31 octobre 2007

Erice-Kiarostami Video-Lettres 2007 (2)

continuation from first video-letter post here (introduction of the exhibition here)

The unfolding of this diarist relationship is a fascinating glimpse at the psychology underlaying the confrontation to another creator. The first thing we notice is how each have understood the concept of the project and how they give their interpretation. The first four videos are already described and commented at Senses of Cinema.

  • VIDEO-LETTRE #1 : El Jardin del Pintor (Erice/Spain) VE to AK, 22 april 2005, 9'30"
I don't know if they pulled a straw or if he was just the first to draw. Victor Erice (V.E.) sends the first video-lettre, thus setting the standard for the series. 9 1/2 minutes of handheld miniDV color documentary with basic editing, sober voice over commentary, and Persian subtitles. V.E.'s hand is seen literaly writing down "to Abbas Kiarostami" on an envelope.

He films a mini home-made family documentary. His proposition is surprisingly "non-professional" (formally I mean, not that it was a bad thing), contrary to what we would expect from a seasoned auteur. We could say he takes it easy, and enjoys a nostalgic retrospect on his career as well as looking in the present to update the premise of his film as seen by the new generation. In any case, he doesn't engage in a skill showdown with Abbas Kiarostami (A.K.), it is simply a spontaneous exchange of personal videos to him. Far from being detrimental, it is a refreshing and touching moment of intimacy, filmed with a loving attention. It's also showing complicity with his counterpart, Abbas, who loves El Sol Del Membrillo (1972).
V.E. returns to the house of his friend Antonio Lopez, 13 years after the shooting of his film. The quince tree is still there, painted now by the painter's grandchildren, each with an artistic representation corresponding to their age (variations of colors, details, realism, composition).

  • VIDEO-LETTRE #2 : Mashhad/The Cow (Kiarostami/Iran) AK to VE, 5 Sept 2005, 10'
A.K.'s reply arrives 4 months later, after worrying everyone that this project would never take off. Was he disappointed by V.E.'s first video-lettre? Is he too busy to play the game? Is he victim of the creator's block, short of inspiration? Is he too impressed to know what to do next?

Unexpectedly, his first contribution has nothing to do with V.E.'s openning of the series. It is both disconcerting and exciting. Because it seems like A.K. is completely ignoring the collaborative project, but at the same time he affirms his freedom of expression and takes the project further, in a different direction. He seems to say they don't have to play ping-pong, they don't have to quote eachother, they don't have to make this project a self-referential conversation, but should instead open it to the world and explore surprising stylistic clashes.

A.K.'s hand is seen writing a postcard to Erice, all subtitled in Spanish. A brief voiceover introduces a memory from a recent drive in the country. This introduction appears to follow the model set up by Erice (coincidentally the running time is equivalent too), but what follows is totally unique. The title, he explained later, was a reference to an important milestone in Iranian cinema : Dariush Mehrjui's Gaav / The Cow (1969), an Iranian New Wave icon. Miguel Marías at Rouge pretends these video lettres (the first 4 at the time) are "definitely not major works", but when I see this piece I think this is one great cinematic achievement (my favorite of the series so far!), with the genial abstraction of the most basic material possible. All the more fascinating since it's so far from what Kiarostami usually does in his documentaristic and realistic filmography.

In successive stationary shots (extreme close up), A.K. presents us several views of some kind of a velvet drape, a gently waving flag with black and white patches. The shapes, animated curiously, are too abstracted to be recognized at first. And the soundtrack has a continuous ruminating noise, that should be a clue. A.K. actually maps the body of a cow in cautious detail, with artfully composed framing of certain parts. Each tableau is a living surface, with a furry texture, vibrating to a rhythmic pulse. This hilly skin covers organs and bones like a tensile fabric. Veins crawl right under the surface like snakes. The skin folds in the angles. Then we discover a section of tail, more agitated, and assume pudicaly the beginnning of pink tits with erotic sensuality. The video ends with a wider shot of the entire cow walking away surrounded by electric-green grass.

While V.E. cites his own film, A.K. cites the film of someone else. While V.E. comments on the past, A.K. proposes something new. While V.E. documents, A.K. creates.The antagonist and fertile polarities of the possibilities offered by this project are installed right there in only two videos.

  • VIDEO-LETTRE #3 : Arroyo de la Luz (Erice/Spain) VE to AK, 22 Oct 2005, 20'18"
6 weeks later, V.E. overcomes his frustration and persits in the dialogue his own pragmatical way. Attached to generate reverberations between lettres, he includes a cow toy in the first shot of his new video, next to a picture of him in his childhood photographed in B&W next to a cow. The voice over comments what we see laying on his desk, as a first-person point of view.
He had the excellent idea to show A.K.'s Where is the friend's home (1987) to a first grader classroom and film the following debate directed by the teacher. Now V.E. establishes a direct relation with A.K., showing him how his film is received and understood by the kids from another country. He also uses a documentary technique A.K. is very familiar with, as he used to film kids a lot for the Kanoon. We assist to a session of ciné-club for kids, with all their spontaneous, naive, innocent responses. They comment the story, the dilemma of the young hero and the justification to lie and disobey to his parents and his teacher. They pounder on the preference to get into trouble rather than let a friend get punished. And we are reminded of A.K.'s great documentaries on kids like First Case, Second Case (1979) or Homework (1989).

  • VIDEO-LETTRE #4 : The Quince (Kiarostami/Iran) AK to VE, dec 2005, 12'
One month later, A.K. replies with a less abstract piece, but still indulging in creative fiction rather than documentary. He's actually now responding to V.E.'s first video-lettre, like if he was catching up with the series. He uses images of the quince tree filmed by Erice to branch out his narrative to reality. Explaining a persian custom where the fruits hanging outside the property walls belong to the passer by, he says that Erice and Lopez didn't see one of the quince at the extremity of the branch, stretching out all the way to Iran, through a subtle transition. The quince is bombared by stones from the kids in the street trying to make it drop in their hands. But the quince rolls in the river, carried away by the stream. A jolly music accompanies the burelesque and naturalistic, wordless montage of close ups showing the quince tumbling down, swimming, diving and resurfacing. Until a shepherd picks it up, bite it and feed his sheep with. Last shot, wide open on a picturesque mountain landscape.
  • VIDEO-LETTRE #5 : José (Erice/Spain) VE to AK, 18 Jun 2006, 7'19"
6 months later, V.E. follows up A.K.'s story, with his documentary insight, comparing again the culture of their respective countries. He mimics A.K.'s last shot and films in Spain a rural shepherd taking his sheep out in the fields with his dogs. Resting under a tree, the shepherd watches A.K.'s mini-film on a video-iPod and comments. First he finds the time long, but has a nice word for the music. Once he sees the sheep his face lights up, finally he feels more at home within this odd technology. He feels compelled to give his expert appreciation about sheep matters. Erice has to notify him where this takes place. According to him, the Iranian shepherd does everything wrong because he uses a rod to hit the stray sheep, instead of marching ahead, like himself, to lead the herd. Although the Iranian shepherd works alone, without dogs... "The movie is gone, it doesn't work anymore..." The confrontation between cultures stops there.

To be continued...

28 octobre 2007

When do images turn into cinema?

"La photographie, c'est la vérité et le cinéma, c'est vingt-quatre fois la vérité par seconde"
(Godard, in Le Petit Soldat, 1961)

Everyone loves to cite this smartass moto even though it's all wrong. Photography is as fake as the shadows on the wall of Plato's cave. The realistic "ontology of the photographic image" Bazin defined was in comparison to paintings, within the realm of representational Arts, because the subjective interpretation of the artist disappeared in the capture of reality. Although nothing matches exactly with reality. Black&White (or approximated chemical colors), 2D, odorless. It's even inaccurate visually : proportions and perspective are determined by the type of lens. It is evidently an illusion of truth. An optical illusion, a delusion of the brains. It doesn't even have the 3D perception of human eyes (stereoscopy). The camera is a cyclops!

Moreover, the decomposition of a second in 24 still steps is an illusion of motion. It's all lies to exploit a loophole in the physiology of the human eye. We cannot perceive the flickering of quasi-identical frames when it goes over about 15fps. The retina remanency (eidetic memory) merges the frames together and only the subtle changes become obvious over time, creating an illusion of movement. But the cuts between unrelated frames at 24fps is always visible, we notice very well the changes from one shot to the next.

Cinema is the most realistic invention we have so far, but it's only a partial, approximated rendition of selective aspects of reality that only satisfies one of our five senses. It's an intellectualized vision-driven conception of "truth", but it's far from the subtle array of the most essential elements of reality. We tend to forget that this apparent "truth" requires the proverbial "suspension of disbelief".

* * *

In his last post, Girish talks about "single-frame films" of Michael Snow and asks interesting theoretical questions about the viewer's perception :

"So the real subject of this film seems to be: How do single-frame images get apprehended, combined and synthesized into something new by an act of the viewer’s creative participation, via the workings of human perceptual processes?"

The challenge of human visual perception is a fascinating subject to study for an artist, but isn't it an antithesis of cinema?
More than just a boring conundrum for theorists to solve, this particular film modality questions the definition of cinema and its own limitations. There is a fundamental distinction to be made, that is not solely aesthetical but ontological, between the art form called "cinema" and other visual art forms that are developping a different cognitive process, and therefore define a new separate medium. The problematics differentiating these visual art forms are the coherence between the production of the film strip and its restitution on screen, as well as its type of apprehention by the audience. Exploring the bounderies of the medium helps us to refine what cinema is about as an art form.

Function alone, doesn't create form.

The usage of a camera and a film projector doesn't suppose the production of a result that should be automatically called "cinema". For example, a slide show is not proper cinema. The visual stimuli operated by an optician to test our vision aren't either, even though it projects images before our eyes.

The realm of performance art and conceptual art may use the technical apparatus usually employed for cinema, to study and critic the process of projection, audience perception, visual recognition and reaction to a spectacle. They may study the physiological or mental process of human vision. But it doesn't mean that everything dealing with eyes and images shall therefore be "cinema". Cinema is not just a product of a mechanism. There is an intimate relation between the technical illusion and the magic revealed to our eyes.

What makes cinema?

"On rendrait bien mal compte de la découverte du cinéma en partant des découvertes techniques qui l'ont permise. Au contraire une réalisation approximative et compliquée de l'idée précède presque toujours la découverte industrielle qui peut seule en ouvrir l'application pratique. (...)
Ce serait donc renverser, au moins du point de vue psychologique, l'ordre concret de la causalité que de placer les découvertes scientifiques ou les techniques industrielles, qui tiendront une si grande place dans le dévelopment du cinéma, au principe de son "invention"."
(André Bazin, in Le Mythe du cinéma total, 1946)

Bazin laid out fundamental notions to understand the ontogenic realism of the photographic image. He didn't say cinema was about a projector or about series of images at a 24fps (a mechanical device allowing to restitute a "movie"). The essence of cinema is somewhere else.
He said specifically that the precursors of cinema (like Niepce, Muybridge, Marey) worked on the "analysis" of motion (decomposition of a kinetic form into still steps), while cinema seeks the "synthesis" of motion (reconstitution of kinetic form from stillness) and its mechanical reproduction. "Cinema" is not a technical, industrial, optical or chemical medium.
That's why I brought up the Godard quote above. Could we say if the essence of cinema is in the single frame (elementary unit), or in the viewer's experience of a stream of frames magically born to life (combination of the whole)?

The ontological definition of the medium is independant from its practical projection, it is defined by what happens between what is recorded and what the spectator experiences, on a mental level. Cinema is like a dream, it's a dialogue between conscious memory and sight. Cinema is in the head, not in the projector.

When the single-frame film reduces the shot length to one "subliminal image", they in fact negate everything cinema intents to do. They kill the "suspension of disbelief". We are self-conscious about watching a light show, and are unable to be immersed in another world. So is it still making "cinema" to turn a film projector into a high-speed slide show? The difference between a silde show and cinema is the continuity that transcends the accumulation of images into a new medium with higher properties. That's when images get the chance to become more than the sum of their parts. The nature of still photographs vanishes and the optical illusion recreates a new art form, distinct from photography.

Single-frame films fail to do that, purposefully. That's the point the artist wants to work on. It is of course intentionnal and accomplished by design. But it operates outside the very nature of cinema, in contradiction to its process of transmission.
To clash with the "cinematic" purpose, they emphasize the cuts instead of the images. Cinema lets the images impress the retina, single-frame films deny this intimate relationship between the image and the eye. They frustrate the eye by spamming it with an overwhelming quantity of informations too fast to register. They frustrate the visual conscience, not on a narrative level, but on a basic cognitive level.
The image loses its content, its graphical quality, its meaning, to become a brief undetermined stimulus, part of an informal ensemble without perceptual cohesion. And the eye loses its ability to make sense of the stimulus, to trigger a phantasmatic universe in the mind. Single-frames by-pass almost entirely the conscience and directly connect with the subconscious, through undigested, uncensored, unchecked subliminal messages. We get a general impression difficult to appreciate and an intellectual rationalization of the conceptual process that has little to do with the images content...

Images only become "cinema" when there is no longer images but a life of its own, through invisible combination. Cinema happens when the illusion starts to make us forget the apparatus. The "24fps" aspect is a backstage secret for professionals. If the result of this illusion happened with a different mechanical invention (like with the electronic scan of a TV screen, with tricolor lines or pixels instead of frames), we'd still meet the ontological nature of cinema that speaks to the mind with its own language. The frames are only the practical means to a greater end.

Read also Deleuze on singular frames.

19 octobre 2007

Erice-Kiarostami Video-Lettres 2007 (1)

Continuation from the introduction of the exhibition

An ongoing series of video-lettres between Victor Erice (V.E.) and Abbas Kiarostami (A.K.) comissionned by Alain Bergala and Jordi Ballo on the occasion of this
that opened in Barcelona (February 2006) with 4 videos, then 6 in Madrid (july 2006), and now 10 and counting in Paris (Septembre 2007).

This one-on-one correspondence between two auteurs is a new form of production in cinema, at least to this extant (to my knowledge). Godard did some video-lettres, the group Dziga Vertov also made ciné-tracts... it would be interesting to compare with other similar experiences. Anyway, these two auteurs are rather solitary and introverted, so it's extraordinary they would agree to commit to this idea and want to collaborate on a common work. Looking at this collection of videos we can see the exchange wasn't easy, nor entirely spontaneous. We can feel tensions, expectations, frustrations, provocations... all through ellipsis without spelling out what they really wanted to happen, with an utmost respect for the other's whimsical personality. And they also mentionned this with amusement during the conference :

Alain Bergala calls it an epistolary romance, like sharing a private diary, communicating with a lover.

A.K. says this exchange fills him with happiness. It's a change to make a film for a single known viewer. It's also a responsability to produce a video for someone who is anticipating it. It's like a marriage contract, a pact to bound eachother to write back and forth. To him it was a love mail, the transcendence of romantic correspondence, where the lover is an abstract archetype for all lovers in the world, not just a mail between A.K. and V.E.
He was moved when he received the first video-lettre, which V.E. had made subtitled in farsi already (or was it an idea of the curators?). The night when he received it, he was so proud he showed it to his guests, announcing it was a letter sent by a Spanish filmmaker friend of his.

V.E. says this correspondence took more an more importance in his life. Everytime he would see or read something of interest he would immediately imagine how to include it in the next video-letter to A.K. He cites Jean Renoir : "Je suis citoyen du cinématographe", to emphasize how isolated filmmakers are in our contemporean world and how they can reach out beyond political frontiers too around the world because they are all part of the cinema family.
He says how disappointed he was by A.K.'s first reply (The Cow) because it seemed totally unrelated to his, without any feedback on his initial proposition of dialogue. Especially since it took A.K. over 4 months to respond. V.E. had a feeling of unrequited love, and the curators, Bergala and Ballo had to comfort him and encourage him to pursue anyway, to go past the apparent coldness, to play the game.

"On one hand, obviously, the first DV letter which Víctor addressed to Abbas, the latter’s surprising answer, and the ensuing real exchange is a modern version of messages in the bottle – sent not only to communicate, but also in the knowledge that they would be shown to strangers, those who wander now through the rooms and corridors of this new Marienbad which is the exhibition, and thus the virtual meeting point of two lonely and distant filmmakers struggling for the survival of cinema as a way of reaching knowledge."
Risks and Revelations, Erice-Kiarostami: Correspondences (Miguel Marías, Rouge #9, May 2006)

They have a mutual admiration for eachother's work. A.K. said he could stop making films if he had made one like El Sol Del Membrillo. Which could explain why they are intimidated to take part into this dual project that will call for further interpretative comparisons. There is a reason why La Politique des Auteurs credits a single person for the coherence and fullness of a work... art is rarely a collaborative project. The idea born in the mind of a person shall be carried out to the finished product under the direction of the same person, otherwise compromises along to way to incorporate other subjectivities and creativity will pervert the integrity and unique depth of the artwork. That's what we see in this improvised video project that was intentionnaly unconcerted, unplanned and unnegociated. Both filmmakers filmed whatever, wherever, whenever they wanted without any requirements (that I know of) or unifying directions. The result is a little patchwork of ideas that is less significant aesthetically as a whole than it is, narratively, as a cumulative process, step by step. And it is in fact an open ended project that may or may not continue, privately or publicaly, after the exhibition is over.

I assume they had total freedom of style, length, subject and frequency. Except maybe the fact they had to film with a mini-DV for practical and financial reasons. The series is indeed quite varied in shape and size, which makes it richer and more lively. The videos run from 2'1/2 to 20 minutes. With or without music. With or without narrator commentary or onscreen indications. With a plotline or an abstract concept. With people or none. And the postage is spaced out from a few days, up to 7 months. The common trait might be they always use non-professionnal actors, regular people playing their own "role".

"Here we see writing, literally, on the screen. Language becomes a salient feature right from the beginning, with the subtitles (in Castillian Spanish and Persian) considered as part of the creation of the author, not as a later addition. (When the installation moves to France, new subtitles will have to be added – in a language both directors understand but which is not their native language.) (...)
The filmed letters link but are far from symmetrical. They link one to the next but they also link within the world of the writer. Erice’s cartas focus on children and their reactions to nature and to film. Kiarostami’s, in contrast, play with perspective. The pleasant asymmetry of the cartas both reveals and conceals the writer."
Letters to the World, Erice-Kiarostami: Correspondences (Linda C. Ehrlich, Senses of Cinema, Oct–Dec 2006)

Oddly enough, the language barrier was not an issue in itself. The first two lettres are subtitled in the recipient's language, as a friendly gesture across the barrier, but the others aren't. Probably not to clutter the screen with multiple translations as the exhibition will travel in different countries. The distance seems to be properly cinematic, corresponding to their understanding and practice of the video medium. Erice uses it as a homemade documentary. Kiarostami uses it as an art form. But it's interesting to notice how their attitude towards the project evolves after receiving the videos made by the other. A connection builds up, and an effect of emulation and mimetism seem to prevail and reveal a true friendship of kindred spirits. Though this convergence is not without mystery.

To be continued... here

* * *

These videos are available at the website of L'Institut de Recherche et d'Innovation du Centre Pompidou. (Click "Entrer" then click on "Films" at the top. The first 9 videos "Correspondance" are the series of video-letters, the number 8 combines 2 V.E. lettres, the second of which should be the 10th) I can't load them, I hope others can see them or that it will be fixed soon. The rest of this website is amazing too, featuring the project "Lignes de Temps", a new interactive analysis for visual medium.

13 octobre 2007

Deep focus and realism

In his latest blogpost, Do filmmakers deserve the last word? (October 10th, 2007), David Bordwell uncovers fascinating insights about the relationship between filmmaker's talking points and what the audience and critics make of them. In particular, the contextualization for the birth of the deep-focus critical concept, coming from Welles and Wyler's cinematographer, Gregg Toland, is incontestable, as Bazin appropriates the same talking points almost word for word. Gregg Toland lays out the principle of his revolutionary technique, "pan-focus", in a 1941 article. And Bazin re-uses it, under the name "profondeur de champ", in his essay "L'évolution du Langage" which dates from 1955, where Toland is never mentioned.

But I'm not sure Bazin would accept all Bordwell's implications as is :

  1. Bazin is a "plagiarist"
  2. Bazin's critical theory is shaped by publicity talking points
  3. Some "deep-focus" scenes from Citizen Kane were actually forged, thus disproves Bazin's theory of realism
  4. "Deep-focus" existed before Toland in pre-1920 cinema

I'm not arguing with (1), the precedence closes the case, and Bazin should have at least cited the article, as his duty of journalist would command. It's unlikely he would have phrased it exactly the same way without knowledge of Toland's speech. It's really odd though that Bazin would intentionally resist to mention the cinematographer's name at the origin of this invention...

(2) However, I would like to moderate the interpretation of this case as critics being subject to plagiarism and influence. Critics never invent technical or aesthetical devices themselves. Their job is to spot them, analyse them, understand them, trace their genealogy and explain them to the public. Conversely, it's not enough for a filmmaker to spell out a theory to earn a landmark in history.
Critics either find out by themselves by looking at the pictures alone, or talk with the filmmakers to learn from their practice. But in the end, the critics make the decision to validate or to dismiss whatever is purported by filmmakers' or publicity's talking points. I mean great critics there, more precisely, theoreticians and historians, not the reviewers of course.

So Bazin cherry picked one of many claims championed by their auteurs out there, found it credible and fruitful, and added his credential to it by publishing it under a more elaborate theory. Like Bordwell says, we can't listen to everything filmmakers claim they do if the screen disproves it.
Toland could not make history by himself if nobody out there was listening. He couldn't trumpet his own glory alone either.
By the way I would like to know what were the repercussions of his article in the USA. Did American critics understand it like Bazin did, 14 years later? Did the public opinion receive Welles and Wyler as geniuses like they were after Cahiers celebrated them, once these films made it across the Atlantic after WW2? I think the appropriation of a cinematographic device by a critic is what makes all the difference. It took Bazin to transform a publicity stunt into a critical landmark. Inventors of form could go unnoticed if they are not endorsed by a critical authority. Sometimes the filmmakers aren't even aware what they do unconsciously is truly revolutionary.
Like Bordwell reminds us, Greengrass claims he revolutionized cinema language... but it's the critics job to validate or invalidate this talking point.
Bazin's theory of deep-focus and realism goes well beyond whatever Toland proposed, which was mainly practical issues.

"That's why deep focus is not a cinematographer's fad like the use of filters or lighting, but a capital gain for mise-en-scene : a dialectical progress in the history of filmic language.
And it's not just a formal progress! Well mastered deep focus is not only a mere economical way, simpler, subtler to emphasize the event; it affects, with the structures of filmic language, the intellectual relation of the spectator with the image, and thus modifies the meaning of the spectacle."
Bazin (L'évolution du langage)

(3) André Bazin (L'évolution du langage) :

"It's obvious, to whoever can see it, that Welles' plan-sequences in The Magnificent Ambersons are not at all mere passive "recording" of a photographic action within a single frame, but to the contrary, that the refusal to break up the event in bits, to analyse over time the dramaturgic space is a positive operation which effect is superior to one produced by traditional cutting."
"(...) deep focus places the spectator in a relation to the image closer to the one (s)he experiences in reality. It is thus right to say, that independently from the very content of the image, its structure is more realistic."

In a footnote of his essay "Montage interdit", he describes the scene from Where No Vultures Fly (1951) where, after a parallel montage, a little boy with a lion cub in his arms and the mother lioness meet in the same frame, which constitutes the recreation of reality for the spectator. But he acknowledges that the lion is obviously tamed and that the boy's life is never threatened unlike the shot suggests. So to Bazin, it's not so much that whatever happens on the set should be the reality handed over to the spectator, but that the mise-en-scene should recreate the conditions of reality (which would be otherwise negated by heavy editing), that the filmic language, with its technical devices and tricks, should not betray our perception of the time-space continuum on screen. We know cinema is an illusion, in so many ways. But the mise-en-scene may choose to betray reality or to reinforce it, which determines the realistic approach of the filmmaker.

Thus the post-production tricks of transparency for Citizen Kane doesn't negate the theory of realism, as long as the frame gives the impression of something inherently plausible on screen. Besides the foreground and background added (for aesthetical composition purpose) into the shots described by Bordwell, do not alter the main dramatic action within the frame. There is no direct interaction between the drama unfolding in each separate shot of the double exposure. Which is very different from the deceiving interaction suggested by CGI tricks where the actor actually interacts with a green vacuum on set. The green screen superimposition pretends two characters talk to each other while they never had a lifelike experience together on set.

"It's not that Welles refuses to resort to the expresionnistic devices of montage, but precisely their episodic use, between "plan-sequences" with deep focus, gives them a new meaning. (...) In Citizen Kane, a succession of superimpositions contrasts with the continuity of a single-take scene, it is a different modus operandi, explicitly abstract, of the narration. Accelerated montage cheats with time and space, but Welles doesn't attempt to fool us (...) Thus the "quick editing", "Attraction Montage", superimpositions that talky cinema hadn't used in 10 years, acquire again a possible use in relation to the temporal realism of a cinema sans montage."
Bazin (L'évolution du langage)

(4) Bazin acknowledges that the wide shot with deep focus existed since the origins of cinema. The focus of early cinema lenses was designed to capture pretty much everything in front of the camera (like the cheap disposable cameras today).

"Agreed, like in the case of Griffith's close up, Orson Welles didn't "invent" deep focus; everyone in primitive cinema used it, logically so. Image blur only appeared with editing."
Bazin (L'évolution du langage)

07 octobre 2007

Adrian Martin on Bergman (5)

Continuation of the Bergman obituary controversy (see first post of the series here), Adrian Martin gives his take in the october issue of filmkrant #292 :
"Surely we have all had this feeling, at some time or another, as we have contemplated one of the long-canonised 'old masters' of cinema - that they disconnected from the forward movement of history long ago. That, more simply,
they lost touch with the present, and started to become living anachronisms, no longer 'in sync' with the problems and pulses of the contemporary scene. (Adrian Martin)"
We could regret that filmmakers don't surprise us with every new film, like we used to be astonished by earlier films. We could regret that aging filmmakers stop exciting the younger cinephiles, or lose touch with the latest fashion in the ever changing culture of images. We could regret that they make films for themselves and not for us anymore (as if they ever did).
I only see there a natural phenomenon of maturity or senility, whichever you want to call it, we should expect and sympathize with. A seasonned filmmaker just doesn't make a film the same way after 30 innovative films and 30 years of cultural emancipation.
Here is one of the limit of the enshrined "politique des auteurs" due to the young age of Cinema history, falsely compared to the larger Art History. An auteur is supposed to always lead the pack at the avant-garde and to be relevant, while they are just weak humans and cinema is a mercantile industry. Only few can stay in control of their oeuvre from beginning to end and keep a vivid desir to be ground-breaking. We know that the revolutionary ideals grow tired, replaced by a need for the security of reactionary values.
Old masters want to go back to their youth and feel uncomfortable with the progressive values the newer generations identify with. This goes as well for society as for the evolution of artistic movements. And old masters often just want to indulge in traditional modes of expression. But I guess that content (its subtext and its interpretation) matters more to the political commitment than the form of expression.
Also, the masters who haven't "sold out" to "prestige cinema" maybe died young or didn't get the opportunity to continue to make films late in their life? This question requires some refined contextualization. We easily get a romanticized view of old history, of which we only remember the highlights, and compare it favorably to the contemporary world, which is overloaded with pointless details. Old filmmakers living till their 80ies have been through many artistic movement and drastic social changes, which happened less to artists of previous centuries with shorter life expectency and historic changes with more inertia.
"Does this matter? What does it really mean for us, as critics or viewers, to demand of any filmmaker that he or she should 'invest in the modern world' - or else be declared outmoded, old-fashioned, a dinosaur? (Adrian Martin)"
This notion of "relevance to the contemporary world" pushed by Rosenbaum is highly subjective and obviously critics will justify a posteriori that such or such auteur is more relevant because it best represents their political agenda. So throwing this allegation as a universal evidence is a polemic in itself. I wonder what Rosenbaum thinks of the relevance to the modern world of Rivette's and Rohmer's latest films...

Adrian Martin talks about this subjectivity of the spectator. The same way the personality of the auteur departs from the evolution of society and culture (as I explained above), so does the personality and expectations of the critic who has been shaped up by the discovery of cinema of a certain era during the impressionable years of adolescence when we form our values. The clash of these reverred times with the contemporary emphasizes the rejection of certain unforgiven digressions by the masters who betrayed our loyal trust in them.
All this turns out to become a personal affair, an emotional divorce with the originel fantasy, which has less to do with the modern world. Let's relativize the whole alleged inadequacy. The evolution of Art only remembers the cutting edge milestone films, not oeuvres as a whole. We can't reproach to an auteur not to live on the edge with every new film. However the normal life of an auteur, the continuity of an oeuvre doesn't have to always match the latest art novelty. It's ok for an auteur to make weaker films or uninventive forms or redundant obsessions, and we shouldn't call it a failure or a missed opportunity.

Thus it mostly matters to our subjective expectations. But does it matter to cinema History? If Rosenbaum asks about the relevance to the contemporary world, it implies that films should fit in place in the universal order of human History. But cinema History is a patchwork of whatever is best representative of our society. It doesn't matter who made the film. It doesn't matter if a given auteur has placed all or only one work on the canonical list. The relevance of the concern featured by an oeuvre is different from the immediate relevance of an oeuvre as an artistic statement.
Adrian suggests that "cultural fashion or social topicality" could resonate within a longer scope than the immediate political scene.
I would futher add that the apparent immediate irrelevance could hide a transcended subtext.
Regarding the case of Bergman (who I never considered to be out of touch with the modern world, no more than the bulk of critically acclaimed masters), I think he did nothing all his life but deal with politics in the form of human relationship. A film doesn't have to be overtly political or dealing with grand issues to matter to our society. The conflicts within the nucleus family, within the couple, between generations are where all political questions begin and end. The fine behavioral analysis Bergman did of interpersonal interactions, marriage and divorce, love and betrayal, emotion and pain, health and illness, life and death tell us as much about the mentality of our society and the reaction of individuals to the political events. Traces of the macrocosm are always contained in the microcosm to some extant.
It's true that Bergman rarely spelled out a specific political context, nor did he try to comment actualities. However it doesn't mean that the concern for our contemporary world was absent from his oeuvre. Maybe he felt more confortable dealing with politics by proxy, through the reflection on something he best mastered, the unspoken sunken wounds of human psychology.
It's a "portrait en creux" of politics : a description where the subject is absent and only the surrounding, the negative print, informs us.
This idea should be developped more thoroughly with examples drawn from every films Bergman made. That's why the rebuttal is not an easy task. We can't cite obvious examples where the plot is directly relevant to the contemporary world and remains relevant today, because it's the subtext, the deeply layered psychological portrayal that answers this question through hints difficult to summarize in a one-page pamphlet.
Maybe I should start with Monika, Shame, Persona, From The Life of Marionnettes, The Silence...
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P.S. This is also the problem of the seemingly plotless films of the "contemplative cinema" trend, which seem in retreat from the contemporary world, because they deny a role to intellectual verbalisation, they estrange their protagonists out of an identifiable/realistic context towards the epure of what could be described as an apolitical parabole. And I believe otherwise, because there are other, less obvious ways to deal with politics and comment on the contemporary problematics.