Friday, February 20, 2009

MY WINTER OF EUROPEAN ART FLICKS - introduction


Dear Movie Feast crew:

OK, first off, let met state that I am using these letters to work out some thoughts I have about my own development into a filmmaker. Thus, they will often reflect back to the work I am doing to prepare my first feature. Secondly, my absence from the DVDVR Movie Club; I spent the past year just "finding myself" and "working through personal issues" before I quit my job in early January and moved to Philadelphia into a house with 4 other bros. I don’t have a room; I have a corner with a sheet hanging up to make a “wall”. Have you guys ever tried to get laid in a sheet room? It doesn’t happen. Or it hasn’t yet (fingers crossed!) Hope springs eternal. Mostly because soon I’ll be moving out of here and into a warehouse where I’m going to set up my film studio and start to stage theatrical productions and get my friends’ bands to play shows. So things are looking up. Also, I’m applying for work as a nude model. Have you ever seen a picture of me? I look like every other fat, nearsighted guy who listens to stoner rock (big beard, Buddy Holly glasses, black t-shirts, etc): which is not necessarily bad, it’s just not what art students want to draw, or at least not what I think that art students want to draw. But draw me they shall, and I see this as a way of working out some body image issues (EWW I AM GROSS) and becoming more comfortable in my own skin. It seems fitting, then, that I have been watching pretty much just European films this winter, what with their graphic content and people having nervous breakdowns and finding themselves spiritually/sexually/emotionally and whatever else usually happens in French movies. I have been watching movies for years, but how is it that I had never seen a Fellini film before Christmas? Why was the only Bertolucci film I’d seen THE DREAMERS (2003)? I loved Bergman but what of fellow Swedes, Sjoman and Alfredson? What is wrong with me?

Wintertime always makes me want to watch Bergman flicks, but somehow I’ve resisted the urge thus far. But soon, I’m going to be introducing PERSONA (1966) to my muse who I am writing a film with, a pretty young thing who has a twin and thus will star in my first feature production. The film centers around two young twin sisters, one of whom becomes pregnant. Problems arise when the twin who got knocked up doesn’t start showing, and the fetus is somehow transferred over to the other twin. It’s a horror flick (consider (always!) the source) so I’ve been showing the one twin whom I'm writing with a short history of the two sub-genres we’re working in: the pregnant-woman-in-peril picture, and the spooky-twins-get-spookier picture. DEAD RINGERS (Cronenberg, 1988), firmly in the second camp, was one of the first things we watched as research, but that’s Canadian (like half the writing staff on this site) so it doesn’t really count as European. Or does it? But A ZED AND TWO NAUGHTS (Greenaway, 1985) is British, which I think is considered European, and it inspired DEAD RINGERS, so that warrants a discussion of the two. What’s interested to me most about ZED is the use of symmetry, the exquisite nature of the utterly-balanced compositions. The only other film that I’ve ever seen with this level of attention paid to symmetry is FANNY AND ALEXANDER (Bergman, 1982), where it felt sort of contrived or gimmicky. It felt much more natural in A ZED… due to Greenaway’s obsession with symmetry in nature. He tracks the entire evolution of the human species and details why humans have always equated symmetry with beauty. It is because humans are bipedal creatures. We have two arms, two legs, two eyes. Split us in half and we are symmetrical. This has informed our architecture, the way we develop cars, the way that we seem deadset committed to the idea of relationships being one man and one woman; everything. Greenaway understands the human drive to develop symmetry, and knows that humans are essentially dualistic in nature. There is the mind-body split, which Cronenberg details in the documentary LONG LIVE THE NEW FLESH (Postma, 1986). The theory which I am developing, and will posit in my first feature, and probably later in doctoral studies, is that human beings ultimately crave symmetry, and when things happen that do not mesh with our cause-effect nature of rational thinking, this results in anxiety, depression, and any number of strange, “psychotic” behaviors. The best way to think of this is death/life. Humans live and love living, but we are also genetically hard-wired with the knowledge that we will die one day. We cannot reconcile this apparent contradiction of terms. Greenaway explores this relationship and utilizes balanced compositions to illustrate visually his point. I’ve watched ZED twice over the past couple months, and it keeps popping up in my thoughts. There are several sequences of visceral horror, but I wouldn’t really say this is a horror film per se. Same with DEAD RINGERS (save for the scene with Claire chewing the placenta connecting Bev and Ellie; but that was a dream sequence, and it was all of two or three seconds long). Cronenberg never takes the concept of symmetry in the same direction that Greenaway does, but that’s because they were ultimately making different movies. Just the same, there is a line drawn between these two films, a line which Cronenberg verbally confirms. I shall continue that line, from the UK to Canada to backwoods Pennsylvania.

What else? I saw CONTEMPT (Godard, 1963) for the first time. I watched this right after WEEKEND (1967) and completely fell in love with Godard. I had only seen BREATHLESS (1960) before this and, honest injun? I was a little bit disappointed. Maybe the influence is just lost on me (I haven’t watched too much film noir, nor many films before the 70s in general) but I had worried that his work was all going to feel so stale. Then I saw WEEKEND, which was the cinematic equivalent of a suckerpunch. I didn’t see it coming! I was taken completely off-guard, not at all prepared for the cannibalism or the seething socialist rants or the traffic jam. The traffic jam! But this is about CONTEMPT, which I found to be completely riveting in its own right. I watched 8 ½ (Fellini, 1963) which deals with similar problems in the filmmaking process and the issues associated with creative expression and fidelity. I was deliriously tired and stoned when I watched these, and they both sort of meld together for me as a result. The holidays inevitably turn into one three week long bender for me, despite my protestations that, no, this year it will be different, damnit! at the beginning of every December.

I watched THE CONFORMIST (Bertolucci, 1970) at around the same time, and found this material much more intriquing. I can appreciate and love the work of Fellini, but he's ultimately too stuck in his own head and talks too much about movies for me. Ditto Godard. I realize that this is reductionist and that I've yet to see most of these guys' movies. But so what, I can think what I want, and I know that Tarantino was heavily influenced by Godard's snarky way of pointing out that you're watching a movie. Tarantino just couldn't find a smart way of doing it, and so he has his characters talk about movies and then steals entire sequences from as many different genres as possible. And this has lead us to Eli Roth and Rob Zombie and all the others whose derivative work has bombarded the multiplex in recent years. Which is fine. To each his own cinema. But what we've arrived is is seemingly an entire generation of filmmakers whose interest lie only in films. They have allowed movies to infiltrate every part of their lives. I can understand this, and I too view the entire world through the filter of movies. They're magic. But magic isn't reality and it's not the entire world, and I think it's possible to make movies that reference the past in new and interesting ways. Consider Greenaway's method in A ZED... where he makes one of the twins an amatuer photographer who shoots time-lapse footage of animals decomposing. This is, for all intents and purposes, a film, as it shows, in a literal sense, just what films actually are: still images showed in a certain sequence and sped up to create the illusion of movement. The other twin sits and stews in a private viewing room, ruminating on the death of his wife while viewing film strips documenting the entire course of human evolution. The twins, thus, represent both viewer and filmmaker.

BLOW-UP (Antonioni, 1968) also allows the photographer to stand in for the film director. BLOW-UP’s photographer is a misogynistic bastard who directs and arranges compositions of female models, oblivious to their personalities or feelings or thoughts. Cronenberg’s used a similar method in DEAD RINGERS, whereby film direction is referenced indirectly (har har) through one twin’s “direction” of Claire, instructing her in what to wear, how to position herself, etc. Thus Cronenberg makes a point about how males always have dictated what is feminine, what is beautiful, and how the two overlap. But Cronenberg isn’t European! Antonioni is, and I got lost in BLOW-UP, which was my third or fourth viewing of the film, depending upon if you could times when you listen to a commentary track while doing other things as “viewing” (I do). BLOW-UP is one of my absolute favorites. I love David Hemmings off-kilter performance, so subdued that you barely notice or remember the off-kilter parts (him taking the big steps up the stairs in the park, him making weird faces while driving away from the two young girls). I love the entire sequence in the park, the leaves rustling in the tress. I love (yes) the arrangement of the breathtakingly gorgeous women that he photographs. I love, lastly, Antonioni, and am starting to introduce my friends to him as we gear up to start producing our own films. I have been drawn to ‘net criticism and message boards and blogs because I lack an outlet for my more analytical thoughts on film in my everyday life. I have not attended film school and I never will. I’m not a movie critic by trade, and most of my conversations with friends about films barely extend past “Oh yeah, that movie was cool”. So I want to change this, to bring my previously internet-based musings on cinema into my real life. This duality is interesting to me; perhaps, Movie Feast, we should all develop a group project on the subject of real versus message board identities, and the relationships that develop as a result of these interactions? It could make an interesting movie, perhaps. But I’ve rambled enough. I’ll have further correspondence now that I’ve figured out how to sign in and write new posts for you guys. Until then, I remain, ever faithfully, warmly, yours,

Travis L. Martin

4 comments:

Ash said...

If you're going to have sex in the sheet room, make sure the rest of the house is unoccupied; otherwise, you threaten a transgression that will leave everyone involved forever changed.

I feel like I should finally get off my ass and watch BLOW-UP and A ZED AND TWO NAUGHTS. I'm not sure what's stopped me--fear of boredom?--but I've never sat down to them, despite oggling their covers at the video store again and again.

Good to have you on board. It sounds like you've got a lot on your plate. I just started my PhD studies as well, and I barely have enough spare time to get a haircut, so the prospect of putting on plays and producing a film sounds daunting.

"But what we've arrived is is seemingly an entire generation of filmmakers whose interest lie only in films. They have allowed movies to infiltrate every part of their lives."
This is, of course, one way postmodernism has been defined--the reference of our art is no longer real life (no matter how transfigured that art might be), but other art. Trapped in representation, as it were. Some people aren't bad at it--I accept the notion that Tarantino, in something like KILL BILL, is 'quoting', pulling from different sources to make something new. Part of me accepting that stems from the fact that his finished product, in that case, is almost certainly superior (if not as original) as those films it is derived from.

Oddly enough, I was recently discussing "The Picture of Dorian Gray," and in it the character of Lord Henry (generally assumed to be a surrogate for Wilde) puts forth the idea that real life only has meaning to us when it's most like art (and not vice-versa). As counter-intuitive as this might seem, it strikes me as intrinsically true. Real life is random, largely irrational, and (though we don't like to admit it) full of non sequiturs, the entirely unexplainable, and boredom. Art, no matter how "unreal," always makes a certain amount of sense that real life doesn't. That's why our memories always take on the form of narratives, etc. We can understand events in our life much better if they line up with a referent from art, which helps to explain it. It's quite sinister, if you think about it, and it also puts a lot of power in the hands of the artist.

"perhaps, Movie Feast, we should all develop a group project on the subject of real versus message board identities, and the relationships that develop as a result of these interactions?"
This serves to remind me that I'm the only one still using a pseudonym. Something about the idea of my students being able to google me and discovering that I like to review exploitation films fills me with trepidation.

travis said...

Well, I'm just going to be starting my master's this summer; the PhD won't be for a couple more years and at least one more relocation. what are you pursuing your doctorate in?

"This is, of course, one way postmodernism has been defined--the reference of our art is no longer real life (no matter how transfigured that art might be), but other art."

Something interesting that I read recently from Marshall McLuhan (and maybe I'm butchering his ideas but I'm new to them and they are still a little beyond me I think) deals with the idea of art and confining "space" within a frame. we build a house with a frame and thus can consider the space inside the frame enclosed. This is a sort of art. He then goes on to say that by way of electronic media, we have satellites orbiting the earth, for all intents and purposes thus confining the entire world to an enclosed space, with information being fed constantly from earth to satellite. We have already transformed life into art by enclosing all space with it; most people just aren't familiar with what sort of way we've done it. This is maybe sort of related to what you were saying.

"This serves to remind me that I'm the only one still using a pseudonym."

This serves to remind me that you're much, much smarter than I am. the level of discourse at this blog seems vastly superior to that at the DVDVR! I'm encouraged.

Doug Tilley said...

I'm heartened that the intelligence level of the folks around here is so high, and that we can a serious discourse about these topics.

Then I remember that i'm watching a movie called Nightmare Asylum which features sixty minutes of people playing around in organ meat and it makes me want to cry.

Ash said...

Travis, I'm getting my PhD in English. My primary interests are 20th century fiction (actually, post WWII fiction), and though I'm quite interested in literature from all over the world, I'll probably end up being an Americanist. I'm a big fan of Theory as well. My MA thesis (which is online, if anyone's interested) was on the problem of authenticity in Philip K. Dick's novels (especially "High Castle" and "Androids"), but lately I've been working on representations of violence and sex in literature (and to a certain extent film).

While I'm familiar with McLuhan, my knowledge of his work is almost entirely second hand--reading a lot of people who have been influenced by him, rather than the man himself. He's notoriously difficult to understand. Even if what you said wasn't his point, it's fascinating nonetheless.

Also, what you said about WEEKEND in your write up also puts that film on the list.