This blog is part of the courses on film, art, literature, and media
given by Dr.
Hudson Moura, Toronto, Canada.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Michel Chion on Tarkovsky

So sound temporalized the image: not only by the effect of added value but also quite simply by normalizing and stabilizing film projection speed. A silent film by Tarkovsky, who called his cinema "the art of sculpting in time," would not be conceivable. His long takes are animated with rhythmic quiverings, convulsions, and fleeting apparitions that, in combination with vast controlled visual rhythms and movements, form a kind of hypersensitive temporal structure. The sound cinema can therefore be called "chronographic": written in time as well as in movement.
Michel Chion's Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Zizek on Tarkovsky

What makes Tarkovsky interesting is the very form of his films. Tarkovsky uses as this material element of pre-narrative density, time itself. All of a sudden we are made to feel this inertia, drabness of time. Time is not just a neutral, light medium within which things happen. We feel the density of time itself. Things that we see are more markers of time. He treats even humans in this way. If we look at the unique face of Stalker himself, it's a face of somebody exposed to too much radiation and, as it were, rotting, falling apart alive. It is this disintegration of the very material texture of reality which provides the spiritual depth. Tarkovskian subjects, when they pray, they don't look up, they look down. They even sometimes, as in Stalker, put their head directly onto the earth. Here, I think, Tarkovsky affects us at a level which is much deeper, much more crucial for our experience than all the standard, spiritual motives of elevating ourselves above material reality and so on. There is nothing specific about the zone. It's purely a place where a certain limit is set. You set a limit, you put a certain zone off-limit, and although things remain exactly the way they were, it's perceived as another place. Precisely as the place onto which you can project your beliefs, your fears, things from your inner space. In other words, the zone is ultimately the very whiteness of the cinematic screen.

Slavoj Zizek's The Pevert's Guide to Cinema (2006)

Paul Schrader interviews Aleksandr Sokurov years ago a German publisher asked me to write a forward updating Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu- Bresson-Drerer, a book published in 1972. I couldn't think of any filmmaker to add to the context of that book. Andrei Tarkovsky came to mind, of course, but I didn't feel he was working in the style I had tried to describe. Since then. I've seen the work of Abbas Kiarostami and, more to the point, Aleksandr Sokurov: the transcendent cinema is alive in that troubled part of the world. Sokurov's films define a new form of spiritual cinema. Sokurov mixes elements of Transcendental Style - austerity of means, disparity between environment and activity, decisive moment, stasis - with other traditions: visual aestheticism, meditation, and Russian mysticism. Mother and Son, Sokurov's latest feature, was shown at the Berlin, Cannes, Telluride, and New York film festivals. It explores, with very little dialogue, the final day of a dying mother and a devoted son: 73 heart-aching, luminescent minutes of pure cinema. Sokurov is a master. This interview took place Sep-tember 3, 1997, in my office in Times Square - sirens and street musicians bla-ring in the background. We had first met in Telluride, where I, too, was screening a film. In attendance were Mr. Sokurov's friend Sergei Khramt-sov, who translated for him, and Alexei Fyodorov, his cinematographer. Sokurov was en route from Telluride, where he had been honored; he was waiting to catch a plane to St. Petersburg, where he lives. Still photog-raphers from The New York Times and the Village Voice were waiting outside the office. In editing this interview, I realized that there were several areas I should have pursued with Sokurov. He says that he manipulates the image as it is being filmed, but feels it would be wrong to manipulate it afterwards, via computer. This I don't quite get. Perhaps it was lost in translation. Perhaps he will read this interview and clarify the issue with a letter. I also neglected to ask about his use of sound and music: phy-sical effects - wind, rustling, footsteps - interspersed with classical passages of Romantic music. It was a treat to interview Sokurov. It brought me back to my first enthusiasms about cinema. It's a disadvantage of gro-wing older: disciples start to outnumber masters. In person Sokurov is serious, articulate, and gracious. He speaks with the intensity of a person who knows there are things worth saying.

P.S.: Tell us about your background, education, and how you became a filmmaker.
Sokurov: It's not an easy question to answer. I would like to start by saying that, besides literature, which is one of my passions, I also liked radio theater very much. When I was growing up, I remember great radio theater performances, with great actors. I would close my eyes and then build my imaginary world within the theater piece. I never imagined that I would become a director myself. In my family, nobody was involved in art. I was born in a little village in Siberia that doesn't exist anymore; they built a hydroelectric power station, and my little village was buried under water. If I want to visit the place of my birth, I could take a boat, get there by the water, and look into the bottom of the sea.

P.S.: That's a wonderful image.
Sokurov: Oh well, I think for me it seems to be very complete. And I always felt that that passage to moviemaking is very long, and I never thought that I would be able to get through. Generally speaking, my idea of how to become an artist is, first of all you have to get a fundamental education. That's why it was logical for me to graduate with a degree in history.

P.S.: Where was it, in Moscow?
Sokurov: No, in Gorky, on the Volga River, the town my mother is from. After college, I started doing some work for the local television station. All the skills I have at the moment, I learned from my first job in television and from my first teacher, Yuri Bespolov. My path into film and visual art was quite long. I entered the Moscow Film Academy (VGIK) directing department, after which everything happened in the usual order of events.

P.S.: How did your filmmaking evolve?
Sokurov: I was born and raised, as well as getting my self-identity, under a totalitarian regime. For the people of my psychological character type and background, this meant that I started with very serious, fundamental observations. And don't forget that I was constantly reading Russian classics, which had a huge impact on me. I'd never heard of the Beatles or any other non-Russian contemporary musicians. I was influenced by Wagner and Scarlotti. That's just the way it happened. I concentrated on more serious things.

P.S.: I know that before the breakup of the Soviet Union you had some censorship issues. Do you think you would have had more difficulty with the government if you made more narrative movies - movies that could be interpreted politically?
Sokurov: I'm very impressed with this question - no one ever asked me such a question before. It's important because even when you didn't get a full explanation from the authorities, you could read between the lines. The problems the government film institutions had with me - they had no political grounds. Because I had no questions about the Soviet system. I had, let's say, less or no interest. So I wouldn't even bother myself with criticizing it. I was always driven by visual aesthetics, aesthetics which connected to the spirituality of man, and set certain morals. The fact that I was involved in the visual side of art made the government suspicious. The nature of my films was different from others. They didn't actually know what to punish me for - and that confusion caused them huge irritation. Of course it made things more difficult for me, but also much easier. When I look back I realize it was such a paradox. On one hand, the films that I made were forbidden to be showed publicly; on the other, my new ideas were always approved. I would say that this is a paradox of a totalitarian regime. Because totalitarians are interested in creative processes.

P.S.: Which artists, not necessarily filmmakers, helped you define yourself ?
Sokurov: I've learned a lot from the real world surrounding me. Sometimes these people had nothing to do with art at all. They were simply kind, generous, honest and beautiful human beings. And very well educated as well. But my milestone was of course Chekhov.

P.S.: I came from a religious background. Our church did not believe in the image. They were anti-iconography. If you had anything to say, you used words. The most important thing I learned in my 20s was that images are also ideas. It took a while for me to understand that. You mentioned literature and radio theater - how did you come to the realization of the intellectual language of ideas?
Sokurov: My background was in no way similar. Most of the things that I do come through intuition. I never met anyone who helped me to develop my spirituality and my soul. Let's put it this way: I never had a priest to whom I would go for confession.

P.S.: Your name has often been connected with Tarkovsky. Did he come relatively late into your life, or was he an early influence?
Sokurov: It's very circumstantial. We are quite different as people, as [Tarkovsky] always said himself. The first time I saw his work was when I was finishing my education at the Film Academy. His aesthetics weren't a discovery for me. It was rather a confirmation of my own vision. Frankly speaking, this is a hard question for me to answer. I would say that we had a very close friendship rather than collegial creative collaboration. I don't know why he liked what I was doing.

P.S.: I always felt a little guilty because I thought I should like Tarkovsky more than I did. My head was telling me I should like it, but my heart wasn't going along. When I saw your films, my first reaction was, this is what I wanted from Tarkovsky.
Sokurov: That's wonderful. That's a wonderful thing to say. It just proves to me one more time that each of us is just one step in the staircase. And what all of us are doing, you and me and Tarkovsky, is an existing reality, despite our differences.

P.S.: Let's switch the subject a little bit, and talk about the technical and financial aspects. It seems that, because of your success in the festival world, you're able to get European financing now. Do you feel fairly secure in your ability to get films made?
Sokurov: I'm still very concerned about finances. My rule is that I work with the same people all the time: cinematographer, sound, editor, art director, and so on. I believe that only if you work together for, let's say, fifteen, twenty years, then you get the feel of a team and can do a great job. We are able to achieve things because we're working on such a low budget. It's hard for me to imagine myself making a picture with a budget of $150,000.

P.S.: But even low budgets cost money - someone has to pay it. When I was a film critic I supported myself by delivering chicken, and writing for a small paper. I was corresponding with Bresson because I was working on a book about him. And he wrote me a letter asking, because I worked in Los Angeles, if maybe I could help him raise money for L'Argent. For me, Bresson was a master, and I was delivering chicken - and he was asking me for money! I realized then how difficult it was. But now, your last film Mother and Son - that was your last film, right?
Sokurov: No, I also finished two documentaries.P.S.:Now, that was financed primarily out of Germany?
Sokurov: It was fifty-fifty: half Russian, half German money.

P.S.: Is the positive reaction at the New York and Berlin film festivals going to change the nature of the films you make? How fast you make films?
Sokurov: No, not at all.

P.S.: How many days was Mother and Son shot in?
Sokurov: I think that altogether the actual shooting was about twenty days.

P.S.: Because of the consistency of those dark, rich, clouds, did you have to wait for the right weather for a long time?
Sokurov: In this case, I could say just one thing: God was probably assisting us at that time. And we always put our interiors around spots where nature looked most attractive and interesting. We weren't shooting in a studio. Our set was a very complicated construction built into a dune near the forest that had the ability to open up and turn around. This allowed the cinematographer to catch the sun and light and manipulate and create as much as he wanted.

P.S.: As in silent movies, the house turns with the sun. One of the problems in working in commercial cinema is the schedule. If the weather isn't right, you have to shoot anyway.
Sokurov: We have the same type of schedule.

P.S.: So if the weather wasn't exactly right, would you shoos anyway, or would you try to shoot indoors?
Sokurov: Yes, of course, we would shoot indoors.

P.S.: In Telluride, a friend of mine who is a cinematographer saw Mother and Son and went to your cinematographer and said, "I figured out how you did it," but your cinematographer wouldn't confirm his hypothesis. So I'll ask you: how did you achieve those unique distortion effects?
Sokurov: [Laughs] I'll tell you. It was much easier than you think. There is just one principle, and I think that this is a very important one. I have stopped pretending that the image onscreen is dimensional. My first goal is that images have to be flat, as well as horizontal. Secondly, it has to be a comprehensive reading of artistic and aesthetic traditions - I'm not shooting a concrete picture of nature, I'm creating it. In [Mother and Son] I'm using a couple of simple mirrors, large panes of glass, as well as brush and paint, and then I look into the lens -

P.S.: You put the glass in front of the lens?
Sokurov: Yes, in front, and on the side, and behind, placing them on different support structures. It's very hard, very particular, and a long process. I destroy real nature and create my own.

P.S.: And then you're spraying on these pieces of glass and mirrors?
Sokurov: There is no spraying. I work with very thin, delicate painting brushes. Like those used in traditional Chinese paintings.

P.S.: My cinematographer thought it was a Spray -
Sokurov: No way. If it was sprayed, then it would look very harsh.

P.S.: When you hold the shot as long as you do, the eye has time to move around Whereas in conventionally paced cinema, the images come too fast for you to explore them. One of the great pleasures of Mother and Son is that you become invested as you move around.
Sokurov: It's not an advantage of the pictures themselves as much as the viewers' ability to imagine, and their spiritual development as well. It means a lot to me that you in particular were so much taken by those pictures, because I know films that were made with your participation, and I understand that it is completely different nature of creation and sometimes quite opposite from mine, but still it's very important for me that you feel that way about my art. Professionally and personally as well.

P.S.: I, like most filmmakers, am committed to the tradition of psychological realism; my film shown at Telluride (Affliction) is an exploration of character. But I've always loved films that worked against psychological identification and tried to take the viewer to another place. I've never felt I'd have the patience or the talent to make one. You talk about aestheticism, but there's also very rich common themes - relationship between parent and a child, death and human love. Do you think thematically or visually in advance of the film? Where does it begin for you?
Sokurov: Not from either of them. I go from the feelings, and I think that what always interests me is just those feelings that only a spiritual person could experience: the feelings of farewells and separations. I think that the drama of death is the drama of separation.

P.S.: In Japanese art there is a concept of mono no aware, sweet sadness, the pleasure of endings, of autumn and seeing a dying leaf
Sokurov: But for Russia, sweet sadness and pleasant farewells are not possible. On the contrary, in the Russian sense of elegy, it's a very deep. vertical feeling, not a delighting one. It gets you deeply, sharply, painfully. It's massive.

P.S.: You mentioned you've made documentaries since Mother and Son. For you, what's the difference between a fiction film and a documentary?
Sokurov: I don't treat it differently. The only difference I see between fiction and documentary is that the artist uses different tools to create a picture, or let's say, to build a house. In fiction, the director uses much larger-scaled blocks of the actual building, large-sized stones. In documentaries, the house is usually a more fragile, transparent, grasslike structure.

P.S.: I don't quite understand.
Sokurov: I'm not trying to make documentaries as a realistic type of art. I'm not interested in real truth. I don't think I could possible understand reality that well.

P.S.: So if you make a documentary and if you want things to look different than they do, do you instruct the subjects or change things?
Sokurov: I don't give instructions. It's simply important for me in both fiction and documentary that people never regret that they're participating in it. That's why I never film people I don't understand or don't love.

P.S.: I once had a teacher who said that anything inside a frame is art. When this cup is put inside of a frame, it's not a cup, it's art.
Sokurov: I disagree with that. Art is the hard work of your soul. And a cup is still a cup. The history of an artist's soul is a very sad history. It is very hard, sometimes unpleasant work. It is hard work for us all.

P.S.: What's the subject matter of the next film?
Sokurov: It will be a continuation of a five-hour film, part of which has been shot already. It's about the current war. About people who lived and fought on the land, and now they've gone to dive on the water.

P.S.: Chechnya?
Sokurov: No. It takes place on the border of Tadjikistan and Afghanistan, and now there's a fight between Russian and German marines, on the border of Germany and Russia.

P.S.: Do you see a situation like that, where you have politics and violence, as different from. the intense family feeling of loss?
Sokurov: Of course those topics cross each other. Even so, the actual war has no meaning at all. The only meaning that exists is the state of people's feelings in such circumstances. How they live in the state of war, how they celebrate their holidays, how they cope with their loneliness and solitude. It's all about life. In all my pictures, I'm just trying to create a different type of real life, not what actually exists. This is true even in my documentaries.

P.S.: One of the things that often comes up when people talk about your films is the tradition of great paintings. Are there any painters in particular that have a strong effect on you?
Sokurov: Generally speaking, when somebody is asked such a question, I think first of all it's about a labyrinth which a person travels in all the time. I would say it's Russian painters of the 19th century. It's Romantics of the 19th century from Germany, and of course Rembrandt. I like the American Andrew Wyeth. I like old painters because they're incredibly skillful. I think that apprenticeship is a very important component of becoming a real artist. That's why I think in the cinema there are not so many masters.

P.S.: The roles of painting and film are now starting to merge via computer. There are painters now working with photographed images on the computer. Would that appeal to you, or are you like me: too old to start again?
Sokurov: No. I don't want to let technology overcome me, or penetrate inside, although when we would go through the second cycle of editing, we do it with the help of a computer. If a painting was born as a painting with certain tools being used, I think it should always remain the same. And computer art: is a completely different type of visual art. We're not talking about pure art anymore, we're talking about something else.

P.S.: Whatever manipulation of the image you do occurs at the time that you shoot it, not later in postproduction.
Sokurov: Of course. It's always during the filming. As a director I always have a clear vision of my creation. I usually change the literary basis as well as the script a lot during production, sometimes even the meaning of certain dialogue could change completely. And the meaning of the piece changes with it. I'm trying to create and recreate and recreate again and again. It's important to be constantly on the move. The actual movie could look quite still, but the energy that was put into the filmmaking should be extremely dynamic.

P.S.: In Breaking the Waves Lars von Trier created tableau shots of nature that were computer-manipulated so that the movement of light and shadow was created
Sokurov: I feel sorry for him then.

P.S.: What is your personal reaction to your films being shown in the West?
Sokurov: At the very beginning, I had a tremendous feeling of appreciation towards everybody: audiences, festival directors, any staff person. Then I started experiencing some regret, because sometimes in the West I see very strange reactions. For instance, somebody's laughing. Of course I understand that Westerners are very different and very lonely at the same time. Much lonelier than in Russia. I would even say more spiritually unhealthy, with obviously very different morals than in Russia. That's why I feel even more grateful to anyone who comes and sees my movies because they witness such a different world and they try to understand it and accept it. Even SO, I understand that in the West I am dealing with a life that I would never comprehend.

P.S.: One last question, just. out of curiosity. Where do you live? Are you a city person or a country person?
Sokurov: I think I'm neither a city person nor a country person. By my mentality, I'm not a city person at all. But by my needs of comfort and convenience I'm a city person of course.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Notes for a Theory of the Road Movie by Walter Salles

Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund in Walter Salles' On the Road (2012)
What is the origin of road movies? A year ago, I interviewed Wim Wenders on this topic for a documentary about “On the Road,” Jack Kerouac and the legacy of the Beat generation.

For me, the first documentary filmmakers, like Robert Flaherty, the creator of the landmark 1922 film “Nanook of the North,” were the founding fathers of this narrative form. Jorge Luis Borges once said that what interested him in literature was naming what had not yet been named. The early documentary pioneers did exactly that. A movie like “Nanook” or “Song of Ceylon,” Basil Wright’s 1934 classic about life in what is now Sri Lanka, depicted a human and physical geography that had not been captured before in moving images.

Flaherty, Wright and their peers had their own predecessors: painters and photographers who, before the birth of cinema, traveled to foreign latitudes and recorded what was to that point unknown to outsiders. In terms of storytelling, “The Odyssey” seemed to me the basis of it all, the source from which all road films, including Wenders’s own Paris, Texas (photo below), seemed to arise.


Wenders argued otherwise. For him, the origin lay even further back in history — in our nomadic roots, in mankind’s primal need to leave an account of its passage on earth. If you accept this vision, the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira are the true first accounts of life in movement. The first road narratives, of sorts.

In cinema, the earliest road movies were about the discovery of a new land or about the expansion of frontiers, as with westerns in North America. Films like “The Searchers,” John Ford’s masterpiece set in the aftermath of the Civil War, were about a national identity in construction. Especially in later decades, road movies also tried to accomplish a different task: to show national identities in transformation. Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 movie, “Detour,” an early film noir about a New York pianist who travels a dark road to Hollywood, was an account of a country plagued by individualism and greed. The film that defined road movies for today’s audiences, Dennis Hopper’s “Easy Rider,” was about the end of innocence and the implosion of the American dream during the Vietnam years.

Such films suggest that the most interesting road movies are those in which the identity crisis of the protagonist mirrors the identity crisis of the culture itself.

On Structure and Character

In terms of their narrative architecture, road movies cannot be circumscribed by the traditional three-act structure of so many mainstream films. Road movies, for instance, are rarely guided by external conflicts; the conflicts that consume their characters are basically internal ones.


Characters like David Locke in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Passenger” or Phillip Winter in Wenders’s “Alice in the Cities” suffer from a need to redefine themselves. Both are uncomfortable in their shoes. Locke, a journalist, opts to rebaptize himself by trading identities with a dead gunrunner. Winter, also a journalist, searches for a new frame of reference in a foreign country, where he stumbles into playing a father role for a young girl. Both understand that if something is gained along the way, much will also be lost.

Because road movies need to trace the internal transformation of their characters, the films are not about what can be seen or verbalized but about what can be felt — about the invisible that complements the visible. In this sense, road movies contrast starkly with today’s mainstream films, in which new actions are created every three minutes to grab the attention of the viewer. In road movies, a moment of silence is generally more important than the most dramatic action.

After directing three road movies myself (“Foreign Land,” in collaboration with my friend Daniela Thomas, “Central Station” and “The Motorcycle Diaries”), I believe that a defining aspect of this narrative form is its unpredictability. You simply cannot (and should not) anticipate what you will find on the road — even if you scouted a dozen times the territory you will cross. You have to work in synchronicity with the elements. If it snows, incorporate snow. If it rains, incorporate rain.


Likewise, a road movie should be transformed by the encounters that occur on the margins of the road. Improvisation becomes necessary and natural. In shooting “The Motorcycle Diaries,” about Ernesto Guevara’s transformation into Che as he witnesses social and political inequities on a journey through South America, my crew and I constantly tried to incorporate what reality was offering us, mixing our actors with the locals we met in the small communities we came across.

In doing different road movies, I also came to realize that a good screenplay grants you more freedom to improvise than a weak one. It’s like jazz: the better the melody, the easier it is to wander away from it, because it will also be easier to return to it later.

On the Line Between Fiction and Documentary

There is no such thing as two road movies that look alike. In terms of film grammar, the road movie is limited only by one obligation: to accompany the transformations undergone by its main characters as they confront a new reality. The road movie is not the domain of large cranes or steady-cams. On the contrary, the camera needs to remain in unison with characters who are in continual motion — a motion that shouldn’t be controlled. The road movie tends, therefore, to be driven by a sense of immediacy that is not dissimilar from that of a documentary film.

This correlation between two worlds — fiction and documentary — raises a theoretical point that brings me back to Robert Flaherty. Although Flaherty’s films are usually thought of as documentaries, he sometimes staged key elements of the plots so that the films were in some respects closer to fiction. He’s not framing an actual family of fishermen in “Man of Aran,” his 1934 movie about premodern life on the Aran Islands; he created a family for the film, a hypothetical family that he thought could better represent the reality of the Aran fishermen. (He was, by the way, severely criticized for this sort of alteration.)

In search of the epic, Flaherty did violate the boundaries of the what came to be seen as the traditional documentary. If that happened, it’s because he was not only recording Nanook the Inuit. He was also filming Nanook the Story.

More recently, Abbas Kiarostami’s 2002 film, “Ten,” about a woman driving a car in Tehran, blurred the line between fiction and documentary even more. Over the course of the movie, the woman has 10 conversations with passengers. The driver is an actress — or maybe not. The boy who is confronting her may be her real son, but it’s hard to tell. The prostitute the woman gives a ride to may be a real prostitute — or not.

There is no more objective truth, only the truth of observation. There is no longer the outside (the world) and the inside (its imaginary representation) but only the film, which is the synthesis of the world and the imagination of the filmmaker.

Back to road movies. The more the line between fact and fiction is obscured, the more interesting the result is for me. “Iracema,” a Brazilian road movie shot in the ’70s by the directors Jorge Bodanzky and Orlando Senna, is a perfect example of this. An actor playing a truck driver is thrown into a hard new reality: the Trans-Amazon Highway that was being built at the time by the Brazil’s military regime to “colonize” a region originally occupied by forests. A few nonactors play roles in the film; others play themselves. It is virtually impossible to know who is merely representing a reality and who is truly living it. Because of that ambiguity, “Iracema” is one of the most extraordinary cinematic experiences I have been fortunate enough to have.

As Godard once said: All great fiction films drift toward documentaries, as all great documentaries drift toward fiction. If you go deeply in the direction of one extreme, you will sooner or later find the other. The road movie may well be the film genre that lends itself most naturally to this blurring of boundaries.

The Horizon (or, What Comes Next)

I recently interviewed the American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, also for the documentary about Kerouac and “On the Road.” We were driving on the outskirts of San Francisco. At one point, he looked outside the window and said: “You know, in the ’50s, there was still a country to be mapped. We didn’t know what we would find at the end of the road. Today, everything has changed. With TV, there’s no more ‘away.’ ”

The recent work that may best address this state of affairs is Jia Zhangke’s 2004 fiction film, The World. In a global theme park located outside a large Chinese city, visitors can spend the morning visiting simulacra of the Eiffel Tower, the Egyptian pyramids or Big Ben. In the afternoon, the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the twin towers. The theme-park workers evolve in this strange reality where time and space have collapsed — and they don’t survive it.

In a world in which there’s no more “away” and in which distance has disappeared, do road movies still have a reason to exist?

Sometimes, when I’m in an especially melancholic mood, I think that the answer is no. But every time I turn the TV on and see a reality show, I change my mind. Reality shows offer the audience the illusion that they can live through certain experiences, but only vicariously. What is sold is the impression that all has been lived and that nothing is left to be experienced anew.

Road movies directly challenge this culture of conformity. They are about experiencing, above all. They are about the journey. They are about what can be learned from the other, from those who are different. In a world that increasingly challenges these ideals, the importance of road movies as a form of resistance can’t be dismissed.

Last but not least: the era of the globalized economy has created a different form of movement, dictated by a new kind of migration: an economic one. In different parts of the world, people now increasingly travel because they need to and not because they want to. A road movie like Michael Winterbottom’s In This World (photo), about Afghan refugees making their way to Britain, captures this urgent social-political reality better than many other film genres. It’s more proof that road movies are as necessary as ever to tell us who we are, where we come from and where we’re heading.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Beautiful Confusion in Fellini's 8 1/2
8 1/2 was a liberating film for cinema as a whole. In the first sequence, the camera itself is a major character in the film, as is the fact that it was recorded without sound--and the audio segments were actually spliced in later. It is spiced with tones of anxiety and unreality in the shots, from the bus loaded of arms without faces, to the ugliness of nearly every character in the cars.

Much of the film is centered on Guido's dreams, and his complex reality of truth, lies, and fantasy. Guido--incredible portrayed by Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini’s alter-ego--is clearly a mirror of Fellini himself, and thus 8 1/2 is a film about making a film, and a film about itself. Guido is essentially this director who has run out of ideas of material. This process of self-questioning is begun by projecting his childhood memories into his current state.

Of course this dual-reality Guido begins living in the dream world of reality and fantasy, as well as the past, the future, and the present all at once. He sees his ordinary, everyday life through his artistic lens. He is incapable to leave this world he has created for himself. He not only had merged his past and present states, but also his professional and personal lives. In Guido's reality, home and work were one in the same. He was literally producing a film about himself (which Fellini was doing as well).

8 1/2 is full of Catholicism imagery and symbolism. From the train station resembling a cathedral to the motif of cleaning something that isn't there, 8 1/2 critiques not only Guido/Fellini's life, but also the current state of Italian-Catholic life. In 8 1/2, all that occurs is possible, but improbable. The elevator resembling a confessional booth, and Guido feeling this oppressing force upon him in the elevator (which in reality would've been claustrophobia) and thus trying to escape is rather comical. Something Fellini always reminded his cast, "8 1/2 is a comedy"--but was it? Or, did he just want his characters to act in a comedic style so express how he was feeling as though he was on the outside of someone else's inside joke?

When he arrives at the hotel, there is a flood of various languages and dialects being spoken, the confusion of Guido's soul is represented in this sequence, as he cannot understand what is going on. This is another allusion to the theme of Guido as a man-child who, while an adult, is mentally very young and naive, and thus not understanding what is being said around him. 

In the sequence with the priests on the beach, trying to catch young Guido who is running away after meeting La Saraghina, Fellini references silent film by speeding up the sequence and providing no dialogue, just rapid music. Guido is finally caught and taken back to his school to be punished for meeting a prostitute and running from the priests--there is a moment where we see that the priest who is disciplining Guido is identical to the dead priests--perhaps this is another critique of the Catholic church being outdated and backward. It is ironic, with Fellini's love of women, to have him cast women to play the priests in the punishment sequence-- this is to show how misguided Catholicism has caused problems in the fact that it both generates fear and guilt--and releases its members from fear, all at once. Guido, after receiving his punishments, finally bows in front of a statue of The Virgin Mary who when the camera cuts to her face, is identical to Catarina Barato (a symbol of the cinema during Guido's childhood). This is representational of the Cinema as Guido's (and Fellini's) Church.

Later in the film, there is a sequence in which Guido goes to a steam bath type spa. The images used in this case display a sort of dissent into hell, which resembles the images Dante used to describe his Inferno. In this pseudo-Hell that is the steam bath, Guido finds the Cardinal and goes to speak with him about his project. It is incredibly interesting that Fellini would place religious leaders in this very carnal and hell-ish atmosphere. Perhaps he was trying to point out how contradictory and imprecise the Catholic Church is/was.

Guido really seems to struggle with the issue of his art and his life becoming one. He can, essentially, be an incredible artist without the ability to love, or accept mediocrity as an artist and be happy, and find that love he is looking for. Guido has come to ignore the fact that there are more important things than work. This reminds him of La Saraghina who was a prostitute who lived on the beach near his hometown. She was basically the thing that corrupted him and gave him this skewed vision of what love/sex/life was/is.


Guido's mistress, Carla, is comparable to La Saraghina. Carla harbors many of the characteristics attributed to La Saraghina and is the temptress in Guido's adult life. When Guido was a little boy, and he and the boys from his school went to visit La Saraghina she took their money, smoothed her dress, exposed herself to them, and then performed a dance. The La Saraghina's movements every time is seen as mirror reflections of Carla's movements. The only real difference between the characters is that Carla is not fat and ugly and disgruntled, like La Saraghina; which is probably just Guido's taste in women's appearance evolving as he ages.

Luisa is Guido's wife. Through the film she becomes more and more of a stranger to him, and an abstract ideal of what marriage should be. Their marriage is obviously questionable because they don't really love each other as a passion couple--they have more of a friendship-type love which is always floating somewhere in the background. Luisa symbolizes home life and the restoration of the world to it's rightful order. Guido struggles with this because he has a dual life, which was a prominent factor in Italy at the time; it was not accepted but it was not discussed either, and it still existed even with the oppressing forces of the Patriarchy.

Fellini believed that there were four kinds of relationships men and women could have: love, sex, friendship, and marriage, all of which were exclusive of each other. This sentiment is relatively prevalent in the film and truly explains Guido and Luisa's tortured yet tender relationship with each other. Which would be another place to ask, "Is this film an autobiography?"

The title of the film is 8 1/2, which has led several film critics to ask, "8 1/2 what?". There are 8 1/2 questions left unanswered. Guido's father leaves Guido's questions without answers. The Cardinal leaves Guido with out answers. Guido leaves Carla, Luisa, his producers, his assistants, and Madeleine Lebeau--the actress of his film--, all without answers to their questions. Luisa leaves Guido's questions unanswered as well. Some of these questions are claimed to have no answers, because they were answered with lies. There are several Pinocchio references in 8 1/2, such as Guido scratching or tapping his nose. These lies, half truths, and lack of answers further claim that Guido's life, his fantasies, and his film have all merged into a sequence of dreams, which he cannot escape--he has no existence outside of it.

Of course, Guido's complete involvement in the process of his film leads him to a level of vulnerability--and Fellini as well. Fellini provides a pre-release critique of 8 1/2 to dispel commentary. The critic in the film claims that it is too illogical. Guido defends his work by explaining a mirror construction aspect and how the audience would in essence be watching a film about itself. Of course this leads to a struggle between Guido and The Cardinal who tells Guido that there is no safety outside the church. Guido then derives that the Cardinal is not ready for this film. How foreseeing of Fellini to see how the Catholic Church would react to 8 1/2.

By the end of the film, Guido has been abandoned by his wife, his producer, his friends, and even his mistress. He plans to commit suicide, and does. Guido's confusion of reality and fantasy are no longer beautiful and he (and Fellini) felt that it would be better to throw away everything than to be imperfect. But then a magician appears and offers an alternative to Guido--start again! In this moment the full cast appears dressed in all white. Suicide is not death in this case, it leads to a new beginning and a complete understanding. Fellini discovered (and thus has Guido discovered) that absolute perfection is found within imperfection and resolution with those imperfections. Guido realizes that he is who he is, and that he is comfortable with that. There is a very circus-y feel to the end of the film between the dancing, the magician, and the full cast appearing out of nowhere which is symbolic of the realization that “everything is ok.” It is especially moving how Guido actually leads the procession, which seems to be in celebration of his life and the people in it, instead of joining in line with everyone else.
8 1/2 is a return to the earth. The Catholic Church leads (and still does) people to this state of escape, and hence individual's problems are never addressed. Problems do not disappear and the world is not perfect, but Guido's character accepts that and moves on. The real point of the movie is that life is constantly moving and every changing. If a solution is not available or apparent, there can be a kind of solace found in the possibility of eventual existence and/or creation of one. After the circus and dancing, the screen fades to black. This is not an ominous black, but a possibility that a film will one day light up the screen again. It serves as the end of this piece, and the beginning of another.
Source: R.E.D. Italian Cinema Tutorial

Watch below a short documentary made during the shooting of Eight and a Half by Italy’s public channel Rai3, entitled “8 Minutes on the Set of Fellini’s 8 1/2“:

Here are some highlights, for those of you who don’t speak Italian:

Claudia Cardinale (“Claudia” in the film)
Claudia: “I’m something strange in the film. I’m half vision, half reality”
Journalist: “You’re the ‘friend’ of the director?”
Claudia: “Yes”
Journalist: “And the enemy of the director’s wife?”
Claudia: “No” (laughs nervously)
And then the journalist asks her if the film mirrors real life, and she nervously laughs and denies it.
Anouk Aimee (Lisa Anselmi, the director’s wife, in the film)
J: “What’s the best compliment that Fellini ever gave you?”
AA: “He cast me in this film.”
Sandra Milo (“Carla” in the film, the director’s mistress)
SM says she was a bit upset that for the film Fellini made her completely shave her eyebrows for the role of Carla. She says her face feels “flat” with the new look. Fellini had also asked the makeup department to give her dark moles.
Barbara Steel (Gloria Morin, the young girlfriend of Guido’s friend Mezzabotta)
Upon meeting Fellini, she says, she immediately felt something familiar, as if she had always known him.
Federico Fellini
“This is a peculiar film, even I, I haven’t really understood it. The film has come to an end almost suddenly. It wasn’t difficult to make, not at all. It simply happened, almost unbeknown to me. And today it’s over.” Fellini then adds that he doesn’t want to talk about the “intentions” of the film – he finds it dangerous and insincere. He recalls the recent experience of promoting La Dolce Vita: he says he spoke too much about it before the film came out and people went to watch it with an already pre-established idea of what it would be like. Fellini asks the journalist if he thinks the mystery surrounding 8 1/2 is a publicity stunt. “Do you think it’s a publicity stunt? If you want I’ll tell you just that. Are you happy now?”

Dialogue translation:

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Louis Giannetti's Understanding Film: Photography & Mise En Scene



There are three styles of film; realism, classicism, and formalism. Realism is a particular style in which the film attempts to reproduce reality with minimal distortion. Formalism is also known as expressionism, the film is centered on distortions of reality and focuses on a more "artistic" approach to the production of the film--they are "stylistically flamboyant", according to Giannetti. Classicism is a style of cinematography which tries to bridge the gap between formalism and realism.

There are three types of cinema: documentary, fiction, and avant-garde film. Realistic films (which are defined as realist) tend towards a documentary style--focusing on urgency, a lack of stylistic camera angles, and more realistic situations. There are few dream sequences, expressionistic moments, and camera angles that function as the human eye does. Most fiction films are shot classically (which are defined as classicist) they also tend to combine the worlds of the expressionistic formalists and the realist documentaries. And of course, films of the avant-garde variety are much more focused on expressionism and artistic interpretation. The are often marketed as "art films" and do not appeal to the general public in most cases.

Films are generally a critique of some sort and express an opinion or situation that is easy to identify with and recognize. This critique is known as the subject matter, and it's treatment. The content of a film is the sum of the subject matter and the treatment of said subject matter. It is up to the cinematographer and the director to display the events of a movie in the best possible way to convey their statement/story by using the faculties of "the signified" - what is meant, and "the signifier" - it's representative in a situation, to do so. The forms of the signified and the signifier shape the content of a movie. This is best explained by the fact that even in a still photograph the camera never catches everything that is entailed in a candid (or live) shot. It is necessary to understand these factors in a comprehensive critique and understanding of a film. camera shots, the angle of the shot, and the lighting styles create certain ambiances on screen. A shot is defined as the apparent distance of the camera from the subject. There are six kinds of shots that are used in film; the extreme long shot, the long shot, the full shot, the medium shot, the close up, and the extreme close up. The extreme long shot is usually used to establish the locale of a film. A long shot used to provide an idea of surrounding elements. A full shot is a shot that includes full visibility of a human body from the top of their head to bottoms of their feet. A medium shot contains a figure from the waist of knees up. A shot that shows very little locale, and focuses on a relatively small object is considered a close up, and a shot that focuses on a part of that object is an extreme close up. The angle of any of these shots is imperative to the filming of a movie. the placement of the camera in relation to the actors/objects on set can determine the entire mood of a shot. Whether the camera seems to be looking up, down, or at eye level with the characters - the audience immediately makes decisions about a character and their relation to the other characters in the film. But this can be investigated more in the section on Mise En Scene. Lighting also plays a role in the creation of a shot or sequence. High key lighting is generally used in comedies, television sitcoms, and generally happy pieces of work. Low key lighting provides shadows and gives an edge to the visuals of a film, and is most commonly used in mysteries, thrillers, and gangster films. High contrast lighting is the other kind, which provides harsh, unflattering light and streaks of black across the shot - obviously this is used in melodrama and tragedies.

The symbolism found in light, dark, and color via lighting through film can dramatically affect the audience's perception of it. Light can be joyfull or harsh, dark can be dangerous or serene, even sensual; depending on the placement of the camera and characters. Color is used in film to draw the audiences eye to particular characters and to characterize a character more often than not.

The various sorts of camera lenses (telephoto, wide-angle, and standard) provide a filtered reality and distort a scene in a positive way (to provide more meaning) or a negative way (to provide the wrong meaning). The role of the cinematographer is the main visual collaborator with the director and essentially assist the director, screen writer, and cast in realizing their vision their piece.


Mise en scene is defined as the way the visual materials of a film are staged, framed, and photographed. From the aspect ration (which are the dimensions of the screen's height & width) the cinematographer and director must constantly check themselves to make sure all that they want is in the shot, and all that they do not want in the shot is not, this is basically the ground work to mise en scene. The frame has a few functions, to exclude the irrelevant, pinpoint implications of the geography of the frame- by placement of top, bottom, center, and edges.

Images are structured by using the frame to organize the composition and design of the shot by employing visual cues to express contextual relationships. Such as the idea of the Territorial Imperative, which is how space can be used to communicate the idea of power. Staging in the bottom of the frame suggests weakness, the top of the frame- dominance, the center - the most important thing to watch, and the sides - the least important components. Color is also important in directing the eyes of the audience, contrasting colors (a character in the center wearing a red shirt, while everyone else is wearing black, for example) make a character immediately more important to the audience.

Proxemic patterns are how the distances between characters define relationships, as well as how the distance of the camera from the character defines his/her relationship with the audience. The closer two characters are, the more intimately their characters are related and the more tension is between them. The further away the audience feels from the character in the theatre, the more distant the character is in the film - the audience will probably have trouble relating to him as well.

Framing and forms ultimately define the comprehensive mood of the piece. Tight framing leads to a claustrophobic feel and a certain urgency to the shot. Loose framing gives off a more relaxed connotation, or depending on the plot, chaos. Open forms make the audience feel like the movie could be happening in real life, to them. It covers the expanse of the screen and there are no obstructions in front of any of the main action of the shot. Closed forms are very Brechtian. They remind the audience that the film is not real and that they are sitting in a movie theatre, watching a movie. The camera is very directed, the shots are clear, and parts of the action are blocked off by means of an object or a black frame around the screen.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

La Jetée (1962) by Chris Marker

Black and white science fiction constructed almost entirely from still photos, it tells the story of a post-nuclear war experiment in time travel. La Jetée has no dialogue aside from small sections of muttering in German. The story is told by a voice-over narrator. It is constructed almost entirely from optically printed photographs playing out as a photomontage of varying pace. It contains only one brief shot originating on a motion-picture camera. One of the most influential, radical science-fiction film ever made and a mind-bending free-form travelogue. Chris Marker, filmmaker, poet, novelist, photographer, editor, and now videographer and digital multimedia artist, has been challenging moviegoers, philosophers, and himself for years with his complex queries about time, memory, and the rapid advancement of life on this planet. La Jetée—a tale of time travel told in still images—remains his best-loved and most widely seen.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Insdispensable Jean-Luc Godard

Band of Outsiders (Bande à Part, FRA, 1964) - Dance Scene

...But most of all, blame it on the Madison dance sequence, later to be quoted by a parade of hip directors, that Band of Outsiders first seems a film of gestures rather than a singular, coherent drama. Utterly seductive in its digressions, limned with Parisian nostalgia and metafilmic quips, it’s a movie for which the flimsy caper plot risks seeming pure pretext. “Un plan?” says Odile, turning directly to the camera: “Pourquoi?” Arrogantly sans souci, such a strategy could have stumbled—particularly for a director just off his first bomb, Les Carabiniers, and perhaps just as disconcertingly, the success of his CinemaScope stab at the mainstream, Le Mépris. But the gestures themselves are surefooted, and too seductively goofy to dislike. And not even the narrator (Godard himself) seems capable of taking the main action too seriously: “A few words chosen at random,” begins the underwhelming overture. “Three weeks earlier. A pile of money. An English class. A house by the river. A romantic girl.”

Continue to read Joshua Clover's Band of Outsiders: Get Your Madis On here