A powerful example of cinematic expression in graphic design, this poster is also interesting because the man at its center serves as an illuminating decoy. Though a dead ringer for Charlie Chaplin, the actor pictured is actually Monty Banks, and most likely this is a scene from Bank’s 1926 film Atta Boy, which prominently features a scene of him dangling off a ladder in the back of a car.
The reason that a marginal actor like Banks was featured abroad was largely a result of the marketing strategies of the distributors. Films made by independent American actor/director/producers like Banks, Charles Ray, and Richard Talmadge, which played only in a few theaters in the United States due to tight control of the major theater chains by the large producers, enjoyed success in the USSR—especially since they were considered harmless screwball fare that lacked a political agenda. As a result, some films that were barely noticed in their home country occasioned the creation of top-notch Russian posters like this one. This poster is unsigned, but has been attributed to the incredible Stenberg Brothers.
Here is a poster for the movie Les Vampires by Louis Feuillade. It is a signed lithograph currently on display as part of the permanent exhibition at the Cinematheque Francaise. It is a little known fact that the actress Musidora depicted here actually worked at the ticket booth at the Cinematheque Francaise until 1943.
Musidora, who not only starred in films but also directed and produced them, is worthy of a blog post in her own right (and a New York City retrospective for my money). Here’s a brief glimpse from Soleil et Ombre , one of the two films that she directed that has survived:
I saw N.U. for the first time on film as part of the recent Antonioni Centenary conference; and what a revelation it was. Though it clocks in at around ten minutes, it qualifies as a miniature masterpiece.
N.U. is set in Rome. The first frames go by in flashes without any apparent link and without the rhythmic games of montage. We then discover the city through the eyes of the sanitation workers, and our eye is drawn to minute details as well as grand monuments, such as a homeless man and the Spanish steps of the Trinità dei Monti. The sweepers’ work is routine and their gestures seem automated, but Antonioni imbues even the simple act of sweeping with poetry and humanity. With minimal voiceover, Antonioni focuses on the immobility of the workers when he isolates figures in space. Time is suspended, accompanied by a contrapuntal and aesthetically discordant (but for that reason very effective) jazz soundtrack. There is a reflexive pause when Antonioni cuts to a shot of a soldier lingering in front of a cinema. Note the last deep focus, extra-long take on the poles receding into the distance in a painterly, perspectival manner.
Antonioni explained why there were few internal shots of the homes: “It would have required lighting which we did not have at our disposal: therefore we remained on the street. Let’s say that I constructed an aesthetic system from this fact. Even the other Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel within the space he was assigned.”
Directors were more sensitive than the critics to Antonioni’s documentary work, which is at the very heart of his aesthetic. Valerio Zurlini states: “For us who were then busy with documentaries, N.U. was the revelation of a master. It made an extraordinary effect on us, like the great films of De Sica and Rossellini. We didn’t have eyes suited to looking at the city. Antonioni made us see it for the first time. All my documentaries, and not only mine, are indebted to N.U.“
Note: Thomas Beard, co-curator of the Whitney Biennial and co-founder of Light Industry, was kind enough to sit down with me for an interview in Joan’s Digest. You can read the full piece here. I also asked him to name the films that would make up his “essential cinema” list, to which he responded: “Oh my God. You’d think that in my whole life of showing films and thinking of them that I would have an answer to this question, but I am always utterly unable to decide.” All true cinephiles are faced with this dilemma. Here are two films that make his cut:
This is Not a Film [Jafar Panahi, 2011] This is Not a Film that stayed with me in a way that few films ever have. There’s a real moral and political imperative to the act of filmmaking itself.
Puce Moment [Kenneth Anger, 1949]
This I can say with metaphysicall certitude (to borrow the McLaughlin Group’s phase) but I have seen Kenneth Anger’s Puce Moment more times than any other film. For years I saw it on an old Mystic Fire VHS tape, but the I saw it on film at Anthology and it was a totally different experience. I was quite literally seeing it for the first time, and I had seen it a hundred times before.
Let’s get down to brass tacks: there are few things I love more than hardboiled film noir dialogue—that outrageous, rapid-fire back-and-forth smothered in pulp and peppered with slang. It’s a major source of the genre’s appeal, cloaking the film in the seedy, coded vernacular of the underworld. The tough talk in The Sweet Smell of Success represents a particular apogee of the form, and the neurotically articulate screenplay is chock-full of colorful metaphors, New York argot, and punchy one-liners. Some of the most memorable: “You’re a cookie full of arsenic,” “Just don’t leave me in a minor key,” ‘Your dead son, get yourself buried,” and “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.”
Which brings us to Christpher Wool. This fine example of Wool’s language-based painting is now on view at MoMA as part of their current refresh of the Contemporary Galleries, and its visual impact is akin to that of a New York Post headline: graphic, sensational, and not overly predisposed to sublety. Wool appropriates this evocative line from the film, shortens it like a text message, and then stencils it imperfectly in pump-em-full-of-lead-black on a stark white background. “CATS INBAG BAGS IN RIVER suddenly morphs into a puckish haiku, a expression of hardnosed lyricism. Sidney Falco, the character who utters this juicy bit of repartee in the film, is someone that we come to admire for his gumption in doing away with the competition, and his cockiness has a comic edge. This painting too, manifests a certain biting humor, a humor that mocks the seriousness of painting and pays tribute to all of the sinister smart guys in the room—of which Christopher Wool is one.
Here’s Mr. Falco himself, aka Tony Curtis, delivering the line full of piss, vinegar and snarling ambition. Don’t be a two-time loser: see this classic if you haven’t already, and then check out this painting in person.
Death, from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, makes a cameo.
Ming Wong’s Persona Performa at the Museum of the Moving Image was one of the highlights of 2011 for me, in part because it synthesized the genres I’m most passionate about: cinema, art, and live performance. Ming Wong, a multimedia artist whose name deserves to be better known in the art and film worlds, created a fluid experience that morphed from a museum-installation to a theater piece to a dance sequence, to culminate in a screening-cum-performance. These different segments bled into one another quite seamlessly, emphasizing the protean nature of live performance as the audience moved throughout various spaces in the museum.
The catalyst for Wong’s piece—or perhaps the navel—is Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, one of director’s most austerely experimental works and the film that Susan Sontag deemed his masterpiece. Persona is centered on the relationship between two women: an actress who has suffered a nervous breakdown (Liv Ullmann) and the nurse who is assigned to take care of her (Bibi Andersson). The film is most renowned for an iconic sequence in which the same conversation is shown from both characters’ perspectives. The final scene will make you gasp.
Wong’s piece fleshes out the central motifs of the film, that of communication and doubling. Actors and actresses in blond wigs performed continuous configurations, deconstructions and reconfigurations of the film’s gestures, pairing up at the finale to mimic moments from the film in different languages with their images projected on the screen behind them. The performers were a diverse group of women and men, reflecting the diversity of the surrounding neighborhood, Astoria (which a narrator refers to cheekily as “Actoria”), and adding a layer of variation and defamiliarization. Here’s glimpse of what the performance looked like, but please don’t mistake the copy for the real thing—the actual event was immersive in a way that a YouTube video can never be.
Ming Wong’s practice reminds me a bit of Yasumasa Morimura, the Japanese visual artist who alters famous paintings to include his own image. For his video installations, Wong often impersonates characters from the movies—enacting his cine-obsessions as well as subverting expectations of gender and race. Wong (who is from Singapore originally but resides in Berlin) has drawn inspiration from auteurs such as Wong Kar-Wai, Fassbinder, Pasolini, Visconti, and Sirk, as well as exploring classic cinema from Singapore and Malaysia. Almost all of his pieces deal with language barriers, in juxtaposition to the obstensible universality of film-image. Though originally he was both the director and star of his films, his recent productions have become larger in scope, with several cast members, more elaborate sets and costumes, and numerous locations. For his next project, I’d love to see him take on a film that explicitly engages in multilingual wordplay (Godard, anyone?) collaborate with a well-known auteur (maybe that master of genre satire Tsai Ming-Liang) or re-construct an epic film—his artistic capacity to speak through the medium of cinema comes through loud and clear.
A photo I took of Martha Rosler giving a lecture in Shanghai. Fun fact: That back of the head belongs to Anton Vidokle.
Note: This past summer, Martha Rosler was kind enough to sit down with me for a profile in Joan’s Digest, a new feminist film journal. You can read the full piece and see what she’s been up to here. Anyway, we also gabbed about the movies, a topic I can’t resist. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:
When Martha Rosler was a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, she was the teaching assistant to none other than Manny Farber. He was a profound influence on her thinking (“He taught me everything”) and brought a host of filmmakers to lecture to her cohorts, including Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin.
Anna Karina in Alphaville (Godard, 1965)
Favorite movies of all time:Alphaville and Kiss Me Deadly
On Luis Buñuel: “In one of the classes I TA’ed for Manny, we watched the entire filmmography of Buñuel. I loved many of his films; I despised Belle du Jour but loved Los Olvidados — it’s like Dragnet, but Surrealist.”
On Tree of Life: “I did like Terrence Malick until I saw Tree of Life, which I thought was hilarious…It was engrossing but weirdly grandiose and self-indulgent. My assistant told me that Malick is a Heideggerian…I thought he was simply a pantheist. Badlands is an incredible film, and so is The Thin Red Line but as his budgets get bigger, he gets worse.”
On Imitation of Life: “I love to what Sirk did with the myth of the natural woman…and the image of Hollywood as a completely vacuous and dangerous machine. He shows the raw edges of race and class privilege and pretension, but he understood that no matter how cynical and revelatory he meant his films to be, they were always taken as straightforward, as just what the characters are enacting. The Left reviles that film, but I’m always saying to them, ‘Watch the movie!’”
Though reports of the death of 35mm have been rumored for some time now, the death knell has officially sounded in the form of a report from the IHS Screen Digest Cinema Intelligence Service, which marks 2012 as the year that digital technology will overtake 35mm projection.
What does this mean? For the first time in cinema’s 120 years, analogue film will no longer be the norm, but the exception. 35mm projectors will likely disappear from theaters by 2015. The technology and equipment required for 35mm filmmaking will be accessible only to a privileged few. And a treasure trove of 35mm prints will be left to rot in a vault somewhere, save for a few deemed worthy of preservation by a handful of film archives. Repertory houses who are devoted to the format will continue to the screen 35mm until distribution ceases. Most moviegoers will never notice the difference.
But there is a difference. Film is an index and retains a physical impression from its exposure to light, while digital movies are composed from a finite number of pixels. The fact that digital imitates film is purely superficial, and in fact, they undergo drastically different mechanical processes. Digital cameras record a series of 0s and 1s to create an approximation of a photograph, whereas the film camera catalyzes a chemical reaction between light and film stock.
There is also detectable difference in the look and feel of the two mediums. Digital is often noticeably digital: spotless, precise, or at worst, grotesquely pixelated. Whereas film has a certain texture that closer to the smoothness of a painting. The blacks are richer and have more depth, and actors’ faces are warmer and suffused with light. Digital is glacial, flat, and sterile-looking, and 35mm is full-bodied and radiant.
The shift to digital also disproportionately affects the distribution of older films, which were shot on 35mm with the intention of projecting that way. Many studios have said that they will stop producing 35mm prints of older films for use in repertory cinemas, and instead present those films only in digital formats. For serious film lovers, this is unthinkable.
The British artist Tacita Dean has mounted an incredibly eloquent protest in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. Simply called Film, her installation is an elegaical plea for the continuation and the preservation of the medium. A short film in which she captures the legendary green ray (yes, that same rayon vert at the end of the eponymous Rohmer film) is perhaps the most poetic raison d’être for film—real film—that I’ve encountered.
I’m not dead
I’m merely changing places
I am still with you
In dreams you’ll see my traces
On a friend’s recommendation, I just finished reading Alberto Moravia’s Contempt, which was adapted by Godard for his eponymous film. Moravia’s novels have served as fertile source material for several iconic European auteurs, including Bertolucci (The Conformist), and Vittorio de Sica (Two Women). A new edition of Contempt was published by the NYRB Classics imprint in 2004, along with Moravia’s Boredom. English translations of these novels had been out of print for close to 50 years, so their re-introduction heralded something of a mini-Moravia renaissance.
Known for his rendering of modern psychological states, Moravia’s novels are rife with cultural references, such as German opera and Greek tragedy. However, while Godard shares this proclivity towards reference, he abandons Moravia’s first-person narrative in favor of numerous meta-narratives, alienation over traditional identification with characters, and an all-over Brechtian estrangement of the audience. Godard keeps the basic framework of the plot intact, yet manages to produce a film that feels wholly alien to Moravia’s sensibility. For more on the distance between the two “Contempts,” there’s a lovely essay by Anne Carson that looks at both texts though the eyes of a classicist. But for me, the formal rigor of Godard’s film far surpasses the artfulness of Moravia’s writing—a judgement I concede is completely unfair since I read Moravia in translation. But to each her own.
Godard’s comments on the novel are less than charitable — perhaps he resented remaking a bestseller, regarding the text as yet another ugly manifestation of the highly commercial production. Regardless, his notes on the adaptation are uncharacteristically direct, revealing his intentions like an overhead light illuminating the corners of the room.
Godard on Le Mépris
Moravia’s novel, Contempt, is a nice, vulgar one for a train journey, full of classical old-fashioned sentiment in spite of the modernity of the situations. But it is with this kind of novel the one can often make the best films. I have stuck to the main theme, simply altering a few details on the principle that something filmed is automatically different from something written, and therefore original. There was no need to try to make it different, to adapt it to the screen All I had to do was film it as it is: just film what was written, apart from a few details, for if the cinema were not first foremost film, it wouldn’t exist. Mélies is the greatest, but without Lumière he would have languished in obscurity.
Apart from a few details. For instance, the transformation of the hero who in passing from book to screen, moves from false adventure to real, from Antonioni inertia to Laramiesque dignity. For instance also the nationality of the characters: Brigitte Bardot is not longer called Emilia but Camille, and as you will see she trifles none the less with Musset. Each of the characters, moreover, speaks his own language which, as in The Quiet American, contributes to the feeling of people lost in a strange country. Here, though, two days only: an afternoon in Rome, a morning in Capri. Rome is the modern world, the West; Capri, the ancient world, nature before civilization and its neuroses. Le Mépris, in other words, might have been called In Search of Homer, but it means lost time trying to discover the language of Proust beneath that of Moravia, and anyway that isn’t the point.
“The point of Le Mépris is that these are people who look at each other and judge each other, and then are in turn looked at and judged by the cinema–represented by Fritz Lang, who plays himself, or in effect the conscience of the film, its honesty. (I filmed the scenes of The Odyssey which he was supposed to be directing in Le Mépris, but as I play the role of his assistant, Lang will say that these are scenes made by his second unit.)
“When I think about it, Le Mépris seems to me, beyond its psychological study of a woman who despise her husband, the story of castaways of the Western world, survivors of the shipwreck of modernity who, like the heroes of Verne and Stevenson, one day read a mysterious deserted island, whose mystery is the inexorable lack of mystery, of truth that is to say. Whereas the Odyssey of Ulysses was a physical phenomenon, I filmed a spiritual odyssey; the eye of the camera watching these characters in search of Homer replaces that of the gods watching over Ulysses and his companions.
A simple film without mystery, an Aristotelian film, stripped of appearances, Le Mépris proves in 149 shots that in the cinema as in life there is no secret, nothing to elucidate, merely the need to live—and to make films.
P.S. Another advantage that the film has over the book is the score—which I unconditionally love. You can download the iconic theme music here: 16 Le Mépris-Theme De Camille.
I have been thinking a lot about color, and about artists and their relationships to their materials. I myself am a color junkie, and dramatic color is like a shot of adrenaline to me. The directors/cinematographers who share my chromophilia — Vincente Minnelli, Antonioni, Almodóvar, and Zach Cardiff’s cinematography in The Red Shoes immediately come to mind — understand the emotional essence of each shade in the spectrum. Red excites and stimulates. Green is a sedative. Yellow vacillates between sunny and sickening. Orange is talkative. Blue is always one of two moods: Yves Klein Electric or Plaintive Picasso.
From Picasso's Blue Period: Portrait d’Angel Fernandez de Soto
Lately I have been struck by the fact that the intensity of a certain hue is umbilically tied to its medium. Technicolor is indisputably the most significant development for color filmmaking in the 20th century, and one could argue that it precipitated a completely new approach to directing — new lighting, new make-up, even a new kind of acting. This is in stark contrast to digital filmmaking in which the majority of color correction happens in the post-production phase. Since the advent of digital, there has been a definite trend towards over-saturated colors that I would like to see go away, or at least toned down to avoid actors looking like Oompa-Loompas (then again, maybe they tan too much).
Becky Sharp, the first three-strip Technicolor film
But where does color come from? A filmmaker would think about color in terms of light or projection, but a painter would instantly think about paint and pigment. This understanding of color is first and foremost practical — pigments are not abstract, but material substances with chemical attributes. Paint has a particular consistency and texture. If you run out, you can’t complete your painting.
Derek Jarman’s book Chroma explores both the material and the spiritual implications of color, from the perspective on an artist who has worked in both painting and film. Written while Jarman was losing his eyesight due to complications from AIDS, it is an elegiac meditation on what colors signify, and how they exist in the real world. There are 19 vignettes in total, some named after different colors, along with essays on perspective, shadow and light, translucence, and iridescence.
I find it fascinating to read Chroma against the backdrop of Jarman’s films, which run the gamut from grainy 8mm shorts to 35mm Technicolor features. Here are some excerpts juxtaposed against film stills that showcase Jarman’s innate feel for color, both as light and pigment.
May my black Waterman ink spill out the truth.
Chemistry and romantic names — manganese violet, cerulean, ultramarine and distant places, Naples yellow. The geography of colour, Antwerp blue, raw Sienna. Colour stretching to the distant planets — mars violet; named after old masters — Van dyke brown. Contradictory — Lamp black.
1919. The world is in mourning. Kasimir Malevich paints White on White. A funeral rite for painting.
When yellow wishes to ingratiate it becomes gold.
The Tempest, 1979
Red is a moment in time. Blue constant. Red is quickly spent. An explosion of intensity. It burns itself. Disappears like fiery sparks into the gathering shadow.
Wasn’t Dorian Grey’s brain speckled with the scarlet stain of insanity?
Painters use red like spice.
Pink is always shocking. Naked. All those acres of flesh that cover the ceilings of the Renaissance. Pontormo is the pinkest painter.
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas. This song could only be sung in Southern California around a swimming pool.
Sloan Square, 1976
Leni’s full moon falling through a crystal grotto in the High Dolomites
The most stable of greens is the Terre Vert. The most elusive, the copper greens that turned all the Venetian paintings brown. Fugitive colour flies in time, and leaves us in a perpetual autumn.
The Last of England, 1987
How Now Brown Cow
There is nostalgia in brown. The touch of my mother’s soft beaver lamb coat in which we buried our tears. Brown simplified life.
Who has not gazed in wonder at the snaky shimmer of petrol patterns on a puddle, thrown a stone into them and watched the colors emerge out of the ripples…
Where did glass appear in my films? Faces distorted, pressed into the window.
And then there is Jarman’s Blue. Filmed in Technicolor, this cine-poem is both plaintive and electric, and is perhaps the saddest movie I have ever seen. It speaks for itself: