Tuesday, June 30, 2009
- "Uh. Look I know it's not exactly the same (i.e. your idea is a very shit version of what I am about to show you) but have you seen this?..."
He clocked up a clip on Youtube and pressed play. It was Michel Gondry so, clearly, alarm bells were ringing. I almost wept.
Which brings me to the point of this post (and a shameless story about being in the audience at the Berlinale while MG introduced the premiere of 'Dave Chappelle's Block Party' where the confused festival host first introduced MG as the director of 'Dave Chappelle's Black Party' then got a gushing blood nose on stage, while MG, amused, sympathetic and then, seeing an opportunity, started taking photos and laughing) and that point is: whimsy.
Michel Gondry breaks my heart. I know I'm not alone, I know we are all obsessive about him, but the kid's crazy. Everything he makes I love. There are sequences in Be Kind Rewind, Science of Sleep, Human Nature and of course, the perfect Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, that are the joy of cinema if it was boiled down to a moment, just as Chaplin's floating ball in the Great Dictator or the trolley car sequence ride in Sunrise (jeezus, what happened in between?) express the impossible joy of being able to do just about anything with this artform.
So my love for MG is, I think, mostly because it is so rare to find whimsy in film these days. The idea of pursuing an idea because it gives pleasure, no matter how mercurial the initial inspiration may be, and finding a way to express it visually in a way that honours the impulsive, joyous fragility of whimsy, is something extraordinary. His longer films have a hand made feel, full of the clunky special effects, the hangdog characters, the shameless romanticism and the sheer pleasure of watching stuff blossom or fall over (as long as no one gets hurt), that is the most precise expression of an almost inexpressible state of being (to be whimsical: subject to, led by, or indicative of caprice; capricious, in turn being defined as being subject to, led by, or indicative of whim).
The thing is that whimsy, which is, to my mind, the poetic opposite of rationalism, is the first thing to be beaten out of a script when confronted with the industry of script doctors and brutal narrative rationalists. Yet, as the intense appeal of films like Gondry or Jeunet and Caro - and possibly even the dynamite-in-fist whimsy of Elia Suleiman or the dreamlike whimsy of Pen-Ek Ratanaruang - attest, whimsy equals pleasure and pleasure equals happy souls and happy souls like movies. Everyone knows that.
So, this is the thing. Whimsy is a deeply underrated quality in a shitty, tough, burnt kernel of a world. And I'm the first to admit that I'll walk over hot coals to watch Michel Gondry smear his poo on a page because I know there will be a cheeky childlike joy in the way that he does it that will make it something truly unique. The other brilliant thing in this world of noise and hypertension is that punk is no longer punk. Whimsy is fricken punk. As surrealism first taught us, there is nothing so truly destabilising as that which rails against the rational. We are surrounded by people reasoning and ruling the life out of cinema. Allowing us the simple pleasure of watching, of folllowing the whims of the filmmaker, or their characters, feels like balls out rock, because it has not tried to calculate how we will respond, how sensation will equal controversy (of the broadcast/circulation and, therefore, promotional kind), how excess will generate noise. Instead, it deliberately courts danger by letting the film play with the indefinable.
Monday, June 29, 2009
You can watch the trailer in an earlier blog listing here.
You can also see a great Q&A with Jack and Amiel here on SlowTV, a brilliant online channel maintained by peep and collab Nick Feik.
Thinking of films like this, and at the same time watching the daily battles with the pressure of local box office figures (usually a killer sucker punch at the end of a very long journey) it's hard not to want a film like Bastardy to be on a path toward the kind of life that Brian McKenzie's docos have had. I know that there are numerous folks around who covet his films - like On the Waves of the Adriatic or Winter's Harvest - as the small pristine gems of cinema that, largely unheralded, unwatched and unwanted, are a very pure manifestation of why you would ever bother doing what it is we're trying to do. They touch you. They linger with you. They show you something you might never have seen, in that it is fleeting, intimate, but also of a time and place that is specific to the lives and desires of the people involved. One of these days one of the distributors will do a magnificent box set of his films, promote the living shit out of it, and all of our faith in humanity will be restored, the earth will shift onto it's axis again and people will once again start talking about films instead of marketable products. Meh.
Sunday, June 28, 2009
In recent months, work has begun on what looks to be a pretty lifeless looking apartment block. the travellers have been moved on and the industry block razed and sold. The track running under the bridge has been cordoned off and the graffiti painted over. Although the stretch of river grass leading from the flats down to the creek remains, the strangely cinematic quality of this location has been destroyed. As I walk past it every few days I feel an anxious pang about it's loss. Although each time we shot there,we tried to reinvent the space itself, it always felt like a place I could easily go back to and shoot just about anything, with the right combination of stillness, intensity, quiet and chaos. Now it's gone.
In the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, they have created a filmic world around Seraing in Liege and their films viewed as a body of work seem like various mirrors shone on parts of the city with stories that might have been taking place only streets away from each other. The intensity that this gradual accumulation of knowledge of the place casts on each new film is extraordinary. From La Promesse to Lorna's Silence (via Rosetta, which I wrote about like an infatuated, obsessive maniac in Senses of Cinema many years back), each new film maintains a rigorous consistency in setting each story in the post industrial landscape of Seraing, but it is as if each new character is enriched and made only more complex by what we already know of this world, of these streets, and of the lives that we view in glimpses in each film. A similar, though more aesthetically predictable viewing experience occurred in the ten episodes of Kieslowski's Decalogue which allowed the Warsaw housing project to be the anchor point for the lives that existed, in satellite and occasional symmetry, around each other. In many ways, I've always hoped that the streets that I know would, at some point, in the future, form a similar landscape of familiarity and resonance. I write almost exclusively of people I know, in my mind if not on the page, to live around the corner from another character I've written about, and most of them echo similar journeys around similar fictional places based in the shadows of these actual streets. It is saddening and frustrating to have to farewell such a key part of this landscape of my mind. I'll just have to think about moving, I guess. Go steal someone else's streets and make them my own...
Thursday, June 18, 2009
It's like a river which runs underground... You may not know where it is or what is happening but somehow, because of it, the grass grows greener.
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Monday, June 15, 2009
For me, a handful of her films are among those films that completely blew my mind open in terms of how film can exist as a unique artform. Often, at the heart of her films is a strong, occasionally genre-based narrative spine, which she, in her extraordinarily precise rendering of narrative moments, becomes an emotional journey told in images and scenes that are distilled to the point of abstraction. There is a sense watching her films that although they often have the languour and detachment of something profoundly 'cool', and although they flirt with horror, or with crime, or with the underworld, or with war or family melodrama, that theirs is a world unlike anything else. It is definitely musical and allows the seductiveness of DOP Agnes Godard's images to guide the rhythm and internal logic of the progression of the film, but is also has the kind of austerity that Bresson became synonymous with. It is just that this austerity has, coursing under it, a musical swagger that is like very few other filmmakers. She is like post rock to rock in my mind. She could, blindfolded and shackled, make the most perfect conventional films but instead she gives us a blistering array of notes in a time signature we've never encountered... Yep. Obsessed and myopic. That would be me.
So, the point of all this? Claire Denis' new film '36 Rhums' is playing Sydney Film Festival this week after premiering at Cannes a few weeks back. Although I narrowly missed seeing it in Sydney, I will be definitely at the front of the queue for it when it comes to Melbourne in July.
So, with that in mind, I had a look at my notebooks and found some things I'd tried to write about Claire Denis in the past. These are unfinished thoughts, possibly best left in a notebook, but I air them here in a blog with a non existent readership in continuity with the great tradition of self indulgence.
#1 Claire Denis/Nenette et Boni/Ornette Coleman
I have never been a musician, though I wish I was, and I can’t remember a time when I haven’t let my life be ruled by a love and admiration for, and loss in, music. So, it is films that play across the emotions in the surprising and emotional ways that the simplest song can do, that tend to be the films I love. And, at this moment, there are few films I love as much as the recent films of French filmmaker Claire Denis, and, at this time, there are none I love as much as her 1996 film Nenette and Boni. This film, which glories in the half awake states of its teenage characters, which lapses effortlessly in and out of dreams and memory, and which is propelled by an urgent energy that simmers in each scene only to arc over into the next, has had me enthralled ever since I first viewed it years ago. However, beyond a few rumbling thoughts, it is a film that keeps me guessing. I feel that it is a strikingly political film but I find it hard to pinpoint why. I feel there is something incredible within the rhythm and structure of this film, even as it indulges in small moments of cute humour and visual indulgence. I feel, most of all, that there is something burning beneath this film that holds the secret of what cinema, in a time of lumbering cinematic giants being chiselled away at by urgent, agile films, might come to be. Something flows through this film and her work in general, that is elusive, energetic and immediate and suggests a new freedom in approaching narrative cinema. Perhaps it is this quality that has had responses to her work reaching outside the realm of cinema to attempt to equate the experience of watching her films.
In the period following the release of Denis’ film Beau Travail, a number of critics, mostly American, compared her to Jazz great Ornette Coleman. This sidenote emerged in the writings of Amy Taubin, Jonathon Rosenbaum and Kent Jones among others, and it seemed that critical responses to Denis’ films required the signpost of this jazz innovator as a way to understand and think about her film. This, of course, can’t help but make one think what it is in her cinema, what is being offered and illuminated, that can be compared to Coleman’s overturning of jazz convention to open up the notion of ‘free jazz’, an altogether new understanding of the possibilities of the form. Coleman is generally seen as the artist who overturned the accepted standards of the dixieland sound in jazz by introducing his ‘harmolodic’ approach to improvisation. For many, he was an impossible listening experience, and fellow musicians and jazz lovers alike avoided his performances. He began to attract, however, a new audience, speaking to the broader artistic and intellectual trends of the time. And there was something about his precise approach, influenced by a fascination with physics and mathematical and colour theories, made manifest in a form so fluid and freed from the accepted forms and language that energised jazz altogether.
#2 Claire Denis/Explanations
"I am not trying to make it hard. I hate that. But I am trying to float on the impression of what a story could be. But for me, cinema is not made to give a psychological explanation, for me cinema is montage, is editing. To make blocks of impressions or emotion meet with another block of impression or emotion and put in between pieces of explanation, to me it's boring. Again, I am not trying to make it difficult but I think, as a spectator, when I see a movie one block leads me to another block of inner emotion, I think that's cinema. That's an encounter. I think cinema is linked to literature by a lot of social ways. Our brains are full of literature - my brain is. But I think we also have a dream world, the brain is also full of image and songs and I think that making films for me is to get rid of explanation. Because there is, I think, you get explanation by getting rid of explanation. I am sure of that."
#3 Claire Denis/Faces
#4 Claire Denis/Jazz
During the period in which he was directing his first feature film, Shadows, John Cassavetes talked of his love for the jazz musician:
“Jazz musicians are all Raskolnikovs. They have these little tin weapons – they don’t shoot; they don’t go anywhere. The jazz musician doesn’t deal with structure life. He just wants that night, like a kid. I’ve always been able to work with anybody that doesn’t want success. Jazz musicians don’t want success. They want a good time and millions of memories to share of nights locked in.”It is clear that much of his love for the creation of jazz influenced the energy and improvisation founded on a basis of rigorous story and character development in much of his films. In many ways, the films of Claire Denis embody this spirit with a lyricism and fearlessness combined that is truly unique. It is no coincidence that Denis was likened to the great jazz artist Ornette Coleman following the release of her film Beau Travail. Energising the cinema screen in each one of her films but most identifiably in her later films is the same love of the moment, the sensual energy of the night, of music that courses across the skin of the body during the moment of playing. Another beautiful impression of the act of making jazz comes from James Baldwin in ‘Sonny’s Blues’:
"All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void..."Denis’ own words emphasise that a part of her process is surrendering to the roar within. This alone makes her films some of the most brave cinema in contemporary film, and her approach not only creates unique work, but defies the cinema machine that seems to churn out so many other films with precision and style, but none of the recklessness to be found in the moment, in that night.
An improvisatory musician has a massive body of knowledge as to how to respond note by note to a particular phrase or chord. Denis’ films give the same sense. Beneath the two perfectly chosen notes, played sharp and loud, as a way to truly express a moment, an interaction, or an emotion, is a vast ocean of possibilities. Yet it happens that it is only those two notes that are right for that moment, in that time, within all the constituent elements that make up the particular atmosphere. The musicality of Denis' films suggest that within all the crazed confines of filmmaking she has been able to find a path toward improvisation and riffing, whether that is through the ruthlessness of her approach to editing (which, she attests, begins in the script:
"Often we do a first draft that has no gaps and then I feel it doesn't sound musical or interesting to me. So then I cut, because I think it's important to cut before [starting in] the editing room. It's important to cut it already in the script. Maybe I'm wrong, but I do it because I think it's more dangerous, in a way. Then everyone is aware – the crew, the actors – that there is a gap, so they don't expect, “Well, in the next scene, I will explain more about myself.” They know there won't be any explanations, so they act differently. "
#5 Claire Denis/Performance
I’m interested in her films as a wholly sensory experience that is played out on the surface of the skin, not the intellect. The characters are often reaching out to touch, repeatedly, mechanically engaging in sensual acts. Dance, embraces, rituals, restrained urges to reach out. I’m thinking of Alex Descas in S'en Fout La Mort grooming and caressing the feathers of the rooster; or Gregoire Colin as Boni stroking his coffeepot, himself, his rabbit; or of Valeria Bruni-Tudeschi touching her pastries, ‘nice and soft’.
#6 Claire Denis/Process
Of course, the process of making cinema, with its over-extension of on screen time into slow logistical processes that equate to weeks and months, is unable to be truly improvisatory. Even in those instances in which a performance is improvised, the later processes of editing and sound design cause a process of selection, analysis and exclusion to neuter the impulses that may have first driven the moment. What is remarkable about Claire Denis’ films is that she is able to sustain the sense of the film being lost in the moment of its own creation.
Cinema is a heavy beast weighed down with the fear of the money that burns through the camera every time action is called. It is weighed down by huge crews, by clashing egos, by the increasing pressures of market performance. These things rob the life from cinema. They rob it of the possibiltiy of recklessness, of anarchic energy, of the teetering feeling of punk, the knowledge that at any minute, things might fall apart. To watch Denis’ films is to see cinema breathe again, to break out and create it's own anxious energy.
The sense of the moment is important in Denis’ films for one additional vital reason: the audience becomes an essential element in setting the film loose from the constraints of the screen. On one occasion, when asked about her approach to directing actors, Denis commented:
“I don’t have a concept for directing actors. In a way, I see it more like choreography. That is to say, for me, directing is something that goes through the body. Directing and acting exist in an organic relation similar to a dance between directors and actors”
A few years back, T and I started our production company and named it Daybreak Films partly in honour of the many dusk til dawn sessions of talk, booze and excitement but largely in honour of this film - Daybreak Express by D.A. Pennebaker.
I've never even been to New York but if this film doesn't capture, with brevity and lyricism, the energy and excitement of making pictures move then I don't know what does.
Pennebaker wrote of this perfect 5 minute film:
"I wanted to make a film about this filthy, noisy train and it’s packed-in passengers that would look beautiful, like the New York City paintings of John Sloan, and I wanted it to go with one of my Duke Ellington records, “Daybreak Express.”
I didn’t know much about film editing, or in fact about shooting, so I bought a couple of rolls of Kodachrome at the drugstore, and figured that since the record was about three minutes long, by shooting carefully I could fit the whole thing onto one roll of film. Of course that didn’t work since I couldn’t start and stop my hand-wound camera that easily so I ended up shooting both rolls and even a few more before I was through. It took about three days to film, and then sat in a closet for several years until I figured out how to edit it and make a print that I could show on a projector.
I took it to the Paris theater to see if they would run it. By pure chance it ended up with the Alec Guiness comedy, THE HORSE’S MOUTH which ran there for nearly a year. Since I had a large collection of jazz records, I figured I’d found a way to break into the film business with music films, and it did get me started, but I was never able to make another film like Daybreak."
Friday, June 12, 2009
Thursday, June 11, 2009
There is a sequence he has written set in the cricket fighting markets that are scattered around Chinese cities. We'd talked about using these markets as a location because there is something so singularly bizarre about a gambling den centred around tiny fighting insects. When I first saw one of these while visiting with Chris in Shanghai, I could only make sense of them visually... through my camera. That is, I had so little idea of what was going on, of all of the gestures, the calls, the labels, the significance of the pin sized fighting insects as opposed to the thumb sized crickets, of who was running the place, who was betting on what, and what it took to declare victory... The only thing that made sense was the colour and the movement.
For the most part, the one thing that film allows us to do is to make sense of mysteries in the everyday. The desire to overhear a conversation, to better understand someone, to be a part of the underworld, or to rub shoulders in the penthouses; these are the most common elements of human drama in film. But there is also the strong desire to understand spaces and cultures that we see that appear foreign or unusual or mysterious but which we know must have some anchor points that we can tie ourselves to in finding a connection. I used to feel a sense of guilt about writing films for this kind of cultural or emotional travel/escape, but slowly I'm approaching the idea that, in trying to make sense of film, what else is there? In such an ephemeral form, skimming across the skin of human lives or glimpsing fragments of intensity amid raucous action or spectacle is all we can really do. If we do this in the same meditative state as you wander or travel, then we can find the moments of connection constructed for us in a way they can never be in the real world.
So, my first fleeting visit to those cricket fights, where I wanted to be in the midst of it, can be delayed for gratification on screen when those same impressions and emotions can be reconstructed but with an insider's knowledge, an intimate glimpse of what exists at those moments, as seen by fictional characters who we've come to invest in. It's the beauty of cinema realism. Where the mysteries of the everyday that we know to be true can be unravelled through the eyes of fictional characters whose very falseness allows us to be agile in what and how we wrestle with life.
Now, just gotta get the cold hard cash and get that flick made...
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Here are some stills from the clip as shot by Stefan Duscio.
The band were very generous in indulging my shameless romanticism and allowing me to weave in a character subplot - beautifully performed by Peter McKew and Allie Webb - but it was intriguing to see how much the location shaped and 'made natural' all the performances, of extras and band alike.
This is the clip:
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
'Signs of Symmetry'
This fragment is, in fact, the first Buoy Archives piece I completed in it's entirety. I have to confess to leaving the temp track that I edited the piece to in place - it's an amazing lingering atmos track by Sonora Pine, the super group made up of members of Rachels, Rodan and June of '44 (who along with The Shipping News and, of course, Slint, inspired much mediocre sea-faring poetry/writing/film stuff on my part). As is often the case, it is hard to abandon the temp track, even in a sketch like this, once the edit is over. I was unable to part with this amazing, haunting piece and hope that Sonora Pine forgive me... They should of course, immediately tell me to fuck it off if they ever chance across it and find it offensive. I am at your service, Sonora Pine.
This piece came about through three strange events. Two were witnessed from the rooftops of the city in which people were seen, alone or as satellites to each other, within the geometries of their own lives. The third was witnessed suring the September 11 (2000, before the date came to have a semiotic life beyond definition) anti-globalisation protests in Melbourne. Over the 3 days of the stand off (and subsequent police brutality, media spin etc. etc.) I was able, at one point, to clamber up to a point, with my Canon814, and film the strange, static stand off between the protesters and the police. A geometry of opposition. There was some later excitement as I was pursued from my position several blocks by some angry cops when, for some retrospectively amusing reason, I fled with defiance, sure I had 'captured' something. They must have been having Zapruder flashbacks watching me film with the super8 while everyone else around was filming the movement of police in the flurry of miniDV cameras that is now the landscape of protest.
I still have a lazy obsession with taking photographs of the ways people inhabit space in solitude. I always think of these clusters of photos as 'geometries' as the subject is usually the arrangement of dead space rather than the subject themselves. Maybe my interest in this also comes from a cowardice or voyeurism that makes it easier to photograph people in these dead moments, or to photograph dead space without humans, rather than look someone in the eye and exchange something meaningful as payment for an image.
Some geometries from recent years:
#1. 'Bastardy', directed by Amiel Courtin-Wilson and produced by Philippa Campey:
#2. 'Last Ride', directed by Glendyn Ivin and produced by Antonia Barnard and Nick Cole
A new post on the epic and brilliant 34 part Qualities of Better Films by Mr Ted Hope.
How can I not love it. The subject is restraint. Earlier, particularly excellent posts have included:
#13 Reality Of Actors; Non-performance, Non-judgement of characters
#21 Subversive of the Status Quo
#23 Respect for the Audience
If you've never come across these before, you can find the whole lot and some other fragments of goodness here.
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
The best part of this is that 'Galore' is set in the outskirts of Canberra, in what they call the Murrumbidgee corridor, in the months leading up to the devastating firestorms of 2003 (something I took a fragmentary look at in my film, imaginatively titled Firestorm). It's an amazing landscape, more like the suburban world of Gus Van Sant or Mike Mills than it is like the outer suburban dramas of Australia (which usually take place in the mythical 'west'), in that it is a floating world of overwatered lawns, bored kids, vast expanses of concrete, working parents, deformed ideas and car culture. And on the edge of all this grey green eucalyptus bushlands. I grew up there. It's amazing through the camera lens.
So, though I'm back there a lot, I went there a while ago to 'be' in the spaces I had scripted around. The location shots I took were more an attempt to get a sense of light and the feel and mood of the unmade film and the sense of space that, in the case of this film, certainly, is vital to the way that the characters live and love and lose.
I'm not sure yet what these kinds of emotional-recce shots reveal of the film, except that I think there has to be a slow, almost unconscious process, of finding the language of the film and this 'be'-ing must help in some way. The difficulty of course, is to find a way to indulge in this process, without constricting or confining and leaving enough room for energy and recklessness once you finally start shooting... and without scaring any of your collaborators off when you say, "sorry, I'm busy, I'm just 'be'-ing... in space... you know?"
The Buoy Archives #11: Favourites
this is The Buoy Archives #15
confession: I have a small obsession with filming apes on super 8. I have a terribly sad 15 minutes of an orangutan in the Melbourne zoo draping his head with a potato sack so he can't see the zoo-goers looking at him. every now and then he looks out with a small glimmer of hope and expectation, sees the zoo-goers gawking and waiting, in their colosseum like anticipation for him to do something, and he drapes the sack back over his head again with an audible sigh. heartbreaking. i did make this into a small flick but it was really too depressing to finish. one day...
so, in the spirit of sketches and drawings and things incomplete and half formed... The Buoy Archives #15: Meditation
Monday, June 1, 2009
The New Model for Indie Film: the ongoing conversation
p.s. he is not actually a cat, just seriously hip. would be something special if he was actually a cat and had still produced all those incredible films... without opposable thumbs.