February 18, 2012

14. 14 Fuck – Andy Warhol

Filed under: film as subversive art — ABRAXAS @ 8:28 am

February 17, 2012

15. Ticket of No Return – Ulrike Ottinger

Filed under: film as subversive art — ABRAXAS @ 11:24 am

this review first published here: http://www.filmref.com/notes/archives/2006/05/ticket_of_no_return_1979.html

February 16, 2012

16. Dog’s Dialogue – Raúl Ruiz

Filed under: film as subversive art — ABRAXAS @ 7:18 am

this article first published on the web here: http://www.rouge.com.au/2/dogs.html

February 15, 2012

17. The Blood of a Poet – Jean Cocteau

Filed under: film as subversive art — ABRAXAS @ 11:11 am

The Blood of a Poet

by Julia Levin

Julia Levin is a freelance writer on film. Originally from Latvia (Baltic States), she came to the United States at the age of 22 and went to study film at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The Blood of a Poet/Le Sang d’un poète (1930 France 50 mins)

Source: ACMI/NLA Prod Co: Vicomte de Noailles Prod: Vicomte de Noailles (uncredited) Dir, Scr, Ed: Jean Cocteau Phot: Georges Périnal Art Dir: Jean D’Euabonne Mus: Georges Auric Commentary: Jean Cocteau

Cast: Enrique Rivero (Poet), Lee Miller (Statue), Pauline Carton (Child’s Mother), Féral Benga (Black Angel), Odette Talazac, Jean Desbordes

The Blood of a Poet begins with a shot of a chimney beginning to collapse followed by a series of statements proclaiming that poetry should be deciphered in the same way that the work of the greatest painters – Pisanello, Paolo Uccello and Andrea del Castagno, the “painters of enigma” – has been. (1) The film insists on such acts of decipherment, with the ultimate ‘enigma’ of the film being revealed as Cocteau himself. (Cocteau was one of the most multi-talented artists of the 20th century: a film director, poet, novelist, painter, playwright, set designer and actor). In keeping with this, The Blood of a Poet is suggestively biographical, reflecting upon either events that took place in Cocteau’s life, his own private mythology on the world of the imagination, or the people who influenced him in the most profound and intimate way.

The Blood of a Poet, Cocteau’s first film, looks more like an animated cartoon then a true live-action film. It is surreal and uninhibited in its handling of visual imagery. What can be loosely defined as a story-line begins with a young man, a poet, attempting to draw a series of faces. Suddenly, the mouth of one of these ‘faces’ rubs off in his hand and starts smiling. Terrified, the poet accidentally smears off the mouth of the statue he was working on previously. The statue comes to life and, in return, forcefully sends the young man through the mirror to another, imaginary locale at a mysterious hotel. (2)

For Cocteau, poetry was the foundation of all the arts: he published his first volume of poetry at the age of 19, and remained consistently faithful to writing poetry throughout most of his life. Essentially, Cocteau created a visual poem with this film, a tribute to the artistic process and the pain and self-reflecting doubt it causes. The young poet’s journey to a mysterious hotel becomes an exploration of the artistic process. In the hotel, the young poet voyeuristically witnesses – while looking through a keyhole – a serious of shocking, uncomfortable scenes involving a child being whipped by her mother in something resembling a strangely orchestrated, sadistic ritual. Both the mother and child play a wicked game with each other resulting in the child levitating up under the ceiling while the threatening mother pursues her with a whip.

Cocteau presents artistic effort as a dangerous, dark, self-inflicting act of suffering, while suicide or violent death are also recurring motifs in the film. In one scene, the film shows a group of schoolboys, violent young brats, throwing snowballs at each other. Accidentally, one of the boys gets killed by a snowball; he falls down and bleeds in theatrical, stagy fashion. Later in the film, the poet transforms into a high society figure who plays a game of cards, loses, and shoots himself in the head. These motifs of suicide and suffering are most likely not inconsequential: Cocteau’s father committed suicide when he was nine or ten. Cocteau admitted that his father’s suicide left an indelible mark, making him reflect on human weaknesses and the frailty of existence throughout his work.

Cocteau was born into a wealthy family in 1889 in a small town near Paris. He was sent to a private school, from which he was quickly expelled. Cocteau subsequently ran away to Marseilles where he lived in the ‘red light district’ under a false name, instigating a relationship with a woman 13 years his senior. Later in life, he formed several very close and influential relationships with theatrical tragedians, and openly revealed himself as homosexual.

In 1908, Cocteau befriended Edouard de Max, a famous tragedian of the Paris stage. In the following year Cocteau met the Russian impresario Sergey Diaghilev, one of the most revolutionary choreographers of his time, and who ran the Ballets Russes. The influence of the theatre and stage is evident throughout Cocteau’s film: much of the movement in The Blood of a Poet is evocative of a ballet, or even the exaggerated theatricality of pantomime. The poet’s facial expressions, physical gyrations and general bodily movements are all very theatrical and dramatic, especially when he is being subjected to mental suffering or torture at the mysterious hotel.

Soon after WWI Cocteau met the future poet and novelist Raymond Radiguet, whose premature death of typhoid fever led the artist to a severe opium addiction. Cocteau was even hospitalized for opium poison in 1929, after which followed a period of cure. Cocteau’s addiction can be linked to a series of symbolic dream-like sequences in the film. The Blood of a Poet‘s use of imagery, non-linear development of events, exploration of the world of imagination and psychological irrationality, as well as its ruminations on the subjects of death, love and lust, among many other themes, lead to it being commonly compared to two of Luis Buñuel’s most scandalous films – Un chien andalou (with Salvador Dali, 1928) and L’Âge d’or (1930). Although Buñuel’s images are more shocking, offensive and forceful, carrying a more frenetic charge than Cocteau’s dreamy, unhurried images, the work of both filmmakers provides many vivid examples of Surrealist filmmaking, a cinematic tradition that should be less analyzed for its meaning and more appreciated for the sheer experience of its images.

All three painters were influential during the Renaissance period.
The use of mirrors as doorways into another world, as well as the vacillation between reality and the underworld (or the inner world where art is being made), are common motifs in Cocteau’s cinema, featuring heavily in his two most famous works, Beauty and the Beast (1946) and Orphée (1949).

this article first published here: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2003/cteq/blood_of_a_poet/

February 14, 2012

18. The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting – Raúl Ruiz

Filed under: art,film as subversive art — ABRAXAS @ 8:35 am

this review first published here: http://filmref.com/directors/dirpages/ruiz.html#hypothesis

February 13, 2012

19. Brutality in Stone – Alexander Kluge

Filed under: film as subversive art,ruins — ABRAXAS @ 11:39 am

this review first published here: http://seul-le-cinema.blogspot.com/2009/05/alexander-kluge-early-shorts.html

February 12, 2012

20. Even Dwarfs Started Small – Werner Herzog

Filed under: film as subversive art — ABRAXAS @ 9:04 am

“Even Dwarfs Started Small” – Werner Herzog (1970)
Werner Herzog shot Even Dwarfs Started Small (Auch Zwerge Haben Klein Angefangen) on the Canary Islands immediately after shooting (but before releasing) Fata Morgana during his travels to East Africa. Though the film was immediately banned in Germany, it made the young director famous and remains as one of the most distinctive (and grotesque) films ever made. The story concerns some sort of institution in a desolate volcanic landscape, where all the inmates and the supervising personnel are dwarfs. In fact no non-dwarf is seen in the film.

At the outset, we see a police investigation post-mortem concerning a revolt that has taken place at the institution. The off-camera policeman asks how all this destruction got started, and then we cut to a narrative in flashback that comprises the remainder of the film.

When the principal and some of the instructors were temporarily away, the inmates started their rebellion by attempting to storm the administrative building. The Director barricades himself inside, along with an inmate taken hostage, Pepe, whom he ties up in a chair. Giddy with excitement from their newfound freedom from authority, the rebellious inmates start to engage in various naughty acts, such as looking through just-discovered adult magazines that belonged to their instructors. Soon they move to progressively more destructive actions, such as burning and destroying a lone palm tree that was a graceful feature of their desolate environment. They then go on to torture and kill barnyard animals at the institution and even their fellow blind inmates. All the while they are madly giggling with joy at how all the rules are being broken at will: it’s the sheer love of wanton, destructive behaviour.

The film that most strikingly comes to mind when watching Even Dwarfs Started Small is Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Both films confront us with ultimate questions concerning just what we are and what constitutes our humanity — and at the same time they stir within us a deep sense of horror. Certainly Dwarfs is one of the bleakest films from a filmmaker whose trademark is human depravity and despair. What is particularly disturbing is that throughout this film we are torn by the opposing tendencies to see the dwarfs either as innocent children, or as wizened, deformed, and unnatural creatures. The dwarfs laugh innocently and play childish games one minute, and then gleefully engage in some cruel act in the next minute. Perhaps thankfully, the most violent events in the film take place off camera: the killing of the mother sow suckling its piglets, the murder of their fellow inmate, and the thrashing of Pepe.

The narrative doesn’t seem to traverse any clear-cut course, but it does leave one with a collection of disturbing images long after the lights come on. Here are some reflections on a few of them:

The musical soundtrack mostly alternates between a wailing gypsy minstrel song and a native African choral piece. Both pieces have undertones of primitive urges that are far removed from modern Western society.

Herzog is known to despise and fear chickens, and they must represent something overwhelmingly repulsive to him. Their relentlessly spasmodic movements and their often fierce, mindless savagery conjure up a sense of meaningless animal brutality. In this film, he repeatedly shows chickens and roosters attacking, killing, and sometimes eating each other. This is Herzog’s view of the benignity of Nature.

There are two blind inmates in the institution who can only defend themselves from their fellow-inmate tormentors by wildly swinging plastic bats in random directions. The utter futility of this exercise and the hopelessness of their circumstances is a repeated motif in the film.

There is a moment in the middle of the film when the inmates are somewhat contemplative as they are shown a “doll house” of artificially dressed-up dead insects and spiders that have been collected by one of their members and kept in a cigar box. The absurdity of these bugs being cast in human social roles and just how far those roles are from their brute reality is clearly a metaphor for the dwarfs, and by extension, to all of humanity.

The inmates gleefully set fire to a bunch of potted pots that have just begun to flower. This shows their contempt for Nature and perhaps symbolizes their revenge for what Nature has done to them.

Late in the piece, the dwarfs engage in a solemn and ceremonial procession as they carry about on a cross a live monkey that they have crucified. This is evidence not only of their own ritualistic brutality, but is also a suggestion that all religions are little more than mindless exercises in barbarity.

In the final scene, the smallest and meekest of the inmates, Hombre, laughs hysterically at a kneeling camel that finally defecates on camera. The sheer stupidity and pointlessness of Hombre’s nonstop laughter is all that we are left with at the end of the film.

Critics complained that the film rudely disparaged the student revolutionary activities of the late 1960s. Others complained of racism and obscene humour in the film. But the overarching metaphor goes far beyond such narrow concerns. What it says to us is that we are all like the dwarfs in this film, trying hopelessly to make sense of a cruel and brutal dystopia and merely inflicting more harm on ourselves and on our fellow creatures. It’s a grim but unforgettable vision.

this review first published here: http://filmsufi.blogspot.com/2008/08/even-dwarfs-started-small-werner-herzog.html

February 11, 2012

21. Land Without Bread – Luis Buñuel

Filed under: film as subversive art — ABRAXAS @ 9:00 am

Visual Anthropology Review 14, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 1998), 45-57.

An Ethnographic Surrealist Film: Luis Buñuel’s Land Without Bread

The real purpose of surrealism was not to create a new literary, artistic, or even philosophical movement, but to explode the social order, to transform life itself.

-Luis Buñuel, My Last Sigh (1984: 107).

The Future and Past of Ethnographic Film

Today, the field of ethnographic film, like that of anthropology in general, is in a state of creative disarray.1 Questioning the conventional sources of ethnographic authority, many critics have concluded that traditional forms of cross-cultural representation are unethical and politically indefensible. Films and videos produced by Amazonian Indians, Australian Aboriginals, and North American Inuit have challenged the premises of ethnographic cinema (Ginsburg 1995). Writing in Visual Anthropology Review, Jay Ruby outlines three possible future roles for visual anthropologists, “1. Ethnographers can act as facilitators and cultural brokers for indigenous media makers; 2. Ethnographic filmmakers can become collaborators with the people they film; and 3. Ethnographers can filmicly explore their own culture” (1995: 78).

The best way to transform anthropological cinema is not, in my opinion, through an abandonment of established practices, but rather through a critical re-appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of specific works. We need detailed critiques of existing films. If ethnographic film has reached a dead end, it may be because other, more promising, routes were not followed in the past.2 The inventiveness of earlier works has been lost or forgotten in the rush to condemn the colonial legacy. We must reinvent anthropological cinema through a deeper understanding of its own history. One remarkable work, still poorly understood in anthropological circles, is Luis Buñuel’s Las Hurdes: Land Without Bread (Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan, 1932). No anthropological film from the 1930s provides such a comparable, almost encyclopedic, portrait of a given region or demonstrates such a subtle understanding of ethnographic film style.

Ethnographic Surrealism

In the 1920s, following other Spanish artists such as Salvador Dali and Juan Miró, Luis Buñuel moved to Paris, then the center of artistic activity in Europe. He joined in the activities of the Surrealists and shared their obsession with Freud and the unconscious. Like the Dadaists before them, the Surrealists cherished the random phrase, the image recorded as if by accident. They took as their notion of beauty the juxtaposition of incongruous elements (Balakian 1959: 154). The surrealist movement in poetry, literature, and film overlapped with the emerging discipline of modern anthropology in France. Writing about French culture between the wars, James Clifford has coined the term “ethnographic surrealism” to describe the intersection of anthropology and art in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. Unlike traditional anthropological discourses, which strive to make the unfamiliar comprehensible, ethnographic surrealism, Clifford writes, “attacks the familiar, provoking the irruption of otherness — the unexpected” (1988: 145).

Luis Buñuel lived and worked in Paris during this period of interdisciplinary ferment. There are explicit connections between the Spanish filmmaker and French anthropology. Buñuel was invited to participate in the 1932 Mission Dakar-Djibouti, the first large-scale French anthropological field expedition. Led by Marcel Griaule, the expedition provided artifacts, some 3,500 objects, for the new Musée de l’Homme, founded in 1937 (Clifford 1988: 136-8). As Buñuel recalls in his autobiography, My Last Sigh, he turned down the invitation to “make a film about the trip” and writer Michel Leiris went in his place (1984: 138). The documentary Buñuel produced instead, Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan — shot while Griaule, Leiris, and their cohorts were working their way across sub-Sahara Africa — may be seen as his

response to, and even critique of, the much-publicized anthropological expedition. At a time when Griaule was collecting artifacts in Africa, Buñuel recognized that anthropology could find subjects in Europe as well. The twenty-seven-minute film is distributed in two different English-language versions, Land Without Bread and Unpromised Land, as well as French and Spanish versions. There are small but significant variations among these versions. For the sake of clarity, I am limiting my discussion to the version of Land Without Bread with the American voice-over commentary.3

I see Land Without Bread basically as a parody of non-fiction, though not a fake documentary. Mock documentaries, such as Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983) with its fabricated archival footage and pompous BBC-style narrator, form a separate genre.4 Like Land Without Bread, a film may parody the conventions of documentary yet still be non-fiction as is the case with such works as Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March (1985), Michael Moore’s Roger and Me (1988), and Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988).

Land Without Bread brilliantly and perversely combines objective detail and illogical continuity. It expands the disruptions of filmic conventions developed in Buñuel’s earlier films, An Andalousian Dog (Un chien andalou, 1929) and The Golden Age (L’Age d’or, 1930). Land Without Bread is a didactic work of moral satire, like Jonathan Swift’s masterpiece Gulliver’s Travels (1727).5 At the conclusion to his travelogue, Gulliver writes, “Thus, Gentle Reader, I have given thee a faithful History of my Travels for Sixteen Years, and above Seven Months, wherein I have not been so studious of Ornament as of Truth. I could perhaps like others have astonished thee with strange improbable Tales; but I rather chose to relate plain Matter of Fact in the simplest Manner and Style, because my principle Design was to Inform, and not to amuse thee” (Swift 1994: 299). William Thackeray, writing of Swift’s book, noted that it was both “logical and absurd” (Turner 1994: 375), characteristics that apply equally well to Buñuel’s documentary.

The Ethnography: Las Jurdes: étude de géographie humaine

Land Without Bread was directly inspired by Maurice Legendre’s Las Jurdes: étude de géographie humaine (1927). In his autobiography, Buñuel recalls reading the ethnography in the early 1930s (1984: 139). Astonishingly, virtually no Buñuel scholar has since bothered to read Legendre’s work.6 It has been suggested that ethnographic films and photographs are useful only to prove the existence of the people anthropologists study. In the present case, the opposite obtains. The existence of the Hurdanos, possibly suspect after a screening of Buñuel’s film, is conclusively established by Legendre’s impressive tome. The similarities and differences to Land Without Bread are highly instructive. Although Buñuel had visited the region of Las Hurdes as a college student (Aranda 1976: 23), it is safe to say that he did no additional research during his two-month stay in 1932. In all likelihood, the director chose to shoot the film during the spring because, as Legendre writes, “March, April, and above all May, are the terrible months” (1927: 169).

Legendre devotes over fifty pages to a historical analysis of the literary legend of the region. Accounts of an isolated tribe in the mountains of Las Hurdes date from the 17th century. Legendre quotes a story told by Ponz that, “If you ask the way to Las Hurdes in Pino, they will tell you that it lies farther on, and if you ask this question farther on, they will respond that you have gone too far, in such a way that no one wants to be Hurdano” (1927: 66). Conversely, the Rousseauian version of the legend portrays the Hurdanos living in a state of primitive communism, or, appropriately enough for Buñuel’s purposes, a “golden age” in the words of writer George Sand (Legendre 1927: XXXVIII).

Legendre based his study not only on such written accounts, but more importantly, on repeated visits to the region, returning practically every summer between 1910 and 1926. This early example of ethnographic fieldwork documents the eternal struggle of man versus nature. Here, however, man is “vanquished” (1927: 104). Of the impoverished mountainous terrain, Legendre writes that “it is strange, incredible, and, in some ways, scandalous that the region of Las Hurdes is inhabited at all” (1927: XIV). The author describes the territory as a kind of “Dantesque hell” (1927: XV). Employing a rhetoric of victimization (later carried to a ridiculous extreme by Buñuel), Legendre maintains that sickness is the “ordinary state” of the local inhabitants (1927: 104).

There are cinematic elements to Legendre’s description of the area and its people, including comments suggestive of a guided tour, such as “let us proceed back up the same valley” (1927: 76). He portrays the wretch-

edness of the Hurdanos in figurative language, noting that the earth beneath them lies ever ready “to open up like a tomb” (1927: 78). Furthermore, a number of photographs in Legendre’s ethnography look like frame enlargements from Land Without Bread, including shots of typical dwarves and individuals suffering from goiter.7

The most striking difference between Legendre and Buñuel is the former’s sincere Catholicism. Legendre justifies his work as labor on behalf of the “redemption of the Hurdanos” (1927: VII). His faith in religion tempers his commitment to the new science of human geography. He takes solace in the fact that the Hurdanos are Christians and, therefore, retain hope for a better life (1927: XIX). Buñuel, a fervent atheist, enjoyed frequenting cafés in Paris in the 1920s dressed up as a nun (1984: 83). Contrary to Buñuel’s scathing indictment of Catholicism in Land Without Bread, Legendre proposes the construction of more churches in the region (1927: 413)!

Summary: Land Without Bread

The opening intertitles introduce and define the genre (“a filmed essay in human geography”) and the setting (“a sterile and inhospitable area” in Spain). As the narrator explains in voice-over, the “expedition” begins in Alberca with the viewing of a “strange and barbaric ceremony.” Once the citizens of the town are “drunk with wine,” the expedition proceeds to an abandoned monastery in a fertile valley. There, a lone Carmelite monk “protects the property of his order.” We move on to the first village of Las Hurdes, where several young girls eat bread dipped in the water of a “miserable little stream” (Fig. 1). At the local school, “starving” children learn geometry and instructive moral lessons. Arriving in another village, the expedition meets a “choir of idiots” and then finds a young girl ill in the street (Fig. 2).

Land Without Bread then surveys the Hurdanos’ diet of potatoes, beans, pork, and honey. A goat falls off a mountain. A donkey is consumed by bees. The annual migration to Castille to “work in the harvest” begins and ends. We see the planting and hear of the local harvest of fields. Some Hurdanos collect fertilizer in the hills. A brief essay on mosquitoes and malaria leads into a section on disease and dwarfism, caused “by hunger, by lack of hygiene, and by incest.” A baby dies and preparations for a funeral ensue. As the camera pans across some graves marked with crosses, we hear that, “despite the great misery of the Hurdanos, their moral and religious ideas are the same as in other parts of the world.” We tour a “luxurious” church before visiting the inside of an Hurdano home. As the family prepares for bed, an elderly woman walks the darkened streets, chanting of death. The expedition abruptly ends.8

Trusting Documentary

Documentary is supposed to be a serious, even educational, genre. It prompts sincere readings. Still today many critics take Land Without Bread at face-value, seeing it as a straightforward work of social-issue documentary. The American Anthropological Association guidebook, Films for Anthropological Teaching, describes it as “a social and anthropological document on the unique district of Las Hurdes near the Portuguese border of Spain” (Heider and Hermer 1995: 153). When I referred to the film as a “black comedy” on an electronic bulletin board devoted to visual communication, I received a number of testy replies from anthropologists and filmmakers who had always taken the work as, in the words of one of them, “a serious, but flawed documentary.”9

When Buñuel’s film went into commercial release in 1937, the British film director Basil Wright praised it as an important work of non-fiction, while criticizing the inappropriate voice-over commentary and poor choice of music. Wright was one of the most respected documentary filmmakers of his generation; as much as anyone, he helped define the parameters of the form. He concludes his enthusiastic 1937 review of Land Without Bread with the following comment, “Unfortunately,

someone (presumably not Buñuel) has added to the film a wearisome American commentary, plus the better part of a Brahms symphony. As a result, picture and sound never coalesce” (1971: 146). While mistaken, Wright’s comments hint at the central tension of Buñuel’s work.

The historical record shows that Buñuel did choose the “wearisome American commentary,” as well as the unlikely musical accompaniment. Nor were these elements merely afterthoughts as Wright’s remark implies. The writer Pierre Unik composed the voice-over narration in collaboration with Buñuel. Unik, a surrealist poet and a member of the French Communist Party, participated in the two-month shoot in Spain.10 According to Buñuel’s biographer, Las Hurdes was first shown in a press screening in Madrid in 1933. Buñuel “read the written text admirably in a tone which combined insolent indifference and apparent objectivity; and used the accompaniment of the Brunswick discs which formed the sound-track when the film was eventually synchronized in Paris” (Aranda 1976: 94). The screening caused a scandal and the Republican government of Spain immediately banned the film (Aranda 1976: 97). According to Buñuel, when the filmmaker appealed this decision, the president of the governing council of Las Hurdes concurred with the ban, asking why the film did not showcase the folk dances of the region (1984: 141).

Land Without Bread is probably best understood as the concluding work in a “triptych” that includes Buñuel’s earlier surrealist films (Aranda 1976: 116). However, to appreciate Land Without Bread as a parody, it is not even necessary to place it along this auteurist trajectory. A close analysis of the documentary suffices. On the most superficial level, the film describes some aspects of life in a mountainous region of Spain. On a second level, it stages a violent attack against several hegemonic institutions of Western civilization, in particular the Catholic Church, but also the educational system and private property. Most significantly, however, Buñuel’s work subverts dominant systems of representation by gradually undermining its own truth claims.

Consider, for example, the title: Las Hurdes: Land Without Bread. Such titles are absolutely typical of travelogues. Recent screenings at the World Cavalcade series in Portland, Oregon, featured Argentina: Land of Passion and Czechoslovakia: Land of Beauty and Change. Yet, as in so many other ways, Buñuel amusingly inverts the convention by defining Las Hurdes in the first instance by something it lacks. Incidentally, bread is not unknown in Las Hurdes, as Buñuel’s film asserts, but it is, according to Legendre, a “luxury” (1927: 164). The fact that many Hurdanos go “entire months” (1927: 168) without bread does not justify the film’s surrealist claim that the Hurdanos “do not know what bread is.” Given the centrality of bread in the rituals of Catholicism, the title also sounds like another swipe at organized religion. Buñuel could have at least conformed to Legendre’s study (1927: 305) by calling his film “Las Hurdes: Land Without Butter.” The inanity of characterizing an entire region through negative terms resurfaces later when the narrator pointlessly singles out another missing ingredient of the local culture, “It is strange that all the time we were in the villages of Las Hurdes we never heard a single song.”

Land Without Bread marshals a host of devices conventionally associated with non-fiction film, for example, the introductory intertitle that proclaims, “This is a filmed essay in human geography made in Spain in 1932.” The film appropriates the style of an “illustrated lecture” to introduce viewers to the secluded region of Las Hurdes. It explores with apparent scientific rigor the way of life of a people. It is worth recalling what many consider the canonical work in this genre, Robert Flaherty’s popular first feature Nanook of the North (1922), the most famous ethnographic film of the pre-World War II era. As critic Ken Kelman first noted, Land Without Bread bears important stylistic similarities with Nanook of the North (1978: 125).

Flaherty’s documentary on the struggle for survival of one Inuit family opens with a series of intertitles that introduce the “barren lands” and “sterile” environment of northern Canada. Against this harsh background, Nanook of the North celebrates the nobility of the Inuit. As Arthur Calder-Marshall noted, the definitive experience of Flaherty’s career was “the discovery of people who in the midst of life were always so close to death that they lived in the moment nobly” (1963: 67). The second intertitle of Land Without Bread reads, “Las Hurdes is a sterile and inhospitable area where man is obliged to fight, hour by hour, for his subsistence.” Like Flaherty, Buñuel frames his work as a conflict of man against nature. But this drama is not fulfilled by the account he provides. Nature is not the principal adversary of the Hurdanos. The film inverts the epic heroism characteristic of Flaherty’s work; though the Hurdanos also live close to death, Buñuel refuses to grant them a comparable noble savagery.

The Unreliable Narrator

Land Without Bread features an authoritative, disembodied, voice-over commentary, a standard element of 1930s documentary.11 As Bill Nichols reminds us, such voice-over technique normally reins in the polysemic quality of the imagery, “Speech added to images is like captions added to pictures: they steer us toward one understanding and away from others” (1994: 128). This combination of pictures and words carries rhetorical weight and it remains a paradigmatic feature of our notion of documentary. In Land Without Bread, the sounds and images seemingly reinforce each other, especially through the timing of the words with the pictures, as, for example, when the voice-over redundantly states, “We see the village women combing themselves,” or, “We can see the inhabitants at their daily rounds.” Close-ups and cutaways, such as that of the diagrammed mosquitoes in the encyclopedia, ostensibly provide proof of the film’s argument. While drawn from everyday events, however, numerous images in Land Without Bread emerge directly from the surrealist iconography of violence, transgression, and death: a headless rooster hanging upside down in a town square, a bull exiting the door of a house in Alberca, a close-up of the head of a donkey swarming with bees.

The narrator, while anonymous, speaks on behalf of the expedition, i.e., “we encounter this donkey with its load of two returning hives.” Through the use of this first-person plural, his comments encourage identification between expedition members and viewers. This reinforces the pact, the informal agreement, between the documentary and the viewer that the events depicted are real and occurred as described. In other instances, the narrator addresses us directly, attempting to win our acquiescence, “The smaller one you can see here is twenty-eight years old.” Such sound and image devices lull viewers into a state of passive agreement.

The use of seemingly neutral (but similarly loaded) terms such as “report” and “catalogue” furthers the truth claims of the movie, as does the statistical information about the region, expressed in such terms as “fifty-two towns with a total population of 8000.” In his autobiography, Buñuel recalls the emphasis on memorization his own education entailed, “When I was a schoolboy in Saragossa, I knew the names of all the Visigoth kings of Spain by heart, as well as the areas and populations of each country in Europe. In fact, I was a goldmine of useless facts” (1984: 3). Similarly, in the sequence at school, impoverished Hurdano children learn the irrelevant geometrical fact that the “sum of the angles of a triangle equals two right angles.” The information we learn about Las Hurdes in Land Without Bread is frequently as useless.

The voice-over commentary is deliberately ethnocentric, willfully contradictory, and deceptively humorous. It is probably impossible to do justice in writing to the tone and delivery of the narration. The terms “insolent indifference” and “apparent objectivity” (Aranda 1976: 94) — used to describe Buñuel’s live reading of the text at the 1933 premiere — probably come the closest. Land Without Bread exploits our gullibility and the willing suspension of disbelief the documentary form requests. Thus, for example, although on a second viewing the young children going to school appear adequately groomed, the commentary overpowers our ability to make this judgment, boldly referring to them as “uncombed kids.”

Of some “Christian pendants” shown in close-up, the voice-over says, “we cannot help but compare them to those of barbaric tribes in Africa and Oceania.” Then, having said that, the film fails to offer any comparison. Yet the purpose of this scene is not only to denigrate the hegemonic claims of Christianity by association with supposedly less vaunted beliefs — as Sergei Eisenstein did through an intellectual montage of religious icons in October (1928) — but to call into question such comparisons in the first place, and to introduce the single most subversive element in the documentary: the unreliable narrator.12 Bit by bit, the voice-over strains our credibility to the breaking point. While the commentator initially serves as our surrogate guide for this tour of Las Hurdes, Land Without Bread eventually undermines our confidence in him. This occurs, for example, when the narrator cavalierly states of a group of Hurdanos, “At the entrance to the town, we are welcomed by a choir of idiots.” Gradually, we part company with our guide and companion, the normally trustworthy voice-over narrator.

Why Is This Absurd Picture Here?

After the ritual sacrifice of a rooster in the opening sequence — not unlike the slitting of the eye at the opening of An Andalousian Dog, which, in Buñuel’s words, “moves the spectator into the cathartic state necessary to accept the subsequent events of the film” (Edwards 1982: 59) — we are primed to enter Las Hurdes.

With the expedition as our guide, “We leave the village and see before us an entanglement of mountains.”13 The expedition moves on to an ancient monastery of Carmelite Monks. The voice-over notes that the convent lies in ruins and is only inhabited by animals that crawl along the ground. The narrator describes a once-sacred trinity found in prehistoric cave paintings of the region — “men, gods, and bees” — only to replace it with the profane threesome of “toads, adders, and lizards.” The commentary contrasts the abundance of the valley with the poverty of Las Hurdes, just “five kilometers away.” After learning of the wealth of the order, we are told, “The convent is surrounded by eight kilometers of wall . . . which precludes the assault of wolves and of wild boars.” While this comment also appears in Legendre’s ethnography, the pause in the narrator’s voice introduces doubt as to the purpose of the fortification, insinuating that the wall also protects the convent from the nearby Hurdanos.

The subsequent sequence on education forcefully illustrates the Hurdanos’ plight. At school, young boys and girls learn not only useless facts but also the social values that prevent them from rebelling, “We find a book of morality on a table and open it at random. One of the best pupils can write from memory on request one of its maxims: respect the property of others.” Here the film’s implicit cry of revolt reaches its apogee. As the camera tilts up to a print of an aristocratic woman in full costume, the narrator states, “We discover an unexpected and shocking picture on the classroom wall. Why is this absurd picture here?” This is, of course, the same question that viewers must now ask of Buñuel’s documentary: Why is this absurd picture here? The power of the film as a political tract lies precisely in its pseudo-objectivity, its derisive refusal to render judgment.

Indeed, the classroom sequence is crucial to understanding Land Without Bread because the director has made an instructional film, a work that shares a pedagogical kinship with the methods of the traditional European schoolroom. In the classroom, the possibilities of chance collide with the rule of rote memorization. A book of morality is opened “at random,” but the child recalls the moral lesson “from memory.” Buñuel decries the emphasis in education on useless knowledge, memorization, and oppressive morality. Then, much more daringly, he implies the same about the standard non-fiction film itself. Buñuel’s work puts us in the position of viewers of a typical educational documentary, lectured by a film about something we don’t know. We become the “choir of idiots” such a genre demands. While Land Without Bread unquestionably abuses the Hurdanos, its ultimate target for scorn is the viewer (and, of course, the producers) of such ethnographic travelogues.14

Numerous non-sequiturs follow in the voice-over commentary. For example, over a pan of an empty alleyway, the narrator proclaims, “As we go through the streets, we see many ill people.” Then, as a woman sleeps (or rests) in an open loft, the voice-over notes, “This woman, lying on her balcony, does not even realize our presence.” Viewers willingly fill in the missing connections. (The fact that the woman does not acknowledge the expedition members in no way demonstrates that she is sick.) The voice-over then abruptly drops the subject of human misery — with an objective detachment in which man is no longer the measure of all things — and provides us with another of its gratuitous facts, “Balconies of any kind are rare in most of the villages of the Hurdes.”15

In another sequence, we are informed, in words taken almost verbatim from Legendre’s book (1927: 126), that “One eats goat meat only when one of the animals is killed accidentally. This happens sometimes when the hills are steep and there are loose stones on the footpath.” A remarkable two-shot sequence ironically illustrates this claim. In the first image, at the moment the goat slips in the distance, a puff of smoke appears in the lower right-hand side of the frame. A reverse angle match-on-action shot then shows the animal falling from above. From one image to the next, the camera shifts from one side of the mountain to the other. To fabricate an illusion of continuity, the film crew shot the goat, hauled its carcass up the side of the mountain, and threw it off again. By leaving the traces of this process in the film, however, the director undermines the illusion and exposes the artifice of montage.

The subsequent claims of the voice-over reach greater and greater heights of absurdity, “We see a young girl lying in a lonely street and we ask the mayor, who accompanies us, what is wrong with her. He says that the child has not moved for three days, is complaining, and must be ill. One of our friends examines her inflamed gums and throat but, unfortunately, can do nothing for her. When we came back to this village two days later and asked about her, we were told she had died.” The entire sequence is intentionally preposterous. Las Hurdes is not Auschwitz; children do not die unattended in the streets. As proof of her debility, the film offers a close-

up that purports to show the girl’s inflamed gums, yet they are not inflamed. The callousness of the voice-over affirms the comment that Buñuel’s “goal is an anthropology as impersonal as an entomology” (Rubinstein 1983: 4). Land Without Bread reverses the anthropomorphism of the nature documentary and, instead, treats its human subjects like animals.

Death hangs over every frame of Land Without Bread, just as the skulls over the church door “preside over the destiny” of the Albercans in the opening sequence. For example, the film asks us to believe that shortly before the expedition arrived in Las Hurdes, “three men and eleven mules” were killed by honey bees. (The weight of convention remains so powerful that many viewers accept this ludicrous statement as fact.) Having seen an itinerary of how death visits the Hurdanos — whether by accident, starvation, or infection — we begin to wonder how there is anyone left for the film to record. Nevertheless, in flagrant contradiction, the narrator matter of factly informs us, after the death of a baby, that “A death is a rare event which can be recorded in this miserable village.” The rush of village women “in crowds to the dead’s house” similarly contradicts the earlier, outrageous, neglect of the child lying in the “lonely street.”

Our Daily Bread

The musical accompaniment to Land Without Bread can hardly be ignored. In most of his features, Buñuel avoids background music (Aranda 1976: 200). “Personally I don’t like film music,” the director stated in an interview. “It seems to me that it is a false element, a sort of trick, except of course in certain cases” (Edwards 1982: 36). Land Without Bread is, famously, one of those cases. From Basil Wright onward, critics have noted the nagging inappropriateness of the score. It consists of the first two movements, followed by the second half of the fourth movement, of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E Minor (1885). As Vivian Sobchack points out, the lush romantic symphony is “antithetical to what it accompanies” (1981: 144). One particularly improper climax in the score occurs when a blast of horns accompanies the sudden appearance of “another type of idiot.” By working against audience expectations, the music accentuates the film’s ethnographic surrealist project of incongruous juxtapositions, what Clifford calls, in his discussion of the French journal Documents, “fortuitous or ironic collage” (1988: 132).

The soundtrack of Land Without Bread — music and voice-over commentary — works in opposition to the images. Given this incongruity, we have three choices; ignore the sound by attributing it to someone other than the filmmaker, as Basil Wright did; disregard the audio by treating it as a sign of incompetence; take the sound as a deliberate subversion of conventional image and sound relations in documentary. Of Buñuel’s The Golden Age, one of the first sound films produced in France, a critic wrote, “The audio portion is used in a most unusual way: to destroy rather than reinforce the illusion of reality in the work” (Martin 1983: 24). Much the same must be said of the audio track of Land Without Bread; clearly, Buñuel was one of the first, though still unacknowledged, masters of sound cinema.16

Certain naive readings of Land Without Bread might be explained by a lack of familiarity with surrealism or with Buñuel’s earlier films. The most remarkable fact about Basil Wright’s short review is that he refers to An Andalousian Dog. He defines Land Without Bread as a “complete volte-face” by a director who “had hitherto specialized in shots of dead donkeys ensconced in a grand piano” (1971: 146). Wright manages to deny not only the subversive role of sound in the documentary, but also Buñuel’s parody of accepted cinematic techniques, such as the point of view shot, in his earlier works. In addition, Wright fails to notice that Land Without Bread includes a shot of a dead donkey!

Why did Basil Wright presume that someone other than Buñuel made the soundtrack to Land Without Bread? It is, I think, because the guiding premises of surrealism — summarized by Buñuel in My Last Sigh as “passion, mystification, black humor, the insult, and the call of the abyss” (1984: 107) — were foreign to Wright’s understanding of the social role of the documentary.17 Simply put, satire is not serious and therefore has no place in non-fiction. We can measure the distance between our world and Wright’s by recognizing how we value those features he sought to disavow: contradiction, doubt, carnivalesque inversions, deliberate incongruities. Within the field of anthropology, some sixty years after the commercial release of Buñuel’s film in Paris, it is time to recognize Land Without Bread as a parody of ethnographic film.

The Future of Ethnographic Cinema

In Claiming the Real, Brian Winston argues persuasively that most non-fiction films portray their human

subjects as pitiful victims. These well-intentioned works fail, in Winston’s revisionist opinion, because they substitute “empathy and sympathy for analysis and anger” (1995: 274). Unlike what Winston calls the “tradition of the victim” documentary, Land Without Bread refuses to sentimentalize the sufferings of the Hurdanos, to appeal to our pity, our charity. It destroys the illusionist basis of the documentary, laying bare its ideological underpinnings and its timid complicity. Most importantly, Buñuel has made a film about the viewer, his or her preconceptions, expectations, and naive trust. He demonstrates that the conventions of the form blind us, that we have lost the ability to think critically about what we hear and see. We respond like Pavlov’s dogs, through reflex, to the stimuli of sounds and images and the familiarity of particular genres. If an ethnographic surrealist practice explores culture as “a contested reality,” as James Clifford suggests (1988: 121), then Land Without Bread is the crowning work of ethnographic surrealism.

Just as Buñuel’s documentary proposes no clear remedies for the Hurdanos’ plight, it offers no obvious solutions for the current crisis in ethnographic film. But Buñuel recognized that conventions of expression, while essential to communication, eventually become obstacles to insight. Only Jean Rouch, who came of age in Paris in the 1930s, has followed Buñuel’s ethnographic surrealist example with films such as The Mad Masters (Les Maîtres fous, 1955) and Little by Little (Petit à petit, 1969).18 Inspired by Buñuel’s spirit of experimentation, anthropological filmmakers should consider other genres such as comedy and romance. Similarly, ethnographic filmmakers might consider filming adaptations of written ethnographies, as Buñuel did with Maurice Legendre’s Las Jurdes: étude de géographie humaine.

In addition, the future of anthropological cinema must be nurtured by greater understanding of past endeavors. Visual anthropologists need to re-examine the rich history of ethnographic film, including not only forgotten works such as the Smithsonian-funded By Aeroplane to Pygmyland, Stirling New Guinea Expedition (1927), but also the extensive research footage stored in archives. Ethnographic filmmakers, like their literary counterparts, should return to the scenes of earlier works. We need, for example, a film on the making of Robert Gardner’s Dead Birds (1963) which also explores the remarkable transformations in the highlands of western New Guinea after decades of Indonesian rule.

To discuss Land Without Bread as a parody does not mean the film is simply a joke. On the contrary, when I have shown it in classes on anthropological cinema, it has permanently altered how students react to the truth claims of films such as Dead Birds or Dennis O’Rourke’s Cannibal Tours (1988). As a parody that lays bare the formal rules of documentary — and challenges conventional systems of representation — Land Without Bread offers a beacon for the future of ethnographic film. Although it does prey on its viewers’ gullibility, turning audience members into “a choir of idiots,” it also sows the seeds of its own destruction. It opens a space for an engaged, critical viewer. For this reason, as much as for its portrayal of terrible poverty in the Spanish countryside in 1932, Land Without Bread is a revolutionary film.19


1. An earlier draft of this work — “A Parable for Ethnographic Film: Luis Buñuel’s Land Without Bread” — was presented at the Center for the Humanities at Oregon State University, where I was a visiting research fellow in 1996. I am grateful to Peter Copek, John Young, Wendy Madar, Frank Unger, Robert Nye, Rich Daniels, Jon Lewis, Guy Wood, and other seminar participants for their thoughtful criticisms. Jay Ruby and David MacDougall read subsequent versions of this essay, gave useful comments, and encouraged me to argue the relevance of Buñuel’s work to the future of ethnographic film. (back)

2. Some recent writings suggest that the post-modernist anthropologists are finally becoming curious about ethnographic cinema, a repressed tradition within the discipline. Unfortunately, most are perilously ignorant of the history of ethnographic film. James Clifford holds up an image from Jerry Leach and Gary Kildea’s Trobriand Cricket (1973) as an example of an “ethnographic surrealist attitude” (1988: 148). Trobriand Cricket is a delightful anthropological film and an excellent example of structural-functionalist analysis. But it is difficult to envision how such a work will help reinvent anthropology along the lines Clifford counsels. (back)

3. VHS copies of Land Without Bread with the American voice-over commentary, priced at $29.95, are currently available from Facets Video, 1517 W. Fullerton Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614, USA, (800) 331-6197. (back)

4. The masterpiece of the mock documentary is Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary (1967), an entirely convincing autobiographical film by one David Holzman,

a character invented by screenwriter and star L. M. Kit Carson. Additional fiction films that ridicule the conventions of non-fiction include such works as Albert Brooks’ Real Life (1978), Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap (1984), Remy Belvaux, André Bonzel, and Benoit Poelvoorde’s Man Bites Dog (C’est arrivé près de chez vous, 1992), and Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman (1996). (back)

5. Rubinstein, who refers to Land Without Bread as a “parody travelogue,” also suggests Gulliver’s Travels as an important precursor (1983: 7). (back)

6. To my knowledge, no one in anthropology has discussed Buñuel’s film in reference to recent debates about ethnographic representation and that is the purpose of my essay. I am not the first person to discuss this film as a spoof of documentary. There is a long bibliography of essays about Land Without Bread, as well as books on Buñuel. Ado Kyrou (1963: 44-5) discusses the paradoxical structure of Land Without Bread, while Freddy Buache (1973: 34-5) notes the significance of filming in Spain in 1932. Those studies directly pertinent to my argument appear in the citations to this article. My essay has been influenced by prior discussions of the film by P. Adams Sitney, Ken Kelman, and Francisco Aranda, Buñuel’s biographer. Not coincidentally, some of the most enlightening readings of the film have come from avant-garde critics such as Sitney who tend to be wary of the formal conventions of documentary realism. James Lastra, a professor of English at the University of Chicago, has written a detailed study of Land Without Bread in light of French surrealism in the 1930s. I am grateful to Jim for lending me a chapter of his larger work-in-progress on surrealism, painting, and film. (back)

7. All translations from Legendre’s study are my own. Given that Buñuel based his film on Legendre’s book, the similarities between Las Hurdes: Land Without Bread and Las Jurdes: étude de géographie humaine are not surprising. For example, the ethnography confirms the traffic in adopted children mentioned in the film (1927: 83). Bees, however, are not represented in prehistoric cave paintings in Las Hurdes, but in another region of Spain (117). Legendre also describes the seasonal transport of the hives (111-112). The death of the donkey at the hands of the bees, like those of the three men and eleven mules, is of course Buñuel’s surrealist invention. According to Legendre, the heath honey is not “bitter,” as Land Without Bread puts it, but “mediocre” (115). Legendre notes the frequency of intermarriage, “even to the point of incest” (86). The book, like the film, maintains that the Hurdanos eat unripe cherries and suffer as a result from dysentery (166). Detailed studies of the local architecture confirm that there are no windows or chimneys in a typical home (176). Legendre even notes that the Hurdanos exhibit little penchant for decoration (187), giving the film license to declare outlandishly of one home, “The cut paper and the line of pot covers on the wall indicates a certain flair for interior design.” Legendre also admits the objectification inherent in ethnographic description, “Only with difficulty does man, at once reasoning and free, allow himself to be treated as a scientific object” (XII). However, nothing in Legendre’s study supports Bunuel’s contention that the midgets and cretins in Las Hurdes are “dangerous” and “almost wild.” The narrator of Land Without Bread recalls their difficulty “trying to photograph the idiots.” On the contrary, Legendre’s frontal portraits suggest the cooperation of his subjects. Among the numerous photos that appear at the end of the ethnography are portraits of a blind woman, a “distinguished and well-educated young woman,” and a “very intelligent and ingenious man.” (back)

8. Tom Conley’s 1987 essay includes a shot-by-shot description of the film along with numerous photographs. Conley breaks the film down into fourteen sections: “Credits,” “La Alberca,” “The Countryside and Abandoned Churches,” “The First Hurdano Village Scenes,” “School and Writing,” “The Lower Depths: Extreme Hurdano Town and Country,” “Scaped Goats,” “Daily Economy and Tribulation: Beehives,” “Cultivation and Gathering of Food,” “Mosquitoes and Death,” “Dwarfs,” “Death: A Child’s Funeral,” “Home Life: Interior Scenes and the Death Knell,” and “The End” (1987: 189ff). (back)

9. The impetus to write this article grew out of a series of exchanges on VISCOM, an electronic bulletin board devoted to visual communication, to which Peter Allen contributed, on January 5, 1996, the comment quoted above. (Readers interested in subscribing should send an e-mail message to Listserv@vm.temple.edu.) I am indebted to Peter Allen, John Hiller, Kay Gebhard, and, especially, Austin Lamont for their subsequent remarks. Their resistance to viewing Land Without Bread as a parody of documentary spurred me to clarify my interpretation. Most standard histories — Erik Barnouw’s Documentary (1973), Richard Barsam’s Nonfiction Film (1974), Jack Ellis’ The Documentary Idea (1989) — fail to consider the subversion of non-fiction conventions in Land Without Bread. Winston is one recent exception

(1995: 84-5). MacDougall notes the documentary’s “provocatively surrealist” nature in a footnote to his essay on voice in ethnographic film, “Whose Story Is It?” (1992: 39). (back)

10. During the Spanish Civil War, Unik and Buñuel worked together again on a film supporting the Republican cause. According to Helen Schawlow, this archival documentary, España leal, en armas! (1937), also features a “maddeningly detached and ironic” voice-over commentary (1989: 86). Unik spent five years in German labor camps during WWII only to die of exposure in 1945 after having escaped from the Schmiedberg camp (Schawlow 1989: 123). (back)

11. The disembodied voice-over, aptly dubbed “the voice of God,” has been so thoroughly criticized as to deserve no further comment here (Ruoff 1992). Suffice it to say that Buñuel was the first to question and burlesque the pompousness of authoritative narration, before Orson Welles’ mock-newscast of the War of the Worlds (1938) and the equally delightful “News on the March” fake newsreel in Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). (back)

12. The classic discussion of unreliable narration in the novel is Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, first published in 1961. As Booth warns, “the narrator is often radically different from the implied author who creates him” (1983: 152). The narrator in Land Without Bread is, of course, Unik and Buñuel’s invention and should not be mistaken for Buñuel himself. While a commonplace in modern writing, films whose narrators deliberately deceive or mislead the spectator are comparatively rare. In Narration in the Fiction Film, David Bordwell cites Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950) for a flashback that dramatizes several scenes from the point of view of a character who later turns out to be lying (1985: 61). A good example in recent Hollywood cinema would be Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995), while Mitchell Block’s No Lies (1974) probably offers the most sophisticated use of this technique (Sobchack 1988: 332-344). Documentaries with intentionally unreliable narrators are extremely rare, for obvious reasons. Even patently misleading works of propaganda, such as Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1934), construct (supposedly) reliable narrators. Obviously, the last thing a director of propaganda wants the audience to do is to question any aspect of the film. (back)

13. The “entanglement of mountains” also appears in the ethnography (1927: 14) and Legendre credits the term to an earlier travel article by the Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno. In his autobiography, Buñuel recalls meeting Unamuno in Paris in 1925 (1984: 79). (back)

14. I agree wholeheartedly with Sitney’s concluding remarks on Land Without Bread, “Although the film does present a devastating image of the wretchedness of Hurdane life, it even more powerfully indicts the documentary genre itself and urbane audiences who respond to it” (1985: 203). (back)

15. Sobchack takes this scene as another example of how the film deliberately objectifies the Hurdanos, treating them as of no greater or lesser importance than architecture or mosquitoes (1981: 147). Buñuel confirmed his lifelong interest in entomology, along with his distaste for religion, in My Last Sigh, “I loved, for example, Fabre’s Souvenirs entomologiques, which I found infinitely superior to the Bible when it comes to a passion for observation and a boundless love of living things” (1984: 217). (back)

16. As Rubinstein notes of the illustrated travelogue genre in general and Land Without Bread as an ideal type, “the voice in practice as in theory could alter with every showing of the film” (1983: 8). In their textbook Film Art, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson praise Chris Marker’s Lettre de Sibérie (Letter from Siberia, 1957) for demonstrating how the content of voice-over narration manipulates the viewer’s response to a given image (1993: 293). Buñuel showed this with more subtlety some twenty years earlier. (back)

17. In the same review, Basil Wright discusses Joris Ivens’ Spanish Earth (1937), for which Ernest Hemingway wrote, and read, the voice-over commentary. Having described the voice-over to Land Without Bread as “wearisome,” Wright contends that Hemingway provided Spanish Earth with “the best commentary in the history of the sound film” (1971: 147). From my perspective sixty years later, Buñuel and Unik’s multi-layered commentary in Land Without Bread is far superior. Predictably, the first word Wright uses to describe Spanish Earth is “sincere” (1971: 146). A detailed comparison of the two films would be instructive in understanding the range of documentary approaches in the 1930s. (back)

18. Another recent work of ethnographic parody is Babakiueria (1988), produced by the Aboriginal Programs Unit of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. In Faye Ginsburg’s words, “we follow an Aboriginal investigative reporter as she lives with ‘a typical white family in a typical white ghetto’ in a parodic indictment of ethnographic inquiry and the journalistic gaze” (1995: 71). As the title suggests, the ritual of the barbecue

becomes the interpretive key to understanding transplanted European culture in Australia. (back)

19. Others are not so optimistic about the lessons of Land Without Bread. The most convincing is Rubinstein who argues, “Human suffering, for Buñuel, is not, as in any quasi-scientific liberal view, a disease, an abnormality whose causes can be isolated and whose growth can be checked; it is a condition of existence, a given, common to all mortals and merely exemplified to a bizarre degree and in a spirit of exemplary acquiescence by the Hurdanos” (1983: 5-6). (back)


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O’Rourke, Dennis 1988 Cannibal Tours.

Reiner, Rob 1984 This is Spinal Tap.

Riefenstahl, Leni 1934 Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens).

Rouch, Jean 1955 The Mad Masters (Les Maîtres fous).

1969 Little by Little (Petit à petit).

Singer, Bryan 1995 The Usual Suspects.

Welles, Orson 1941 Citizen Kane.

Wright, Basil 1934 Song of Ceylon.

this article first published here: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~jruoff/Articles/EthnographicSurrealist.htm

February 10, 2012

22. Three Ages – Buster Keaton

Filed under: film as subversive art — ABRAXAS @ 1:56 pm

February 8, 2012

23. Zero for Conduct – Jean Vigo

Filed under: film as subversive art — ABRAXAS @ 12:30 pm

Plot Summary A number of boys return to a French boarding school after vacation. They must follow certain behavioral codes in the school or receive a “zero for conduct” and be punished. One particular group of students plans to revolt against their tyrannical and eccentric schoolmasters during an alumni ceremony. When the event begins, the boys climb the roof of the school and rain tin cans and other garbage on the formal occasion and its participants.

Jean Vigo has become a legend in cinema history, completing only four relatively short films in his tragically brief career. Yet these works exhibit a poetic sensibility that has left critics fantasizing about where cinema would have gone had Vigo not died at the age of 29. Zero for Conduct shows his talent for combining social commentary and unique imagery, with the emphasis on the latter. The simple plot about children revolting against their instructors at boarding school is given a dream-like mood by fluidly mixing the objective with the subjective. Narrative is secondary, and what remains with the viewer are certain shots or sequences rather than a cohesive story line.

The film veers between different styles by using various camera tricks and odd shot angles. There are many high angle shots of the instructors, perhaps suggesting a certain superiority of the children. The film evokes a magical feeling for the students’ world; one of them makes a ball disappear and reappear while another jumps from behind a wall to catch something at just the right time. One interesting sequence has the only sympathetic instructor, Huguet, standing on his head and drawing a comic-looking picture of a man. When the other instructors come into the room and scold him for acting this way, the picture transforms through animation into a more stately looking character as if to correspond with the teachers’ more disciplined and proper view. This sequence suggests the schism that exists between how the children are taught to behave and how they want to behave. They may seem to be complying with the instructors’ wishes, but their rebellious nature exists just below the surface.

The boys are taken for a walk and quickly lose their leading instructor, only to rejoin him later without any apparent notice of their extended absence. The students understand how much they can get away with or how much they can indulge their natural instincts while still ostensibly obeying the instructors. Another example would be the boys ignoring their initial call to wake up until a more powerful and fearful instructor passes through. At this point they all rise from their beds in succession until he leaves the room. But his brief return catches the main characters playing the game too well and already back in bed, and he gives them a zero for conduct. The film also successfully evokes the children’s anarchic playfulness beginning with two of them entertaining each other on the train ride to school. The most memorable sequence in the film is the pillow fight, beautifully shot in slow motion. During this sequence the students line up into some kind of procession as the escaped pillow feathers glide slowly through the air, giving them the appearance of a strange army marching through a snowstorm. Earlier, as the dwarf principal speaks to a student about life, there is a quick cut to a frightful shot of this man extending his arms and saying, “anything can happen!” This statement sums up the tone and attitude of the film nicely.

The instructors and authority figures are generally shown to be tyrannical and decadent. One exception would be some of the dignitaries present during the boys’ bombardment who are not even alive—they are literally dummies that have been dressed up and sat in chairs. One of the monitors goes through and takes some of the students’ things while they are at recess. The principal struggles for some time to put his hat in just the right position on the mantle, illustrating the pedantic nature of the school. A skeleton is visually prominent in a shot beside one of the instructors, perhaps to imply the great difference between how the young and how the old see the world; regardless, it is not a positive symbol to which to be linked. Most disturbingly, it is also suggested that this instructor may hold some desire for one of the boys, Tabard, to whom he pays extra attention. The feelings this behavior engenders in the child are made clear when the principal asks him to apologize for shouting at the teacher earlier and encourages him to say what’s on his mind and how he feels. Tabard gives a succinct response: “Go to Hell!” If the boarding school represents a microcosm of society with the instructors standing in for those in power, it is no wonder that French authorities banned the film upon release. Between Vigo, Bunuel, Renoir, Godard, and others, the French bourgeois must be one of the most attacked and satirized groups in cinema.

This film has proven highly influential in film history and also includes a few references to previous works. The only instructor on the boys’ side is the Chaplinesque Huguet, and, indeed, one could see the little tramp joining forces with the rebellious students. As in Battleship Potemkin, the revolt is instigated by the group being angry with the food it is given; here, the problem is beans once too often rather than decaying meat. Vigo was a hero of the French New Wave, and some critics have seen parallels with Zero for Conduct and Truffaut’s first feature, The 400 Blows. But the film that most closely resembles this one is Lindsay Anderson’s If… which uses older but similar characters and the same basic story line. Although several films have drawn from aspects of Zero for Conduct, its combination of poetic realism and surrealistic allegory have maintained its remarkable originality.

this review first published here: http://filmphest.com/Films/zfc.htm

February 7, 2012

24. L’Atalante – Jean Vigo

Filed under: film as subversive art — ABRAXAS @ 3:02 am

derek malcolm on Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante

Jean Vigo made only four films before he died of tuberculosis in 1934, aged just 29. Yet no movie-lover, however eccentric, could compose a list of 100 films through which the cinema should be celebrated without including at least one of his works.

The last and greatest was l’Atalante (1934), butchered for commercial release and, though partially restored, even now unable to be seen exactly as its director intended. He was the epitome of the radical, passionate film-maker who has to fight every step of the way against people of less imagination and sensibility. I’m willing to sweep up the stars’ crap, he once wrote when trying for a job as an assistant.

In the end, none of Vigo’s films prospered until long after his death. But think of Renoir and of Bunuel, put the two together and you have Jean Vigo – the son of a militant anarchist who took the name Miguel Almereyda because it contained all the letters of ”merde” (shit) and was almost certainly murdered in prison.

L’Atalante was originally a simplistic story assigned to Vigo by Gaumont, despite the fact that Zero De Conduite, his astonishing evocation of an unhappy childhood, had been banned by the censors. He changed it utterly, at least in tone, but had by then become so ill that he constantly risked collapse as he was making it. There is, however, no sign whatever of his impending death in the film itself.

L’Atalante is a barge in which two young newly-weds travel the waterways of France. The crew consists of an old eccentric with a passion for cats, and an equally peculiar boy. The wife loves her husband but soon grows tired of his waterbound obsessions and, longing for the excitment of Paris, is lured ashore by a peddlar.

The distraught husband imagines his wife reflected in the water. Meanwhile, she tires of wandering the cruel streets of Depression-era Paris. There are prostitutes and beggars and thieves everywhere. Men try to pick her up, she has her handbag stolen and she goes forlornly in search of the barge. In the end she is found by the old man, and the lovers are reunited.

The film is a masterpiece not because of the tragic story of its maker nor because of its awkward genesis, but be cause, as Truffaut has said, in filming prosiac words and acts, Vigo effortlessly achieved poetry.

The beginning of the inarticulate young couple’s life together has an erotic charge rare in the French cinema of the time. So have the sequences when, parted by their quarrel, they long for each other in silence. Vigo, said the French critic Andre Bazin, had an almost obscene taste for the flesh. As a result, the couple’s final reconciliation is the stronger and more moving.

Added to that, Vigo created characters who, though larger than life, seemed absolutely true to it. Michel Simon alone gave an amazing performance as the bargeman. But then, Simon was one of the greatest of screen presences. Vigo was not afraid of going beyond realism while still insisting on the grittiness of ordinary life.

The poetic power of the film, however, had a lot to do with the cinematography of the Russian-born Boris Kaufman, who worked on each of Vigo’s films and was said to be the youngest brother of Dziga Vertov, and a collaborator with him on the famous Kino-Pravda films. Kaufman later went to Hollywood, where he helped make On The Waterfront, but he always recalled the days of working so closely with Vigo as “cinematic paradise”. The images he and Vigo created with l’Atalante were dreamlike but intense and entirely without sentiment. And the final shot of the barge, taken from on high, is an abiding triumph. Maurice Jaubert’s superb score was a perfect match.

Gaumont found the film commercially worthless, hacked it to pieces and retitled it Le Chaland Qui Passe (The Passing Barge), inserting a popular song of that name into the sound-track. It was advertised as “a film inspired by the celebrated sung so admirably song by Lys Gauty”.

Only a few days after the first, disappointing run ended, Vigo died. His beloved wife Lydou, lying beside him, got up from the bed and ran down a long corridor to a room at the end of it. Friends caught her as she was about to jump out of the window.

this article first published here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/1999/feb/04/derekmalcolmscenturyoffilm

February 6, 2012

25. A Study in Choreography for Camera – Maya Deren

Filed under: film as subversive art — ABRAXAS @ 10:30 am

Maya Deren

by Wendy Haslem

Wendy Haslem lectures in Cinema and Cultural Studies, University of Melbourne.

Eleanora Derenkowsky
b. April 29, 1917, Kiev, Ukraine
d. October 13, 1961, New York, New York, USA

Maya Deren: The High Priestess of Experimental Cinema

Maya Deren is recognizable as the woman with the enigmatic expression at the window, silently observing from within. Although her eyes indicate distrust, she is not desperate to escape her domestic space, but she is not entirely comfortable immured behind the glass. This image symbolizes some of Deren’s most significant initiatives in experimental cinema. In this still shot she establishes a silent connection with the eyes, suggesting the possibility for reverie or even hallucination. It foreshadows her experiments with superimposition and the juxtaposition of disparate spaces. It is an image that suggests the most compelling themes of her film work: dreaming, reflection, rhythm, vision, ritual and identity. Like Cindy Sherman’s film stills, this image represents a poignant and hesitant moment, but unlike the photographs, Deren’s still shot belongs within a dynamic, kinetic narrative.

Whilst she is first recognized by this image, what is little known is that Deren was also a dancer, choreographer, poet, writer and photographer. In the cinema she was a director, writer, cinematographer, editor, performer, entrepreneur and pioneer in experimental filmmaking in the United States. Like Jean-Luc Godard and Sergei Eisenstein, Maya Deren was both a film theorist and a filmmaker. Unlike these luminaries, Deren’s writing remains relatively obscure in film theory and her films are rarely screened outside of experimental or feminist film courses.

When she was born in Kiev in 1917 her mother named her Eleanora after the Italian actress Eleanora Duse. Deren’s mother Marie confessed that she crossed her legs and refused to give birth whilst her husband Solomon continued to refer to their baby as ‘him’. Marie recollects, “As soon as Dr Deren left, I started to deliver the baby”. (1) In 1922 the Derenkowsky family fled the threat of anti-semitism in the Ukraine, arriving in New York where they contracted and Anglicized their name to Deren. The family was discontent and frequently separated. As an adolescent Maya was sent to Geneva to attend The League of Nations International School whilst Marie Deren studied languages in Paris and Solomon Deren practiced psychology in New York.

As a young woman Eleanora Deren studied journalism and political science and became active in student politics at Syracuse University. Deren transferred to New York University where she was awarded her undergraduate degree in 1936. At Smith College she completed a Masters Degree in English Literature and symbolist poetry in 1939. After college Deren began working as an assistant to the famous dancer and choreographer, Katherine Dunham. Deren found inspiration and nomadic adventure with the innovative Katherine Dunham Dance Company, touring and performing across the US. It was in Los Angeles in 1941 that Deren met Alexander Hammid, a Czechoslovakian filmmaker working in Hollywood. In collaboration with Hammid, Deren produced her first and most remarkable experimental film Meshes of the Afternoon (1943).

1943 was a year of transformation and consolidation for Deren. She returned to New York, married Hammid, transferred her primary focus from dance to film and changed her name to Maya. Her new name was particularly apt for a burgeoning filmmaker. Buddhists understand Maya to mean ‘illusion’, in Sanskrit it translates as ‘mother’ and in Greek mythology Maya is the messenger of the Gods.

Meshes of the Afternoon was produced in an environment of wartime volatility and this is reflected symbolically throughout its mise-en-scène. The title card suggesting that the film was ‘made in Hollywood’ is ironic, Deren sets her film within an LA setting, but it is the nightmare element of the dream factory that interests her most. The film establishes an atmosphere saturated in paranoia and distrust with lovers turning into killers and with the presence of a mysterious but fascinating hooded figure. As European émigrés, Deren and Hammid invest their film with an acute sense of restlessness and alienation. Meshes of the Afternoon reflects this uncanny estrangement in the doubling, tripling and quadrupling of its central character (played by Deren) and in its cyclic narrative, a structure that seems condemned to repetition. The hooded figure with the reflective face adds yet another dimension, reflecting back the identity of those who look into her eyes.

Thomas Schatz points to Meshes as the best known experimental film of the decade. He categorizes it as the first example of “the poetic psychodrama”, films bearing the impression of art cinema which were seen as “scandalous and radically artistic.” (2) He writes that the poetic psychodrama “emphasized a dreamlike quality, tackled questions of sexual identity, featured taboo or shocking images, and used editing to liberate spatio-temporal logic from the conventions of Hollywood realism.” (3)

Meshes of the Afternoon is shot as a silent film, there is no dialogue, communication between characters or diegetic sound. A record player plays silently. Whilst the disc revolves and the needle is engaged in the groove, there is no indication of the sound that it makes. Teiji Ito’s soundtrack makes Meshes appear like a music video before its time, the drumbeat is synchronized to movement and to the cut. When Deren takes one of her many short journeys along the path or up stairs, the sound of her steps is overlaid by Ito’s drumbeat metonymically standing in for and amplifying her movement. Inspired by Eisenstein’s notion of rhythmic montage, the editing and movement are accentuated by the rhythm of the soundtrack.

Meshes of the Afternoon

Rhythm is a defining element of all of Deren’s films, it arises from the play of repetition and variation which is integral to her experiments in narrative. Meshes deploys an innovative style of cutting on action where the protagonist steps over such disparate terrains as the beach, soil, grass and concrete. The rhythmic drumbeat and the repeated movement highlight her deliberate progress across these discontinuous spaces. As the central, consistent element, Ito’s soundtrack enables Deren’s temporal and spatial experimentation.

Rhythm also impacts significantly on spectatorship. The rhythm of the sound, movement and editing conspire to produce the effect of a trance film. Meshes of the Afternoon‘s dream-like mise-en-scène, illogical narrative trajectory, fluid movement and ambient soundtrack invite a type of contemplative, perhaps even transcendental, involvement for the spectator.

Whilst Meshes engages the viewer, it also presents vision in crisis. The film is constructed from a myriad of eyeline matches and mismatches. The use of extreme angles to imply one character looking down on the dreamer, a type of spider’s point of view, foreshadows the dreamer’s death. Seen in reverse it could translate as the dreamer’s ‘out of body’ experience. Occasionally Deren’s point of view proves to be ineffectual, the reverse shot from the sleeping Deren is impossible. The fourth replica of Deren’s character wears bulbous goggles that can do nothing to enhance her vision.

Meshes of the Afternoon

The film sets up a nightmare vision. Meshes is a projection of the dreamer’s desires and fears. Deren’s point of view transforms into tunnel vision with her perspective funneled through a cylinder rounding out the edges of the frame. This nightmarish vision is intensified with the use of an obscure horizontal wipe, with a semi-opaque filter, mystifying the image and implying the beginning of the nightmare. In Deren’s nightmare progress is difficult, speed is varied and the emphasis on circularity results in an unnerving repetition. The hooded figure is perpetually out of range, all attempts to capture her prove futile. In domestic space, activity has been suspended. The phone is off the hook, the record player is playing, the knife has begun to slice through the bread. Deren writes, “everything that happens in the dream has its basis in a suggestion in the first sequence – the knife, the key, the repetition of the stairs, the figure disappearing around a curve in the road.” (4)

Meshes of the Afternoon

Deren is clearly influenced by Méliès’ magical editing style with objects transforming without warning. Meshes is also inclined towards the Gothic’s fascination with the instability of objects, uncanny visions and confusion surrounding the intentions of the male characters. The film is one of many made during the 1940s which asks: is the hero intending to kiss the heroine or to kill her?

P. Adams Sitney refutes the notion that Deren was the director of Meshes of the Afternoon. He argues that Hammid “photographed the whole film. Maya Deren simply pushed the button on the camera for the two scenes in which he appeared.” (5) Stan Brakhage also classifies Meshes as Hammid’s film. Deren’s biographers perceive the film as a collaboration, noting that Hammid provided the mechanical expertise to realize images born from Deren’s imagination. (6) What is undeniable is that Meshes establishes key themes and cinematic innovations that Deren continued to explore throughout her career as an experimental filmmaker.

At Land

Deren’s second experimental film, At Land (1944), reinforces her interest in the juxtaposition of anachronistic spaces and introduces a critique of social rituals. This film begins by reversing the natural rhythm with images of waves breaking and descending back into the sea. Starring again, Deren is seen climbing up a dead tree trunk on the beach, magically emerging onto a table where a formal dinner party is in progress. This ‘civilized’ world ignores Deren as she crawls along their dinner table. By depicting herself as invisible to the diners, Deren highlights the myopia of the guests. The dinner sequence in At Land ends with an enchanted chess game. A pawn falls from the table and descends back into the dead wood on the beach, it falls over rocks, into the water and is washed away over the waterfalls. Chasing the pawn, Deren is restored to her original landscape.

With A Study in Choreography for the Camera (1945) Deren’s 16mm Bolex becomes a performer equal in significance to the star of this film, Talley Beattey. In the opening sequence Deren’s camera rotates more than 360 degrees, scanning past the figure in movement. In this film Deren articulates the potential for transcendence through dance and ritual. The movement of the dancer does not always motivate the camera, so Deren’s visual expression remains free floating. The spaces linked in this film range from the interior of a museum to the forest and courtyard. Deren writes, “The movement of the dancer creates a geography that never was. With a turn of the foot, he makes neighbors of distant places.” As Beattey spins, he appears to develop more than one face, forming an illusion of a totem pole.

Ritual In Transfigured Time (1946) silently follows Rita Christiani’s perspective as she enters an apartment to find Maya Deren immersed in the ritual of unwinding wool from a loom. Deren includes another expression of the external invading the internal with a strange wind that surrounds and entrances her as she becomes transported by the ritual. Ritual in Transfigured Time links the looming ritual with the ritual of the social greeting. Christiani enters a party, meets and greets, moving throughout the crowd like a dancer. Her movements become increasingly expressive and fluid, the ritual becomes a performance. Key themes in this film are the dread of rejection and the contrasting freedom of expression in the abandonment to the ritual.

In Meditation on Violence (1948) Deren’s camera is motivated by the movement of the performer, Chao Li Chi. This film is marked by a lack of dynamism and mobility that we have come to expect from Deren’s camera. It also obscures the distinction between violence and beauty. The shadows on the white wall behind Chi amplify the movement of the Wu Tang ritual. In Meditation on Violence Deren experiments with film time, reversing the film part way through producing a loop. Exhibited forwards and then backwards, the difference in the Wu Tang movements is almost imperceptible.

The Very Eye of Night

The Very Eye of Night (1958) was a collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School. The film was beset by problems in its production and carried with it a heavy weight of expectation. A shimmering constellation of stars established the background for negative images of figures resembling Greek Gods superimposed on and magically transported along the milky way. Deren called it her ‘ballet of night’, an ethereal dance within a nocturnal space that focused on the spectacle rather than the narrative. Ito collaborated on the soundtrack using tone blocks and bells, recalling the trance rhythm of Meshes of the Afternoon. Prioritizing enchantment over interpretation, The Very Eye of Night proved to be Deren’s most controversial and misunderstood film.

Deren is often referred to as the archetypal example of independence, a filmmaker who managed to avoid the institutional regulation of American cinema. Deren screened her films on her living room walls to interested audiences, occasionally exhibiting to critics like Manny Farber and James Agee. Her aim was to inspire a new generation of avant-garde filmmakers. Nichols writes,

The new American cinema of the 1950s took on the shape of an institutional reality that gave sustenance to the creative efforts of Hollis Frampton, Stan Brakhage, Paul Sharits, Robert Frank, Morris Engel and Jack Smith. Deren demonstrated how such artists could gain common recognition and participate in a shared framework of distribution, exhibition, and critical discourse. (7)

As an independent distributor Deren exhibited and presented lectures on her films across the United States, Cuba and Canada. In 1946 she booked the Village’s Provincetown Playhouse for a public exhibition. Deren titled the exhibition: ‘Three Abandoned Films – a showing of Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land & A Study in Choreography for the Camera‘. Deren took the word ‘abandoned’ to refer to Guillaume Apollinaire’s observation that a work of art is never completed, just abandoned. Whilst the title was ironic, the exhibition was successful.

Deren’s independent exhibitions inspired Amos Vogel’s formation of Cinema 16, a film society that promoted and exhibited experimental films in New York. Nichols argues that, “Deren acted the role of cinematic Prometheus, stealing the fire of the Hollywood gods for those whom the gods refused to recognize.” (8) In the late 1950s Deren formed the Creative Film Foundation to reward the achievements of independent filmmakers. Her work led to the establishment of the first filmmaker’s Co-op in New York City.

Evasive and unclassifiable, Deren actively rejected categorization as a surrealist and refused the definition of her films as formalist or structuralist. Her affiliation with surrealism is undeniable. In 1943 Deren collaborated with Marcel Duchamp to produce a film called Witch’s Cradle, a choreographed set of movements between the figure (played by Duchamp) and the camera. The film was intended to be an exploration of the magical qualities of objects in Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century Gallery, a space where Duchamp also exhibited. Witch’s Cradle remains unfinished, the film recalling Duchamp’s difficulty with completion. Duchamp’s Large Glass or The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23) collected dust in his studio for seven years until it was shattered in transit. Duchamp celebrated the accident as the final element allowing the art to be considered complete.

It is in Deren’s writing that her status as an innovator in film production and film theory is accentuated. In 1946 Deren wrote “An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film” where she explained her approach to filmmaking. Her argument emphasizes filmmaking as a matrix where elements exist outside of the constraints of hierarchy, order or value. It is a utopian approach, comparable to the logic developed by the Russian Formalists, which stresses the influence of individual elements within the anagram.

In an anagram all the elements exist in a simultaneous relationship. Consequently, within it, nothing is first and nothing is last; nothing is future and nothing is past; nothing is old and nothing is new… Each element of an anagram is so related to the whole that no one of them may be changed without affecting its series and so affecting the whole. And conversely the whole is so related to every part that whether one reads horizontally, vertically, diagonally or even in reverse, the logic of the whole is not disrupted, but remains intact. (9)

Deren also wrote “Cinematography: the creative use of reality” and an unpublished article entitled “Psychology of Fashion”. In 1953 Deren presented a paper entitled “Poetry and the Film” at a Cinema 16 Symposium. In this paper she argued that film works on two axes: the horizontal, including narrative, character and action, and the vertical, characterized by the more ephemeral elements of mood, tone and rhythm.

Divine Horsemen: the Living Gods of Haiti

In 1947 Deren won the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prix Internationale. The same year she was also awarded a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (10) to begin research on the Voudoun (voodoo) ritual in Haitian culture. A book, recordings of the sounds of the rituals, and the beginnings of a film were the results of her extraordinary research. Deren recorded two albums of Voudoun music “Divine Horsemen” and “Meringues and Folk Ballads of Haiti”. In 1953 she published the definitive study of the Voudoun ritual: Divine Horsemen: the Living Gods of Haiti. Deren consulted with luminaries like Joseph Campbell and Gregory Bateson in her research and she shot more than 18,000 feet of footage during her three visits between 1947 and 1954. During her research Deren’s position became ambiguous. On one hand she was distanced from the project, a medium for the transmission of ideas, but she was also closely involved in the ritual. Her insights on the Voudoun ritual emerge from her participation in the ceremonies. On one of her trips to Haiti, Deren was initiated as a Voudoun priestess.

In 1985 Deren’s third husband Teiji Ito and his new wife Cherel assembled and edited the Haitian footage that had remained incomplete since Deren’s death. The footage was spliced together to form an anthropological structure and a voice-over narration was added to clarify the details of the ceremonies. Upon its release, critics expressed reservations that the film was at odds with Deren’s style and contrasted with her original conception of the film.

Maya Deren was a key figure in the development of the ‘New American Cinema’. Her influence extends to contemporary filmmakers like David Lynch, whose film Lost Highway (1997) pays homage to Meshes of the Afternoon in his experimentation with narration. Lynch adopts a similar spiraling narrative pattern, sets his film within an analogous location and establishes a mood of dread and paranoia, the result of constant surveillance. Both films focus on the nightmare as it is expressed in the elusive doubling of characters and in the incorporation of the “psychogenic fugue”, the evacuation and replacement of identities, something that was also central to the voodoo ritual.

Speculation surrounding Maya Deren is most rampant concerning the details of her death. Deren died in 1961, aged 44. The legend begins with Stan Brakhage who, in his book Film at Wit’s End, speculates that Deren’s death was punishment for her intimate involvement in the Haitian Voudoun ritual. In Martina Kudlacek’s recent video In The Mirror of Maya Deren, this notion is coldly dispelled with the dreadful assertion that Deren died of a cerebral hemorrhage due to a combination of malnutrition and a predilection for amphetamines and sleeping pills.

Maya Deren

When she died Maya Deren’s ashes were scattered across the lively port side of Mount Fuji, in Japan.
Ito thought that this was the perfect resting place for a woman energized in life by ritual, dance, voodoo, music, poetry, writing and of course, experimental film. As a pioneer of American avant-garde cinema, Deren’s legacy is both abstract and tangible. Her innovations in filmmaking continue to fascinate aspiring experimental filmmakers. Her pioneering, uncompromising spirit enabled her to elude the institutional limitations that controlled filmmaking in 1940s American culture. Deren’s enduring quest to secure financial support for experimental filmmakers during her lifetime was finally answered with the establishment of a grant bearing her name. In 1986 the American Film Institute recognized Deren’s significant contribution to experimental filmmaking by creating the Maya Deren Award to act as an incentive and reward for the work of contemporary independent film and video makers.

And what more could I possibly ask as an artist than that your most precious visions, however rare, assume sometimes the forms of my images.

Maya Deren

Meshes of the Afternoon

Witch’s Cradle (1943)
Dir: Maya Deren. Cast: Marcel Duchamp, B&W (incomplete)

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)
Dir: Maya Deren, Alexander Hammid. Screenplay: Maya Deren. Cast: Maya Deren, Alexander Hammid. Music: Teiji Ito. B&W.

At Land (1944)
Dir: Maya Deren. Cast: John Cage, Maya Deren, Alexander Hammid. B&W.

A Study in Choreography for the Camera (1945)
Dir: Maya Deren. Cast: Talley Beatty. 3 mins, silent, B&W.

Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946)
Dir: Maya Deren. Cast: Rita Christiani, Maya Deren. 14 mins, B&W, silent

Meditation on Violence (1948)
Dir: Maya Deren. Cast: Chao Li Chi. Music: Teiji Ito.

The Very Eye of Night (1958)
Dir: Maya Deren. Assistant director: Harrison Starr III. Screenplay: Maya Deren. Music: Teiji Ito.

Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985)
Original footage shot by Deren (1947-1954). Reconstruction by Teiji & Cherel Ito.

Films about Deren:

Invocation: Maya Deren (1987) Dir: Jo Ann Kaplan

In The Mirror of Maya Deren (2001) Dir: Martina Kudlacek

Select Bibliography

Stan Brakhage, Film At Wit’s End: Eight Avant-Garde Filmmakers, Mc Pherson & Co.: New York, 1989

VeVe Clark, Millicent Hodson, & Catrina Neiman, The Legend of Maya Deren: a Documentary Biography and Collected Works, 2 vol. Anthology Film Archives: New York, 1984, 1988

Maya Deren, “Notes, Essays, Letters”, Film Culture, 39, 1965

Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, Documentext/Mc Pherson & Co.: New York, 1983

Marilyn Fabe, “Maya Deren’s Fatal Attraction: a psychoanalytic reading of Meshes of the Afternoon, with a psycho-biographical afterword”, Women’s Studies, 25, January, 1996

Renata Jackson, The Modernist Poetics and Experimental Film Practice of Maya Deren (1917-1961), Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston, 2002.

J.L. Millsapps, “Deren, Maya, Imagist”, Literature-Film Quarterly, 14 (1), 1986

C. Nekola, “On Not Being Maya Deren” Wide Angle, 18, October, 1996

Bill Nichols (ed.), Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, (includes the complete text of Maya Deren’s ‘An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film’), Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001

M. Pramaggiore, “Performance and Persona in the US Avant-Garde Cinema”, Cinema Journal, 36, Winter, 1997, pp. 17-40

Leslie Satin, “Movement and the Body in Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon”, Women and Performance: a journal of feminist theory, vol. 6, issue 2, pp. 41-56

P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: the American Avant-Garde 1943-1978, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979

this article first published here: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2002/great-directors/deren-2/

February 5, 2012

26. Hour of the Wolf – Ingmar Bergman

Filed under: film as subversive art — ABRAXAS @ 9:33 am

February 4, 2012

27. Patriotism – Yukio Mishima

Filed under: film as subversive art — ABRAXAS @ 5:47 pm

February 1, 2012

28. Orpheus – Jean Cocteau

Filed under: film as subversive art — ABRAXAS @ 10:43 pm

January 31, 2012

29. Tetsuo, the Iron Man – Shinya Tsukamoto

Filed under: film as subversive art — ABRAXAS @ 12:15 pm

January 30, 2012

30. Daisies – Vera Chytilová

Filed under: film as subversive art — ABRAXAS @ 12:08 pm

young girls
Gender representations in
Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky and Pasti, pasti, pastičky

Chytilová’s heroines rebelliously try to subvert the patriarchal system and gender stereotypes—and fail. Małgorzata Radkiewicz examines the plight of female leads in two of Chytilová’s most famous films.

Although Sedmikrásky (Daisies, 1966) and Pasti, pasti, pastičky (Traps, 1998) were made in completely different contexts, both these films by Věra Chytilová can be seen as a kind of continuation, especially in terms of female representation. First of all, they present interesting, unconventional portraits of individual female personalities. Furthermore, they paint an excellent picture of Czech culture and society described from an alternative point of view that, over the years, has been shared by non-conformists, artists and intellectuals.

Questioning the importance and the value of any order or system—political, social or cultural—Chytilová’s film were in deliberate revolt against cinematic genres and dominating notions of representation. As a filmmaker, Chytilová has worked out her own style, which she uses consistently to create a subjective vision of female individuality. Drawing on the typical structures of Czech culture and cinematic tradition, she emphasised the uniqueness of each “self” and the distance that can exist between the individual interpretation of gender and its social interpretations.
Angry heroines in a patriarchal structure

Throughout Sedmikrásky and Pasti, pasti, pastičky, Chytilová persistently explored the complex relationship between the gender identity of her female characters and the repressive, patriarchal structure of the society they belong to. Although not many feminist projects existed in central and east European cinema when she began to critically comment on the conventional male-dominated culture, Chytilová’s opinions can be regarded as very close to a feminist orientation. This feminist approach is a main feature of her films, which are all in some way notable for being representative of women’s “counter cinema” and its revolutionary methods.

Based on formal innovation and avant-garde experiments, most of these methods drew primarily upon the traditions of the European new waves and were taking apart or deconstructing the methods of classical cinema. Chytilová’s artistic strategy, so clearly presented in films such as Sedmikrásky and Pasti pasti, pastičky, puts her among other female filmmakers who have deliberately deconstructed traditional methods in both fictional and documentary accounts in the belief that cinema cannot simply and transparently reflect women’s experience but it is always necessary to construct versions of that experience.
Revising femininity

Vera Chytilova’s Sedmikrasky (Daisies, 1966)Chytilová has set herself against the notions of mainstream cinema and produced a new kind of record thanks to which she has been able to revise and re-imagine the category of femininity, a category that has been always described in terms of traditional gender interpretations. Despite formal and ideological difficulties, Chytilová developed in Sedmikrásky a subjective vision, filled with a sense of irony and humour, of the painful adolescence of two “spoiled” (zkažené) girls, Marie I and Marie II, who are trying to act out their lives. The unconventional plot revoles around a series of unconnected escapades as the two girls use their femininity and mock naivity to run rings around a succession of older men. The audacity of their rebellious spirit culminates in a spectacular food fight in a hall, laid out in advance for a grand banquet. After this, the two promise to mend their ways and make attempts to repair the damage they have done.

The plot of Sedmikrásky, as well as its two main female characters, reflect Chytilová’s fascination with experimental forms and avant-garde genres, based on which she has elaborated her own way of artistic expression. Rejecting traditional illusionist methods and realist narrative models, she proposes a subjective interpretation of gender identity within a social and cultural structure.

The story of the two Maries is shown from two parallel perspectives: personal and social. The first one seems to dominate in all scenes that present nobody but the girls talking to each other and doing strange things, such as cutting fruit with scissors before eating them. Such a personal point of view emphasises the inert world of both adolescents and the emotions, feelings and opinions they use to define their personality. Judging by their conversations, they perceive themselves as independent women, free from any restrictive notions. When one asks: “Say it’s great,” the other one answers, “I’ll say what I want.” There is no doubt about their self-confidence, as openly declared in the statement: “Anyway, we are young, after all. We’ve got our whole life ahead of us!”.

Chytilová herself is more sceptical about their possibilities in life, limited as they are by stereotyped images of women. In her sarcastic comments, Chytilová argues that—intentionally or not—one always repeats common interpretations of gender identity. When Marie II accuses her namesake of having crooked legs, Marie I answers: “Don’t you know I based my personality on them?” On the one hand, the answer explains her uncomplicated and unstable personality, on the other hand, it deconstructs social and cultural categories that define femininity and women only in terms of their bodies and physical attributes.

Questioning traditional definitions of gender identity, Chytilová revises conventional images of women and replaces them with their alternative versions. She expands the area of interests from particular characters to the whole culture and social structures. Rather than a story of two self-centred girls, Sedmikrásky should be considered as an interpretation of cultural and social mechanisms in which femininity is repressed by strict models and notions that one is obliged to follow. In such a structure, there could be no place left for free expression and creativity; nevertheless, Chytilová consistently departs from the patterns of mainstream cinema and the process of cinematic communication by subverting the representation of women. On closer inspection, Sedmikrásky and Pasti, pasti, pastičky appear to be more about being a woman in a patriarchal structure in general than a simply plot.
Gender stratification of Czech society

Judging by these two films, Chytilová has obviously been influenced by the feminist movement and its counter-cultural ideas that make her interested in women’s experience of life and the way in which gender and sexual identity are stimulated and formed by cultural, social and mental notions and stereotypes. Many anthropologists consider gender symbolism to be basic to all cultures. Some of them, like the Czech culture presented in Sedmikrásky and Pasti, pasti, pastičky, have highly elaborated complex notions of gender, regulating virtually all aspects of social life and defining everyday activities and social roles.

In Pasti, pasti, pastičky, a young vet is raped when her car breaks down and she is forced to hitchhike. Following the rape, she feigns amnesia and tricks her attackers back to her house where gives them drinks spiked with sedatives and then uses her occupational skill to castrate them. Her revenge is not enough to free of the memory of her attack, and she becomes increasingly desperate to seek justice for the pair. They in turn try to cover up their crime and adjust to their emasculated existence.[1]

In showing the consequences of the brutal rape in Pasti, pasti, pastičky, Chytilová is greatly concerned about portraying another aspect of some apparently objective norms. Above all, she wants to present how gender stratification reflects the common organisation of Czech society and is reinforced by the shared normative systems of Czech culture. Furthermore, she stresses that the social roles assigned to women and men are not simply different, but also differently evaluated and differently rewarded.

As some of feminist theorists argue, there is a strict hierarchical ranking of sex groups that separates activities and behaviours of males and females, and what males do is more highly valued and differently estimated that what females do. Such thinking supplies a motive to the end of Pasti, pasti, pastičky when the men responsible for the rape are declared to be not guilty while their victim is accused of having an asocial attitude and sent to be hospitalised in a psychiatric clinic.

In Sedmikrásky, Chytilová’s position towards gender, however, seems to be more ironic and distanced than respectful, which is reflected in her filming strategies. In Pasti, pasti, pastičky, she goes much further, and overpowers viewers with a conclusion that is not only sceptical but also pessimistic. The ending shows how gender is reproduced in each generation and in social institutions. She critically comments on the stability of cultural notions and contemptuously defines the range of stereotypes.
The end of rebels

On the one hand, in her portraits of rebel heroines, so free and independent, there is no place for a limiting definition of gender roles. On the other hand, what appears on the screen is a vision of a very painful confrontation between the idealism of “angry young girls” and the down-to-earth realities that imprison them in a cage of conventional female features and qualities. In spite of their strong individuality, women in Sedmikrásky and Pasti, pasti, pastičky are forced to sanctify and respect the patriarchal order. Although they try to reject its rules, everyone expects them to follow the gender stratification in order to comply with the requirements and expectations of the whole society.

Feminist theorists intensify and enlarge the volume of research on sex differences; furthermore, they also place emphasis on the learning of sex roles (as girls in Sedmikrásky do) arguing that most of them are induced by environmental pressures and the reality of the social, cultural and economic context. Although Chytilová might not be automatically identified with feminist theorists, she shares the opinion and consistently believes that the social expectations, rules and norms attached to a person’s position in society usually force individuals to conform to them through the identification with the parent of their particular sex.

In such circumstances, the counter-cultural interpretation of gender must be limited to very personal aspects of life and might not be extended to its social and cultural context. Thus, the female characters from Chytilová’s films remain angry, young creatures whose pathetic rebellion must be put down to a response to their lack of experience and knowledge. After a series of revolutionary acts, Chytilová’s heroines are forced to subdue their rebellious ideas and submissively declare: “We don’t want to be spoiled anymore,” as Marie I and Marie II do at the end of Sedimkrásky.

Małgorzata Radkiewicz

this article first published here: http://www.kinoeye.org/02/08/radkiewicz08.php

31. Sweet Movie – Dušan Makavejev

Filed under: film as subversive art — ABRAXAS @ 11:03 am

The World Tasted: Dušan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie

by Lorraine Mortimer

Lorraine Mortimer is a freelance writer and translator, and a long time teacher and researcher in the fields of cinema, sociology and anthropology. She is the translator of Edgar Morin’s The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man: An Essay in Sociological Anthropology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), and the author of Terror and Joy: The Films of Dušan Makavejev (University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

Sweet Movie

The following is a version of a chapter from her forthcoming book, Terror and Joy: The Films of Dušan Makavejev, also for the University of Minnesota Press.

Sweet Movie, full of unenlighted lunacy, is not really a film at all. It is a social disease.

- Jay Cocks, 1975 (1)

Sweet Movie [is] in effect the most concentrated work I know that follows out the idea that the way to assess the state of the world is to find out how it tastes (a sense modality not notably stressed by orthodox epistemologists but rather consigned to a corner of aesthetics) – which means both to find out how it tastes to you and how it tastes you, for example, to find out whether you and the world are disgusting to one another […]

The film attempts to extract hope – to claim to divine life after birth – from the very fact that we are capable of genuine disgust at the world; that our revoltedness is the chance for a cleansing revulsion; that we may purge ourselves by living rather than by killing, willing to visit hell if that is the direction to something beyond purgatory; that the fight for freedom continues to originate in the demands of our instincts, the chaotic cry of our nature, our cry to have a nature. It is a work powerful enough to encourage us to see again that the tyrant’s power continues to require our complicitous tyranny over ourselves.

- Stanley Cavell, 1979 (2)
Strange Joy

Three quarters of the way through Sweet Movie, Miss Monde 1984 (Miss World; Carole Laure), a young woman in complete disarray, is being wheeled onscreen in a barrow, a leg discernible amid some lettuce, arriving at a door to a warehouse. It is the entrance to the Therapie Komune run by psychoanalyst filmmaker Otto Muehl, where in Makavejev’s film Miss World, traumatized and anorexic, is to be nourished back to health and life. (3)

Inside, another woman, Momma Communa (Marpessa Dawn), nurses a baby, soothing it with the singing of “Three Blind Mice”, as Miss World is emptied onto the floor, commune members handling and rocking her body, in something like the gentler forms of therapy we saw in the documentary scenes in Makavejev’s previous film, W.R. – Misterije organizma (WR: Mysteries of the Organism, 1971). There is an accordion playing and a dark-haired woman (Anna Prucnal) is feeding people salad from a large bowl as Miss World is placed in a hanging cradle while she is sung to and showered with lettuce leaves. She is rocked like a baby and the film cuts to Momma Communa feeding her child, the child taking a moist breast with its sweet milk into its mouth. Soon, to the strains of a soft lullaby, the mother goes to the cradle and gently opens Miss World’s mouth, moistening her own finger with saliva and tracing it round the young woman’s lips, re-awakening the mouth, which starts to open and move, tentatively. Regaining one of her functions, Miss World suckles at Momma Communa’s breast. And then the games begin.

The people sit round a huge table at a staged feast, Miss World being gently fed as she kneels there. Ordinary eating goes awry, as people drop their faces into their food, talk with exaggerated movements while eating, smearing others with food, blowing it from their mouths onto their neighbours. One man appears to be about to pull out his penis from inside his pants, but it is a large animal tongue, which he extends onto the table, next to Miss World. As people vomit, the man proceeds to chop his ‘penis’ and cry out, throwing chunks to people who gnaw upon it. Then, surprisingly, Miss World takes out his small, real penis, holding the vulnerable piece of flesh, cradling it in her hand like a tiny animal, moving it to her face, over her lips and cheek.

The tender music from this last scene stays as the sounds of retching and the strange actions escalate. A man pees on the table, another interrupting the stream to take in some of the urine. People seem to “go off their heads”, as we put it in the colloquial, smashing plates of food over their skull, while Miss World, we see, is shedding a tear.

Then, on a ‘stage’ (which reminds us of a wrestling ring) people shit on plates, the ‘audience’ urging them on as they hold out their ‘achievement’ to others – to general congratulations. Amid the hilarity, Anna Prucnal’s voice comes in with Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, not music we would ordinarily imagine accompanied by a “shitfest”, as Makavejev has called it. One of the excreting men takes up the song and it is sung in the original German as the gathering jumps up and down – with joy.

With the symphony itself, the film cuts to old footage of “Gymnastics for babies invented and demonstrated by Major Neumann-Neurode, Berlin”. As the major drills his babies, demonstrating their hygiene and strength, we see cute little beings with personalities and full of life. But we must go back to less pleasant sights at the commune, to Nazi babies now grown-up, trying to unmake their fascist-inherited bodies, purging themselves by their gorging, vomiting, urinating and defecating to the splendour of the “Ode to Joy”.

One of the commune men, now a big baby, lies on a mattress, still retching but being attended to by others, while more of the group sits around watching the scene. He throws up a little. They lightly slap his face, rock him, press down on his body, which they smear with shit. He is now mildly crying and is fed from a bottle of milk, then suckled by one of the women. As he is patted and looked after, Miss World sits huddled in her chair, alone. He pees and is powdered, like a big, plump baby, awkwardly moving his limbs before standing up, bowing and being applauded by the gathering.

There is a cut to the accordionist, and shaven-headed and nude people dance to the Internationale. Miss World, however, has not joined in. She sits with a man but on her own, powder in her hair and face, whimpering like a wounded animal. After an intervening scene, sweet and cruel from another narrative, the group stand around the accordionist (now playing an organ) and form a chaotic, improvised chorus as he again plays the Internationale. (4) They act cute, comic and strange and are, like in Lars Von Trier’s Idioterne (The Idiots, 1998), dancing like idiots – not rejecting the beautiful anthem, but certainly desanctifying it.
Going too Far

Terror and Joy: The Films of Dušan Makavejev

Many, including myself, were initially shocked and repelled by Makavejev’s most complex, explosive and assaulting film. In Sweet Movie, Eros and Thanatos are not concepts but forces. (5) Wilhelm Reich, François Rabelais and Jonathan Swift, rather than Sigmund Freud, seem to inspire this never-safe journey, grounded in the senses, a journey which seems like it has land mines placed along the way. Sweet Movie is Makavejev’s furthest and most daring departure from traditional realist narrative. It is a mixture of humour, horror, eroticism, music, colour, defilement, excrement and murder. Once again, the film combines fiction and documentary, but this time the connections collide more harshly. As we have seen, it takes Miss World and the audience to the commune where the members participate in a “utopia of regression” (6). In twin narrative threads – deadly adventures in capitalism and totalitarianism – Miss World, prized for her abstinence and virginity, but rejected by her husband, Mr. Dollars (John Vernon), will eventually writhe and drown in a bath of chocolate while making a television commercial; meanwhile Anna Planeta (a blonde-haired Anna Prucnal), prostitute of the revolution, on a corpse-filled boat bearing the giant head of Karl Marx, makes love with Un Marin du Potemkin (A Sailor from the Potemkin, aka Luv Bakunin; Pierre Clémenti), in a bed of sugar, stabbing him with her dagger, his sacrificed red blood curling through the white grains. Whilst Luv is content to die a martyr’s death, like Vakulinchuk (Aleksandr Antonov) in Sergei Eisenstein’s Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925), most controversial for audiences today is Planeta’s bridal/maternal striptease for a group of boys enticed onto her barge by candy while Russian Orthodox liturgical music plays on the soundtrack.

Sweet Movie went too far. It marked the beginning of the director’s emigré career and controversy about its transgressions sounded something of a death-knell to that same career. Some former champions of his films deserted him. (7) Time magazine included the film as part of a “plague” of pornography afflicting the country and Richard Roud believed that the “streak of opportunistic vulgarity”, always there in Makavejev, “took over” in Sweet Movie. (8) The essential thing, as Julien Suaudeau wrote in 2001, is that, in his radical going beyond cultural taboos in this film, “the pursuit of a physical cinema finds its limit at the same time as it reaches its height” (9). While finding the commune sequence, to which we will return, a kind of “Pasolinian delirium” that he finds “frankly repelling” (10), Suaudeau still thinks Makavejev one of the great ‘modern’ filmmakers whose films now appear “more contemporary than ever” (11). The œuvre, which maintains its youthfulness and the freshness of its “explosive vitality”, reminds us that the cinema can be a place of both “anxious and joyful questioning” (12).

So, it is both paradoxical and fitting that in this film that went too far, fundamentals of the originality of Makavejev’s vision and method come to the fore. And, despite his reservations, Sweet Movie helps Suaudeau articulate these fundamentals:

With this cineaste of transgression, the imagination knows only two rules: Dyonisian pleasure in the poetic image, and absolute primacy of the material and the organic. So, in Sweet Movie, the symbolic and the literal are never dissociated. On the one hand, sugar is presented in a form that is purely organic, and in its multiple concrete representations, in the image of Descartes’ piece of wax. But on the other hand, Makavejev tells us “this is not sugar”, but a mirage of sweetness whose truth is in turn alienation (the consumer society) and a perverse and murderous ideological mystification (what the revolutionary ideal and the USSR became under Stalin). A veritable principle of montage, the passage between the literal and figurative registers can even take place from one shot to the next […] With Makavejev, poetic power is always expressed by the brutality of the relationship established between the symbol and the object to which it refers; the more immediate this relationship, the greater its stylistic impact. (13)

While the symbolic and the literal cannot be dissociated, Makavejev’s work makes clear some of the problems of the one realm swallowing up the other. During the hegemony of structuralist theory, I would suggest the object never completely disappeared behind the referent, but the importance of the relationship was often denied. The material, certainly organic, referent was frequently regarded as inadmissible.

At the same time, the distinction between the symbolic and the literal, metaphor and reality, is just as important as the relationship between them; lives can depend on our ability to make such distinctions.

In the text that appeared in the catalogue for the Balkan Film Retrospective in Venice, in April 2000, Makavejev began with something Slavoj Žižek had said:

For a long time the Balkans have been one of the privileged places for the investment of political fantasies. Gilles Deleuze said somewhere: “If you are caught in someone else’s dream, you are done for.” In ex-Yugoslavia we are done for not because our primitive dreams and myths prevent us from speaking the enlightened language of Europe, but because we pay with our own flesh and blood the price of being the stuff of which others’ dreams are made. (14)
Something Against Nature

After Sweet Movie’s release, Makavejev suggested to Robert Benayoun and Michel Ciment that it was impossible to invent more terrifying sequences than those contained in certain documentaries. One illustration of this principle is the footage, taken by the Nazis in 1943, of the exhumation of bodies in the Katyn Forest, Polish officers massacred in 1939 by Soviet soldiers. In Sweet Movie, the footage comes after Luv, full of life, is being bathed by Anna Planeta and another woman, Anna warning him:

Don’t stay here. This boat is full of corpses.

To which Luv replies: “It doesn’t matter. The whole world is full of corpses.”

keep reading this article here: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2008/feature-articles/sweet-movie-mortimer/

January 29, 2012

32. Black God, White Devil – Glauber Rocha

Filed under: film as subversive art — ABRAXAS @ 10:36 pm

Glauber Rocha’s Black God, White Devil (Deus e o diabo na terra do sol, 1964) portrays the rural peasant searching for ways to overcome his social condition while moving between religious fanaticism and social banditry. The Brazilian film is concerned with inventing a renewed form of narrative, which creates a tension that is evident throughout the film: a tension between modes of narrating and spatial construction. The careful arrangement of narrational elements breaks with the transparency of realism.[1] Black God, White Devil displays numerous references in its composition, such as the Eisensteinian montage, the Western genre landscapes and the Brechtian actor method, which are structured alongside the Brazilian literary storytelling tradition of the cordel.[2] The combination of these references creates a non-linear narrative because it suggests the emergence of different spatialities and temporalities that hold the tension between narrative and spectacle. The aim of this article is to investigate the role and meanings of these spatialities and temporalities in the construction of the landscape as a stage of revolt. In Black God, White Devil the landscape is the element that cements the articulation and disarticulation of narrative and spectacle, thereby enabling the emergence of images of revolt. The relationship between landscape and revolt unfolds with the narrative’s exploration of the emblematic characters.

Rocha’s preoccupation with cinema’s aesthetic is evident in his 1965 essay “Aesthetic of Hunger,”[3] presented at a retrospective of Latin American cinema in Genoa, Italy. The most vociferous filmmaker of Cinema Novo claims that hunger is the nerve of the social and political problems of Latin America. Indeed, Rocha stresses that the commitment to hunger was a commitment to the truth – the opposite of what Hollywood’s film industry proposed. Rocha and his fellow Cinema Novo directors transformed this commitment into a political problem and proposed violence as the only tool to express hunger. Cinema Novo, the filmmaker argues, transposed this hunger into violence and initiated a revolutionary cinema. [4] This was, as Johnson affirms, an alternative to “Hollywood’s polished, efficient, idealistic illusionism.”[5] This engagement with a new language was based on Brazil’s social reality and ethics that would permeate its aesthetics.

Scholars of Cinema Novo have written extensively about the cultural and political context of Brazilian cinema in the 1960s and about the style and content of specific films.[6] As a general comment on the first phase of Cinema Novo (classified as such by Johnson and Stam, according to whom the phase ranges from 1960 to 1964; 1964 also marks the year of the coup d’état and the start of the military dictatorship), Johnson and Stam claim that filmmakers employed the production style and methods of the Italian neo-realism and the French nouvelle vague. In particular, these movements used non-professional actors, location shooting and a low-budget production strategy to produce an independent cinema that opposed Hollywood’s commercial aesthetics and was “based on the talent of specific auteurs.”[7] As Ismail Xavier claims, it is important to go beyond the ideological debate that surrounds Glauber Rocha’s cinema and be attentive to the form, that is to say, to be attentive to “the political meaning of the mise-en-scène.”[8]

Black God, White Devil’s narrative focuses on a schematic group of characters that are brought together in the plot. Manuel (the henchman) after killing Coronel Moraes (the landowner) flees to Monte Santo with his wife Rosa. They go to follow Sebastião (the fanatic preacher). After the episode where Rosa kills Sebastião, the couple meet Corisco (the cangaceiro[9]) and his group, and decide to join them. But they are soon found by Antônio das Mortes (killer of cangaceiros) who kills Corisco. After their escape from being killed, Manuel and Rosa’s final act is to run away to the coast, which is suggested in the film’s final image of the sea. The director sought to bring together different temporalities and spatialities in the form of the different historical characters represented. These historical characters have been transformed into mythical characters in the Brazilian imaginary and are iconic images of revolt and revolution in the popular culture of the Brazilian Northeast. For Xavier, Glauber Rocha’s cinema crosses emblematic spaces and brings together “social memory” and “popular imaginary.”[10]

The narrative of Black God, White Devil is, at first glance, composed of binary oppositions: rich versus poor, cangaceiros versus fanatics, good versus evil, God versus the devil and landowners versus peasants. When the spatiality is carefully examined, further oppositions are revealed: Monte Santo versus the plain, internal versus external and the sertão versus the sea. These oppositions reveal the tensions between the frame (parergon) and the dramatic action (ergon). Known to be the founding dichotomies of Rocha’s aesthetic, these are analysed here as spaces of continuity and discontinuity. Rather than focusing on the oppositions this analysis looks for the elements of negotiation between narrative and spectacle. What is argued here is that image, sound and narrative are radically articulated and disarticulated by the different subjectivities constructed by the camera, which are in turn articulated by the presence of the landscape in the film. The landscape is, therefore, at the core of the negotiation between narrative and frame.


From the outset the presentation of the landscape of the sertão reveals the tone of the narrative strategies at stake in the film. It is evident from the images that compose the opening credits of the film that the cinematic space is divided into the space of the earth (physical and human) and the space of heaven (imaginary and sacred). The film’s opening image is a long travelling bird’s eye view of the landscape. While apparently providing an objective image of the landscape with its barren vegetation and arid earth, the aerial camera also evokes a God’s view of the sertão. This wide view is followed by extreme close-up shots of dead animals decomposing under the sun. As Xavier has noted, these images are “emblematic of the drought afflicting the region.”[[11]] The juxtaposition of these images suggests a clear intention to associate the landscape with a narrative constructed by extremes. Firstly, this association is presented by opting for strongly contrasting images that almost erase the middle tones between black and white. The absence of a whole range of greys evokes the devastating presence of the sun without shadows. In this case, far from purifying the scene, the excess of light conceals and blinds. Secondly, it is achieved by opting for the contrast between long shots and close-ups. This strategy uses the observation scale to eliminate medium distances. This radical dislocation between shots places the spectator at the limit of two relations established with the space: the gaze either goes very near the subject in the frame or radically distances itself from it.

The movement from the long shot of the lifeless landscape that privileges the mineral setting of sand and stones to the close-up details of the dead animal points to an exhaustion of the conditions for survival and a negation of life. Another feature of this first sequence is the presentation of a synthetic style in the film. Rather than following the rhythm of the action, the montage accelerates the action by synthesising its temporal curve. According to Xavier:

These brief shots, then, concentrate a dramatic charge of information concerning the drought and the precarious conditions of the sertão life. The drama erupts, and dissolves, rapidly. The synthetic style and the information-laden shock-image condensing a broad range of significations already anticipate the film’s constant modulation of contrasts and energetic leaps.[12]

No significant action is performed by Manuel in his first appearance in the film, but the insertion of the character in the landscape highlights the oppressive conditions of the sertão as indicated by Xavier. The henchman is portrayed looking down at the dead animal. Then, the camera frames Manuel’s body walking towards his horse. As he mounts the horse, another image, this time a high angle long shot, frames Manuel riding away. This sequence starts and ends with an aerial image whose point of view is impossible to identify. It is a higher gaze that often imposes itself over the other narrative devices in the film such as the cordel song that is vocalised by Júlio, a blind repentista (poet-improviser), which recounts the story of Manuel.

The aesthetic and narrative power of the landscape is suggested in a following scene, when the preacher Sebastião is introduced in the film. Poignantly, it starts with a shot of the sky that slowly pans down and frames a group of peasants gathering around Sebastião. The narration of the cordel poem that recounts the story of Manuel is played in the background. The encounter between Sebastião and Manuel is constructed of shot–reverse shot sequences from different angles. This multiplication of angles of vision, which confuses the spectator, shows discontinuous images of the environment and the sertão is presented as a fragmented space. There is a succession of shots and reverse shots from Manuel’s point of view in frenetic movements and that of Sebastião, until Manuel rides away, leaving the frame. The last shot of this sequence returns to its previous position behind the vegetation. The camera peeps through and shows the preacher and his group chanting religious verses and walking in the sertão. These shots behind the vegetation accentuate the presence of the landscape. It is a strategy that reaffirms the presence of the camera that witnesses the story through the layer of the landscape. Furthermore, the persistent framing of the landscape indicates the prevailing presence of the apparatus. The camera, thus, is agitated and anxious. It moves. It changes position. Rather than a film setting that situates the linear development of events, the sertão is constructed as a landscape that has a crucial aesthetic and narrational role that is not subordinated to the plot but is constantly challenging narrative linearity.

Martin Lefebvre suggests that cinematic landscapes emerge with the rhythm of the film between narrative and spectacle:

The interruption of the narrative by contemplation has the effect of isolating the object of the gaze, of momentarily freeing it from its narrative function. Said differently, the contemplation of filmic spectacle depends on an “autonomising” gaze. It is this gaze which enables the notion of filmic landscape in narrative fiction (and event-based documentary) film; it makes possible the transition from setting to landscape. [13]

In line with Martin Lefebvre, Harper and Rayner state that “landscape involves the isolation of a certain spatial extent and a certain temporal length.”[14]The authors emphasise the importance of the frame, which “suggest[s] a reading and limit[s] the range of interpretations”, in the depiction of cinematic landscapes.[15] Landscape’s definition, drawn from the fields of geography and visual arts, refers both to a slice of territory and to a genre of painting where nature – or the outside space – is its main subject. In painting, the idea of landscape as a “space freed from event[s]” was a consequence of a shift from the landscape as an accessory (parergon) to landscape as subject-matter (ergon), which occurred with the birth of a new way of seeing, a new relationship between humans and the land in the transition from feudalism to capitalism during the Renaissance. Landscape was therefore a subjective human experience, and implied an observer. The use of the rules of perspective implied a distant and outside gaze. This is why the geographer Denis Cosgrove defines landscape as a “way of seeing”. Martin Lefebvre argues that not all natural or outside spaces in cinema are landscapes, and he establishes a distinction between setting and landscape, which is primarily based on the space’s relationship to narrative. Hence, a setting is a basic requirement in every narrative film: it is the space where action and events take place. But landscape, as opposed to setting, is concerned with the autonomous character of the cinematic space.

At various moments in the film, Sebastião is depicted preaching to his followers on a hill, which is a significant characteristic of the topography of the region. What characterises the image of Monte Santo is the path made of stones that goes from the bottom to the top, cutting the screen diagonally. As Manuel decides to join Sebastião, who promises a land of green grass and milky rivers, the henchman is depicted climbing up the hill with his wife Rosa, while the preacher’s prophecy dictates that the poor will become rich and the rich will become poor. As Xavier suggests, “metaphorically exploring the topography of the mountain, the narration crystallises the idea of proximity to heaven and immanent ascension.”[16] The path characterises the space-time passage between antagonistic universes: the city and the countryside, the pure and the impure, the sacred and the profane. It is a way up or a way down, from which the characters ascend to the utopian paradise or fall into the harsh reality of the barren landscape. It is on this path of stones that Manuel pays for his sins by carrying a heavy stone on his head and climbs the path on his knees to purify his soul. Two long takes depict Manuel’s suffering as he climbs Monte Santo, while Sebastião appears detached, unemotional.

The sequence leads to a scene where, in Monte Santo, the camera portrays Rosa’s trance in the middle of the praying fanatics, which concludes with her murder of Sebastião. Rosa’s trance represents the highest degree of exasperation and revolt that encompasses the whole sequence: the restlessness of the gaze of the camera towards Manuel and the uneasiness with which it follows his martyrdom become even more heightened in the depiction of Rosa’s despair. According to Avellar, this is the aesthetic that marks the whole film. The scenes “appear on the screen marked by the tension of the gaze: nothing, no image, no action, no tranquil and quiet attitude, no silence means tranquility. Black God, White Devil is at all times agitation, anxiety, indignation.”[17] Rosa’s act of revolt leads to the appearance of Corisco in the plot, when the peasant couple join the cangaceiros.


With the exception of two scenes that break the continuity of the mise en scène, the second half of the film is dedicated to the encounter between Manuel, Rosa and Corisco, the cangaceiro. The representation of Monte Santo in the first half of the film is displayed through different cinematic techniques to construct an autonomous landscape that is constantly fragmenting and disarticulating the logic of the narrative while imposing a cartographic view of the territory from a “higher” perspective. The introduction of Corisco in the narrative privileges the relationship between the characters and the landscape as a stage for their radical performance of revolt. As Xavier noted, Corisco is introduced in the film with a horizontal pan shot:

The sky-earth vertical panoramic transforms into a horizontal panoramic, low-lying in the caatinga, from the vegetation to the long shot that takes us to Corisco, in a movement that is simultaneous to the verse of the narrator who names Corisco as the devil of Lampião. Such inversion in the axis of the panoramic opposes the transition earth-to-earth, the rootedness in the low world of the devil of Lampião, to the elevated referential of the saint.[18]

From this pan shot that presents a close-up view of the cactaceous vegetation, the camera moves horizontally and zooms out rapidly to depict a clearing in the sertão. Surrounded by arid vegetation, the area becomes the stage for Corisco’s expression of revolt.

When focusing on Corisco’s character, the film draws on the Brechtian performance technique of an epic character.[19] The actor’s performance is directed at the camera, which constantly reminds the spectator that the actor is part of a theatrical stage. Corisco’s monologue recounts Lampião’s death and is a crucial moment of Black God, White Devil. It reinforces the aesthetic choices made by Glauber Rocha that were suggested in the first sequence of the film: the accentuated emphasis on extreme distances and tones. This is visible in the zoom that goes from the long shot of the clearing to a close-up of Corisco and his companion Dadá, and in the highly contrasting images of the dry earth and vegetation. In the first long shot of this sequence the characters are not identified. The camera zooms closer and places Corisco at the centre of the frame as he spins with his rifle in his hand.

Several characters are carefully placed in the clearing, among whom are Corisco, Manuel and Rosa. There is a slow-paced movement of the characters in this scene with the exception of Corisco’s brusque movements, which differ from the slow gestures of the others. Corisco’s revolted gestures are completed by the stylistic devices used in one powerful scene: the monologue performed by Corisco re-enacting his final conversation with Lampião. This monologue is a flashback, in which Corisco predicts the ambush that would kill the group’s leader Lampião. This is an unconventional narrative device that breaks with the linearity of the storytelling and challenges the space of the viewer along with the relationship between character and cinematic space. Without the mediation of a narrator, Corisco re-enacts the dialogue and is at once Corisco and Lampião. He begins by announcing: Lampião died, but he still lives inside Corisco’s body. The slight difference in the tone of his voice distinguishes the two personas, which are portrayed by a handheld camera.

The camera is tilted up from a lower angle below Corisco’s eye level and points towards his face. One long uncut shot presents the dialogue uttered in direct speech. In an extreme close-up, Corisco starts the dialogue in which he tells Lampião that the macacos[20] are close by and that he dreamt of Lampião’s assassination. At a lower angle the handheld camera barely moves. Instead, it stays still and witnesses the performance. The actor crouches down slightly to play Corisco and stands tall to play Lampião. What is particularly interesting, as Avellar has pointed out, is the constant negotiation of the space between the staging of the characters and the movement of the camera.[21] Avellar suggests that in this long uncut sequence Corisco is both shot and reverse shot. But instead of an edited sequence of juxtaposed shots, there is only one long shot where the camera and the character movements (framing) are the strategies that distinguish between the personas Corisco plays in this dialogue. In the construction of the myth of Lampião this continuous shot is responsible for the dramatic cutting of space. The face of Corisco, which occupies the entire screen, is the dramatic space of the scene. For Xavier, the use of the handheld camera and the extended duration of the shot expose a different subjectivity in the film, which is not mediated by a character but by the camera:

The shots of this phase of the film tend to create a tension that comes precisely from the peculiarities of the handheld camera. The camera’s unbalanced walk, freedom of movement and trepidation denounce a subjectivity, they reveal a palpitation in the operations of the narration, which level the experience of the camera to that of the characters.[22]

After Corisco’s last statement the camera zooms out. Then, the off-screen sound of a shotgun announces Lampião’s death. The use of the close-up in this long sequence reveals a tension at the level of the cinematographic scale. The frame of the action of the dialogue between Corisco and Lampião radically closes on the face of the actor. This radical juxtaposition of long shots of the landscape and close-ups of Corisco relies on the boundaries of the screen, which gives the same measure to the landscape and the human face.

The scene after the death of Corisco (a death representing the end of the cangaço) is the flight of Manuel and Rosa from the sertão; this ends with an image of the sea. This final sequence is constructed by a horizontal travelling shot of the characters running away. Rosa stumbles and falls during the trajectory but neither the camera nor Manuel stops to look back. As the camera gradually positions itself in front of Manuel, who seems to be desperately attempting to reach it, the shot cuts to a sequence of the sea from a bird’s-eye view angle that is travelling the coastline. The abrupt cut suggests that Manuel does not reach the sea.[23] The film juxtaposes the two images of the prophetic words of Sebastião, reiterated by Corisco’s prediction and by the narration of the cordel poem. However, as the camera traverses the sertão and is followed by Manuel, it detaches the meaning from God and the devil (Sebastião’s mystic significance and Corisco’s insistence on the eternal war in the sertão). The narrative of the cordel poem secularises the land when it sings: “the land belongs to men / It is neither God’s nor the devil’s.”[24] The pan shot, which suddenly cuts to the sea, suggests a landscape always in movement, always mutating and always in the making. Rural to urban migration is allegorically represented. It is not a linear construction that logically articulates the narrative, space and time. Here, the final expression of revolt is suggested in Manuel’s escape from the oppressive landscape in the long take.


Through different aesthetic and narrative strategies, Black God, White Devil radically articulates different subjectivities through which the landscape of the sertão emerges as a space of revolt and revolution. The iconography of the sertão’s landscape is depicted as a stage for the narrative’s emblematic characters: from the preacher Sebastião, who revolts against the newly established Republican order, to the bandit Corisco, who revolts against the powerful landowners. When the film focuses on Sebastião the landscape is split between heaven and earth, which are represented as real and imagined spaces and are connected by the path that leads to the salvation in Monte Santo. Whereas when the film focuses on Corisco the landscape is depicted as a stage in which the cangaceiro performs his theatrical monologue. Here, the body of Corisco is scrutinised by the camera from his face (close-up) to his typical costume and is explored as a landscape. The duration of Corisco’s close-ups, which are closely examined by the camera, can be compared to the examination of the landscape of the sertão in long shots. It is the manifestation of the character’s utmost subjectivity, which is constructed by the camera’s framing and point of view. Glauber Rocha used various narrative devices that combined to continuously articulate and disarticulate narrative and spectacle. Image, sound and narrative often contradict each other making the spectator aware of the camera, which orders, transforms and rearranges the landscape through its various angles, framings and points of view.

The relationship between landscape and revolt in Black God, White Devil becomes evident in the examination of the film’s aesthetic and narrative strategies. The exacerbated characteristics of the sertão indicated that the territory lends itself to a cinematic construction that places the frame (the parergon) in the foreground. Glauber Rocha’s preoccupation with the creation of a revolutionary cinematic aesthetic is in continuous dialogue with his concern with historical and popular narratives.

[1] With regards to the aesthetic of this film, Johnson writes: “Black God, White Devil deals with the real while denying realism as a mode of representation. Its narrative plays with contrasts, juxtaposing sometimes agonizing temporal dilations with frenetic camera movements and rapid montage.” [Johnson,Cinema Novo x 5, 130.]

[2] The lyrics for the cordel poem used as a narrative device in Black God, White Devil were written by Glauber Rocha and the music composed by Sérgio Ricardo.

[3] Rocha, “Estética da fome,” 63-67.

[4] Ibid., 65-6.

[5] Johnson, Cinema Novo x 5, 120.

[6] They include the work of authors such as José Carlos Avellar, Jean-Claude Bernadet, Randal Johnson, Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes, Robert Stam and Ismail Xavier, among others.

[7] Johnson and Stam, Brazilian Cinema, 32-3.

[8] Xavier, Sertão mar, 7.

[9] In the Brazilian Northeast’s rural society, Virgulino Ferreira da Silva, best known as Lampião – the most prominent character of the cangaço movement, was the leader of a group of cangaceiros for two decades in the beginning of the twentieth century. This movement of social banditry, acutely associated with violence and criminality, is also said to have in the figure of the cangaceiros the mark of a failed society. The movement cannot be dissociated from its place of origin, the sertão. In a place distant from the urban civilisation, with histories of messianic movements violently ended by the powers of the Republic, justice was in the hands of the local landowners, where customary laws were replaced by institutional ones. [Jasmin, “A Guerra das Imagens,” 16.] Hobsbawm affirms that: “The point about social bandits is that they are peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation, and in any case as men to be admired, helped and supported.” [Ibid., 20.] In Brazil, the cangaceiros have been transformed into national symbols of resistance and revolt: “It was in the 1960s and 1970s that a new generation of intellectuals transformed the cangaceiro into a symbol of Brazilianness, of the fight for freedom and the power of the oppressed.” [Ibid., 164.]

[10] Xavier, Sertão mar, 10.

[11] Xavier, “Black God, White Devil,” 136.

[12] Ibid., 136-7.

[13] Lefebvre, “Between Setting and Landscape,” 29. (Author’s emphasis).

[14] Harper and Rayner, “Introduction – Cinema and Landscape.” 16.

[15] Ibid., 17.

[16] Xavier, “Black God, White Devil,” 140-1.

[17] Avellar, Deus e o diabo na terra do sol, 74. Original version: “aparece na tela marcada pela tensão do olhar: nada, nenhuma imagem, nenhuma ação, nenhuma atitude tranqüila e sossegada, nenhum silêncio é tranqüilidade. Deus e o diabo na terra do sol é todo o tempo agitação, ansiedade, indignação.”

[18] Xavier, Sertão mar, 122. Original version: “A panorâmica vertical céu-terra transforma-se numa panorâmica horizontal, rasteira, na caatinga, da vegetação ao plano aberto que nos leva a Corisco, num movimento que é simultâneo ao verso do cantador que nomeia Corisco, o Diabo de Lampião. Tal inversão de eixo na panorâmica opõe a transição terra-a-terra, o enraizamento no baixo mundo do Diabo de Lampião, ao referencial elevado do santo.”

[19] See Avellar, Deus e o diabo na terra do sol, 46.

[20] The original English translation is “monkeys.” In the context of the cangaço it designates the jagunços: men hired by the government or local landowners to protect their private properties and kill those who threaten them.

[21] Avellar, Deus e o diabo na terra do sol, 14-6.

[22] Xavier, Sertão mar, 103. Original version: “… os planos-seqüência dessa fase do filme tendem a criar uma tensão que vem exatamente das peculiaridades da câmera na mão. Seu andar desequilibrado, sua liberdade de movimentos e sua trepidação denunciam uma subjectividade por trás da objectiva, revelam uma palpitação nas operações de quem narra de modo a nivelar sua experiência às das personagens.”

[23] This scene was studied by many critics, among which were Ismail Xavier, José Carlos Avellar, Randal Johnson. The last of these affirms that “what is important is the moment of transformation, the explosion, the ecstasy of resurrection, and not necessarily the results of the transformation.” [Johnson,Cinema Novo x 5, 135.]

[24] Original version: “E a terra é do homem / Não é de Deus nem do diabo.”


Avellar, José Carlos. Deus e o diabo na terra do sol: a linha reta, o melaço de cana e o retrato do artista quando jovem. Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 1995.

Harper, Graeme and Rayner, Jonathan, ed. Cinema and Landscape: Film, Nation and Cultural Geography. Bristol: Intellect, 2010.

Hobsbawm, Eric. Bandits. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000.

Jasmin, Élise. “A Guerra das Imagens: Quando o Cangaço Descobre a Fotografia.” In Cangaceiros, edited by Élise Jasmin, 15-32. São Paulo: Terceiro Nome, 2006.

Johnson, Randal. Cinema Novo x 5: Masters of Contemporary Brazilian Film. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984.

Johnson, Randal and Stam, Robert. Brazilian Cinema. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Lefebvre, Martin. “Between Setting and Landscape in the Cinema.” In Landscape and Film, edited by Martin Lefebvre, 19-59. London and New York: Routledge, 2006.

Rocha, Glauber. Revolução do Cinema Novo. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2004.

Xavier, Ismail. “Black God, White Devil: the Representation of History.” In Brazilian Cinema, edited by Randal Johnson and Robert Stam, 134-148. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Xavier, Ismail. Sertão Mar: Glauber Rocha e a Estética da Fome. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2007.
THE AUTHOR Mariana A. C. da Cunha holds an MA in Cultural and Critical Studies (2004) and a PhD (2010) from Birkbeck, University of London. Her thesis focuses on the construction of cinematic landscapes in Brazilian cinema, particularly in films that portray rural-urban migration. She was a Brazilian Studies Leitora at Queen Mary, University of London (2005-2009) and at Oxford University (2010-2011). She also studied a documentary filmmaking course at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV of San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba (2008), during which she co-directed a short documentary entitled “Fieles a Nuestra Historia”..

first published here: http://cinemiz.net/cifj/?p=4

January 26, 2012

33. Les hautes solitudes – Philippe Garrel

Filed under: film as subversive art — ABRAXAS @ 11:05 pm

Les hautes solitudes
In keeping with the vast majority of the films of its writer/director, Philippe Garrel, Les hautes solitudes (1974) is an intensely personal experience. A film in which characters thrown together in empty rooms stung by silence drift between fleeting glances, reacting or not reacting as the case may be to what is said, what isn’t said, and everything in-between. It is, as one might expect given its technical presentation, a fairly impenetrable work, though one that we’re free to carry with us; ruminating on each tattered scene as we gather up our thoughts like raindrops, either during the experience of viewing or afterwards, and inevitably projecting our own thoughts and feelings (or personal preconceptions) onto the images, or its central characters, who remain vague and elusive; indistinguishable from the actors who play them and whose faces dominate each single-shot close-up composition, used throughout to establish a story – or a sense of narrative that exists between sleep and nothing – to reveal a sense of the great loneliness that the title of the film so perfectly describes.

Although the intentions of Les hautes solitudes remain unclear, obscured by the closeness of the compositions or the complete lack of any kind of conventional soundtrack to make explicit those stolen moments of thought, we can at least take the film to be a kind of silent-study of its three individual characters; the actresses Jean Seberg and Tina Aumont, and the singer and musician Nico, whose decade-long relationship with Garrel has become a spectre that haunts the very framework of his cinema, stretching as far back as her earliest appearance in the abstract, esoteric drama The Inner Scar (La cicatrice intérieure, 1972), to the recollections of her spirit and the void left in her absence in films like Emergency Kisses (Les baisers de secours, 1989) or I Don’t Hear the Guitar Any More (J’entends plus la guitar, 1991).

In Les hautes solitudes, it is Nico’s face that we see first, slumped in a kind of morose contemplation as the images flicker with a Murnau-like intensity, as the antique quality of the composition reminds us, subconsciously, of the world of Faust (1926) or Nosferatu (1922); suggesting that feeling of the supernatural, gothic and severe, or of a nocturnal underworld devoid of time and place. As was the case with Garrel’s earlier silent film, Le révélateur (1968), there is that sense of a world in which life has stopped dead; where we witness these characters interacting, thinking – the expressions on their faces telling a story in the loosest possible sense – but they, like us, are still waiting; waiting for something (anything) to happen. Good or bad, we don’t quite know, but there is a continual feeling that the world around them has fallen away, leaving only the four-walls, floors and ceilings of the apartment, the empty street bellow and those other spaces, rubble and mirrors, that seem to be beyond our basic comprehension.

Les hautes solitudes directed by Philippe Garrel, 1974:

Nosferatu directed by F.W. Murnau, 1922:

Le révélateur directed by Philippe Garrel, 1968:

In this sense, the film becomes a sort of ghost story in which the inability of one character to relate to another character is conveyed through the intensity of those exhausting compositions of actors attempting to express thoughts and emotions – or the basic human need to a feel a part of something meaningful or substantial – but silenced, literally, by Garrel’s particular filmmaking approach. By removing the soundtrack completely, so that not even a musical score or a drone of ambient white-noise can block out our own thoughts (either on the subject of the film, or our thoughts in general), Garrel makes the breakdown in communication between his four central characters – the three women and the actor Laurent Terzieff – all the more palpable; as lips move and the eyes dart back and forth from one side of the frame to another in a parody of conversation while the scene remains silent. The words literally cannot express the complexity of the emotions felt or experienced by these four lead protagonists, just as they fail to fully express our own relationship with them or with the film in question.

We never know if these actors are playing characters, or instead playing themselves, or even if their relationships extend beyond the actual beginning and end of the drama. Such questions remain on our mind throughout the film, as we watch these dramas play-out in bedrooms and kitchens, filled with looks and smiles which could be genuine – as in developing naturally from the drama and the interactions of the characters – or could be a cheat, as in those stolen moments, taken between takes and continuing the often Brechtian, deconstructive aspect that Garrel employs throughout. The accumulative effect of these images is eventually closer to the avant-garde of Stan Brakhage than the cinema of Vigo or Jean Eusrache, as the film becomes an installation piece, just there, in front of us, but beyond a reasonable grasp.

It is an impossible film to really pin-down and explain what is what without the benefit of further reading; with each reaction or spontaneous smile following a scene of full-face emotion disarming us, throwing our interpretations into confusion, leading to greater questions, thoughts and misunderstandings, etcetera. At certain points it seems like a depressing film, as Seberg, still beautiful, but quite clearly a world-away from the lively young girl of Bonjour Tristesse (1958) or À bout de souffle (1960), breaks down in tears and is comforted by Aumont, who reminds us of what a great and expressive actress she was away from the dull exploitation of films like Torso (I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale/Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence, 1973) or The Howl (L’urlo, 1970). However, at other times the mood is playful, as we sense some of the fun and the frivolity of this collective of likeminded individuals, friends and collaborators, producing a film, a personal and to some extents private work (as Garrel’s work often seems to be), in the solitude of a rented apartment building.

Despite such moments, which could very easily be another example of Garrel’s deconstruction of the film, allowing shots to run further than the moment of the cut – or the way in which the whole thing becomes about the process of filmmaking itself – it is the gloom and the inability of the characters to communicate that we eventually come back to. A haunted film in many respects, in which characters are introduced, either slumbering or on the precipice of sleep (Nico and Seberg) or instead gazing into windows or pools of mirrored reflections (Aumont and Terzieff); or where the high-contrast black and white and the fragmented framing of images, as half-lit faces, hands and arms, expressions hidden, either by the characters themselves or by the doorways that get in the way of the action as we intrude, silently, upon the scene, becomes yet another barrier.

Les hautes solitudes directed by Philippe Garrel, 1974:

Beyond this, we’re left with Seberg’s face, which dominates the film, full of expression, even if the ability to plainly express in words seems to be beyond her. The fact that Seberg would be dead by the end of the decade, just three months shy of her 41st birthday, gives the film an added sense of tragedy that may not have been the intention. And when we take into consideration the early deaths of Nico (1938-1988) and Aumont (1946-2006), the idea of a ghost story, or a haunted film, becomes all the more concrete. Such ideas become manifest when combined with the cinematography, the sparseness of the locations and the feeling that time has become a mere affectation. From the first appearance of Seberg seven-minutes into the film, tossing and turning in bed and appearing to eventually fall asleep (in real-time) before a fade to black implies the passage between night and day, the narrative seems suspended, as moments pass, but with no real urgency, nothing to move along to besides the same old rooms and faces.

As a study for Serberg, or of Seberg, the film is absolutely riveting, as we watch with complete fascination the bombardment of emotions, or facial expressions, of acting at its most naked and unrefined, being projected as Garrel cuts in and out of these blurred relationships, where each look to the camera, beyond the camera, to the empty spaces that mock us with their vacant austerity, reminding us of the windows where life should be. Can we take hope from that penultimate shot, which lasts for several minutes and shows Seberg, bathed in glowing light and buried beneath an attractive sunhat, as she coyly expresses a range of conflicted facial expressions as if putting on an audition (for Garrel, and by extension the audience), or is the hope destroyed by the final plunging retreat into backlit melancholia? A silhouetted pose, cigarette smoke and “Les hautes solitudes”, as Seberg returns to the darkness, away from the bright white light that filters in through the bedroom window; away from the fantasy ideal of what could have been, or should have been, if only things had been different.

Les hautes solitudes directed by Philippe Garrel, 1974:

The End… by Nico, 1974:

Les hautes solitudes directed by Philippe Garrel, 1974:

It is that particular presentation of characters in a state of trance, fearfully in danger, which makes it impossible not to be reminded of Nico’s music; with the mood and tone reflecting songs like ‘Innocent and Vain’ or ‘Frozen Warnings’, or the lyrical reflections of ‘Afraid’; as her voice, an aching monotone, reassures us, but also hold the mirror to the heartbreaking line “you are beautiful and you are alone.” Such associations are impossible to ignore given the intensity of these two individuals and their relationship, which dominated a period of creativity that resulted in the conception of great music and great cinema (and the spaces between the two). Let’s not forget that a colour-tinted still of the film even featured on the cover of Nico’s album The End (1973), or that Garrel originally intended to use segments of Nico’s music as a soundtrack to the film, before Seberg suggested that the images remain silent.

As the film ends we’re left with as many questions as when it began; basic questions, like who are these people and what do they want? What were the intentions of the filmmaker? What role does the supposed influence of Nietzsche’s The Antichrist (first published, 1888) have on the world of the film or the development of its narrative? …And so on. The only thing we’re really sure of is Seberg’s brilliance and Garrel’s genius, creating a film that is entirely dependent on the interpretations of the audience, as we project our own thoughts and feelings in an attempt to understand these characters and their complex interrelationships. In introducing his own work, Nietzsche wrote that “In order to understand the book, one must be honest in intellectual matters to the point of harshness to so much as endure my seriousness, my passion.” “Let us look one another in the face.” These words, which resonate on a monumental level when watching the reactions of these three no-longer-with us cult-icons, could just as easily be the introduction to Garrel’s intensely personal film.

this article first published here: http://lightsinthedusk.blogspot.com/2009/07/les-hautes-solitudes.html

January 25, 2012

34. The Heart of the World – Guy Maddin

Filed under: film as subversive art — ABRAXAS @ 9:21 pm

CINEMATIC EXPRESSIONS OF THE ANIMA—Guy Maddin’s The Heart of the World (2000)

Guy Maddin’s The Heart of the World was prepared for the 25th anniversary of the Toronto International Film Festival, is only six minutes long, and purports to offer a founding myth on cinema itself. It was chosen by Vincent Canby of The New York Times as one of the 10 best films of the year 2000, surely a first for a film so short.

As Wikipedia summarizes the plot: Two brothers, mortician Nikolai and actor Osip (playing Christ in a Passion Play), love the same woman—scientist Anna, who studies the earth’s core, or the “heart of the world.” Anna discovers that the world is in danger. In order to save it, she must choose between the brothers, and finally decides on a rich industrialist, Akmatov. As a result, the very heart of the world has a heart attack. Realizing what she has done, she strangles Akmatov and enters the earth’s core, replacing the failed heart with her own. The world is then saved by the new message, Kino.

Kino, of course, is Russian for “cinema” and is, likewise, the root of the word “kinetic”, an adjective completely appropriate to Maddin’s “founding myth on cinema.” Maddin deliberately references and parodies soviet montage cinema of the 1920s, German Expressionism of the 1920s, and silent melodrama film. He cites Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and La Fin du monde (1931), which likewise employs an end-of-world scenario with tension between two brothers (a scientist and a Christ figure). Mark Peranson describes Maddin’s short as a “Soviet-constructivist-cum-sci-fi head rush … shot out of an Uzi of inspiration.” His City Pages cohort Rob Nelson describes it as a “six-minute music-video-cum-Eisensteinian-sci-fi-workout.” Hyphenated descriptions abound to situate Maddin’s mash-up of styles and techniques.

Beebe—cognizant of the “workout”—reminds us that he specifically chose to screen The Heart of the World because it privileges image over narrative. He encourages us to let the images of the film wash over us and stresses that watching movies is good training in “image sense.”

State scientist Anna (Leslie Bais) is the anima of Maddin’s The Heart of the World. Anima is, indeed, the archetype at the heart of filmmaking itself. Proposing that we watch the film three times to sift out and strengthen reactions (or as one IMdb user wrly phrased it: “watch, rinse, repeat”), Beebe asks us after the first screening for an adjective to describe our reactions. Several come up—agitated, melodramatic, frenetic, exaggerated, paniced, pressured, frantic, intense, visceral—all of which, Beebe offers, would be adequate to describe the anima. The film colonizes the body with somatized sensations, underscoring that the anima is a maddening urgency from within. Freudians don’t much like the anima; for them it’s the infantile psyche, hysterical. Many men would rather develop a strong persona than develop their anima. Rather than carefully dismantling defenses, they would rather shore up the persona.

I mention that one of the images that most struck me was the silent film convention of the aperture, the iris, as a means of access to the film’s events. Beebe quotes Wim Wenders’ comment that “film is seeing” and appends that the anima is seeing film with the anima eye. Whose eye is looking out from the screen? Is it Anna’s as she looks into the machine that allows her to see the disconcerting and cephalopodic heart of the world? He thinks so.

Anna, however, is not an anima personal to Guy Maddin but more what James Hillman has described as the anima mundi: the soul of the world or culture’s soul. Looking at her as she announces her dire predictions (“triple-checked”) channeled through Soviet agitprop conventions, she exemplies what happens when one is caught in the grip of the anima; a kind of propagandistic impulse; a propaganda suffused with idealism; an idealistic urgency to save the world. There is this redemptive quality to the anima and, Beebe wonders if we identify with the anima when we wish redemption?

Beebe reiterates that The Heart of the World is a founding myth about how movies are made. It’s heraldic, announcing the triumph of a new world order through cinema. And it details the historicity of the process by which cinema achieves integrity. Anima is implicated in the development of integrity. At the beginning of the film Anna is in love with two brothers: Nikolai (Shaun Balbar), the mortician-engineer, and Osip (Caelum Vatnsdal), the actor playing Jesus who is likewise suffering a Messianic complex. Both brothers are stricken by Anna’s beauty and battle for her attention. When Anna pronounces the grim fate of the world, they compete for a solution.

Beebe suggests Nikolai, the mortician, represents cinema’s initial murderous gaze, the original impulse to document and record through film, freezing (killing) things in time, nailing bodies in coffins (commensurate to finishing films up and putting them “in the can”). Osip, in his guise as Jesus, adopts the opposite position, representing a cinema that is a spiritual experience where bodies are resurrected and freed from their coffins. As an aside, Beebe admits to becoming “hot” at horatory cinema meant to exhort; cinema’s popular usage to push spiritual agendas. Clearly, both approaches are fraught with peril and neither—in Maddin’s film—serve to save the heart of the world. One rages forward with cold-hearted progress; the other performs miracles through reverse footage. One of my favorite images is the horror on Nikolai’s face when he witnesses Osip’s resurrected corpses. In a way, their opposing approaches negate each other.

Then along comes the dark horse contender, a lustful industrialist named Akmatov (Greg Klymkiw), who seduces and sways Anna with his chest of gold coins. She swoons and is taken by him on their honeymoon. One IMdb user describes Akmatov as a “plutocrat”, which—though it was not discussed at the seminar—is an intriguing mythic reference for me, in the sense that “Pluto” (aka Hades), is a Lord of Abduction (as in the Persephone myth) who as King of the Underworld has access to the mineral wealth—veins of gold and sparkling gemstones—beneath the surface of the earth. Though Dr. Beebe claims it’s gold coins that are being shoveled into Akmatov’s phallic cannon, I’m not convinced and can’t quite tell from the film itself; they look more to me like diamonds and chunks of coal, in turn. Either way, gold or diamonds, they suggest underworld wealth. If the marriage of Hades and Persephone is, indeed, a configuration of a woman’s marriage initiation, is it any wonder that a diamond ring set in gold is used to seal the contract?

Why would Anna choose the aggressive Industrialist? Does she really choose, or does she simply succumb? In the face of an assertive will, Beebe suggests, the anima can retreat into a vegetative state, much like the story of Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne and her winsome smile over the shoulder as she transforms into an inaccessible laurel tree.

Unfortunately, by choosing Akmatov, the world suffers a seismic heart attack. This heartquake (earthquake?) jolts Anna back into conscious action, reminding her that her true mission is to save the world. She strangles Akmatov and sacrifices herself to become the world’s heart transplant. By this act the world is reborn as cinema and is shown projected onto the hearts of the world’s inhabitants.

There’s a lot to tease out here. First, as a style of cinema—in contrast to Nikolai’s documentary approach and Osip’s horatory approach—Akmatov represents commercial cinema, Hollywood as we know it today, where the bottom line rules even as expensive movies are made about how bad money is. One could say that—because the movie industry is anima-driven—it is money-crazy. And therein lies the anima’s dilemma. Just as Luis Buñuel vociferously detested Nicholas Ray’s dinner party assertion that each movie he makes must cost more than the one he’s just finished in order to remain a successful filmmaker, the temptation of financing must either be resisted or finagled in order for the integrity of creative vision to exist. Film is for the realization of an integrity of vision. This aligns with James Hillman’s thesis in Thought of the Heart and Soul of the World, wherein the “thought of the heart” is understood as the capacity to imagine truly. In The Heart of the World, Maddin pleads a case for visionary filmmaking; his kind of filmmaking.

Anna has to kill her strange bedfellow the Industrialist in order to overcome her sellout and to return to her mission. Anna becomes an imagemaking faculty. She becomes a radiant star. When the anima is integrated, it becomes a function, hopefully a broadened transcendent function. This references the idea that the anima is also fate; that the anima is trying to live out her own fate. Anima integration is more believable in those who can be vulnerable. Anima starts out as an almost ridiculously-hyped subjectivity. If the anima is integrated, a balanced subjectivity becomes possible.

keep reading this article here: http://theeveningclass.blogspot.com/2008/03/cinematic-expressions-of-animaguy.html

35. Death in the Seine – Peter Greenaway

Filed under: film as subversive art — ABRAXAS @ 8:10 am

The post-mortem image: Peter Greenaway’s documentary Death in the Seine and writing the history of a corpse

Authors: C. David Bertolini
DOI: 10.1386/sdf.1.3.279_1

documentary, Greenaway, Paris, Deleuze, Žižek, death

This article explores Peter Greenaway’s film, Death in the Seine, as a relationship between the act of documentation, the document in-itself, and the implicit conflict between reality, memories and records. The film documents events during post-revolution France through the observations by two mortuary attendants named Bouille and Daude whose notes list those who drowned in the Seine. The facts that comprise the film come from the work of the historian Richard Cobb who painstakingly researched the contents of the eighteenth-century French mortuary log. Death in the Seine relies on actual facts, but simultaneously questions the viability of their truth-claims. The truth-claims reflect an emerging conflict between history and the fragile objective technologies used to document and organize events. I demonstrate how the film directly challenges truth-claims through the medium of remembering – writing, filming and recollection – and to understand their implications I will examine them through the lens of Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze. I will situate what I call the ‘post-mortem image’ (the image of the immediate dead) within the broader context of the social-symbolic network of documentation.

the abstract first published here: http://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/journals/view-Article,id=6644/

January 24, 2012

36. The Grandmother – David Lynch

Filed under: film as subversive art — ABRAXAS @ 8:11 am

The Grandmother reviewed by Tim Maloney

Tim Maloney teaches film at California State University, Fullerton.

The Grandmother (1970 USA 34 mins)

Prod, Dir, Scr, Phot, Anim: David Lynch Mus: Tractor Sound: Alan R. Splet

Cast: Richard White, Dorothy McGinnis, Virginia Maitland, Robert Chadwick

When David Lynch began filming The Grandmother he was still a painter exploring the possibilities of film rather than a filmmaker per se. His previous shorts, Six Figures Getting Sick (1966) and The Alphabet (1968) last under five minutes in total, and the former was part of a mixed-media installation included in a gallery show. The Grandmother, then, is Lynch’s first major film in terms of length, style, and choice of material.

Describing the events of the film elicits more questions than answers, and this seems to be part of its design.

The story of the film is something along these lines. Mom and Dad wriggle up from the ground. They rut like animals, and their Boy is born from the ground in much the same way as they were. The Boy is neither understood nor loved, and his dog-like parents bark his name at him: Mutt! The Boy is incontinent, and his father beats him for it, rubbing the unfortunate child’s face in the bright yellow stain on the bed. Unhappy, the Boy finds a seed, plants it on a bed, waters, waits, and a Grandmother sprouts out to love and comfort him.

At a particularly difficult family dinner the Boy flees his enraged drunken father and goes to the Grandmother’s welcoming embrace. He fantasises about executing his parents by crushing them. He and the Grandmother spend some time poking each other with their index fingers, then she enables him to grow into some kind of dribbling cartoon flower. Sadly, the Grandmother whistles herself to death, and the Boy is despondent. The last image is troubling and difficult to describe, suggesting the Boy has somehow killed himself.

Of course this description says almost nothing about the experience of watching the film.

Lynch’s films have often been compared to dreams, and The Grandmother doesn’t do anything to disprove that reading. There is no dialogue, save the word “Mutt” grunted by the parents. There seems to be a law of cause and effect at work here, but the mechanisms by which the causes lead to the effects is obscured. For example, consider the scene after the Boy “kills” his parents. There is a cut to the bed, it fills with yellow paint until it overflows the room. The next shot shows what seems to be some kind of animated aquifer filling with yellow liquid; next, a long white plank, and the animated Boy falling off it, into the urine aquifer, splashing out yellow clouds; next, hoses puff up the animated father and mother until rods burst them.

These things follow one another, certainly, but not because anyone ever expected them to. And their enigmatic presentation – the reduction of parent-child relationships to simple gestures, juxtapositions of bodies and understated movements – has led some to indulge in Freudian analyses of the film, writing about symbolic Father-killings and the Mother’s embrace and rejection of the Boy in terms of Oedipal Complexes, and so on. To be sure, these images do convey some kind of primitive emotion. It is murky and hard-to-define, but it is there, accomplished through the images rather than through dialogue or some chamber-room drama. As such, one might first let the images and sounds of this presentation flow over him or her, and not work terribly hard to assign logic or “meaning” to any of the proceedings.

Lynch claims his interest in film stems from the desire to see his paintings move (1), and The Grandmother is full of painterly qualities and concerns, particularly in the use of a reduced colour palette. The walls and furniture are painted black, and the Boy is dressed in a black and white tuxedo. All of the actors wear pancake make-up, with only a trace of red lipstick on the mouth. When Mom and Dad are onscreen Lynch includes green and red in the frame – both on Mom’s dress and on the furniture of the dining room. There is more colour contrast in scenes which show a bright blue sky with the yellow sun and moon. This yellow colour acts as a visual accent in the Boy’s bedroom, where the bright stain on the bed sheets is the central focus. Black-and-white footage, with its greatest possible colour reduction, is interspersed, most notably in the death of the Grandmother.

A possible visual antecedent for the film could be Francis Bacon, whose 1954 painting “Figure with Meat” has precisely the same black background, limned with white, as The Grandmother’s set. And the shots of Lynch’s Boy, in the midst of being punished, frozen in time, his mouth an open, dark hole, screaming for entirely too long, recall Bacon’s “Screaming Pope” (1952). Precedents for Lynch’s filmmaking choices include, perhaps, the pixilated people of Norman McLaren’s Neighbours (1952), the cryptic, cabalistic cut-outs of Harry Smith’s Heaven and Earth Magic (1962), and Maya Deren’s dreamlike Meshes in the Afternoon (1943). It’s reasonable to suspect the young art student Lynch attended these films with interest, as they would have been readily available and part of most art-school curricula at the time.

The Grandmother is also Lynch’s first collaboration with Alan Splet, his sound designer through to Blue Velvet (1986). Splet’s sound design adds to the dreamlike quality of the film. Some sounds synch to on-screen activities (voices, the rustling of leaves), but there are far more purely atmospheric sounds – such as hisses and rhythmic noises, gloomy German-influenced electronic music (2).

Even Lynch’s latest features, Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Dr. (2001), show the same tendency to abandon classic storytelling guidelines and formulas in favour of a visual, sonic, emotional climax. The most remarkable moments in his films are the ones in which the viewer is somehow panicked and uneasy, carried along by the sounds and pictures that cannot be easily described. But the feeling remains, and the experience is unforgettable.

This comment, and others, are derived from the interviews contained on the most recent DVD of Lynch’s shorts, available from his own website. As of 2002, which is admittedly some time later than The Grandmother’s production schedule, Lynch still seems unable to put any of the motivations and artistic underpinnings of any of his projects into words. For that we are relieved; if he were able, he would probably write essays and not make films.
It is particularly helpful to think of bands like Kraftwerk, Neu!, Faust and Cluster as comparisons. Lynch credits his soundtrack to “Tractor”. No information is available about this group, and a likely speculation is that it is really Lynch and Splet.

this article first published here: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2006/cteq/the-grandmother/

January 23, 2012

37. Testament of Orpheus – Jean Cocteau

Filed under: film as subversive art — ABRAXAS @ 11:57 am

Historical Background: Jean Cocteau’s “Orphic Trilogy” provides bookends and a centerpiece for his film career. The Blood of a Poet (1930) was Cocteau’s debut film and Testament of Orpheus (1959) his farewell to moviemaking. The latter followed a decade after Orphée (1949), which was, along with La Belle et la Bête (1946), Cocteau’s crowning achievement in the film medium. Cocteau directed only six films, since he divided his creative energies between poetry, painting, sculpting, and writing novels.

Testament of Orpheus is as much a farewell party as anything else, in which Cocteau effectively roasts himself. It is a kind of assessment of his own life as an artist and a search for the meaning of art. On the one hand, it is a rather heady intellectual journey in search of meaning, but it is all done with so much joie de vie that one rather enjoys it like a lively party. Many of Cocteau’s old friends are invited. Five of the cast members from Orphée (Jean Marais, Maria Casares, Edouard Dermit, François Perier and Henri Cremieux) are back for another turn as well as such luminaries as Pablo Picasso, Jean-Pierre Leaud, François Truffaut, Yul Brynner, Roger Vadim, Brigette Bardot, and Françoise Sagan, either in cameos or assisting in the production. Testament of Orpheus could have been grotesquely self-indulgent, but instead has a playful, joyful, and modestly self-reflective sincerity about it.

The Story: A prologue briefly recaps the ending of Orphée, in which The Princess (Maria Casares) and Heurtebise (François Perier) are headed toward “final death” (one always has to specify final death when that is what’s meant, in relation to Cocteau plots, since he was obsessed with the notion of resurrection). The plot, if one can call it such, opens with a poet (played by Cocteau himself) in 18th-century garb bouncing around the space-time continuum, intersecting with the life of a scientist at various stages of his development, from mere infant to old man. He finally encounters the scientist (Henri Cremieux) at his peak and enlists his aid in being returned to his own time. Cocteau suddenly emerges in a 1959 outfit into his own world – or, at least, his own world more or less, for it is a world between life and death in which Cocteau encounters a series of characters of his own creation from Orphée as well as an assortment of gods and goddesses of Greek mythology. Prominent among these is Cegeste, played by Edouard Dhermitte, who was also Cocteau’s adoptive son in real life. Cegeste appears, in a nifty bit of reverse photography, springing from the ocean and gliding effortlessly up to an overhanging cliff. The unfortunate Cegeste, at the end of Orphée, had been left behind and alone and now demands to know why the author left his fate unresolved. Cegeste hands Cocteau a flower, which the artist attempts to sketch, but instead involuntarily renders a drawing of himself instead. Cocteau destroys the flower in anger and, when chastised by Cegeste, delicately reconstructs it. Cegeste has come to fetch Cocteau, who must stand trial before a tribunal, which, however, is composed of only two inquisitors, The Princess and Heurtebise. Cocteau is charged with repeatedly attempting to trespass into another world (through poetry). Cocteau is given the minimum sentence – life, which at his age will likely to a short sentence indeed. Cocteau must then present his art, in the form of the flower, to the goddess Athena. This entails a prolonged bureaucratic wait before a doorman (Yul Brenner) and some business with a couple of centaurs and an archer goddess. Cocteau is shot clean through and killed by the goddess but is then duly resurrected amidst the mournful attendants to continue his artist’s journey through time and space.

Themes: Testament of Orpheus is an intellectual mediation on the nature of art and the relationship between the artist and his work. Quite honestly, it would not be very interesting as such, were it not for the delightful arsenal of images that Cocteau manufacturers to enliven and embellish a rather dry premise.

Production Values: What makes this film worthwhile is the unfettered creativity of Cocteau’s images. There is a lot of use of one of film’s oldest tricks – reversal of images. This allows a flower to be recomposed, water vapor to reform as a bubble, a man to leap out of the ocean to a cliff, the ashes of a photograph to reassemble out of the fire into the intact piece, and a chalk drawing to be un-erased onto a blackboard. There is a solitary color scene, highlighting a rose and a pool of blood, amidst the otherwise black-and-white film. We see parody of Cocteau’s own previous work when a pair of motorcycle cops show up near the end but turn out to be merely what they appear to be – traffic cops. We see a rich assortment of Cocteau’s highly imaginative paintings. We are shown a mock quiz show in which the young female contestant brilliantly answers questions pertaining to Greek mythology, but, when asked who Jean Cocteau is, suggest that he is a musician who plays “the buffoon.” There’s a rich assortment of mythological images and references and some startling use of surrealism. That all of this was accomplished prior to the advent of high-tech special effects speaks volumes for Cocteau’s creativity.

Bottom-Line: As I suggested earlier, this film is pretty much a farewell party for Cocteau and, as such, your enjoyment will depend largely on how well you know the man and admired his work to begin with. I don’t recommend seeing this film until you’ve seen, at least, Orphée and, better still, La Belle et la Bête as well. Testament of Orpheus is in French with English subtitles and has a running time of 80 minutes. The Criterion DVD is included in a special boxed set called the “Orphic Trilogy” along with The Blood of a Poet (1930) and Orphée. The quality of the reconstructions by Criterion are superlative for the two more recent films of the trilogy but The Blood of a Poet suffers from poor image quality. Given Criterion’s impeccable reputation, one has to assume that the shortcomings relating to The Blood of a Poet are due to the limitations in the quality of source material available. This special Cocteau set is loaded with extras, including a 1984 autobiographical documentary by Cocteau, writings by Cocteau on all three films, and a color short by Cocteau called Villa Santo Sospir shot in 16 mm film.

this article first published here: http://www.epinions.com/review/mvie_mu-1037420/content_153938333316

38. Mysterious Object at Noon – Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Filed under: film as subversive art — ABRAXAS @ 12:09 am

Weerasethakul was born in 1970 and is an architect, multimedia artist, and experimental filmmaker. His singular Mysterious Object at Noon (2000) — showing at the Film Center on Thursday, March 28; the filmmaker will be present — was financed largely by a Dutch state grant tied to the Rotterdam film festival, as well as by Toshiba and a James Nelson Award.

I attended the world premiere of this film at the Rotterdam festival two years ago, and I remember wondering how long it would take to reach Chicago — if it ever got here. The film made a strong impression on me, but I forgot many details, simply because I didn’t have an analytical context in which to place it. Perhaps if the film had been less original or striking, I and other publicists, journalists, and teachers could have started packaging it immediately.

It’s the only work of Weerasethakul’s I’ve seen — he’s credited with seven preceding shorts, all made during the 1990s — but it clearly offers more ideas than the entire oeuvres of other experimental filmmakers I could name. The difficulty we have processing experimental ideas in a Thai context fascinates me: how many of our ideas about experimental filmmaking are predicated on unthinking Western reflexes and traditions that exclude many small countries as a matter of course? The obstacles are ideological, conceptual, and even practical — for example, “Apichatpong Weerasethakul” isn’t an easy name for Westerners to pronounce or remember — and all sorts of anomalies are connected to the project that complicate our responses. For starters, the film is in black and white, which is now more expensive to use in the U.S. than color; this suggests that Thai filmmakers have more freedom than their American counterparts when deciding which to shoot in. It’s bemusing that this feature was shot on 16-millimeter and blown up to 35, yet the image we see is letterboxed, a format we Yanks are used to seeing only on video. The Dolby sound track is also unexpected.

The film’s methodology and structure are even more startling. The film crew traveled through Thailand from north to south, inviting ordinary people to invent and then continue a story. New participants were free to alter the story they inherited, changing details and proposing alternative developments. Sometimes several participants at once pick up the story, as when a large group chants about various plot turns with musical accompaniment in front of a live audience and when competing narrative details are offered by schoolchildren near the end. Then the crew returned to Bangkok to shoot the fictional dramas and variations with nonprofessional actors and to film interviews with the actors as well as documentary segments chronicling the activities of both the actors and film crew. The final editing doesn’t homogenize these activities; rather it bears witness to all of them, cutting between stories being told and reenacted, overlapping the sound of one activity and the image of another, juxtaposing an intertitle and a filmed testimony, and including documentary segments about the stages of this adventure. The whole process took about three years.

Before we get to the invented story, we ride through the streets of a city, presumably Bangkok, while we hear both a man telling one story and an Asian pop song on the radio. After what sounds like a commercial for incense, we see a woman who helps run a fish stall tearfully recount her father’s efforts to sell her when she was a child to her uncle and aunt, which prompted her move to Bangkok. Weerasethakul asks if she wants to tell another story, real or fictional, and after cutting away to a few more narrative interludes, he gives us a simultaneous telling and enactment of the invented story, which involves a boy in a wheelchair who’s tutored at home in a Bangkok suburb.

At one point his teacher excuses herself from a lesson to go to the bathroom and doesn’t come back. The boy goes looking for her, finds her unconscious on the floor, tries to revive her, and sees a mysterious object roll out from under her skirt. In three of countless subsequent versions, the mysterious object becomes a flying ball that produces a miniature boy, the teacher becomes two teachers, and the teacher returns to the boy in the wheelchair as if nothing has happened, saying she just went off to buy him an eraser.

In a famous game of the Surrealists, “The Exquisite Corpse,” participants made up successive parts of a story, sentence by sentence, on a piece of paper with many folds, each participant reading only the previous sentence before adding another. The game of Mysterious Object at Noon – whose title obviously refers to the film as well as the object that rolls out from under the teacher’s skirt — is played somewhat differently, but it has the similar effect of revealing the collective unconscious of a group of unconnected storytellers. These people include, as the Rotterdam festival’s catalog puts it, “quarreling food sellers, a TV-addict-cum-boxer, a devout female cop and a loveless rubber-tree peeler”; we also encounter, among others, a herd of elephants and “a deaf neighbor who is introduced as a silent witness” — actually two deaf neighbors, teenage girls who use sign language to correct and amplify each other’s testimony. At the end, schoolchildren take over the entire show; the “noon” of the title apparently refers to a time when they play outdoors.

After a while the characters, fantasies, significations, and representations become so plentiful we may feel that Weerasethakul has bitten off more than he can possibly chew, even given a running time of 83 minutes. Apparently he wants to explore the collective unconscious of the participants for reasons that are both realist and surrealist — to reveal something real about Thai villagers through their fantasies and to reveal something about their fantasies through their reality. That’s only a beginning of course, but it’s a central part of the business of experimental films everywhere to provide us with beginnings of this kind and to invite us to run with them. The creative contributions of this film’s viewers are not unlike the responses of the Thai villagers. What is that mysterious object? Good question, and the answer’s partly up to us. Quick answers are encouraged — though not hasty packages of the results. Experimental films are frequently criticized for being boring because they say and do too little, but the best of them put us in exhilarating overdrive because they offer too much.

jonathan rosenbaum

this review first published here: http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=6243/

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