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

alienation - 10/15/09

alienation - Emotional isolation or dissociation.
- a turning away; estrangement
- the state of being an outsider or the feeling of being isolated, as from society
- a state in which a person's feelings are inhibited so that eventually both the self
and the external world seem unreal

"There is only one way to escape the alienation of present day society: to retreat ahead of it."
- Roland Barthes

Alienation is typically understood as a condition of modernity. Karl Marx theorized that this sense of antagonism and separateness grew out of the rise of a newly capitalistic society; people began to notice their insignificance as mundane jobs relegated their daily existence to nothing more than a cog in the machine. Other philosophers, like Jean-Paul Sartre believed that the human condition is steeped in anxiety and that alienation as a psycho-social phenomenon may have come to the fore with capitalism, but it has always been an undercurrent of a reflective consciousness. I am interested in all sources of alienation and all the ways in which it can manifest in the life of the individual. Like Barthes, I see it as an unavoidable response to being alive that is heightened in certain situations and for people of certain temperament. In my work I want to look at alienation not just as an estrangement of the individual from society or recognition of self as the other, but a necessary means of comprehending our relationship to the world and other people. And by comprehending I don't mean simply making sense of but paradoxically, understanding the impossibility of it's comprehension. Ultimately, I think it comes down to perspective and the ability to move back and for between subjective and objective, details and "the big picture" to maintain any sense of self - in relation to self and other.

It's not directly correlated but I think this poem by Wallace Stevens speaks to the spark of alienation which leads one to consider things from another perspective, thereby better understanding self and the world:

There are many texts one could read that address different aspects and experiences of alienation.
One that I am particularly fond of is the play The Zoo Story by Edward Albee. It's a story of the individual experience of alienation as it impacts a social interaction. It is a portrait of alienation run a-muck, un-synthesized and ultimately the cause of destruction.
Albee, Edward. Selected Plays of Edward Albee. New York: William Morris Agency, 1987.
a cartoon interpretation of alienation

Chris Marker - 10/12/09

Chris Marker (born 29 July 1921) is a French writer, photographer, filmmaker and digital media artist. He lives in Paris and does not grant interviews. Marker's work flexes the boundaries of documentary to consider philosophy, memory and the capacity of fiction to convey truth. His work is wide-ranging in form and content, and exists in disregard to the boundaries of medium or genre: from a science-fiction essay montage (Sans Soleil, 1982), a film made entirely from still photographs (La Jetee, 1962), and an multi-layered memoir in the form of an interactive CD-Rom (Immemory, 1997). Recurring themes of interest are memory, time, perception, and travel. When asked for a picture of himself, he usually offers a photograph of a cat instead. His cat is named Guillaume-en-egypte.

2 reviews of Chris Marker's recent installation: The Hollow Men
- Rainer J. Hanshe:
Andrea Picard:

a video of people viewing The Hollow Men (2009)

clip from Les Astronautes (1959)

Silent Movie
object width="425" height="344">

The Koumiko Mystery (1965)

Friday, October 9, 2009

personal mythology 10/19/09 (incomplete)

Personal Mythology - I cannot turn up one "true" definition of personal mythology, so I'm going to "define" it, according to my purpose; loosely and probably inadequately as:
the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

This concept is not entirely different from the concept of subjective reality, which holds that each individual holds a different truth or perception of reality. What has not been adequately accounted for is the individual's perception of self in relation to this perceived reality. Most of the information that can be found referencing the idea of personal mythology exists primarily in forums of New Age philosophy and self-help. Granted, Personal Mythology may not be the best term for what I’m trying to express, but for lack of anything more descriptive at the moment I will attempt to bend the terminology to my own meaning, for my own purposes.

This approach might be oddly fitting with the notion of Personal Mythology (as I choose to understand it) which evokes the spirit of modification of factual occurrence to the designs of memory (or imagination) to create a cohesive (or tolerable) self-perception. However, these stories do not exist in isolation or only within the mind of the creating individual, for they directly determine how people relate to and understand one another and thus one's personal mythology informs and is informed by those with whom they interact. What is created is some undercurrent of universal truth. Not an overarching, self-conscious meta-narrative that describes things in generalities, but some presence on the underside of that, quietly humming.

Some of the artists and work I've looked at are specific examples of a constructed personal mythology, sometimes inspired by mental/emotional idiosyncrasies that give cause for this typically suppressed story to bubble up. Other artists, I believe, contend with this notion or tangential notions within their work.

"As creatures that interpret experience mentally, we have no choice but to believe in the mind's made up version of reality." Milton J. Bates

1. Jonathan Caouette (filmmaker)

***Jonathan Caouette had a dramatic entrance to the film world in 2004 when his experimental, docu-fiction feature Tarnation was released. The film, which was itself a whirlwind, created a whirlwind and Caouette has yet deliver his next creative mark. It would be interesting to see Caouette's editorial rendering of these last 5+ years as I suspect it would tell us more about him (exaggerated though it would likely be) than any interview or written account. Caouette is definitely a mythmaker. His film Tarnation exceeds his autobiography by its unorthodox juxtapositions of memory, actual account, and reenactment in virtually every medium, arranged without regard for temporality, coherence or factual "truth". He is, in effect, telling the many stories that make up the story (or myth) of his life. Why this amounts to something greater than autobiography is due to Caouette's awareness of his own impact on the shape and structure of this story.

clip #1 from Tarnation (2003)

clip #2 from Tarnation (2003)

Renee LeBlanc was a beautiful little girl; she was a professional model before she was 12. Then Renee was injured in a fall from the family garage and descended into depression. Her parents agreed to shock therapy; in two years she had more than 200 treatments, which her son blames for her mental illness, and for the pain that coiled through his family. "Tarnation" is the record of that pain, and a journal about the way her son, Jonathan Caouette, dealt with it -- first as a kid, now as the director of this film, made in his early 30s. It is a remarkable film, immediate, urgent, angry, poetic and stubbornly hopeful. It has been constructed from the materials of a lifetime: Old home movies, answering machine tapes, letters and telegrams, photographs, clippings, new video footage, recent interviews and printed titles that summarize and explain Jonathan's life. "These fragments I have shored against my ruins," T.S. Eliot wrote in "The Waste Land," and Caouette does the same thing. - Roger Ebert

Ebert, Roger. "Tarnation." Chicago Sun-Times . 15 Oct. 2004.

interview w/ Felix Von Boehm in Bright Lights Film Journal:

2. Chris Marker (filmmaker/photographer)

*** My interest in Marker begins with his enigmatic nature. For example, he is known by a pseudonym and often self-represents as an owl, a cat or some other alter-ego. Marker's work deals with issues of time, memory and self-perception. Biographer Catherine Lupton notes that not only does Marker contend with these issues but that he does so from within his work. "The reality Marker offers has nothing to do with bald biographical fact... it is that of the human imagination, in which it is perfectly possible to be born in two or more places at once" (12). It is through his experiments in personal essay that Marker addresses the creation of personal myth; particularly in a work like Immemory - an interactive CD-Rom - Marker invites us to consider our own self-perception and consequent myth production as we stumble around in his "memory". Marker once said, "all I have to offer is myself" and in that offer is an invitation to consider oneself.

Lupton, Catherine. Chris Marker: Memories of the Future . London: Reaktion, 2005.

clip from Sans Soleil (1983)

clip from La Jetee (1962)

Given the state of things, there appears to be three options for contemporary auteurs. They can either carry on as a kind of classicist of the medium, like Pedro Almodovar or Wong Kar-Wei, delving deeper into the formal tradition of the great mid-century masters who set their time-bending, narrative-suspending pace. The more self-consciously "progressive" filmmaker might take his cue from the likes of Wes Anderson or Todd Haynes, Americans who tend to cannibalize their lineage with no apparent concern for the fact that, in literature at least, pastiche is considered a minor skill.

Marker represents a unique case of a third way, which is a decided step outside of cinephilia into the broader and more relevant digital world at large. Marker remains, perhaps unjustly though logically, a middling figure in the motion picture history.

This is because what Marker does is less like producing single masterworks and closer to keeping a blog, albeit an astonishingly prescient one started almost 50 years before Typepad. With his long scroll of documentaries, installation pieces, photography books, political cartoons, CD-ROMs and poetry, he's refined a remarkably consistent set of themes with the care of a philosopher or a coffee shop dilettante, depending on your opinion of him. Among the themes are the fragility of radical political movements (The Train Rolls On, A Grin without a Cat), the positive and negative sides of Orientalism (Statues also Die, The Koumiko Mystery), and his ever-present bugaboo: memory.

Stout, Andrew. "La Jetee/Sans Soleil." Flak Magazine. 1997-2007.

a rare interview with Chris Marker:

3. Guy Maddin

*** Guy Maddin is an unapologetic mythologist. He mines his family history, both place and people, to create modern fables projected into some bizarre antiquated past. Typically referred to with cross-genre terminology ("surrealist-inflected pseudo documentary" and "docu-fantasy" the film My Winnipeg is the filmmakers attempt to grapple with his own personal mythology through the exploration of places of origin - both locational and familial. The film's tag line is a particularly apt double entendre: "truth is relative". While the film purports to tell certain truths about the Canadian city, it is really an exploration of the filmmakers psyche with the city serving as a point of entrance and reference. Gay Maddin still resides in Winnipeg, actively constructing personal myths centered around this attachment to his place of origin.

clip from My Winnipeg (2007)

clip from Brand Upon the Brain (2006)

To be honest, I’d rather not know. Fact-checking “My Winnipeg” would be absurd, since the film, which combines archival documentary images with freshly shot, antique-looking passages, is more concerned with lyrical truth than with literal accuracy. And even though I suspect that some of its more outlandish assertions are at least partly grounded in fact, Mr. Maddin is engaged less in historical inquiry than in hallucinatory autobiography, ruminating on the deep and accidental relationship between a specific place and an individual life.

As “My Winnipeg” conjures it, the bond between city and filmmaker is ambivalent and reciprocal. Much as he may dream of taking that one-way rail journey to somewhere else, Mr. Maddin can no more spurn Winnipeg than it can disown him. In a thoughtful, occasionally excitable voice-over he dutifully tries to explain the place — its riverine topography and wintry climate, its civic traditions and architectural landmarks. But his real point — and, for admirers of this brilliant and idiosyncratic artist, the true source of the movie’s interest — is that Winnipeg explains him.- A.O. Scott

Scott, A.O. "Permafrost Makes the Heart Grow Stranger in a Haunted Snow Globe."

The New York Times. 13 June. 2008.

link to an interview with Maddin, published in the Nation:

clip from an interview: talking about how his editing works as a facsimile of memory

4. Charlie Kaufman

I don't think that the world exists outside of (the) point-of-view of human experience or that if it does it doesn't look anything at all like what we think that it does... my movies take place from the point-of-view of this interior story - Charlie Kaufman

*** Charlie Kaufman claims that he's never really telling a story. He writes from the inside and says: "I'm not interested in having perspective in the things that I write about--I'm interested in writing about them from where I am. Because that's always where you are. You never have perspective." While this statement seems to contrast with my admittedly makeshift notion of personal mythology, I see much in Kaufman's work that speaks directly to my ideas. While he disowns any interest in perspective (in the sense of clarity producing distance) I think his work demonstrates a profound interest in matters of perception - particularly of the individual from inside his daily existence, which I would argue is a perspective, albeit mostly one short on clarity.
I think Kaufman embodies the idea of personal mythology in his life and work - particularly in his most recent film, Synecdoche, New York (2008) a film which tells the story of an artist who becomes absorbed with and within his own masterpiece.

clip #1 from Synecdoche, New York (2008)

clip #2 from Synechdoche, New York (2008)

Review in the Telegraph by Tim Robey, 15 May 2009

It's a tough ask to make "monumentally sad" sound like a recommendation, which could make Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York (pronounced si-NECK-duh-kee) the hardest sell I'll ever give five stars to. Its subjects are loneliness, senescence and failure. It's kind of a comedy, only death is all around. You may come out confused; you may be crying. I want to see it again.

Kaufman's previous conceits as a screenwriter, in Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, explored relationships, creativity and the human condition through dancing prisms of wit. The approach here is different, but we'd expect nothing less than an off-the-wall idea: a theatre director, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), mounts an improvised production in an impossibly vast Manhattan warehouse, which consumes decades of his life and never draws in a single audience member.

Kaufman, who also directs for the first time, intends this as a joke at his own expense: what if this wizard of drama conjured an idea so clever and all-encompassing that no one could possibly wish to see it? Furthermore, what if Caden's life – a series of estrangements, feuds and ailments – was a wreck, and not an easy, funny wreck, but a state of being so sore and unhappy that laughter chokes halfway up your throat?

As ever, we must factor in the acres of miscellaneous weirdness: an estate agent blithely explaining the selling points of a house that's on fire; Caden's daughter, Olive, doing a green poo; the unnerving old guy (Tom Noonan) who appears to be following him around.

Kaufman all but dares his detractors to hate this film, and hate it they have: "too clever by half" seems to be the standing charge. For the record, I'd say it's actually at least eight and a half times too clever, and anything but flawless. To be fair, though, it's also a stark, unflinching and heroically honest exercise in self-examination, so the flaws are largely on purpose.

link to an interview with Charlie Kaufman

5. Todd Haynes - I Am Not There (2007)

*** Todd Haynes, like many others, is interested in the mythology surrounding Bob Dylan. But unlike biographers who chronicle Dylan through his work, Haynes is not interested in exploring Dylan as a biographical subject. In the opening credits we learn that the film was "inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan" a qualification meant to prepare the viewer for not merely an account of a life but a series of ruminations on the myth that a life can become.
Haynes is obviously not interested in even the illusion of fact or reality as he uses six different actors (men and women) and an inter-cutting narrative to embody the essence of Dylan. Perhaps I should qualify this as the essence of Bob Dylan... as expressed by Todd Haynes. And isn't this as true as any truth? Especially for a personality of such magnitude, so shaped by the perceptions of individuals and the collective cultural context. But not just anyone could inspire such a film. Bob Dylan, so in tune with the permutations of his own personality, so instrumental in the construction of his own character, is an ideal subject

clip #1 from I'm Not There (2007)

clip #2 from I'm Not There (2007)


Michael Parkinson tells an anecdote about being at a top Sydney restaurant one night: who should he see at the next table, dining alone? None other than the hunch-shouldered, frizzy-haired, shades-wearing legend himself, Bob Dylan. Parkinson had long pined to get Dylan on his show. Perhaps only the cast of Dead Ringers could do justice to the encounter that followed.
With nothing to lose, Parkinson decided boldly on a direct approach. The restaurant fell quiet as he walked over to Dylan's table, where the icon was concentrating ferociously on his meal. Parkinson delicately leaned over to speak. "Ahem, Mr Dylan, I -" "He ain't here," snapped the non-interviewee, without looking up. The meeting was at an end, and Mr Parkinson tactfully withdrew.
Much of Dylan's enigma, his refusal to be tied down and his authentic artist-hauteur is summoned up in that reply, when he refused to speak as if screening out a phone call. Better than "I'm not there", or indeed "It ain't me", this might even have made a better title for Todd Haynes's latest picture: an idiosyncratic tribute to the many faces of Bob Dylan. It's not a conventional biopic but a cine-portrait, casting a string of actors to play the many facets of Dylan - and even these are not actually Dylan but Dylan-variants, Dylan-figures with different names. Haynes weaves in genuine songs with hints and scraps, quotations and references; echoes of images, ideas and album covers. Amid it all, Dylan himself remains elusive.

The movie shows these personae in parallel, not in sequence; the action intercuts between their existences, implying a timeless universality of what these characters signify in Dylan's creative makeup. It's a Godardian technique which repudiates the typical biopic assumption that the essential truth about someone can be told in a linear couple of hours. But it is also, I suspect, the technique of an awestruck admirer of Dylan who fears the lèse-majesté of a direct approach and the Parkinson-style rebuff.

His conceit does justice to Dylan's fugitive charisma - although Dylan himself did his best to bugger up this fugitive charisma with his appearance in the monumentally bad 2003 film Masked and Anonymous, worryingly playing much the same sort of Dylan-character offered here: an outlaw troubadour called Jack Fate. It's a cult classic of awfulness about which Dylan fans are globally in denial, though this movie may help to expunge it from the record.

I'm Not There addresses an unfashionable subject, easily mocked: the artist's need to change, and evolve, in order to survive. Blanchett's performance as Transitional Dylan is the key. Not merely does she mimic him with terrific sympathy and wit, but she shows Dylan's puzzlement and anger at boneheaded middlebrow interviewers who triumphantly alight on what they consider to be a killer objection: evidence that he has changed his music and changed his mind. A sneering BBC reporter (played by Bruce Greenwood) obtusely insists on finding hypocrisy and insincerity in Dylan, unable to judge the music on its own terms. "Do your early stuff, man!" Dylan yells self-satirically up at a statue of the crucified Christ - and many in the media wouldn't see that his change-imperative was what led Dylan to his much-feted "early" material in the first place. I was reminded of the documentary The US Vs John Lennon, which showed haughty interviewers attempting to patronise Lennon by preferring his "old" style over the "new" - while clearly not understanding either.

6. Henry Darger (painter)

*** Henry Darger is probably the most well known outsider artist. His master work is an illustrated fantasy titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, which spans a six decade period. He also wrote a 5,000+ page autobiography called The History of My Life, and an unfinished work of fiction: Crazy House. Must of Darger's work serves in the construction of a mythic world. Many believe this propensity to indulge in feats of the imagination stemmed directly from either paranoid schizophrenia or Asperger syndrome, and that he may also have been abused as child. Many of the threads of Darger's stories were inspired by news clippings to which he developed a strong personal attachment. Most notably was an article concerning the kidnap and murder of a five year old girl. When the article was stolen from his locker the shock of that loss provided the inspiration for Darger's great work.

clip from the documentary In the Realms of the Unreal (2004)

snippet of a review of Henry Darger's work by Stephen Prokopoff

There is little purpose to add to the polemic that has continued over the last several decades concerning the artistic validity of outsider art. The great emotional and formal beauties found in the best examples of this work as well as its profound influence on “high art” in our time would appear to have settled the matter. Darger was certainly an untutored artist in any traditional sense and his work, like that of other outsiders, stands outside of the history of art. He probably never visited a museum and had only very limited exposure to art. Yet his creative sensibility was such that it was possible for him to spin gold from the daily experience and fantasy, which in his mind easily co-mingled. If Darger was largely ignorant of art in the museums, he was in close touch with the abundant imagery of popular culture available to the pack-rat collector. Topical events are continually reflected in his texts and images just as cut-outs from newspapers and magazines, comic books and religious tracts easily found a place in his visual narratives.

Like all genuine talents, Darger developed a set of techniques that was at once individual and entirely adequate to his expressive requirements. He was at best a mediocre draftsman, for example, having particular trouble with human figures. Yet Darger created an art filled with legions of figures whose images were appropriated. Darger’s method was to simply trace images from children’s book illustrations, comic strips and similar sources. If the needed image was not of the required size, the artist would take it to the photography counter of a near-by drugstore and have it enlarged or reduced to the proper measurements. Frequently favorite images were repeated in a given picture as well as additional works. Other elements deemed suitable- butterfly cut-outs, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, fragments from coloring books and game boards and many more- were confiscated into Darger’s pictures and, because of the easy alliance in them of the real and the imagined, seemed perfectly at home.

Darger’s particular brilliance lies in a keen organizational sense. His major compositions bring together massive casts of characters in ways that surely would have gladdened the heart of a Cecil B. DeMille. These elaborate forces are deployed with a sure eye for intricate, often cunningly balanced relationships that activate the entire picture plane. Darger’s compositions are commonly set in expansive landscapes or, somewhat less frequently, in interiors, both particularly well-suited to the horizontal format he favored.

7. Daniel Johnston (musician)

...performing "Some Things Last a Long Time" for "Story of the Artist"

8. Kurt Vonnegut (writer)


Vonnegut on "how to write a short story"

film adaptation of the book,
Slaughterhouse Five (1972)

9. "Billy the Kid" - Jennifer Venditti (filmmaker)

*** In interviews, Jennifer Venditti locates her work in the cinema-verite tradition - while she may be inspired by the likes of Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles brothers, her film is a more modern, stylistic approach to the philosophies of verite filmmaking. Her first feature film Billy the Kid (2007) is a documentary portrait with a strong narrative bent, which deals with themes of adolescent alienation. Billy is unique for many reasons but it is his precociousness - stemming from a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome - that makes him such an articulate and resonant subject through which the filmmaker explores her themes. Billy, like most adolescents, particularly those with mental and emotional idiosyncracies, constructs his own world and as a place of refuge from the ravages of growing up.

trailer for the movie Billy the Kid (2007)

interview with Jennifer Venditti

New York Times review of the film:
Published: December 5, 2007

“I know I’m unique,” announces Billy, an opinionated 10th grader and the willing subject of Jennifer Venditti’s sly documentary, “Billy the Kid.” Delivered almost apologetically, the comment is without arrogance. But as one candid confession follows another, the camera’s role in their solicitation becomes difficult to overlook.

Filming for eight days during the summer and winter of 2005, Ms. Venditti follows Billy as he navigates his close-knit community, Lisbon Falls, Me. A seemingly normal teenager who likes girls (“but I’m not a jerk about it”) and loves heavy metal, Billy also struggles with a volatile temper and the disconcerting tendency to say exactly what he means. Both traits have isolated him from his peers, inflamed the local bullies and driven him more deeply into a mind that may or may not conceal more serious psychological problems.

Presenting neither an argument for medication nor its rejection, “Billy the Kid” is a deceptively simple portrait of a shockingly self-aware and articulate young man. Quoting Robert Frost as easily as “The Terminator,” Billy discusses his troubled past (“I don’t know where to start”) and his deep-rooted desire to protect women. This is evident in the tender, patient interactions between the boy and his mother, Penny, which provide the film with a much-needed core of stability and an antidote to Billy’s free-form observations.

Yet the filmmaker’s decision to eschew other viewpoints underscores the fundamental friction at the heart of the documentary process: the flattery of observation is difficult to resist. When Billy, after persuading a shy waitress to be his girlfriend, is loudly applauded by a clique of town hangabouts, he is pleasantly surprised.

“The years of loneliness have been murder,” he tells them, and the men collapse with laughter. Whether a blurted confession or a line to the gallery, we’ll never know.


Link to an interview with Jennifer Venditti:

Cindy Sherman