31 janvier 2006

Criticism On Air

"[Oral critique] is more efficiente than [written critique] because more
capable, more abundant, and more sincere or more severe, but one cannot exist
without the other one. (...) Debates should not take place behind closed
André Bazin, 1943

Film criticism is spelling out a visual medium into textual commentary, and the radio is a medium exploiting sound and words without the easy support of images. Audio criticism seems the most absurd way to illustrate a visual art, as suggested like this ironic teaser created for the TV broadcast of La Marche de l'Empereur / The March of Pinguins / The Emperor's journey on CANAL+.
When we read or listen to a film description our imagination automatically adds images to figure the big picture and that's how false expectations are built up prior to film viewing, as a correct representation of the film is dependent on the accuracy of the critic's description. While it's not the best adapted medium, there is little conflict of interest in the radio industry (TV being a client of the distribution circuit), thus the voice of radio criticism enjoys more freedom of content and tone.I know the reader of this english-written blog will not be interested in these 3 weekly french-speaking shows but what I review here is the mode of expression of group radio criticism to contrast with the print mode of columnists or bloggers.

Let me know what radio shows you listen to, their mode of expression, and where I could download them if available online. Thanks

Le Cinema l'après midi
(France Culture) SAT 1:40-2:30pm

Le club des cinéastes / The club of filmmakers.
Hosted by Claire Vassé (critic), a 50 minutes long show gathers 4 or 5 filmmakers to discuss 3 films back and forth. The films are ones opening commercialy in theatres, or being released on DVD, or showing soon in a retrospective, but already accessible. This is not a preview recommending films that only critics had access to. Sometimes the films echo eachothers with certain similitudes other times they clash, the debate questions each film successively but also transversally.

These non-professional critics deconstruct the making of the films with the insights of their personal backstage experience in this trade. Movies as seen by people who make them, a biased but much informed minority audience with an intimate relationship with the work accomplished. A very auteuristic viewpoint, in the french tradition of critic-filmmaker. Even if they tend to show respect to their friends and masters preferably, the large spectrum of films reviewed and the confrontation of the independant personalities of this panel keep the discussion away from complacency and is often more violent and emotional than print critics pan.
Filmmakers (who are not there to sell their own film for once) evaluate the projects of their peers and break into reflexions on cinema, technique and significance, rather than reviewing the plot. Their vast culture recalls great auteurs by way of citations of other films, on-set anecdoctes, literary references aplenty. Cinema in lights of other arts, and its cultural role in society are recurrant concerns.

The selected films are judged as subjectively as in the press by the combination of a polyphonic debate creates a somewhat balance ground to assess high and low aspects of the production, the directorial choices and the social implication of the narration. Although each takes a turn to give their opinion, ultimately the confrontation, dissent, controversy force everyone to moderate their stance in an informal conversation mending fences or asking for a deeper justifications.

Once a month they invite a filmmaker (not part of the club) to discuss their work. One filmmaker interviewed by other filmmakers.

Rotating members of the club :

  • Mathieu Amalric - actor, director
  • Luc Béraud - director, screenwriter
  • Pascal Bonitzer - screenwriter, director, actor
  • Catherine Breillat - director, screenwriter, actress
  • Emilie Deleuze - director, screenwriter (yes, daughter of philosopher Gilles Deleuze)
  • Claire Denis - director, screenwriter
  • Vincent Dieutre - director, screenwriter
  • Philippe Grandrieux - director
  • Christophe Honoré - director, screenwriter
  • Philippe Le Guay - director, screenwriter, actor
  • Claude Miller - director, screenwriter, actor
  • Emmanuel Mouret - director, screenwriter, actor
  • Brigitte Rouan - director, screenwriter, actress
  • Marie Vermillard - director, screenwriter

Projection Privé
(France Culture) SAT 6:30-7pm

Hosted by Michel Ciment (Positif) a distinguished critic of the french cinema press with a comprehensive erudition of world cinema invites guests to discuss 1 film or 1 oeuvre. Sometimes the filmmaker if it's a current release, or scholars who published a related biography. An elaborated discussion on the interview mode, with pertinent and profound questions saving however much room for the guest's voice. Always a great selection of films, mostly high-brown cinephilia, intellectual discourse, theorical issues. Fascinating source of knowledge.The show is only 30 min but focuses on a single film to get deeper under the surface of omnipresent selling arguments. This only covers 4 films per month, and like in his monthly magazine Positif (opposed to the weekly newspapers), implies a picky selection rather than a full coverage of the weekly releases.

Le Masque et la Plume
(France Inter) SUN 8-9pm

This most famous founding radio show celebrated its 50th anniversary of weekly critiques on air in november 2005! Alternating one week for cinema and one week for Theatre and Literature, the show hosted by Jérôme Garcin, recorded live with audience, puts the spotlight on the cultural must-see. A panel of 4 cinema critics from the french press (popular press, newspaper and cinema magazine) reviews about 5 films from the fortnight releases. This covers only 10 films per month, but the selection isn't elistist: from low-brow/popular movies to high-brow/intellectual indies. So the reactions are often loud and strong. But again in this form the group of multiple voices help to self-moderate each position. The conversation is easygoing and straightforward, spontaneous ideas and rough language, sarcastic controversy and mockery are frequent to trigger the laughter of the audience. In spite of the informal tone (worded more loosely than in their respective column), the level of critical judgement is mostly well thoughtout and backed up by sound arguments.

Adding to this collegial form of viewpoints confrontation, the show lets the audience reacts freely to the discussion of the films debated, to give their own impressions or to ask questions directly to the critics. And the radio audience sends emails to comment the show, these are read live in the following show.
Allowing the audience to participate, within a restricted speaking time, influences the discussion among the critics who are subject to polite corrections and snide remarks from their public. Something that never happens to a print columnist. A dose of self-derision lights up this panel, conscious of the image conveyed by their personality, thanks to the feedback.

This is the same type of collegial MovieClub organized by David Edelstein on Slate, only it happens all year long, and the oral dialogues are more interactive than through a compilation of written emails.

For this 50th anniversary party they invited authors to the show to give them the opportunity to criticize the critics, and it was a very interesting moment. A playwrighter said he expected and welcomed critics to evaluate the technique objectively, to inform the subtext of the play with the cultural background and the distance the critic has that the dramatic author might not have. But most of all the author wants to read the personal impressions the critic experienced, and if (s)he liked the play or not. Other authors complained the critics panned without watching the work they talked about, or that they didn't know anything about criticism, refusing to be tougth how they should do their work. Authors welcome the artistic judgement of their achievements but don't like revisionist advice like "this should have been done that way", "This is how it would have worked better"...

Rotating team of critics :

  • Sophie Avon (Sud-Ouest - daily newspaper)
  • Alain Riou (Nouvel Observateur - general magazine)
  • Michel Ciment (Positif - monthly cinema magazine)
  • Jean-Marc Lalanne (Les Inrockuptibles - culture weekly magazine)
  • Pierre Murat (Télérama - culture weekly magazine)
  • Danièle Heymann (Marianne - weekly general magazine)
  • Sophie Avron (Sud Ouest - daily newspaper)
  • Eric Neuhoff (Figaro Madame - fashion magazine)

p.s. each show is available online after each broadcast, archived for a week only until next show (see links)

14 janvier 2006

The Wayward Cloud (2/4)

Follow up from The Wayward Cloud (1/4)

Sex and nudity have become more prevalent in popular culture (novels, comics, advertising, music video, TV, cinema, contemporean theatre, internet) since taboos around sex losened up, and pornography gained a subversive hype claimed by certain alternative scenes (porno-chic). Erotism or hardcore porn are tolerated public discourses now, in the street or among scholars, either for banalized entertainment or out of derision. Today private issues such as initiation, frustration, masturbation, impotence, voyeurism, perversion are official plot drives in comedies or dramas, bringing to the spotlights the action hidden backstage in the lives of fictitious characters.

Sexuality used to be implicit or just absent of mainstream movies, with characters ridiculously deprivated of sexual lives. Never since In The Realm of Senses (1976/Oshima) did high-brow artfilms promote a serious look at sex than in recent years.
Sex is THE subject and object of the film now, no longer a suggestive elliptical climax.
More auteurs risk to introduce pornography in their work, fascinated by the impact of raw sexual images on screen as a narrative item dissociated from the arousal potential of X-rated movies that are not shown in public theatres. They bare it all and get right to the point, being as factual as possible.
  • A Vendre / For Sale (1998/Masson) Sexual road trip
  • Romance (1999/Breillat) unsimulated sex with a real porn star.
  • Lies / Gojitmal (1999/Sun-Woo Jang) S&M sexual relationship between middle aged artist and virgin schoolgirl
  • Intimacy (2001/Chéreau) casual sex relationship between strangers without social interaction
  • Irréversible (2002/Gaspar Noé) uncut rape plan-sequence
  • The Brown Bunny (2003/Gallo) B.J.
  • 9 Songs (2004/Winterbottom) recurrant intimate sex, masturbation
  • Battle in Heaven (2005/Reygadas) B.J., sex prostitution
Also films of Hong Sang-Soo, Greg Araki, Larry Clark, Kim Ki-duk, Catherine Breillat

They always cause a moral controversy among critics and split the audience, but push an evolution of mentalities after censorship vetoes are overturned by rehabilitations, questioning the issues around this taboo born of a deeprooted strict christian moralisation of sexuality (structuring the western culture for centuries) that is totally absent in eastern culture for instance. This is the social and artistic context that informs the motivations behind The Wayward Cloud's overt provocation.

Porn videos are extremelly popular in videostores and online, lots of people watch it whether it's illegal or immoral. And if it sells, somebody has to make it, cheap and fast.
Performers sell body and soul to the business, they turn themselves into mindless robots on autopilot, sexual objects unable to feel anymore, and when they think too much it's impotence getting in the way of productivity. This is the theme of the third musical number staring the aging porn actress (LU Yi-ching). She sings "I will sell everything, my soul, but I will never sell my heart", so she thinks...

Porn actresses are single-serving interchangeable Barbie dolls. New faces come up and old ones are forgotten. Nobody cares, it's all so natural. Which is not so far from the movie business, only few stars make a long-term career.

Ironically money has no mention in the film at all, depicting a fantasized industry outside the economic market. Porno is illegal in Taiwan, and only proliferates in underground circles with amateurs, unless it is imported from Japan, the porn heaven. Nudity in local movies is also a big deal, baring a shoulder is insulting for the reputation of the performer.
LU Yi-ching (usually playing mother roles in Tsai films) accepted to be a porn actress, and act in the nude, but got in trouble with the local critics, and felt uncomfortable afterward (she swore to quit acting everafter). YANG Kuei-Mei (another recurrant actress in Tsai films) declined to play a porn actress and only appears in the last musical number. Thus a japanese professional porn actress had to be cast.
The Wayward Cloud was banned in Malaysia (Tsai's birth country) for its bold sexuality, nonetheless it opened in Taiwan (Tsai's home country) uncut.
I'm surprised by this counter-intuitive feedback by the comments of this cinephile from Taiwan (on Like Anna Karina's Sweater) who claimed porno was an all-family entertainment in Taiwan... then again there are the scenes in Unknown Pleasures (2002/Jia Zhang-ke) where teenagers meet in a videostore booth to watch porn films like if it was sports.
At the Berlin press conference, Tsai considers sex is a consumerist good. Porn is the fastfood of pleasure. He uses this provocative topic, which is still socially taboo in Taiwan (and most parts of the world), to open up a public debate on its influencial role on intimate sexual relationship within the couple. Yet the film is less a statement on the absurdity of the porn industry than a deeper reflexion on emotionless interactions in a degraded world based on broken communications. Extreme physicality and low feelings. Porn is an allegory for lust substitute of love in our shame-liberated bodies.

Porn, a burelesque joke.

Tsai doesn't take himself seriously, the perversion of genres (porno, musical) and conventions (dialogue, continuity, unity, versimilitude) is part of a general satire of society, a deliberated provocation to accuse snobbish art censors, frigid moral makers, tasteless commercial cinema, timid complacent audience... Graphic sex is both criticism (shock value for provocation) and self-criticism (facile tempting bait to arouse the audience with controversy). The camera shifts from subjective porn maker (what we see on screen is the video the crew shoots), to documentarist (we see the crew at work), to active porn maker (a professional porn film about a group of people making an amateur porn film), and Tsai keeps changing his role by modifying the significance of the frame (P.O.V.) along the story.

Porno is made to sell maximal excitation but is paradoxally boring to performers and film crew. A camera avid of a close look at the action slips in-between the bodies, like if the actors made love directly to the camera.
The visual gags revealing behind-the-scene secret tricks (light-man, grip, and cameraman all busy as bees) are constant reminders to turn off any potential fantasy. For instance the shooting stops because the home-made shower runs out of water, and not because of the actor's impotence. The porn crew is totally desensitized, indifferent to what is going on, like if it was a usual job. Sex action is banalized, vulgarized like a sexless massage. HE has become atone and unresponsive to the point of having erection and arrousal issues both in his work and his private life. Although the film director moves around his bare naked actress forcefully, he's all embarassed when he has to retrieve the misplaced bottle cap from her vagina, which reassesses the boundary between mechanical porn and individual intimacy that seems to be violated by pornography.

The film, built just like one porno movie with an alternated succession of mundanity (boring plot) / action (plotless entertainment), features a history of adult cinema, from the morally rigid ages to the extreme underground hardcore.
Sex is absent from the HE & SHE story, their love affair is purely platonic, no kisses (like in early movies). Then some allegorical suggestions lead to believe they made out even if the action is cut (the crab dinner filmed in shadows - symbolic language is developped to overcome Hays code censorship). HE and SHE finally kiss when they discover the videostore backroom (ironic environment and sexualy charged for the opening of their romance), but still no sex (impotence of HE). This scene is followed by a tender moment when they cross the illuminated bridge dancing feet on feet (erotic soft porn). The last scene of the romance closes with oral sex which is as far as they go physically (hardcore).

A parallel history of pornography with corresponding visual aesthetics. The first representation is a lavish playfull simulation with a watermelon, then masturbation and voyeurism (from an -overtly re-framed- softporn), homely sex in the shower (from rough amateur porn), hardcore close-up's, culminating with the rape of a sleep-drugged woman (from illegal extreme hardcore).

The musicals follow the same evolution of explicit content that might parallel the music videos from classic decency to erotic dance moves to deviant impersonations to outrageous genital costumes.

Throughout the film, each new scene seems to go further again, breaking more taboos, shocking more people, daring dirtier provocations. Highly taunting pornographic imagery (penis, frontal nudity, pubic hair, graphic positions, wet noises, blow job, sperm ejaculation) exposing asexual bodies, de-humanized partners (to the extant of a lifeless puppet in the final scene). It was as disturbing to see the de-dramatized rape scene in Kika (1993/Almodovar) when even Kika herself didn't feel concerned by the violence of this surprise aggression on herself.

"The last sex scene involves a dead woman's body and culminates with oral ejaculation through the bars of a window. It looks like a travesty of classical gay porn imagery — in spite of the fact that the action happens not in a prison but near a poster advertising China Airlines.Cinephilia is another subject of Tsai Ming-liang. In this case, the obvious pornographic, voyeuristic nature of cinema." FIPRESCI

Layered Pornography with multiple simultaneous readings
(Interpretations with corresponding representations in the film)

A - Plot (face value)
  • Film = romance/entertainment
  • Porn = a job
  • Crew = actors
  • Tsai = storyteller
  • Audience = audience
B - Politics (subtext)
  • Film = Social commentary
  • Porn = body functions
  • Crew = amateur pornmakers
  • Tsai = documentarian
  • Audience = witness

C - Fantasy (symbolism)

  • Film = Allegory
  • Porn = couple sex
  • Crew = animals
  • Tsai = professional pornmaker
  • Audience = voyeur

D - Sexuality (homosexuality)

  • Film = confession
  • Porn = heteronormativity
  • Tsai = HE
  • Audience = society

Coming up next :

06 janvier 2006

Tuttle Awards 2005

Best Film : Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien/Taiwan)

Special Prize : Me and You and Everybody We Know (Miranda July/USA)

Best Mise-en-scène : Caché (Michael Haneke/France)
Other Contenders:

  • L'Enfant (Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Belgium)
  • The Sun (Alexandr Sokurov/Russia)
  • The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-liang/Taiwan)
  • Manderlay (Lars Von Trier/Denmark)

Best Screenwriting : Cristi Puiu & Razvan Radulescu for The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu/Romania)
Other Contenders:

  • Miranda July for Me and You and Everybody We Know (Miranda July/USA)
  • Jérôme Bonnell for Les Yeux Clairs (Jérôme Bonnell/France)
  • Michael Haneke for Caché (Michael Haneke/France)
  • Lars Von Trier for Manderlay (Lars Von Trier/Denmark)

Best Character : Hirohito in The Sun (Alexandr Sokurov/Russia)
Other Contenders:

  • Theresa Chan in Be With Me (Eric Khoo/Singapour)
  • Christine Jesperson in Me and You and Everybody We Know (Miranda July/USA)
  • Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog/USA)
  • François Dervieux in Les Amants Réguliers (Philippe Garrel/France)

Best Performance : Nathalie Boutefeu in Les Yeux Clairs (Jérôme Bonnell/France)
Other Contenders:

  • Miranda July in Me and You and Everybody We Know (Miranda July/USA)
  • Qi Shu in Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien/Taiwan)
  • Issei Ogata in The Sun (Alexandr Sokurov/Russia)
  • Michel Bouquet in Le Promeneur du Champs de Mars (Robert Guédiguian/France)
  • ensemble in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu/Romania)

Best Camerawork : Pin Bing Lee for Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien/Taiwan)
Other Contenders:

  • Aleksandr Sokurov for The Sun (Alexandr Sokurov/Russia)
  • Diego Martínez Vignatti for Battle in Heaven (Carlos Reygadas/Mexico)
  • Céline Bozon for A travers la forêt (Jean-Paul Civeyrac/France)
  • Harris Savides for Last Days (Gus Van Sant/USA)

Best Image : William Lubtchansky for Les Amants Réguliers (Philippe Garrel/France)
Other Contenders:

  • Channa Deshapriya for The Forsaken Land (Vimukthi Jayasundara/Sri-Lanka)
  • Adrian Tan for Be With Me (Eric Khoo/Singapour)
  • Sharunas Bartas for Seven Invisible Men (Sharunas Bartas/Lithuania)
  • Ryszard Lenczewski for My Summer of Love (Pawel Pavlikovsky/UK)

Best Inspiration : Me and You and Everybody We Know (Miranda July/USA)
Other Contenders:

  • Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien/Taiwan)
  • The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-liang/Taiwan)
  • Résfilm / Slitfilm (Sandor Kardos/Hungary)
  • Wallace & Gromit : The Curse of the Wererabbit (Box/Park/UK)

Stronger Content : Le Malentendu Colonial (Jean-Marie Téno/Cameroon)
Other Contenders:

  • Avenge but one of my two eyes (Avi Mograbi/Israel)
  • Un Silenzio Particulare (Stefano Rulli/Italy)
  • Manderlay (Lars Von Trier/Denmark)
  • Profils Paysans: Le Quotidien (Raymond Depardon/France)