The Hands of Bresson

Sundry observations on the art of cinema and world film culture

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SXSW: Whose Geek Week Was It?

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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?

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Written by eyemaster

March 21, 2011 at 3:09 pm

The Way We Watch Now

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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 »

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March 2, 2011 at 10:17 pm

Stockholm International Film Festival, Dispatch One

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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.

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Notes on Michael Winterbottom; plus, a new book

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A few weeks ago, I was contacted by the fine folks at Shooting People, the world’s largest social network for independent filmmakers. They’d heard that the University Press of Mississippi was about to publish my new book, Michael Winterbottom: Interviews (part of their “Conversations with Filmmakers” series) and wanted to know if they could distribute copies to the top-ten prize winners of their monthly film competition, which was being judged by SP patron Winterbottom. (Full disclosure: Shooting People’s creative director is a business acquaintance of mine, and a friend.) They also asked if I might like to post a few entries on the director to their house blog, which I readily agreed to, though I wasn’t really sure what angle to take for an audience of creative practitioners who might or might not be cinephiles. What eventually came through in the writing was a weave of first-person anecdote, observations on the British director’s style and approach, and indications of why his methodology would be important for burgeoning indie filmmakers to take note of, if not emulate. Below are the three mini-essays I generated, ordered by the date they were posted.

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November 24, 2010 at 6:10 pm

Mariano Llinás’s “Historias Extraordinarias”

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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 »

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November 16, 2010 at 5:54 pm

Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy”: A Review

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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 »

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November 16, 2010 at 5:44 pm

Quietly We Bray: An Essay on “Au Hasard Balthazar”

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“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 »

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November 16, 2010 at 5:05 pm