Archives For Film History

the article opens with Kierkegaard:

I call these sketches Shadowgraphs, partly by the designation to remind you at once that they derive from the darker side of life, partly because like other shadowgraphs they are not directly visible. When I take a shadowgraph in my hand, it makes no impression on me, and gives me no clear conception of it. Only when I hold it up opposite the wall, and now look not directly at it, but at that which appears on the wall, am I able to see it. So also with the picture which does not become perceptible until I see through the external. This external is perhaps quite unobtrusive but not until I look through it, do I discover that inner picture which I desire to show you, an inner picture too delicately drawn to be outwardly visible, woven as it is of the tenderest moods of the soul. Kierkegaard, Either/Or

When we practice the auteur theory – which is to say simply that we summarise and critique an individual film based on its stylistic value as compared to other films of the same auteur – we look for the language of the author – are we really ‘rationalising leaden clinkers into golden nuggets’? My opinion: NO. The language of film is hidden beneath or better yet, encoded in, a films apparent ‘entertainment’ or ‘dramatic’ value. An auteur who is praised must have work worthy of praising – a masterpiece here and there. For William Friedkin we might cite The Exorcist, The French Connection or Kiler Joe. For Michael Mann you cannot go past Heat. Both of these auteur’s have films which were critically rejected during their time at the box office.

Take Miami Vice by Michael Mann for instance. The reaction to this film by and large by the critics was negative. To quote David and Margaret from At The Movies:

The real problem is that this is a nothing plot, we’ve seen it many times before, Mann’s inclusion of a couple of extended sex scenes that are not really so sexy is just a diversion.

Colin Farrell is developing into a deeply uninteresting actor, not that Mann’s screenplay gives any of the actors much opportunity for subtlety or depth.

There’s a lot of jargon. And the end result is that the plot, such as it is, verges on the incomprehensible.

Viewing Miami Vice however in reference to other texts – a more postmodern view – the film can be read as a masterpiece of style. Genre conventions are another viewpoint through which to analyse this film. Though Margaret describes this film as ‘unsexy’ I would have to disagree and assert that this is a romantic film first and foremost in which some action takes place. The final battle that draws us through to the end of the third act is predicated on vengeance for one lover and the rescue of another; duel couplings, just as in the romantic musical genre. Looking at this film through the filter of a Goddard-infused reading one can see the level of pop/fashion/media culture being coded into this film. It is plot-lite precisely to foreground fashion, fast cars, epic Caribbean skyscapes and rock music. The themes are universal: daring, vengeance, love, forbidden love, and eventually existential choices to not live happily ever after on part of Sonny (Colin Farrell).

This does not constitute a ‘see-it-or-you-don’t’ shortcut to scholarship, as Sarris’ critics would determine, but a reasonable A-iconoclastic look at what is described as the language of film; that is film form, convention and style and how these elements might relate to each other and imbue a sense of a human personality talking to us from the screen. We might ask this disembodied, coded voice ‘what do you see in relationships between people?’ or ‘how does one deal with injustice amongst the many?’, or ‘is there a place for honour and trust in contemporary society?’ This is not a shortcut to thinking but a love for film and style as it lights up the screen at 24 frames (I would hope). For structuralism and linguistics and the death of the author – these avenues of scholarship are fine, but taken in isolation can suck the life out of the most exciting form of human expression – that form that comes to us from innovation in technology, from the division of labor and the pursuit of an individual and collective landscape of dreams and desires.

Sarris hits on two interesting, dovetailing points: He says of the French critics that some had succumbed to a European-orientated (rationalist) pragmatism where intention was more nearly equal to talent in critical relevance (sounds familiar – the contemporary Australian film industry). He goes on to summarise that Truffaut had seen the writing on the wall: he and his colleagues had ‘discovered auteurs’ whilst their successors have ‘invented’ them.

This is an interesting lens through which to view the shift from the studio system to the more politically active, independent film making of the post-classical, 1970’s-on period. In the classical era the movies assumed that audiences were autonomous in their own right – that they did not need to be enlightened. Take one of John Ford’s westerns which assumes a level of respect and sentimentality for the formation of civilisation in the wilderness of the American frontier. Or perhaps a Lubitsch comedy in which it was famed that Lubitsch had an unspoken understanding with his audience and innuendo and the unseen canoodling behind closed doors was poetry. The auteur was found in the expression of style within the confines of a rigid, but practical, narrative form. The post-classical era sees auteur’s inventing themselves and what reigns here is not the value of the aesthetic expression as it erupts from a set of conventions and structures but political message and activist agenda – intention more nearly equal to talent. This immediately starts to evolve an ‘in-group’ as with any politically orientated movement – their successors had invented them.

Ultimately Bazin reasons for us with his charisma and gusto:

“How can one review an Anthony Mann western if it were not an expression of the genre’s conventions?”

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The key elements of neorealism / Revolutionary Humanism /

Bazin aligns the Italian school of realism with Soviet montage (Eisenstein). It is to the other end of the aesthetic spectrum from German expressionism and Hollywood star system structures. The opposition is described as ‘aestheticism’ vs ‘realism’

The Italian cinema prior to WW2, during the fascist regime:

“a taste – and a poor taste at that – for sets, idealization of the principle actors, childish emphasis on acting, atrophy of mise-en-scene, the dragging in of the traditional paraphernalia of bel canto and opera, conventional scripts influenced by the theatre, the romantic melodrama, and the chanson de geste reduced to an adventure story.” (Bazin, p 14)

chanson de geste – a medieval narrative, a type of epic poem – appears at the dawn of French literature.

It is worth noting that some of the key Italian purporters of neorealism had careers going back to the pre-war era (Vittorio De Sica). It is worth investigating these films and their tone and aesthetic approach. Realism was taking root in opposition to the ‘fakery’ of the Italian mainstream exports before the war arrived on Italian soil. Bazin states that it was the Liberation that never-the-less ‘sets these aesthetic trends [..] free’.

The key elements to the inner structures of neo realist aesthetics:

Social circumstances and movements (post-Fascist Italy, spread of communism, socialism, post-war poverty and social upheaval).

Historical context (Capitalism, Socialism, Communism, WW2, the character of Italian society)

Economic context (poverty, rebuilding and reparations)

Because of the slow and extended nature of the Liberation for Italy, which came with years of Allied occupation and other circumstantial upheavals in the steps towards rebuilding, the films of the immediate post war period were current – they spoke to very real concerns and very real experiences of the average person, and the collective psyche – day to day events.

What does Bazin mean by “revolutionary Humanism’ ??

The zeitgeist of the time, at an international level, is the fear of, and obsession over, terror and hate:

“reality is scarcely any longer favoured for its own sake but rather is rejected or excluded as a political symbol […]” (p16)

Italian films of this period “reject implicitly or explicitly, with humour, satire, or poetry, the reality they are using, but they know better, no matter how clear the stand taken, than to treat this reality as a medium or a means to an end.” (p17) I take this to mean that the films do not aim affect the audience. If one was to argue that the so-called realism of the Soviet cinema was induced to affect the audience – to convert them into revolutionaries – then reality is being used as a medium. The purpose of the Italian cinema might be closer in this regard to the impressionism of Epstein and his photogenie. That is, the goal of the ‘reality machine’ is to reveal unknowns about reality. The revelation takes place at the hands of the spectator himself, rather than at the direction of the message blasted from the screen to the eye.

In regards to a character (any character) to be found in an Italian film: “Nobody is reduced to the condition of an object or a symbol that would allow one to hate them in comfort without having first to leap the hurdle of their humanity.” (p17) This is the humanism suggested by Bazin.

One of the defining characteristics of Modernism (the post industrial revolution western-world), with regard to art history, is the theory laden-ness of art – art and hermeneutics come together and are inseparable. I like to make the argument that cinema is the most defining art of the modern era for no other reason than it was born out of modernism for modernism. Cinema served to advance the spread of 20th century-defining doctrines (Marxism/Leninism in Soviet Russia – an interesting relationship between the film/propaganda industry and the railroads) and the advancement of art theory and practice itself (the French impressionists). The cinema absorbs the other arts; theatre, literature, the composed and framed image and music. The cinema is impossible without capital and technology. Even the most avant-garde and experimental cinema to stand in the hall of cinematic fame (Stan Brakhage, Jean Epstein for example) was shot on industrially produced film, using technology designed and built by the corporate private sector. This might be obvious to most, but what is not necessarily as obvious is the cinemas habit of not just absorbing and taking place along side the other arts as the new technological art, but super-ceding them. This supercession of the other arts places the cinema in a unique position with regard to that characteristic of modernism to which this article is aimed: interpretation. As the ultra-modern art, that medium through which countless generations to come will be able to assess and learn the peculiar characteristics, dreams and fantasies of those that came before them, one might like to romanticise about film theory as a kind of road map that describes the trajectory of those filmic explorations into collective and individual imagination. But what does film theory really look like?

Robert Ray’s assertion at the outset of his comprehensive-cum-complicated essay “How a Film Theory Got Lost” is that theory exists to break the spell, or perhaps the deadlock, that occurs at the cross roads of magic and positivism. This is further explicated as a dialectic; reason against revelation as represented by Eisenstein (reason) and Epstein (revelation). Alternatively, montage against photogenie; the edit against the image. Breaking the spell that exists at the crossroads surely does not consist of simply disregarding one road in favour of another; that being reason over revelation; but rather a diplomatic evolution of the conflict. The question stands: At the heart of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School is one able to find an account of the revelation of the human imagination? A second and pertinent question would also be: to what extent does the Frankfurt school influence cinema studies in general? This second question is important to those who might wish to pick up the torch left behind, glowing but not extinguished, by those pre-1960’s thinkers; the likes of Epstein and Bazin.

First question; are the two roads as posited by Ray mutually exclusive? The factory style production of capital intensive cinema and seductive style and enchantment. The market demanded entertainment and enchantment and those who could best harness and mobilise all the industries and efforts required to produce large scale films that fulfilled these demands had (and have) success. Is money and enchantment such a diametric opposition as Ray suggests?

Second question; what is Bazin’s notion of ‘realism’ and why for Bazin is it so desirable? Supplimentary question: why does the Frankfurt School influence on theory and theorising so disregard it?

These questions will be the subject of further blog posts and trails of thought.

“… plot – or rather, plotting – is not an insignificant matter for Denis. Her films strike us with their spare but strong moments of fiction – a murder, a fateful encounter, a confrontation, an escape – and also with the half-buried network of fictional connections that gives the films their tremulous ‘inner-life’ … she and her regular collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau work out this basic network or diagram of relations in the story: what does each character see, whom do they look that; what are the lines of desire, or hatred; who tells which part of the story; significant backstory elements connecting the characters in their shared over-lapping pasts; the real or imaginary status of each event. Yet, once this template, with its logic, is in place, Denis’ work as an artist seems top involve a process of complicating that network, confounding it, punching holes in it, making it mysterious. She too (like bluesman Robert Johnson) deliberatley creates “too many missing terms and too much dual existence” for us to grasp entirely.”

(Adrian Martin on filmmaker Clare Denis)

Book by Robert Stam

Film and Dream: Sherlock Jr

Stam finds clear allegory in Buster Keatons “Sherlock Jr” for the audience experience of identifying with the screen.

“Buster’s clumsy but finally successful attempts at penetration comically literalize, I think, the processes whereby spectators identify with the diegesis and characters of a classic fiction film.”

Stam refers to Metz’s “The Imaginary Signifier”. He notes that “before we can identify with characters we must first identify with the cameras act of seeing. This could be referred to the tradition or trope of the establishing shot, Ozu’s pillow shots, and perhaps Howard Hawk’s tight in, opening close-ups.

Epstein starts his essay with a metaphor describing the cinema as a siamese twin; connected at the stomach and sharing the base necessities of life, but sundered at the heart or by the higher necessities of emotion. One half is the art of film, the other the film industry. The term “photogenie” refers to the art of cinema and was coined by Louis Deluc. Photogenie in short, according to Epstein, refers to any subject (things, beings, souls) whose moral character is enhanced by filmic reproduction. Epstein sees cinema in the same conceptual light that modern or impressionistic artists (symbolists etc) see art. Arts purpose is not to narrate but to bring to life colour on the canvas. To use colour and light to illuminate perception and for painting to be purely and simply painting. In this sense, cinema is not to be concerned with narrative formulas, historical, moral or immoral novelistic subjects but should seek out that which is photogenic and purely cinematic. He also goes on to point out that cinema is the first real time-based art.

Epstein quite vividly describes the language of cinema, whilst acknowledging its primitive state (especially being that he was writing in the 1920’s). For Epstein, cinematic language is the transformation of ordinary into drama and character:

“…a close up of a revolver is no longer a revolver, it is the revolver-character, in other words the impulse toward or remorse for crime, failure, suicide. It is as dark as the temptations of the night, bright as the gleam of gold lusted after, taciturn as passion, squat, brutal, heavy, cold, wary, menacing. It has a temperament, habits, memories, a will, a soul.”

The lens of the camera can be directed towards increasingly valuable discoveries. For Epstein (and I whole-heartedly agree) this is the role of the film director. Cinema, however, is vulnerable and like a light that attracts bugs in the night:

“Of course a landscape filmed by one of the forty or four hundred directors devoid of personality whom God sent to plague the cinema as He once sent the locusts into Egypt looks exactly like this same landscape filmed by any other of these locust filmmakers. But this landscape or this fragment of drama staged by someone like Gance will look nothing like what would be seen through the eyes and heart of a Griffith or a L’Herbier. And so the personality, the soul, the poetry of certain men invaded the cinema.”

The “First Avant Garde” and “Impressionist Cinema” (French 1920’s)

Appropriate labels for this era of French filmmaking??

Key filmmakers identified in this ‘wave’:

Abel Gance
Marcel L’Herbier
Louis Delluc
Germaine Dulac
Jean Epstein
Leon Poirier

These filmmakers contributed to this wave between 1919 and 1924. These films are characterised as spontaneous thoughts in animated images. (Emile Vullermoz)This time-line is suspicious due to its short time-length. There is a need to look at the surrounding time periods. Other filmmakers who come into the picture:

Dmitri Kirsanoff
Alberto Cavalcanti
Jean Renoir
Jean Gremillon
Carl Dreyer

Impressionist Cinema is a more problematic term. It refers to the pictorial, the contemporary, and the natural harmony of characters and landscapes.

“Impressionism made us see nature and its objects as elements concurrent with the action. A shadow, a light, a flower bed, above all a meaning, as the reflection of a mental state or an emotional situation, then, little by little, became a necessary complement, having an intrinsic value of its own. We experimented with making things move through the science of optics, tried to transform figures according to the logic of a state of mind.” (Germaine Dulac)

Impressionism has become, through the work of Henri Langlois and Georges Sadoul, linked with the concept of a subjective cinema. As in Impressionist and Symbolist art, the emphasis is on ones own inner feelings and imagination, over and above the demands of an external reality. Modernism is a term that refers to the departure from a system of representation and narration, to a concentration on the means of representation; technique, surface, pure presentation and formal construction.

For this era in French film, Abel prefers the term ‘narrative avant garde’. Abel argues that this era is more complex than suggested by accepted terms. He points out experiments in developing a mixture of styles or modes, different systems of continuity, ‘plastic harmonies’, patterns of rhetorical figuring, and complex narrative structures. He explains that this era, whilst recognized for obvious historical significance and a close connection to visual art, is largely under-estimated and misunderstood.

As early as 1918 Louis Delluc had made a distinction between filmmakers who wrote scenarios for the films they directed and those who adapted other writers work for their films. An auteur, in this sense, could exercise greater control over his film and identify more closely with the Romantic concept of of the individually unique artist. This distinction separates the narrative avant garde from commercial film practice, heavily dependent on literary adaptation.

An analysis of Bordwell’s reading of French Impressionism:

Bordwell breaks the era into periods according to the development of stylistic features.

1) 1918 – 1922: pictorialism; in which recurrent pictorial techniques were used to suggest a characters perceptions and psychological status.

2) beginning 1923: proliferation of rapid cutting, a form of rhythmic montage (Gance: La Roue 1923)

3) 1926 – 1929: stylistic diffusion (handheld camera, long tracking shots, absence of intertitles, widescreen formats)

Avant Garde filmmaking began to diverge into distinct but inter-related modes: documentary, abstract, Surrealist. The filmmakers saw this as an investigation into cinematic specificity. To quote Epstein:

“…a subject thus conceived as a ‘bass clef’, permitting the construction of plastic harmonies.”