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Book Review: Six English Filmmakers

Recognize anybody?

Six English Filmmakers by Paul Sutton

(with additional material by Kevin Brownlow, Brian Cox, Bernard Cribbins, Philip Harrison, Jocelyn Herbert, Murray Melvin, Brian Pettifer, Vivian Pickles, Brian Simmons, and Rupert Webster)

Cambridge, UK: Buffalo Books, 2014

Paul Sutton’s Six English Filmmakers is full of stories, and reads as an extended love-letter to a group of directors whose reputations have suffered periodic neglect. While Mike Hodges is still alive (though seemingly retired), most of the filmmakers discussed are now dead. And, while most will agree that Charlie Chaplin is a major figure of world-historical importance, not everyone will recognize the shifting fortunes of directors like Lindsay Anderson, Clive Donner, Ken Russell, and Michael Winner. But, for those of us who have been paying attention to such filmmakers–indeed, to anybody with a specific interest in 1960s and 1970s cinema–Six English Filmmakers will be a welcome addition to the bookshelf.

It should be mentioned from the outset that this isn’t the type of film book that one often sees. Six English Filmmakers isn’t a critical study (after reading it, I don’t think it had given me any strong reasons to change my evaluations of the films discussed). It isn’t a history of the industry, though it does shed plenty of light on the production contexts of specific films, on issues of film censorship, and on the reception of films around the world. It doesn’t offer “close readings” of films, or the kind of shot-by-shot formal analysis that prevails in the age of screen capture (though it does feature plenty of still images, many with choice compositions). It certainly isn’t a work of film theory. Instead, the book focuses on bringing to light new, previously unpublished, obscure, or otherwise unknown facts, images, battles, tales, and anecdotes about many of the films made by the directors in question. Most of this material is revealed in conversations with the collaborators or friends of these directors (or from discussions with the directors themselves) and much is supported by choice primary source documentation. The book’s biggest hurdle is the barrier of entry for the contextual appreciation of its strengths. While never condescending, the book addresses the reader as if they have some knowledge of the life and careers of the featured directors. This probably won’t be anybody’s first book on Chaplin or Anderson. But, for those interested in something new, it will fit the bill. Read more

A Year in Sensation: 10 Cinephiliac Moments

Caveat: I don’t see enough movies to compile a remotely comprehensive or responsible best-of list. I never saw Gravity, Spring Breakers, or The Bling Ring, and, sadly, missed fest-hyped releases A Touch of Sin, Leviathan, Like Someone In Love, etc. What this list catalogs instead are some of my viewing year’s cinephiliac highlights, many of which stem from films released in 2013, with several anachronistic exceptions.

And I should say, I like this better. My default mode of spectatorship tends toward enlargement and fixation; selective, romantic, it preserves images and patterns at plot’s expense, with negligible concern for real-life plausibility. Given all the various aspects of a movie eligible for eye-narrowing critique, it can feel like such pressure to clarify the relations between whether or not I “liked” a film and whether it was (any) good, especially when I prefer to be attentive and grateful for the moment that’s visually interesting or makes affective sense. I loved the Clint Mansell score for The Fountain (2006) years before I came around to a more expansive affection for the film. I still think of the scene in Peter Jackson’s otherwise unremarkable The Lovely Bones when Mark Wahlberg’s Jack Salmon, briefly receptive to his dead daughter’s suggestion, hallucinates the resuscitation of a desiccated rose and so recognizes Tucci’s Harvey as her murderer. That may sound suspiciously random–The Lovely Bones has no place on the map of my preferences, has little to do with what I study or gravitate toward; I probably watched it on cable at my parents’ house. But it’s actually an apt example: often what elicits my strongest response are imaginings of something like recognition or realization–moments when the mental process is rendered not only visible but somehow sensible, and the diegetic concern with what “happens” is temporarily displaced by a spectatorial grasp of what the film is, or hopes to be, about.

I’ve read and heard a lot of back and forth regarding how one might assess whether 2013 was a “great year” for cinema. It was the year I saw the most films alone, like Upstream Color on closing night, and for the first time I taught different simultaneous film courses, frequently fearing I’d allude to Attack the Block in my violence class or reference The Wild Bunch in the seminar in composition (how do people not do this?). Rather than evidencing a great year of cinema, the following, in order of ascending impact, samples from points of this year when cinema felt great, or when I felt cinema “greatly.”[1]

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  1. Forgive the awkward adverb, meant to transfer some focus from the films themselves to the felt viewings, and to make room for instances when a viewing experience was intense but not necessarily positive, as the first entry illustrates. []

Lost/Forgotten/Found #7: Woton’s Wake (1962)

Woton’s Wake; Directed by Brian De Palma; Produced by Cinema d’Arte; Written by Brian De Palma

Brian de Palma is currently enjoying one of his frequent periods of revival and rediscovery. His film Passion (2013) is receiving mixed reviews, with some considering it a return to form (others call it a bankrupt retread). Whatever its quality, this film’s release prompts us to look back. I’ve always been a fan of “early” De Palma, which I consider to be his work up-to-and-including The Phantom of the Paradise (1974). I’m sure that others would periodize it differently. That said, one of his earliest extant fiction films, Woton’s Wake (1962), has always proved elusive. I’d seen The Responsive Eye (1965) and have long admired Murder A La Mod (1968), The Wedding Party (1969), Greetings (1968/1969), and Hi, Mom! (1970). Taken together, these films showcase De Palma at his most cosmopolitan. The Responsive Eye situates his interests as being firmly ensconced within contemporary art worlds (the film investigates the emergence of Op Art). Murder, The Wedding Party, Greetings, and Hi, Mom! are lively, inventive, loose, and political. Put another way, they are the singular creations of a filmmaker who had filtered, processed, and added to the French New Wave, with specific attention to creating a new popular vernacular out of Godard’s sense of formal play. From 1965-1970, De Palma was one of the freshest voices of the New York underground. Maverick enough to eschew the visual logic static Hollywood cinema, he aspired to feature length narratives that drew most of their stylistic cues from the sudden availability of what world cinema–specifically international art cinema–had to offer.

Woton´s Wake, Brian de Palma, 1962 from Csiger Ádám on Vimeo.

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Le Tableau and the World of a Painting

My favorite parts of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) are those moments that lay out and define the parameters of the Toon world. They tell us what is physically possible and socially conventional for the Toons, beings whose corporeality is unthinkable and whose autonomy is questionable. These moments can be revealed in grand spectacles, like the opening sequence– a “live-action” shooting of a cartoon in which all conceptions of Euclidean space are thrown out the window. They can also be revealed as big punchlines, playing on the social expectations of the genres these cartoons emerge from, like when we learn that, for Toons, a lurid extramarital affair can turn out to be a rousing game of patty cake. Or, these moments are revealed in subtle, clever gestures, like when the detective, at a Toon-staffed saloon, orders a scotch “on the rocks,” and then, remembering where he is, yells “I mean ice!” Toons, we intuit from the joke, tend to literalize our metaphors because they can, and the sheer capability of exploding human conventions, of showing us how arbitrary they are, is funny (at least to them).

Handcuffs, we discover, don't work on Roger Rabbit (a fact he can only reveal at the funniest possible moment).

These moments are interesting because they imagine how our artistic creations, still bound by conventions and the limitations of their medium (in this case, children’s cartoons from the Golden Age of American animation), might live autonomously. But these moments, I feel, simply provide a gimmick, a backdrop to a familiar plot-heavy film noir, albeit with a smart, but flawed, allegory for midcentury American race relations. If the majority of the film follows a set of narrative possibilities resulting from the imagination of sentient cartoon figures living and working in show business, I was always more curious about the particular nature of the Toon world’s difference from the real world rather than the dramatic consequences of that difference. That being said, Jean-Francois Laguionie’s Le Tableau (2011) seems to me the film I wanted Roger Rabbit to be. An animated children’s film about the social conflict and existential crises of painted figures living inside an artist’s paintings, Le Tableau never lets go of its interest in the myriad possibilities of its ontologically separate worlds–that is, the worlds within the paintings and the real world outside them. The film seems to be genuinely concerned with how we experience different artistic media–paintings, photographs, films, digital and hand-drawn animation–and persists in its imagination of what constitutes the worlds contained therein. Read more

Seen in Pittsburgh: Room 237 (2012)

Soon after I started using the internet on a consistent basis, I stumbled upon and began exploring IMDb. If I enjoyed a film, I found myself spending time on its page. What were all these little categories off to the left side of the screen? Company credits? Trivia? Technical specs? When I clicked on “Goofs,” I found a listing on various errors in a film: historical inaccuracies, continuity errors, moments when cameras or mics were visible. My initial thought (after, “Man, The Omen (1976) has a lot of mistakes!”) was, “How do people see all this stuff?” If the interviewees in Room 237 (2012) are any indication, they only see it upon obsessive watching, re-watching, reflection, and (sometimes) diagramming.

While The Shining (1980)-obsessed subjects of Room 237 aren’t merely looking for goofs, much of their approach seems to consist of taking what the average IMDb user would consider a goof and turning it into a marker of hidden meaning. So a chair that appears in the background one moment and is absent from the same background in the next doesn’t indicate lazy filmmaking; it indicates Kubrick’s acknowledgment of mass murder. A window that shows up where it’s architecturally impossible for there to be a window doesn’t indicate a set-dresser’s gaffe; it indicates that Kubrick is taking us into an insane character’s state of mind.[1]

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Book Review: To Each His Own Dolce Vita

To Each His Own Dolce Vita by John Francis Lane Cambridge, UK: Bear Claw Books, 2013 Cinephiles of recent vintage may not immediately recognize the name John Francis Lane, but his face will certainly be familiar to devotees of Italian cinema. Lane had supporting roles or cameos in many of the most important Italian films of the 1960s and early 1970s, including Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 ½ (1963), and Roma (1972), and Pasolini’s La Ricotta (1963, a segment of the anthology film RoGoPaG) and The Canterbury Tales (1972). Of course, his experience goes beyond films by internationally renowned auteurs: he also appears in genre fare like Maciste all’inferno (1962, known Stateside as The Witch’s Curse) and Lucky Luciano (1973). But while Lane now has recognition for his participation in these films, it is as a cultural correspondent, journalist, and film critic that he really makes his mark. To Each His Own Dolce Vita is Lane’s memoir of his first 15 years as an English expatriate in Rome, where he was uniquely poised to chronicle the ups and downs of a particularly turbulent period in the Eternal City’s history. Lane was born in Orpington, a suburb of London, but never quite felt comfortable there. Quickly realizing that his ambitions in the arts were not compatible with the regimented austerity of postwar Britain, he left for Paris, where he studied French and film. By 1950, however, he had traveled to Rome, which was to be his material and spiritual home base over the next two decades. By the time of his move, Lane had already contributed to Sight & Sound, and was soon to be appointed the Rome correspondent to Films & Filming, for whom he would cover festivals and the rise of neorealism during the 1950s. Meanwhile, he covered news and celebrity events for the News Chronicle, eventually graduating to more prestigious publications like The Times. He is still active today, writing obituary, memoir and appreciation pieces for The Guardian, many about Italian friends and acquaintances. Read more

Soderbergh Mania! A Side Effects (2013) Double Feature


Side Effects poster art, with added warning

NOTE: Given that Side Effects might be Steven Soderbergh’s last theatrical  feature, two Special Affects contributors, Natalie Ryabchikova and Felipe Pruneda Sentíes, thought they’d do a double post for the occasion, which hopefully will set the stage for an open-ended conversation. Indeed, the conversation is yet to happen, as the following pieces were written independently of one another, so that coincidences and differences will surprise the authors as much as the readers. A piece of advice: if you have not seen the film and don’t want too much information about the story, skip to Natalie’s piece. Otherwise, the plot description in the first piece will prepare you in some ways for the second.

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Soderbergh Mania! – Ocean’s Twelve (2004)

Ocean’s Twelve is about as cool and cosmopolitan as they come. While still beholden to the heist concept of Ocean’s Eleven–though this time, the crew has to get together in order to make monetary amends for their previous job–it expands the canvas, stretching it comfortably, without ripping apart the fabric that made the first film work so well. The largely American cast is expanded to include Welsh (Catherine Zeta-Jones), French (Vincent Cassel) and British (Albert Finney) stars. Their world of opportunity has moved away from the Vegas strip, into the dazzlingly beautiful vistas of Lake Como, the streets of Rome, and the canals of Amsterdam. This time, the explanation for the impossible job is even more unbelievable, yet Soderbergh nicely withholds just the right amount of information to keep things grounded in the warped plausibility that seems natural to the Ocean group.

I watch Ocean’s Twelve several times a year, but I don’t keep revisiting it for the story. While the landscapes and the elliptical style keep my attention, the real star is the film’s soundtrack. When I mention the Ocean’s Twelve soundtrack, people immediately think of the memorably electronic song that accompanies Francois Toulor’s evasive dance through the security laser field. Where Catherine Zeta-Jones’ storied laser scene from Entrapment (1999) had been about maximizing her sensuality, Cassel’s show-stopping scene is meant to suggest the perfection of his body in relation to the impossibility of the job. The music–Nikkfurie’s “The a La Menthe”–corresponds to the random, manic nature of the lasers. It’s worth noting that “The a La Menthe” does not appear on the soundtrack album to the film: an instance in which a film’s most famous music doesn’t get “official” recognition! Despite the omission, the Ocean’s Twelve soundtrack (officially, a CD labelled “Music from the Motion Picture”) remains a bright star indeed. It is part original score, part compilation disc. Read more

Food & Feast (Virtual Version): The Servant (1963)

Tony: Can you cook?

Barrett: Well, it’s… if I might put it this way, sir, cooking is something in which I take a great deal of pride.

Tony: Any dish in particular?

Barrett: Well, my… my soufflés have always received a great deal of praise in the past, sir.

Tony: Do you know anything about Indian dishes?

Barrett: A little, sir.

Tony: Well, I know a hell of a lot.
[Tony sits in the other chair.]
Tony: You’d have to do all the cooking here.

Barrett: That would give me great pleasure, sir.

The above exchange from Joseph Losey’s adaptation of Robin Maughan’s novel The Servant (1963) happens during the first scene, a job interview in which young, posh Tony (James Fox) gets a sense of manservant Barrett’s (Dirk Bogarde) skills to decide if he will hire him. Up to that point, Barrett’s responses have been measured and confidently, fluently delivered. But when cooking is brought up, Barrett begins to pause and repeat himself. Is it his enthusiasm showing through that makes him doubt before speaking? Or are the pauses a liar’s tell, which Tony inevitably misses thanks to his position of aloof superiority? Clearly, such a statement would be easy to confirm – Tony would test its veracity as soon as he has a meal Barrett prepared. Later in the film, Tony is more than pleased with Barrett’s cooking, as he exclaims on several occasions how much he enjoys the latter’s dishes. Yet, as power plays begin between the master and his servant, the viewer has cause to question the quality of Barrett’s culinary talents, even when Tony himself has apparently vouched for them. What matters in the bit above, as well as in the rest of film, is not so much how good Barrett’s cooking is but that it is Barrett who’s doing “all the cooking here.” What the viewer sees is how much agency anyone surrenders to the person who fixes their meals, and how that surrender turns the ability to cook into a frighteningly effective means of dominance. Read more

Book review: Film Curatorship (2008)

Film Curatorship: Archives, Museums, and the Digital Marketplace (2008)
Eds. Paolo Cherchi Usai, David Francis, Alexander Horwath, and Michael Loebenstein

Imagine for a moment that you wanted to build a film museum that would look back at history and also toward the future. How would you define the evolution of “the film experience,” as distinct from what came before and what new image experiences are to come? If you decided to collect new media, how would you separate them? Would you be more devoted to public moving-image viewing or to the technological-aesthetic complex of filmmaking and film projection? Would you allow digital reproductions or define your museum as a museum that only collects works of the “photochemical era”?

This book takes a broad, philosophically inquisitive approach to the above set of questions, in order to educate the public on what it means to curate, preserve and archive various kinds of film/video materials. It is organized as a series of conversations between four curators. The “collective voice” of Film Curatorship thus seeks to avoid conclusive statements and to emphasize the uniqueness of each contributor. This format highlights the diverse spaces in which film curatorship is understood: whether it be a library, archive, or film museum, the sphere of curating entails special problems and parameters. Read more