Monday, November 30, 2009

On Staring #5

"The question is not what you look at, but what you see." - Henry David Thoreau
Okay. So it is a bit of a pithy, overused quote, but really, when it comes to thinking about making films, is there a better aphorism to think on? Bresson can throw up a couple I am sure, but this is always my touchstone when things fall apart.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Loud Quiet Loud

I got a crazy thing for novelists who write like guitars. Hammering out, wailing, ripping out solos, then settling back into feedback or quiet strumming or long passages of melody or backing chords. A friend and I used to go nuts for Jim Thompson, trying to find his best possible phrasing, his sentences that kicked you so hard in the guts you had to reread them over and over just to feel their impact each time*. Don DeLillo is, for me, another writer who can lull you into the languor of some deep thought or exploration only to tear you out again with one quietly delivered, heartstopping, clipped phrase that stops you in your tracks.

I think this kind of writing (combined with a long life of listening to the loud quiet loud rhythms of indie and punk) has shaped, to many extents, the kind of editing or film forms that I like. 'Pain is just another form of information' is a sentence that arrested me while reading DeLillo's 'Underworld'. The 'Pain' comes out of the preceding paragraph like a jumpcut, then there is the slow resound of the rest of the sentence that, at first seems like a glib exercise in style and cleverness, but slowly compounds into an idea you can't shake. This, to me, is like a great edit, that throws you hurtling into the next idea, but then follows any visual violence with languour to allow the severance to settle once again. DeLillo even alludes to the visual nature of his language when he says "I like the construction of sentences and the juxtaposition of words-not just how they sound or what they mean, but even what they look like..." ('Conversations with DeLillo', Thomas DePietro) Or this:
"Every sentence has a truth waiting at the end of it and the writer learns how to know it when he finally gets there. One one level this truth is the swing of the sentence, the beat and poise, but down deeper it's the integrity of the writer as he matches with the language. I've always seen myself in sentences. I begin to recognize myself, word by word, as I work through a sentence."
This approach makes sense to me because as much as there is a grammar of editing, a logic of information, of space and spatial relationship, there should also, always be the pleasure of the way an edit is assembled as a sequence itself. It's rhythm, it's inversions and trickery, and it's overall lilt and lean that encapsulates the indefinable heart of the film. Usually, when I have a 'swoon' moment when watching a film, it is usually because of exactly this kind of thing. When the edit, the assemblage jolts you for a moment, or gives you a moment of pure visual music or pleasure; it can be abrupt or gentle but just enough to startle you into enjoying the way things go.

Edit like words, like language:

Although understated, this relationship-severing edit in this clip from 'Climates', when seen in the context of the meditative pace of this film, was jarring and brilliant. For a moment the world of the film condenses and, in doing so, expands immeasurably. Swoon.

Or the percussive awesomeness (that's the correct film theory terminology) of this well known scene from Tran Anh Hung's 'Xich Lo' (apologies for terrible compression and frame size but you take what you can get on youtube)...

Or the undulating loud, quiet, loud of the riverside house party in Lynne Ramsay's 'Morvern Callar' as you fall in and out of intensity. Severing our intimate perspective, for a moment, the film takes us out to a worker's barge who, by torchlight, passes by Morvern standing by the river, like an apparition, like a ghost, who, slowly raises her skirt then lowers it again, before throwing you back into the scene with a smashing bottle. Swoon.

Some editors strive for invisibility but I'll always be a front row audience for a bit of editorial showboating that reveals the mechanics of film, that riffs on a moment or a piece of action and lets the rhythm do the work.

* We finally had no choice but to settle on the final chapters of 'Savage Night'. Chapter Twenty Six concludes with the sentence "I went over backwards, then down and down and down, turning so slowly in the air it seemed that I was hardly moving. I didn't know it when I hit the bottom. I was simply there, looking up as I'd been looking on the way down. Then there was a slam and a click, and she was gone." before hurtling straight into the final two chapters:
   The darkness and myself. Everything else was gone. And the little that was left of me was going, faster and faster.
   I began to crawl. I crawled and rolled and inched my way along; and I missed it the first time - the place I was looking for.

   I circled the room twice before I found it, and there was hardly any of me then but it was enough. I crawled up over the pile of bottles, and went crashing down the other side.
  And he was there, of course.
   Death was there.
   And he smelled good."

Rules # 3

Rule #3 is that you have to make your own rules and tell everyone else to fuck off and find their own.

Through a confluence of information firing from blogs by David Liu and Caitlin Farren and old Moviemaker articles, I was lead to this killer bit of text from Mr Jim Jarmusch back in the dark ages of 2004 as published online. The original article is here.
Rule #1
There are no rules. There are as many ways to make a film as there are potential filmmakers. It’s an open form. Anyway, I would personally never presume to tell anyone else what to do or how to do anything. To me that’s like telling someone else what their religious beliefs should be. Fuck that. That’s against my personal philosophy—more of a code than a set of “rules.” Therefore, disregard the “rules” you are presently reading, and instead consider them to be merely notes to myself. One should make one’s own “notes” because there is no one way to do anything. If anyone tells you there is only one way, their way, get as far away from them as possible, both physically and philosophically.
Rule #2
Don’t let the fuckers get ya. They can either help you, or not help you, but they can’t stop you. People who finance films, distribute films, promote films and exhibit films are not filmmakers. They are not interested in letting filmmakers define and dictate the way they do their business, so filmmakers should have no interest in allowing them to dictate the way a film is made. Carry a gun if necessary. Also, avoid sycophants at all costs. There are always people around who only want to be involved in filmmaking to get rich, get famous, or get laid. Generally, they know as much about filmmaking as George W. Bush knows about hand-to-hand combat.

Rule #3
The production is there to serve the film. The film is not there to serve the production. Unfortunately, in the world of filmmaking this is almost universally backwards. The film is not being made to serve the budget, the schedule, or the resumes of those involved. Filmmakers who don’t understand this should be hung from their ankles and asked why the sky appears to be upside down.
Rule #4
Filmmaking is a collaborative process. You get the chance to work with others whose minds and ideas may be stronger than your own. Make sure they remain focused on their own function and not someone else’s job, or you’ll have a big mess. But treat all collaborators as equals and with respect. A production assistant who is holding back traffic so the crew can get a shot is no less important than the actors in the scene, the director of photography, the production designer or the director. Hierarchy is for those whose egos are inflated or out of control, or for people in the military. Those with whom you choose to collaborate, if you make good choices, can elevate the quality and content of your film to a much higher plane than any one mind could imagine on its own. If you don’t want to work with other people, go paint a painting or write a book. (And if you want to be a fucking dictator, I guess these days you just have to go into politics...)
Rule #5
Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.”

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Oceanic Confessions

Confession: back in the day, I used to plaster up photocopies of shipwrecks and my own mediocre oceanic poetry on the city walls at night. I think, for a moment, the empire literally shuddered as I smashed the state through my images and words of maritime disaster. Heaps punk. Or not, depending on how punk you think oceans and shipwrecks are... but, damn, for a period that was what it was all about for me. People dragging themselves from the ocean. Survivors. Immensity. Around this time June of '44 were releasing oceanic themed albums, the Shipping News formed from June of '44 and released two epic seafaring records, and Dirty Three's Ocean Songs and the Boxhead Ensemble soundtrack to Braden King and Laura Moya's Dutch Harbour could be heard burbling away in the loungerooms of inner city Melbourne. Now it's all cowboys or discos with the kids, but since my heart is still verging on the oceanic, and, again, in the spirit of excess, I thought I'd leave out one of my old posters...