Sunday, May 22, 2011

Suggest and Comment

Having been recently labeled an ‘academic’ writer by Sam Juliano of Wonders in the Dark, dabbling with the questioning of the applicability of Brechtian thought with regard to Buffalo ’66, and reading an article about the interplay (or lackthereof) between cinephile criticism and academic criticism by David Bordwell I think it is appropriate that I post something which opens up the possibility for an ongoing dialogue concerning all aspects of my writing here on this site.

In this post: feel free to comment on, start a discussion of, or suggest anything with regard to content, style, or the aim of this blog. Anything is appreciated, including but not limited to recommendations for films to be viewed and written about.

I’ll begin with a brief declaration of my own feelings about these subjects as I feel at this point in time. The content of this blog is focused on films that I have seen (and remember seeing) and find exceptional in one or many ways that have elements which can be approached as black comedy. This content stems first and foremost from my appreciation as a lover of art, as a lover of cinema, as a lover of black comedy, and as someone who hasn’t found much worth reading on my most beloved narrative form (which is not to say that I am not merely ignorant to its existence). With these premises intact I derive these principles: 1.) I will write only about those films that I find exceptional 2.) I will write only about elements of films where I feel that I can aid in someone else’s appreciation of those films. These principles exclude, in my view: negative criticism, synopses, and overreaching attempts at comprehensiveness.

While the content is informed by my ideas of style and aim, I will refer to a piece of David Bordwell’s article for further clarification:

The prototypical cinephile piece in effect answers a question like this: “What distinctive qualities of this film can I detect, and how do they enhance our sense of its value?” The prototypical academic interpretation would be answering something like: “What aspects of the film are illuminated by my theoretical frame of reference?” I think, however, that we academics can make progress in understanding cinema if our questions are more specifically and self-consciously formulated.

If I were to describe my aim in this blog I would paraphrase it as a blending of the two: ‘What distinctive qualities of black comedy can I detect, and how are these aspects illuminated both by my theoretical frame of reference and by my own personal appreciation in order to enhance the reader’s sense of its value?’ As such, I feel like my aims are those of a cinephile, specifically a lover of black comedy, and by segregating out the films that I love I can then apply academic tools to further enhance the overall experience. Thus far I think I have tended to wax rhapsodic less than I am typically wont to do, but that, too, is informed more by the personal mood of someone attempting to satisfy his own feelings about how best to approach love of and writing about cinema than a purely academic stance. As such, I feel like the degree to which my writing is found to be academic is merely an offshoot of my attempts to satisfy my feelings as someone who is at heart writing ‘cinephile pieces’, to paraphrase Bordwell. I have probably waxed rhapsodically most successfully with regards to the films I love and know the best thus far in this blog, but I could probably do more. I believe that thus far I have attempted to identify certain recurring traits within the selected films to justify the films’ inclusion together, to create an understanding of black comedy through the way these recurring traits function, and to document my own discoveries of the recurring traits mentioned, and all of this can come off as more academic than will probably be the case in the coming months. I don’t see this evolution as a problem, but it is something to be aware of. The aim informs the style and content, but I’m sure it can get lost somewhat in the particularities of my style and my own understanding of the content and my own feelings. Here’s hoping for more and better, for your sake.


  1. That was an interesting article by Bordwell, but I definitely think of you as a cinephile, and I mean that in the best sense. I always enjoy the writing on this blog, and especially appreciate your focus (lack of overreaching). That said, I’d like to hear you wax rhapsodic more often!

    As far as film recommendations go, I think you should watch and write about Losey’s The Servant, and Sono’s Love Exposure. I think they’re right up your black-comic alley.

  2. Thank you for all your comments, revisions, encouragement, and conversation, first and foremost. Secondly, I definitely feel the strain of not waxing rhapsodic often enough, but I feel like I'm finally coming to terms with certain fundamental elements of what it is that draws me into this mode of fiction and hopefully when I finally release the pressure valves the flow will be all the more powerful for the preparation. That's the hope, anyway. That may have been the point, but if not at least it will work out that way in the end. I'm always excited to hear that two films I've been wanting to see for a while are even more to my tastes than I had previously known. It's like wrapping a steak in bacon. People do that. And it's delicious.

  3. I wouldn't know how to begin telling the pilot how to fly the plane. Especially when I'm already enjoying the ride.

  4. Never forget to tell the pilot to pull up when he's about to crash, though. I'm also the flight attendant, as well, so maybe you'll feel like pushing the call button. Or maybe you'll sleep through the whole flight, I don't know.

  5. In that case, I'm hoping for something on Angelopoulos. I know you're a fan and I'm just getting into his catalogue. I know you'll go deeper than just talking about his long takes and slow pace.

  6. But his long takes are deep! I had a thought about describing long takes in a way which I had hoped would capture their depth, but I'm afraid even that won't fully explain it. I'll start with that, then elaborate: A film's frame has a number of dimensions, taking whatever the chosen aspect ratio is as fixed. One dimension is horizontal, as in whether the subject(s) are on the left, middle, or right. Another dimension is vertical, etc. A third dimension is proximity, as in whether they are close to the camera or far. A fourth dimension is the proximity of objects within the frame to each other, and that's essentially the fundamental dimensions of the visual space (and even that description outdoes most Hollywood films' conception of visual space). We can apply these dimensions to duration. A long take is not simply an aspect ratio, which is to say the length of a shot, but it can also work in the same way a composition works, by placing certain objects or events in the beginning, middle, or end of a shot, by making the action fill the entirety of the shot or to use 'dead time' to create something akin to 'negative space' in the composition of an image, to create a high level of activity or a muted level of activity within a shot, and to create complex associations of events with respect to each other and with respect to time itself. This is still not enough, however - long takes are more effective in crafting realism (an element which Bazin favored greatly), which also means that breaks of realism within a long take are more effective than using a cut (as shown in Buffalo '66). For Angelopoulos two distinct uses of the long take come to mind:

    First, he uses long takes to orchestrate events in such a manner which create a certain vacuum of activity in the earlier moments and steadily build to a spectacular climax. One of the most striking scenes in all of film to me is in Landscape in the Mist where the children are walking through the snow and see a wife running out of a wedding and brought back inside only to have a horse detach from a tractor that was dragging it, which causes the little boy to cry, which is then contrasted by an uproarious wedding procession passing in the background. Watching it on youtube I can see there is a cut (not sure I even noticed it the first time through), but all of these elements come together like musical notes, completely detached from plot but directly tapping into intangible emotional chords by the steady building of the scene, the tantalizing images and expressions of emotion, and the stark contrast of joyous crowds and helpless animals which are pitied even by these wandering, lonely, long-suffering children. This sort of thing can only be realized through the honesty of a remote camera and the careful arrangement in time of these distinct elements. It's musical, I tell you, and it's one of the greatest numbers I know.

  7. Second, his films tend to touch on and often be highly critical of certain social issues, and he uses the long take to create distance, to isolate people both within the frame and within time, to de-glamorize in the opposite way that Hollywood films glamorize with fast cuts and rapid camera movements, those whose actions he find to be both absurd and unconscionable. It is a steady, unemotional gaze which enables me to understand his tone through duration and composition alone, no need for words or actions. In this style he reminds me much of Roy Andersson, who describes his lighting (which also works to describe the use of duration and lack of camera movement) as such: 'Nowadays I prefer lighting without shadows. There should not be a possibility for people to hide. They should be seen. They should be illuminated all the time. That's what I mean when I say "light without mercy." You make the people, the human beings in the movie, very naked.'

    I don't find Angelopoulos' films slow, though. I would find them cheapened were they any faster. The takes are long, and I find their length meaningful and powerful.

  8. I actually agree with you completely. I thought of Roy Andersson a few times while watching Landscape in the Mist. Even the architecture felt similar. Like the scene where the boy enters a restaurant and is offered food if he clears the tables. The camera begins pulling back when the boy enters, but we don't get a sense of the number of tables until the boy is tasked. The location isn't bright, but there are no shadows and when the musician walks in, it plays as a bit of deadpan absurdist comedy.
    The wedding/horse shot was my 2nd favorite in the movie. My #1 is with the girl and the truck driver. There's a moment during that shot where the only movement is two cars pulling briefly to the side of the road, and it brings as much tension to the scene as the witness who enters the tunnel in Irreversible.

  9. I can't recall tension in either scene, myself, just abject horror. I guess I can't see much point in there being tension, so if I felt it I probably forgot it. The horror is essential to both, though, as is the duration, and I can't seem to forget either. Landscape in the Mist is one of my favorite films, though, without a doubt. I've been reading people talk about how Malick is an 'emotional filmmaker', and I'd certainly put Angelopoulos high in that class (without being maudlin) in several of his films. He did make the saddest film I've ever seen, by a great margin, so that's got to count for something. I'll probably pick one of his more caustic early films for this blog, though. I don't want anyone to think that I cry (buckets), ever. I just hope they don't read this comment.