Monday, July 18, 2016

Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016)



There have already been a great many significant deaths this year, but Abbas Kiarostami's hit me harder than most.  I do not have the learning or experience to write a great eulogy for him, and his major features have all been lauded far beyond my poor power to add or subtract, so instead let me here mention a film of his that I believe many have overlooked.

In 2013, to celebrate its 70th anniversary, the Venice Film Festival commissioned short films from 70 world directors, broadly suggested to be about the future of cinema.  The films were all a minute-and-a-half in length, and have been posted to YouTube on the festival's channel here.  I watched many of them at the time, and it is still fascinating to view them now, because despite their brief run-times they nearly all clearly reflect the sensibilities and concerns of their directors.  (Claire Denis is one of the few exceptions: her short appears to be the view of a cell phone inside of a cloth bag--incongruously scored to the Tindersticks.)

This is not always a good thing: Catherine Breillat's short is bitter and ideologically puritanical, as is her wont; James Franco's is pretentious, semi-ironic, and self-exhibitionist, as is his; and Todd Solondz's film is kind of funny and kind of ugly and mocking.  On the other hand, Atom Egoyan manages to evoke mono no aware while deleting pictures from his phone; Ermanno Olmi the nostalgist presents a brief elegy for the moviola; and Apichatpong Weerasethakul creates something remarkably beautiful out of a dashboard shot of windshield wipers, catching strange yellow light and sound that suggests waves on a beach.

Fascinatingly, Jia Zhang-Ke and Wang Bing provide two opposing views of modern China: Jia depicts young professional millennials watching the classics of Chinese cinema on phones, tablets, and projected in malls--yet being moved by the emotions of the films nonetheless.  The environments depicted are hyper-modern, and the short seems like it could be a TV commercial for the newest iPhone.  Wang shows us a few moments of a poor dirt farmer whose livelihood has likely been the same for millennia, and seems to have little need for or experience of cinema in any form.  Thanks to cinema, however, thousands of people around the world have now seen a small part of his life.

Yet of all these films, my favorite would have to be Kiarostami's, embedded at the top of this post.  Within this brief 90-second window, we find a surprisingly large number of the themes of Kiarostami's career: children, the relation between young and old, a documentary-like depiction of life, non-professional actors, minimal camera movement or editing, a careful parceling out of information to the audience, the capabilities of the digital camera, sound design which is just as important as the image, and above all, a concern with the nature of cinema and how it reveals truth.  Of course, none of this is intrusive or even assertive, and the film can easily be appreciated and understood by a child. (One is reminded of his early short films for children, though this is not nearly as didactic.)  With this short, Kiarostami puts his faith in the future of cinema; it is significant also that the boy-director he shows us is making a film that harks back to the slapstick values of early film: to move forward, it is still necessary to remember the past and take its lessons with us.

Let us hope the filmmakers of the future remember the lessons of Abbas Kiarostami, for we shall need them.

Friday, July 1, 2016

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Gutenberg and post-Gutenberg literature contains communal dreams, shared myths or archetypes.  And it is distinguished by the mythopoeic color of its creators, their ability to sense what already existed in the popular mind, rather than by any unique vision or ability in executive skills.  For this reason popular works of literature tend to pass immediately into the public domain.
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As a matter of fact, one of the distinctions between popular and high literature can be made on the basis of this, as Edgar Allan Poe, in a review of James Fenimore Cooper, pointed out.  There is a certain kind of book, he wrote, which is forgotten though its author is remembered (High Literature); and there is a certain kind of book whose author is forgotten though the work is remembered.
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It is a characteristic of popular literature that it changes its medium because it never really belonged to any medium to begin with.  Popular Literature is not "words on the page," as some critics would have us believe.  Like all literature, it is finally, essentially, images in the head.  Once its images pass through words (the text is transparent, downright irrelevant) into our heads, such primordial images, or archetypes, or myths . . . can pass out again easily into any other medium. . . . They still retain their authenticity and the resonance of feeling that was originally connected with them.
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But in the realm of Popular Art, overt and conscious ideas could not matter less.  What matters is the stirring up of the collective unconscious, the evocation of closely shared nightmares of race and sex: the drama of protecting little sister against the rapist, whoever she may be and whatever color: Black/White, White/Black.  You can mix them and match them and it makes no difference in popular appeal.  Is it white innocence assaulted by black bestiality?  Is it black innocence assaulted by white brutality?  The audience loves it in any case.  And this leads me to my final point about popular culture:  It is neither good nor bad--it is beyond good and evil, as we define the terms, in whatever culture we may live.
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Maybe, then, just maybe it is possible for us to say that the value of popular literature, like the popular arts in general, is that it joins together at the level of the unconscious people who are, on ever conscious level, in this post-industrial society divided.  Our religion divides us, our politics divides us, our attitude toward education divides us: the only thing that holds us together is Kojak, Star Wars, Rich Man, Poor Man. . . . All literature--all art--is the same. . . . When I think of the books I have loved best in my life, I realize that what I admire in them is what I love in pop art at its most gross, flagrant, vulgar, brutal and unrefined: the mythopoeic power of the author.  Never mind his ability to instruct and delight, to create beautiful, elegant, architectonic forms to teach those thins which we think are important for the future of mankind.  Instruction and delight are optional . . . What really moves us to transport--what Longinus calls "ekstasis"--taking us out of our heads and out of our bodies, out of our normal consciousness is the ability of all great books, great pop books, great elite books, to turn us again into savages and children; and releasing us thus from bondage not merely to the restrictions of conscience or superego, but to consciousness and rationality, which is to say, the ego itself.
--Leslie Fiedler, "Giving the Devil His Due"

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

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Art was the speech of the folk revival--and yet, at bottom, the folk revival did not believe in art at all.  Rather, life--a certain kind of life--equaled art, which ultimately meant that life replaced it.  The kind of life that equaled art was defined by suffering, deprivation, poverty, and social exclusion . . . the poor are art because they sing their lives without the false consciousness of captialism and the false desires of advertising.
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When art is confused with life, it is not merely art that is lost.  When art equals life there is no art, but when life equals art there are no people.
--Greil Marcus, The Old, Weird America

Thursday, April 28, 2016

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Many of our ideas about how cinema works and what a filmmaker is grow out of an idea of gesture and intention.  This is understandable: in the 20th century, cinema brought some of the grandest gestures in history. . . . In turn, we came to understand and attribute authorship in cinema based on obvious gestures.  The theories that form the foundation of both filmmaking and film criticism concern themselves not with small or subjective properties, but with grand designs: montage, mise-en-scene, camera movement, framing.  All of these things could be called the "obvious properties of style."

Cinephilia set itself aside from mere film buffery by becoming the hunt for small moments and small films, things that appeared to exist outside the realm of obvious gesture.  Criticism sought to explain the tracking shot; cinephilia looked for the meanings of drifting cigarette smoke, stray glances and apparent accidents, and to divine the patterns of hats, cars, and donkeys.
--Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

Saturday, April 23, 2016

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There are many criteria of merit in moviemaking--or, rather, there are none.  A movie is a whole experience--actually a lot of experiences, indivisible and unlimited, and often occurring within a single moment.  Submitting to the biomorphic phantasmagoria of even the simplest cinematic image is a potentially mind-wrenching, soul-shuddering blow, or nudge, or whirl, or caress.  That's why banal, profligate, rote images are abject and repellant: they trade on a power that they don't hazard, they borrow the inspiration of the cinema itself and give nothing back, basking in its reflected glory.
--Richard Brody

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

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There is no theme richer for an American artist than the spirit and the themes of the country and the country's history.  We have never figured out what this place is about or what it is for, and the only way to even begin to answer those questions is to watch our movies, read our poets, our novelist, and listen to our music.  Robert Johnson and Melville, Hank Williams and Hawthorne, Bob Dylan and Mark Twain, Jimmie Rodgers and John Wayne.  America is the life's work of the American artist because he is doomed to be an American.
--Greil Marcus, review of Self Portrait