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Monthly Archives: January 2015

Perhaps a strange question to ask a documentary film festival. Certainly there were documentaries at the festivals, but the offerings over the last three years have not been a compendium of the genre. This may be due to the festival’s focus on social and political issues, the quality of submissions, or the choices in programming. The documentaries at ReFrame – the ones I have seen and read about, naturally – accomplish two things: information-transfer and story-telling. And these often amount to the same.

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This is the life of… This is the story of… This is the situation in… An interview, a cut to a shot of person or landscape X, continuity music. Narrativized and digestible. These documentaries, of some value to be sure, find their peers not in the theatre but on the television. This is reinforced by the running time of the films: this year no screening went over 100 minutes and most tended to hover around the 80 minute mark. Long enough to present some fact or some story masquerading as a reality. A fact to learn then quickly forget.

Where are the Flahertys, the Vertovs, the Vigos, the Rouchs, the experimental NFB films, the Allan Kings, the Minh-has, the Farockis? Could we ever see a film from a filmmaker like Wiseman or Seidl or Herzog or Varda, or a work from the Sensory Ethnography Lab? Where are the creative treatments of actuality (Grierson)? To reformulate my question: Where are the non-narrative films?[1] The shared creative moment amongst the feature films I’ve seen at ReFrame: how to present a story or fact so as to not confound audiences, precisely to have them not pose any questions of interpretation or engage too many cognitive skills. The most technical aspect of these films was therefore the editing and organization of the raw materials.

ReFrame advertises itself as Films Worth Talking About. Their posters and pre-show attractions creatively play with this idea (e.g., You are stuck on an elevator with the CEO of your company. If you had been to ReFrame, you could say something smart… instead you mention the weather). A note on spectatorship and my biases on the table: even the worst fictional narrative films are more cognitively demanding than the best of the interview, information-transfer documentaries. Mediocre fictional narrative films are better conversation pieces than a superb interrogative documentary. (Polemics – apologies.)

Bill Nichols named this documentary mode Interactive – its heyday was the 1970s and 1980s. Each film I saw at ReFrame 2015 falls victim to Nichol’s concise account of the mode’s deficiency: “excessive faith in witnesses, naïve history.”[2] The filmmakers tried to counter this with some kind of style or aesthetic device that made their work unbearable to watch: e.g., in Regarding Susan Sontag (2014), the overwhelming number of projections of Susan Sontag’s face onto buildings, frames, bottles, and the painful voiceover reading punchy selections from the author’s publications; in On the Trail of the Far Fur Country (2014), the awful voiceover reading letters from husband to wife; Stream of Love’s (2014) attempt at disrupting temporality with cuts to individuals clearly outside the time of the sequence or scene.

ReFrame has wrapped up its 11th year. The festival seems to grow as each January passes. Its success with individuals young and old, and its assurance that bums will be in seats, now grants festival organizers the opportunity to take some risks in their programming. Such risks would then produce more creative submissions. Fingers crossed for the years to come.

[1] I realize that some of the shorter films at the festival are, perhaps, these non-narrative films. Unfortunately I’ve yet to see one.

[2] Additionally, the expository mode of documentary in the 1930s still carries its deficiency to films of the 21st century: “overly didactic.”

These are not my personal picks for the Best… whatever. These are guesses as to who or what will be picked. I had some success last year when playing this game, but this year seems much more difficult. I expect Birdman to take away many awards…

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Updated with the winners, February 23. I was correct that Birdman would do well… Other than that, my guesses were not as good as last year.

Best Picture: Birdman [Winner]

Best Actor: Michael Keaton [Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything]

Best Actress: Julianne Moore [Winner]

Best Supporting Actor: Edward Norton [J.K. Simmons]

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette [Winner]

Best Director: Richard Linklater [Alejandro González Iñárritu for Birdman]

Best Adapted Screenplay: Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson [The Imitation Game, Graham Moore]

Best Original Screenplay: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson [Birdman, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo]

Best Foreign Film: Ida [Winner]

Best Documentary Feature: Citizenfour [Winner]

Best Animated Feature: The Boxtrolls [Big Hero 6]

Film Editing: Boyhood [Whiplash]

Best Song: Everything is Awesome, from The Lego Movie, Shawn Patterson [Glory, from Selma, John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn]

Best Original Score: Interstellar, Hans Zimmer [The Grand Budapest Hotel, Alexandre Desplat]

Best Cinematography: Birdman, Emmanuel Lubezki [Winner]

Costume Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Milena Canonero [Winner]

Makeup and Hairstyling: The Grand Budapest Hotel [Winner]

Production Design: Interstellar [The Grand Budapest Hotel]

Sound Editing: Interstellar [American Sniper]

Sound Mixing: Interstellar [Whiplash]

Visual Effects: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes [Interstellar]

Violation: Representations in Literature and Culture

An Interdisciplinary Conference Sponsored by the McGill University English Department.

February 20-22, 2015. 

Thompson House, McGill University. 3650 Rue McTavish, Montréal.

SESSION C – Saturday 10-11:30AM*

II. Cinematic Liminality

Troy Bordun, Trent University

A Slow Dream, “As if” it were Real: Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux

Yan Tang, University of Victoria

Violating the Cinematic Surface: The Specters of Socialism in Chinese Urban Generation’s Films

Robyn Clarke, McGill University

Environmental Precarity in Take Shelter and Beasts of the Southern Wild: Political Ecology and the Precariat

via Panels.

A Slow Dream, “As if” it were Real: Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux

In this paper I argue that Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux (2012) presents altered states of embodiment “as if” they were everyday experiences, first, for the fictional characters, and second, for spectators’ affective experience of the film’s reality. Reygadas offers us a difficult narrative film that is any combination of characters’ dreams, fantasies, and hallucinations. Narrative films usually treat altered states as mental rather than physical experiences, reinforcing Cartesian views of experience. Unlike narrative works that clearly mark a separation between the “real world” of the diegesis and a subjective reality unique to a character, Post Tenebras Lux refuses to do so. By not announcing which sequences are dreams, concepts, and fantasies, and through an aesthetics that aims to elicit bodily responses in viewers rather than character identification/empathy, such as depth of field, the “hyperbolic long take” (de Luca 2014), and a camera lens shaved flat so that the edges of the frame are blurred, the director constructed a film that allows spectators to feel “as if” in an altered state themselves. This aligns the film with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s one-world hypothesis (Lingis 1996). For the phenomenologist, embodiment is a continuous flow of experience, thus dreams and fantasy are parts of being-in-the-world, not cordoned off states of mind. Media theorist and phenomenologist Vivian Sobchack (2004 & 2014) helps to reinforce these claims. She argues that films can touch us bodily, thus when we utter statements such as “the film felt ‘as if’ real,” we really mean that the film made contact with our corporeality. I conclude that Reygadas’s aesthetics turns viewers back on themselves to sense, and reflect upon, experiences otherwise unacknowledged as essential components of embodiment.

Keywords: Carlos Reygadas, phenomenological film theory, altered states, Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Bibliography

Jennifer M. Barker, The Tactile Eye, Touch and the Cinematic Experience (Berkeley, Los Angeles, & London: University of California Press, 2009).

Tiago de Luca, Realism of the Senses in World Cinema: The Experience of Physical Reality (London & New York: I.B. Tauris, 2014).

Alphonso Lingis, The Imperative (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996).

Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2000).

Sheldon Penn, ‘The Time-Image in Carlos Reygadas’ Stellet Licht: A Cinema of Immanence’, Bulletin of Spanish Studies, 90:7 [2013], 1159-81).

Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

3:30-5:15 PM –– Session Three: Insatiable Appetites (WHC 208)

Moderator: Name TBD, Title TBD, Yale University

Marco Bohr (Loughborough University): “Tampopo: Food, Hedonism and Decadence in Japan’s Bubble Economy”

Michael Turcios (University of Southern California): “The Appetite to Consume ‘Otherness’ in the French Colonial Cinema of Claire Denis”

Fareed Ben-Youssef (University of California, Berkeley): “‘Attendez la Crème!’: Food and Cultural Trauma in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained”

Troy Bordun (Trent University): “Porn in the Art Gallery: Aesthetics and Sensory Disciplining”

Abstract:

Porn in the Art Gallery: Aesthetics and Sensory Disciplining

I contend that before precise acts are represented onscreen, porn aesthetics presupposes a user who wants to control but not necessarily master the materials under his gaze. Porn users actively engage with images and video and simultaneously require an abandonment of that activity to experience visual and bodily pleasure (Paasonen 2011; 2013). If we presume the “pornification” of modern culture (Paasonen, Nikunen and Saarenmaa 2007), which includes at the very least a general familiarity with the phenomenon of pornography, contemporary spectators are ready for a gallery of porn, more so than spectators from earlier decades. Curatorship of an exhibition of pornography should therefore provide active and passive modes of interactivity for its participants, i.e., contain materials that command physical grabbing and perceptual touching to thereby cultivate some degree of sexual abandon.

In late August, 2014, I curated a small exhibition entitled Stags, Sexploitation, and Hard Core: Moving Image Pornography up to 1972 at an artist-run center in Peterborough, ON. I think the unusual setting for pornography offers me a chance to consider the genre’s aesthetics, as claimed above, and spectators’ relationship to disciplining spaces. For the exhibition I decided upon a number of films to play simultaneously throughout the gallery and designed panels composed of stills, promotional materials, and text. The purpose of the exhibition was to bring a small portion of pornography’s history to the public. Additionally, on the introductory panel, I suggested that pornography aims at eliciting bodily sensations from its spectators. I wrote that arousal, laughter, shock, surprise, and awkwardness were as valuable responses as critical (dis)interest. Through observation of visitors and reading anonymous surveys about their experiences, I discovered that the organization and architecture of the gallery maintained a critical distance between spectators and materials, as in a conventional gallery (Williams 1995; Dennis 2009), despite my efforts to produce the opposite effect.

Eye Candy: Yale Graduate Film Conference 2015

Eye Candy: Consuming Moving Images at the Cinema and Beyond”

Conference Program

All events are at the Whitney Humanities Center (WHC), 53 Wall Street. All events are free and open to the public.

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 13
4:30-5:30 PM –– Registration (WHC 208)

5:30-6:30 PM –– Keynote Address (WHC Main Auditorium)

Nicholas Mirzoeff, Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University: “The Cops and the Commons: Life, Love and Value After Ferguson”

6:30-7:30 PM –– Reception (WHC 108)

7:30-8:45 PM –– Special Screening: Daisies (1966, 35mm print, 74 min.) (WHC Main Auditorium): Introduction by Ila Tyagi

Screening generously co-sponsored by the Yale Film Study Center, the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures, and the Department of Art History.

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 14

9:00-10:00 AM –– Late Registration and Light Breakfast (WHC 208)

10:00-10:05 AM –– Opening Remarks (WHC 208)
Swagato Chakravorty and Regina Karl

10:05-11:45 AM –– Session One: Auteurs and their…

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There are a slew of biopics this season (Foxcatcher, Unbroken, The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Selma, Mr. Turner, American Sniper). Why this fascination? What makes a biopic worth watching, or, what do we want to see in a biopic? Or, a question for my next post, is the biopic a genre (I’ll answer in the negative)? kinsey_wideweb__430x291 This week I watched Kinsey (Bill Condon, 2004) and Lovelace (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 2013). I’ve concluded that narrative film is perhaps the worst medium for transmitting or informing an audience about a person’s biography. These films did not tell me anything I did not already know. A quick glace at a wiki page would have been equally enlightening. There is also the debate, particularly about this season’s films, about historical accuracy. I think the question is misguided given the narration/fictionalizing of a person’s life. I don’t believe we care about historical accuracy (cinema is always false, all films are fiction films, etc.); we’re probably more concerned about the quality of entertainment when we go to the cinema. However, the aesthetic choices – the form – of these biopics and their narrative trajectory suggests or hints that there is an intention behind the work (additionally: “based on a true story…” concluding a film with a note on the person’s death…). In different words, the way that a film is presented allows the spectator to incorrectly beg the question as to its accuracy. The form of the film perhaps means we miss the film.

This is true, I think, because biopics seem to misjudge their scope or aim. Many biopics waver between narrating a life and focusing upon the work, and bolstering the story with a tale of love (and here we see why the biopic genre may not exist, or at least exist as a secondary concern: biographical love story, for example). By refusing to turn full attention to either, we neither gain an understanding of the person in question, nor learn enough about the work (e.g., Kinsey’s life seems shallow and empty in the film, and the narrative taught us little about his research; Lovelace did not represent the possible contradictions in Linda Marchiano’s published account of her early life, and neither did it provide a sufficient story of the film, Deep Throat [1972], or Marchiano’s anti-pornography work). The reviews about The Theory of Everything (James Marsh, 2014) suggest that its success is its certainly about the aim, i.e., the life and love – in all its complexities and ambiguities – of Stephen Hawking. The man, perhaps, is not reduced to a caricature nor does the narrative revolve around the production of a work. The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014), what I’ve read about it, seems to do the opposite: what is shown about Alan Turing warrants or justifies his genius – we learn about a man only insofar as it says something about the work, thus neither man nor work is fully explored (we learn nothing of either).

This leads me to contend that biopics are not about information-transfer. What are biopics for, or, what can we get out of them? Is there such a thing as a successful biopic? If a successful biopic is not to be judged in terms of its historical accuracy or its successful transfer of information, how do we evaluate them, and further, how does one make a biopic? mr-turner-image-6A film like Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, 2014), on the other hand, seems to say less about the man and ultimately very little about the work (besides a few monumental events in the production of a painting). What we have is a man at work and trying to find a place within the world for that work. I read the film as having minimal cause and effect narrative logic. A man paints, sometimes his works are in a gallery, he meets a widow, he paints, he dies. No event seems more significant than the other. There is no historical accuracy, aside from the trivia, because nothing extraordinary has happened. Paintings, landscapes, Timothy Spall’s grunting and spittle, death. Narrative is unimportant, historical accuracy irrelevant, the paintings are all nearly equally historically important regardless of when the artist painted them (or by what method or means or context – except for The Opening of Waterloo Bridge [1832]). Mr. Turner relies, perhaps, on affect or tone. For the most part, according to my reading, I’m not transferred facts about the painter’s life or work. The life of Turner, as presented by Mike Leigh and his crew, is marked by joy and misery, small and great successes, minor events and strange encounters, not unlike unremarkable men (and women).