Monday, April 27, 2009

Man Without A Movie Camera

Peter Tscherkassky, in Austria, comes from a long line of avant-garde artists who prefer to work with the actual material of film. Man Ray, and Stan Brakhage and Bruce Connor after him all preferred to work with celluloid, and most resisted making the transition to (arguably cheaper and more flexible) video, and then to digital.

Tscherkassky starts with previously existing footage, reprinting (and misprinting) images over themselves, misregistering the film so sprocket holes become visible, framelines jump in and out of focus, images blur and stutter on top of and into one another. It's filmmaking without a film camera. Only the dark room and some unexposed film, and some previously exposed work which becomes the victim.

His films approach a kind of virtual performance art, embracing and emphasizing the visual surface of the object, as images run through a projector, and we "read" them as they flicker past. It's about film stock and dim light and flash cuts.

The tension has less to do with the narrative content (although that has something to do with it) than with whether or not the film will actually make it to the end without fatal mishap.

This process of re-printing may result in the destruction of the representational. Photography is unique as an artform in that it is more than artistic representation, more than symbolic rendering - for all the artifice created by filmmakers (before and after the shutter is opened), film carries a profound and powerful meaning by being an index of reality.

By moving into a post-modern and self-referential plane, what's shown is no longer nearly as important as how it is shown. Tscherkassky obscures the text, and seems to be suggesting the film is an index of itself, a kind of recursive performance art in which itself is the subject.

And in this process which seems little more than a film-school exercise, subtext in the imagery (which may or may not be intentional) becomes highly visible. Normally "conservative" footage reveals itself to be laden with political meaning, symbolic and stripped of narrative limitations, now free and convulsing as it's seen.

Who needs a camera?

Monday, April 20, 2009

One Year Anniversary

I've been at this one full year, and I'd like direct you to 5 of my favorite previous posts. When you write a blog, generally only the most current postings are visited, the others falling into disuse and neglect through the tyranny of the "archive." So the best (or at least most interesting) work you've done in the past gets hidden.

Should I wait before posting something new, so everyone can see the latest as long as possible, or do I keep putting up new stuff, to generate new hits and hoping finally getting it right?

Some of my favorite posts of the last year:

May 26, 2008 - These Sawdust Caesars which I explain most emotionally that the teenage moving-going audience had more power to change the movie-going experience, and maybe what movies were actually produced. But they just. Don't. Behave.

June 12, 2008 - The Perfect Time to Think Silver

... a quote from Warhol, and a meditation on nitrate, the avant-garde, silver screens in cinemas, and how nice that all is.

October 17, 2008 - Forget It, Jake

...because I got to talk about my favorite Hollywood film, "Chinatown" and tie it to new audiences who don't seem to appreciate it.

January 12, 2009 - The Border Between Calm and Catastrophe

... an actually (for me) optimistic and realistic acceptance of the coming age of digital cinema, with the caveat that it makes us anxious, a cool title and picture of Edie Sedgwick, who was poised on the border of catastrophe herself.

July 2, 2008 - Nice Things Destroyed which I elucidate a main concern, that this thing called movies may go away if we don't pay attention, with a clearer explication of film as object without going into technical or academic theoretical specifics I sometimes do (here, for example).

Sometimes I shouldn't try so hard.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Worthy Actioners

The magnetic tapes of Glyn Johns' original acetate of the "Let It Be" sessions, originally known as "Get Back," survive and allow future generations to hear the original versions of what was supposed to be the Beatles' return-to-their-roots record, after the over-produced "Sgt. Pepper's" and the over-determined "White."

"Abby Road" would come later, perhaps the most fingered and massaged record in their career, disarmingly named simply for the location of its creation with a cracked brick sign on the back, disingenuously suggesting that it was humble and authentic, but indeed close to "the end."

There are over 100 hours by most accounts of the reference tapes made by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg's crew during the filming of the "Let It Be" sessions. They were done on monaural Nagra machines with room mikes at Twickenham, and have an audible "beep" every minute for syncing, audio "cues" regardless of what future Beatle or past Chuck Berry classic is being played.

These also still exist, and have been bootlegged in various forms over the last 35 years. The coating on these magnetic tape has lasted. Every fight, missed note, snippy comment and cigarette break has been preserved. The old masters of the "Yellow Submarine" originals allowed a remix of that soundtrack 9 years ago that sounded better than any playback technologies back in 1968 could demonstrate.

But Glyn Johns may not have been the best fit for the greatest pop band in the world. He had been producing the greatest rhythm & blues band up to that time and created 3 different versions of the Get Back record, none of which met the Beatles' approval. The tangled history of the Get Back mixes include getting leaked and bootlegged, and becoming a blunt object that came between them while they were trying to figure out how to stop being Beatles themselves.

This allowed "Abbey Road" to be recorded and released in the meantime, until finally Phil Spector took what was supposed to be a stripped-down and naked collection of improvs and dressed it up in hooker's make-up to get it out of the house one last time.

No one was happy, except maybe Capitol/EMI. The damn label didn't even have the right color apple on it.

The complete rooftop concert on January 30, 1969, some of which ended up on the Spector mix, became its own unique version of the "Get Back" sessions. Filmed and recorded specifically for the film, with most of the songs performed twice ("Take two" - the best takes landed on the record.), it has its own integrity and historical circumstances. Not only is it the last Beatle "concert," it has these provocative production realities embedded within it to create a subtext beyond the shortened playlist.

30 years later, 2 Beatles were dead and Paul finally intended to pull those Spector strings off "Long and Winding Road" that had been bugging him the last 3 decades. With the original tapes, he spearheaded a final and Beatle-authorized version of the sessions, once and for all.

The resultant "Let It Be...Naked" has a different song order, with the half-assed improvisations such as "Maggie Mae" gone along with the incidental talking that always seemed precious and a little fussy. Instead are only Beatle songs, in democratic order (John, Paul, George, Paul, Paul, John, George...).

They even "fixed" a sour guitar note in "Dig a Pony" and edited the first half of one "Don't Let Me Down" on the roof to the second half of the other.

This most recent version, "naked" and without Johns' or Spector's superfluous influences or attempts at authenticity, exists due to the longevity of the original tapes and the ability of new digital tools to manipulate the information on a granular level.

The original performances, drunken or strung-out, never properly played, captured or released in the spirit in which they were intended, come to us a 4th time, this time due to action of one of the participants, the resilience of the original recordings, and 35 years of hindsight.

In many respects, it's the most manipulated version of all.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Altered States

I saw "Eraserhead," rather naively, at a midnight show a long time ago before I quite knew what I was getting into. Not everything was available on VHS in the late '80s, and actually going out to see films in theatres was part of the movie-watching process.

"Eraserhead" is an experience not quite like any other. It's like a film from another planet. The viewer may be able to distinguish the shot-countershot construction, deduce the narrative and understand protagonist-antagonist conflicts. But the very way in which it is told, the actual visual fabric of the film, an askew, out-of-step filmy and mythic cadence comes through in a non-intuitive, instinctual and subtly but ultimately unsettling way.

I walked out of that film feeling stoned, unable to see the world in the same way. Lynch used to have that power, and that's why we are still talking about him, perhaps like we will talk about no other filmmaker. The images now are delivered online or in digital byte-sized pieces, not large, overpowering, linear and in an unmediated way.

No longer through the eyes and ears, right into the soul.

The last time I felt that way in a David Lynch film was walking out of "Blue Velvet." I wasn't high then, either, except for the film, that seemed on the surface so "normal" but underneath so subversive, transgressive, and morally frightening. That was the whole beautiful idea of course. Eventually Lynch knew what he could get away with - or was getting away with - and "Twin Peaks" and "Wild At Heart" don't seem other-worldly so much as merely weird. I made it a point to see "Island Empire" in a theatre, all 4 and a half hours of it, but still came out more annoyed than anointed.

Art has the power to transform the viewer, only if it's allowed to be received in the best possible, most effective way. Art has a way to make you drunk, high, confused and immoral. Want you to go out and take down the government. Or make art of your own. The best art doesn't compromise. And as a viewer, you shouldn't compromise how you engage with it.

Sit back, shut up, pay attention, and let it work on you.

Tommy Wiseau's "The Room" has the similar power to intoxicate. An overpowering mix of inept acting, plodding plotting and confounded mise-en-scene tied with a (-n un-intentional?) sincerity worse than Ed Wood. Micro-budgets are the new authentic, and perversely he reports the film cost $6 million to achieve its epic shabbiness. Perhaps if Wiseau ever makes another film, he'll be revealed as just an artless opportunist. That'll be a shame, but perhaps to be expected.

His film has been playing for almost 5 years in West LA once a month at midnight, and being out late, on the Sunset Strip, in a movie theatre, certainly adds to the insidious power of the film. For now, I'll be happy drifting along considering him in touch with something otherworldy. Something alien and special and wrong and outside the majority of us.

Not a lot of films make me feel that way nowadays.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


Sometimes the conversation gets around to what good movies there are about Hollywood. We know most of the usual suspects, but which ones, we sometimes wonder, really captures the true essence of Hollywood and the moving-making dream machine.

They've been making movies about movies pretty much since they started making movies. Chaplin made more than one "Behind The Screen" film as early as 1914, trading on the assumption that the audiences already had an understanding of how the flickers are manufactured, on sets with cameras on tripods, fat directors, and piles of flour and styrofoam pillars just waiting to be thrown or tripped over.

The films have changed as Hollywood - and its perception of itself - has changed over the years. It's a continuum. Early in the sound era Hollywood was content to place romances or gangster plots on the backlots of the studios, using the soundstages as picturesque backdrops and getting the opportunity to stick a cameo or two in there. 1930's "Free and Easy" and 1938's "Crashing Hollywood" both have a jovial let's-put-on-a-show tone that belies our foreknowledge that both stars were drunken has-beens by the end of the years they were produced. 1936's "Hollywood Boulevard" follows a has-been silent actor and initially criticizes the fickle tastes and fortunes of those tied up in star-making, but ultimately devolves into a blackmail story as he tries to regain his respect, ending in a Hooray for Hollywood finale with barely an ounce of irony.

Things had changed after the war, and long after the Arbuckle and Normand scandals and a couple versions of "A Star Is Born," Hollywood is producing (or allowing to be produced) such poison letters as "Sunset Blvd," "The Big Knife," and "The Bad And The Beautiful," all haunted by a Budd Shulberg snark that links decadence, histrionic acting and an insider cache that made them seem new and modern. The entertainment media was reporting on stars, deals and how much money everyone was making, and the capitalist inspiration could not be ignored. Television cast a pale glow on Hollywood that made everything seem fallow and undead. We all hated Hollywood, in part because we wanted to get rich as everyone else with no talent had.

By the late '60s, there had developed a fatalistic resignation and sense of humor about how Hollywood corrupts - absolutely. A score of films including Charles Grodin's "Movers and Shakers," McTiernan's "The Last Action Hero," and Mamet's "State & Main" playfully and rather impotently tried to pierce the veil of deceit, ego and arrogance in Hollywood, none to much financial gain. Which meant the adage was true about people not wanting to see films about films. If we wanted to be told we were suckers for believing all the lies we were told, we'd become screenwriters.

A minor counter-movement tried to regain a sense of glamour and opportunity Hollywood offers in "The Big Picture" (1989), "Hollywood Shuffle" (1987), and even "The Muppet Movie" (1979). This would soon be balanced by a darker and excoriating trend started by "The Player" (1992) and continuing through "Swimming With Sharks" (1994) and "An Alan Smithee Film" (1997).

Except for "The Player," all bombs at the box office. And tellingly all the films minus the "A Star Is Born"s are basically pitched as comedies, most rather dark, bitchy, and absurdist. The topic may dictate the approach. Yet they're all, strangely, good-natured.

They're throwing darts at the thing they profess to hate but can't hide their affection for. People make movies about things they care about, and they care about Hollywood. The process. The struggle to do good work. To do any work.

My favorite documentation of the process is still probably Godard's "Le Mepris" (1963) from the increasingly cynical early 1960s (and increasingly cynical Godard) that folds Brigitte Bardot, the Odyssey, Hollywood hubris, Fritz Lang and the French New Wave all into a concoction that gently and effectively skewers Hollywood process, and all the drama that happens behind the scenes when people are trying to make art.

And as a bonus, it has those loving shots of Bardot's naked butt, which were inserted at producer Carlo Ponti's insistence, which Godard followed to the perverse letter, creating an abstract, discordant, beautiful and visual non-sequiter as she and Piccoli talk, a color-geled panning shot up her half-draped behind for what seems like the first 10 minutes of the film.

That imagery colors and inflects any amount of wry commentary that might be thrown our way for the next 2 hours. I believe Sofia Coppola was up to the same trick in "Lost In Translation."

It's the perfect example of how films are not borne whole but are the sum of their discordant parts, regardless of the inspirations ("I want you to have more shots of Bardot's rear in the film!") that get them there. It's an essential ingredient in what could have otherwise been a bitchy avant-garde satire of Hollywood, but instead suggests character motivations as well as all the ways films arrive at our multiplex, suggests something more real and life-affirming than Hollywood back-stabbing.

Now Bardot's derriere is an essential part of Godard's love poem to cinema, to montage, and to the viewer's fantasy of Hollywood and picture making. Yes, they call it show business - but they also call it show.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


The Archives Trilogy - Part Three

_ _ _ _ _

We've reached a stage where we have access to anything we may want... or think we want... without going to other people or other places to get it.

We have moved beyond the age of post-modernism, in which everything is ironic, disconnected, and self-aware. Classical meaning is undermined by the post-modern, and the ability of archives to curate and contextualize is undermined as well, specifically by the audience's disregard for the effort.

Now post-modern meaning has been undermined as well.

We've arrived at what can be described as "hypermodern." Experience is stripped of context, even ironic context, as everything is everywhere and all is available and within reach. Nothing trumps anything else - there is no authority or final word. Only comparison.

We no longer are limited by the burden of the past or of geography. We aren't defined by politics or our access to goods. We travel through the virtual realm of social networks without being social. Online communities that have no tradition and no memory. Political "clouds" that have no force. Because they have no mass. All access, no opinions.

We're alone and by ourselves - together.

The technological advances have lured us away from the comfort and awkwardness of social situations where we go bowling with bosses, or negotiate baby-sitting, or talk face to face about what is wrong, really wrong with "Slumdog Millionare" and can you back that up, mister? We don't go out on dates - we hook-up online, tweet at the club, and bang in the back of the roller disco. We're reduced to our individual i.p. addresses. And there are no consequences.

We are all travelling in the same direction, but in our little boxes. When there is no social ramifications of actions, do actions matter? And if there is no link to tradition or history, there is no reason to preserve or value it. When context no longer has meaning, archives - specifically designed and charged with preserving culture - lose their purpose.

When people are no longer able to access the flow of tradition or the arrow of history, will there be a reason to go back to old films?

Cultural resonance is embedded in what passes before us. Advertisements blend with reality television blends with post-anti-neo-architecture. Fellini and Bogart don't appear in anyone's remixed postings (a cultural force no one's archiving either) as much as Stephen Colbert. Sergio Amadio nowadays makes the cut by virtue of Italian democracy. Or is it Gloria Guida?

Do we fight that or bathe in it?

A post-modern archive may attempt to embrace the new convergent intelligence of the hypermodern, by running into the oncoming traffic of re-mixed media, allowing digital access to non-authorized versions and recreating a social space around the artists rather than the artwork. The archives, unable to name, arrange, control or limit material, must ride the web of meaning, not try to assert a gravity at one end where too many strands have already been unraveled. Everything's free on the digital highway - intellectual property, advice, storage, context, and meaning.

So value travels back to the experience of spectatorship, not the ownership of objects, or the control of the information. Instead, merely a familiarity with it, engendered by YouTube and Bittorrent and delivering a pale ghost of the original impact.

Archives can't be the sole curator of culture anymore. The copyright holders have taken back their property. Culture comes to the people, not the people to the culture.

An attempt to embrace the art-space around the content rather than to limit, drive, or control the content, is how an archive of the future will remain a resource. A move away from the object and to the experience. From static to dynamic.

There will remain a need or desire to repurpose material for whatever the new digital delivery system will be . . . redoing what has already been done, over again, to the extent that our attention and what the finances available will bear.

That work is now to be done by others, unofficially and without authorization, in a vacuum.

For future users of archives, the destination has to be worth the trip.