Thanks for the Use of the Hall - Archive
This archive contains posts from May 2007 to November 2008. More recent posts are at: http://sallitt.blogspot.com
- Name: Dan Sallitt
- Location: New York, New York, United States
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Monday, May 26, 2008
Late Marriage: Walter Reade, May 28 and 31, 2008
If you don't have a 9-to-5 job, you should also pay a visit to Keren Yedaya's daringly stylized 2004 Or (My Treasure), screening Monday, June 2 at 4:15 pm and Wednesday, June 4 at 4:30 pm. To my mind, these are the two finest films that Israel has produced.
Saturday, May 24, 2008
The First Legion: Walter Reade, May 26 and 27, 2008
(I'm presuming that most readers of this blog don't need to be hipped to the glories of Frank Borzage's History Is Made at Night and Ernst Lubitsch's Cluny Brown, which are also screening in the Boyer series.)
Monday, May 12, 2008
Children and Dogs
We are all used to seeing people die in movies and not having it ruin our day. Many people believe that this restrained reaction is due to our knowledge that we are watching a fiction, our awareness that no one is really dying.
If, however, at the end or a row of anonymous movie extras being gunned down, the assistant director should accidentally place a child or a dog, the theater owner will hear about it. Some people’s days will in fact be ruined.
This surplus sensitivity to the onscreen deaths of children and domestic animals is extremely common. Spectators who endeavor to elevate their compassion for adult victims may succeed in leveling the playing field to an extent; but almost everyone understands, on a gut level, the special status of children and animals.
It seems to me that the near-universality of this reaction effectively refutes the idea that our indifference to onscreen death is due merely to our sophistication in recognizing the difference between fiction and reality.
Asked to explain this phenomenon, almost all interviewees say the same thing: “The child/animal is innocent.” The implication is that the adult is presumptively guilty, or at least that the occurrence of guilt in adults is sufficiently high that we should take no chances with them.
One can put forth an evolutionary explanation that we divide the world into members of our tribe, who help us survive, and others, who are a potential threat. Or one can opt for the more Freudian explanation that we all harbor an atavism that gives us a simple pleasure in the death of others, and that we feel freer to indulge this atavism with the excuse of self-defense.
In support of the evolutionary thesis, we observe that makers of fiction are skillful at using identification to change our reaction to the death of fictional characters. All filmmakers know that bit players will die unmourned, that the protagonist’s best friend is good for a bit of manageable sadness at the end of the second act, and that the death of the protagonist is an emotional experience that must be handled carefully. In effect, some characters become part of our tribe.
However, we are still capable of enjoying a tragedy in which the protagonist dies. The evolutionary thesis alone cannot explain this.
It could be that all three considerations – the argument from artistic sophistication, the argument from tribal affiliation, the argument from atavism – operate within us and combine to govern our reaction to onscreen death.
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
The Tracey Fragments: Village East, starting Friday, May 9, 2008
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
60s Godard via Le Petit Soldat
Topic #1: How Much Can You Undermine a Story and Still Have It Function As a Story? The torture scenes in Le Petit soldat, which are the structural center of the movie, get a lot more screen time and attention than Godard usually gives to structural centers. This is probably why Soldat feels more mainstream than other Godard works.
But one couldn’t mistake the scenes for the work of any other director. Immediately one notes that Godard wants to flatten the tone by removing, not just emotional highs and lows, but even references to them. Subor’s voiceover does a lot of the flattening: he discusses his torture in cool, analytical terms, mentioning pain only as a catalyst for his thought processes. And the images of torture inflict on the audience few signs of Subor’s discomfort. I believe that we hear no cries and see no anguished facial expressions.
We see this flattening again at the film’s other emotional high point, the ending. I won’t spoil it, but exactly the same techniques are used: the voiceover is tipped in the direction of detachment, and we aren’t shown grief or pain. However, the ending is unlike the torture scenes in that Godard shortens it almost to the vanishing point with ellipsis and truncation.
This second example is closer to Godard’s usual handling of narrative in the 60s period. It’s a fairly general practice for him to skip quickly and elliptically over scenes that would be narrative high points in a mainstream production. In addition to the ellipsis, the scenes are flattened emotionally as well. Far from feeling that big moments are being pulled away from us by the ellipsis, we often can’t even spot the climaxes as climaxes because of the flatness. Pierrot le fou is a good example of a Godard story that is potentially a thriller, but that has been systematically deprived of all narrative urgency, so that the progression of the action story is little more than facts thrown at the audience in passing.
Of course, Godard doesn’t always move quickly. He can dawdle with the best of his art-house contemporaries. But the storytelling moments that demand deliberation and emphasis in commercial cinema are usually weakened in his films.
Because Godard uncharacteristically takes his time during the Soldat torture scenes, the flattening of storytelling affect is easier to spot.
Topic #2: Men Are a Lot Like Cameras When They Look at Women. Soldat slows to a contemplative crawl during the scene in which Subor takes photos of Anna Karina. This fascination with women was well-established even at this early stage of Godard’s career. (The short that played with Soldat in Film Forum’s "Godard’s 60s" retrospective, 1958’s Charlotte et son Jules, is suspended in such a moment of contemplation from beginning to end.) Typically in this period, scenes devoted to visual contemplation of the female lead are so protracted and laden with emphasis that they bend the film’s meaning, giving centrality to a love interest who might play a marginal role in a commercial version of the same story.
Godard's fascination with women is often presented explicitly as a gender gap. The male protagonist expresses misgivings and insecurity about, as well as desire for, the woman, either in dialogue or in voiceover. Whereas the woman has a more centered demeanor: she is carefree, content, not especially focused, and enjoying her status as spectacle. If the man is harsh to the woman, it generally does not affect her mood. The man usually raises questions about what is going on inside the mind of the woman, questions that force the conclusion that the woman cannot be known, either to the man or the camera.
It is not lost on Godard that the audience is staring at the woman exactly as the male lead does. And it often happens that the woman will turn her attention directly to the camera instead of to the man, with the same flirtatious insouciance. The reflexivity that stalks every frame of every Godard film seems to take on a special gravity here: filmmaking may be a game, but the fascination and the mystery of the woman are not.
One can judge this fascination in different ways. The word "essentialism," not a compliment in gender studies, comes to mind. And Godard’s fascination with women often seems to be just a hair’s breadth away from anger and hostility. But I confess that my love of his films is closely associated with his fixation on the otherness of women, and the films that move away from this fixation usually engage me less. Godard’s love/hate gaze across the gender gap is the place where the rubber meets the road, where his pleasure in filmmaking most sympathetically makes contact with his engagement with life. The maleness of his 60s stance, the lack of distinction between women and what women make him feel, would be a handicap if he were a philosopher. But an artist needs an angle, a gimmick, an entry point to human experience.
Alan Rudolph, 1985 (short version)
Friday, May 2, 2008
Breakfast of Champions: Anthology Film Archives, May 3, 6, and 8, 2008
Breakfast was originally a Robert Altman project: Rudolph adapted it for him in the 70s, writing the script in eight days between drafts of Buffalo Bill and the Indians. After the Altman film fell through, the script was Rudolph’s dream project for years, and was finally realized thanks to Willis’ patronage, and presumably also to the success of Rudolph’s previous film, 1998’s Afterglow. (Willis does not get enough credit for the many eccentric projects to which he lent his bankable name.)
It screens at Anthology Film Archives as part of a series programmed by French critic/filmmaker Luc Moullet: on Saturday, May 3 at 9 pm; Tuesday, May 6 at 7 pm; and Thursday, May 8 at 9 pm. It’s hard to imagine the film ever finding too large an audience, but maybe it’s inching its way toward cult status.