Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Of Essay Films: Chris Marker (1921-2012) and the Genre He Invented

Chris Marker (1921-2012)
It was with great sadness that I heard yesterday that the great French filmmaker Chris Marker had died (five years to the day after the surprisingly simultaneous deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni).  Marker was 91, so it can hardly be said that he didn’t have his innings.  Although he’s probably most famous in the United States for his 1962 fictional short film La jetée (which I’m told every film student sees in film school), the majority of his work fell within the confines of a genre which he all but invented, the “essay film.”

How does one define an essay film? Well, let’s start with how we define an “essay” in its literary sense.  The first essays to bear the name were written by Marker’s countryman Michel de Montaigne and published in 1580.  The French essai means “attempt,” and Montaigne describes his sui generis pieces exploring his free-ranging thoughts on various subjects as his “attempts” to explicate those subjects; so, attempts, essais.  When the English writer and scientist Francis Bacon set about a similar enterprise, he borrowed Montaigne’s term and describes his pieces as “essays,” and that’s how the term entered the English language. 

The defining characteristic of Montaigne’s essays is their frequent tendency to digress and their intense subjectivity.  He may call a piece “Of Cannibals” or “Of Friendship” or “Of Some Lines of Virgil,” but he’ll feel free to follow his line of thought wherever it may take him.  Furthermore, he makes no pretense to objectivity in these essays.  This is just what he thinks, and perhaps his most famous line is “'Que sçay-je?” (“What do I know?”) And, as it pertains to his tendency to digress, it should be pointed out that this line comes from his longest essay, “An Apology for Raymond Sebond,” only a small portion of which has much of anything to do with the titular Raymond Sebond.
Michel de Montaigne. (As an aside, I got this picture from a website called thefamouspeople.com, which I find funny for some reason.)
Now, what distinguishes Montaigne’s essays from other “non-fiction” genres, such as historiography or philosophy, are these characteristics of digressiveness and subjectivity, and I believe it is these same characteristics in Marker’s films which distinguish them from more unambiguously documentary films.  Let’s take Marker’s most famous essay film, Sans Soleil (1982) and ask ourselves what it’s “about.” Well, it’s about a lot of things: it’s about a picture from Iceland, it’s about aspects of Japanese culture, it’s about memory, it’s about Amilcar Cabral and the independence movements in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde.  And what gets said about these things? This and that.  Whatever Marker wants to say about them, really.  I suppose you could say that the movie is about memory, and that Marker explores these various topics in relation to the “theme” of memory; but I don’t think anyone would say, “Marker has made a documentary about memory.” People could, however, say of Barbet Schroeder’s Terror’s Advocate, for example, that he has made a documentary “about” controversial French lawyer Jacques Vergès.

I wouldn’t say that the borders between the essay film and the documentary are hermetically sealed and never the twain shall meet.  There has certainly been cross-pollination between the two.  In reading some of the obituaries for Marker, I saw someone describe Michael Moore as an essay filmmaker and I thought, “Well, I guess…” Moore certainly has the subjectivity thing down.

And conversely, Marker made some essay films that really look like documentaries; the three-hour epic A Grin Without a Cat is most definitely “about” something, namely the rise and fall of militant leftist groups in the sixties and seventies.  So why do I think it’s an essay film? Well, there’s that subjectivity again, and there’s the digressiveness.  Eric Henderson of Slant, in his review of this film, calls attention to Marker’s wonderful digression on the subject of Fidel Castro’s microphones.  Apparently Castro, when giving his lengthy, extemporaneous speeches, was in the habit of from time to time adjusting the various microphones that were arrayed before him.  It was something like an unconscious tic, and he could always be seen fiddling with them.  Well, Marker shows us footage of Castro giving a speech in the Soviet Union, and, horror of horrors, his microphones are fixed in place.  They won’t yield to the compulsive ministrations of his hands, and you can see him, desperately trying to make the damn things move, while his speech falls apart and he starts spouting really simplistic slogans in an effort to get easy applause (“Viva the Soviet Union!” is a characteristic example).  So there’s an example of something that I wouldn’t expect to find in a documentary about leftist militants or Fidel Castro or the like.  But in an essay film, it’s presence seems perfectly appropriate.

Perhaps my reluctance to grant Michael Moore the title of “essay filmmaker” is an aesthetic hang-up.  Marker’s films, at their best, are profoundly beautiful.  I highly doubt that anyone has ever walked away from a Michael Moore movie and thought, “Wow, that was profoundly beautiful.” I don’t think Moore gets aesthetics and I doubt he’s that concerned with the matter anyway.  Also, if Moore shares with Marker an attachment to subjectivity, he does not share Marker’s sense of restraint.  At no point in a Chris Marker film to you get the impression that Marker is shouting, “Hey! Look! Look at me! Look at this thing I’m doing!” whereas that’s basically half of any Moore movie.  In fact, Marker tends to try to make himself unobtrusive. 

The narrative voice-overs in his films are quite pointedly not done by him; in fact, they tend to be female; at least, I know that was the case in Sans Soleil and I think it was the case with A Grin Without a Cat.  I don’t recall the sex of the narrator of 1992’s The Last Bolshevik, which may very well be the only other “feature-length” Marker film I’ve seen.  A remarkable number of his films aren’t available in the United States.  His death is lamentable, but hopefully it will spark greater interest in his work and prompt the release of more Marker on DVD.  For instance, the British writer Clive James has described Marker’s 1957* film Letter from Siberia as his greatest film; Letter from Siberia is not—nor, as far as I can tell, has it ever been—available on Region 1 DVD.  Criterion Collection, get on this shit; do a Chris Marker Eclipse Collection the next time you’re tempted to release The Films of Norman Mailer, which I have not seen but for which I don’t have high hopes.

Marker doesn’t have that many successors in the school of essay filmmaking, but the followers he does have are quite reputable.  Among the occasional makers of essay films—few people seem to devote themselves to it almost exclusively, as Marker did—we find masters like Agnes Varda, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Straub-Huillet, (note the heavy French presence), Orson Welles, and Wim Wenders, whose 1985 Tokyo-Ga features a brief cameo appearance from Marker himself (as well as Werner Herzog, whom I left off my list; are Herzog’s non-fiction films documentaries or essay films? Some combination thereof?  I do not have an answer for you at present).

Marker has left us, but his films will certainly endure, and hopefully we here in the United States will have the chance to see more of them soon.  I leave you with one of Marker’s shorts, a movie called an owl is an owl is an owl, which is, as the title would suggest, about owls, and which features weird voice-overs and Stockhausen-y noise:

*This post originally incorrectly stated that Letter from Siberia was released in 1961.  Not the kind of mistake that would have been made had I actually had the opportunity to the see the film in question.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Few Vague, Imprecise, and Highly Subjective Notes on the Use of Philip Glass’s Music in Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and Andrei Zvyagintsov’s Elena

Sometimes I like to joke to myself that Toru Takemitsu did the score for every Japanese movie made during his adult life (I say that I make this joke to myself because there are so few occasions on which I could share it with a broader audience).  Now, I’m exaggerating slightly when I say he scored every Japanese movie; according to the Wikipedia, Takemitsu composed the scores for only one hundred movies; perhaps these movies are disproportionately distributed in the United States, and that’s why it so often feels like every Japanese movie I see has a Takemitsu score.

Toru Takemitsu
But there’s at least one Japanese movie from Takemitsu’s period that he didn’t score, and that’s Paul Schrader’s masterpiece Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985).  As Schrader had never made a Japanese movie before—nor has he since, to my knowledge—I suspect he would plead ignorance and assert that he just didn’t know that all Japanese movies of that period had to have Takemitsu scores.  But I’m willing to overlook this error on Schrader’s part, because in place of Takemitsu, he brought in everybody’s favorite American minimalist composer, Philip Glass.  And I think that this movie has one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard, or, to put it another way, it’s one of the movies I’ve seen where the score was so noticeable that it seemed like an essential part of the work as a whole. 


And the Glass score is perfectly in tune with Yukio Mishima’s art, life, and death, at least as they are depicted by Paul Schrader.  As an aside, I think it’s likely a fairly accurate depiction, as Schrader had an agreement with Mishima’s widow by which the Mishima in the movie (in a pitch-perfect performance by Ken Ogata) would not say a single line that did not come from the established historical record of things Mishima wrote or said.  It will be interesting to compare Schrader’s film with Koji Wakamatsu’s recent Mishima biopic, 11/25: The Day He Chose His Own Fate, should the philistines who distribute these things ever see fit to release it in some form in the United States.

But yes, the Glass score.  The Glass score captures the ecstasies of Mishima’s art as well as the grandeur with which he lived and died (or at least, the grandeur with which he would have liked to think he lived and died.  I’m always reminded of the line from Spanish writer Javier Marias, who wrote, “The death of Yukio Mishima was so spectacular that it has almost succeeded in obliterating the many other stupid things he did in his life.”)

So Glass’s original score for Schrader’s Mishima film “nails it.” The same cannot be said for the way in which Glass’s music is used in Andrei Zvyagintsov’s recent film, Elena (2011), which I saw at the Edina Landmark Cinema last evening.  Elena makes frequent use of pre-existing Philip Glass music (from his Third Symphony, I believe) and tends to use it to illustrate scenes that would otherwise have passed in silence, like the titular Elena riding the train or her husband Vladimir working out at the gym.  Where the Glass music in Mishima was an integral part of the film, and contributed to its overall beauty, here it seems almost like a substitute for beauty, as if Zvyagintsov had said to himself, “How to make these scenes look ponderous and important? I know, some art music!” And that’s only when one notices the Glass music at all.  It has a tendency to disappear into the background and seem merely decorative.  Part of my prejudice here may stem from the fact that I’d seen attention called to the Glass music in reviews of this film before I saw it, and so I was expecting the music to be used more effectively.  Its misuse is especially disappointing given that I so strongly associate Glass with his Mishima score (a film I saw several years ago and with which I was, and continue to be, deeply impressed).

And so concludes my brief (I told you it would be brief) discussion of Philip Glass’s music as I’ve seen it in the movies.  I must apologize for my relative ignorance of musical terminology or contemporary classical (in terms of orchestration) music.  Anyone with more to say about Glass or how his or other minimalist composers’ music has been used in the movies should feel free to leave a comment below.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bourgeois Orgasm, Revolutionary Orgasm: Political Sexuality in Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Zvenigora and Dušan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism

*This blog post discusses major plot details of Zvenigora and WR: Mysteries of the Organism*

As part of my continuing cinematic education, I’ve recently watched several movies from the so-called Golden Age of Soviet cinema, the 1920’s, when directors like Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Vertov, and Pudovkin developed the montage technique and established a new grammar for film construction that was just as revolutionary as the innovations of D W Griffith in the previous decade.  Now, this is the early Soviet Union we’re talking about here, so they certainly weren’t developing these techniques as ends in themselves, but rather so that they could apply them to creating better, more effective propaganda films (and the Soviet films of this period are, by and large, and no matter how artfully done, propaganda; but I suppose it only serves to prove that just because something is propaganda doesn’t mean it can’t have great artistic merit; didacticism doesn’t inherently undermine aesthetics, skeptical of it though I’m generally inclined to be).

Well, in watching these movies, I’ve now seen several depictions of bourgeois, reactionary life—as it was perceived and interpreted by an Eisenstein or a Dovzhenko—and I can’t help but notice that their depictions of bourgeois decadence always seems to have an implicit sexual element to them.  Now, they don’t go so far as to depict the all-out, Caligula-style orgies to which—who knows—Lenin and Plekhanov may have masturbated, if they were the types to do that sort of thing (and who knows, maybe masturbation was a bourgeois vice? I know homosexuality was considered in that light by numerous communist parties; someone who’s an expert on the matter should do some research and let me know).  So no, they’re not going full-on Roman, but the bourgeois of these films is always a sensualist.  As an example, let’s take Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1925), in which the wealthy industrialist antagonists dine with gluttonous abandon, gorging themselves on grapes (how Roman) and meat and discarding the food they don’t want (while the striking workers are starving!)

Now, perhaps this scene was sensual and not sexual, but one cannot say that of one of the climactic scenes of Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Zvenigora (1928).  In it, a “Ukrainian counter-revolutionary” has gone to Paris to give a lecture to high-society types on the evils of the Bolsheviks and their destruction of Ukraine.  The lecture will conclude, it has been advertised, with the counter-revolutionary shooting himself in the head.  As the lecture begins, it swiftly becomes clear that the aristocrats in the audience (decked out with fancy dress and the occasional set of opera glasses) don’t give a shit about Ukraine or the Bolsheviks (as the counter-revolutionary happily admits) but have come for the sole purpose of seeing him shoot himself. 
Decadent bourgeois with her opera-glasses.
The lecture works almost like a suspense technique, designed to build anticipation for the climactic shooting, and I mean climactic both in the narrative and in the sexual sense of the word.  Because, as he gives his speech, the audience becomes more and more excited.  They fidget and writhe about in their seats, they breathe more rapidly, and one decadent young woman even begins to gnaw on her arm (as if to suppress the involuntary vocalizations of orgasm).  The lecturer finishes his speech, draws the gun out of his pocket, brings it to his head, and then…! he remembers something he left out of his speech, and he returns to it, and the audience isn’t just disappointed, they’re downright angry, as if suffering from a collective case of blue balls.  He brought them right to the edge, and then he drew back.  What a tease!  Oh, but now he’s done with the speech again, out comes the gun, the audience is ready to go…! Annnnnd he puts away the gun and gets a drink of water.  More frustration.  The woman who was gnawing on her arm doesn’t look like she can take much more of this.  Finally, the gun comes out a third time, and it looks like he’s really going to do it, when…! the police arrive and break up the show.  What cockblocks.
Another bourgeois.  If your partner's face looks like this during sex, maybe consider finding a new partner.
So the bourgeois class is so decadent, so thoroughly perverted, that its bloodlust has become almost indistinguishable from the pursuit of sexual gratification.  I don’t know how Dovzhenko’s audience in the ‘20’s would have interpreted this scene (oh, they probably got it, actually), but there’s no subtlety to it.  The sexual significance of their fixation on violence is undeniable.

Well, if the bourgeoisie of the 1920’s was kinky, the 1970’s offered up an opportunity for the proletarians to indulge in their own brand of sexual liberation.  At least, this was the opinion of Yugoslavian filmmaker Dušan Makavejev, a thesis which he advanced in his controversial film WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971).  This documentary/fiction hybrid explores the work of controversial psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (the WR of the title), who advocated for shameless, full-bodied orgasms as the solution to a whole litany of mental and physical health problems (and who believed that the atmosphere was suffused with a blue orgasmic energy which he called “orgone,” which could be harvested inside so-called “orgone accumulators,” one of which William S. Burroughs famously built for himself), and the fictional application of his theories by a young Yugoslavian woman, who seeks to synthesize Reich’s theories with Marxism.
A sexually liberated, Yugoslavian communist.
Yugoslavia was always an odd country, in relation to the other communist countries.  Marshal Tito broke with the Soviet bloc in the early 1950’s and he sought to lead Yugoslavia on an independent course and ally it with the emerging countries of the decolonizing world, with which he spearheaded the establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement.  Having rejected mainline Stalinism before it was cool, I should imagine there was, to a certain extent,  greater room to maneuver in terms of Marxist theory within the Yugoslavia of the time (or maybe everything just came down to Tito-worship, this is really just speculation here).

Well, anyway, the ‘60’s saw a flowering in experimental cinema in Yugoslavia which in many ways paralleled the Czech New Wave with which it was contemporaneous.  Dušan Makavejev made his first film in 1965, the playful Man is not a Bird (an exploration of romance in a factory) which he followed up with 1967’s even more whimsical Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator, which bears comparison with Jiří Menzel’s masterful and equally tender exploration of youthful sexuality, 1966’s Closely Watched Trains. 

Makavejev’s films became increasingly radical in terms of structure and subject matter, and by 1971, he had apparently decided that the time had come to bring his twin politico-economic and sexual concerns together in a grand, cinematic orgasm.  And so in WR, following what is basically a documentary discussion of Reich’s work and his followers in the late ‘60’s, we see the young protagonist seeking out sexual gratification wherever she can find it, and linking it with the communist revolutionary impulse.  This was provocative stuff, and the film ends with our sexual liberator getting decapitated by a Soviet communist whom she romances and who evidently was horrified to find her approach to sexuality far less orthodox than his own.  In a way, this decapitation metaphorically anticipated Makavejev’s own fate, as his film proved so controversial that he was unable to continue making movies in Yugoslavia.  He would go into exile and his next film was 1974’s Sweet Movie; if WR is an orgasm, then Sweet Movie is an orgy, and more of the Caligula variety; or at least, that’s what I’ve heard, as I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch it yet.  Give it time.  In this blog post, I’ve explored communist perceptions of bourgeois sexuality as well as a communist re-evaluation of communist sexuality.  Perhaps a future post can explore whatever the fuck kind of sexuality is on display in Sweet Movie.