Monday, January 21, 2008

Film in New Haven: Ernie Gehr's Eureka (co-written with Lisa K. Broad)

Ernie Gehr's Eureka (1974-1979), which screened in 16mm last night at Yale University's Whitney Humanity Center, constitutes a synthesis of two of the more noteworthy trends in the North American avant-garde cinema of the late 1960s: of the ontologically-inflected long-take structuralism of Michael Snow's Wavelength (1967) on the one hand, and of the rephotographed interrogation of the silent image in Ken Jacobs's Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son (1969) on the other. In Eureka, the Milwaukee-born experimental filmmaker has re-photographed a 1905 phantom-ride newsreel of San Francisco's Market Street, multiplying each frame eight times. With the picture's 16fps projection, Gehr has stretched the original five minute film into a new thirty-eight minute form.

Following in the tradition of Snow, and prefiguring the latter-day structuralist cinema of James Benning (Ten Skies and 13 Lakes, both 2004), this extended duration is comprised of a limited number of takes that will conclude at an immediately discernible juncture - in its case, when the phantom-ride reaches a skyscraper at the end of Market Street. Like Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son, Gehr's work reuses an early film source for new conceptual ends; however, unlike Jacobs's painstaking horizontal analysis which organizes a swarm of detail into set of discreet events, Eureka emphasizes the vertical flow of continually changing images. In other words, Jacobs's film explores simultaneous movement within the frame, while Gehr's privileges sequential movement between frames.

Indeed, Eureka, in greatly slowing the visceral five-minute document, has nevertheless retained the experience of the unexpected that accompanies the mobile newsreel in the urban environment. It is very much this experience of the unexpected that recommends Eureka and accounts for its aesthetic interest. Like the Benning films noted above, Eureka plays on audience distraction throughout the majority of the film's thirty-plus minutes (save for the spectators' increased intensity as the skyscraper nears) utilizing our inevitable drift and subsequent renewed focus to make what passes exceedingly slowly before our eyes exceptional and even exciting. That is, after loosing focus, we take a look at the film again and what we see is surprisingly different than our last vantage. For instance, as the intensity of the natural light source wanes, the bleached image is replaced with a more nuanced mise-en-scène that discloses the brick paving unexpectedly, relatively late in the film's run-time.

However, it is often less the effects of light and shadow on the original picture's high contrast stock than it is the effects procured by the slowed motion that secures the picture's substantial aesthetic interest. In particular, with automobiles and streetcars passing surprisingly close to the image, we are not only made to experience the breathtaking pace of turn-of-the-century urban life as is undoubtedly manifest in the original, but are also forced to consider precisely where the camera is located vis-à-vis the oncoming traffic. That is, with cars seemingly breaching the space of the appartus, the (focal) distance between the camera and the world depicted is underlined. We are made re-aware of the camera's location in space and of the world that we never get in reverse.

Eureka yields infinitely more information than is at first clear. With the camera moving slowly forward, stretching out the image's frontal spatial field, pools of light and new corners of interest open themselves up with each successive frame. What we have is a cinematic Zeno's paradox, where the sense of of expanding space seems to cancel our movement toward the distant terminus, while a hightened awarness of the still frame brings the medium's fundamental stasis is back into view.

Further works by Ernie Gehr, curated by Richard Suchenski, will be screened at Yale University's 212 York St. facility on February 6th at 7:00 PM. The series will include Serene Velocity (1970, 16mm, 23 min.) Untitled (1977, 16mm, 4 min.) Signal - Germany on the Air (1982-1985, 16mm, 35 min.) Side/Walk/Shuttle (1991, 16mm, 41 min.) and Passage (2003, 16mm, 15 min). The total running time for the five films is 118 minutes.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

New Film: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le papillon), adapted from Jean-Dominique Bauby's biographical text by Ronald Harwood, recently placed second in the National Society of Film Critics' annual feting of the year's best pictures, following Schnabel's best director citation at Cannes this past spring. Even in Tativille's own accounting of the year's finest films, conducted in concert with sister sites Fourteen Seconds, Scarlett Cinema and Termite Art, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly received as many first-place mentions as any other film, including my own personal favorite The Flight of the Red Balloon. It was, in short, one of the year's most important films in the view of many.

Of course, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly has had its detractors as well. In last week's Slate "Movie Club", for instance, Village Voice film critic Nathan Lee called the director's point-of-view camerawork "Brakhage for dummies," while fellow club member and Voice critic Scott Foundas noted that its style was "caked on like a heavy plaster." To put an end to the suspense, this reviewer's position is far closer to those of Lee and Foundas than it is to my esteemed blogosphere colleagues and to their allies in the critical mainstream. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly will not be, in my mind, one to remember among the current crop of critical favorites.

Nevertheless, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly cannot be faulted for lacking visual ideas - or more importantly still, for calibrating those ideas to match its narrative content - that is the baseline of any appreciation of film as an art. Indeed, from the film's opening frames, following an admirably stylish credit sequence, Schnabel makes these ideas and indeed the singular problem of his task in adapting Bauby's work eminently clear: namely, how does one match the interiority, the sense of imprisonment in one's unresponsive body? Schnabel's choice is as Lee says to adopt a strategy similar to that of the American avant-garde master, Stan Brakhage, though without that filmmaker's didactic program. Whereas Brakhage can be said to have pursued a new form of subjective filmmaking that sought to encourage a pre-rational, pre-linguistic form of seeing, Schnabel's similar aesthetic attempts to simulate the phenomenal experience of a newly cognizant coma patient (Mathieu Amalric, Kings and Queen) and again his entrapment in his stroke-paralyzed body.

Schnabel's particular technique, which my wife ruefully noted lacked the materialist (and optical) components of its avant-garde applications, presents frequent digitally-enhanced fluctuations in focus to intimate the lead's strained perception, flicker effects to match his communicative blinking and a hollow, metallic reverberation to suggest his inability to project verbally, in addition to its relatively straightforward visual POV. When Bauby's eye is sewn shut, however, which the filmmaker shows in all its cringe-inducing spectacle, Schnabel reverses to a position outside the figure's body, in essence cheating to further maximize the scene's tactile impact.

The above choice portends a conventionality that characterizes The Diving Bell and the Butterfly as a whole: this is international secular humanist cinema avant la lettre; no genuine deviation from the formula will be possible. To this end, Bauby glibly mocks the large number of gods that have been implored on his behalf and the monks who have been unable to secure a miracle. Willfully, Schnabel even discloses the author's choice of an ending with his character standing in his wheelchair (only to learn later that it is a dream). In so doing, Schnabel refuses the magic of such an ending, should he decide to follow Bauby's suggestion, or to rather show this impossibility and thus to reinforce the film's strident secularism. Either way, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a cinema without magic, be it that of religion or of cinema itself. (The film's one nod to cinema's transcendent properties is its rather ordinary and even trite acknowledgement that Bauby can travel anywhere in his mind.)

Ultimately, this is the greatest problem that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly manifests: a lack of, and indeed a foreclosure against any surprise. As soon as the aesthetic is set, very quickly into its running time in fact, little else is possible. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the solution posed by the problem of its interior narrative. Once Schnabel's choice is established, little remains except to play to expectation, and to tell us that Bauby still has the same human emotions that we all do. Chief among these natural sentiments is his sexual frustration, which accompanies the camera's numerous peeks at his gorgeous therapists' legs and cleavage. Such are Schnabel's insights in a film that we might finally say lacks mystery. In demystifying its subject all The Diving Bell and the Butterfly leaves is its means for doing so: an expressive rather than scientific subjectivity.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

2007: The Year in Film

2007 was one of the finest film-going years in recent memory. After a disappointing 2006 (at least for this writer), 2007 witnessed major new works from many of our finest Anglophone directors: David Cronenberg, Gus Van Sant, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, Joel and Ethan Coen, Brad Bird, Noah Baumbach, and so forth. Indeed, the successes of the American cinema in 2007 has been one of the leading stories since their initial impact at Cannes this past May. Outside the English-language cinema, the continued prominance of the so-called Romanian "new wave" has continued to entrance critics (with the US premieres of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and 12:08 East of Bucharest), even if this nascent movement is not represented on any of Tativille's contributors' lists. Interestingly, a recent, unexpected upturn in the German cinema is indicated in both Lisa and my choices with our inclusions of the pictured Longing and Summer '04 (even as the higher profile The Lives of Others did not quite make the cut). Otherwise, 2007, at the local level at least, witnessed the appearance of a series of fine Southeast Asian pictures, including Syndromes and a Century (which our contributors saw in 2006 making it ineligable), I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, Opera Jawa and The Elephant and the Sea, among others.

Globally, Richard's list in particular gives the best indication of where world cinema might be at this specific moment. Personally, I cannot wait to see many of his preferences, especially the latest by one of our shared favorites, Jacques Rivette. As always, I will post my global favorites of 2007 once I have caught up with many of the more highly-touted works. Until then, here are the best pictures we saw during the past twelve months:

Michael J. Anderson, Ten Best Films
Lisa K. Broad, Ten Best Films
Emily Condon, Ten Best Films
Matt Hauske, Termite Art
Andrea Janes, Spinster Aunt
Pamela Kerpius, Scarlett Cinema
Maggie Lyon, Fourteen Seconds
Mike Lyon, Fourteen Seconds
Michael Polizzi, Fourteen Seconds
Matt Singer, Termite Art
Richard Suchenski, Ten Best Films
R. Emmet Sweeney, Termite Art
Karen Wang, Scarlett Cinema
Alberto Zambenedetti, Termite Art

Updated (1/1/08): Currently, the selections of the "year's best" are as follows: 1. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Alberto, Karen, Pam), Flight of the Red Balloon (Mike A., Richard, Rob); 3. No Country for Old Men, (Matt S., Maggie), There Will Be Blood (Michael P., Mike L.); 5. I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Lisa), I'm Not There (Emily), Nancy Drew (Andrea).

2007: Michael J. Anderson

Michael's list has been moved to Ten Best Films.

2007: Lisa K. Broad

Lisa's list has been moved to Ten Best Films.

2007: Emily Condon

Emily's list has been moved to Ten Best Films.

2007: Richard Suchenski

Richard's list has been moved to Ten Best Films.