Wednesday, October 31, 2007

By Brakhage

I was in the cinema program at Binghamton University which is much more based in experimental film than narrative film. After all, the program was founded by Ken Jacobs, one of the most revered people in the genre. I rarely saw any of Jacobs' work but the one filmmaker who was the cornerstone of everything the program stood for was Stan Brakhage. Brakhage is the single most influential experimental filmmaker of the 20th century, at least in terms of creating a certain genre of experimental film, the lyrical film as defined by P. Adams Sitney in his book Visionary Film. For Sitney, lyrical film is film where the one behind the camera is the protagonist of said film. Everything seen through the camera is a first person viewpoint of the events as they are seen by the protagonist. Lyrical film is also defined by the constant movement of the camera as well as constant movement of images. Brakhage fits this description but there's more to his works than that. He has an inherent romanticism about him that flows through his work, especially his earlier work, that give his films a personality that keeps them from being didactic and sterile. Only a portion of his vast output is in this Criterion set, and sadly there is no Anticipation of the Night (1962), which I feel is his most accomplished work.

There are two phases to Brakhage's career: his earlier, more lyrical works and his later, non-lyrical works, which are almost exclusively him painting directly on film. I'm not going to cover anything about those mostly because I feel that they have more to do with modern art than film. A big discussion can be brought up about what exactly these film are and how they operate in the filmic world and all but frankly, I don't find them nearly as interesting as the image film (for lack of a better term). All the Brakhage film I'd seen at Binghamton were these, and all of them are somewhat similar in structure. There are a lot of quick movements, superimposition, and contrast of a variety of images. The standout piece on the collection is Window Water Baby Moving (1962), which graphically depicts childbirth. Brakhage takes the birth footage and cuts in shots of water, light, and the body to create something that comes out that's much prettier than one would expect. I had seen this a couple of years before and had a hard time getting past the childbirth footage but seeing it again, the meticulous nature of the cuts creates a very good film. Cat's Cradle (1959) is similar in structure and more obtuse, dealing more with sexual tension. Mothlight (1963) is one of Brakhage's most memorable pieces in that it consists entirely of moth wings and parts glued to film and projected. It's an awe-inspiring film in regards to its labor and effort put in but it just doesn't quite grab me as much as the lyrical work. Of all Brakhage's later works, only Comingled Containers (1997) does anything to intrigue me. It forsakes paint for water and the contrast of aquatic imagery harkens back to the lyrical films in a way that not much work of that time does.

The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes (1971) is the closest to an actual documentary Brakhage ever gets. It is footage entirely of autopsies and I actually didn't have as much of a problem with this as when I saw Window Water Baby Moving for the first time. It's almost a linear film in its progression and with much more static shots and edits, it doesn't feel quite like typical Brakhage.

Brakhage's self-described epic, Dog Star Man (1964) is his crowning achievement and one of the best experimental films ever made. That being said, even for me, it is an extremely difficult film to get through. Just because a film is difficult doesn't mean that it's not great or there aren't redeeming qualities about it. Shot in five parts, a prelude and four acts, it's a romantic observation of man, his dreams, and his interaction with the world. It's really difficult to try and boil down all the ideas in it to a paragraph or so but it's really about a man's search for truth and beauty in the world around him. It's Brakhage's most aesthetically accomplished work, with layers upon layers of superimpositions and images. It can become such an overload of imagery that it becomes hard to really focus on certain aspects for too long, especially towards the end of the Prelude and Act I. Even though, its achievement of filmmaking artistry is so impressive that the construction of the film is the center for me. Along with Scorpio Rising and Wavelength, Dog Star Man is one of the experimental films that define the genre for me. I know this kind of work isn't for everyone but for anyone with an interest in experimental film, Brakhage's work is not to be missed.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Monthly Listening Post - October 2007

Not much this month but one really good discovery in The Cave Singers, whose debut should crack my year-end top ten.

The Cave Singers - Invitation Songs
Band of Horses - Cease to Begin
The Thrills - Teenager
Ryan Adams & the Cardinals - Follow the Lights

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Essential Collection: American Movie

American Movie (Chris Smith, 1999)

It's been five years since I've seen this and while my overall viewpoint of the film has changed a bit, it's still at its heart a really good film about a really earnest man. When I first saw this, I couldn't help but laugh at Mark Borchardt, his antics, and his friends. After seeing this again, I really feel more sorry for him than anything. It's hard to tell what Borchardt really thinks of Smith but there's no doubt Smith is using Borchardt and his friends, especially Mike Schank for their comedy more than their ambitions. That doesn't mean that that doesn't come out in the film; what Smith also does is capture the ultimate filmmaker's film about a man whose only ambition is to make a film. For every comic trait Borchardt has, from his way of talking to his drinking problem to his mostly naive view of the film industry, he also has more ability than the film wants to give him credit for. He knows enough about filmmaking to have some good ideas and shots but the film doesn't really want to focus on that. It's Borchardt Hell-be-damned goals that are really the most important elements of the film, not everything that goes wrong. That brings me to the one issue I have: that the film perceives these characters as unrealistic imbeciles at times. I don't think it's entirely harmful to the film but it's a question that lingers in the back of my mind, mostly because these characters are oblivious that they were going to be laughed at. I feel bad for a guy like Mike, who has clearly taken one acid trip too many as told by himself in the film and is a clueless burnout used mostly for laughs. The problem is it's almost impossible to not laugh and Smith has for better or not, crafted an expert comedy. Even after all these years, American Movie is still a very good film but it's hard to determine if it was actually good for the ones that were in it.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Jesus Camp

Jesus Camp (Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady, 2006) [4]
There's something quite disturbing about this documentary and it doesn't come from the Evangelicals and their actions that populate this film. What's more disturbing to myself is the whiff of exploitation that comes out of this. It's quite obvious that the Evangelical movement are exploiting this kids for their own political and social motivations, indoctrinating them into thoughts and ideas that kids shouldn't really have to grapple with at such an early age. That being said, Ewing and Grady are just as responsible for exploiting these kids who obviously have no clear grasp of how they are going to be portrayed. I'm not one of these people that are overprotective of kids but there were a handful of instances in this film that made me angry and uncomfortable with the way the adults, the filmmakers included, use these kids for their own personal advantages.

I don't really think political views have anything to do with reviewing a film so I will keep what I personally think of the Evangelical movement to myself. The film should have had good enough sense to do the same. Ewing and Grady bring a liberal viewpoint to this and they really didn't. Let the viewer decide for themselves what they think of these events. There may not be any agreement with the views of the people in the film, but let the film put it out there and have everyone make their own decision. The blundering use of an ominous soundtrack and the Air America Radio type asides do not have to be in this film. At the end of the film, the radio host and the children's' pastor have a conversation in which the host voices the same concerns I had. Watching the film, I feel that kids should be able to be kids and make these decisions about religion and morality on their own free will. I already had that assumption from the film, I don't need the film to tell it to me. Ewing and Grady are using these kids to help a political agenda and that's just wrong, as the S-CHIP debate has shown. Just leave the kids alone and go after the ones here that really deserve scorn, the adults facilitating this.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Films of Kenneth Anger, Volume 2

The first volume of Kenneth Anger's collected work came out a while back but what I was really looking forward to was Volume 2, solely because of Scorpio Rising. I happens to be one of my top ten films of all time and having it out on DVD gets it out there beyond film classes, where incidentally, I have seen almost all these films before. Here we go with the grades:

Scorpio Rising (1964) [10]
In my mind, Anger's masterpiece. Its style and form have become so influential on later filmmakers and styles. With its frenetic cuts and rock & roll soundtrack, its easy to see its influence on someone like Scorsese as well as being a template for the music video revolution. The film itself is masterfully arranged with Anger starting off with a lot of slow pans of motorcycles with the film gradually becoming more kinetic as the action increases. Anger inter cuts outside footage of a film about Jesus as well as some Nazi and occult imagery to great effect. The inter cutting between the Scorpio character going out and the footage of Jesus is funny and right on in making a correlation. The ideas of ritual and the occult that Anger will later cover more in depth rear up in the motorcycle culture. Anger spends a good amount of the film showing Scorpio and the others preparing to go out, the clothes they wear, the mythology involved with the motorcycle culture. Of course, the film shows the homoerotic aspects of this culture, the idea of leather and chains that has become a stereotype of a gay subculture. I think too much has been made of this aspect; Scorpio Rising get pegged as a "gay film" when it really has little explicitly to do with it. It's more a film about ritual and ultimately sacrifice with the motorcycle race and the deadly end. The real power of Scorpio Rising is that it takes a lot of mundane stuff and arranges it in a way that creates something fresh and exciting. To me, it's a landmark of experimental cinema.

Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) [5]
Besides the tongue in cheek title, there isn't really anything about this that makes it stand out. It feels too much like Scorpio Rising outtakes, except with cars instead of motorcycles. A lot of the same as Scorpio in terms of form. Lots of pans, Bressonian focus on objects, and that rock and roll soundtrack. At only 3 minutes, it doesn't do much to leave a big impression.

Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) [7]
The most experimental of all the works on this collection, it's also probably the most divisive film of the set. What was originally film for a first version of Lucifer Rising, it's a film that focuses heavily on the occult and the black magic of Aleister Crowley. The crux of the footage is Anger performing his "magik" ritual in which a God of light is born from opposites. Don't ask me how it happens; what sells the film for me is the editing and images which is the closest Anger comes to approximating the style of Brakhage. The droning Moog score by Mick Jagger, who also appears briefly, is either going to repulse or intrigue you.

Rabbit's Moon (1979 Version) [6]
This is the first version of Rabbit's Moon I saw and I really don't feel much different about either one. This version is a bit more streamlined in terms of what shots are shown, as there is much more repetition of action in this version. This causes the story Anger wanted to tell, of a Japanese fable that a rabbit lives in the moon, to lose some of it focus but forms trumps story here. The use of the XTC song feels disjointed to what's being shown but it has a certain topical relevance that makes it work.

Lucifer Rising (1981) [4]
The most puzzling film for me, and another film about ritual and black magic. It has similarities to Scorpio in that regard but it much more direct in the occult and symbols. The film is flooded with them from Egyptian symbols to the occult to mystical spaceships. It creates too much of an image overload with no real discernible theme outside of that of ritual. Speaking on a formal note, there's just something that feels off about this film. Anger is a filmmaker of such a certain style and this doesn't feel like an Anger film to me.

Continuing on an experimental binge, I've gotten the By Brakhage anthology through Netflix so a comprehensive Stan Brakhage retrospective will be coming in the next week or two. Even though I've seen a good portion of his work, I wanted to seen everything again to really give a good opinion.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Inland Empire

Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006) [5]

I don't want to be someone taking a director to task for being too self-indulgent or not knowing when to edit because I generally believe in the auteur theory and giving directors the benefit of the doubt. The problems with this film is what I mentioned above. It is a film that has some very interesting things going on but is too rambling and incohesive to make much sense. David Lynch has never been one to have a straightforward narrative, which I'm not talking about when I talk about this film not making sense. Speaking on a formal level, this has too much going on to make it work. Some things seem downright unnecessary, from the rabbit headed characters sitcom to the film within a film within a film and (I'm assuming) the ex-flames of the male star of the film within a film. Lynch throws so much into this that he really weakens the strength of the film which is the Laura Dern character's journey. If Lynch were to just focus on her, it would have been a shorter, and greater film. Dern is absolutely fearless in her role, and the scenes with her are truly the most memorable. As the film goes, she descends deeper into a filmic world where the reality we're given at the beginning and the supposed film become more and more indistinguishable. This blurriness of temporal space is probably the most irritating feature to someone watching accustomed to narrative. This isn't a film that conventional narrative can be found and it shouldn't be applied either. Inland Empire is Lynch's most experimental work and it should really be looked at in regards to experimental film. That being said, in my mind the one major reason experimental film can go wrong is if it becomes too self-indulgent. Inland Empire is guilty of that mostly because by shooting on DV, Lynch can shoot much more footage than with film. I'll come out and say I despise DV on aesthetic levels, but I'll admit Lynch makes it work to his advantage at times. But it also allowed him to film a lot of scenes that weren't necessary. That lack of editorial discretion makes this film too long and lessens the impact of what works. At its central focus, Inland Empire has some very strong elements working in its favor, but by failing to harness his ambitions, Lynch ends up with a film that just doesn't quite hit its mark.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

The TV Set

The TV Set (Jake Kasdan, 2007) [6]
Jake Kasdan worked on Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared, two of my favorite shows in the history of television that didn't make it a full season on the air. Kasdan seems to have taken the worst elements of his experiences in television and placed them in the character of Mike Klein, a writer trying to get his pilot greenlighted by the network and still keep some artistic credibility. The film is basically a series of all the inane notes and dumbing-down network television does in the name of better ratings. There is a lot of satire that's dead on here, beginning with Sigourney Weaver's performance as the network president. Weaver's performance becomes the centerpiece of the film, due to her at times hilarious and at time horrifying performance. She's meant to be a representation of the industry itself, with it's penchant for "broad" shows that aren't too original, too original scares them a little. Kasdan does a good job of showing the inane nature of the industry as well as the struggle between artistic credibility and popular appeal. Mike has everything go wrong that possibly could: he has to change his vision of the show, he has the wrong actor in the lead, and once the show does get picked up, the marketing of it is taken in a completely different direction. Duchovny plays it all with a perma-wince across his face, half flummoxed and outraged at the network dissection of his show. It does play as solid satire and is funny to anyone who has the same view of network television as Kasdan, which I do.

My only real issue with the film is that everyone knows television has little to no artistic credibility. This is the way things work in television and it is such an easy target to skewer. A difference has to be made here between network t.v. and cable; even Mike says his show isn't going to be The Sopranos, which states there is a distinction being made. Granted, I'm no fan of network t.v. and I enjoyed the film throughout but the film does come across as a hopeless exercise. Kasdan knows the networks are never going to change so he can take all the shots at them he wants. In its best moments (the network testing at the mall, the Slut Wars scene at end), the film does its best when it attacks the stupidity of the general public for allowing the networks to get away with what they put on the air. The bad thing is there are too few of those moments to make it a fantastic film instead of just a good one.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The War

The War (Ken Burns & Lynne Novick, 2007) [9]

This will undoubtedly be on my Top Ten list of 2007 even though it will never see a commercial theatrical release. I don't really see the need to be so dogmatic to say that films that weren't shown in theatres somehow don't count. Burns has created a thoughtful, grateful, and refreshingly apolitical film that triggers strong emotions yet isn't pandering or cheap. The subtle difference that Burns uses for his approach, telling personal stories of the war, make it much stronger than retelling history as every WW II documentary on the History Channel. Each man or woman's story has enough of their own personal experience to show human elements that haven't yet been seen yet all the while still threading them into the greater narrative of the war itself. It creates some truly powerful moments as you can see how much each story means to the people telling them. This film really isn't about the broad scope of history of war; it's about people and the sacrifices they made to fight and win. People tend to forget that the war was fought by actual people, not broad terms like Allies vs. Nazis/good vs. evil, etc. By giving a more human experience of the war, Burns has made his film much more powerful as well as interesting.

Ken Burns' style gets parodied and ridiculed to an extent and I could see how most film snobs wouldn't have much use for it. His overemphasis on geography, always reminding everyone of the four cities he focuses on can become a little tiresome after a while but that's about the only real formal flaw I have with the film. Obviously, the film relies heavily on archival footage and it has some remarkable yet graphic footage. The one element that Burns reiterates that is truly effective is that while World War II may have been a just and necessary war, that doesn't mean it was any different from any war. Lives, both soldiers and civilians, were lost. Much of Europe and Japan were virtually wiped off the face of the earth. The men who fought dealt with all the killing, maiming, and shock that war entails. World War II may have been a war that had to be fought, but that by no means makes it a "good" war. War is hell, and many of the veterans speaking in the film say as much. And while the film has no overt political agenda, all the graphic footage can make one feel that war in whatever the case is never necessary. As Spielberg said, all war films are anti-war films.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Monster In a Box

Monster In a Box (Nick Broomfield, 1992) [7]

I liked Swimming to Cambodia so much, I knew I would eventually catch up with this film at some time. Spalding Gray still is entertaining in his monologue here but he jumps around trying to tell too much. While Swimming to Cambodia really focused on Gray's experience while in Cambodia, here he goes from his book (the aforementioned monster), moving to L.A. to do a stage production, expeditions to Nicaragua and Russia, and acting in Our Town. While Gray does keep a thread intertwining between all these tangents some how, it comes across as shambling and less focused than his prior film. It doesn't help that Nick Broomfield attempts to do too much with light and sound effects. Gray is interesting enough as a speaker with all the emotion he himself puts into his monologue that Broomfield's excess of sound and lighting effects overwhelms the power of Gray's words at times. Still, Spalding Gray is an interesting enough storyteller that I can't help but be entertained. He exists on a fine line between real emotional punch and breezy conversation that keeps him from being too frivolous or too self-involved.