31 mars 2007

DIGEST : Mars 2007

Unreviewed screenings, current reads, links, recommendations, free talk, questions, thoughts, informal conversation, anything... comments welcome.

>> updates below (sticky entry for a month)

29 mars 2007

Digital filmotheque of Alexandria

"Digitizing film ashes"

Following the recent debate around a universal cinema digital database started by 3 articles in the New York Times (March 18 2007) :
Later put into perspective with a reality check and some ethical questions :

"A screen is a screen is a screen" (Dargis)

From the consumer's POV, maybe, but from a critic I'd expect a little more subtlety in comparing a Kinetoscope, a theatre and an iPod...The miniaturization of the image causes obvious aesthetic issues that we can't just ignore because everybody else doesn't mind. If the audience only cares for stories, whatever size they come in, critics at least should defend the inherent properties of a projected image and the fine details on a panoramic screen.
I prefer to hear critics complain about how the frame composition of a widescreen movie was optimized to fit the 4/3 TV ratio. Do we want the film grammar to become iPod-complient with adjusted colors and extreme close ups to compensate the end-size loss?

There are 3 ways to look at the situation. The consumer, the producer and the historian perspectives. Each have their own desirs and limitations. They aren't quite compatible.

  1. The average consumer wants access to fashionable movies, here and now, and doesn't care about copyright infringement or the way of living of its makers, cost of the digital-transfer, scarcity of the print, perenity of the source, authenticity of the version (director's cut, censorship, bootleg, betrayal of translation), profitability of the transaction. The consumer is not stubborn, if the download is not accessible it's easier to click on another title that could be seen now. There is too much choice, too little time and the unicity of films doesn't stand out to them. Movies are interchangeable commodities.
    Not everyone in the world wants to see every films ever made, even if they are available and free!
  2. The producer (in a broad sense, including director, copyright holders and distributors, everyone with financial interest) follows the natural law of the market : demand and supply. Popularity makes profitability. They want to reach the masses, the mainstream taste and sell a product to the wider population even if it means adapting non-offensive material, P.C. cuts. They want to invest in what can pay back, and prefer to shelf an item that becomes too costly to maintain available to the public. They don't have a long term historical perspective, but the terms of their bank loans. Perennity of "out-dated" (non-marketable) sources is not their priority.
  3. The historian (archive, scholars, festivals, critics, filmmakers, cinephiles) doesn't care about availabilty to the public, or profitability of any given title, but unlike everyone else, they care about the survival of films, undiscriminatively. And if we let films decay and get lost we'll never have a universal cinemathèque...

The priority here is not universal access to a miniaturized digital version of every movies, because that's not even what consumers ask for. Kristin Thompson explains very well how this utopia is not only unpractical, but also unreachable.
The priority is to save original prints! It's no time for arguments... film stocks' lives are limited and original colors fade away quickly.

Oddly enough Dargis and Scott both embrace the consumer perspective, in a blissful and naive technological utopia, without considering films that will never be digitzed. Instead of complaining about the poor distribution of foreign and older films on american theatre screens (ruled by Hollywood hegemony : 95% of projections!), critics in the New York Times apparently prefer to speculate on whatever might become available on iPods... as if it was a society column about new behaviors rather than their take on the fate of cinema.
Kristin Thompson checks the feasability of the operation assuming the Producer's perspective.

I'd like to ignore consumerism and capitalism for a moment, and recall the invaluable mission of Henri Langlois.
The idea of a Cinémathèque, that seems natural today, was born in total illegality. Thanksfully Langlois identified the only rightful priority before it was too late. Regardless for copyrights, legitimacy, maintenance or restoration costs, he went for the urgency and saved, stole, bribed, deceived, exchanged, bought on the black market everything he could. Many key treasures of cinema history would be unknown and forgotten for ever had he respected the rules and waited for funds or a commercial viability. The reason I mention Langlois is because the digital stage of film history brings up the same problems he once faced.
Clearly the idea of a universal cinematheque shall not be put in the hands of the market or copy right holders. Public availability is minor issue. I don't care if I can't watch all films I want, here and now, as long as I know the masters are all in a safe place and that they will make film prints or digital versions become accessible one day, to me or my children and their children.
The history of cinema is over 100 years old and it's about time its preservation should be taken into consideration on a global scale, as a worldwide heritage! We lost too many originals already.
Just like architectural sites meaningful to humanity are protected worldwide by international laws (UNESCO), we need an international consensus and uniformization of regulations, control and formats to ensure, facilitate and optimize the preservation of a maximum of films across the globe.

The superior ethical question is to protect the source material. Only afterward could you contemplate the wonders of making it available at the click of a mouse... And I don't care much which format the majority of consumers will choose to watch them on. We can't stop the progress of technology, and we can't control the (bad) habits of new generations. The critic is there to set an example not to encourage the latest ephemeral and silly trends. The VHS came and went, leaving us with the same problem of film masters unchanged.

  • It's intolerable, in the face of art history, that studios have the final decision on keeping films on the shelf for ever.
  • It's intolerable that countries who can't afford a decent restoration would let their archive perish.
  • It's intolerable that films keep on dying every year despite the available technology to save them today.

What can be done about it?

09 mars 2007

The Air Is On Fire!

david K lynch

I visited the David Lynch exhibition yesterday at the Paris Fondation Cartier. Having seen some of his paintings online already, some of his photographs and most of his short films/animation, I wasn't as overwhelmed/surprised as I imagined. The scenography is rough and colossal (industrial scafolding structures) but there are only 4 rooms to cross, bathed in a semi-darkness, kinda half-night. Although some of the pieces are really impressive and worth a direct contact. Others require some explanations/guidance... You can imagine the typical Lynchian soundscape resonating in the speakers, especially certain paintings have their own sound with a pushbutton.

There are about 30 canvas, and some big ones, bigger than me. The hall they are installed in is a glassbox where the sun casts changing shadows on the painting surfaces. They are in tune with the work he did at the Art School (like the ones we see in his short films : Six Figures Getting Sick only more abstract/trash formally and more focused on sexual trauma and dreamwork). He refused to order them chronologically so it's impossible to make correlation with the evolution of his filmography... it's a shame.

With his return to the roots in INLAND EMPIRE, especially the scene towards the end, when Nikki/Grace shoots The Phantom in the face, that looks a lot like one of his large canvas titled "This Man Was Shot 0.9502 Seconds Ago" from 2004 (see e-Cahiers Feb. 2007, p. 28). I would love to see him develop this kind of experimental video-collage palimpsest in his future features, as well as playing around with non-representional sculptures like he did in The Grandmother or Eraserhead. That would create captivating atmospheres, and shake up the classicist establishment of movies.

Although among his hundreds of doodles (on post-it's, napkins, script pages, bills...) we can note the current obsession with a certain movie, either by the inclusion of names, words or special design refering to one of his film. Hey there is even one doodle with "Jonathan Rosenbaum" written on it! aint it cool? are they friends? ;)
There are also tel numbers, addresses, overheard lines, various notes incorporated under the drawing or decorated around. This guy never stops drawing everywhere he goes it seems, on any material, with any pen and with a free wheel inspiration. More than with his films, we could talk of the surrealist gameplay of automatic writing for his doodles (or canvas). "Automatic doodle". The shapes developped to fill the page with geometrical pattern carefuly avoid the usual conventions of classicism symetry, orthogonality, equilibrium, continuity. Rarely does he include ready-made recognizable shapes, sometimes diformed characters. It's a universe of texture and lighting vibration rather than a representation. It's fascinating to see his constant research for original creativity, something that doesn't look like something else, new shapes, new signs, a life of its own striking the imagination of the viewer (and Lynch himself too obviously) in unexpected ways. It's a kind of a Rorschach inkblot test Lynch imposes onto himself. Or maybe the tentative re-enactment of a nightmare peculiar atmosphere. His canvas too eschew formality, but melting a 3D amorphous character into the background of the same color. Meanwhile he likes to add letters and words as if to spell out each elements, each action, each moment.

He has blown up a few of his doodle in large serigraphies, which highlights a powerful design with the scale leap (harmonious abstract composition, simple colors, graphical dynamics). Lynch says they'd make amazing rugs and I agree, a huge thick "contemporean design" carpet or a mural Aubusson tapestry (like Cocteau used to do).

The mini drawing of a room materialized into a piece of set we can walk in is a cool experience. The carpet is made out of a handdrawn pattern and the walls with childlike paintings, even funky furniture with soft edges.

They also installed a small theatre, with black curtains and the 4th wall opened, where Lynch's experimental shorts and web animation are projected in loop. There I watched Out Younder, Six Figures Getting Sick, The Alphabet and The Grandmother.
So it's funny to stand there watching his films, surrounded by his photographic work on the walls. I really like the wall projected films in exhibitions, it adds a multimedia experience and also decontextualize the animated image. It's like watching a movie in a cinema while walking around the room, without sitting at the same place all the time.
They do that at the Cinémathèque exhibitions too. Last year they projected Renoir films on the walls (next to Auguste Renoir paintings), Almodovar clips on transluscent panes hanging from the ceiling (visible from both sides), and for the German Expressionism exhibition too, loops of silent scenes next to the wall sized posters. Films used to animate screen-walls create such an interactive theatrality within our environment.

The Photoshop doctoring of old pornographic photographs or recent nudes, dismembering their bodies into alien shapes, is among the most interesting researches. We can feel a distant influence of Max Ernst collages, Dali's soft bodies, and of course Bacon's carnal butchery. Which takes a disturbing dimension when fabricated from photos of real-life people, rather than from paintings.

04 mars 2007

Cinema Talk Webcast Vault

You will find here various audio/video broadcast (radio, TV, internet, ciné-club, conference, YouTube) available online (permanently or temporarily) regarding the broad topic of cinema. Critics debate, weekly radio broadcasts, lectures, Cinémathèque Ciné-Club discussions, interviews, soundbytes... In French or English, from the past or the present.
Some links might go broken after a while (usually a week for the regular broadcasts), others are archived by the server, so you never know if they are still available.

I'll post all the audio links here, for archival purpose, instead of placing them in the monthly DIGEST posts. Feel free to add your own precious findings here and to discuss the content. The thread of comments will serve both as a link/updates log and open comments for visitors.

Access to this archive post from the Navigation Menu at the top of the sidebar. Subscribe to the updates of this post with this RSS feed.

Find below the links to websites with permanent collections of feeds, archive and links :




I Graduated But... (1929/Ozu)

Daigaku wa deta keredo / I graduated, but... (1929/Ozu Yasujiro/Japan)

10th B&W silent film made (Shochiku Kamata studio), 3rd surviving film (incomplete). Only 12 minutes remain from this feature length film, completed by intertitles. But it's not too difficult to follow the plot. Original screenplay by Hiroshi Shimizu, friend of Ozu. Filmed and released in the summer before the NY stock market crash (October 1929). The economic crisis is perceptible, young graduates struggle to find a job.

Tetsuo, the protagonist, is proud and turns down a receptionist job offer because it is not good enough for his level of qualification. When his mother visits him and his young wife, afraid to lose face, he lies about having found a great job. The japanese social status is identified through the work position held. It is primordial never to lose face in society. This distance between the fantasized role expected by the parents, the significant other, the neighbors, the colleagues... and a more modest reality is the root of many dramatical situations in japanese films. Saving appearances in the present is prioritized over the planning of a comfortable future. Thus extravagant expenses are made to impress visitors even if the family cannot afford it. Likewise the poor couple in The Only Son (1936), will sacrifice savings to honor the visiting mother.

Nevertheless he's happy to take out his mother for Tokyo sightseeings, but she's worried taking a day off from his new job would be impolite. So he's forced to live up to the condition of his lie, to wake up early and not spend time with his family like he'd want to.

After his mother left, he confesses to his wife through a visual cue, an interesting interplay between the silent image and the written intertitle. We see the cover of a "Sunday" newspaper, and the carton says "For me, everyday is like this". A discreet allusion, an euphemism, helping to communicate a shameful truth without the obligation of spelling it all out.

A wall-sized poster of Harold Lloyd's movie Speedy (1928/Ted Wild) takes a prominent place in the interior scenes, sometimes filling the entire background of a medium shot. I haven't seen this film, so I don't know what comparison we could thread from this citation. Although it's fascinating to see a contemporary foreign movie exposed this way, which is frequent in early Ozu silent films. The release of Speedy is only a few months earlier than I graduated, but...
We couldn't imagine this type of honor in today's cinema, with movies citing each other or showing the poster of last year's movie (except for intentional parodies), let alone the copyrights infringement and studio competition issues!

Ultimately, Tetsuo takes down his personal pride and lowers his expectations in order to find the smallest job at all costs, when he finds out the temporary job his wife has found to support the household was of a bar hostess, in a bar he visited with one of his student friend. We find this socially degrading situation in Brothers and Sisters of the Today Family (1941), where the unmarried daugther of a rich family is lectured by her older sister(-in-law?) about family humiliation. She's opposed to her project to take a job as a shop clerk, in the case she would face the humiliation to be served by her own relative.
The job of a bar hostess, who lights the cigarettes of customers, is also highly connoted sexualy.

Tetsuo comes back to the first company to accept the receptionist job. The moral lesson is well stated: His boss, who had a smirk and complicite looks with a colleague to emphasize the pressure in the first scene. Since Tetsuo has matured since their last interview, he concedes to give him a decent position in the company. It was only a test of modesty and submission to channel his young ego.

03 mars 2007

What Did the Lady Forget? (1937/Ozu)

Shukujo wa nani o wasureta ka / What Did the Lady Forget? (1937/Ozu Yasujiro/Japan) ++

37th B&W film made (Shochiku studio), 19th surviving film. 2nd Talky fiction.

Opening Sequence : Camera onboard a car, looking into the reflection of the back of a chrome spherical headlight. The car is driving across the rich neighborhood of a Tokyo suburb (Kojimachi). An odd shot we see in The Lady and The Beard (1931) and Dragnet Girl (1933), or in Epstein's La Glace à trois faces (1927).

Wealthy wives are established as castrating dominators in the house, controlling their husbands' timetable and activities, sharing gossips on neighbors and concerned by fashion and beauty. In an hilarious scene, the older lady tells the others how she muffles her laughter to avoid aging lines around the eyes. This ravishing comedy departs from Ozu's usual filmography (student films, mafia films, family drama) with an upperclass setting and a world essentialy dominated by powerful women.

Komiya, the husband, is a respected doctor at the university, cheerful and relaxed. We meet him his eyes into a binocular, answering the phone without looking away, and comfirming abruptly to the caller his sterilty from what he sees. Whereas at home he's bland and submissive. He lies and hides away to pass the compulsary golf weekend imposed by his ruling wife, Tokio.

The arrival of their liberated niece from Osaka, Setsuko, will expose the contradictions of their sustained routine. Setsuko, 16 yold, came to Tokyo for its modern life, and feels sorry for what she finds in this backward household. She wears western clothes, drives, smokes, drinks sake, and goes to the Geisha house. The spoiled brat of a rich provincial family, but so cute and high-spirited. Unexpectedly, as open-minded as she may be, she lectures her uncle for his passive attitude, and begs him to take control of the house back like a real man, even suggesting to beat his wife!

"I drink upon occasion, sometimes upon no occasion." Don Quixote

Ozu films twice this citation written in big letters above the bar counter, in a slow Close Up shot revealing word after word. We also see this citation in the bar of the film The Munekata Sisters (1950).
There is a scene in a Kabuki theatre where we see the faces of the audience, but never the stage, only music and voices are heard off screen.
Again Ozu repeats the trick at the Geisha house, until he finally films the dance number of 2 geishas in a long uninterrupted take!

Many comical situations punctuate the little household until the secret is discovered. Notably another hilarious scene where Komiya is supposed to lecture the undisciplined niece, but was asking her a favor instead, as his wife enters and they fake the argument.
Finally, Komiya explains to the young girl that sometimes a man should take the "opposite approach" : to let the wife believe she's in control. And she automatically notices this gimmick in the behavior of her boyfriend because he seems to approve whatever she says too often. A great comedic treatment of a critique of the conversational phrases and the mundane etiquette, just like in Ohayo (1959).

The ending is beautiful! After telling her (admirative) friends she got slapped in the face, almost proud, Tokio is transformed, in love again, as if she had lost hope in the virility of her husband. Back home she's all sweet and treats her husband with a late coffee, even though he's afraid to be unable to sleep if he takes a cup. Precisely it's what she has in mind. And he understands her unspoken desire while she's away, with a smile on his face. In one ultimate stationary shot : the lights go down in the house, one by one. All excited he walks in circle, backlit in the bedroom. And his wife comes back with the coffee at the end of the corridor. Black. The End. Isn't it a more subtle and amusing allegory for marital sex than Hitchcock's train/tunnel or fireworks metaphors? ;)

(s) + (w) ++ (m) ++ (i) ++ (c) +