Film Commentary by Robert Haller in Japanese language newspaper OCS News
From 1991 to 1997 I wrote a column, twice a month, for the Japanese language newspaper OCS News. Thanks to my editor, Akiko Iimura, I was free to discuss anything I wanted to write about, which was mostly cinema. Now, eighteen years later, it has been suggested that some of what I wrote should be accessible in English. While programs at Anthology Film Archives outnumber those at other institutions, my subjects ranged all over New York City.
The Birth of Cinema
Though the motion picture is one of the most pervasive forces of the twentieth century—television and movies seem to be everywhere—the human race has actually lived with moving pictures for less than 100 years. The next several years, 1992-96 are being celebrated around the world as the Centennial of Cinema. Because the cinema was invented or introduced at slightly different times in different countries, the centennial is not limited to just one year. Thomas Edison, for instance, patented an early cinema machine in the United States in 1892. The French point to 1895 and the Lumiere Brothers.
Of all of the early pioneers, the Lumieres have one of the strongest positions because while they were demonstrably not the first to make the machinery, they used it creatively and persuasively more often than anyone else in those first four years. And, they did invent the social structures of viewing movies as we know them today—they were the first to project a series of films before an audience. Tom Edison, believing a pay-per-view peepshow machine (the Kinetoscope) would be economically more successful, avoided the whole concept of a projector in an auditorium.
For most of this century the Lumiere films were known in America and in Europe by a handful of titles made by Louis Lumiere and his colleagues. These films, each about a minute long, mostly single, uninterrupted shots of such events as a train arriving at a station, or the feeding of a baby, or of workers leaving a factory, gave a sense of rather stolid, unimaginative technical products.
How utterly wrong, how far off the mark this judgment was, did not become apparent until two years ago when Anthology Film Archives brought to the Untied States the first large collection of Lumiere films since the 1890s. Printed and shown—and preserved with assistance from Anthology—this collection of 130 Lumiere films revealed not just the lost world of the end of the nineteenth century, but also the excitement of the discovery of the art of film.
Characteristic of the discoveries we find in these films is the one that could be titled Little Girl Feeding the Cat. It begins with a kind of medium shot with a young girl feeding her pet, but suddenly the cat stretches, and comes to dominate the frame, altering the shot into something more like a close-up. Chance has intervened: the audience sees the filmic space transformed by movement within the frame.
While Lumiere films were believed to have been photographed from a stationary position, and the camera was not moved, this larger collection of films reveals that the Lumiere cameramen did put their cameras on moving platforms—like trains and automobiles and elevators (in structures like that other new invention, the Eiffel Tower).
Lumiere and his colleagues also did not hesitate to “direct” the people they filmed. One of the droll comic moments (of many) comes when we see a veritable parade of baby carriages streaming right to left, and then a little girl, on foot, persuasively “lost,” enters the frame, moving in the opposite direction.
Lumiere sent his cameraman/projectionist teams (the camera also functioned as a projector) all over the world. Their task was to film people at these far away locations, and return them to Paris. But while doing this, to also show images of Paris to the local population, and to show them as well the films being made there. This supported the cost of the expeditions and provided the Lumieres with a huge number of documents of the larger world. The Anthology collection includes many of these exotic location films—Nice, Cherbourg, Lyon, Venice, Rome, London, Berlin, Dresden, Moscow, Algeria, Mexico, and New York City. This may seem remote, but it ceases to be so when we see
Trains and the Movies
The railroad locomotive, a nineteenth century steam engine that moves, with its wheels and drive shafts exposed, amid blasts of steam and smoke, has been an irresistible temptation to artists, but especially to film directors, ever since the invention of the cinema at the end of the nineteenth century. Locomotives and the trains they pull are the featured “stars” of a grand series of films at the Museum of Modern Art this summer. Titled “Junction and Journey: Trains and Film,” this series began on 21 June and will run into the early days of October.
This series reminds us of how cinematic trains can be, and how they have been celebrated by Buster Keaton, and Akira Kurosawa, and John Ford. In the very thoughtful catalog MoMA has published with the series, curator Laurence Kardish points out that locomotives were regarded as “the industrial revolution incarnate;” Walt Whitman saw them possessed of “fierce-throated beauty.” Annette Michelson, also in the catalog, points to the experience of seeing out of a train window, linking together the viewing experience of 19th century panoramas and dioramas—the now barely remembered predecessors of cinema—and of cinema itself. All three, dioramas and train windows and the movie screen, offer an unfolding spectacle that effortlessly propel the spectator across time and space. The new, and smaller world we live in today, was compressed by many forces. Airplanes and the radio are some of them, but trains and cinema came earlier, and were decisive. There is much more in the catalog: Roger Greenspun on Hitchcock’s trains, Donald Richie on trains in Japanese films, and William Everson on trains in westerns ….
Two of the films “coming soon” merit special note. On 13 July at 1pm Abel Gance’s 1923 La Roue will have one of its very rare showings. More than three hours long, and silent, La Roue is a sprawling story that traverses decades and utilizes the energetic editing strategies than made Gance’s Napoleon so exciting. La Roue was also made four years earlier; in this writer’s opinion it is more majestic, more moving than Napoleon.
La Roue (“The Wheel”) begins with an epic train collision. Amidst the wreckage locomotive engineer Sisif (Severin Mars) finds an orphaned child, Norma, who grows up to become a beautiful young woman (Ivy Close). Both Sisif and his son fall in love with her, but she marries another engineer, Hersan, which leads to such dire consequences as desertion, attempted suicide (on a train, of course), blindness, and death—but also a transcendent vision of renewal through suffering, and the notion that the wheel of fate raises and crushes all of us. Gance weaves the metaphor so subtly into this melodrama that it emerges naturally, and elevates the narrative. This process of self-discovery makes the climactic “wheel dance” unforced and unforgettable.
John Frankenheimer’s The Train was begun by Arthur Penn, but the direction was given to Frankenheimer at Burt Lancaster’s request. Set in France, it tells the story of the French Resistance’s determination to halt a trainload of art from French museums that is bound for the Third Reich. Paul Schofield leads the Germans; Burt Lancaster is the engineer of the train, which makes a strategic stop at a station managed by Jeanne Moreau. The value of the art as compared to the value of the lives of the Resistance is the dilemma that the film begins with, but by the end still larger questions intervene.
Frankenheimer devotes extensive attention to how a locomotive works—and how it can be sabotaged. This film too has a dandy train wreck! Michel Simon appears as an other engineer, personally and physically reminding us of Severin Mars (both started their career’s in the ‘20s, and because Simon’s body looks like that of Mars). Train tracks and the similar architecture of train stations are unusually important in this film—emphasizing where trains can and can not go, and equally suggesting where man can not go (a theme that appears also in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West in July).
One quirky touch is the regular rumble of a subway train passing beneath the museum’s auditorium. Familiarity has led spectators to ignore that sound, but in this series at least it is a welcome intrusion from off-screen.
Restoring and Savoring the Past, Through Film
1992 is the first year of an internationally designated four year period in which the world’s archives and museums of the cinema are commemorating the invention of motion pictures 100 years ago. Anthology Film Archives, a museum which has its eyes on that history as well as the future of personal film-making, is in the midst of two retrospectives with centennial dimensions.
The obviously relevant series is “Classics of Italian Silent cinema,” which concludes on April 3, 4, and 5. This series of early films includes one of the first film treatments of Cyrano de Bergerac, made in 1922, 70 years before the current Gerard Depardieu version. Augusto Genina’s Cyrano is on Sunday the 5th, and exists thanks to the restoration work of the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House.
Restoration is the theme behind many films in these centennial series, no more so than in La Guerra e il sogno di Momi (“War and the Dream of Momi”). Made in 1917, toned in color, this is one of the first—if not the first feature film—to combine living actors and marionettes. Regarded as highly experimental when it was first released, La Guerra has not been seen in its original color since the 1920s. The Turin restoration of the film was just completed in February, and it will be getting its North American premiere when it is screened at Anthology.
Walter Gutman’s 1970s films are very different, but in important ways similar to those made in the early years of the movies. This is because Gutman’s films focus on the history of this century. He is also very interested in the evolution of filmic expression—about which I want to make two points. The first is the obvious, but often overlooked fact that when the movies were invented at the end of the 19th century, nobody knew what they could look like, let alone that they would become the major cultural force in the world by the 1970s through the medium of television.
Imagine, for a moment, the uncertain possibilities available to a man or woman with a motion picture apparatus in 1892, like Thomas Edison, or in 1896, the Lumiere Brothers. Will you “stage” events like Edison or “record” the world like the Lumieres? Will you turn the camera on and let it continue until the film runs out, or stop and start to construct events? Will you move the camera or pan it, or just hold still, and so on. All of these decisions were available, but it was not until the 1920s that the visual syntax we know today was agreed upon. We can see evidence of this in the early Italian films, especially in the decision to express ideas or events within single shots, rather than across many shots—an innovation that was internationally adopted in the 1920s after D.W. Griffith’s use of it in the previous decade.
In Gutman’s 1976 film The March on Paris 1914 … (which will be shown at Anthology on Sunday the 12th), Gutman presents a pseudo document tracing the surreptitious scouting, in pre-World War I France, of a German general staff officer, General Von Kluck (a real soldier who actually did engage in this activity) studying the terrain that he would subsequently sweep across in 1914 when the war actually began. Gutman expands this by introducing Von Kluck’s romance with Jessie Holladay Duane (the great granddaughter of the American westerner Ben Holladay) who plays her own grandmother, who could have met young Von Kluck in the countryside north of Paris in the first years of the 1900s. As I said, this is a pseudo document ….
Now, the extraordinary thing about Gutman’s March on Paris is that much of it was made using the filmic devices used at the time, especially the “long take” where the camera runs without interruption for 30 to 60 seconds. The film opens with one of the most beautiful shots in film history, a long tracking shot through a field of wheat, following Jessie Holladay as she walks amidst the acres of golden grain. As spectators, we savor this experience. The sequence, several minutes long, is breathtaking because it is an uninterrupted shot, because it violates our end-of-the-century aesthetic, and because it is technically so impressive (just try walking through a lumpy field with a steady camera!). Later in the film Gutman resumes this use of the long take, but not until he has first introduced a battle scene that includes an Eisenstein-derivative machine-gun sequence where the cutting uses shots half a second long—rat-tat-tat-tat ….
This combination of “antique” and “modern” editing underscores the second aspect of this film which is worth noting. Gutman’s life spanned the first eight decades of our century, and he made his films as an “old man.” Gutman directed his first film when he was in his ‘sixties, and he made The March on Paris when he was in his ‘seventies. (When he died in 1986 Gutman was 83 years old.) With the exception of Akira Kurosawa, Manuel Olivera, and Michelangelo Antonioni) I do not know of any other film-maker who made important films so late in life, let alone who began to make films so late in life. Film does not have to be the medium of the young. If we would savor cinema, it may be best to look not only to older films, but also through the eyes of older film-makers.
Battle for the Soul of France
One of the virtues of the Museum of Modern Art’s current film series, “Junction and Journey: Trains and Film,” is its revival of extraordinary films which would otherwise not be seen. This coming Friday (16 August, 6 pm), Rene Clement’s 1946 Battle of the Rails will be shown.
Clement had been making short films for almost a decade, but Battle of the Rails was his first feature. Clement adhered to the documentary, realistic approach, Indeed, some of the footage in Battle is said to be film of real sabotage in 1944. If so, Clement has very skillfully integrated it into his story which is largely cast with actual railway engineers, trackmen, conductors, and stationmasters.
At the beginning of the film narrator Charles Boyer says that from 1941 to 1944 three factors held France together: love of country, hatred of the Nazis, and the railroad system which bridged the occupied zone of the north, and the Vichy south. An essential transportation and communication link, the railroads, Boyer tells us, were “a battlefield thousands of miles long but only a few feet wide.” Happily this voice-over soon ceases (it was obviously made just for the American version) so that Clement’s images can pick up the story of smuggling, sabotage, deception, and finally outright war after the allied armies land in Normandy.
Because he made the film in 1945, just a year after many of the events that are shown, Clement could fill his film with the real thing—including armored troop trains equipped with canon and even tanks.
The film is punctuated with striking details of how goods and people could be smuggled past guards but what is probably the most memorable section deals with the execution of railway workers: the Nazis were frustrated by the widespread sabotage. Ten men are selected at random, lined up against a wall, and shot. When the executions begin Clement stations his camera beside the last prisoner the right. Eight volleys ring out as one by one the Germans kill the hostages, systematically moving toward us and the last man. Before the ninth volley the last two reach out to each other, the right hand of the ninth clasps the left hand of the tenth. The shots come, and the ninth man falls out of the frame. Then the tenth volley (no expression but resignation on the last man), and Clement cuts to a railway yard full of locomotives. In each the engineers begin to flow their steam whistles, a rising chorus of shrieks giving voice to the silent dead.
In 1946, the year when Battle of the Rails was released, Clement told an interviewer that “The cinema must respond to the social restlessness of the viewer, and must give him hope in wisdom.” Unfortunately this film was never widely seen outside France. Today it is known by only a few viewers and prints exist only in museums.
Interview With Alain Robbe-Grillet
Since early September  Alain Robe-Grillet has been in Manhattan for a month of teaching at New York University, and the premiere of his new film Un Bruit Qui Rend Fou (The Blue Villa) at Anthology Film Archives. After the third public screening of the film he talked with me about his attempts to collaborate with Michelangelo Antonioni. Dimitri de Clercq translated for us.
Haller: Several years ago you and Michelangelo Antonioni were working on a film, but it never happened. Why?
Robbe-Grillet: Well, there were several film projects …. The first was in the 1950s when I won recognition for my early novels. Antonioni approached me to write a film for him. Then we had a conference and I began to describe what was happening on screen. Antonioni raised his hand, interrupted me, and said, “You write the story, and I will decide what appears on screen.” I said that I can’t write without dealing with the images—and at that point our “collaboration” ended.
Several years later Alain Resnais commissioned me to write a film, and welcomed a visual collaboration—which became Last Year At Marienbad (1961).
[From 1963 to 1983 Robbe-Grillet then wrote and directed eight films of his own. Un Bruit Qui Rend Fou, this year, was his first film in twelve years. During this period Robbe-Grillet wrote and published three more books, including an autobiography.]
About 25 years pass, and in the mid-1980s Antonioni had a stroke; he was partially paralyzed on his right side. He became bored, and contacted me to suggest that I write a script for him in which he would appear as an actor. I was quite intrigued, and prepared a screenplay, The Fortress, about an injured cavalryman with all of Antonioni’s handicaps. He liked the project, but the producer thought the film would be too expensive—there was a large cast of horsemen, the sets, etc.—so the script was shelved.
But the producer had now become seriously interested in working with Antonioni, and when Wim Wenders agreed to become a “co-directoor” to insure the film would be finished if Antonioni became ill, financing was found for the film Beyond the Clouds which just had its premiere in Venice.
Of course it has pleased me that Antonioni has been able to return to film-makng, but I have not given up on The Fortress. Dimitri and I are rewriting it for Jean-Louis Trintignant who has been injured, and he may become the cavalryman!
[Last year Robbe-Grillet was in New York to film an interview at Anthology with Jonas Mekas. There may be a collaborative film project with him too.]
2009 Note: The Fortress was not made, nor was the proposed project with Mekas. Robbe-Grillet died in 2008.
Ulysses’ Gaze begins in Athens, then moves north into the Balkans, reversing the geographic trajectory of the film’s model, Homer’s Odyssey. This alteration is characteristic of this end-of-the-century epic that takes us into the borderlands of the fallen Soviet empire, and into the mind of a wanderer akin to Homer’s protagonist.
The Ulysses of this film by Theo Angelopoulos is a Greek-American film director (unnamed in the film) who is searching for three lost cans of undeveloped film exposed in 1905 by the Manakia brothers. Like the brothers Lumiere who documented France and then the world, the Manakias roamed the Balkans filming everyday life before the birth of most of the national states we know today. In both national and cinematic terms, the Manakia brothers recorded a now antique world.
But Angelopoulos is very much a modernist artist. One of his signature devices is the use of long-duration shots that allow him to juggle space, time, and memory before our eyes. For example, the opening sequence of the film. It begins with the death of Yannis Manakia who collapses beside his camera; Angelopoulos’ camera then pans to the right, following a second actor until Harvey Keitel (the Greek-American film director) appears, and then the shot is reversed, moving left, following Keitel until we pass the space where Yannis and his camera had been. By the end of the shot we have discovered that the death of Yannis, which seemed to take place in the present, was a memory related to or recalled by Keitel.
We have seen that the camera-eye of Angelopoulos usually depicts what the actors are thinking. Not always—but often enough to compel the spectator to constantly be ready to reinterpret the evidence of his/her eyes.
Angelopoulos ally and collaborator in this film which moves to Belgrade and finally to wartime Sarajevo is Harvey Keitel, who is more than just an actor in this movie. Always a very physical presence in his film, Keitel here is an anchor for the spectator. Walking through the wreckage of Bosnia, stepping back into memory, and then forward across decades, Keitel is one of the central threads that holds this film together.
The idea of cinema is the other thread, first in the notion of the three cans of undeveloped Manakia footage with the promise of unblemished vision from the dawn of the era of the motion picture, and second, the form of Ulysses’s Gaze itself. To watch this film is to enter into the process of creating it; passive viewing is not possible. When Keitel finally arrives at the Sarajevo film archive he tells its curator about “a gaze struggling to emerge from the dark,” which can be taken as much as the projector beam, as the vision of the Manakia brothers, and our own reception of this film.
Appropriately this quest that concludes at a film archive, is premiering in America at another archive—Anthology Film Archives.
Tibet: Enigmas and Realities
“We want to show the fascination that Tibet has had over the imaginations of people everywhere, as well as its continuing relevance and [the] importance of this endangered culture.” With these words movie star Richard Gere announced the opening of the Tibet Film Festival which is being presented in New York City from 12 October to 3 November (1999). Nineteen films at Anthology, three at the Asia Society, in Times Square on the Sony JumboTron screen every hour from 15 to 30 October, and on Public Television—Lost Horizon on Channel 13 on 2 November, and Ocean of Wisdom: the Life of His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, on WNYC, Channel 31, on 17 October.
Gere’s stress on Tibet’s hold on the imagination is well put: remote and rarely visited, it is a country as well known for romantic interpretations as for its reality. While these interpretations (and willful mis-interpretations) began in the West, they continue today, in China, the country that for the last thirty years has sought to suppress, to overwhelm the culture and people of this mountain nation.
Tibet today is one of the world’s last captive nations, a condition alluded to in the title of Clemens Kuby’s film Tibet: Survival of the Spirit. The resistance to China by the people of Tibet, non-violent but tenacious, is the subject of the film (at Anthology on the 18th and 25th).
Kuby is a German film-maker, and not the first of his countrymen to be fascinated by Tibet. In 1939 an expedition led by Ernst Schafer crossed the mountains to do an anthropological survey of the people of Tibet. Much of that expedition was extensively filmed. Three years later that film material was appropriated by one of Heinrich Himmler’s fiefdoms: from it an extraordinary, often exciting film was made in 1942, The Enigma of Tibet. Following introductory animated footage (that geographically relates Germany to Tibet) and a National Socialist commentary, we follow the expedition through the mountain passes, allegedly in search for the origins (!) of the Master Race.
American director Frank Capra made a very successful commercial film in Hollywood, Lost Horizon, which perceived the people of its mountain kingdom as long-lived and saintly. During World War II, at the order of Franklin Roosevelt, The OSS Mission to Tibet was also made—screenings on the 19th and 24th.
Distance and ignorance were at the root of these American and German views. The Tibet Film festival is seeking to bring about a better understanding of the real Tibet…. Video tapes will also be shown: a presentation in Times Square on the JumboTron, and works by Ken Feingold, Ed de la Torre, Barry Bryant, Tomiyo Sasaki, and Ernie Gusella.
Robert Huot Retrospective
In the late 1960s a new kind of film was unveiled when Jonas Mekas showed his Walden, a film he had been filming since 1964—shot as the events we see were happening. Unlike written diaries which are retrospective constructions, written after the events described, Mekas’ film diary was shot, as they used to say in regard to television, “live.”
But Mekas is not alone in making these films. This month Mekas is showing at his film museum a group of films by the contemporary film diarist Robert Huot, beginning with his One Year, 1970. Edited in-camera, with shots ranging from the very brief (a second or so) to long duration shots where we are especially conscious that Huot has not cut or interrupted a shot (he also includes the lovely light flares that appear at the end of rolls of film—and are usually trimmed) this work is personal, sexual, contemplative like all of the subsequent chapters of his diary.
Huot has made other films as well—including Nude Descending the Stairs, a 1970 hommage to Marcel Duchamp (photographed by Hollis Frampton). Twenty-five in all are in the nine part retrospective which began on 16 May and plays through 21 June. In April I asked guest curator Scott MacDonald to describe what he thought was especially noteworthy about Huot’s cinema: “Beginning in the late 1960s Huot made distinguished contributions to cinematic minimalism and serialism by returning to Eadweard Muybridge and the Lumiere Brothers for inspiration about how to begin a new approach to film-making. His longer self-portraits—Rolls: 1971, Third One Year Movie, 1972—remain impressive…. Huot’s friendship—it was equally influential on both film-maker’s work—with Hollis Frampton remains to be explored, as do the relationships between his film diaries and his diary paintings of the ‘70s.”
Lawrence Jordan at Anthology, King Arthur at the NY Public Library
Modernism and anachronism mingle in the films of Lawrence Jordan, a California film-maker who is best known for his animated collage—films that use nineteenth century steel engravings in the twentieth century medium of the motion picture. Three nights of his films, including his real-time photography of the “real world”—will be presented at Anthology Film Archives, with Jordan present to discuss them with the audience.
Included are his “stay-at-homes, the much loved, very personal little ones who almost never go out,” to such better known works as his Cornell, a portrait of the collage artist Joseph Cornell, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which breathes life into the engravings by Gustav Dore; the Coleridge poem is read by Orson Welles. Both films are heartfelt, with Jordan’s evident affection for Cornell, and Welles’ reading of Coleridge, made during his last years of life, a tribute to the poet and a final gift to our world.
Fable and fantasy from all parts of the world are present in Jordan’s films; he finds archetypes in different cultures. In Once Upon A Time, for example, we see “a haunted castle (that) transmutes into a Buddhist paradise.” The poetic themes of life, death, isolation and search, Jordan says, “are intertwined.” That film resembles, in many ways, the grail quest that is at the core of the cycle of stories about King Arthur.
A major exhibition about Arthurian literature, “King Arthur: Looking at the Legend,” has just opened at the New York Public Library. In January the Donnell Library will be presenting a formidable series of Arthurian films, by Robert Bresson, John Boorman, Eric Rohmer, and others. For the moment, however the exhibition at the Public Library demands attention.
There are two King Arthurs. The first, that of history, is a figure glimpsed in the shadows of the Dark Ages.
In the mid-1980s he was identified (with a high degree of probability) as a British warlord named Riothamus who led an expedition into the region we now call the Low Countries, where he and his troops were betrayed to invading forces that were attacking the remnants of the Roman Empire in Gaul (France). That man, who died around 470 A.D., was the figure around whom all of the subsequent legends have grown. Until 1200 those stories were oral, largely told in Brittany (northern France). But since then an enormous literature about Arthur and his knights and the quest for the grail (or graal) flourished in France, England, Spain, Italy, and Germany.
Guest Curator Ruth E. Hamilton has plumbed the collections of the Library, as well as some private NYC libraries, to assemble a mammoth exhibition that follows the evolving figure of Arthur. This second Arthur is the more memorable of the two kings.
More than a mere soldier, the Arthur of literature stands at the center of a body of ideas about personal responsibility—duty and honor and love—which define much of what we treasure most about the Middle Ages, and whose conflicting impulses continue to move us today. Like a mirror to Western Society, each century regards him and writes about him differently.
In this splendid exhibition we see original books from as far back as 1587 (an edition of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain). One of the more astonishing books is the Wigalois from 1699, which was printed in two languages, German and Old Yiddish. Other are by Wace (who introduced the Round Table), Chretien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and Hartmann von Aue. One book which is not in this exhibition is a Caxton edition of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur—but the best surviving copy happens to be on exhibit at the Morgan Library right now, just a few blocks away.
Not the least of the delights of this exhibition is the way the books are displayed—nearly all open to illustrations of the Arthurian romances. Gustave Dore, of course, is present, but so are images by Daniel Maclise, Frank Schoonover, Aubrey Beardsley, and a score of others. In this exhibition we can not only track Arthur across the last 1,500 years of history, but we can also see how his image and those of Lancelot and Guinevere and Mordred and Merlin were imagined.
Swedish Avant-Garde/Czechoslovakian Avant-Garde
In 1980 the Swedish postal service issued a three Kroner stamp in honor of Viking Eggeling (1880-1925), an artist and film-maker whose total surviving work in cinema is the 1924 film Diagonal Symphony. This stamp is doubly remarkable in that it is not only the first and last time that a film-maker has been honored for a career of one film, but also that the honored film is an abstract work recognized by avant-garde scholars and audiences as one of the seminal works of cinema.
This stamp reproducing one of the frames of Eggeling’s film is the logo of the new Anthology Film Archives retrospective “Swedish Avant-Garde Film (1924-1990)” which opens on November 20 and continues through December 6 with eleven programs, with many artists present and including a round-table panel on November 23. Though Swedish avant-garde film has had a low profile, its artists are well known in other fields—such as Pontus Hulten, Billy Kluver, Oscar Reutersvard, and Arne Sucksdorf. Hulten and Sucksdorf are well known respectively for art scholarship, and for documentary—and wild life—cinema. (Ingmar Bergman, whose Persona certainly belongs with these other films, is not included.)
Two of the programs are devoted to single artists—Peter Weiss and Gunvor Nelson. Because Nelson lives half of each year in Sweden, half in Berkeley, her films are among the best known in the US Her Red Shift is deeply interesting because it deals with the differences between generations and national attitudes. The generations are those of Nelson’s parents, Nelson herself, and Nelson’s daughter—all playing themselves—all grappling with the wonder of growing up and the mystery of elders. The national differences come in via the soundtrack where we hear not only Gunvor the character speaking, but also excerpts from the letters of the American frontierswoman Calamity Jane, who was writing to her daughter. The voices and sentiments are different, yet the generations they speak across are the same.
An exhibition of the photographs of the Czech photographer Frantisek Drtikol (1883-1961) opened here in November at the Howard Greenberg Gallery. It includes vintage photographs, drawings, and lithographs by a master modern artist with a rapidly growing reputation in the United States. Drtikol used unorthodox chemical processes in making images of a classic subject. He used bromoil printing, a technique often associated with 19th century pictorialism. This was a soft-focus style which often was enhanced by the addition (through bromoil) of pigments onto the photographic prints, adding weight to the otherwise “soft” pictures. Drtikol gradually evolved away from the pictorial aesthetic, but he continued to use the bromoil process to modify what was photographed.
While Drtikol shot landscapes and portraits for decades, he is now especially recognized for his nudes, which impart a particularly mystical dimension to his models. Initially he introduced stage settings into his photographs—angular or curved cut-out forms that echoed or clashed with the nude bodies. By the 1920s, though, he reduced the physical objects and used pools of light, or cast shadows to frame his nudes. This strategy of situating nudes next to or partly within sharply-defined pools of light released his images from any particular time-frame; they became eternal, enigmatic figures. Drtikol’s men and women seem to be in active dialog with these primary visual forms. And by adding emphasis with bromoil, Drtikol took his pictures still further into the realm of the imagination, into a world closer to dreams.
Films Transcending Death
Ninety-two years of the 20th century are nearly over—a period of immense growth but also of immeasurable pain. Two of Manhattan’s premiere film institutions are presenting special programs in December that are a kind of index to what has happened in our time.
The Museum of Modern Art has the series “Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds,” playing through January 12, 1992. It is the largest retrospective of Yiddish film ever shown in America.
At Anthology Film Archives Bruce Elder has returned with the newest chapters of his ongoing epic film cycle, “The Book of All of the Dead.” On Friday December 6 his Flesh Angels will have its US premiere; the next day his Newton and Me will be shown. Each film is two hours long; they are autonomous units, but also part of what is the longest movie ever made, “The Book of All of the Dead” which is now more than forty hours long. Of course what is important about the film is not its length, but its content.
Flesh Angels and Newton and Me continue Elder’s cosmic inquiry into human aspiration, especially in Western Europe and North America. It is a kind of Blakean descent from Paradise to the state of dread and alienation that Elder finds in modern urban culture, Auschwitz, and philosophy.
In Newton and Me he regards Isaac Newton’s contradictory (to us) and complimentary (to Newton) concern with both the occult and the scientific. That our culture eschews notice of Newton’s interest in the supernatural, preferring to dwell on Newton as the father of modern physics, speaks to problems of our time, less visible but undermining our sense of the world.
All of Elder’s films are obsessively concerned with ultimate questions of love and Be-ing, of Death and meaning, of the search for God and the spiritual at a time when such a quest has either been largely abandoned, or left in the hands of fundamentalists and cynical politicians.
Elder is conducting an inquest on what the West has lost, and what can be preserved among the ruins of philosophy and morality. This may sound abstruse, but it is exhilarating because Elder’s method is to shower the spectator with provocative images, printed words (subtitles), voices, music—allowing us to share in his search for MEANING. The films of “The Book” are an adventure of spiritual education—a cinematic whirlwind of the ideas of Dante and Simone Weil, Ezra Pound and Martin Heidegger, of Spinoza, the Bible, Newton, Nietzsche, Blake—a description of the transformation of consciousness that finally, wonderfully, leaves us with a sense of, or the hope of, exalted knowledge.
“Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds” also speaks to what we have (nearly) lost. Yiddish is (or was) a dialect born out of German in the Middle Ages. It grew into a language that became a force unto itself, a tongue for a people without a country. Perhaps it was because the Jews could not point to national boundaries, that they were internal exiles, that they invested so much of their culture in their families and religious tradition. Watching the films in this series impresses on the spectator how rich and substantial their values were—how the Nazis sought to systematically destroy the people, and how recent generations have casually discarded their language.
Some of these films are utterly outrageous—such as the Russian Jewish Luck (photographed in 1925 by Tisse, Sergei Eisenstein’s cameraman). Tevye (1939) is the basis for the later, happier, Fiddler on the Roof—and Tevye is the better story, as well as film. Director Maurice Schwartz takes us into, and beyond, the experience of pain, to redemption. Watching these films evokes not just the loss of so much of Jewish culture, but also the loss of so much Central European culture—rent and torn and savaged first by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s, and then by the communists in the 1940s to the 1980s.
Even as this series is being presented at MoMA, home video copies are being simultaneously released from the National Center for Jewish Film (617-899-70444), and Jim Hoberman’s book Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds has been published.
La Belle Noiseuse by Jacques Rivette
Of all of the fims shown this year at the New York Film Festival, Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse has grown the most in retrospect. Four hours long, the film relates the apparently simple story of a frustrated artist, Frenhofer, who resumes work on a painting that he had abandoned a decade earlier. The catalyst for this is the arrival of a young woman, a writer visiting with a younger painter, who wishes to learn from Frenhofer. The younger man offers Frenhofer the writer as a model (but without first telling her). At first reluctant, she seeks to goad Frenhofer on to complete the masterpiece he had “got stuck inside of” years earlier.
As an inquiry into the artistic process La Belle Noiseuse explores an obsession. Frenhofer’s declaration, deep into the film, that his studio is full of suffering could sound affected to one who has not seen the film—but it is really more of an understatement. The strength of Rivette’s film is that the spectator is encouraged, seduced into joining Frenhofer and his model on their pursuit of an elusive, compelling image. At one point Frenhofer tells her that “I’ll get you out of your body!”
Emanuelle Beart’s body is one of the subjects of this film. She is nude through much of the four hours, often the focus of Rivette’s camera, but more often seen emerging in Frenhofer’s sketchbook or on canvas. There Beart appears as a kind of negative image, amidst a tangle of pen scratches, out of dark washes of ink and painted background. The contrast of these two-dimensional figures with the photographed Beart is riveting. Both enlarge the other, especially in the dialog between the immobile drawings and the woman we see through Rivette’s always moving camera. In the Balzac story which the film is based upon, we must imagine the painting that Frenhofer is creating, a work that is ultimately described as largely abstract. While Rivette avoids showing much of the finished painting in his film, by then he has accomplished the more important task, engaging the audience in the creative process itself.
In the after-screening press conference at the NY Film Festival Beart spoke to the issue of the creative process when one reporter asked if she had felt awkward performing nude for weeks. Not at all, she replied; “Rivette wasn’t filming my ass; I wouldn’t have made the film if that was all there was.