31 juillet 2010

Ironic scholar (plan sequence)

"Study like a scholar, scholar"
Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Utah, USA
(Jul 2010)
Mormon version : nipple-free
* * *

"Smell like a man, man"
Old Spice commercial by Weiden + Kennedy
(Craig Allen, Eric Kallman, Feb 2010)

22 juillet 2010


RT @Twitter #attention-whore SMH frontseat throws popcorns FML awesome trailers tbh can't wait for the opening credits OMG
Who would have thought that a verbatim transcript of all mundane fleeting mindless telephone conversations would be a popular sensation? Twitter is a pretty close approximation. We're back to the telegraph and yet it passes as a technological breakthrough just because it's available on a portable device.
What are you going to do with that many instantaneous informations? Does it change your life instantaneously? Does it make you think faster? Or does it just distract the boredom of being left alone with your own thoughts? Why so hurried?

What did the "Twitter revolution" bring us? The minutiae of Ashton Kutcher and Larry King? News from Iran? Who still cares about Iranian Tweets today? They are still being oppressed and repressed by a totalitarian regime though... Who cares? Look Justin Bieber just bumped his head on a door.

I'm concerned about the inflated fad around these new gadgets that turn people into mindless addicted users rather than savvy operators. I'm also worried that by speaking up against this universally embraced sensation, I'm crossing the fence to the camp of grumpy conservatives who oppose every new technology without understanding it because they are out of the loop... I wouldn't want to be part of the same detractors that demonized the arrival of the Web 2.0. I defended the blogosphere back then (although I wasn't an early adopter, because I preferred the communality of online forums) against the old traditionalists attached to the paper paradigm.
I really don't mind the fanaticism of the new teens for this technology that belongs to their generation. This social-networking is as valid for society in general as anything else. A responsible usage makes it worthwhile for yourself and others.
The main problem is its misuse by journalists who need better tools than that. Instant news, moreover news bypassing the institutional pipes of official authorities, is great in itself. It's what people do with it, or don't do with it, that is bothersome, and should alert whoever cares for Culture.

However it is especially puerile for film critics to imagine they could use this word shredder other than for their private life. I'm not surprised though that the culture that supports capsule reviews, sound-bytes, blurbs, star-rating, top10 lists, and poster-quote whores would fall for an even more superficial way to share their stream-of-consciousness gut-impressions on whatever screens in front of their eyes.

The difference between propagating devices and content providers

Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Blogs, Podcasts, RSS feeds, phones, TV are tools. They are propagating devices, empty pipes for the eventual circulation of informations. If you don't feed them with quality culture, they won't make quality cultural tools. "Garbage in = garbage out" say the computer nerds. And linking to "quality content" doesn't necessarily make it a pertinent usage. Quoting Shakespeare or Deleuze left and right is not enough, it ought to be pertinent and thoughtful, in adequation with what you want to do with it.

Structurally limited to 140 characters, cluttered by tags and links, encoded in shorthands, filled with redundant informations repeated from elsewhere or truncated sources you are supposed to have read in another Tweet.

I already hate the idea to sum up a film in capsule reviews... because shortening critical content only brings forth generalities, summary judgements, vagueness and clichés. Some people think there is literary genius in being able to synthetize a 2 hours long film in 5 lines... Really? Must be a cynical joke.
All films being standardized to a digest under 100 words, limited to obvious plotpoints and unquestionable subjective impressions is the job of a bureaucratic dictionary, a disposable weekly movie guide, not the scrutiny of a meaningful film critic.

So I don't look at the cinephile community migrating from the blogosphere to a Twitter-only online presence with a hopeful eye. Given the deficiency of low-standard journalism they take model from in the "professional" media, the blogosphere is not going to up their contributions by playing ping-pong with reading lists that nobody reads, analyses, comprehends or commentates.

Movies take years in the making, from conception to distribution. Serious films require years of writing. Then months of rehearsal and shooting. And the long wait to get picked up for distribution. On the screen it is a wealth of aesthetic, narrative, socio-political, intertextual information to decipher and analyse, for a couple of hours...
What is so urgent about Twitting a micro-review on premiere screenings for breaking news? Does it make you feel important to reject or acclaim such hard-labor in the shortest possible way, to spread hasty rumors to your "friends" before any thoughtful analysis?
Tweeting and spontaneous reactions are for the general audience, the layman, the ignorants who believe that sharing their favourite taste and immediate impressions from the top of their heads gives meaning to their place in society...

The linkers (I link therefore I am) even delude themselves in thinking that "linking" becomes an expression of power, like the circulation of a print publisher, the generosity of letting their minions (or followers) know about something they recommend. Conversly, not linking, gives a sense of anal retentive deprivation, a denial of "fame", a suppression of readership from their followers (now counting as a "cultural capital" as Bourdieu would say).

Truffaut was reporting a Hollywood saying "everyone has two jobs, their own and film critic", now this should be changed to "everyone thinks they are a newscast channel, and the world is waiting for their release of information at every second of the day"...


19 juillet 2010

Par Ailleurs, Hollywood est une industrie

Corporate Hollywood today: an introduction
by Chuck Kleinhans (Jump Cut, Jul 2010)
"It’s time to think about Hollywood as an industry. [..]

Mass communications methods had also developed, in which it was common to do large-scale institutional examination of complex systems, but usually with little or no concern for the aesthetic qualities of what was at hand. And within the field of mass communication studies, in the United States in particular, there were was a deep split between “administrative” and “critical” approaches. The former (dominant) model assumed that the function of studying mass communications was to help the existing (monopoly capitalist) system run better, while the latter direction took a much more skeptical view.

Personalities and politics also played a part. Some of the key founders of communication studies in the United States in the 30s and after WW2 sought to justify this new field within a traditional social science framework and gain research funds to support their work by stressing its usefulness. They pushed the administrative model, arguing that their work would help corporations and government build better media systems, in broadcasting in particular, as well as provide well-trained professionals to staff the system. In contrast, the more politically radical, critical approach argued that rather than servicing the existing system and offering only small adjustments, the whole system needed to be regarded as open to question. Critique was needed, especially in the United States, where broadcasting was a for-profit business and regulated only with an eye to maintaining the market, in contrast to European models of state operated public service broadcasting.

The critical side of media studies often employed an institutional analysis (usually framed as a political economy approach). The analysis here tended to be directed at large scale issues of information control: monopolies dominating communications, governmental and corporate control of information (from news to market data), and the shaping of public opinion. Issues of aesthetics, entertainment, audience and reception were ignored or simplified into slogans. At the same time, the critical school often found itself in a minority stance and was combative; it had little room for or reason to ally itself with radical cultural approaches developing elsewhere. In the past, particularly in film studies, different approaches often gathered into antagonistic camps. People interested in the art and craft of film thought they had little or nothing to learn from those doing institutional analysis. Others immersed in economic and industry studies found cultural discussions a distraction."
* * *
André Malraux : "Par Ailleurs, le cinéma est une industrie."
in Esquisse d'une psychologie du cinéma (1945)

17 juillet 2010

"La tradition de qualité" for dummies (5)

François Truffaut's "Une certaine tendance du cinéma français" (1954) was more than just a whimsical, subjective, tentative free shot at films les Jeunes Turcs didn't like or didn't understand or found "boring"... It would be disingenuous to remember this article simply as a battle between the (older generation of) French art films and the Hollywood mainstream genre. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't an endorsement of the "studio system". The films Truffaut, Godard, Resnais, Chabrol, Rivette, Rohmer did afterward proves it. They didn't make westerns or film noir, they made art films (not the pre-war type of artfilms, a new type). They broke down the French studio system, they took filmmaking to the street, on location! They invented a new film form that wasn't the Hollywood formula.

La "Tradition de qualité" was the state of the French cinema establishment, the great aesthetic movement of pre-war "Réalisme Poétique" that failed to carry on the same excellence after WW2. Truffaut didn't question the individual talent of Carné, Jeanson and Prevert, he attacked the moral conformism of the "Réalisme Psychologique" trend and the absence of cinematographic mise en scène in these scenarist-films.

The real battle was between the neglected innovators (Bresson, Cocteau...) and the conformist rearguard (Duvivier, Autant-Lara...) who was abusively anointed at film festivals. There was a crisis of the film press between the overestimation of the rearguard and the underestimation of the post-war paradigm (neorealism, Modern cinema, Cinématographe and the oncoming Nouvelle Vague).
Even André Bazin, from the pre-war generation, was part of this rearguard attacked by Truffaut, since they partially disagreed on this topic (yet Bazin had the intelligence to support the paradigm shift pushed by Les Jeunes Turcs, to move on and even to announce the arrival of Neorealism and Modern cinema)

Gavin Smith (Film Comment, Mar-Apr 2010) : " [..] Over the course of the last 30 years, art cinema, or what the French call 'auteur cinema,' has to a great extent been annexed by (or surrendered to) the not-dishonorable commercial imperatives of turning out product in order to put bread on the table, product that, for all its modernity, some regard as a return of the repressed: the dreaded Tradition of Quality, caricatured by Cahiers du cinema back in the day, alive and well in stylish new clothes.
Gavin Smith summons the 1954 heavyweight argument, and carelessly perverts its meaning to fit his own short-sighted agenda (which was boredom for so-called "festival films"). Nobody asked him to compare our context now to their context back then... he digs himself in. His little "revisionist neo-history" was bad enough on its own. Typical of the American ageism complex maybe : gerontophobia of "Auld Europe", NEW-York v. York, "neo-neorealism" v. realism... it always has to be NEO-something because America has no past to relate to (New World, New Orleans, New Mexico, New Deal, New Frontier, New World Order, New American Empire, New American Century...). This urge for random novelty always rushes blindly towards the future. Addiction for never-seen-before stuff is a consumerist behaviour influenced by the "planned obsolescence" doctrine.

Gavin Smith sits there and demands novelty... as if novelty was necessarily a proof of artistic improvement on the previous (declared outdated?) novelties. He's had enough with the current repetitive trends and something different will make him happier.
He doesn't propose to redirect the attention of the festivals and the press towards a greater, overlooked, cinema (like Truffaut did). Because his lone wolves champions (WKW, JZK, Weerasethakul, Martel, Desplechin) aren't exactly ignored or unloved by the establishment (OK maybe Benning is the less publicized). But he pretends today's greatest cinema isn't good enough and that he's decided that now was the time to move on to the apparition of a NEW film form... what is it? we don't know, he doesn't say, but he knows for sure we need one!

Film criticism has yet to analyse and theorize properly these current trends (nothing yet has been published in any form on the neo-labels he came up with) but he still wants to move on already, and forget about an aesthetic just about reaching its full maturity, before it has been embraced and exhausted by film theory...

If you think society is ready for a new aesthetic breakthrough, why don't you get up and bring it yourself (like Truffaut did)? I wonder what the history of film criticism would have been like if Truffaut's manifesto had been : "Festivals really suck nowadays... I'm bored by these guys! Do something about it already, I wanna see some new."

The situation today is totally different. There really is no need to call on the Cahiers jaunes... If you think a Film Comment editorial is barely a stream-of-consciousness diary page for subjective allegations, you shouldn't reference actual film theory. Please leave the punditry to bloggers (who only speak for themselves on a personal soapbox and do not run an "institutional tribune" which is meant to pose as a cultural reference for many).

Does Gavin Smith attack a "bad cinema", an "absence of mise en scène", a reactionary morality, a dubious psychology? Is he comparing Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Dardenne, Costa, Almodovar, Haneke... to the average Duvivier and Autant-Lara? No. If these auteurs are the disappointing middleground of our times... we are not in a bad shape compared to the 50ies! How many more visionary innovators than today were there in the 40-50ies? But then again, he thinks that Desplechin is more of a visionary than Costa, Haneke, von Trier or Noé... so we probably don't give the same meaning to "creative film form".
His cheap shot from the hip doesn't have any of the solid theoretical argument Truffaut constructed to defy this "tradition". He even admits Film Comment champions this type of art cinema! A look at their decade poll attests it.
Critics aren't even satisfied by the millenium "best of", they want something off the chart, something that doesn't exist on the decade-poll radar, a hypothetical upgrade based on a nostalgic scale coming from a bygone golden age...
So if this is how little respect you pay to the trends that brought the best films (which is a blatant misunderstanding of our epoch and its best artists), you need to be a little more critical of the industry that is not even critically acclaimed in your polls! What scares me is how critics cope with the one-dimensionality of the mainstream fare by day and give a condescending attitude to the challenging artfilm scene by night...

He simply opposes these loosely delineated trends for the simple fact of being TRENDS, for repeating themselves, for being inspired by the same forms and subjects. He seems to be outraged by the fact that an aesthetic style might last more than 10 years... or that a conjunctural film movement might solidify for good into a referential genre that new filmmakers will want to channel ever after. Just like Film Noir "copied" German Expressionism, or the Taiwanese New Wave "copied" La Nouvelle Vague... This is how aesthetics cross-pollinate and propagate in art history! And it is inappropriate to criticize a natural, expected, necessary evolution of film language.
If Griffith's cuts became a "dominant fashion", it's because an individual style turned into a universal device for film grammar! If deep-focus and plan sequence are still used long after Orson Welles, it's not to steal and repeat his timely style mindlessly for a lack of imagination! If sound cinema and colour cinema currently pervade the art-film sector, it does not make this technique "narrow and predictable in its range of expression"!

I believe Gavin Smith has trouble differentiating between what is a standard technique (reused after its inventors because it improved film practice as a whole for everyone), a common language (developed and acquired for the posterity of cinema), and what is an ephemeral gimmick (which sole value is originality and loses power when duplicated). Clearly, he confuses historiography with taxonomy.

What he suggests art films repeat endlessly are narrative modes, general aesthetics rather than a timely style that could only be attributed to a particular epoch or a particular auteur. We are not witnessing a uniformity of stylistic signatures, but the lasting consolidation and widespread adoption of new narrative modalities throughout the world, which will most likely continue to prosper in film language for a while...

Film critics are out of breath when the discrepancy isn't REALLY obvious (like between lone wolves which are unmatched thus easy to spot, and followers who seem to adopt a remarkable pattern). They crawl on the surface of films, only noting an apparent "uniformity", in search for what the old paradigm used to consider "originality"... They need to look deeper and see the finer particularities of each auteur within a common aesthetic, just like we can tell the difference between Carné and Feyder, between Duvivier and Autant-Lara, between Hitchcock and Hawks, between Walsh and Ford, between Desplechin and Pascale Ferran, between Costa and Green... even though they might (or might not) share the same general stylistic format. Sometimes the differences are very subtle, but after being studied they stand out strikingly in the eyes of the connaisseur.

Films selected at festivals in the past decades aren't an insult to cinema, they aren't inferior cinema (like Réalisme psychologique was for good reasons according to Truffaut), they aren't unimaginative or predictable (as per Gavin Smith's dubious allegations) in fact, they are the best world cinema has to offer (especially at major international film festivals, like Rotterdam).

Rejecting whatever is current in art cinema doesn't make you de facto more progressive... What Gavin Smith misses is that the only true paradigm shift at stake here is in the conformism of the film criticism establishment. Just like the actual pertinent point made by Truffaut in his article was an ontological clash between poor theatrical reviewing and legit cinematographic theory.

I would like Film Comment to be visionary and risk-taker, instead of putting the blame on a film form they misunderstand and worshipping an imaginary novelty! Look around you. Compare what is selected at festivals with what the commercial circuit is showing on the big screen to the American public! Think hard, and find out something more pertinent to tell your readers next time... Once you've tackled and SOLVED the dysfunctional distribution system, you may have the leisure to focus on a more trivial pleonasm, such as the alleged uniformity of a uniform trend, the conventionality of conventions or the traditionalism of tradition.

That's what separates the crucial think-pieces of film criticism that leave a mark in history and the lame hollow conversational editorials only there to fill space (at the detriment of festivals and auteurs!) until something intelligent comes up...
and you know the moral of the "boy who cried wolf" fable, don't you?

Read the full "the critic who cried wolf" saga here : 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5

  • "Truffaut's manifesto : La Politique des auteurs" at Indian Auteur [part 1, part 2]

03 juillet 2010

Old, New, Borrowed, Déjà-vu

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something déjà-vu
Frankenstein-movies !

Why bother to be creative, skilled, inspired, to have something to say, to have a world view, to have a personality when all you need to make movies is to copy your predecessors? For over a hundred years, all you need to know to make a plausible movie is how Literature, Theatre and Music work. Most people working in the movie industry are better at other arts while telling themselves they are making cinema. Actually, only knowing how to imitate well is enough. Forge a patchwork of external arts and everyone will think you're a filmmaker because whatever you did was recorded on a film strip... wait, the film strip is not necessary. Just recorded and projected on a big screen then. Wait, the small digital screens will do too. Well, as long as it moves within a standardised rectangle, we'll call that "cinema".

To mask your lack of talent, just borrow somebody else's talent. If you can't find screenwriters who can write original scenarii, borrow from actual writers. Adaptating literature for the screen is always easier than to write your own original scenario. Mettre en scène a film like a theatre play is easier than to create a film-specific mise en scène. Relying on the power of musical art, for its emotional drive, saves you from making things happen on screen on their own without musical cues.

You don't need a rich autobiography, a strong personality, a deep understanding of mankind... all you need is to copy previous authors who have all that.

This is textbook Hollywood, the professionalism, academism, mannerism of the entertainment industry. And the established film journalism believes this is all there is to cinema...

When the habit of stealing reaches state-of-the-art mimicry, the "Tradition of quality" is capable to produce reasonably believable formulaic movies. This isn't cinema, but it's enough to satisfy the expectations of the mainstream audience for its Pavlovian reactions to stereotypical situations. Once you've heard one love story, you've heard them all... Only great authors bring an original angle to it.

Art imitates life. Then art imitates art. Then craft imitates art. Then craft imitates craft. Then imitation imitates imitation and we're far from reality, slipping into a tautological caricature of the previous second-hand caricature.

The recipe for anti-auteur films (all the things that will never make Cinema in and of themselves) :

  • Borrow from History. A universally known story [PUBLIC DOMAIN = Free!]
  • Borrow from world culture : legend, myth, fable, epic heroes, archetypes... [PUBLIC DOMAIN = Free!]
  • Do like George Lucas (Blockbusting) and analyse the DNA of past BO hits to make sure to do everything like they did it, and remake the perfect Frankenstein-blockbuster. [PUBLIC DOMAIN = Free!]

  • Borrow from Literature. Adapt a best-seller that the public already know and love. [Copyright = nominal fee]
  • Borrow from pop culture : comics books, TV series, anime, biopics... [nominal copyrights]
  • Borrow from Cinema. Take the plot structure from a successful movie, and add new details to disguise the remake. [PUBLIC DOMAIN = Free!]
  • Borrow a genre. Repeat a popular formula known to work well in the past. [PUBLIC DOMAIN = Free!]
  • Borrow strong characters, stereotypes, family structures, timelines, events... [PUBLIC DOMAIN = Free!]
  • Borrow phrases. Catch lines, punchlines, running gags. [Grey area copyrights = dodge the lawsuit]
  • Borrow from the future : cliffhanger. Capitalize on the promise of an anticipated follow up, to add value to your ending. [no copyright, no accountability]

  • Borrow scenes, shots, camerawork tricks, lighting, decor from past movies [PUBLIC DOMAIN = Free!]
  • Recycle old productions. Re-use sets, props, accessories from past movies of your own studio [FREE]
  • Borrow famous locations (touristic appeal). Use the exoticism, luxury, historical aura, hype, fame of iconic cityscapes, monuments, landscapes. [Rental fee for exterior shots, higher filming costs but all interior scenes are filmed in studio]
  • Borrow from couture. Costume design and old fashion styles add visual value without creating any filmic art. [Costume designer paycheck]

  • Borrow famous faces (movie star system). Get bankable actors/actresses who made past movies profitable. [Doubles the budget, but is pretty much the only safe bet for a successful BO]
  • Borrow other famous faces. From the music industry, TV, reality TV "stars", internet "celebrities" [less expensive]
  • Borrow cameos. Cheaper use of big stars with an equal buzz potential. [much smaller pay check]
  • Borrow beauty (sex appeal). Pretty newcomers are much cheaper than famous stars, and look good in the trailer. If they don't bring outstanding acting skills, at least they bring the seduction of their physical appearance (models, bodybuilders). [Cheapest pay check]
  • Borrow nudity (sex appeal). Showing nude scenes, erotic scenes makes your film more attractive without any skill/talent required. Celebrity nudity not necessary, but doesn't hurt if you can afford it [1 stripper pay check]
  • Borrow skills from real world. Cast someone who is not part of the world of cinema (no acting skills), with an outstanding talent (sport champion, record holder, martial art fighter, dancer, parkour, base jumping...) [Quite cheap if not a speaking part]
  • Borrow animal cuteness. Animal training to do stuff, always winning the audience (be it on YouTube or in movies). [Animal trainer paycheck]

  • Borrow from the power of musical arts. It doesn't make it more cinematic, but music works as well on the audience as a CD than played in a movie. So why not boost your movie with an extraneous art? [Composer paycheck]
  • Borrow already composed music/popular songs (billboard hits) known to be loved by the public. [Copyright = nominal fee]
  • Borrow from digital arts. Fix everything (lack of mise en scene, poor acting skills, bad plot, clueless editing) with CGI and special FX. [high CPU power and calculating time]

  • Remake a past successful movie (foreign or domestic), with new faces and revamped dialogue [Copyright = nominal fee]
  • Invent a sequel (or a prequel) to a past successful movie of yours [Copyright already owned]

See! you don't need to know how to make cinema, to make an already half-successful movie. With chance and a couple of collaborators who aren't totally useless, you can make a commercial product that the mainstream market will swallow like everything else coming its way. No sweat.

Now find me a movie that has the balls to tell a story to an audience without any of these clutches... That'll make you think twice about the mannerism and "tradition de qualité" of the artfilm circuit (where actual auteurs are trying to create new material with film-specific art, without borrowing from other arts as much as in the mainstream industry).