Archive for the ‘Articles’ Category
Spring break for geeks. That’s what the mainstream news media christened the South by Southwest Interactive Conference in 2008, just as this self-curated, little-engine-that-could collection of daylong panels, trade shows, and wowee-zowee multimedia presentations—dwarfed in past years by the debauched and much more heavily attended Music Festival—began to draw increasing numbers of registrants. (The current estimate is in the high thousands, a 40 percent bump since 2009.) Running concurrently with this orgy of interactivity, of course, is the SXSW Film Festival, an event that when I visited Austin eleven years ago, pre-mumblecore, seemed destined to become a perennial sidebar on Sixth Street, the city’s famed boulevard of bars, clubs, and intoxicated hipsterism. Who’d want to hole up in a movie theater or audit a panel on “HotBot vs. AltaVista: How to Get the Most Out of Your World Wide Web Search” when the Supersuckers and Fu Manchu were making tattooed eardrums bleed at Stubb’s? Geeks, obviously.
The presumed equivalence between film nerds and techies makes sense on the surface. Both tribes, you might say, are addicted to screens. In 1994, when the fest organizers added these strands, film and interactive (dubbed “multimedia” at the time) were conjoined, only to be separated a year later, perhaps for logistical reasons. Certainly, emergent technologies affect the way films are made and exhibited, as well as how we communicate, and the increasingly sophisticated manner in which advertisers brand entertainment experiences. But how easily do these worlds coexist in Austin’s week of wonders? How compatible, really, are the coffee-swilling entrepreneurs and propeller heads congregating at the obscenely spacious Austin Convention Center with the beer-and-a-burger indie-film set, who mostly haunt the old Paramount and State Theaters on Congress Avenue and the Alamo Drafthouses on Sixth Street and (even more conspicuously) South Lamar, miles away from the madness on the far side of Town Lake?
These are great times to be a cinephile. That is, if you have the proper perspective on what the digital age has enabled us to access and see, perhaps for the first time, in a variety of nontheatrical contexts. Purists may argue that the degradation of original formats is akin to the death of cinema, just as headphone-allergic audiophiles decry the disappearance of vital analog information in MP3 formats. I’m the last person such people need to convince. Would I rather see a pristine 35mm print of Malick’s The Thin Red Line in an honest-to-god movie theater rather than on my 44-inch Samsung flatscreen? Undoubtedly. In the absence of such an opportunity, will I settle for Criterion’s digitally remastered Blu-ray version? You bet. How about Netflix’s Stream Instantly option, which utilizes a lower bit-rate compression technology that some regard as potentially corruptive of image quality, and much inferior to the disc version? Yes, though it depends on whether I’d be receiving the streamed film through my television (fine) or my 21.5” iMac (losing interest) or—let’s propose the most absurd option available—my smartphone (not a chance). Read the rest of this entry »
A couple of weeks ago, the press officer for the Stockholm International Film Festival got in touch with me with a generous offer, wondering if I’d like to travel to Sweden at their expense and cover this year’s programming, an international meld of features, shorts, and documentaries, most making their Nordic debut. After a glance at the competition films (many of which I’d seen at the 2010 Berlinale or elsewhere) and sidebar sections (Latin Visions, Asian Images, Twilight Zone), I decided there was enough here to chew on: a dozen or so world premieres, works-in-progress by up-and-coming Scandinavian filmmakers, and plenty of entries from Cannes, Venice, and Toronto. Besides, I’d never been to Stockholm, a beautifully preserved archipelago city with cinematic associations stretching from Victor Sjöström and Greta Garbo to Ingmar Bergman and Stellan Skarsgård. Never mind that it would be wet and wintry, or that the sun sets sharply at 3:30 p.m. in late autumn. The thought of stuffing myself on foreign cinema and braised reindeer meat a few days before Thanksgiving seemed to be the only antidote to post-election November blues.
A mysterious and slippery object no matter which of its many angles you examine it from, Mariano Llinás’sHistorias extraordinarias (“Extraordinary Stories”) seemed to arrive out of nowhere in 2009. This exceedingly strange bundle of nested narratives dared to introduce scores of characters and storylines (some rich tributaries, others dead ends), perspectives and locales (Mozambique-for-India, the Salado River) with an almost ceaseless stream of omniscient voiceovers. Despite the recklessly unconventional approach, the film more than delivers on the come-hither promise of its title, blending elements of existential detective fiction, romantic intrigue, and Monte Hellman–esque road movie in a propulsive worlds-within-worlds metaconstruct that makes one forget all about its shabby digital-video format and audacious 245-minute running time—not to mention the incredible fact that it was made for $50,000. Novelistic in scope and ambition, ample in its temporal folds and ironic reversals, Historias is nothing less than an attempt to reorder cinema’s priorities around the act of dramatic narration, to question the nature of fiction itself, drawing on the fables and storytelling traditions of yesteryear. Jorge Luis Borges could not have written it better himself. Read the rest of this entry »
For the epigraph of his now-canonical Simulations, the late French philosopher Jean Baudrillard cited a curiously modern aphorism from the Book of Ecclesiastes: “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none.” The line was apocryphal, of course. Yet legions of academics have quoted it in research papers and at conferences, never questioning the authority of their source, and missing entirely the point of the thinker’s deadpan prank. To a certain mindset, it hardly matters whether the attribution is fabricated. After all, simulations have a truth of their own.
I can think of no better way to introduce Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy—a bittersweet romance as concerned with the philosophy of perception as it is with love, marriage, beauty, and antiquity—than to think of it as a cunningly staged dramatic commentary on the art of fakery. Film manufactures the real, even in documentary, where framing, editing, sound, and the performative self-awareness of nonactors can complicate the notion that we are witnessing a sequence of “captured,” authentically true moments. The opaque dividing line between fiction and documentary is a theme that has interested the Iranian director since his 1990 landmark Close-up, a re-enactment of an actual incident in which a movie-mad bookbinder fooled a wealthy Tehran family into thinking he was the acclaimed filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, starring the real people playing themselves. Further creative redefinitions of the documentary form and cinematic truth inflect the narratives of Through the Olive Trees (crew members playing themselves; nonactors reprising prior roles) andThe Wind Will Carry Us, which wryly questioned the position of the filmmaker himself as a master manipulator. Read the rest of this entry »
“What we take in through our eyes and ears has come from two machines that are said to reproduce the real world perfectly. But one of these machines is only capable of representing things in a misleading fashion, via the lie that is photography; while the other produces a truthful representation of the elements that constitute sound. How can one ignore this dichotomy, the fact that the sound is true but the image false?”—Robert Bresson
When I call to mind images from the films of Robert Bresson, it is not an actor’s face or a definitive sequence that emerges from what feels like ancient memory, but rather a series of disconnected close-ups drawn at random from the filmmaker’s body of work. Hands, mostly, those vessels for depicting soulful inquiry (a heretic; a country priest) or iniquity (a pickpocket, a killer, a wicked chorister) that proliferate in his sublime vision of humanity exalted yet estranged from itself, reckoning with dual impulses, negotiating varied proportions of choice and chance. But there are other images, too: instances of sound—auditory close-ups, as it were—that have had an even greater purchase on my recollections of the Bressonian universe, all indelible and unique, but married to no particular camera shot or sequence. It is my ear that remembers Bresson best: the whinny of horses in Lancelot du Lac, the creaking of doors in L’Argent, the snapping of branches and clip-clop of clogs in Mouchette. This is all by design. Read the rest of this entry »
On a cold night in late February 2007, I made a pilgrimage to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to acquaint myself with the work of Béla Tarr, a filmmaker whose name had become emblematic of formidable intellect, exhaustive running times, and a rapturously grand vision. This was mostly due to the proselytizing of Susan Sontag and other critics smitten by Tarr’s seven-and-a-half-hour magnum opus Sátántangó, a legendary, see-it-if-you-can rarity reportedly on par with Rivette’s equally elusive Out 1. It hardly mattered that, on this particular evening, everyone in my immediate social circle was gathering at various domestic outposts to revel in a very different kind of cinematic celebration—the annual bestowal of gilded homunculi on Hollywood’s mandarin class. The Academy Awards have their allure, but I was in a heavy mood, more pensive than depressive, and at a certain hour I determined that my time might be better spent sinking into whatever otherworldly textures and immersive folds of time this notoriously headstrong Hungarian had in store with his arcanely titled Werckmeister Harmonies, about which I knew very little. The scarcity of Tarr’s films on U.S. screens added to my interest, as did BAM’s boldly counterintuitive programming, which seemed directed as much by hope (behold a true master of cinema…please?) as it did pure spite (fuck the Academy and its night of narcissistic self-congratulation!). To my surprise, the theater was not barren: fifty or so kindred spirits sat quietly (and for the most part, alone) as if anticipating a private ceremony that demanded solemn reverence rather than ecstatic conviviality. Did these anonymous patrons know something I didn’t? Two and a half hours later, I was newly baptized in Tarr’s dark, majestic vision and mesmerized by this waking nightmare of restive agitators, quasi-mystical visitations, and oblique prognostications of social and cosmic upheaval in post-communist Eastern Europe, and my conversion was complete.
Mark Margolis has a great piece in Newsweek on La Villa del Cine, or Cinemaville, “the headquarters for Hugo Chávez’s latest campaign in the struggle for Latin America’s hearts and minds: a state-owned film studio that’s the Venezuelan strongman’s answer to what he denounces as the ‘tyranny’ of Hollywood.”
Chavez is not the first authoritarian leader with celluloid dreams, as an accompanying photo essay reminds us, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have celebrities like Sean Penn and Oliver Stone (whose latest doc, South of the Border, is a portrait of Chavez) cheering you on.
Mussolini, after all, built the Cinecittà studio. What will Hugowood’s legacy be? Margolis is sceptical, pointing out that most of the producers, directors, and creative talent were recruited from telenovelas, and are now making Bollywood-length features with revolutionary themes. (The studio’s official slogan–which is also the title of Margolis’s feature–is “Lights! Camera! Revolution!”) Not a great combination. Still, there’s a lot to chew on here, especially in light of my last post on Mozambican cinema of the late ’70s.