Friday, July 24, 2009

In a Lonely Place

It is easy to miss where the title for In a Lonely Place (1950) comes from, but its placement seems hardly non-incidental. In one scene, when Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is discussing with a detective (Art Smith) and his wife who suspect him of murdering a writer (Martha Stewart) whose novel he is supposed to adapt in to a screenplay, he describes who he think the killer really is and how he did it; ‘ They come to a lonely place…he stops the car and puts his arm around her neck…’ He manages to coerce the detective in to acting out the exact maneuver on his wife, and then persuades him, his gleeful face shadowed with backlighting, to squeeze ‘harder…harder…"

Naturally, Dixon scares the wits out of the detective and his wife. Naturally, he is also a writer by profession. In a Lonely Place is not about a killer or a crime. It is not a whodunit. It is about the gray area that divides poets from psychos.

The director is Nicholas Ray, who would later be one of the original Hollywood filmmakers to be heralded as an Auteur by the French New Wave critics, but in this film, there is no evidence that points to him as the distinctive voice of the film; the screenplay was penned by Edmund North and Andrew Solt, from a story by Dorothy B. Hughes. (That this grim film came from the mind of a woman does not seem too surprising, once one considers how central a role the female perspective on Bogart’s character plays.) The writers crafted a film not just about a writer, but also about the craft of writing; it is Bogart, worn out, pockmarked face and short, intense hair, who completes their story and truly makes the film his own. His Dixon Steele is a has-been screenwriter who did his best work before the war, has a history of casual violence and has now resorted to alcoholism and womanizing. When he is hired to adapt Mildred Atkinson’s book, he does not even bother to read it. Instead, he invites the writer to his home so she can tell him the story, which she does, with great enthusiasm. Steele acts as though he has heard the story a million times before and is not paying full attention; he notices his neighbor, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) spying on him from her apartment window. He escorts Ms. Atkinson to the door at the end of the night, and the camera fades out on her figure as she leaves under his stone archway leading out of his yard.

The very next day, Steele is being questioned in regards to her murder. He insists he is innocent, but his nonchalant manner and the sociopathic accuracy with which he is able to deduce the details of Atkinson’s murder—not to mention his past record—all lead the police to suspect otherwise. Soon Laurel Gray is brought in for questioning and, although she too suspects him of having a sinister character, she soon finds herself in love with Dixon. Dixon, too, seems for once to have real feeling for someone, but two questions remain; did he kill Mildred Atkinson or not? Will he kill again?

In a Lonely Place is often characterized as a film noir, but this label should be taken lightly. It is not pure film noir, as the chiaroscuro is not pronounced enough, the women are not backstabbing dames and the city itself is only seen in glimpses and never despairing urban expressions. Though not a noir rule, the detectives are not the central characters, leaving even the distinction of detective story out of range. In a Lonely Place takes several quintessential noir elements and magnifies them; the witty and bitter dialogue (“You were nice. Not to me. But you were nice.”) provides many cynical chuckles, much needed in relation to the other magnified aspect; the mangled, pathetic realms of the soul. More so, it is about where those realms turn in to art. Bogart’s Dixon is a tormented man who expects no sympathy and gets none, aside from signs of a wasted talent that could only potentially be revived. Towards the end, he is only trying to pull himself together when he falls apart again. Bogart moves as if he doesn’t care what the camera sees of him; and the camera sees everything. It’s perhaps one of the best screen performances by an American actor, free of histrionics and sentimentality.

One of the more curious aspects of In a Lonely Place—and this only in retrospect, almost sixty years on—is the feeling that if it were made today, it may be considered far too silly to be taken seriously. Audiences would find it to be a Tarantino rip-off, with too outrageous dialogue (though I doubt Tarantino would ever be able to write this script), music that is too incessant and obvious. It would be a movie that’s saying nothing unusual; yes, artists are crazy, yes Hollywood corrupts. Next. The simple, often static camerawork would be praised as modest at best. In a Lonely Place is a movie that we must conclude is dated and severely of it’s time. Yet perhaps this is one more reason to see it. And in regards to raw acting, physical, oral and psychological, it is still unparalleled.

(cover of Dorothy B Hughes' original novel, 1947)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Conservative Imagery Alert: Blind Pig who want to Fly

[This is not a film review. I did not have to time or resources to do one for this film, although someone else better.]
I recommend to everybody an Indonesian film called Blind Pig who wants to Fly ( Indonesia, 2008). The film contains numerous examples of clean, direct, traditional imagery such as:
-The opening shot. Two women are playing badminton. The camera is positioned behind the woman who we will follow on-and-off throughout the film, a Chinese minority woman in Indonesia. She is returning every shot of her opponent. The shot is in slow motion. Cut to a shot of the badminton ball soaring back and forth over the net. A voice off camera asks 'Which one is Indonesian?'
- A pig standing in the middle of a grassy, hilly landscape. He wants to get across a thin rope line that is stretched taught before him; we do not see where it is tied. The pig barely moves, but continues to grunt. 
- A girl demonstrating how she can swallow a firecracker. She puts it in a bread-roll, sticks it in her mouth and lights it. Camera rests calmly on her equally blank expression as the flame sizzles down to the exploding point. Cut to black when the explosion comes. 
These are all bizarre images layered with significance relating to the struggles of the chinese minority in Indonesia. Also to be commended, though, are the way this film cuts; from a man looking in to the mirror preparing to make an incision above his eye to the singular sun, blaring like a gigantic eye. It is the type of film in which it's imagery becomes more fun and peculiar after the fact, when mulled over in our heads. 
Blind Pig is structured in sketches preceded by titles (such as the title of the film), though it eventually plays loose with this device. It revolves around three or four characters, mainly, though even this it plays loose with. There is something about it's looseness that can be criticized and something elusive about the culture we are witnessing that is hard to grasp unless the problems arising with the chinese after Indonesia gained sovereignty in the 1940's is explained. But the quietness and conservatism of it's imagery are to be admired.
The film was screened at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn recently, as part of the Rooftop Films series. The director, who simply calls himself Edwin, was present, and did a question and answer session following the screening. It is doubtful that this film will be coming to 'a theater near you' anytime soon; we have no choice but to consider it an oddity-- and it is odd by any standard-- that you will have to catch at a film festival. 

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Tony Manero

Tony Manero contains one of the more forceful expressions of distaste for Grease ever committed to celluloid. When Raul Peralta (Alfredo Castro) arrives at his local Cineplex intending to see, yet again, Saturday Night Fever, he is informed it has left town, but he can buy a ticket for John Travolta’s more recent film. Raul takes his chances, as he does so many other times in this film, and does not like what he sees. He leaves the theater while the film is still running and enters to projection room, where he proceeds to grab the projectionist and bash his head against the projector until he drops dead. The projectors are still whirring as Raul paces across the room, resolutely unaffected by his deed.

            It is in this scene—the most deadpan and outrageous in the film—that Tony Manero’s palette is painted in its grimmest intentions. There have been numerous stories of movie-love and its consequences on our everyday lives, but Tony Manero is the sickest, most bad-omen bearing one yet. There are many other scenes in which Raul, the demented protagonist, played with a sleepwalker-type of creepiness by Alfredo Castro, is obsessing over John Travolta’s character, Tony Manero, in Saturday Night Fever. Each one bears out the notion that Raul is someone who uses the movie as just another outlet for getting the satisfaction he wants. In the course of the film, he will kill at least two other people and involve his friends and girlfriend in his scheme to emulate Tony Manero, only to alienate them whenever he feels like it. The film has been recognized by some as a political allegory of Chile’s Pinochet regime. While the political allegory is there, it is more helpful, especially for non-Chilean’s, to first recognize the film as a very unusual treatise on how media enhances our desires and delusions.

            The political context is of course, impossible to separate from the story. The year is 1978, at the height of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Raul has signed up to go on a television contest in which he will dress up as, and dance as, Tony Manero, with the intention of winning the award for the ‘Chilean John Travolta.’ The rest of the film happens in the week between his initial mistaken arrival at the television studio (he is a week early), and the actual contest. In the meantime, he rehearses with his friends and sort-of girlfriend for a separate act in which they will perform a dance number as the troupe from Saturday Night Fever. Raul lives in a dilapidated building that looks like a boarding house, though we can’t be too certain; every building in this Chile is dilapidated and made of crumbling brick and rotting wood. Just as the buildings are falling apart, everybody is impoverished; Raul makes repeated visits to a junkyard to collect glass plates with which he will reconstruct the floor from Saturday Night Fever, and when he realizes that a frail woman he has walked home has a color T.V, he bludgeons her and takes it. The need for commodities is an important thread running through the film, but what is most interesting is how the police-state nature of the country keeps distracting people from this need; several instances of police brutality are featured, both as a result of the anti-Pinochet activities of Raul’s friends and acquaintances.

            As a portrait of a dictatorship and of a man completely unaffected by his society (or, one could argue, affected to the point of apathy), Tony Manero undoubtedly paints a realistic picture of a most undesirable time in one nation’s history, but director Pablo Larrain is not careful enough to let the harsh-reality feel of the movie avoid monotony. From the first scene onwards, Raul is so obviously a creep, that we are never able to reflect on his actions or contemplate his character. Castro is an actor who had more control than actors often have over his performance, as he collaborated with Larrain on the script. But he chooses to play Raul as the most repellent individual the movies can offer, full of blank stares, vague communication and pent-up rage. The only hint of a root cause of Raul’s disturbed nature is the fact that he is impotent. Otherwise, we are only left to ponder what is a given in the first few minutes of the film; that this is what a dictatorship does to a society, and this is how movies affect a crazy person. This might work if the film did not play itself as a character study. The way Raul sulks around for the rest of this bleak and naturalistic film makes him come off as the least realistic person in all of Chile; if we want to see an equivalent of his character, all we have to do is look at a grainy photo of a murderer in a tabloid newspaper. No larger metaphor can raise this killer above caricature.

            Only in the last scene do we get a tense display of where the movie wants to work; as a bizarre portrait of loneliness and the limits of imitation. The final scene is also the only one set not in a crumbling urban dystopia, but a sunny suburb; had Larrain chosen to set more of the film in the colorful, and therefore eerier, suburbs of a dictatorship, our preconceptions would be dispelled, and we might be more willing to simply label Castro’s character ‘crazy’ and live with it.

At the end of the film, one walks away feeling properly chilled, but not quite satisfied in a cinematic sense. The film is overall exemplary of the state in which foreign cinema has been in for years; built from gray, shaky cinematography that hits us over the head with it’s harsh realism, long takes not for the sake of the story, but for the aesthetic coolness of long takes and no music at all, just because. In a way, it makes one wish that Truffaut and Bazin had never called for films to become naturalistic, or that certain directors such as Antonioni had not ingrained these traits so deeply in to cinema. Foreign cinema is not really helping itself in this regard, even though it continues to produce filmmakers with fascinating subjects on their minds. Tony Manero is a fascinating subject that, in its execution, follows suit too precisely, as Raul does with John Travolta.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

DVD's and Ethics

Half the time I find myself wondering if inventing DVD's was the right thing to do. The other half of the time I find myself watching them.

Every new technology creeps up on us. Rarely does an invention just happen. Computers as we know them today are the result technological revision on both sides of the Atlantic going back to at least the 1950's; Cell-Phones, of course, can ultimately be traced to Alexander Graham Bell, though even the portable phone dates back to 1966. Cinema also came along only after a long slog of invention after invention; camera obscura, the Heliograph, the Daguerrotype, the photograph, the kinetoscope, the film projector. (Or, in the greater context; the story by the firelight, the story in drawing, the story in writing, the story in motion.)

The DVD are the most current means of seeing imagery, an invention sprouting from the creation of film presentation (starting with the film projector). While it's existence has merely followed suit with the rest of history, there is nothing wrong with being skeptical of historical developments, as long as they are not merely physical things. One of the very recent historical developments that DVD's adhere to is not a technology, but an idea; the idea that one can own anything at all. Fifty years ago, nobody would have thought of owning a movie who was not a major studio executive, an independently wealthy curator, or a fortunate director. The idea of holding a disc in one's hand that contains an entire film would have seemed bizzar and innacurate. Movies were light projected on to a screen, not circular comodities. They were experiences. Should movies be commodities? Is it even right for an individual to own a movie? Can one own an experience?

Ideally, a movie is a product for both everybody and nobody; a mysterious entity that should be seen and felt but at the same time is far stranger than a carpet or a car, and is meant to outlive any toy. DVD's, although they have turned movies in to the equivalent of toys, are here to stay. But at this point there really is no reason it should not be right to own a movie; the big-name producer owns movies, you own movies and I own movies, and we all enjoy it. Still, though movies need to be as un-commodified as possible, if that is in fact possible while still having the DVD format. I believe there are still ways to retain the movie as a universal experience, but only if we:
- Get rid of the absurdity of the two DVD formats, PAL for Europe and NTSC for the U.S and some Asian countries. These two systems were developed a long time ago, for the purposes of television, but for the purposes of movies, anything should be seen anywhere. That NTSC and PAL project the films at different frame rates is also somewhat disturbing; essentially, we are seeing two different versions of the same movies, however slight. 24 frames-per-second has long been the norm and should stay that way. 
- Eliminate the Blu-Ray format. The idea of being able to pause a scene and see how it was filmed by pressing another button is the grossest possible manifestation of 'special features.' Blu-Ray is just a form of DVD that dresses the film up a little more, makes it more 'neat,' through irrelevant special features as such. Cutting back on the number of special documentaries, commentaries (something else that I would argue is a total distraction, not a compliment to the film), and still photographs all need to be done with regular DVD's as well.
-Focus as much as possible on big screen DVD projection. Watching a DVD projection in a theater actually looks quite nice, and there are so many films today that have terrible film prints, that they are only watchable on DVD as a result. This is something that makes DVD's, perhaps, necessary to cinema's survival. Yet even still; watching a movie on a T.V screen is not the natural way to see it, and this is the express intention of DVD's. As long as traditional forms of seeing can be re-vamped in to new forms, filmgoing should remain ethical.


Saturday, July 11, 2009

Raising Arizona

Why can’t the Coen Brothers just break down and direct an action movie?

            After all, that is what they’ve done for about half the time in each movie, for their entire career thus far. Their early feature Raising Arizona (1987) probably epitomizes the their tendency to nearly come out of the closet and present their movie as a total stylized, nihilistic piece of trash for the masses rather than an independent art film (a label meaninglessly applied to their films).  True, Raising Arizona, like their later movies, is more film savvy than the average action movie and wears its influences like stolen police badges; all the dizzying tracking shots, the sudden, ominous music, the fast dollying amount to giddy flaunting, rather than techniques that advance the story. But the story of Raising Arizona remains a template for style and cinematic nihilism, no matter how much trivia is supporting it.

            The story itself involves a convict, H.I (a young—though younger than he actually looks—Nicholas Cage) who is released from prison having fallen for one of the security officers who worked there, a no-nonsense if still very sensitive woman named Ed (Holly Hunter). H.I and Ed try to have a baby, but in vain; Ed turns out to be infertile. So they are left with no choice but to kidnap one of the five babies of a wealthy banker (Trey Wilson), who they simply call Junior, until they think of something, as Ed puts it. They settle down in a ramshackle house in Arizona in a sincere attempt to raise the child, but two escaped convicts (John Goodman and Bill Forsythe), who knew H.I from prison days soon turn up in their lives once more, with plans to rob stores, loaf around H.I and Ed’s house and eventually for a grand crime scheme across the southwest—which proves tempting for H.I.

            If the plot sounds twisty and turn, it is, but it is also incredibly easy to follow. The Coens would not have wanted it any other way. Such a storyline is perfect for an action movie and when the film does let loose and lets guns blaze and cars smash in to people and explosions happen, the Coens prove that their greatest strength is creating exhilarating trash sequences. The most fun trash sequence may be when Cage, towards the end of a fight with Goodman, starts spinning John Goodman around by his nose while Goodman exerts one unending moan of the sort actors exert when they are getting beaten up in action movies. Or it could be the robbery of a grocery store, in which everybody appears to have a gun. Or it could be a shorter sequence near the beginning when Goodman and Wilson are dragging themselves out of the mud—don’t ask how they escaped or why they have been swimming through mud—with Goodman’s fat, mud soaked body emerging first and Wilson being pulled out by his legs by Goodman immediately after. These scenes should be taken out of context; the context of the rest of the movie is so absurd, so outlandish, and so flimsy, that the Coens probably didn’t even know why they were bothering with it. A sequence at the end involving a bounty hunter obsessed with finding and killing H.I and Ed feels too outrageous even for this film; but it also confirms the Coens yearnings to make a pure action film.

            But the remainder of the film finds the Coens resorting to elements one is meant to find in a respectable art film. There is much supposed satire of the lifestyles folks who live in the western parts of the country. There are large doses of friction injected in to the relationship of H.I and Ed that is supposed to be palpable. At times, largely due to Cage’s voice-over that runs through the film, we are supposed to both empathize with his conflicted character and laugh at how silly he is (a dangerous audience manipulation that fails to succeed). And anyway, the Coens want us to think, who else would think of making a movie about how men and women work on their relationships that also contain a pro-boxer in a key role (Randall Tex Cobb as the bounty hunter)? The Coens want their audiences to share their impulses, not see a movie and think about it afterwards. They want to make us dizzy by throwing the entire history of movie sound bytes and storytelling conventions at us. The only scenes in which we become dizzy through exciting, organic imagery and direct motion is in the action scenes.

            Every movie is essentially an action film. Movies are not particularly concerned with interior monologues and more concerned with a person’s artifice and physical actions; movies are impatient and tend to jump from one event to the next without much nuance; movies move and hurry our eyes along with them. Tired phrases such as ‘edge of your seat’ were not created for nothing. The best the Coen Brothers could do is become masters of this aspect of cinema. But until recently, they have always been proud proponents of what was once considered a new, snazzy form of postmodernism, glib but irresistible, with so much of film history being added to the mix that there are consequently no serious influences. This is the same kind of cinema from the late eighties and early 90’s that was practiced by Quentin Tarantino, Lars Von Trier in his early movies, and later, Guy Maddin, among others. Now it feels as if this type of movie itself has come to pass, and this postmodern-glib-trash movement itself has become a part of film history, if a somewhat hollow one. There are a few individual films that one can trace as influences to the Coen’s movies, but even they are relatively recent; they must have watched Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972) a few times, and their friend Sam Raimi proved extremely influential on their visual quirks and camp-ironic attitude, all easily reflected in Raising Arizona (Joel Coen was an assistant director on the first Evil Dead movie). It is easy to see how this type of movie could look original twenty years ago. Yet nowadays, the Coens have tried to cut the crap completely and make a more serious type of art film, No Country for Old Men (2007). Even in that movie, though, the most enjoyable, cinematic sequence is a tense nighttime shootout between Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin around the premises of a quiet hotel. The impulse to make a pure trash action film is still there. So why can’t the brothers just surrender to it? 

Sunday, July 5, 2009

On Film Conservatism

  Cinema is the most forgotten medium in the world. Films are being redefined, reformatted and forgotten. But so is all other media, for that matter. Why remember that old T.V show, when there’s a new one just like it, except much better? Why remember that popular song that played on the radio three years ago when the new singers are played much more often? Why remember what it’s like to purchase a book and hold it in your hands, when now you can download it from the Internet or listen to it as an audio book?

             Cinema is the most flexible and ultra-modern of art forms. Flexible, meaning it can adapt itself to any event or situation or incorporate any art form and still function as cinema; ultra-modern in that is the archetypal product of the twentieth century, the result of decades of technological achievement. It is obvious enough to accept the premise that films made today still share a lineage with silent films from the turn of the century. However, just as most people would agree with this, there are constant steps being taken to divorce film from its’ history and traditions as far as possible. As a result, cinema has become quite a different beast today than it was when the Lumiere Brothers screened their first films in 1895. Even that word, ‘Cinema,’ is perceived as outdated, snobbish, and in reference to something else altogether. But there are simple souls out there who are in love with the feeling of being intoxicated by moving imagery and will do whatever it takes to spread that feeling. There are obsessive, lonely, activist types of movie-lovers who believe that Cinema must mean exactly what it has always meant. Film conservatives believe that film can never be removed from its’ origins entirely, and that it is inappropriate to try and do so.

            Before I continue with this essay, I must get a few points out of the way.

·      Film conservatism has nothing to do with political or social conservatism.

·      Film conservatism is a term I have made up. (Whereas film preservation has been commonly used.) It is, however, a summation of various attitudes that have long existed and have been widely talked and written about. I may leave out essential ideas about the preservation of cinema, and some of the ideas presented are only debatably conservative. I mainly attempt to summarize the attitudes and principles as I observe them.

·      I will not attempt to define the opposing ideology to film conservatism, which is, I suppose, film liberalism. What I will say is that the polar opposite of film conservatism is the idea that anything at all shot on a camera that records moving images is legitimately cinema; that any format is appropriate for watching movies; that all the means of production and distribution of movies should be made digital, because it is easy to use, cheaper and faster; that there is no sense in watching films of the silent or early sound era, because they use outdated technology, come from outdated cultural perspectives and look bad compared to movies made today.


Film conservatives broadly believe in the preservation of the moving image. This naturally coincides with the need to preserve early cinema, because it best exemplifies the aesthetic development of the moving image. Early cinema does, of course, have broader historical value, and film conservatives wish to preserve this as well. But the moving image takes precedence over any historical, cultural or theoretical significance an old silent film might have. History, theory and culture can be taught in school and communicated by word of mouth or reading a book, without having to watch any actual movies; they are huge entities of which film is only a piece. Moving imagery, on the other hand, cannot be communicated in any way other than watching it. Once a piece of moving imagery is lost—as little as a few frames, as much as an entire film—it is gone forever, and no textbook or oral summary will be able to bring it back.

To understand the root of film conservatism, first we must look at the properties of a moving image.

              The most important property of a moving image is simply the way it moves. When people watch a film, they feel as if they are watching a reality unfold before their eyes, just like the realities they watch unfolding in their daily lives. Each individual shot appears to happen in a real-time frame, only cut short, or expanded on by the director for the sake of moving the story ahead. Yet it is not happening in real time. Some shots are in slow-motion, some are in fast motion; a shot of someone walking out a door might be cut in two and spliced in to different parts of the narrative; an entire shot might be repeated, maybe more than once. The ability of the moving image to play with time in ways both subtle and violent is one of the few advantages cinema has over other art forms, and good cinema manipulates time in ways that are exciting and consistent.

 The other advantage of motion is that it is physical in nature and imparts physical feelings to the viewer in a faster and more direct way than, say, a book can. I can relate a good example of how movies do this; when I saw Michael Haneke’s Cache (2005) in theaters a few years ago, the entire audience gasped and jumped in their seats when the character Majid meets with a confused Georges in his apartment, and, in a static shot, takes out a knife and slits his own throat, spraying blood on the wall. The shot continues for several more minutes, with a stunned Georges pacing around the apartment. This is what motion in cinema can do to people, through its sheer suddenness and, in this case, a still camera capturing violent motion. I am not suggesting all good motion is violent; I am suggesting that all directors must be magicians who work primarily with motion and stillness. The best of these kinds of images often involve, like Cache, a static camera and last longer than thirty seconds. (Movement of the camera is itself important, but can distract one from the essential motion; that is, what is happening within the frame). But there are many exceptions; there are numerous films, such as Battleship Potemkin (1925) that are displays of conservative imagery in very short bursts. Regardless of presentation, motion is the most essential of the two core elements of cinema.

            The other core property of moving imagery is photography. For is a moving image actually in motion? No, it is in fact a series of photographs taken very quickly to give the illusion of motion. Photography was invented more than fifty years before cinema spawned from it and the debt that all movies owe to photography will never end. Looking at a good photograph, one sees an image of pictorial interest, similar to the way a good painting is pictorially interesting; the objects are arranged intricately, the shading, chiaroscuro and depth of vision compliments the subject, the picture in general is suggestive of a world much bigger than the one it contains. Ideally, a good film provides images of pictorial beauty and poetic motion; however, it is all really just photography. Films have paid homage to their photographic roots in various interesting ways; for example, Chris Marker’s La Jetee (1962). Paying homage is always a healthy thing to do; in films, it reminds the film director and viewer that, no matter what the director does, all cinema is an illusion to begin with.


(The Lumiere Brothers, Arrival of a Train, 1895)

Of course, since these are the core properties of moving imagery, then every film inherently contains them. But this is not the point; it is how they are used that makes a film conservative or un-conservative in its imagery. If a film is comprised of talking heads of characters doing nothing and saying nothing that will lead to anything, then neither the motion nor the photographic properties of the images are being utilized. If a film contains only clich├ęd images—I think of them as Dead Images-- that have been seen millions of times and have stopped working or never worked at all, then they are being misused. If the director has used wild camerawork and deliberate obscurity as an end in and of itself, then they are also being misused. The sole way to utilize these properties of the moving image is to find new, exciting images as often as possible and see if they tell a story that is strong enough to forsake wild camerawork, talking heads and dead imagery.

            This belief in moving imagery is the only reverential, eternal belief film conservatives have; it is the reason why film can never be fully divorced from its’ origins. Everything that follows is a practice that naturally stems from these beliefs. Film conservatives, however, are not concerned with subjective elements of films such as plot, theme or characters. Any ideals imposed on a film’s content would be not only dangerously elitist, but would make film conservatism too much of an ideology. Film conservatism is a loose ideology. It is as a practice that it becomes stronger and more complex.

A film conservative practices preserving movies, seeing the forgotten yet surviving early movies, promoting love for these movies—whether it be through writing, discussion or film screenings-- and always looking out for more motion, in everyday life as in film. Ideally, a film conservative daydreams about movies. In this case daydreaming itself is a practice. But even as a practice almost nobody these days is never a cheater. Many people, for example, dedicate much of their spare time to indulging in their love for silent films, while at other times, they indulge in their love of The Sopranos. A runner may also enjoy driving, but he puts running above everything else and takes it more seriously than anything else in his life. A film conservative practices film preservation and enjoys modern communications on the side, and from whatever distance he sees fit.


             Theater is the one element of film that is subjective—some films are theatrically influenced, some are not—which film conservatives do want to preserve. There is one important thing cinema took from the theater: the movie theater. Sitting in a dark room in front of a big screen is the only proper way to watch a film. When the projector shines the light of the movie on to the screen, it is a source of enchantment that cannot be reproduced on a T.V screen or elsewhere. It is the most direct and intense way to transmit images to the viewer and demands more attention from the viewer than a DVD does, where one can pause it whenever they like. When the movie is over and the audience steps out in to the sunlight, that very act of leaving a darkened room where they have been sitting for two hours preserves the mystery of what they just saw. It also gives them more inclination to intelligently discuss it. I am not a psychologist and some of this is only guesswork; but for people who love movies and are used to seeing them on a big screen, I will always believe it is the case.

            The need to preserve movie theaters leads in to the skepticism, or outright contempt, film conservatives have of the small screen mediums for watching movies; YouTube, Netflix, digital downloads, iPods and, at the start of it all, Television. Television would not be here if it were not for moving imagery; at the same time, nothing has done greater harm to moving imagery than has television. It has reduced images of human interaction to talking heads, reduced a storyline told through a sequence of imagery to a casual thing one can point and laugh at, intercut with commercials. Out of T.V came new technologies, such as the one’s just mentioned, for personalizing the experience of watching a movie to the degree that one can control it at their own will and be completely isolated. Perhaps one of the other virtues of watching a movie in a theater was the way one shared the experience with other people (hence the great Cache scare), but this is all but gone with Television and its spawn. The point of the technologies that followed—such as iPods and Netflix DVD’s—is meant either personalize the experience of watching a movie even more while making the screen even smaller. But their’ inventions never had anything to do with letting people watch movies in the first place; they had to do with the market mentality that produces a wider range of convenient choices. These convenient choices are all too conducive to taking motion for granted.

            New tools for producing cinema have also come about in great quantity and film conservatives are often skeptical of these too, or at the very least wish to preserve both film stock and film projection. Film stock—with its grain, its ability to scratch and tear, its physical delicacy, and its original, haunting format, Black and White—is a sacred element to cinema. First of all, it serves as the best way a filmmaker can get training in the precise and physical discipline of making a film. Unlike digital, one has to choose the right stock, load it in to the camera, run it until the film can be exposed to light and light the room accordingly. These and other mini-steps play in to a pattern that is simply lost with digital filmmaking. And the images can be stunning. A good 35mm print will still outdo what any digital movie can do in terms of complex imagery, and this includes the pristine slickness of Hi-Definition. 35mm film can be soft, fuzzy, slick, pristine, unreal, ultra-real; for all intents and purposes, it can do anything (and 16mm, for all it’s comparative limits, has a rugged, blotchy look that cannot be replicated digitally either). For filmmakers, all digital cameras, and especially Hi-Definition, give the filmmaker a false sense that everything will go according to plan. The idea that all one must do is press a button, and gets to see what they have shot immediately afterwards distracts filmmakers from the fact that good images are often achieved purely by chance, or through intense preparation; the ease with which the camera can be operated is largely beside the point. More than anything, using film keeps us aware of the photographic nature of the moving image. Just looking at a strip of film, one can see the individual stills that make up a shot. One must be aware of how many frames per second they are shooting at and how this will affect their images. These qualities are not gone with digital filmmaking—which translates the frames-per-second concept in to pixels-- but they are taken for granted.

            As a culmination of these and objectives, film conservatives want to preserve silent film. Silent films are the reason for everything that followed, and the best one’s are the purest expressions of motion in existence, which cannot be repeated. Watch how Buster Keaton jumps from train car to train car in The General (1927), loading the cannon that will fire at the train ahead of him before scrambling back on to the roof of the other car. Watch how Maria Falconetti tilts her head and begins to weep in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Watch how Max Schreck creeps along the deck of the ship in Nosferatu (1922), peering down below with an expression of absolute menace on his face. These are some of the essential images of silent cinema and the fact that the films overall look dated—in plot, acting, costumes and much more—is either beside the point or makes them even more endearing. Some silent films were made with only a bare minimum of title cards, and others—like Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924)-- were made with none at all. The earliest silent films were shot with static cameras, forcing us to focus on the essential motion occurring within the frame, rather than the camera’s presence. The notion of images telling an entire story, substituting gestures for dialogue and visual cues for music, is what most people mean when they talk about pure cinema, and the best sound films pay reverence to this model of storytelling, even with their use of dialogue, music and background sound. Nowadays, silent film needs to be more rabidly preserved than ever, even the bad ones (how are we supposed to know the lineage of bad imagery otherwise?). It has been estimated that only about 10-15% of films made during the silent era survive today. Many more have badly damaged prints that are essentially unwatchable. Only a few minutes of one of the first features, Ned Kelly and his Gang (1906) survives. Murnau’s earliest films are lost; so are several of Lang’s.

One strand of film conservatism is a strand of film-lovers stuck on the repetitious mourning of cinema’s lost greatness. At least since the late 20’s, lovers of film have felt that their medium is in trouble. First film started dying when the advent of sound came along in 1927; then it got in trouble when color poked its head in to movies in the late 30’s and early 40’s. Then it got in to trouble, according to the French at least, when in the 1940’s and 50’s, too many films of what Truffaut called ‘the cinema of quality’ were being produced in France and not enough expressive, anti-studio, movies. Some say there was a resurgence of cinema in the 1960’s and 70’s, when great auteur films started being produced in mainstream America and the foreign film market was booming; then it apparently died again in 1995, when Susan Sontag wrote that cinema was dead because cinephelia had died and even if great films continued to be made, they would be fewer and fewer. In 2001, Paolo Cherchi Usai published a book called The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory and the Digital Dark Age. Most recently, it has been pronounced, if not dead, then in another grave condition on the pages of Sight and Sound. In 2007, following the twin deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, Peter Matthews wrote in the magazine that the deaths of the two filmmakers signaled an end of an era of ‘unbridled cinematic masterpieces.’

Any sensible lover of movies realizes that cinema has always been evolving and there isn’t much we can do to change that. The fact is, it is only because cinema has evolved that film conservatism exists. In its very first days, cinema was a sideshow attraction for the poor who wanted to pay a nickel to see a cheap, short spectacle. The progressive idea that films were art did not come about until directors such as Griffith began making major technical innovations and writers such as Vachel Lindsay began to consider it a sort of art form for the masses. No film lover would consider movies to be decadent sideshow attractions anymore. In the early part of the 20th century, film preservation was simply not as much of an issue anyhow, precisely because the medium was still less than fifty years old. As it is now, another strand of film conservative is the conservative who still has progressive ideas about cinema, as I myself do. I will agree, for instance, that digital filmmaking is an interesting form of democratizing moving images, and has much potential which are still unexplored. I like digital projection, just as long as I can still see it on a big screen. Film conservatives must recognize the limitations of anything new that comes along in cinema, while recognizing that it is not a worthless innovation so long as it a) uses the basic properties of the moving image as the primary way to tell it’s story and b) does not take traditional cinematic technique and presentation for granted. Recent films that I can think of that utilize the moving image in traditional ways, while using recent technology and experimental storytelling techniques are Michael Winterbottom’s In This World (2003), Gus Van Sant’s Gerry (2002), or any of Bela Tarr’s films. For that matter, films that utilize the moving image in more radical and harmful ways are David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), The Wachowski Brother’s The Matrix (1999), or David Linklater’s Waking Life (2001).

           Some of the men and women who have taken their practices beyond daydreaming and in to the realm of filmmaking, criticism, teaching and general preservation are as follows. One of the first film conservatives was Rudolf Arnheim, a theoretician who derided the advent of sound film as an un-pure form of cinema. Lotte Eisner, a German critic who wrote The Haunted Screen, a definitive account of German Expressionist cinema, was a great preserver of her country’s unique early cinema. Andre Bazin, founder of Cahiers du Cinema and perhaps the greatest film critic of all time, was a true film conservative-cum-progressive. He believed in the moving image intensely, as is apparent from reading any of his pieces, but he also believed that the cinema was naturally progressing towards a more naturalistic form, dominated by long-takes rather than montage. Carl Theodor Dreyer was one of the most conservative film directors ever; he never made a film that was not in black and white and resisted using sound as anything that did not serve the image in all his later films (his first sound film, Vampyr, is basically a silent film with a soundtrack tentatively added). Werner Herzog is a director who never shoots with anything but film and whose films all, in one way or another, pay tribute the silent cinema (namely German Expressionism) and the basic athletics that make up the moving image. More recent directors such as Bela Tarr and Guy Maddin are establishing a direct link with more traditional, or in Maddin’s case archaic, cinematic practices, such as only using black and white film stock, using silent era editing equipment and even making several completely silent films (again, Maddin). Susan Sontag was a film conservative to the point of becoming a reactionary; one must only take a look at her aforementioned ‘Death of Cinema’ essay to see why. The first description of cinema, metaphorically, was Plato’s ‘Parable of the Cave,’ even though he did not know it; the men trapped in the cave and watching shadows on the wall might as well be the audience in a movie theater. Delmore Schwartz’s short story In Dreams Begin Responsibilities is another great story about the uniqueness of watching movies which, with its plot essentially being about remembrance of what came before, is subtly about remembrance of what came before in cinema as well. Those who clean up film prints and restore them to their best look are film conservatives in the most direct sense; they are literally preserving celluloid as their job. Anybody who runs a silent film program, who is a film archivist or film historian, or just a lonesome cinephile, is practicing film conservatism.

            I believe in the simple concept that says if you want to change something and know about it’s past, then the change will be for the better; if you want to change something and don’t know or want to forget it’s past, the change will be for the worse. This concept arguably applies to every facet of our society and film is a facet where change is taken too lightly. New cameras, such as The Red One, are being developed with the apparent intention of surpassing all cameras that came before, even claiming to ‘Render obsolescence obsolete.’ Marketers are more concerned with updating DVD to Blue-Ray to digital downloads on to one’s computer, rather than finding a way to incorporate this technology in to traditional big-screen projection. On the website, a studio business executive recently said that in ten years time, there will not be traditional movies, but more integration between video games and movies, where people can interact with the movie as they would a videogame. At the same time, there are many steps being taken to conserve film; there are silent film organizations like the National Film Preservation Foundation and festivals like the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, longstanding independent theaters that mostly screen cinema from the early and middle periods of the 1900’s, DVD distributors like Kino and the Criterion Collection, which are tirelessly cleaning up neglected prints and rereleasing them.

As a Film Conservative, I am hopeful, but I still do not know what movies will look like twenty years from now. I realize that the medium is always changing, but that it is important to mitigate change. I advocate complete independence from the studio system, as well as individual autonomy within the studio system, so that filmmakers are enabled to find original images. I value motion, literal and figurative, but especially literal. I think of the Lumiere Brothers and Griffith as my three fathers. I like to hold film in my hands and run it through my fingers.



(Edward Muybridge, Man Running)



I am indebted to the sources:

-Introduction to American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now, Lopate, Philip, pages 1-3; Literary Classics of the United States, New York, NY, 2006.

- The Film Critic of Tomorrow, Arnheim, Rudolph. From Film Essays and Criticism, Wisconsin University Press, 1997.

- A Century of Cinema; Sontag, Susan, originally published in The New Yorker, 1995.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

To start everything off...

Welcome to The Collector.
I am hoping I am not sued by the Criterion Collection for controversy over this name.
This blog is meant to be read by anybody at all who is interested in motion pictures, but especially by Filmmakers and regular, if also thoughtful, film-goers. None of this is academic writing and much of it will only debatably be film criticism. Film criticism, as I see it, is often film theory minus the labels, applications and active intent (i.e it does not necessarily 'expose' something about society or human nature via said film). In the film reviews, I certainly hope that what I'm writing is more or less criticism, though the longer essays could take potentially any form. I myself am a filmmaker and some of the essays will undoubtedly be from a filmmaker's perspective rather than a critic's or casual viewer's perspective. I will try to turn out two or three reviews of individual movies a month and one longer essay every six weeks, but I expect to break this rule occasionally. Hold me to task if you must.
I am aware that this post itself will eventually be lost in the blog archives and only those who feel like searching for the first post will find it. Perhaps I should modify this? Perhaps it doesn't matter?
Consider this a mission statement,
Damon Griffin
Brooklyn, NY