extra-textual criteria. Which is why the director interview may have some limited valuable application – so long as the interviewer scrupulously avoids any questions of interpretation. For example, it may be useful to obtain information about the material conditions of the production as well as the director’s working methods – a store of knowledge that can aid the critic in more accurately discussing how the director’s technical decision-making helps create meaning. It may also be useful to know if the filmmaker has drawn specifically on an outside text, familiarity with which may enhance the viewer’s understanding of the work. (This is not to be confused with Sorin’s statements about Wild Strawberries serving as a vague point of reference for his own film – I’m talking here about direct sources of allusion or adaptation.) Finally, the director might be able to fill us in on the historical circumstances surrounding the film’s narrative (provided it draws on a historical setting), although the curious viewer could just as easily look this information up. But even were the interviewer to stick strictly to this small list of allowable questions, it would still be extremely difficult to avoid moving from a useful probing into background information to direct interpretation, so thin is the line between the two modes of inquiry. And since the large majority of interviews start from the point of view that authorial intent is a valid basis for critical interpretation, there’s too often no effort to avoid crossing that line to begin with.

Monday, August 17, 2009

New Releases: Art and Copy and Sikandar

In review this week are Doug Pray's fawning ad-world documentary, Art and Copy and Piyush Jha's Bollywood morality play Sikandar, though both come up far short of the week's real keeper, Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman, reviewed below. Also up: a short piece on Basil Dearden's 1962 gay blackmail drama, Victim.

The Headless Woman

An object for endless study, Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman is – though this doesn’t come close to exhausting its achievement – a remarkable experiment in controlled perspective. It’s like watching yourself inside a dream – uncomprehending, illogical – everyone’s looking at you like you’re crazy (and maybe you are you) but you’re not quite sure why. After middle-aged Argentinean dentist Verónica (María Onetta) hits a dog with her car on a country road (or is it a young Indian boy? – she doesn’t stop to check and the image we get of the dog is of uncertain perspective – whose point-of-view is this anyway?), her place in her comfortable world – along with the stability of her viewpoint (and the film’s) – begins to crumble. (You might say she starts to lose her cabeza.) But Martel’s always in sharp command, keeping us close to Veró’s headspace, even as we’re never permitted to penetrate her consciousness; keying almost every shot to her perspective, even as the filmmaker rarely offers up direct p.o.v.s. Instead a typical framing might go something like this: Onetta’s head wedged into one side of the 'scope screen, the background mostly out-of-focus or, when it isn’t, revealing a flattened space with characters neatly arrayed, whispering half-audibly. The whole thing’s disorienting, but it’s absolutely precise in its rendering of disorientation – an achievement enhanced by the audio mix which isolates certain sounds, mutes others and generally keeps things off balance.

All of which serves to chart Veró’s increasing distance from her husband, family and overall lifestyle which, Martel makes clear, relies on a bevy of impoverished Indians serving a small group of light-skinned masters, cooking their meals, washing their cars, delivering their plants. Is Veró’s growing insistence that she hit a boy with her car – despite initial evidence to the contrary – an expression of bourgeois guilt? It’s hard to say. The lead character’s mostly a blank - we may share her disorientation but not her thoughts. But what is certain is that the ass-covering reactions of her male relatives to the possibility of vehicular homicide are clear enough expressions of bourgeois irresponsibility. Either way, the question remains: what exactly did she hit? But maybe that’s the wrong question to be asking. In a film as calculatingly oblique as this one any sense of a stable actuality is nebulous at best. Especially given the ending, when just as Veró seems to be making some kind of readjustment to her (now discredited) lifestyle, her notion of reality slips away entirely and, in Martel’s fevered rendering, the world at last becomes a literal blur.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Second Sight

The ten films screening as part of Anthology Film Archives’ upcoming One-Eyed Auteurs series (with the possible exception of André de Toth’s Pitfall and Ramrod, neither of which I was able to see) offer only two examples of characters with missing or damaged peepers, both of them blink-and-you’ll-miss-it brief. Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James finds a group of post-1865 Northerners lynching a one-eyed fellow who rode with Quantrill’s Raiders during the War, while in Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet, Stewart Granger dispenses with an attacker by throwing a blunt object at his ocular organ, severely bloodying the socket and causing the man to fall off a cliff.

To read the rest of this piece, please continue to The L Magazine.

New Releases: Ponyo, Taxidermia, Cloud 9 and Earth Days

Of the four films I covered this week for Slant and The L Magazine, Ponyo was the most entertaining, Taxidermia was the most, um, vivid (see pic to the right) and Cloud 9 the most successful, despite its more modest claims. Also in review, Robert Stone's eco-doc Earth Days.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

You, the Living

A master of the comic-miserablist mise-en-scène, Roy Andersson stages some of the funniest and/or most despairing scenes this side of Buñuel (to name only the most obvious influence). Or rather stages tableaux, since his latest feature, You, the Living consists of a few dozen mostly static shots in which both the misery of the characters (always apparent to them) and the absurdly humorous nature of their plight (only discernible by the viewer) are built directly into the staging. Eschewing anything in the nature of narrative progression, Andersson trains his pitiless camera on a cross-section of a Swedish town’s overweight, underpaid, worn-down denizens suffering their daily humiliations, fixing them in medium or long shot against a backdrop of the drabbest color scheme (beiges, off-whites, faded yellows) imaginable.

In one scene, a character blows a solitary tuba while sitting on a kitchen chair, the gold of the brass instrument shining out like a rare beacon against the apartment’s sparsely appointed interior. His wife enters the room, screaming, but the man continues playing, undisturbed. The next shot finds his downstairs neighbor banging a broom handle on the ceiling to shut him up but only succeeding in dislodging a lamp and chipping away at the plaster. The comic pay-off comes in the third shot in the sequence where a neighbor watches from a nearby balcony. Taking in both of the previous scenes at once, the long view brings with it the comedy of futility as one man pursues his solitary means of enjoyment while alienating those around him, and another compounds his frustration with further reminders of his total impotence.

Our lone tuba player is far from the only musician in You, the Living where music becomes one of three potential wards against a total capitulation to misery. Many of the film’s male characters play instruments and several participate in various New Orleans-style ensembles and marching bands, while two of the female characters are granted vocal solos of their own. But despite the occasional coming together for the shared performance of music – the communality of which is undercut by a mid-coitus monologue in which one musician exposes band work as nothing more than a not-very lucrative job – the men’s playing is usually seen as a solitary activity that annoys their wives and neighbors, even as it brings them isolated moments of pleasure.

Another possible means of escape in You, the Living is through the medium of dreams. But there’s no guarantee that these dreams will be pleasant. One character relates a particularly vivid nightmare – which Andersson then dramatizes – in which his failed attempts to enliven a dinner party by staging the old parlor trick where he pulls out the tablecloth from under the dishes leads to his execution by electric chair. Again, the comedy is all in the mise-en-scène: the dull guests arrayed around the absurdly elongated table, our hapless man making several futile adjustments to the china before proceeding, everyone aware throughout the preparations of impending disaster.

But dreams may also serve a positive function, even as they provide but a temporary escape from reality. In an unexpected moment of sublimity, a young woman relates her fantasy – again dramatized by Andersson – in which she marries the lead singer of a local rock band, a man who in real life had jilted her and for whom she still pines. As the girl rests happily on the bed in her wedding dress, her man sits on a kitchen chair wailing away on his guitar and tossing smiles her way, the scene redolent of a genuine domestic bliss. Eventually we notice the scenery outside the kitchen window changing and we realize that their apartment is moving along tracks as if it were a train. When they pull into the station, there’s a crowd of people – comprised of most of the characters we’ve seen so far in the film – greeting them warmly, pleased to catch a glimpse of the happy couple.

For Andersson, the final means of coming to some sort of acceptance of a world of woe is to adopt an absurdist’s perspective on the proceedings. While none of the characters in You, the Living seem cosmically aware enough to pursue such an option – those with some self-awareness, such as a worn-out shrink, simply bewail their fate – the filmmaker himself takes up this viewpoint, boldly transmitting his perspective to the audience. To be sure, it probably wouldn’t seem very funny for a fabric salesmen to sell an elderly couple a piece of material while bemoaning a recent fight with his wife, but because the director frames him against a comically massive wall of samples and because we’ve just seen his wife expressing similar regrets in the previous scene, the set-up refracts the situation into something like a cosmic joke. In fact, this sense of humorous absurdity – along with a total commitment to his worldview – is what prevents Andersson’s undeniably bleak orientation from turning his film into a dismal wallow. Without this comic perspective, You, the Living would be little more than a work of pointless miserablism; with it, it takes its place alongside such wonderfully strange objects as George Lewis’ Homage to Charles Parker and Herman Melville’s Pierre, one of those rare and inimitable works of art.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

New Releases: Beeswax and Paper Heart

My latest reviews for Slant Magazine cover Andrew Bujalski's winning new feature Beeswax and Nick Jasenovec and Charlyne Yi's less accomplished investigation into the nature of love, Paper Heart. Read accordingly.

In other news, my good friend Javier Milligan who runs the fine website EnlightenMeNYC recently asked me to participate in an interview about my activities as a film writer, my approach to criticism and other related topics. The results have now been posted at his site.