Saturday, May 31, 2008

Jia Zhange-Ke

Just wanted to point to an article up on Jonathan Rosenbaum's site about Jia Zhang Ke, a Chinese filmmaker I've written several times about on this site thus far.

The link is here.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Clarion call to LDS producers

After all I wrote about Yeelen, I have been thinking about miracles, and a Mormon portrayal of them.

There are a few specific things on my mind. 1. That transcendence in film is a different discussion from the portrayal of miracles in film. The two may very well be linked and overlapping, but to assume that one is the other deprives us of clarity and opportunity. 2. That Godard has said that Dreyer and Hitchcock are the only two directors who knew how to frame a miracle. My feelings about this notion are both surprise and humility. 3. That miracles and an understanding of them is integral to a Mormon world view.

However representing miracles on screen, as Godard, the world's premiere cinephile, notes, virtually everyone has gotten it wrong. I might say that there are a few exceptions to his Hitchcock/Dreyer standard, but not many. Souleymane Cisse, director of Yeelen, might very well be one of them. Though his miracles are based in magic rather than Christianity, they seem to me more pure than any LDS-specific, or American for that matter, film that I know of. Perhaps then LDS film should not only not be looking to Spielberg or Pirates of the Carribbean, but to Dreyer or Hitchcock either. At least sometimes.

I desperately think we need to make stories that focus on miracles but do so in a pure way. As I've thought about this, the first story that comes to my mind is Helaman Chapter 5. But to my mind, no amount of special effects can do justice to the sacredness of the visitations, the circle of fire, and the crumbling jail contained in that chapter. So perhaps the model should be straight from Georges Méliès all the way to Souleymane Cisse. Méliès was one of the very first filmmakers, but he was a magician by trade. He started making films to add to his "magic shows." His Trip to the Moon was remade into the Smashing Pumpkins video for "Tonight, Tonight," for those of you familiar with it. But to a modern eye, the kind of in-house special effects came mostly from camera trickery can only be cause for delight rather than to convince. But as Yeelen teaches us, when founded upon innocence and purity, a sincerity comes through that transcends devotion. And so here is my clarion call: for LDS producers, distributors, and financiers, as well as filmmakers, to rally around a production of Helaman 5, with Méliès and Yeelen providing a genealogical framework of innocence.

The goal (much to the production's financial benefit) would be to be as digital perfection as possible, to rely on, for lack of a better word, "tribal," "primitive" non-actors, and mythical (in opposition to mystical) storytelling. Such an exciting, homespun brand of special effects would be delightful to "family-films" audiences, as well as being more capable of expressing devotion than any forms LDS filmmakers are currently engaged in. Again, anyone interested? Please contact me s soon as possible at towardanldscinema AT gmail DOT com. Or do it and don't tell me about it. If there's anyone who wants to and can make this film, please feel free to do so without my involvement. However, I of course would be more than willing. Let's hope we see the film get made.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Mourning our financial situation, as well as the instability of my health and how both have contributed to my inability to attend Cannes this year (which is the best line-up I can imagine for one year), I have spent an abundant amount of time the past few weeks seeing what DVDs are selling for how much and where. Most of the sites I've been examining are in the UK or elsewhere in Europe (where the currencies are much stronger than either of the two in our meager bank accounts). So when I saw the seemingly outrageous priced KINO label's sale on Deep Discount, it was a pleasant surprise. Usually the annual KINO sale at Deep Discount is 20% (plus Deep Discount's free shipping on everything anywhere in the US), so this 50% is a rarity and I wanted to point anyone's attention who wasn't aware but interested, as I don't know how long it will last.

There are some sets which have been on my list for a long time, and I wanted to point a few out for anyone interested.

The American Film Theatre as a project is not only a marvel in production and distribution (that Mormon filmmakers, producers and distributors, should passionately and quickly take an interest in), but an example of excellence and artistic vision. Ionesco's Rhinoceros starring Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, may be the greatest achievement from my viewing thus far, but it is the only film from the first box set (there are three box sets in all) which is essential on my list—though I'll admit I haven't yet seen the John Frankenheimer-directed The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O'Neill and starring Lee Marvin.

Almost every film in the entire second set, however, has left me unable to think of much else for weeks after seeing them. The highlights are A Delicate Balance (the play for which Edward Albee finally won awards) starring Katherine Hepburn and Paul Scofield, and directed by Tony Richardson, along with a Laurence Olivier directed/acted Three Sisters by Chekov, and The most devastating is Harold Pinter's The Homecoming. I'm convinced that nothing could fully prepare a viewer for that experience, even reading the play. As negative a term "filmed theatre" has become, it might be easy to write off these masterpieces as mediocre. But I believe they have accomplished a pinnacle of what film is capable.

Aside from the second American Film Theatre box set and the single disc of Rhinoceros from the first, several other box sets stand out. There are two Griffith collections (who is most commonly referred to as the "father of the narrative film," but whose films have much more to offer than mere historical perspective.

Additionally, there are box sets from Paradjanov, Wong Kar-Wai, and Kieslowski. Kieslowski's being by far the most-for your-money purchase running just under $50 for 6 films. I'm tempted to call both Wong and Paradjanov greater filmmakers though more than once Wong has paid homage to Kieslowski in his films. However I think this box set represents the greatest of Kieslowski's works (the four main features preceding his Dekalog and two being expansions of films which were part of the Dekalog. Previously I have posted a quote from Jonathan Rosenbaum speaking about the moral complexity of one of these two films in particular, A Short Film about Love). So much has been made of Kieslowski's 3 colors trilogy, and his Double Life of Veronique has also received praise since that film's Criterion Collection release, but it is the films in this box set that determine his status as a powerful and morally concerned filmmaker.

Other box sets and collections are dazzling as well. A collection of specific Chabrol films, and a complete collection of all of Buster Keaton's works. The latter seems essential for families with children as well as adults. and at 19 features and a few dozen shorts $99 seems like a steal... alas it is still $99.

Some one on the Criterion discussion board wrote that if anyone doesn't have the 2 KINO Early American Avant-Garde sets, that there is now no excuse not to get them. And I agree that they are important and a great deal, but I'll have to wait and pay for it.

There are other regrets, like the production of the South African Existential play Boesman and Lena starring Danny Glover and Angela Bassett (the adaptation of which I have only seen part, but it was uniquely cinematic and riveting), as well as films and collections about which I'm not yet sure, like the Lang and Murnau collections (since almost all these Lang and Murnau releases are now available from the UK-based Masters of Cinema series. The MoC series is by far the higher quality release, but with the pound to dollar comparison as it is, and these sale prices, the KINO releases can come out at a third the price. But as most of the films are silent, the selection of scores is of the highest importance to me, and MoC has a better track record than KINO). The only exception to availability on the MoC series that I can recall is Lang's Die Niebelungen, a five-hour epic whose filmmaking outdoes even the dazzling storytelling and special effects of Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. I have pretty consistent fantasies of watching this with our children years down the road. But I guess this release will also wait.

But by far the greatest regret is that I won't be able to purchase Yeelen. Yeelen is often described as the greatest African film ever made, and I have repeatedly thought that it is one which LDS filmmakers as well as audiences could learn massive amounts from. While maintaining the complete lack of pretension one might expect from an African film (and I'm assuming that most readers aren't experts on African film, and myself having seen less than five), this film manages to have more energy than Tarantino, and more sincerity and feeling than even Malick's or Scorsese's films. I will also add that the special effects, despite the lack of any kind of special effects department, does in fact impress the pants off Star Wars (I know I read that somewhere before I saw the film, though I can't remember where—either David Bordwell, Jonathan Rosenbaum, or J Hoberman— but I was surprised to find how true it was). The film is rooted in Magic, Myth, and sincerity of the highest metaphysical order. But no where to be found is a stitch of pretension. There is no need to declare devotion or to prove that this myth or magic is real, because the film believes it so whole-heartedly and purely, that no real viewer could deny it outright. More essential than I have words for. And this is the only edition in the world as far as I'm aware (and I've looked).

The link to the sale is here.

For those hesitant about editions or whatnot, Gary Tooze's DVD Beaver is the most amazingly informative and helpful site I could imagine. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in film or just a home movie collection. Also, if anyone buys from any division of Amazon, I'd make a personal request to use the links from DVD Beaver to make those purchases. It is an amazing site and the only way it is maintained is by use of those links for Amazon purchases. There is also a link to the Beaver in the top side bar on this page.

I'll add the obvious in closing. The purpose of this post has very little to do with my mourning over not being able to purchase these discs. I write it obviously to encourage interest in these films. I believe that our culture and our art would be fuller and more mature if we added these films to our common vocabulary.

Sydney Pollack dies at 73

Though I'm still digesting what has been said to this point in discussion on the previous posts, this even requires notice.

To say that an era of cinema is ending seems wrong. Several eras of cinema are ending all at once. Though I know my assessment comes at least in part from nostalgia, I will greatly miss this man's films. I consider him a fine director who strived for excellence and often achieved greatness. I to a significant degree, grew up on his films, but it is in recent years that I have revisited his work as director, producer, and actor with joy, intrigue, and sometimes amazement.
He was far more daring than his critics have recently noted.

The New York Times link.

I will post more as I find them.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Ok, next question: is there a difference between the Spirit and emotions?

I think that discussion under the last post is a good one that I would like to keep going, but I think that this question is a separate and more foundational one. Can I have an emotional reaction that has nothing to do with the Spirit. I think it's obviously 'yes,' but I don't think everyone agrees with me here.

My gut is that music in film opens up a channel to our emotions and that what we feel there is not God. (Now these are all very vague issues, and describing them in words will always fall short. Nevertheless, I consider it a worth while effort.) If what I wrote above is true, that sweeping music elicits an emotional, not spiritual response, then does that mean that music alone never
elicits a spiritual response? Is it always emotional?

I think that some of our responses to the questions asked about the Spirit and art are responses about emotions, not about the Spirit. But why would I think that my experiences with the Spirit would qualify me to dictate what yours could be? I know a few things that are on my mind about this distinction, and I know my experiences. I'll share those and I'd really appreciate if you would share yours.

1. That Romans 8:16 says: "The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God"
In this verse, there are two spirits being talked about: The Spirit of God, and the spirit of us. Big 'S', little 's'. And both of them are 'bearing witness.' That is something amazing in my mind. Did YOU know that YOUR spirit could testify? I don't know the terms, procedures, or requirements for this, but it is worth noting.
I don't believe that I even know what it would be to elicit a spiritual response, but the doctrine in this verse is key to understanding it, I am convinced. I don't believe that it is the same thing as our emotions bearing witness.

2. I know that our emotions and our spirits are very closely linked. Nephi wrote that he began to cry more as he became more 'spiritually in-tune' with the Lord (how's that for a phrase with a LOT of topical baggage.

3. I believe that the distinction might best be described by looking at the order of our meetings. The hymn always comes before the prayer/ordinance. The spiritual experience (the connection with God) comes after not during the hymn. The hymn's purpose is to prepare for, not replace, the Spirit.

The idea is that after we have alerted our senses, we will be more receptive to God's presence and His counsel.

That way, our reaction to the preparation (intellectual as well as emotional) is based on taste, culture, training... and I don't know that our receptiveness to the Spirit is influenced by those factors.

4. I know that sometimes I have been given direction as a result of a piece of art. I felt things as I pondered the work (could I have said experienced? I'm really not sure. But it would have to be an active verb). My interaction with a piece of art was always active rather than passive if I was received any divine direction. I know that that is not emotion. It is from outside of both me and my biology.

However, I know that the Spirit does not only speak this way to us. It sometimes primarily a Comforter. That does not require direction.

These are the biggest conclusions I've come to on my own, and I would greatly appreciate you to share yours.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Please tell me: Can the Spirit be in a Work of Art?

My initial reaction would be 'no,' because to say such a thing would suggest that the Spirit is something which can be manipulated by man. How absurd.

But there are so many discussions where Mormons seem to say that the Spirit is not in a work of art, one might be led to believe that that is an exception to the rule. I believe that my heart has been in the right place while viewing a film or painting (rarely while reading a book other than scripture, but often afterward as I pondered it) and I've felt a confirmation of something or even revelation that expounded upon a seed planted or even just suggested by a work of art. But does that mean that the spirit is in the work of art? I don't believe it does.

But I feel, for the lack of a better word, the presence of divinity as I read scripture and it calms and heals me (how often I need it!). Does this mean that it is with in the scriptures, or is it actually the act of obedience to read them which does it?

While tear-jerkers do not bring the Spirit, I will admit that I have had spiritual... enlightenment spurned by epic emotional films... films I returned to with disgust, but whose first viewing brought life-changing decisions.

So I ask you, what your experiences are.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Web Criticism

David Bordwell, as usual, has taken an optimistic stance where everyone else seems to have only seen doom. Commenting on the state of film criticism in light of the intense and rapid decline of print film criticism (which might as well be called paid film criticism) as well as the increase of Web-based criticism. He provides an engaging and intelligent-as-always foundational meditation/how to distinguish and write better film criticism. I'm including a link here, in part because I think it's important (I don't think we realize how entirely our world is changing), and in part because I'm looking for contributors to this blog. Anyone can contact me if you're interested at towardanldscinema at gmail dot com, and we'll see what we can rig up.

This is a niche audience and a niche topic, but an important one, and we have much to learn yet about how and what we can do.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The difference between good and evil

I've been spending a great deal of time on a post on Chaplin's The Great Dictator ever since we were on the temple trip last week with the Polish members, but I have so much to say that isn't quite coming out as I'd like, so I've moved on to a few other posts to allow some distance.

One thing that seems to be at the center of my thoughts for an 'LDS cinema' is the construction of 'right' and 'wrong,' as has been manifest by many previous posts. Do we follow a Star Wars/Joseph Campbell archetypal definition of the two or a Miyazakian/Iranian model with a an absolute refusal to demonize or polarize in any direction? (Might I add, again, that the second model is for children primarily.)

I've also decided to re-read Jonathan Rosenbaum's work for the Chicago Reader starting at the beginning, and currently I'm in the January 1990 section on his new website. This, of course, contains his top ten for the year. In that list are two passages that triggered something in me on the topic and present one important side of my dilemma—I cite them for you here.

The first, is under A Short Film About Love—a lengthened version of my least favorite of the ten parts of (arguably) Kieslowski's greatest achievement, The Decalogue. Though his writing on the film is worth reading, this passage says nothing of it, but discusses morality of representation:

Like the other self-sufficient installments in the Decalogue that I’ve seen, A Short Film About Love is in fact centrally concerned with a highly sophisticated moral ambiguity–a distinguishing trait of the contemporary Polish cinema that could also be noted this year in Agnieszka Holland’s flawed but powerful To Kill a Priest as well as Andrzej Kotkowski’s Citizen P. Unlike the first-grade ethics of a Crimes and Misdemeanors, which can’t see beyond either the notion of good guys versus bad guys or the self- absorption of the three characters it is ostensibly attacking, Kieslowski and Holland are interested in the complex intricacies–the paradoxes, contradictions, and cross-purposes–that figure in ethical choices.

Now, I don't think Crimes and Misdemeanors is aiming at morality, and to view it only in these terms is short-sighted, but the distinction is well-worth noting. In this light I am more inclined to the "complex intricacies–the paradoxes, contradictions, and cross-purposes–that figure in ethical choices" which factor into Kieslowski's Decalogue (which doesn't factor into all of his films, in my opinion), because those complexities are the things that my moral, ethical, and spiritual life are riddled with.

The second citation comes from his description of Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing (maybe the greatest film about race in America ever made, in fact I can't even think of a runner-up):

Practically the only American movie this year that stimulated extended, in-depth discussion about anything other than just movies, Spike Lee’s energetic portrait of a day in the life of the inhabitants of a Bedford-Stuyvesant block breaks with the Hollywood mainstream by doing away with the moral certainties represented by heroes and villains. In addition to representing a quantum leap over Lee’s previous features, this highly entertaining and provocative feature addresses contemporary racial issues in a manner that startlingly respects the ability of viewers to think for themselves.

In contrast to the stacked decks that generally accompany most Hollywood “problem” pictures, which typically divvy up the antagonists in racial conflicts into separate piles labeled “us” and “them,” Do the Right Thing discovers a way of addressing a varied audience in such a way that no single viewpoint provides a skeleton key for comprehending the action in all its implications. The motto of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, “Everyone has his reasons,” applies here not only to the separate perspectives of the pizzeria owner (Danny Aiello), his delivery boy (Lee), his two sons (Richard Edson, John Turturro), three alienated malcontents (Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, Roger Guenveur Smith), two elderly outsiders (Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis), and three comic kibitzers (Robin Harris, Frankie Faison, Paul Benjamin), among others, but also to the separate legacies of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X that are evoked at the movie’s end. Theoretical pluralism has often played a substantial role in American movies, but genuine pluralism pushed so far that it actively determines narrative structure is a rarity, and Lee’s comedy-drama provides a bracing model for how this can be done.

This 'stock piling' tradition, from my point of view, might have the advantage of clarity and comprehension (perhaps appropriation), but I don't remember clarity ever being the issue in any of Spike Lee's pictures, and this one is no exception. The fact that it "discovers a way of addressing a varied audience in such a way that no single viewpoint provides a skeleton key for comprehending the action in all its implications" seems integral to what is missing from modern commercial cinema (which many 'Mormon movies' take most of their cues from). It seems to me that Renoir's view is the pinnacle of Christianity in practice.

However, after such a conversation with my father-in-law this week, a man whom I respect and have respected much longer that it was my obligation to do so, he reminded me that there is a great need to define and teach what evil is, and how to distinguish it. I am committed to this, though I don't know how to do so in a Christian manner. For the most part, demonization (as discussed in the post about Rambo) is the only way movies seem to be doing this. I am also convinced it is the very thing we need to avoid. But what else is there? How do we define this? What movies are doing this without condemning unjustly?

I have included a link to my father-in-law's blog on the side because those bits of wisdom are integral to what we should be doing in film in my opinion. Leading Families

Thursday, May 8, 2008

J. Hoberman

I admit that I have not read as much of J. Hoberman's writings as I would have liked to (I try to get caught up in the Voice at least once a month, though most discussion of the Village Voice over the past several months has centered on Nathan Lee and his recent firing and what it means in terms of the future of film criticism), but I have always left appreciative for the new perspective, his keen eye, eclectic tastes and sheer passion for things that I might otherwise not have noticed. I have only truly read one of his anthologies, though I have picked others over with great fulfillment. True, his tastes are often more 'crass' (whatever that more might truly mean) than my own (he has written extensively on the achievement of Cronenberg's Crash and listed Borat among his top ten for last year), but no one among American film critics has encouraged interest in Bill Viola's work or Eastern European cinema (an obvious taste we share, though I am less and less tolerant of Wajda's work) than Hoberman. But it is his eclecticism and listmaking I wished to mention in brief here.

I include links on the side bar here more for my own use than anyone else's, but I wanted to encourage the perusal of these mini canons for the use of Latter Day Saints interested or devoted to Film as a medium. I wish only to list here his list from 1985:

01. Shoah (Claude Lanzmann)
02. Standard Gauge (Morgan Fisher)
03. Allonsanfan (Paolo and Vittorio Taviani)
04. The Ballad of Social Dependency (Nan Goldin)
05. Himatsuri (Mitsuo Yanagimachi)
06. After Hours (Martin Scorsese)
07. Patakin (Manuel Octavio Gomez)
08. Tosca's Kiss (Daniel Schmid)
09. Chambre 666 (Wim Wenders)
10. Lost in America (Albert Brooks)

First I will admit that I have only seen three of these and heard of four of them. But I was impressed by the extreme diversity of film embraced here: any list which simultaneously contains both Claude Lanzmann's 550 minute magnum opus on the Holocaust and American stand-up-turned-filmmaker Albert Brooks' first feature is something to be mentioned.

I simply wanted to call attention to these lists and what we might learn from them.

If nothing else, I might hope that our trips to the theater or Amazon or netflix or local film library might be more thoughtful and informed.