Saturday, February 09, 2008

Correspondences from 1989: No, or the Vainglory of Command

This is the first in a series of posts devoted to Yale University's 1989: Film Culture and the Fall of the Wall film festival, which screened February 7th through the 9th in New Haven, CT. Please note the following piece contains spoilers.

Manoel de Oliveira's No, or the Vainglory of Command (1990, 'Non', ou A Vã Glória de Mandar), from a P. João Marques text with dialogues added by Oliveira, is said to have marked an "international breakthrough" for the Portuguese master, whose first directorial credits included the silent 1931 short Douro, Faina Fluvial and the filmmaker's superlative 1942 feature debut Aniki Bóbó. It would be twenty-one years until Oliveira's next full-length feature, the 1963 passion-play Rite of Spring, and yet another decade-plus before the director would work continually in the cinema. However, as the well-known story goes, Oliveira has not only remained active since the late 1970s, but has indeed increased his output in recent years, releasing an average of at least one film per year since No, or the Vainglory of Command. The fact that the still working Oliveira will turn 100 this coming December makes the above narrative nothing short of miraculous. That Oliveira's output from the early 1990s has proven the most continuously experimental and inventive corpus in the European cinema exceeds all hyperbole.

No, or the Vainglory of Command represents the director at his finest and in very familiar territory: the history of his Portuguese homeland. Briefly, it is worth noting that following No,... the director expanded his subject to discuss the broader parameters of European civilization, as for instance in his supreme 1993 masterwork Abraham's Valley, and also in his exceedingly topical, small-scale 2003 opus A Talking Picture. Of course, the latter refers to a trans-European identity that has remained current in the era of the EU and particularly in the period following the installation of the Euro. In other words, the director has retained his interest in his sovereign homeland, whatever the current dividing lines might be.

The 1990 work, set at the brink of the 1974 revolution that ultimately dethroned Salazaar, centers on a group of soldiers in the midst of transport in Angola. Oliveira depicts his human subjects initially back-to-back on the flatbed of a truck and later seated in a circle in a small clearing. In both locations, the soldiers wax on the their nation's military history and on the philosophical implications of the state. Beginning with the region's first anti-Rome insurgents and continuing into the early modern era, the discussion of specific figures (Viriato) and battles (Alcácer) initiate flashbacks that complete the stories begun by the modern soldiers. In many cases, the actors in these earlier eras are played by those same gentlemen who are narrating the story: Luís Miguel Cintra, for example, serves not only as Ens. Cabrita, but also as Viriato and Don João de Portugal. Hence, the modern day narrators' role in forging the fiction is highlighted in the overlapping casting of these historical moments. This is a history being told, not merely one that is shown.

In this respect, No,... belongs to a traditional of theatrical filmmaking dating to Sacha Guitry's 1930s canon, and particularly to that filmmaker's 1936 The Story of a Cheat. Though not precisely equaling Guitry's distain for the cinema, Oliveira nonetheless has persisted in questioning the medium's ontological individuality, arguing that 'cinema does not exist,' only theatre does. With No,... cinema's theatrical antecedent - or in Oliveira's frame, its fundamental nature - is made manifest in the picture's extended passages of dialogue in which the speakers are often framed frontally and are removed from their spatial setting (as for instance on the back of the flatbed). In fact, this is a film that not only isolates and emphasizes the speaker, but one that makes the content of their dialogues cardinal to the narrative. The sequences of action serve - they illustrate - the narrative's conversations.

The picture's lone break from this pattern of straight-forward illustration occurs with the arrival of Vasco de Gama (Paulo Matos) in a native - read virginal - land. Here, the arrival of the explorers, previously named the one positive of Portuguese imperialism, is met by naked young male cupids, and voluptuous nude nymphs. Consequently, Oliveira shifts registers to that of allegory (and fantasy) figuring the settlement of new worlds in the imagined coupling of European explorer and virgin body. Soft focus to intimate this fantastic setting has replaced the hard lighting of other passages - as for instance in the palace settings of the Iberian empire segment.

Nevertheless, this allegorical valence is largely absent in No, or the Vainglory of Command. Rather, once again, the film's breaks from its frequent, extended passages of conversation to depict various losing military campaigns and other instances of historical irony that contribute to the film's thesis: something to the effect that imperial ambition has always been to the ruin of the Portugese people. Therefore, No,...'s primary purpose seems less the narration of the nation's history alone than it is the elucidation of a thesis specific to that nation's experience. In this way, Oliveira's film follows in the tradition of Sergei Eisenstein's 1928 October.

Moreover in its particular theatrical method of narration and address, No,... might further be said to connote a third form of cinematic modernism beyond those of the 1920s visual arts avant-garde (Ballet Mechanique, et al.) and the postwar literary modernism exemplified by Michelangelo Antonioni (eg L'Avventura; and to some extent picked up by Oliveira in his subsequent Abraham's Valley). Rather than exemplifying modernity in an abstraction of visual forms or in the novelistic rendering of ennui, No... represents the form of Brechtian history lesson, shot in discrete segments of an ever-shifting proscenium.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

New to DVD: The Naked Prey (1966)

Actor-director Cornel Wilde's The Naked Prey (1966, Paramount), from a Clint Johnson and Don Peters screenplay, seems to have introduced a revisionist ethos into the adventure picture's postwar safari cycle. Wilde's film followed four years after the safari form's ultimate masterpiece, Howard Hawks's Hatari! (1962, Paramount), which itself was released after a near decade gap in the production of A-pictures of the type - namely, of such pictures as King Solomon's Mines (Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton, 1950, MGM), The African Queen (John Huston, 1951, United Artists), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (Henry King, 1952, Fox) and Mogambo (John Ford, 1953, MGM). While Hatari! effectively fulfills the earlier tradition, finding solutions to a number of the form's ongoing problems - not the least of which was the issue of how to show its actors in the same spaces as its African wildlife, i.e. how to show its stars in real or at least plausible danger; Hawks did exactly this by using his performers as their own stunt people - The Naked Prey retreats from Hatari!'s literal safari experience toward a form closer to the picture's 1950's era touchstones.

The Naked Prey relies on two ontologically-differentiated registers, documentary and non-documentary, that rarely converge within the picture. When we do see the film's director-star in the same space as the wildlife, he occupies a plane far removed from those in which we see an elephant or a giraffe, for example. (The one exception to this rule seems to be snakes with which Wilde on a couple of occasions comes into close contact.) In this respect The Naked Prey renews the mixed nature of the 1950's period work that Hatari! and its filmmaking as a safari mode did much to overcome. In other words, the lack of realism that the earlier pictures worked so hard to minimize is again manifest in the 1966 picture.

Backing up, The Naked Prey treats a safari guide's (Wilde's) attempt to escape from and subsequently outrun a band of African tribesmen after his employer - a wholly unsympathetic figure who incredibly professes a desire to go into the slave trade - needlessly runs afoul of the aforesaid tribe. In this regard, The Naked Prey might be regarded less as a safari film than as an adventure picture which uses occasional safari footage as does The African Queen for instance. Either way, The Naked Prey, like Huston's picture, features the same problem that all 'A' safari pictures share - again how to believably combine documentary and non-documentary footage to simulate a single diegesis. In its case, the fact that Wilde shot on location in South Africa mediates the visual differences prompted from a combination of location and studio settings found in such pictures as The African Queen or The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Here, it is simply that the footage is sutured by its traditional shot/reverse-shot pairing of images.

If in terms of its style The Naked Prey does not exactly figure an intervention into its genre, the work's narrative structure and certain of its dramatic details nevertheless indicate a true revision of form. (Hatari! on the other hand is all dialogue; Hawks's picture, along with its 1959 sibling Rio Bravo, provides nothing short of a model for the cinemas of such word-obsessed auteurs as Eric Rohmer and Quentin Tarantino.) For one, this is a film that features very little dialogue following Wilde's initial escape from the tribesmen. Once on his own, nearly all of the conversations we hear are those of the Africans' which Wilde has chosen not to translate. In these instances, the English-speaking viewer is forced into a position of 'other,' prevented the experience of knowing what is being said - in comparison to an imagined South African public (speakers of the unnamed dialect) who would receive a much different dramatic experience. Likewise, the picture's overarching narrative, of a man silent and on his own in the African veldt, procures an effect fundamentally dissimilar to those secured in most adventure films: this is an anti-adventure film of a sort. Far from the visceral experience of John Wayne and company in speeding trucks on the trail of real African game, Wilde's picture gives us the anti-spectacle of his character hunting a small lizard with a spear (which we see in an extended-duration long shot).

This is not to say that The Naked Prey entirely lacks action. During the initial capture of the white safari-goers, for instance, Wilde treats us to their ritual torture in a series of graphic set-pieces that reaffirm the period's violent turn. Likewise, in true exploitation fashion (we also see many topless female natives during the same scene) our protagonist is forced to kill a number of his pursuers one by one. If The Naked Prey does not therefore connote a revolution in visual form inasmuch as we are given shots and their reverse angles throughout the majority of the picture, Wilde's film nonetheless signals the most graphic entry into the safari tradition: not only in terms of its human violence, but in that of the animal world as well, which Wilde includes to allegorize the human savagery depicted on screen.

In the end, The Naked Prey emblematizes a key direction in the post-classical Hollywood cinema: namely, of a revisionist cinema that supported a new permisiveness in content and narrative experimentation, while largely retaining the shot/reverse-shot armature of the classical mode. While the latter choice does not entail a value judgement in its own right, the effect of this technique in a work following Hatari's spatial integration of performers within a wild context - which itself relied on a formal revision of classical decoupage in the form of a greater density of multi-figure, extended duration shots - marks a regression in the safari picture's historical development as a form with its own unique set of problems. Apart from these aesthetic concerns, however, The Naked Prey emerges as an important node in the history of the adventure picture.

The Naked Prey is currently available on Criterion DVD and will be broadcast on TCM February 1st at 4:00 PM.

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.