Friday, 6 May 2016

Twenty faces behind the camera


Amma Asante

Thelma Schoonmaker

Agnes Godard 

Alma Reville 

Anne V. Coates 

Helma Sanders-Brahms 

Joan Harrison 

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Kelly Reichardt 

Leigh Brackett 

Ava DuVernay

Lucrecia Martel

Muriel Box 

Naomi Kawase

 Márta Mészáros

Ellen Kuras

Samira Makhmalbaf 

Suzanne Schiffman 

Ann Hui

Virginia Van Upp

Friday, 22 April 2016

Day of the Outlaw (1959)

The term "revisionist western" is rather popular, turning up every now and then, for example when the films of Sergio Leone or Sam Peckinpah are discussed. To quote from Wikipedia, "the Revisionist Western, Modern Western or Anti-Western traces to the mid 1960s and early 1970s as a subgenre of the Western movie" and it is used for describing westerns that have a critical/cynical perspective on the frontier and the westward expansion, i.e. westerns that are seen as different from, or perhaps the opposite of, earlier westerns which were allegedly triumphant and romantic.

But although the amount of blood has increased over the decades the other aspects of what is supposed to make a western revisionist, the critique, the highlighting of the death and destruction that is part of American history, the cynicism and bleakness, have a long history. They were perhaps not as prominent in the 1930s but it is not at all obvious that the films of Peckinpah, Leone and others are different from George Sherman's films from the 1940s and 1950s or the westerns by Robert Aldrich, to name some obvious examples. It is instead unclear as to what the westerns from the late 1960 and onwards are to be revisions of; the stories they tell do not differ, they just have more blood (and more bad teeth).

Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper in Aldrich's Vera Cruz (1954).

When John Patterson in a recent article in The Guardian about Sam Peckinpah writes "[i]t was anything but glamorous – no fancy hats or pearl-handled six-shooters, no dead-eyed gunslingers" you have to wonder which films is he thinking about as being glamorous and filled with fancy hats or pearl-handled six-shooters. Perhaps the series of films with Gene Autry, the singing cowboy of the 1930s? But they were not the norm. From the mid-1940s the majority of famous westerns are critical and/or cynical, and can sometimes be very frank about the costs and the massacres upon which the United States were built.

Gene Autry

I was reminded of this when I recently re-watched Day of the Outlaw (André de Toth 1959), photographed by Russell Harlan in wintertime in the middle of Oregon. It captures an inhospitable place populated by a handful of people who all have their issues and weaknesses. There is no glamour or romance here, this is the end of the line and life is rather Hobbesian. When a bunch a renegade soldiers take the village hostage all simmering conflicts freeze as the villagers have to try to unite in order to survive the siege. But there is a limit for how long the jealousies, sexual frustrations, pettiness, sadism, pride and self-loathing can be kept in check. In one brief but fine scene the strong man in the village, played by Robert Ryan, catches his reflection in the mirror and is appalled by what he sees.


Visually it is also a remarkable film with long takes frequently staged with the camera away from the action to capture the insignificant men and women dwarfed by the surrounding landscape and mountains. There is almost the same feeling that you get in the films of Anthony Mann, of a space at best indifferent and at worst actively hostile towards us humans. The interiors are equally well-handled, with the staging and the camera movements being at one with the subject matter, especially so in a demented dance sequence where the camera is spinning around in 360 degrees pans.

So it is a very fine film, powerful and unforgettable, made at a time when such films were common. Whether you want to call it revisionist or not is irrelevant.








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Two earlier posts about George Sherman here and here.
It is peculiar that I have never written anything about Peckinpah, considering he is one of my favourite filmmakers. But Nick Pinkerton has so you can read him until I produce something of my own.
I should also add that the films with Gene Autry are not to be dismissed; they can be entertaining and sometimes interesting, for a number of reasons.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Theory readings #2 "The Death of the Author"

Two years ago I wrote two pieces under the headline "Theory readings" and now it is time for another one. The first piece was a general introduction and the second one was about Robert Warshow and "The Gangster as Tragic Hero". This post is about "The Death of the Author" which, although only about books and writing, is frequently cited within film studies and is required reading at universities around the world among students of film as well as of literature. (I first read it in my first year as a film student.) It was first published in 1967 in the American journal Aspen in the same issue that had Marcel Duchamp as a theme, an artist with ideas that to some extent coincided with the ideas expressed in "The Death of the Author."

***

The article is particularly directed towards literary criticism since it has been, it is argued, "tyrannically centred on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions" and that any meaning in a piece of writing has always been "sought in the man or woman who produced it." A brief history about this idea of the author is also provided. It "is a modern figure, a product of our society insofar as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism, and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual." This, it is added, was "the epitome of culmination of capitalist ideology." The author has been given the same relation to a text as a "father to a child" and this must stop because, according to the article, this idea that meaning comes from an individual is a myth. A text has no originality and no identity, "writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin", it is "where all identity is lost." Writing is instead "a pure gesture of inscription (and not of expression)" and it is instead language itself which produces meaning, and "calls into question all origins." Instead of containing "the 'message' of the Author-God" the text is made up of quotations, a summary of earlier writings "none of them original" which "blend and clash."

Consequently "to decipher a text becomes quite futile." Positioning an author and give this person creative control is to "close the writing" and to give power to the critics and their efforts to interpret the text to find is true meaning, something which does not exist. There is "a structure" but "there is nothing beneath," no "ultimate meaning." Critics have been concerned with "discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyché, liberty) beneath the work" and by finding him thinking they have explained the text in question. But this "we" must no longer do. There is no meaning to be found and ultimately, and satisfyingly, "to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostates - reason, science, law."

Instead it is the reader who matters, not the author. The reader, who is "without history, biography, psychology", is where everything coalesce. This is where all the quotations come together and meaning is formed, in the act of reading. A "text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination." Therefore "to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."

***

One of the benefits of "The Death of the Author" is that you can interpret it in any which way without ever being wrong, as it denies the existence of meaning in a text itself and instead puts all meaning with the reader. Yet it is unclear how literal it is to be understood. Already the brief sketch of the history of the author is peculiar. If the author emerged during the Middle Ages it is hardly "a modern figure", as the Middle Ages were some 1000 years ago. Neither can the author be associated with capitalism then, since capitalism emerged much later, after both the Middle Ages and the Reformation. But when and where the author first came about as a concept is not something we will be able to answer, and it is of no importance for this discussion either.

If the argument in the article had been that in order to evaluate or analyse a novel we should not focus on the person who wrote it but consider a variety of aspects, such as political, economic, generic, then it would be fairly conventional and very much typical of its time. Context and norms matter and should naturally be considered. But "The Death of the Author" goes further than that, as it removes the writer completely from the text and considers her irrelevant. And the text is not just cut off from the writer; it also seems to be cut off from any context, from "society, history, psyché, liberty." This kind of reading however seems to be both impossible and weird. Especially since the reader apparently has no personality, being "without history, biography, psychology," a contextless person reading a text created in a void. It is not just the author who has been killed off here but everybody; everything except the text. (God too is killed off since, by refusing to give meaning, we also "refuse God and his hypostates - reason, science, law." I have no need for God but it is not clear however why God would be related to reason and science, and neither is it clear why we should want to refuse reason and science.)


Another radical idea is that the literary text is only structure and "nothing beneath." The point might only be that there is nothing biographical about the writer to be uncovered, but it does sound like a denial of the concept of allegory and that symbolism is impossible. This is what would be radical. And by following the article's line of thought it would not be possible to say that a text is, for example, racist or misogynistic since the text itself has no meaning, the reader creates the meaning, and consequently the writer would be without responsibility and cannot be blame, or charged with hate speech or libel.

I would like to suggest that, while there might not be an "ultimate meaning" in a novel, there is still some meaning emanating from it, which comes from the way it is written and that whoever wrote it had a particular idea that she wanted to put across. This might have been more or less successful, and the result might be more or less comprehensible, but it is still there and a factor to consider.

The question as to whether a given literary text is original or unique depends upon your definition. No text is completely unique, as they all resemble other texts, but neither are they all the same, at least not those that are authored. So to some extent each text, each book, is actually unique, and this is precisely because they have been written by individuals who are all also unique and have their own voices.

If the writer ceases to exist when putting pen to paper, does that mean that the same thing happens when you write a letter? That as soon as I start to write about what has happened to me these last two weeks, those things that happened to me are no longer related to me personally but are just part of the general discourse, and whatever I wrote in this letter is completely unrelated to what I wrote in my previous letter, two weeks ago. That anybody, really, could have written these letters. That would be absurd. A letter is not the same as a book would be the obvious counter-argument, which is true. But how much of a difference is there? If I were to collect the letters written during one year and then edited them so that they become one long narrative, and then publish them as a book, would that book still be unrelated to me and the ideas and intentions and biographical aspects behind the letters would no longer be of any relevance, and considering them would be a fallacy? If so, why?

Most books are of course not based on letters, and many are mass-produced and standardised, but in "The Death of the Author" no distinction is made between different kind of books, or different kinds of writing either. Judging by the arguments in the article, it is the very act of writing that makes the writer superfluous.

***

Some seem to think that "The Death of the Author" made it practically impossible to argue about authors and auteurs, since they do not matter, and possibly do not even exist. But that is not tenable, Artists, writers, directors do exist, and they have ideas, beliefs, feelings and memories, and all of those things go into the work they create. That is not a romantic fantasy, that is a banal observation about the real world. Friends of "The Death of the Author" often speak unfavourably about "romantic notions about the artist" but how many are there who actually believe in a supreme creator untouched by her context? There are a lot of positions to take between the two equally suspect ideas of "the death of the author" and "the self-sufficient genius", but while I have encountered many who think that writers and artists do not matter I have never met anyone who thinks writers create masterpieces out of nothing.

It is possible, and perfectly legitimate, to read and analyse, say, The Namesake without taking its author Jhumpa Lahiri into account, just as it is to watch and analyse Et avoir (ou pas) without acknowledging Laetitia Masson, but is anything really gained by that? To discuss a book or a film as part of something larger, as part of an oeuvre even, might help in appreciating the individual work. Too much focus on autobiographical readings can be tiresome and trying the "explain" a text by drawing parallels to a writer's childhood are more often than not tenuous, yet disregarding the writers completely seems like an unnecessary restriction. This is probably why so few actually do disregard the writers. They are there, they exist, and consequently they are included when the work is discussed. There seem to be no relevant reasons to dismiss them on principle.

You might think it arrogant for a critic to claim "the writer does not matter, only me, the reader." Instead I would humbly prefer to think of the act of reading as having a meeting with the writer, alive and well.

"Girl With a Book" by Alexander Deineka

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I have noticed that when "The Death of the Author" is reprinted in anthologies it is usually said that it was first published in 1968, but that is just when it was first published in France, the year after its original appearance.

Image-Music-Text, the most famous collection of Roland Barthes writings, translated by Stephen Heath, also includes "The Death of the Author".

Friday, 25 March 2016

Nicholas Ray

There is a peculiar restlessness to the films of Nicholas Ray, and a strong, unsettling undercurrent of violence and neurosis, in the style as well as in the characters. The struggles and the anxieties within the characters leak out and affect the mise en scène, turning every space into a potential battlefield. And that violence is frequently acted out against objects. Chickamaw crushing Christmas ornaments with his hands in They Live By Night (1949), Jim assaulting an office desk in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Rico Angelo shooting at a photograph of Jean Harlow in Party Girl (1957). His characters are all on dangerous ground, living by night in lonely places, and if they win their victories are bitter.

Ray had ten good years, 1949 - 1958, and although he struggled a lot, not least with himself, there is an abundance of truth and beauty there. Films of great sadness and hopelessness but tinged with compassion and poetry; even though love cannot last it was still sweet while it lasted. "I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me."

Patrick McGilligan's description of The Lusty Men (1952), my favourite among Ray's films, is apt for most of his work. "Plot and genre conventions had gradually been shaved away in the scripting process; the episodic nature of the story reflected Ray's ruminative personality, its plotting was secondary to the character studies and emotional landscape."








Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Martha & Niki (2015)

Back in the days when Suede was a great band I saw them at a concert, and I was so overwhelmed by how good it was that I began to cry. Something similar happened as I saw Martha Nabwire and Niki Tsappos dance in this new documentary about them. They are hip hop dancers, among the best in the world, and seeing them on the floor or on the stage, completely disappearing into their acts, letting their bodies move as if the laws of physics do not apply to them, as if they had become one with the music, deadly serious yet bursting with joy, is so mesmerising and so moving that I can think of few things to compare it with. The force, the energy, the technique, the rhythm, it is both raw power and life-affirming exuberance. And unlike how dancers are usually dressed, Martha and Niki dance wearing sneakers, loose-fitting sweatpants and college sweatshirts. They are not sexualised or objectified; it is their control of, and movement of, their bodies that is the focus, not their bodies in themselves.

Martha & Niki, made by Tora Mkandawire Mårtens, begins in 2010 as Niki and Martha are participating in Juste Debout, the world's biggest Street Dance competition. The final is in Paris and they win, becoming the first women to do so. They also become a global sensation. The film then follows them for four years, first from competition to competition, and then with more emphasis on their differences, which become more pronounced, and their partnership begins to crumble.

There are two things to consider here, one is the two dancers and the other is the film. Since they are so good, and such powerful personalities, it might be tempting to overlook the weaknesses of the film. One is the lack of context and specific information about the contests they participate in. It is clear that Juste Debout in Paris is a major thing but later in the film they are at various other competitions, such as one in the Czech Republic, and nothing is said about them, and why they are there and what significance it might have for their careers. There is also very little sense of how much time has passed. If I did not know that the film followed them for four years I would not have been able to tell, it might as well have taken place during a few months.

At one point Martha and Niki are in New York, competing in Brooklyn, but they do not win this time, they only come a close second. They seem to react to this with disproportional disappointment, and afterwards they go on a rather bizarre trip to Cuba, an all-inclusive tour package with a Salsa course included. Why did they do that? It felt like a desperate effort to save their partnership, but it was not spelled out in the film. That whole section instead felt almost like a satire of such tours. I also wondered why the filmmakers included so much of it, but it might be because going there convinced Martha that she needed to get away, and be by herself for a while, and not with Niki.

The last section also raised questions. It seemed as if Martha just left, without telling Niki anything; leaving her high and dry. Then, a year later, they are seen talking in a hotel room in Johannesburg. Why where they there? It first seemed as if Niki had gone there just to talk to Martha about why she left, and to sort out their affairs. If so, that seemed to be a very expensive way of making up (if indeed they had had a real falling-out). Or had they gone there together for a competition? If so, this was not mentioned. They did go to an orphanage in Soweto for a workshop together, but was that the reason why they were in South Africa to begin with? But if they had gone there together, then what had happened after Martha left Niki a year ago? Had they made up and were a team again? But if that was the case why did they now have what seemed like a heartfelt talk about what happened a year ago? I sometimes wondered, with so much left unsaid, if the film was staged, that their conflict was faked to add drama to the film. I do not actually think so, maybe the filmmakers just forgot that just because everything was obvious for them it might not be obvious for those watching it. But it did feel weird to have so many question marks surrounding most of the sequences. Such things would not matter as much in a work of fiction, and not at all in some films, but this is not such a film. This is a documentary and therefore I care about coherence, continuity and context.

So as a narrative and as a film Martha & Niki is not particularly impressive, but whenever they start to dance, all such negative thoughts disappear.



My two film blogging friends Fiffi and Sofia have also seen it; here are their thoughts (in Swedish):
https://bilderord.wordpress.com/2016/03/23/martha-niki-2016/
http://www.fiffisfilmtajm.se/martha-niki/