"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.

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]

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.”

Reg Hartt’s Cineforum

When I visited Toronto this past June, I had the pleasure of stopping by Reg Hartt’s Cineforum, a legendary microcinema that screens everything from subversive shorts by Salvador Dali­ to Hollywood rarities. The theater manages to stay on the radar of most Torontonians thanks to aggressive postering campaigns, how I initially learned of its existence. The venue is the polar opposite of the shiny new TIFF Bell Lightbox, Toronto’s state-of-the-art cinematheque and home of the Toronto Film Festival. Yet each venue is, in its own way, a temple to cinema—and I think true lovers of film appreciate that Toronto is lucky enough to have both.

The Cineforum is bit off the beaten path, located on nondescript stretch of Bathurst street (just a short trolley ride away from the now-trendy Ossington Avenue). When one walks up the steps, she is greeted by the founder himself, and this quote by Aldous Huxley:

Inside, the Cineforum is a ramshackle wonderland of memorabilia, complete with vintage film posters (many of them painted by Hartt himself), books, movie swag, Frankenstein heads, and more.

The films are for the most part projected on DVD. Here’s Reg Hartt firing up the projector.

What’s truly special about the Cineforum is the programming: an idiosyncratic mix of high and low, with a proclivity towards subculture/countercultural cinema and lots of undeground oddities thrown in. When I was there, I saw a documentary portrait of Jane Jacobs, which seemed appropriate—because the lively eccentricity of the Cineforum is something Jacobs would advocate for (and in fact, she and Reg Hartt were friends).

I spoke with Reg Hartt for a spell about his reasons for starting the Cineforum, which if you haven’t gathered, is run out of his own house. He said he quit programming for another theater when they told him he couldn’t screen a certain film, and so he started his own screening series as a result. The Cineforum has been an eclectic and necessary fixture of Toronto ever since.

A framed letter to Reg Hartt from Lillian Gish!

The philosophy of the Cineforum in a nutshell.

CATS IN BAG BAGS IN RIVER [Christopher Wool, 1990]

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,” “You’re 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 subtlety. 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.

The 2011 Cynephile Awards

Baby you can drive my car: Ryan Gosling in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive

Now that 2011 has faded from memory like Ryan Gosling driving off into the sunset, the film-critical has assessed the annual cinematic bounty via elaborate list-making rituals. Criteria are established, “Passiondexes” are instituted, antes are upped, insults are lobbed, and enemies are forged over the smallest of differences. Then, after all that excitement comes the coup de grâce: the frantic bacchanal known as awards season.

But as we all know, imposing hierarchies and trophies on art is a mug’s game. Making the game all the more pointless this year was a bumper crop of truly great cinema from all over the world, along with some revolutionary documentaries. If 2011 was a banner year for anything, it would be the 3D documentary, which in the hands of filmmakers like Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) and Wim Wenders (Pina) became something ecstatic and exultant, creating an in-the-round cinematic experience that was both sculptural and phantasmal, real and imagined. As Méliès and Feuillade and even André Bazin knew, the film image is at heart the province of ghosts, the 3D image has the salutary effect of making those ghosts all the more real. I loved that these two documentaries paradoxically insisted on cinema’s otherworldly, spirit-laden existence.

Other noteworthy events in cinephillia: New York got another theater, Lars von Trier made a film that wasn’t completely misogynistic, and Terrence Malick came back from the dead with Tree of Life. The latter was perhaps the most anticipated film of the year for cinephiles, and though I respect the breadth of its ambition, I’m not quite sure I appreciate the film as a totality—or its philosophical, cosmological and/or religious underpinnings. But I can appreciate its vivifying details and gestures, and the extremely inventive editing which made the shots feel fluid and connected, in a way that was evocative of memory. It is, I think, a film for those who cherish the grace note over the whole.

The great whatsit that begins and ends Tree of Life.

Here are my awards, bestowed upon idiosyncratic films that sing, surprise, shock, and appeal to me for weird and fluttery and unknown reasons. Please nominate your own in the comments.

Most deserved/belated theatrical run:
Edward Yang’s masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day gets its due at Walter Reade.

Best documentary with depth:
Pina in 3D wins by a hair over Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Both are must-sees.

Best slow cinema:
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s lush, astounding long shots in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives create a cinematic experience that feels like a fever dream.

Best fast cinema:
Drive has it all: white-knuckle car chases, bloodsoaked shoot-em-ups, and bone-crunching violence, all stylized to perfection and set to an electro-pop beat.
Runner-up: Senna, a profile of the Formula One driver that races around so many twists and turns, it practically induces motion sickness.

Best performance by livestock:
The goat that stands on the table in Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte.

Best portrait of a life well lived:
Bill Cunningham New York imbued me with tremendous respect for a true artist and a gentlemen from another time.

Best subversive use of state propaganda:
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu brilliantly remixes state footage to reveal the truth that its authors wanted to conceal.

Most gorgeously-realized apocalyptic vision:
I have to hand it to Lars von Trier: Melancholia is the cinematic equivalent of a Romantic painting.

Best crowd pleaser that is too cute for words:
The Artist

Best New York film:

Other films worth seeking out, in no particular order:
Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, A Separation, Attenberg, Tomboy, Sleeping Sickness, Weekend, Certified Copy, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Skin I Live In, The Future, Of Gods and Men, Nostalgia For the Light, To Die Like A Man, Another Earth, A Screaming Man, Viva Riva!, and Christian Marclay’s 24-hour mashup, The Clock.

Martha Rosler Goes to the Movies

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!’”

Imitation of Life (Sirk, 1959)

The Death and Life of 35mm

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

Cesare Zavattini on Wonder [Sequences of a Cinematic Life, 1970]

Zavattini with the bambini

I love it when people send me things. Here is something a reader sent me yesterday, in response to my post about the novel and the subsequent film adaptation of Contempt.

No words we can write will ever change the age-old power of the vulgar interests that collaborate to distinguish the film from literature, creating two aesthetic systems and two moralities. We are content with the illusion that one day they will say: “from the very beginning, perhaps twenty individuals understood that the right wasn’t Hollywood’s, that the spectacle which began on the boulevards with the Lumière brothers was the beginning of the sickness.” The first theaters were called nickelodeons: a nickel was the price. And it was urgent to master the medium with a cost so low it could be within the reach of many individuals, like paper and ink, paints; film and lenses should have been brought into the home like sewing machines (then there would have been no producers, the apex of a bourgeois system, “applied” cinema, now defended, like a certain kind of publishing, by a wall of iron, the cliche about work being given to thousands of citizens). A return to man, to the creature who in himself is “all spectacle”; this would liberate us.

Set up the camera in a street, in a room, see with insatiable patience, train ourselves in the contemplation of our fellowman in his elementary actions. We will abandon trick photography, process shots, the infinite subterfuges so dear to Méliès. The wonder must be in us, expressing itself without wonder: the best dreams are those outside the mist, which can be seen like the veins of leaves.

—Cesare Zavattini