Wednesday, November 17, 2010

With Gravity or Levity: How Art Addresses the Condition of Existence

Call it what you want – ignore it if you can… but if you choose to engage with art you are always, on a level, confronting someone’s point of view on the eternal questions: Why are we here? What are we doing? And how do we survive both the searing heartbreaks and petty foibles that make up the human experience? Even if we don’t want to wrap our minds around it in the abstract, we contend with it daily and often look to art to alleviate our angst. An artist will pose the questions through poetry and reminds us that the answers are of no consequence, really.

I knew nothing of Roy Andersson before coming across his film, “You, the Living” (2007). When I discovered that he comes from a commercial background I became immediately skeptical; I am always afraid that when someone uses their art in the service of commerce their vision might be sullied leaving a permanent Gaussian blur on their world-view. But then sometimes I am surprised and reminded that a work ethic in film (or any art) is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, sometimes when someone is forced to churn it out they take every note a little less seriously potentially generating the most unencumbered truths - as opposed to, say Charlie Kaufman, who is funny but sometimes a little heavy-handed or the Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr who is well, just heavy.

I’ve written about Bela Tarr before and am not looking to delve too deeply into his particular brand of melancholy here. I bring him up for the purpose of highlighting difference, specifically between his film “Damnation” (1987) and Andersson’s work in “You, the Living”. Both films deal with love and the seeming isolation of loss or the despair of never having. Visually, they are each cloaked in a pervasive and unusual atmosphere: “You, the Living” exists in a perpetual haze while “Damnation” is a foggy, rainy, beautifully miserable place. Both wear the filter of subjectivity, while reminding us that there is a full spectrum of perspectives through which to view the human experience.

Andersson’s work is deceptively easy. I think the gloss of commercialism works in this films favor as we do not at first judge anything we are watching as out of the ordinary and even when we do, it is hard to get past the humor. Andersson is, in effect, mocking the petty trials and travails of human experience. Showing us the silly in all that we take to be so serious: ritual, sex, loss, the yearning for companionship, old age, etc. People demand so much – they demand to be happy as they perpetuate their own suffering.Pitifully and often hysterically crying, everyone in Andersson’s film is struggling with how to connect with their fellow men. Andersson asks, why do we feel the closest human connections in our fantasies and then at opportunity of genuine relationship we often cannot take the leap?

Tarr’s work can be excruciating – it is almost more painful to witness such long, drawn-out shots, murky atmosphere and mournful characters than it is weather ordinary experience. Exaggeration is its method. Watching the abstraction of human suffering can help us to take a step away from our individual suffering. We become part of the grand epic of human suffering when we engage with Tarr’s film, but it also feels a little like a rich indulgence in misery. There are moments when this is appropriate, but it’s not a state to exist in for very long. To focus on one layer of experience – despair – is dangerous. While it is not the overriding human experience/emotion, it can overshadow everything when it comes. What about fragile hope? And where is the compassion for fellow man instead of total self-absorption? This is where Andersson’s film fills in – what it lacks in intensity it makes up for in scope. “Damnation” is almost entirely focused on the suffering of the self but “You, the Living” manages to address the universal through it’s telling of the particular.

There may be no really good reason to compare these two films – 20 years apart and as different as they can be – but for some reason I’ve considered them together, and for me they function to create a more complete picture. Both films have an undeniable poignancy that manages to avoid the saccharin and they deal with subjective reality and yet escape solipsism. They are artfully complete as they stand alone, but I like how they balance together as well: two perspectives on a theme. Whatever your particular preference, gravity or levity, it’s a relief when anyone addresses the condition of existence. The human experience is tragic and absurd and it should be talked about.

"Damnation" (1987) Bela Tarr

"You, the Living" (2007) Roy Andersson

Thursday, January 28, 2010

"Don't ever tell anybody anything..."

a tribute to J.D. Salinger 1919 - 2010

Like many, I was pretty much in love with Holden Caulfield. We had so much in common; he was full of adolescent angst and it’s attendant depression, had family troubles, and a faculty for spotting bullshit and phony people. And not a far-fetched prospect: 17 years to my 12. During junior high school I went through a period during which I ate nothing but Swiss cheese sandwiches, in his honor.

But I was not exactly as moony as all that sounds. I did have the wherewithal to realize that my affections for this character might easily translate to solidarity with his author. And so, I went in search of more information on his elusive creator: Jerome David Salinger. Of course, I came home from the library empty handed because, as everyone else already knew, J.D. was a very guarded man.

So, I sought him through his books. In Franny and Zooey, Seymour, an Introduction, and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, I met the Glass family and fell in love all over again; more characters with brains and wit, prone to spiritual and existential crisis and wise beyond their years. During my more fervent writing years, I looked to Salinger as a guide for how to creatively exorcise existential anguish and air my grievances with the world. Of course, I had little to no success, which is how I know that a truly gifted writer is never simply issuing their personal gripes through the voices of their literary progeny.

Most of Salinger’s characters exist in some state of alienation often teetering on the cusp of emotional collapse. Franny struggles with the realization that while she has no trouble meeting people she likes, it’s almost impossible to find anyone she respects. Holden hasn’t the stomach for bullshit. Seymour cannot abide an ordinary life. It’s difficult to deny an underlying kinship when a reclusive writer tells the tales of the misanthropic and the malcontent.

… If you do, you start missing everybody.”

And I have to admit, as frequently as I fall for characters I still have trouble separating them from their genesis. Perhaps they weren’t designed to speak his truth – Holden with his excessive profanity and Seymour’s morbid humor - but rather to demonstrate his sympathies. Hardly emotional dummies, these characters represent the sort of people Salinger wished to know but never found. It’s too easy to pin withdrawal from society on emotional vulnerability, and I wouldn’t accuse a writer I admire of such a lily-livered temperament.

I think Salinger’s self-imposed exile was in part a withholding from a public with which the writer was endlessly dissatisfied; but I also believe it was a self-protective measure – a way to avoid attachment to something (people, fame, etc.) that would invariably, eventually let him down. Like Holden said “don’t ever tell anybody anything… if you do, you start missing everybody.” I’m glad Salinger didn’t take this notion entirely to heart. I don’t know where I’d be without Holden and the family Glass – co-conspirators in angst, companions in exile.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Dreams and the Will... the charm of "The Red Balloon"

ALBERT LAMORISSE (1922 - 1970)

Still relevant* 53 years after it was made, Le Ballon Rouge (1956) is no longer standard viewing for elementary students but has become instead a reminder to adults of the power of will and belief in the talismanic - both too easily given up as inconsequential to adult life. Most descriptions I read of Albert Lamorisse's film classify it as a fantasy. And perhaps it has become so, as adults grow increasingly removed from their sense of wonder and belief in the impossible. And yet, I'm not sure that I would locate this poetic flight of fancy alongside films of dragons, unicorns and supernatural magic. Rather, the red balloon is a example of that rare, illusive visual metaphor that I prize and seek in films... and so infrequently find. Categorically, I have not yet found an acceptable place for these films. "Experimental" is too broad and slightly off-putting, not to mention a bit silly when applied to a film that achieved such immediate critical acclaim (won: Palm d'Or, BAFTA, Prix Louis Delluc, etc.) at the time of its release and now clearly stands the test of time. It is more accurately placed in the realm of docu-fiction. Like other filmmakers I've been studying lately, Lamorisse's films feature the people in his life (his son Pascal and daughter Sabine in the The Red Balloon) and directly address simple themes of profound importance to the real human life. Contrary to the current mores of Hollywood, films such as this are not concerned with providing an escape from reality, nor do they embellish ordinary experience to appeal to the vaguely dissatisfied ordinary viewer. While orchestrated jumps and darts serve to anthropomorphize the red balloon, I don't believe it was ever intended to be perceived as a sentient object; The red balloon could not be the red balloon without the boy. It's action is the will of the boy. It's madcap adventure and mischievous behavior are an illustration of the boys dreams and spirit. This is why all is not lost when the balloon is pierced by the stone from a bully's slingshot. This is why the boy sails away at the end (rather fantastically, I'll admit) on a thousand balloons, each inflated with the afflatus of his belief.

*Last month A.O Scott featured the film as his "critic pick" for the New York Times.

montage from the Red Balloon (1956)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Varda and Demy

"Jacquot de Nantes is the sort of film that no one but Miss Varda would have made or, for that matter, could have made. It's neither documentary nor, in the usual sense, fiction."

"(Agnes Varda) lives in a present that is ever enriched by the accumulating past."

- Vincent Canby

Jacquot de Nantes is obviously a very personal film. But it was not meant to be a tribute; rather, it was conceived and filmed when Demy was still alive. "Jacques would speak about his childhood, which he loved," Varda explained at a New York Film Festival press conference. "His memories were very vivid. I told him, 'Why don't you write about them?' So he did, and he let me read the pages. The more he wrote the more he remembered—even the names of the children who sat next to him in school. Most children do not know what they want to do when they grow up. But Jacques did, from the time he was 12. He had an incredible will. So I said, 'This [material] would make a good film.' I wrote the script, and I tried to capture the spirit of Jacques and his family, and the way people spoke and acted in [the 1940s]. We shot the film in the exact [locations] in which he grew up. I also filmed an interview with him. It's just Jacques speaking about his childhood. It's not a documentary about Jacques Demy. It's just him saying, 'Yes, this is true. This is my life.' "He saw most of the final [version]. When Jacques 'went away,' I had to finish the film. It was difficult, but that's the only thing I know. I think the film makes Jacques very alive."
excerpt from:

*** Agnes Varda's film for her husband Jacques Demy was released the year after his death, but the project was conceived before that. The idea grew out of a series of conversations that occurred between Jacques and Agnes. Jacques, suffering from illness, entered a phase of reflection and remembrance that occurs as life draws to a close. He began to relay memories and anecdotes of his childhood to his wife and fellow filmmaker. Varda built a non-traditional narrative around these recorded interviews, which grew into this filmic tribute to a man, the resonance of his childhood memories, and his love of film. I really appreciate Varda's approach to telling the story of a life. In this film about her husband and the more recent Beaches of Agnes (in which she tells her own life), she aims to tell personal stories of the individual life. I disagree with the reviewer who questions the relevancy of this project to anyone who wasn't personally familiar with Jacques Demy. True, this film is not traditional biographical fare, meant to illuminate the filmmaker for some public audience, but it explores profoundly relevant human themes. This film is an exploration of relationships: man and his wife, man and his work, man and the places and memories of his childhood, man to his waning life, etc. And perhaps most importantly it is a testament to the faceted relationship between Varda and Demy - creative cohorts whose final adventure together is this beautiful film. These relationships have a tremendous relevance in their specificity.

link to Vincent Canby's review of the film for the New York Times:

trailer for the film Jacquot de Nantes (1991)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Agnes Varda, "queen of the margins"

"If we opened people up, we'd find landscapes." ~ Agnes Varda

Agnes Varda was the only woman to make a significant cinematic mark amongst the filmmakers of the Left Bank, tangential to the French New Wave. Trained as a photographer, Varda picked up the camera on a whim, confounding the male-dominated medium and impressing her community of artists with her intuition and inventiveness. The purity and honesty of her work is a reflection of this spirit in her self-stated desire "to be loved as a filmmaker because I want to share emotions, to share the pleasure of being a filmmaker." It is Varda's modesty and humble nature that allow her to approach and describe her subjects in such a way that they can be truly seen. Her work is rarely strict documentary as it is more concerned with the impressions of reality rather than factual reality; Laurence Kardish, curator of the Museum of Modern Art Film Dept. describes it as "inflect(ing) narrative with reality."
Stylistically, her films are collage-like, poetic, and steeped in visual metaphor. Her most recent effort The Beaches of Agnes (2008) is an autobiographical journey through her memory - using cinema "to tell a life."

* a sequence from Cleo de 5 a 7 (1962)

* clip from Vagabond (1985)

* a short clip from The Gleaners and I (2004)

* trailer for Varda's most recent film: The Beaches of Agnes (2008)

link to a profile/review of Varda in the New York Times, by A.O. Scott

another link to an article on Varda, with an overview of her work

Monday, October 12, 2009

voice(over) - 10/22/09

Voice(over) - is a production technique where a non-diegetic voice is broadcast live or pre-recorded in radio, television, film and theatre. The voice-over may be spoken by someone who also appears on-screen in other segments or it may be performed by a specialist voice actor. Voice-over is also commonly referred to as "off camera" commentary.

We often refuse to accept an idea merely because of the tone of voice in which it has been expressed is not sympathetic to us."
- Fredrich Neitzsche

Kozloff, Sarah. Invisible Storytellers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

'Sarah Kozloff examines and analyzes voice-over narration. She refutes the assumptions that words should only play a minimal role in film, that "showing" is superior to "telling," or that the technique is inescapably authoritarian (the "voice of god"). She questions the common conception that voice-over is a literary technique by tracing its origins in the silent era and by highlighting the influence of radio, documentaries, and television. She explores how first-person or third-person narration really affects a film, in terms of genre conventions, viewer identification, time and nostalgia, subjectivity, and reliability. In conclusion she argues that voice- over increases film's potential for intimacy and sophisticated irony.'

*** My current project with my friend in Minneapolis will involve voice over, particularly when he's relaying memories from his past as we walk around his hometown. I think it's important to understand the functions and failings of voice over in both the narrative and fiction film before i employ them to make sure I use them to an effective end.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Alain Resnais - 10/19/09

Alain Resnais is a French documentary film director who made films alongside the critic-turned-filmmakers of the French New Wave (Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc-Godard) but he is more precisely a part of the filmmaking and literary community of the Left Bank, which included Agnes Varda, Jacques Demy, and Chris Marker. He is perhaps best known for his films of the 50's and 60's: Night and Fog (1955), Last Year at Marienbad (1961), and Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), which all deal with themes of memory and trauma. His films are typified by innovative techniques that he used to great effect to describe subjectivity and unconventional experiments with temporality. His work through the 70's and 80's did not bring him great critical success but his more recent films Smoking/No Smoking (1993) and Coeurs (2006) returned him to critical favor.

clip from Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

clip from Guernica (1950)

clip from Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

scene from Resnais's most recent film Coeurs (2006)

clip from an interview with Alain Resnais