Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cuarón, et al. form production company

Dear all,

Here's some extremely interesting news about the director of one of this week's films: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/26/movies/26roht.html

In fact, each of the individuals involved (both Cuaróns, González Iñárritu, del Toro, Luna, García Bernal) has a rich and varied body of work that is worth exploring.

Good luck with the writing!


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Group Post 8: Tracy and Lee

In Elsaesser’s essay regarding double occupancy, he says that double occupancy “wants to be the intermediate terms between cultural identity and cultural diversity, recalling that there is indeed a stake: politics and power, subjectivity and faith, recognition and rejection, that is, conflict, contest” (Elsaesser 110). How do you think these concepts, as well as the theme of homogenization that Elsaesser discusses in his essay, are reflected in the post-national films we watched this week? Are these ideas portrayed in a positive or negative light, and what does that in turn contribute to the film?

In “The Edge of Heaven” the tensions between nations in the European Union and nations not in the European Union is brought to light in the relationship between Lotte’s mother and Ayten. How does the film portray these tensions, and what solution or situation does it offer up? How does this relate to Elsaesser’s arguments about the European Union and its effect on the film industry and director’s motives?

In Elsaesser’s essay “ImpersoNations”, he discusses the concept of “self-othering” and self-reflexive irony that becomes apparent in post-national cinema and multinational culture. To what extent does “Irma Vep” feature these processes, taking into account the bizarre final sequence, and the relationships between Maggie and filmmakers? Do you think this act of self-reflection and self-mockery is unique to this genre, or is it found in other types of cinema?

How does post-national European cinema deviate from such genres as American Independent cinema (specifically “Do The Right Thing”, which features many similar concepts to European double-occupancy), third cinema, or counter-cinema? In response to section discussions last week, what do we do with all these genres, and what information does categorization into genres give the viewer? What is the benefit in creating a genre and how does it affect the course of cinema in history?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

New Blog Post for the week of 4/20

The term, “avant-garde” refers to an relatively easily defined films. Yet one of the ideas behind it is that these films are always stretching the norms and boundaries. Do you think that there is an inherent contradiction between these two ideas? In addition, what do you make of Peter Wollen’s effort to split the avant-garde into two categories and what can one then derive from this regarding the film theory’s view of avant-garde. Finally, what is the reasoning behind the continued use of the heading, “avant-garde” as it is a term that has thus far spanned 80 years, had some many different influences, is it far to the original “avant-garde” to still use their name today.

According to the Murray Smith article, words like ‘reactive’ and ‘critical’ were used by David James to describe the avant-garde. James also cited the avant-garde as continually challenging and undermining the norms of orthodox practice and attempting to deface the values of mainstream society. So if we assume that the classic Hollywood cinema is the first cinema and the avant-garde works as the second cinema, what relation does the third cinema have in relation to these other two ideas? Please attempt to frame your answer in terms of Apparatuses 1 and 2. Also, please feel free to comment on the original view point of James regarding the avant-garde.

Penley and Bergstrom’s article surrounds the concept of viewing the avant-garde cinema as an attempt of exploring the consciousness. Please explore this relationship on a deeper level, specifically in relation to the views we viewed last week but feel free to mention any that we have seen all semester. In addition, are there elements of those films that are unattractive and that bring back memories of Wollen’s virtues of counter-cinema? Finally, how does the ‘ethnographic impulse’ as described by Catherine Russel change the way we understand films especially in the relation to the ‘exploration of the consciousness’ model?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Group Post 6

In the article entitled “The National”, Paul Willemen argues that by isolating individual cultures within a certain area through “multicultural” tendencies, “the host culture conspires with the conservative upholders of an imagined ‘ethnicity’ to draw lines around those ‘other’ cultural practices, ghettoizing them.” Is this the case within Sembene’s The Camp at Thiaroye? Or does this film represent a break from this position of otherness? Is the film solely defined by its relation to French colonialism? Does the fact that this film was produced by three separate nations (Senegal, Algeria, and Tunisia) all under French rule continue to ghettoize these peoples as cultural others or is there a collective strength represented here against colonialism in this collaboration?

In Rey Chow’s article, Fredric Jameson is quoted as writing that, “all third world texts are necessarily to be read as national allegories.” Does this hold true in terms of the films that we watched this week? In what way can these films be read as national allegories? Is it possible for these films to be interpreted in other ways outside of this scope? Is it possible for any “third world cinema” to be understood as simply a film within itself as opposed to having some deeper national connection? Why aren’t western films to be seen as national allegories?

Hamid Naficy discusses the interstitial mode of production. Where does this stand in relation to other modes of production? How does the interstitial mode of production manifest itself in the style and content of its films? Filmmakers working in this mode faced some of the same challenges that independent filmmakers in the United States faced in the late 1980s and 1990s. In what ways are emergent national cinemas similar or dissimilar to the independent film movement?

The films we watched from emerging national cinemas tended to have simple or minimal narratives. Many of the characters and places can be seen as allegories for larger concepts. To what extent are the filmmakers of these movements more concerned with portraying general situations that their people went through, as opposed to telling a specific story about specific characters? Much of the content in the films coming out of emergent cinemas is subversive. Do these cinemas, like Godard’s counter-cinema, also subvert mainstream techniques?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Group Post #5: Alex, Coral and Dani

In “Independent Features: Hopes and Dreams”, Chuck Kleinhans talks about the aspirations of young filmmakers and the positive and negative aspects of independent cinema. How has the industry changed since 1995 (when the essay was written), and how have some of the issues he discussed changed? Do you think getting into independent cinema now is easier than it was then with the growing accessibility of digital equipment and the technological advancement of similar technology? How is the idea of being able to distribute films digitally and bypass (very expensive) film copying of movies? Do you think greater competition in independent cinema will be good or bad? Will it lead to greater experimentation, or perhaps bog down the industry with too many amateur films (possibly making independent cinema and un-navigable sea for studios)?

Are independent films becoming viewed by studios more in terms of their commercial potential (being able to make a lot of money on a small budget) by distributing studios rather than their artistic merit? Was independent cinema in the ealy 90’s/late 80’s more aware of cultural issues (as the four films we watched all are), compared to recent independent successes like Little Miss Sunshine, which is a more straightforward (albeit enjoyable) comedy? With films like this finding their way to Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, how have attitudes changed towards independent cinema?

In Thursday’s section, we discussed the opening credit sequence to Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. The sequence is unconventional in that it is tied to the rest of film not so much in terms of plot, but rather in terms of tone and style. In what ways does Lee manifest some the film’s themes/tone/style (one being confrontation) in the sequence, and how does it prepare the audience for the rest of the film? What effect does Lee’s use of a colorful/childish font for the credits have?

In Geoff Andrew’s essay on Todd Haynes and Amy Taubin’s on Gus Van Sant, the issue is brought up of these homosexual directors not wanting to fall into the “ghetto” of homosexual cinema, and not having their worked viewed in relation their sexual orientation. In the films we have seen by them, do they make an effort to objectively separate their films from their sexuality, and if so, how do they do this? To what extent does an audience’s knowledge/reception of a director’s sexual orientation influence their perception of a film (perhaps comparing these films to Brokeback Mountain, a “gay” film made by Ang Lee, a heterosexual director)?

When considering the film “sex, lies and videotapes”, what do you think is more important when categorizing it as an independent film: the industry part of it, since it was made on a low budget and had more freedom in the creative process? Or would you consider certain parts of the cinematography or just film creation in general containing parts of the “independent aesthetic”? Many people consider this aesthetic to be what is “edgy,” so are there parts of this film that fit into this description? sex, lies and videotapes is known for being influential, what do you think is influential about it, and are there movies that seem to be directly influenced by this film?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Taubin interviews Haynes

Hi all. Here's one of this week's missing readings. Do take the time to look at it (and print it out for section) if you have a few spare minutes. Amy Taubin is a necessary thinker and public critic around both experimental and popular cinema, so her interview with Haynes should be of great interest.
p.s. Just scroll down to comment on the post by Nik, Sam, et al.

Amy Taubin, "Nowhere to Hide"
Sight and Sound 6:5 (May 1996) p. 32-34

Director Todd Haynes on his eerie new film '[Safe]'. With Amy Taubin

* Todd Haynes makes experimental films. He admits it openly and without hesitation. Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story (1987), his 43-minute biopic of the 70s popstar who died young of anorexia, was shot on miniature cardboard and contact-paper sets with a cast of Barbie dolls. Poison (1991) is a stubbornly structuralist feature: three stylistically dissimilar fables of "transgression and punishment", intercut and glued together with much spit, blood and semen. Dottie Gets Spanked (1993), for a PBS series innocuously titled 'TV Families', is a lucid and tender portrait of the artist as a gay seven-year-old obsessed with a Lucille Ball-like sitcom star and fascinated by spanking.

That the establishment's wrath quickly descended on Haynes only enhanced his position at the forefront of gay film-making. When A&M Records (the Carpenters' label) won an injunction to keep Superstar from being screened publicly, bootleg VHS copies became fetish objects. And when the religious right used Poison to mount an attack on the National Endowment for the Arts which had partly funded the film, the publicity boosted box-office grosses to unexpected heights.

Compared to these three earlier films, [Safe] (1995) seems almost conventional: it has linear narrative; a name actress (Julianne Moore) plays the leading role, Carol White; it's shot in 35mm, and although produced for a mere $1 million, has the glistening look and sound of films costing ten times more. But it introduces Hollywood conventions only to throw them coolly into disarray. It's the most subversive of his films, a subtle match of radical form and radical political content.

Its material is similar to Superstar's. Set in upper-middle class Southern California suburbia, it's the story of a woman with a mysterious wasting ailment without a cure. Even more than Karen Carpenter's anorexia, this environmental illness (or multiple chemical sensitivity) can be read as an Aids metaphor because, like Aids, it is an immune deficiency disease.

The film opens with an extended travelling shot; the point of view is from the passenger seat and through the front windshield of a Mercedes cruising through the SoCal night. Streetlamps cast a greenish glow, throwing into silhouette the meticulously landscaped houses on either side of the road. The music under the image swells ominously, as in an upscale horror or sci-fi film, adding to the sense of free-floating anxiety. The car passes through a wrought-iron gate, up a driveway and into a garage. A man and a woman get out, backs to the camera, and we hear the sound of a discreet, half-stifled sneeze. "It's freezing in here," says the woman in a breathy, childlike, apologetic voice. There's a cut to an overhead, medium shot of her opalescent face. She's lying on her back amid peach and aqua sheets, a passive participant in the act of marital sex. Above her, the man pounds and grunts, oblivious to faint flickers of confusion and pain in her eyes. Freezing indeed.

This is Carol White, the not-quite Stepford wife saved from banality by her inchoate sense that all is not. right in her perfect world. For the next 45 minutes, the film follows her through her daily routine: exercise class; the dry cleaners; lunch with a woman friend; the hairdresser. Driving on the freeway behind a fumespewing truck, Carol begins coughing uncontrollably. She pulls into a deserted underground parking garage. The car spirals wildly and finally stops. From a distance, the camera watches as Carol coughs and coughs. From then on, her symptoms worsen rapidly. Looking in the mirror at her newly permed hair, she panics as she sees blood slowly dripping from her nose. The sequence teeters on the edge of camp, loaded with horror-film tropes. In fact, the entire first act follows the form of a horror film. The protagonist knows that the monster is on the loose, that the plague has descended. But no one believes her. Carol's husband, friends and doctors prefer to think that the problem is only in her head. After a brief middle section where Carol attempts to investigate and take charge of her illness, she winds up at Wrenwood, a New Age retreat where she's once again isolated - as in her suburban cocoon.

Keeping Carol at a distance, a fragile, almost paralysed figure in repressive, chill environments, Haynes nevertheless locates the film within her subjectivity. Rather than alienating us from her, the measured, wide-angle, hyperreal mise en scène becomes an expression of the alienation she experiences. From the moment Carol has her coughing fit, we begin to read everything in her environment (which is our own environment) - and the very fabric of her identity (which is not very different from the fabric of our identity) - as lethal. "It's scary," Haynes has said, "for me to think about how much I identify with Carol White." This tension, between identification and remove, gives [Safe] (or at least the first half) an extraordinary gravity. Every frame in the LA section seems simultaneously charged with the push/pull of desire and loathing.

The Wrenwood section is stylistically quite different, with an almost casual documentary look. Meaning is located (or undermined) in the dialogue rather than the images. The similarities between Wrenwood's repressive and disengaged culture and that of LA suburbia are suggested but not quite realised on-screen.

Nevertheless, from beginning to end, [Safe] is a film that demands to be read by the viewer. There are signs in abundance but no answers or messages. Nothing could be further from Haynes' own politics than the New Age platitudes of Wrenwood. [Safe] is above all a critique of a passive society in which people ignore the ecological disaster all around them, or else, if they can't, wait helplessly for someone else to tell them what to do about it. Haynes is not interested in being that someone else. Do you smell fumes? is the headline on a flyer that catches Carol's eye and that leads her to a meeting of Environmental Illness activists, a fledgling resistance movement against the disease of the twentyfirst century. [Safe] alerts us to the fumes and that no one is immune to them; the rest is up to us.

Haynes grew up privileged in various LA suburbs. With his blond hair and snub nose, he could have passed for the all-American boy, but in fact he was Jewish and gay. At 18, he fled to the more congenial East Coast environment of Brown University where he studied semiotics, read Freud and made Assassins, a super-8 film about Rimbaud and Verlaine. After graduating in 1985, he moved to New York where, with classmates Christine Vachon and Barry Ellsworth, he set up Apparatus, a low-budget production company that was a linchpin in the indie film movement. Superstar put him on the downtown map; Poison made him the gay filmmaker to be reckoned with. [Safe], a box office disappointment, had more critical success than expected, though less than deserved. Haynes is currently working on a Glam Rock movie set in 70s London and New York.

Amy Taubin: I remember you saying that all your films are about illness. Why is that?

Todd Haynes: Aids. Though none of my films are specifically about Aids. It's too easy for people to separate themselves from Aids, to compartmentalise it as a gay disease. So I wanted to make films about these end-of-the-twentieth-century diseases without limiting those vulnerable to gay men and junkies. Instead, I located them in the safest, most protected places on the planet.

The San Fernando valley you grew up in is the setting for both '[Safe]' and 'Superstar'.

Yes, although Superstar was made in New York. After I graduated from Brown, I came to New York and wrote the Superstar script with my friend Cynthia Schneider. I enrolled in the MFA summer program at Bard College and we shot it there. I knew I wanted to make a film using dolls. I didn't know what it would be about, but I wanted it to follow a certain narrative form, a particular genre closely enough, only with dolls instead of actors. It would be a kind of experiment about identification. I was pretty certain people would identify with dolls as if they were actors, but on some level, you would become aware that you were cathecting onto this plastic object.

Did you play with dolls as a child?

Not really with Barbies. My sister didn't get into Barbies; she had (toy) horses. We were very close and still are; she's three years younger than I am. So she had horses and a lot of international dolls that my parents bought on trips. We would do little shows for each other under her bedroom table with a blanket on top and a desk lamp for the light source. Mine always would be really sad stories about girls and their horses and the horse would die and come back to life and she'd cry. And so we'd play with dolls in that way. And I also had a friend, who was more of a femme girl. She had a Barbie and a Ken doll so I got to play with them. So I knew the film had to be with dolls. And then I heard a Karen Carpenter song on a lite-FM station one day and I said, "Oh my God, we have to do the Karen Carpenter story." At the time, there was no glimmer of a 70s re-examination; you weren't hearing that music or seeing those images as you do now everywhere. It felt truly like something I hadn't thought about in a long time.

When were you born?

In 1961. But I remember the last time my parents and I agreed on popular culture, when we shared the same love of a pop song on the radio. I was in the bath and I remember my Dad walking in, and he said, "Oh Todd, I've just heard this groovy new song on the radio," and he started singing 'We've only just begun' [the Carpenters' song]. And I remember in 1970 going on vacation with my family and meeting a teenage brother and sister at the resort in Laguna Beach. The girl had long dark hair and bangs and wore a crocheted bikini and she loved Karen Carpenter, I thought she was so cool, that she was Karen Carpenter. But there's also this funny thing: I was close to my sister - she was the star of all my productions - and the Carpenters, as a brother/sister team, had this weirdly sexual asexuality, this weirdly romantic but pure quality about them. They were like all the great fantasies about brothers and sisters. And when I did research on them later, I discovered that journalists actually questioned them very aggressively about the incestuous element.

But did you do the Karen Carpenter story, in part, because of her anorexia?

Oh yes, I thought about what had happened to her since the early 70s, mainly her anorexia, and how that early moment in the 70s was changed a few years later with Watergate. There had been all these pure images of America - the Brady Bunch, the Partridge family and the Carpenters - that had been almost aggressively fostered onto youth culture in an attempt to get out of that nightmare of the late 60s. It was very closely aligned with Nixon's revisionist view of America. Not that my parents ever supported Nixon, but nevertheless, that stuff was all around. But it was turned inside out by Watergate. And what I loved about Karen Carpenter's lyrics and that quality in her voice was exactly what, at that time, made people roll their eyes and ask what does this 19-year-old girl with a deep voice really know about love and pain. So it seemed like rich material to explore in film.

And it's easy to see the connection between Carpenter and Carol White, women who have these inexplicable illnesses.

That you think, in both cases, they brought on themselves.

Do you think they brought it on themselves?

That's one of the questions that haunts [Safe]. There's no easy way for me to answer that. No, I don't think Carol brought it on herself simply to get attention or in some false way. I think, if it was self-induced, it was at a completely unconscious level. Or that there's a susceptibility to being made vulnerable by the world that she carries with her, that some people carry with them. But I do think that the illness in [Safe] is the best thing that happens to her. It's the thing that kicks her out of unconsciousness, out of this unexamined life, and makes her begin to think about things in a completely different way and take some steps toward changing her life. And I'm interested in how disease can do that, can force you to look at things in a completely different way.

When you talk about her susceptibility, do you mean something along the lines of the way some people would claim schizophrenia is a logical response to an insane world?

Yeah, I do. And that's why in both films ([Safe] and Superstar) they're women. There's a history of inexplicable illnesses, that established medicine can't confirm as absolutely physiological, that have affected women. I think they are diseases of identity that force you to see that identity is a fragile and basically an imaginary construct that we pretend to carry around. The more unexamined it is, the more vulnerable you are.

I'm still trying to understand the level of responsibility you place on her. You are not, I think, saying what Peter, the Wrenwood guru, says: that she could cure herself by loving herself more.

Definitely not. Peter's cure is to adhere completely to these very basic ideas about self that affirm the society as it is. His kind of New Age philosophy comes out of a 60s ideology, using Eastern traditions to re-examine the West. It claims to change the world through self-esteem or a softening of basic structures of resistance, but I see it as a reiteration of basic conservative arguments about the self, which are closely aligned with masculinity and patriarchy. Post-modern gay theory has tried to chip away at them; the cyborg generation is looking at less Freudian models and claiming those models are already in us. But I'm not sure I agree with that either. So that's why ultimately the illness and its chaos is where hope lies in the film, not where it's tied up and organised by Wrenwood philosophy in the end.

So while I don't think she's responsible for being ill, I don't think the illness just came from chemicals in the world. I can't turn it into a simply materialist explanation for the illness. And in a way when I think about whether it was chemicals that make her ill, or living the kind of insulated life she lives as a woman in the world, both are cultural not psychological problems. They're not internal problems that can be solved by loving yourself more. You have to look out in the world to solve them, and that's the big difference between the Wrenwood perspective and mine.

The popular view of anorexia says it's about women trying to look like models and being really sexy and really thin. But that didn't account for the extremes to which this diet takes them and the profound misrecognition of the body - how anorexies look in the mirror and think they're fatter than someone next to them who weighs 30 pounds more. So we were more interested in the theories that claimed anorexia was a resistance against femininity and a denial of one's breasts and menstruation and those sexualised aspects of the body. Why else would it hit women so often at adolescence when their bodies are changing? So I found the most poignant and interesting way to approach Karen Carpenter's anorexia was as a kind of unconscious resistance. Disease as a kind of resistance to notions of healthy identities and selves is what recurs in my films.

I think what [Safe] is really about is the infiltration of New Age language into institutions. And about the failure of the left; how it imploded into these notions of self and self-esteem and the ability to articulate and share emotions in the workplace or whatever. And it's such a loss because what was once a critical perspective looking out, hoping to change the culture, is turning inward and losing all of its gumption and power. It's time for the left to look at itself and how it's losing any effective voice politically or culturally.

Do you think someone seeing '[Safe]' would conclude that because Carol's insularity - at the beginning in rich SoCal suburbia and at the end inside her plastic bubble in Wrenwood - doesn't work for her, the only thing is for her to be more directed outward toward changing her situation in the world?

No, I don't. I've made a film that gives you that answer. But it's particularly sneaky in that it is a film directed toward the left, maybe because I know that's the constituency that will go to a Todd Haynes film. So it plays with your leftist expectations, making you think that Wrenwood has got to be the answer. After all, it's at Wrenwood that you see a black woman character for the first time in the movie. And because the Peter character has Aids, it's implied that he's gay, so how could he possibly not be telling the truth or not be a sympathetic character? These are little internal messages I think we look to: "Oh, it's a film by Todd Haynes so the gay character can't be a jerk, he has to be reliable." So the film purposefully draws you in only to pull the rug out from under you slowly. It tries to trick you into thinking it has an answer.

Until Wrenwood, you haven't had the kind of character that most movies give you. So it's like, wow, Peter has a whole philosophy. He's engaging, manipulative, charismatic, all the things you expect from characters in the movies. So I think you are kind of lured into believing what they're saying. What I really wanted to do is frustrate your narrative expectations. You want her to be healed, and you want to have some understanding of the illness, and those narrative desires drive you to wanting her to be in a place that you also know is wrong and cruel. Your narrative expectations commit her to oppression. I think that happens in almost every movie you see, but it's painted as some sort of personal victory and affirmation of identity and you walk out of the movie thinking, "Yeah, everything's just fine." But how could it be fine to be closed up in that plastic bubble? The Wrenwood answer to Carol's damaged immune system is quarantine - no newspapers, no books, no television, no sex, no contact with the world. How could that be someone's idea of a happy ending?

The characters in the first part - the husband, the doctors, her women friends, even the guy telling the dirty joke in the restaurant - are much more familiar to me, and complicated. Their confusion is right on the surface. They can't articulate what's going on but they haven't learned to do the Wrenwood denial thing. I don't know who the Wrenwood characters are except that they're the people who turn up on Oprah'.

I didn't really care to do the story of the people who dominate these movements. I don't really care who the character of Peter is. I remember trying to get funding from Zenith for [Safe]. The script wasn't getting through to the people there. But then one of them said "One project we're really interested in doing is the L. Ron Hubbard story." And like, wait a minute, it's exactly the same theme but about the powerful side. I'm interested in the people drawn in.

One of the things that initiated [Safe] was my own questions about Aids therapy and recovery treatments. I read the Louise Hay book (The Aids Book: Creating a Positive Approach) and I still don't have the answer to why people with Aids would want to turn to that. I know it's about control, some sense of control, but to be told you wouldn't be sick if you had loved yourself right and if you learned to love yourself right, you'll be cured - it puts the person in this impossible situation where they're continually blaming themselves for their illness which just won't go away no matter how much they love themselves, whatever the hell that means. There's this beautiful quote I found from this cancer patient who said, "We humans would rather accept culpability than chaos." That's why people are drawn to places like Wrenwood.

And yet I know intelligent gay men who saw the film and came out thinking you believed in Louise Hay. Do you think that's because they can only identify with the gay character? I don't have that problem because I'm totally identified with Carol.

I don't get it. When Peter says things like "I've stopped reading the newspaper," I mean, especially in such an understated film, it shouldn't take a sledgehammer to get the point across. I always look for those moments in movies when there are messages to disagree with. Even when they're unintended, when they think they're saying one thing and they're saying the complete opposite. I love those moments. They give me a way into things that otherwise would be too horrifying to deal with. I would be excited to see a film where they're trying to show you this negative philosophy not by attaching a villainous handlebar moustache, but showing it in a subtle way, the way these things are in the world.

I know it's hard and mean to make a movie where there's no escape, but just walk around. But there are markers of resistance. There's Nell and Lester [two of the characters at Wrenwood]. And there are the women in the middle of the film who are talking around the table about their illness without all this bullshit. That's when Carol seems the most alive - when she's talking with them, and then when she's telling her friend everything she's discovered. And it is all about this illness. And yes, people do take on illness as an alternate identity. And it does give them the sense of who they are for a time, and there's a sadness about that, but it's also the first time Carol is motivated to look around and take some action in her life. She acts independently, and sadly that takes her to Wrenwood where all the lines are cut and she's sealed up. So it's not as if the film is completely without the indication that there are other ways of dealing with it.

Why did you set it in 1987?

I wanted to set it at the height of the Reagan/Bush 80s. Now it doesn't matter because we're back in it with a vengeance, but there was a slight moment when Clinton was elected, when it seemed a little less necessary to make the film, but God, that was a fantasy, a mirage.

Can we talk about your directorial choices? The film was made for only $1 million.

Yes and it was very difficult. I could never do it again.

How did you choose the locations?

Most of the LA interiors were shot in my grandfather's and my uncle's houses. The exterior of Carol's house, where we shot the garden scenes, doesn't belong to anyone I know, but it's in my parent's neighbourhood. It wasn't there when I was growing up, but when I was writing [Safe] I would smoke a little pot and get in the car and drive up to the top of the hill overlooking this house. And I'd put on a Sonic Youth tape and picture this movie about this woman who'd be getting sicker and sicker in this huge house, this bizarre fake Tudor manor. And we ended up getting that exact house for the exterior.

I was looking for these single-level expansive houses. I was trying to force architecture into every frame and always show Carol in relation to her environment. And certain architecture gave us a way to divide up the frame and segregate different characters into different boxes. I wanted there always to be this empty frame and she'd enter it and be this little figure in the corner. I wanted the frame very wide, with very little movement, and this enormous sense of off-screen activity - vacuum cleaners and Spanish television shows and Lite-FM - like the house was alive but that Fulvia [the housekeeper] was running it and Carol was just one of the objects inside it.

You mentioned Kubrick.

I saw 2001 again while we were raising money. And I thought that's what I want. We should feel we're in a world where nature has been completely overcome by man and there's no trace of it. It should feel like space but it's really LA. It should feel like an airport where you never touch real ground. You're just in this carpeted, air-controlled systems world where people just glide by.

The isolation also reminds me of Antonioni's 'Red Desert'.

I hadn't seen it when I wrote [Safe] but Alex [Nepomniaschy, Director of Photography] talked about it. I just loved the way Alex shot Poltergeist III. The lighting he did - it wasn't just 'turn on the green gels'. He looked like he was using real light and real reflections and allowing them to be green naturally. He uses muslin and mirrors. He has his own system of diffusion that's soft but not pretty. We used a very restrained palette and camera, so, in a way, it's about what we're not doing. I was thinking about the way the film literally obliterates Carol, blanks her out.

How did you decide on Julianne Moore? Her performance is fantastic; she deserved to win every best actress award and, instead, she's been almost entirely overlooked.

Julianne does something that few actors do. She disappears before your eyes. It becomes a 'Can you find the woman in the picture?' puzzle. It's an amazingly selfless performance.

A lot of very talented name actors read for the part. But they loved the dialogue, so they indulged in all these naturalistic tics, that made you just hate the character. I got really worried because Carol seemed like Little Orphan Annie. Then my casting director persuaded me to read Julianne. I knew the part had to be played in a very restrained way. And Julianne understood that instinctively and intellectually. Unlike actors who are trained to show you every nuance of emotion, Carol can't do that. Julianne understood Carol was more limited than most people. So her performance is exactly the opposite of what a personality actor like Jennifer Jason Leigh's or Meryl Streep's would have been. But paradoxically, you're drawn into her blankness. You want to know more. I don't think she was having fun doing what she was doing. It's a denial of the actor's pleasure, especially the method actor's. But we both knew that [Safe] was somehow about refusing pleasure.

Out in the open: Julianne Moore as Carol White in Todd Haynes' '[Safe]'

Julianne Moore here, as so often, at the edge of the frame

Amy Taubin is a film critic, film-maker and curator. She is writing studies of Taxi Driver and of American independent film

Copyright British Film Institute May 1996

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Group Post #4 - Nik, Sam, and Michela

Contempt is a movie with a dynamic sexuality, and a movie with a strong inclination to narcissistic display. Do you agree that the scene with Camille and Paul celebrates desirability by utilizing the "visual dimensions" that Bersani and Dutoit discuss in their article "Forming Couples: Godard's Contempt"? Does the fact that Camille's whole body never occupies the screen disrupt the classical cinema's conventions about female sexuality? If not, what effect does this use of negative space create with respect to the sexuality in the film?

In their article "Moving Pictures," Silverman and Farocki discuss the concept of "high art" in the recreation of Rembrandt's Nightwatch as interpreted by Jerzy in his film-within-a-film. How does this painting translate into "filmic terms," and do you agree with Silverman when he says that the mobile camera "releases figures from their frozen poses" and thus invades the high art? In addition, how does the purity of the art that Jerzy is recreating contrast with the raw sexual passion inherent in the lives of the actors and filmmakers (and mainly Jerzy) off set? On a different note, what did you think about the way Godard purposefully offset the diegetic sound of conversations and the visuals of people speaking, creating a disunity between auditory and visual and disorienting the viewer?

In "The Gaze and the Limit", Restivo asserts that L'Eclisse "posits a gaze that exists on the 'far side' of the visual field presented." How does this change the way we perceive the film as a whole, and specifically the relationship between Piero and Vittoria? He also asserts that the "eruption of the gaze is in some way related to the disruptions of stable subject positions within the world" of the film. How does this translate to the diegetic portion of the film (such as when Piero and Vittoria make out in the brokerage) and the final sequence of the film, in which the diegetic structure and focus of the gaze are completely disrupted through the disappearence of the film characters? How does this figure in with our definitions of "traumatic" and "sublime"?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Writing Workshop in Media Studies

Thursday, March 19, 6:00-7:30 pm
J.W.Wilson, Room 203

Because film and television are so familiar to us, we are used to watching them for entertainment instead of with a critical eye, and we run the risk of writing reviews instead of the analytical pieces required for Brown courses. This class is aimed at undergraduate students in media studies classes, especially those who are new to writing about visual media. We'll start with an exercise designed to help you take the sorts of notes during a film or television screening that will be helpful when writing analytical essays. Then, we'll talk about the different writing forms with which you may be asked to work (close analysis, historical or generic studies, ideological explorations, etc.). We'll talk about working with visual artifacts and the necessary translation of visual media to written language. Finally, we'll look at some common media studies writing errors and their solutions. This interactive session will run for 90 minutes. For more information contact Eugenie_Brinkema@brown.edu

Group #3: Adam/Stephen/Will

This past week we studied documentaries, and their relationships, similarities, and differences to other film forms. Here are a few questions we came up with to help you think more about this subject:

What makes a film a documentary?

How and why does a documentary rely on conceptions of "reality," and how do they achieve this status?

What point is Kiarostami trying to make at the end of Close-Up with the whole "bad sound" scene (as they're trying to record Makhmalbaf and Sabzian)? Does this heighten the reality of the scene? Is it just an artistic show? Also, what effect does the music later in the scene add?

What does Dabashi mean when he says that "Kiarostami has opened the way to radical dismantling of the structural violence of 'meaning,' upon which is predicated such metaphysical surrogates as 'history,' "tradition,' 'identity,' and 'piety.'" (67) Do you agree with this statement? If so, how does Close-Up achieve this?

What does it mean when actors play themselves in a film? Does it make it more "real" or believable? Are they still even acting, or recreating?

In relation to The Thin Blue Line, do the stylized "recreations" cheapen the source material and factualness of the film, or do they help add to it? How also do the interviews affect us the viewer and the film at large?

What is the obsession with epistephilia that documentaries have? How does this differ from narrative films?

Is it truly impossible for a documentary (or any film) to show the objective truth and appeal to authenticity?

Does the fact that most of Battle of Algiers is obviously staged and made within the realm of classical film style impede its appeal to authenticity and realism, even though most of the sets used were authentic and many of the actors were actual participants in the revolution? Is this any more or less true than with Close-Up or The Thin Blue Line?

What does Nichols mean when he says that “Something is at stake. Namely, our very subjectivity within the social arena.” (194) Why do documentaries have this effect? How does this differ, or does it, from narrative film?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Questions for Group 2! Courtesy of Stassia, Sean and Bladi.

This past week we saw both an example of a Classical Hollywood text, Gilda, and one which ran as an example of a “counter-cinema,” in Godard’s Weekend. The theoretical texts we read all served as critiques of the Classical form and offering both a theorization and conceptualization of a form that could stand as a reaction or “counter.”

Metz and Mulvey discuss, at large, the importance of the spectator's identification through the three modes offered by film. Mulvey claims that watching a movie implies "identification of the ego with the object on the screen through the spectator's fascination with and recognition of his like". Godard's Weekend is an example of a film that maintains attack against the ease of spectator identification. How does a film, such as this, influence the spectator's perception of the film? Also, are there any specific readings you have that serve as points where the spectator's possition is complicated?

Mulvey goes on to say that the woman, "[Either she] must gracefully give way to the word, the Name of the Father and the Law, or else struggle to keep her child down with her in the half-light of the imaginary." How does this quote parallel a character like Norman in Psycho as child and a casualty of the imaginary Mulvey addresses? In regards to Mulvey's argument of "woman as bearer of meaning, man as maker of meaning", is the ending of a film like Taxi Driver (where Betsy's gaze and string of questions engage Travis) some kind of flaw in the argument that sees gradient of meaning to be lop-sided?

Brian Henderson seems to believe that Godard’s use of a tracking shot, which serves as a “species of long take,” “repudiates ‘the individualist conception of the bourgeois hero.” He goes on to say that “his camera serves no individual and prefers none to another.” Can this be attributed to Godard’s avoidance of “depth,” and the resulting “flatness” of the film? Why is this flatness privileged by Henderson, as Godard extends beyond this within the film? On page 60, Henderson seems to celebrate that like “the method of montage,” Godard’s sequences offer points where “what is done in one shot may be undone, or complemented, by another.” Is this reading of Godard’s text contradictory to his previous point of "flatness" or do you believe Godard’s camera-style to be at work within “the method of montage”?

In films considered Classical Hollywood Cinema, such as Gilda and Vertigo, theorists like Mulvey find that women function from a position of objectification, whereas, men are given a privileged subject positioning. Do these films target the male spectator as their audience in order to reinforce male identification with the narrative protagonists? What about the already constituted subjectivity of the individual spectator? Do individuals other than heterosexual males (women, gay men, etc.) problematize the systems and codes of classical Hollywood visual pleasure?

Finally, Mulvey, Wollen, and Henderson (who emphasizes that “the flatness of Weekend must not be analyzed only in itself but in regard to the previous modes of bourgeois self-presentment”) seem to seek but constrain their arguments for a different mode of cinema that serves as a “counter” or reaction to the dominant mode. What are the implications of revolutionary film making as serving in relation to the dominant mode of representation? Can these reactionary methods actually work to subvert the hegemonic values of classical narrative cinema, or as reactions can they only serve to legitimize and strengthen the dominant form?


Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Long Take


I honestly don't think the long take is dead. I don't think it'll die any time soon either. After all, in my opinion, it is one of the most interesting types of takes. I admit that I like the apparent chaos of montage, with its the juxtaposition of conflicting images, but sometimes I like long takes because they give you this weird false sense of security. I think it is because when you are watching long takes you get immersed into the movie, with this false feeling that what we are watching might be real, although in the back of your mind you know its not. Long takes make you feel as if you were watching something actually go on, the framing of the scene being the limits of what you can watch, just as a voyeur looking into a peep show. I don't think that long takes make the viewing experience any more "real" than any other take, but it does make you more aware of your limitations as a viewer (which in its own way, might be more real).

When we are watching a film with very little cuts, the first thing I notice is how elaborate the planning of that scene must have been. After all, one mistake means much more in long takes than short takes. I don't know if this works with everyone, but I become more aware of cuts and takes in long takes than in the typical short take scene. I think it is because it just appears so much more work to coordinate everything and so much more rare to see the same scene in different angles. I just become so much more aware of pans and zooms, and everything has to be so smooth and pretty for it to work... It is definitely a calmer kind of take than montage, and I think that depending on the purpose of the film, the long take would work perfectly in enhancing a kind of feeling or emotion.

Dialogue/Narration over Sequences

What strikes me about this question is its relation to some of the inquiries made in Question 3 during the last paper assignment. Narration over a sequence of shots presents an overall, omniscient-feeling thread that ties them together. Take the beginning of Sunset Boulevard for example: the main character narrates across the first few shots, giving us the sense that he is the storyteller--he's the one that knows everything about what is going to take place. In this faceless voice, we see power and clear knowledge. Another movie that does this well is The Shawshank Redemption, the story being narrated throughout by Morgan Freeman's character. What he brings to the sequences that he narrates is a wise, seasoned voice that we come to know as the voice that knows the prison too well. When this voice is given to Freeman's character of Robbins', we see a clear shift of knowledge of omniscience. While Robbins' character is new and experiences the unknown of prison, Freeman's character knows everything--and this narration speaks well of it.

In terms of dialogue, it gets tricky, as the presence of dialogue happening between cuts seems to separate the visual from aural--forcing the spectator to match them correctly. When the two characters are not on screen at the time, the spectator is forced to now perceive two pictures--a dialogue and the action being presented on the screen. Unless I've misunderstood the question--and I wouldn't doubt it--the practice of dialogue flowing between cuts is quite common in a lot of different scenes of movies: wouldn't it just be a regurgitation of shot/reverse shot or different shots of the same conversation. Alternatively, the question could be referring to dialogue presented as an additive, in which case my previous observation stands. Take if you will one of the Ocean movies--Ocean's Eleven/Ocean's Twelve/Ocean's Thirteen--I can't pick out a certain scene, but you'll come across the characters running through a plan in their heads, and while they have a dialogue about it, the screen will cut to different facets of the plan--sneaking into corridors as Clooney's character may remark about how to get into the casino/museum/etc. In this way, the dialogue has the same effect as the narration--empowering the voice and giving it an authority over the visual experience.

That's my two cents--and just to also clarify on the "death" of the long take--is somewhat true, as it seems to have shifted into a more gimmick style of shooting, however much I delight in the scenes in Cloverfield and Children of Men when long takes are utilized. Cloverfield itself--acting as many long takes, had a distinct feel even outside of the shaky camcorder style used: the method of chronicling the ever-intensifying and ever-constant action on screen reflected well on the movie--and it complied with Metz's observation about the interruption of action that other techniques like montage could have enabled. Whether the film is better for it, one can wonder, but its goal seems to be a heavily consistent stream of drama, and it succeeds in that very well.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Long Take in Modern Cinema

In response to part of question 2, I think the long take is definitely not “dead”. Plenty of recent movies have taken advantage of the long take, like Children of Men, Cloverfield, and Atonement. But as you suggested, our approach as audiences to the long take seems to have changed. Perhaps this is a result of “MTV Syndrome”: we are used to cuts every two seconds in an action sequence, and we want to feel like we are tossed against the currents of the story. One of the most frequent complaints I heard about Millenium Mambo was that “nothing ever really happened”. However, I found this statement to be relatively untrue: there were plenty of plot points to follow, though the mixed-up linearity of the film and often lack of cues made it difficult at times. I think that the real problem was that people found it particularly difficult to get involved in the story because of the camera’s passivism. Usually, we are accustomed to having a camera bring us closer to action than we could normally come, and place us in the direct line of fire of the movement, action, plot, and dialogue. When the camera remains mostly static, as was the case in Millenium Mambo, we feel uncomfortable because we feel like we are restricted. We desire to know what is happening up close, particularly when the action in the scene is not happening within the confines of the frame. Bazin mentions how the long take increases the reality of the scene, which can certainly be said to be true. However, perhaps that is just the problem. As an audience today, we seem to want cinema to give us an escape from, rather than a re-admission to, reality. Thus I think that while the long take is definitely not dead, it has definitely evolved in the ways that it is effectively used in modern mainstream cinema.