27 avril 2010


Nenette (2010/Philibert/France)

Creature Comforts (1989/Park/UK)

26 avril 2010

Hollywood 2009 - World Cinema Stats (15)

After a major economic crash, 2 strikes, and the threat of online piracy... you would think Hollywood would go bankrupt by now. Can you see the impact of the repetitive crises on the ever-growing economic prosperity of the Hollywood movie business? No? That's because there is none. Even though the attendance and revenues are on a constant rise, Hollywood still needs to whine every year when a crisis comes up, like if it was the end of the world. Why should we cry for Hollywood really?
Don't be fooled by the manipulation of overblown phenomena in the PR communication of these corporations. They fight to "protect" the copyrights (read "profits") stolen by pirate movies... but they refuse to give a decent share of revenues to their screenwriters (who own part of the Intellectual Property)! They complain about the effects of the economy on film production and they raise the admission price and the stars salary! They complain about the protectionist quotas hindering the free market in the world, and they prevent any penetration of foreign culture at home! They think the internet is a threat to the movie business and they appropriate this new platform to commercialise it! Hypocrisy rules... as long as consumers are ready to believe.

Does it look like such dire straits that LACMA shall shut down a $200,000/year budget film program? Is there no tycoon willing to spare an ounce of their profits to sponsor the projection of world cinema in LA? Is it possible to find a patron of the arts who invests in cinema for a non-profit project without any budget pressures, content control, bottom lines and yearly renewable financial commitments? You know, supporting culture for itself, not expecting any form of return in publicity or revenues from it...
Meanwhile the website The Auteurs sponsors a French cinema retrospective with a French Beer! Bring foreign cinema to American kids, yes, but don't forget to push alcoholism and consumerism or else it's not worth it. WTF? That's what you get when you let the private sector run cultural programs... Refusing the involvement of State government is one thing; if only private investments can be responsible and motivated by education only.

The MPAA has released last month the new statistics for 2009 (PDF). A new improved press release, with fancy graphs. Last year (2008 PDF), they added a graph for the number of individual admissions (people in the audience), while up to then they only published the revenue generated by Box Office sales (money in the bank) to show the success of movies. Finally catching up with the more complete stats released publicly by the CNC.

Even going beyond, with a survey of movie goers by ethnicity (such listing is considered inappropriate in France) and income (France does job types instead, because of our money taboo)! But still no segmentation by nationality, by debut films, by co-productions, by budget, or even by dissociating Canada from USA...

I would like to know how many movies made in Hollywood are not in English language! The USA prides itself of being multi-racial, fostering a meltingpot of different languages and cultures... How many movies are aimed at the latin American immigrants? How many movies in Korean or Farsi, European languages, Asian languages?

The concerns of the MPAA reside on whatever products (made domestically or bought in) is distributed, rated and viewed on the American soil. To figure out the proportion of domestically made commodities and foreign imports is of no interest to them. And to prove that this competition report is destined to investors, it only shows the shares of films owned by the major studios (members of the MPAA) opposed to "all the rest" : a free-for-all category (independent studios, foreign distributors). This survey oozes the "Us v. Them" mentality : how awesome we are doing, and how much more market share we need to steal from our competitors.

For the really pertinent statistics we need to turn to Screen Daily or Screen Digest (which are unfortunately not in open access like the CNC is).
Clearly with this kind of stats (which unfortunately stands as the national spokesperson for all American cinema) doesn't portray an objective and comprehensive state of cinema exhibition and consumption.

The MPA was formed in 1945 in the aftermath of World War II to reestablish American films in the world market, and to respond to the rising tide of protectionism resulting in barriers aimed at restricting the importation of American films. [..]
Since its early days, the MPA, often referred to now as "a little State Department," has expanded to cover a wide range of foreign activities falling in the diplomatic, economic, and political arenas. The Motion Picture Association conducts these activities from its headquarters in Los Angeles, California and from key offices in Washington, D.C.; Brussels; São Paulo; Singapore; and Toronto.
MPA (Asia Pacific ) website
The mission of the MPA (overseas public relation of the MPAA) is to fight online piracy (in their mind, every single pirate user who watches movies because they are free, are all lost consumers who would have bought the price of a ticket if piracy didn't exist...) and to push aggressively, yet legally, the overwhelming presence of American movies everywhere in the world. Meaning : to kill protectionist quotas on local markets, to make sure Hollywood blockbusters can expand its mass aculturation worldwide, with cheap "art".

If you care about cinema, well the art not the industry, I mean world cinema : Cinema as an art in our (global) culture, then you should care about how the films you enjoy to watch and write about got the chance to get made in the first place and found a way to your eyes (being funded, filmed, acquired by distributors and circulated through the public circuits for you to watch them anywhere you are) in spite of the many commercial incentives not to make art but a popular commodity. You should care about what Hollywood does (and does not) on the world market to suppress cultural diversity and the prosperity of local culture. You should care about all the films you don't get to see, about all the films the press doesn't publicize, about the films not even accepted at festivals. Film culture is larger than the few hundreds "celebrity films" making the headlines every year.

If you care about the films you love, don't look at your navel, indulging the privilege you had to watch such or such film. How many other people can watch the films you write about? How much longer will auteurs continue to make films at your discretion if they are only seen by critics and professionals, and are not given exposure on the public sphere?

25 avril 2010

Tournage ironique

Le Mépris (1963/Godard/France)

Fake (2010/Houres/France) pour Barclays, Agence Nicolas Schlovzky (vu chez Culture Pub)

24 avril 2010

Imposture 1

Jean-Luc Godard adore faire le pitre à la TV. Extraits télévisuels récoltés et compilés depuis différentes sources dans un but non-lucratif et strictement critique, notamment dans l'émission de Canal+ "Godard à la Télé 1960-2000" (1999) réalisée par Michel Royer.
Stéphane Zagdanski : "Jean-Luc Godard est le représentant principal de l'imposture cinéphilique" (in La Mort dans l'œil : Critique du cinéma comme vision, domination, falsification, éradiction, fascination, manipulation, dévastation, usurpation, 2004)

lire aussi :

23 avril 2010

Auteurist v. Cinephile (Dan Sallitt)

Dan Sallitt makes a timely addition to the ongoing debate around "bygone auteurism" : Auteurist backsliding

I couldn't be happier to see root auteurism fighting back and claiming ground. Even defying American positivism to introduce a dose of "negative energy" in the CareBear condition of the PC reviewer! This was all too beautiful to be true.
Unfortunately, by the end of the fifth paragraph, the guilt was too strong, and the American populism in "American auteurism" rushed back to the rescue and burst this introspective examination. If the split personality seems to enjoy a durable osmosis in French auteurists, the American Superego (of intellectual criticism) can never totally overcome the empire of the subjective Id (guilty repressed entertainment)...
Yet, Sallitt still manages to conclude his post with a hopeful kickback from the Superego.

But all this inner conflict is a lot simpler than that. At least from my point of view. A lot of the irreconcilable struggle he faces stems from a displacement of terminology causing artificial tensions that should never exist.

There are three profiles at play here : the auteurist, the filmgoer, and one unnamed (the cinephile).
First, the definition of "auteurist" is slightly overstated. This alone generates most of the pathology observed in the usage of the English word "auteurism". When he says "the auteurist" he means "the cinephile", almost every time. As if "auteurism" was an activity (watching movies) rather than a specific discipline (a school of thought).

"There are as many variations on the auteurist aesthetic as there are auteurists"
Clearly, here he means cinephile, as "auteurism" doesn't preclude any particular aesthetic confession. Auteurists might champion different auteurs, or disagree on who gets called "auteurs"... but it doesn't split the discipline itself (auteur-oriented film studies). Either you're auteurist or you're not. When critics fight over "auteurism" as an aesthetical trophee, they misinterpretate what "author" means. The evaluation of auteurs, is not part of auteurism, it comes from the larger discipline called art criticism. It's the critic in the auteurist who wants to evaluate. The auteurist's role is limited to find the personal stylistic signature. In theory, to the pure auteurist (who is not critic), every auteurs are equal; there is no preferences possible amongst artists who express their genuine inner style. Auteurists could eventually judge the amount of honesty and truth in each auteur's tentative expression... but it would not be an artistic or emotional ranking. If we have a ranking amongst auteurs, it's because critics assessed it, critics well versed in auteurism.
Les Jeunes Turcs were all at once, cinephiles, critics, auteurists, and filmmakers, which explains why a hasty conflation of their deeds might be confusing. What their cinephile side was responsible for in their journalistic oeuvre was not on the same level as what their auteurist, or filmmaker side did. They did certains things out of pure passion (fandom preferences), others for cold theory (critical assessments). This is not a proper "split personality" as much as it is the result of a rich personality acknowledging the fact that the human mind is not one-sided, one-dimensional but operates on several level at the same time, without causing conflicts or the crash of the system. We deal with objective and subjective judgements on daily basis, if only when saying how good the food served was. You can choose to be honest, or to be affable, it won't split your personality. In society you may play-pretend. In criticism, you shall admit which side made the judgement, and qualify that evaluation, whether it was motivated by cinephile love or by examinable analysis.

Bad auteurism creeps in when critics abuse of rhetorics to cover up and self-justify a subjective preference by constructing a seemingly rationalised argumentation.
That's why a fallacious argument in intellectual communities is harder to dispute (and more important to dispute) than the clueless fanboy who will claim a widely-recognised masterpiece is just bad.

"A strong auteurist position is necessarily based on the conviction that the system, though it has money to buy craft and talent and the freedom to deploy them to best effect, is highly likely to produce a mediocre product unless a good director intervenes."
Yes!!! I'm happy to hear this.
There are some who think there is artistic genius in the industrial entertainment business which purpose is to keep producing safe, consensual stories containing stars with predictible audience responses (by repeating successful formulae ad nauseum and abandonning for ever attempts that failed once) ... and there are auteurists. I don't think that by giving artistic credit to "the system" by any stretch of the imagination is going to benefit the great art of cinema. Although that's probably why there is a misunderstanding on what "the system" actually corresponds to, and what cinema is supposed to be. Everybody says cinema is BOTH an art and an industry. This is unquestionable. But there are many ways to watch cinema, and to talk about it. If all you seek in movies is maximum laughters, maximum emotions, maximum entertainment and awe, short of which you'll be bored, it's unlikely you'll ever see "art" in anything you watch, even if you happen to see an art-film. However, if you pretend to seek art in cinema, then popular success, entertainment value, means of production, star system, personal pleasure, whether you find them or not in your individual relation to the film, shouldn't influence in any way your aesthetic appreciation of the artistic merits achieved by the filmmaker. It's not because you're a human like everyone else in the audience, that the movie triggers emotions in you on cue, that you get sucked in on a subjective level, that it is impossible for an auteurist to extract ART and only art in this industry. It takes self-control, critical thinking, experience and practice obviously, but that's why critic is not a job any audience member can do... it takes efforts.

"So, in theory, auteurism is at odds with a general, all-purpose love of movies."
Why? Indeed, auteurism is a discipline of aesthetic studies that doesn't depend on gut-feelings. Love is the realm of cinephiles. Auteurist preferences and cinephiles preferences aren't based on the same criteria. But I don't see why love would interfer with the integrity of an auteurist judgement. You can be both cinephile and auteurist at the same time, in the theatre or when you write an article. Whether what you write comes from your cinephile side or from your intellect is your conscious choice.
You may love your own children and still be severe, demanding, critical with them for educational purpose, for moral guidance, by honesty, or simply out of love. Are you capable to deny a kid's greed for candy, because there are higher purposes than the immediate satisfaction of physical craving? It's not because your gut desires it badly that it's Good for you in absolute terms. This is not a negation of love, this is not a split personality. You just need to make 2 rooms in your brains for the Pleasure Principle and the Reality Principle, and your psyche will be ambivalent but stable and above all... reasonable.
Auteurists can perfectly indulge unlimited passion for movies, but when it comes down to write about it seriously, it is critical to clearly define whether it's your guts speaking about emotions or your brains speaking about reflection. Can you figure whether the film you're watching only matters to your personal enjoyment or if it bears wider importance to your work? Well, it implies knowing the distinction between autobiography and exegesis...

Sallitt apologetically calls this resistance to the system a "negative energy". This is so full of repressed guilt and disconfort with a challenge to authority. This subjective term already establishes "positivity" as "supporting the system that feeds you". Why would a critic conceive the opposition to a norm in a negative way?
First, there is no need to feel guilty about movie-love, about screen-fascination, about feeling entertained by spectacle. This is only a source of conflict if you feel guilty about this type of pleasure. Film studies never negate or exclude such pleasure as an experiential intake, however film studies discriminate such feelings when used as evidence or arguments. There is no inner conflict of personality between enjoying badly crafted films and enduring complex masterpieces, unless the clash is located in your values (i.e. mismatching satisfaction with aesthetics and vice versa).
Pleasure only inhibits intellectual appreciation if you give it more importance than it deserves, if you allow pleasure to compete with aesthetics on equal level. Again, you may love your wife infinitely more than Albert Einstein, but readily admit that she is not the best nuclear physicist that ever existed. It won't offend anybody. There is no possible competition between objective evaluation and emotional price. Saying a film is enjoyable and saying a film is aesthetically superior are two distinct propositions.
The split personality is only pathological when both sides try to compete on the same level, and alternate at the dominant position of control.

One of the major problem in film culture is people thinking that art and industry are one and the same, are on the same level or are easily interchangeable.

I was quite disturbed to hear Emmanuel Burdeau, rédacteur en chef des Cahiers, declared a few years ago, he didn't consider himself a cinéphile. It was a shock, and it became a revelation the more I thought about it. I thought "cinephile" was the holy Grail, that every filmgoer strived to attain this coveted level of ultimate dedication to cinema. But it kind of makes sense for Burdeau in particular and for critics in general to dissociate their role from the distinct condition of a cinephile. (Well, root cinephilia is a heavy heritage in France... some of the original cinephiles are still alive, and they make sure to remind us that it was a whole different world back then)
It doesn't mean critics don't love films, it doesn't mean critics don't watch as many films as cinéphiles. It's a matter of perception of the act of film watching, and what you personally draw from it.

That's why I like when Sallitt says
"People who are turned off by routine cinema product usually take up a different profession."
This is probably a natural selection that divides film culture early on. The more cinephile-oriented filmgoers turn towards promotion (cinematheque, conservation, programation, distibution, production, or biased reviewing). The less cinephiles turn toward (Academe or objective criticism).

20 avril 2010

The lazy way out (2)

Adrian Martin: "I have spent much of my life looking at the question of Hollywood, and turning it over from different angles. It does not take so much of my time now, simply because I have made the personal decision that I want more to look at world cinema, experimental cinema, and other more overlooked forms. But it is certainly safe to say that I have been through every available position and emotion that a critic can take and experience in relation to the ‘passion for Hollywood’: defending it, rejecting it, rationalising it, exploring it, becoming disenchanted with it, becoming re-enchanted with it. Now, I feel I am ‘out of the cycle’ of this difficult passion. Like many critics, my interest in the resistant streams in world cinema has steered me more towards the true American independents: not the Sundance or Miramax camps, but people like James Benning, Yvonne Rainer, Travis Wilkerson, Jon Jost, and many others. In the semi-commercial cinema, the only Americans I really defend today are those precisely ignored (for the most part) by and in America, and discovered elsewhere: Ferrara, James Gray, Larry Clark, Monte Hellman, Elaine May." (IndianAuteur #7, Nov 2009)
This oblivious approach is, alas, "the easy, lazy way out!" (see : "cinéma d'auteur blasé (1)")

Godard replies :

Paraphrase (replacing the word "worker" by "artist"):

Who "directs" [met en scène] the cinema market in the world? Hollywood controls most of what gets screened, either directly (free market) or indirectly (through appealing propagandist marketing).
The word "direct" is loaded. Even the way I try to "direct", to fight against the law of supply and demand, is strongly conditioned by what I was taught in school, in the media, in the conformist film press.
Oppressed filmmakers are given 15 sec or 3 minutes in the media to speak up : "What do you think of the film market? what do you think of your condition of non-commercial filmmaker?" But who can give an answer in 3 minutes when you've been deprived of visibility and public speech for so long?
Intellectuals who have the means to make CRITICISM, since the exploited artists don't, we must approach them and listen to be able to transmit their words. We know they aren't allowed to speak in general, or in the films, on television.
It shows the three social forces in struggle on the film market : the exploiters, the
oppressed, and "those who are fed up". Instead of describing the individuals beforehand, it first describes the masses, and the power struggle of the masses.
The accusation is often brought against us : "you want to make film criticism for art-cinema but people don't understand". It's not that simple. First, it's normal that seeing the way film criticism is printed, that even well intentioned critics might be considered unproductive. I think our challenge is not to write criticism "in the name of auteurs", we should first speak in the name of cinema.

Where is the right to criticize?
The exploiters (Hollywood) never tell the exploited (non-commercial artists) how they exploit them. So WE tell it. It's precisely us, the news, cinema, television, the press, who enter this discourse of the exploiter, who does tell the exploited.
Because that's what cinema, novels, the press and television do : they tell. Those of us in the field should find a new way to tell, so that we might finally say something else, beyond the conformist talking point and complacent tolerance for spectacle that have been insidiously installed by the crowd-pleaser exploiter : the Hollywood system.

16 avril 2010

Ruptura irónica

Escuela de Cine del Uruguay (Marzo 2010) Pablo Riera

Ironic Trailer

Ironic Commercial

"So Obnoxious" (March 2010, U by Kotex)

read in the NYT (15 Mar 2010)

14 avril 2010

The critic who cried wolf (3)

Why do I find Gavin Smith's 2010 "neo-history" unconstructive?

So basically, Film Comment whines about the lameness of international film festivals : this has become a familiar tune amongst snub critics who would like to think that their personal taste is above whatever the entire community of artists can collectively put out on the festival circuit.

It is part of the critic's role to evaluate the film production and sift the good films from the bad films. It is also inevitable that personal preference will lead critics to favor certain films or certain filmmakers for their unique qualities. And critics may put more emphasis on this quality rather than that quality, but overall they all should, more or less, agree that at least some sort of quality evaluation makes cinema greater. Thus great films or great filmmakers must have a recognizable talent, skill or inspiration that other critics could not entirely dismiss (even if it doesn't correspond to their subjective preferences). This is the basis for universal aesthetic standards in Art.

Artists create their work, and critics evaluate them. That is how the world works. Not the other way round. It's rather absurd, I think, to criticise artists for what they do not make...

What I'm saying is that the critics' job is to judge what is out there, what has been effectively made, produced and (in the best case scenario) distributed. They are not entitled to speculate on what contemporary artists are "expected" to do at this point in time, if cinema should shed skin one more time, if it's about time for new aesthetics to form... It's the artists' call whether they want to be followers or innovators! (and there is nothing to be ashamed of to be a follower; I'll come back to that)
Critics must be after-the-fact witnesses. They don't create anything, they do not initiate anything. This is one very important distinction that keeps each in its place, in the (already unbalanced) artist-critic relationship. Artists have everything to lose, they put themselves and more on the line, they take chances, they risk a career... while critics somehow grant themselves the right to judge them, at the show of a thumb, without the slightest accountability in the workplace, in society or in regard to history. Critics have the easy job. Don't abuse the privileged position you're offered to have a reserved space within the Art scene. Critics ought to deserve this privilege by minding their own business without interfering with the natural evolution of aesthetic maturation in history.

Gavin Smith goes a step too far, when he suggests that today's artists are not good enough (I beg to differ with his opinion), that they don't make anything "new"... as if there was a rule in Art history saying that you're not artist enough if you don't surprise the critics. He takes the problem from the wrong angle.

Look up the pantheon of cinema masterpieces, it's full of films that didn't pioneer a new aesthetic trend, films that are not one-of-a-kind, filmmakers that were not lone wolves. It is disingenuous to suggest that the quality of today's cinema depends on this factor.
Of course, everyone is happy and proud when cinema renews itself, when new forms are invented; at least hardcore cinephiles are welcoming such brutal changes (producers and audience aren't as adventurous). But the novelty escalation (always racing after the never-been-done-before) is not how Art history built upon. There are times for breakthrough and times for development to exhaustion of a given style. Artists decide whether they had enough, they are the ones with their finger on the pulse of society, they are the ones projecting themselves in the future. Society gets the art it deserves. If our society sucks, art will reflect it. That's how we should perceive these things.

We don't get a series of great Films Noir, Westerns, Musicals if artists get tired of a "standardized" style, not to mention Comedy or Melodrama. Are there no masterpieces in these long-lasting "genres"? Were they exclusively the very first film of its kind, or could masterpieces still be made long after its precursors? And I'm only talking about the most common "prefab formats" of mainstream cinema. If this is true for the most conformist side of cinema, then the more exclusive and shorter movements in art-cinema may also bath in the same water for a while before moving on. Yes, there are cases where more than one masterpiece emerge from the same aesthetic movement, even in art-cinema!

Blaming the "genre" or uniformity shall not make any cinema greater.

Needless to say that being first doesn't mean securing greatness for posterity. Being a "lone wolf" doesn't mean greater. What he admires in them is their unique talent, not them being necessarily first or impossible to imitate. History is full of "hopelessly sui generis" wannabe artists who never accomplished anything significant, or just not as much as certain "followers". Testing and failing is part of Art unfortunately; for others to avoid following the dead ends. The romantic idea of the "lone wolf" is just a myth to sell books...

Calling for a "Tradition de Qualité" re-evaluation, I'm all for it! But blaming the right culprits would prove to issue more constructive results.
And even before getting into the Tradition v. Innovation argument, I flat out disagree with his contention that art-cinema is poorer today. A "half-empty glass" syndrome.

I think this is a misleading portrayal of reality, a very selective conception of "art-cinema". Someone should write a heavy dictionary to define the many acceptions of this term in English language... Cause most confusion stems from the mismatching territories covered by the word in different people's mouth.

So what is art-cinema, when Film Comment says enough with the tradition of quality? I'm afraid the issue isn't as clear-cut as when Truffaut used it. The problem is that the "art-cinema" fringe was engulfed by the mainstream, appropriated, digested, also perverted, and popularized. For the best and the worst. This is a sign of cultural evolution. However, so many people who think they make "art-cinema" because they copy the styles of the old art-cinema don't realise they are still operating under the mainstream certification. Making art-cinema today is not like making art-cinema decades ago. Art evolves faster (even with the long lasting sheep trends) than its vulgarisation in popular culture.

I agree with Gavin Smith that a large portion of actual art-cinema (which we could identify with the critically acclaimed festival auteurs) has been slowly orbiting the Mainstream magnet closer and closer as their career progressed; and I've been saying this for a long time now. What critics have accoustumed themselves to call "auteurs" and "art-films" are simply no longer the visionaries they used to be.
Again, there is nothing wrong with giving a try at more conformist genres. Artists might be tempted to make more money, or reach out to a wider audience, or succomb to the seductions of tradition if they want to. If the best artists start to make boring films it's a loss for cinema, but we can't blame them for making something they feel more comfortable doing. The idea that artists are responsible for the greatness of cinema, a lifetime commitment (and if they give up trying they fail our expectations) is another mistaken conception.

Nonetheless, he chose to point finger at someone... If cinema is self-indulgent (taking a long nap for 30 years?) do you really believe that blaming art-film auteurs and international festivals could change anything?
If artists lost their mojo and fell back on the complacent format, there is nothing we can do about it, except to wait for better artists to come along. You won't force lame artists to become visionary by poking at them. You won't make Art appear spontaneously by calling its name in the desert. Critics do not control the destiny of film culture.

When Cahiers did it (in 1954), les Jeunes Turcs put their balls on the table and went on to make better films THEMSELVES! that's why it was OK for them to speak out on this extra-criticism matter.

*IF* cinema is mediocre today, whatever international festivals screen is the best we can get, anywhere, any time. It's much superior (diversity, challenge, risk) to what distributors show on the commercial screens.
An American critic should understand this divide between the artistic production and the public availability of great art-cinema... better than anyone else. You couldn't even dream of a comparable line up to the Rotterdam festival in an American festival, let alone on the theatrical circuits! The creativity of art-cinema filmmakers disappointed you? Big fucking deal... You wouldn't even show them to your public if they were good enough! The Lincoln Center alone won't accomodate all the American audience deserving GREATER cinema. What imaginable commercial pressure had the NYC Film Forum, waiting on for 5 years before the first American screening of Sokurov's The Sun, for a one-shot one-week run?

Why would artists care to make great art if you only show Hollywood movies anyway??? So you are demanding on quality control, but you let other countries feed the artists? America doesn't need to contribute to provide a decent exposure and livelihood to art-cinema artists but it can still tell them what to do?

Funny how I can see BIGGER, more urgent problems in the situation you whine about than to blame festivals and auteurs who still do a better job than distributors, art centers and the specialized film press! Who are we kidding here? I wish a Film Comment editorial had the power to change the face of art-cinema worldwide... but since it's already an impossible task for Film Comment to fix the shortcomings at home, I won't hold my breath for it.
I'm going to assume this editorial was an April's fool... right?

Sorry, I'm talking "off the cuff"... that's what makes exemplary PRINT criticism nowadays (unlike anything we can find on the blogosphere).

Please, someone email me when Film Comment writes an editorial on the glass ceiling of American distribution for foreign films. Maybe we'll talk about pulling a Truffaut then.

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

07 avril 2010

Egypt : mother of Hollywood

"Melody Aflam : Titanic" (2010/Mohamed Hamdalla)
TV Commercial by Leo Burnett Cairo (Egypt), for a TV channel, Melody Entertainment, showing exclusively arab films. The Oscar statuette is a mummy!
via Culture Pub (not only Titanic, but Se7en, Dance With Wolves, Rocky and Braveheart)

Wolves are not alone (2)

See previous post on Film Comment's "neo-politique des auteurs."
According to Gavin Smith the only "visionaries, risk-takers, misfits, mavericks" he remembers from back then are : Rossellini, Resnais, Tarkovsky, Brakhage, Oshima.
Rossellini and Oshima aren't film form inventors on the same level as the other three. They are a lot more "mainstream" stylistically, comparatively. Anyway, too many past lone wolves omitted to start listing them here. Let's concentrate on today.

Now (the last 30 years, he says, no less) the "lone wolves" are :
  • Wong Kar-Wai
  • Lucrecia Martel
  • Apichatpong Weerasethakul
  • Jia Zhang-Ke
  • Arnaud Desplechin
  • James Benning
I like this sceptical attitude that questions the originality and the creativity of contemporary auteurs... because too many filmmakers take it easy and pile up the reels textbook-style, whether within the studio system or amongst art-cinema anointed artists. But if you do it wrong, this motivational pressure to innovate falls flat, unfair and oblivious. But... what is Desplechin doing here??? is he what you call "visionary", "risk-taker", "misfit", "maverick"??? compared to what? to Spielberg or John McCain maybe, but not compared to the others on your list... We're on a whole different level of innovation there. I can think of dozens of filmmakers bolder than this guy. In fact let's just name-drop some REAL innovators now.

Apparently, in Rotterdam, mister Smith didn't see Tsai Ming-liang, Luc Moullet, Harmony Korine, Raya Martin... just to name a few lone wolves who attended this one singled out festival. If you go to Rotterdam and come back with a feeling of uniformity, you don't need to visit other more mainstreamized festivals... I don't know, Film Comment should write more about, say, EXPERIMENTAL CINEMA... maybe. Reviewing Zodiac, Wall-E, Public Enemies, Avatar, Fantastic Mr Fox, Up in the Air or The Lovely Bones won't get you there. You're the one giving publicity to the commercial conformism.

He completely forgets to name Abbas Kiarostami, David Lynch, Tarr Béla, Charlie Kaufman, Roy Andersson, Straub-Huillet, Jean-Luc Godard, Peter Tscherkassky, when he expands his reflection to the greatest masters working today on the worldwide scene, for the past 30 YEARS.

You need lone wolves? Here are more lone wolves.
It's hard to think that "art-cinema" is a realm of copycats and followers when you watch the truly original universe and aesthetic of :

Aki Kaurismaki, Kitano Takeshi, Peter Watkins, Lisandro Alonso, Carlos Reygadas, Aleksandr Sokurov, Elia Suleiman, Hadjithomas/Joreige, Emir Kusturica, Kim Ki-duk, Bruno Dumont, Delépine/Kervern, Hong Sang-soo, Jim Jarmusch, Jessica Hausner, Avi Mograbi, Raoul Ruiz, Vincent Gallo, Todd Solondz, Sharunas Bartas, Darejan Omirbaev, Albert Serra, Vincent Dieutre, Philippe Grandrieux, Guy Maddin, [EDIT: added] Lav Diaz, Matthew Barney...

and I'm forgetting a lot more at this moment, I'm sure (because I only go through the current decade from the top of my head, not the last 30 years like he does). But I assume they are not worth mentioning in Film Comment, because they are either not visionary enough to his taste, or just not talented enough to be included in his Best-Of...

There is this illusion of embracing the totality of the universe when you go to a festival. Critics are submerged by an overwhelming batch of fresh films, selected by festival programmers, scrapped up from other festivals left-overs, or passed on from the festival circuit favourite pets... and then they figure they can make grandiloquent statements about the future of cinema, whereas all they see is a line up formatted by a seasonal marketing. The festival marketing of the "art-cinema" scene, of course, not the studios' commercial marketing... but still, the process of selection/elimination creates the same logistical blind spots and tentative florilege.

What is the journalistic purpose to forge this false sense of auteurs scarcity, talent poverty, festivals uniformity??? What sucks is the safe commercial format of film production, upstream, and distribution censorship, downstream. That's what keeps real artists from the eyes of the public. But a critic ought to know better...

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

06 avril 2010

Lone Wolf & Sheep (1) Gavin Smith

Gavin Smith : " [..] 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. (The Japanese critic Shigehiko Hasumi cited Laurent Cantet's Time Out [Emploi du temps] as an examplar of this tendency when we served on a jury at the 2001 Venice Film Festival).

These art-cinema genres attempt to codify and appropriate the idioms and sensibilities of the foundational lone-wolf film artists - the visionaries, the risk-takers, the misfits, and the mavericks such as Rossellini, Resnais, Tarkovsky, Brackhage, Oshima, all filmmakers who were committed to work that's hopelessly, gloriously sui generis. (Today's lone wolves include Wong Kar-wai, Lucrecia Martel, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Jia Zhang-ke, Arnaud Desplechin, James Benning)

But "formulaic art cinema" isn't just a matter of genre; it's a matter of style. In this limited space, it might be useful to take a stab at listing what, after 9 days at Rotterdam, appear to be the half dozen dominant stylistic categories that currently pervade the art-film sector, and their originators, best practitioners, and biggest popularizers.

By far the most popular is Neo-neorealism. The current masters of this aesthetic are of course, Jean-Pierre et Luc Dardenne. Then there's Neo-modernism : Michael Haneke and Pedro Almodovar, step forward. Neo-impressionism : nobody does it better than Claire Denis, but plenty try. For pious purists, there's Neo-minimalism : Pedro Costa, Eugene Green. Meditative Realism : Hou Hsiao-hsien. And last but not least, Neo-maximalism, the realm of enfants terribles such as Lars von Trier, Léos Carax and Gaspard Noé.

Consider this as a provisional, shoot-from-the-hip first try, a subject for further research. And let's just add that it's no coincidence that all the names mentioned above are Film Comment favorites. Because in truth, none of this is news to the film culture mandarins, world-cinema gatekeepers, and festival tastemakers - an establishment which, nevertheless tends to self-righteously over-inflate those it anoints, and with which, let's be frank, this magazine is necessarily aligned. I'm usually a sucker for most of these stylistic approaches, but at Rotterdam last month I started to long for something, anything, that didn't neatly fit into these prefab formats. Art cinema is really in danger of becoming narrow and predictable in its range of expression, and this is the aesthetic bind in which we find ourselves in 2010."
(Film Comment, March/April 2010)
It's funny how a quote taken out of context may take a very different tone. I liked the excerpt that was cited by Maya at Girish, which I posted earlier too illustrate my timeline : Parallel evolutions of auteurism. Because on its own, it implies a critical distance towards the mannerist establishment and the "Emperor's new clothes" wake up call.
Now that I've sought out for the print context (not available online), I realize the rest of his editorial falls into the opposite excess he denounces : Film theory Branding. I'm shocked to see re-used the fatuous label invented last year by the NYT... Besides post-mortem festival coverages suck, especially since the festival in question does more for the exposure of art films than your local specialized film magazines or local theatres.

So many things to comment there : omission of other lone wolves, past and present; misunderstanding of style evolution in Art; vacuous labels and their selective representatives; idea of masters/inventors and disciples/followers. Thankfully all of it was "provisional". Since he calls for "further research", I hope his fellow American critics will chip in (provided they care about such simplifying, overarching declarations more than about lays off and salary). Unfortunately film criticism is a one way street : anointed journals provide reading material and readers swallow in silence.

Can you pull a "Truffaut" today, with the same candour, partiality and pretension?

Without getting into a hasty reassessment of his mapping of 2010's cinema, I mainly want to question his second-hand taxonomy.
  1. Neo-neorealism (J.P. & L. Dardenne)
  2. Neo-modernism (Michael Haneke, P. Almodovar) apparently Desplechin isn't another follower of this vein... nah! totally different.
  3. Neo-impressionism (Claire Denis)
  4. Neo-minimalism (P. Costa, E. Green)
  5. Meditative Realism (HHH)
  6. Neo-maximalism (Lars von Trier, Leos Carax, G. Noé)
Following his introductory accusation of imitation and sheep following, he proceeds to negate any originality in today's cinema by defining each and every styles with old cinema movements dating back at least 60 or 80 years. Everything is "neo", everything relates directly to the 40ies!
Well, I would agree with that... if we are talking about the repetitive, conformist "Mainstream cinema". Indeed nothing much has changed since the studio golden age (formulae, stereotypes, inspirations, grammar).

But if we are talking about art-cinema (he focuses on the cream-of-the-crop, the festival selections, and Rotterdam of all festivals; read this cartoon), I beg to differ. Our auteurs today, do not simply make updated versions of the 20ies (French impressionism), the 30ies (Poetic realism), the 50ies (Italian neorealism), the 60ies (Modernism). It's always about "realism" and "modernism", isn't it? I would hope that 8 decades of film theory produced a finer array of aesthetic categories and evolutionary steps...

1) Neo-neo is plainly bullshit (read Bordwell on this).
There are plenty of imitators of the Dardennes indeed, but this type of hand-held, following camera and "social" immersion is far from the overt political demonstrations of Italian neorealist parables!

2) So "neo-modernism" is just a return to Modernism, after Post-modernism? I didn't even know it was possible... Haneke, Almodovar : the two representatives of contemporary Modernism??? really? First, they have little in common, either stylistically or content-wise; I have no idea what aspect would associate them to the same family. Secondly, if you believe Modernity lives (a conjunctural movement that died after the 70ies), Almodovar's aesthetic concerns sit far from Modernity. Haneke might be the closer of the two, yet his focus is more on psychological mechanisms than on a self-reflection of our times.
Why Desplechin is singularized as a "lone wolf", while his stylistic signature is more classicist and less original than Almodovar or Haneke??? I'm guessing : big personal bias on Gavin's part there. I mean, it's one thing to favourite an auteur, it's another thing to imagine his style is unmatched or never-seen-before... Desplechin fits in perfectly into the stereotype of the French slow-intellectual-family-drama (we're talking about style here, not the auteurist biographical content)

3) I can see the "impressions"-type of cinema in Claire Denis, but is her cinema closer to Epstein or Gance than she is from Dardenne or Jia Zhang-ke?

4) "neo-minimalism" is apparently "neo-Bresson", though neither of them have Bresson's grammar. Green is theatrical, playing with dramaturgic artifice; while Costa is a naturalist, working with real lives. How is that the same stylistic family???

5) "Meditative realism" seems to correspond to what I call "Contemplative cinema". We could talk about all the lone wolves unmentioned in there, and how this isn't a "following" trend where filmmakers copy eachothers the same way mumblecore wannabe directors do.

6) What the hell is "neo-maximalism"? what was "maximalism" in the first place???
Lars von Trier, Carax and Noé... oh I see, "maximalism" stands for "shock value", what an awesome stylistic descriptor! Let's put in this bag all auteurs out of control who show things we don't want to see. Max effect! Max pornography! Max sensationalism! Here you go, there is a new cinema movement... When you think of "maximalism", you don't think of Transformers or Avatar... nah, you think Dogville or I Stand Alone?? Really?
It's not entirely lame to compare this trio (though Carax is only there for his latest short film), but the label sucks, it associates them around the wrong (superficial) aspect, and it's not an aesthetic movement by any means.

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