"The cinema is cruel like a miracle." -Frank O'Hara

James Wolcott on the Dreamlife of Film Prints


I started reading James Wolcott’s memoir Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York, and was particularly taken by his description of watching beat-up film prints at the uptown arthouse cinemas:

“The prints in those pre-DVD days were legendarily scuffed like locker room floors, with washed-out colors, bleached black and white, frames missing, vertical lines slicing the frames, strange blotches appearing like fungus, fuzzy sound, the screen going blank as a reel came unsnapped and the audience groaned, what little audience there was in the dead of the afternoon. But the imperfections in the prints made the experience more dreamlike, closer to an unfinished rough draft from the unconscious, the subtitles a ghostly reduction of dialogue that sounded so much more expressive and layered than the plain words at the bottom of the screen.”

Wolcott was one of Pauline Kael’s acolytes (a self-professed “Paulette”) and like her, his voice is at once passionate and unrelenting, a binge of petal-to-the metal prose that leaves you exhilarated—and possibly overwhelmed, if you can’t keep up with his references. This passage on celluloid stands out for its simplicity, a pensive nugget in the midst of Wolcott’s dense lore. The phrase “unfinished rough draft from the unconscious” is perhaps the most perfect summing up of Freud’s Mystic Writing Pad that one can imagine. But connecting the scratches, the blotches, the lines—the materiality of film and its imperfections—to cinema’s dreamlike dimension was a discovery for me, an insight that upon reading I knew to be true.

Where The Boys Spend Their Money [Lewis Hine, 1910]


St. Louis, Missouri, May 1910. From the National Child Labor Committee Collection, Library of Congress.

Gut Renovation [Su Friedrich, 2013]

Su Friedrich on the rooftop of her former building in Williamsburg.

In case you didn’t catch it over at the Brooklyn Rail, here’s an interview I did with Su Friedrich about her gentrification diary-doc, Gut Renovation.

Su was an excellent to talk to, and we ended up walking around Williamsburg and visiting her old building on 118 North 11th Street. Here’s the facade of the historic building, which used to be the site of the Hecla Iron Works factory:

As I witness the city that I grew up in morph into something unrecognizable, documentaries like these seem all the more urgent. Gut Renovation is effective because it’s angry—as I think more of us should be. There’s an important outcropping of anti-gentrification films that are channelling anger, along with docs that depict failed urban experiments (Detropia, The The Pruitt-Igoe Myth). Though they vary widely in scope and tone, all of these films depict urban decay, and the moral decay of the government that kowtows to moneyed corporate interests over the basic needs of its people.

Deleuze on Taxi Driver [Scorsese, 1976]

Deleuze writes: “In Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, the driver wavers between killing himself and committing a political murder and, replacing these projects by the final slaughter, is astonished by it himself, as if the carrying out concerned him no more than did the preceding whims. The actuality of the action-image, the virtuality of the affection image can interchange, all the more easily for having fallen into the same indifference.

In the third place, the sensory motor action or situation has been replaced by the stroll, the voyage and the continual return journey. The voyage has found in America the formal and material conditions of renewal. It takes place through internal or external necessity, through the need for flight. But now it loses the initiatory aspect that it had in the German journey (even in Wenders’s films) and that it kept, despite everything in the beat journey (Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider). It has become urban voyage, and has become detached from the active and affective structure which supported it, directed it, gave
it even vague direction. How could there be a nerve fibre or sensory motor-structure between the driver of Taxi Driver and what he sees on the pavement in his driving mirror? And in Lumet, everything happens in continual trips and return journeys, at ground level, in aimless movements where characters behave like windscreen wipers (Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico). This is in fact the clearest aspect of the modern voyage. It happens in “any space whatever marshalling yard,” disused warehouse, the undifferentiated fabric of the city–in opposition to actions which most often unfolded in the qualified spacetime of the old realism. As Cassavetes says, it is a question of undoing space, as the story, the plot or the action.”

[From Cinema I: The Movement-Image, by Gilles Deleuze]

Notable Marquees in Movies

In Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963), we spot a marquee for Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954). Very subtle, Jean-Luc!

Can you think of any other notable movie marquees in films? I’m especially interested in marquees that seem to fade into the background or appear as part of the mise-en-scène for no particular reason.

All I want for Christmas…

…is this poster of La chinoise:

La chinoise Godard poster affiche

Il faut confronter des idées vagues avec des images claires, dontcha think?

Not Charlie Chaplin!

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.

Les Mistons [François Truffaut, 1957] and Truffaut’s Children

Les Mistons is Truffaut’s second film, made when Truffaut was 25 years old and shortly before Les quatre cent coups [1959]. Les Mistons deals with emergent sexual awareness in childhood. Truffaut notes,”Most films about childhood make the adult serious and the child frivolous. Quite the other way round.” He develops this sentiment further in L’enfant sauvage [1969]; and L’argent de poche [1976].

Godard wrote in Cahiers du Cinéma that “With Les quatre cent coups,Truffaut enters both modern cinema and the classrooms of our childhood. Bernanos’s humiliated children. Vitrac’s children in power. Melville-Cocteau’s enfants terribles. Vigo’s children, Rossellini’ s children, in a word Truffaut’s—a phrase which will become common as soon as the film comes out. Soon people will say Truffaut’s children as they say Bengal Lancers, spoil-sports, Mafia chiefs, road-hogs, or again in a word—cinema-addicts. In Les quatre cent coups, the director of Les Mistons will again have his camera, not up there with the men like Old Man Hawks, but down among the children.”

Summer Whites [Nathalie Pascaud in M. Hulot’s Holiday]

Nathalie Pascaud as the lovely Martine in M. Hulot’s Holiday. Doesn’t this picture make you want to play tennis JUST so you can wear a vintage white sporting costume? Too bad summer is almost over.

Qui? Quoi? Quand? Ou…. ?

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. Fun fact: 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 [1922], one of the two films that she directed that has survived: