Sunday, September 28, 2008

Highest Praise: Vertov's Man With the Movie Camera

Since I'm not really interested in deconstructing the body language of presidential candidates, or celebrating the stupidity of an opposing party, I'm going to keep away from overtly political commentary for the moment. It's a sad day when reasoned analysis seems like folly in the face of strategic absurdity, which is currently having an undue influence over public opinion, and I think, for the moment, I'd rather talk about something from 1920 than I would about what's going on right now.

So I saw The Man With The Movie Camera, which is one of the greatest films you've never heard of. It clocked in at number 95 on the 1000 greatest films ever made, which I think shortchanges it a bit... among the silent films I've seen, it's been by far the most interesting. Battleship Potemkin was ranked at number 49, a full fifty places ahead, and it seems to me that Potemkin, made only four years earlier, had hardly an iota of the formal and artistic complexity of Man With the Movie Camera.

Part of the reason Man With the Movie Camera is such an artistic feat is that it seems formally and semantically deliberate, right down to the core. Its complexity never seems like the accident of experimentation, perhaps because it was created within a very clear conceptual framework. This framework is what you might call the theory of pure montage, the attempt to use juxtaposition and parallel alone to create meaning, rather than using narrative continuity and the invisible cut. Battleship Potemkin's experiments with montage were within a framework of telling a story, which was itself in service to reinforcing an ideology. Eisenstein's montage was conceived as a means to an end, and thus it wasn't able to reach its full potential as a craft in itself.

Vertov's stated mission, to purge film of the conventions of literature and theater, is evident in practice in Man With the Movie Camera, and this allows the film to act as a complex, 75-minute wireframe that can in turn be analyzed in parts, as a series of sub-montages, and together, as a meta-montage. The levels of parallelism are almost limitless... the parallel between the mechanisms of the city and the engineering of the human body, the association between the window, the eye, and the lens, the parallel drawn between narrative fiction and slumber (i.e. bourgeousie laziness), the references to the substructure of labor and the superstructure of urban life, the stories of awareness of the camera, both ours as the audience and the citizens' as the subject of the lens, the flocking and unfolding of urban populations, including both birds and humans, and the comparison of sewing of clothes and sealing of fingernails to the stitiching and developing of the director's film. These are just the first observations I can think of, a few isolated cases in a wellspring of concepts.

It's strange that this film came so long before those theories that seem to describe it. Postmodernism is so often cited as a post-World War II phenomenon, but this film is a shining predecessor to the postmodern obsession with spectacle and representation. Man With the Movie Camera makes a compelling attempt to contain and represent itself, and in its tentative success, it prefigures all those partial successes of postmodern ideas to bring recursive framing to culture. This is an ideologically-specific film depicting the construction of its own substance, which is a pseudo-narrative of a cameraman making a film whose subject is an ideological culture struggling to free itself from the anesthetisizing conventions of narrative... the signifiers can be drawn out almost ad infinitum. Why hasn't Derrida written about this? He's much better at creating clever grammatical sequences than I am.

This film also predates Marshall McLuhan by about a lifetime and a half, and yet it seems to speak directly to McLuhan's ideas about the power of media and the nature of content. The sequence with the seamstresses, carrying out their craft on the human body, is shown in parallel with a sequence on the film developing and editing process, which shows the craft behind the scenes of film, preparing images for mass consumption. Vertov seems to realize that a cosmetic procedure, carried out on the body, is no less a "medium" than a film, whose content is those unrefined images captured on journeys through Soviet Russia. At the same time, he seems to be making the reverse connection, as well: just as clothing and cosmetic services are forms of production, so the information-refining processes of capturing and editing images are forms of intellectual production, and this film, contained within its metafilm, is the product whose value is to be found in its refinement.

I have the urge to claim that the film is about man and his relationship with technology, which defines his culture and his ideology from the bottom up. However, that would be an unfair reduction of an infinitely complex, ambiguous film. The hypnotic rhythm, and intuitive order, and the deceptively complex conceptual framework... these all fit together to create one of the most important films in history, and one of my favorites among all the cinema I've seen.

So you should check it out.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Hitchcock: Theories on The Birds and Psycho

Since my last list of films, I've seen a few others... Renoir's Rules of the Game, Port of Shadows, Fellini's 8 1/2, Murnau's Nosferatu, and most recently, two essential Hitchcock films that I'd never seen: The Birds and Psycho. I've focused my viewing habits a bit more in order to attend to seminal works of European and American popular film, and I've discovered some interesting trends. For instance, it seems to me that European film naturally groups itself into movements, often nationalistic and stylistic (Italian Neorealism, Poetic Realism, German Expressionism, etc) whereas American cinema organizes itself into genres that are specifically semantic and topical in nature (film noir, Western, horror). This is probably worthy of another blog post in the future; however, for today, I'd like to reflect on those Hitchcock films.

Hitchcock's experimentation with sound is among the most cosmetic, but the most striking, of the innovations appearing in these two films. I've seen three wildly different approaches to music in Hitchcock: in Psycho, the music was essential to the mood, and some extended scenes... like Marion's long drive to the Bates Motel... were entirely dependent upon the soundtrack. The music goes far beyond the famous screeching violins, and sets the unbalanced, trembling tone for the whole film. In The Birds, there is no music, which is one of the most unsettling aspects. This is not a movie about humans and their need for order and aesthetics, after all, and the lack of a soundtrack highlights the alien character of the natural world which envelopes them and threatens them with its tempraments. In Rear Window, which I saw a year or so ago, there is a soundtrack, but it's always created within the scene (i.e. diegetic music). I'm not going to focus on this film, but I thought it worth mentioning, since it's a third example of an experiment in audio-visual synergy.

The soundtrack for Psycho is perfectly suited to the tone of the film. In the key scenes, Hitchcock spends his time bringing us into the psychological space where Norman Bates resides, and the film's interiors represent this. Apparently Zizek hypothesized that the three levels of Bates' home represented his superego, ego, and id, respectively. This draws attention more generally to the fact that this was a film of interiors, and especially of the interior of Bates' mind. We spend some of the early scenes in Marion's head, where she hears the voices of her acquaintances as they decide how to pursue her. However, through most of the film, we're so close to Bates, and so involved with his anxiety and his complexes, that we're essentially seeing through his eyes, albiet with some contextual omnipresence added for effect.

What does this have to do with the soundtrack? Simply that the jarring violins and cellos were well-suited to representing an unbalanced mental space. The presence of music sets a mood and an atmosphere, and even a personality, within the space of the film, and this particular soundtrack played as a struggle to bring order to world that's ultimately drowned in anxiety and fear. This is Norman's soundtrack: his world is always at a slight tilt, jarring and uneven, and Bernard Herrmann's music is maddeningly effective.

The Birds feels a lot different, and represents something very different, and the difference in soundtracks indicates one of the basic contrasts between the films. In The Birds, there is no overriding consciousness to bring order to the strange events of the world, so there is no predictability and no explanation... no shrink detective appears at the end, explaining the phenomenon that made the birds attack the residents of the Bay. The clientelle of the diner offer a few tentative explanations, but these all seem woefully inadequate in the face of the simple physical facts of the attack. There is no solution, because there isn't even a plausible explanation, whether from science, or from religion, or from paranoia.

In this world, the human mind is no longer central, but peripheral to the unfolding events of the film. Music is no longer appropriate, because music is an ordering of the biological -- rhythm, harmonic melody, and atmosphere -- according to the patterns of consciousness, and in the hostile natural world that's overtaken Bodega Bay, there is no place for the metanarrative of the human mind. The characters are left to improvise and flounder, and their attempts to attribute any rationality to their environment are always in vain.

In fact, even the audience is left to struggle in vain with the problem of explanation. John McCombe points this out in the Spring 2005 Cinema Journal in his article on The Birds and English Romanticism... he says, "the viewer attempts to construct a cause for the violent attacks by these normally passive birds." This was true, at least for me, through the whole film -- though I didn't hope to find a clear, scientific/symbolic/rational explanation for the attacks, I kept searching for a running theme that could drive an interpretation. Was there a certain time, a certain symbol, or a certain object that united the attacks? Like the characters, I was left looking for some transcendental motive in nature's hostility, and like the characters, I was unsuccessful.

I felt that among the three explanations offered by the diner customers, the most plausible was the one offered by the paranoid mother, who suggested that Melanie was cursed. I wouldn't say that she was evil, per se... but she seemed cursed, almost from the outset of the film. The first on-record bird attacks were both in her vicinity, and toward the end of the film, when the attacks had started to make the news, the announcer noted that they were still centered around Bodega Bay. This isn't the whole world of nature going insane -- this is one small part of California, reacting negatively to bad energy, and some indicators point to Melanie as the source.

What could Melanie have done to earn the wrath of the natural world? Perhaps it has to do with her interest in overturning established orders, pulling pranks, invading a small town, and disrupting a tense maternal relationship. Maybe Lydia is a witch, or her anxiety is resonating through the natural world. Maybe, because she imprisoned the love birds, and because her own disposition is light and avian, Melanie has been chosen as nature's Pariah, a sacrifice to make up for humanity's petty fascist crimes.

It's worth further investigating the relationship between Psycho and The Birds, and I suspect that some theorist may have done this already. Mitch is no Norman Bates, but in a sense, his relationship with his real mother is reflective of Norman's relationship with his moralizing, internalized "mother" personality. If we continue along this line of logic, we discover that Melanie is like Marion, or like one of the girls who Norman murdered: a threat to a strained, controlling maternal relationship, an instigator throwing off the family's Oedipal balance. If this is truly her role, and if (as the previous paragraphs suggest) Melanie is actually the birds' target, then their wrath could be read as the reincarnated anger of Bates' mother, embodied in the same birds that preoccupy her son Norman.

And when this anger leaves Norman's head and enters the world, it's no longer contained in the jarring, pathological order of the violins and cellos... instead, it becomes a force that's disembodied, unstoppable, and unsettlingly silent.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Woody Allen's Vicky Christina Barcelona as a fable of stability

I've never really seen any classic Woody Allen. There's a specific reason for that: given what I've heard of the director, and the few clips of his movies that I've seen, I felt like I'd already gotten the point. Woody Allen is a neurotic, effete New York intellectual who spends his movies meditating on love's confusions, usually in the form of an autobiographical monologue and a few anecdotal incidents. This is a fair project for an artist with a vision, but it's not something I feel the need to attend to.

Even so, I caught Match Point not too long ago, and I definitely enjoyed it. Woody Allen really knows the aesthetic he's working with, and he knows the subtlety of intimacy and attachment. The touch of crime drama, with its uncertainty and suspense, was enough to keep me engaged in the narrative. I've recently seen Vicky Christina Barcelona, and I have a sense that I've experienced all that stuff I was missing.

Vicky Christina Barcelona is a film about a pair of friends who spend a summer in Barcelona, exploring and negotiating their very different approaches to romance. The two title characters, and all the characters they encounter, are molded to fairly common stereotypes, and this may be one of the first weaknesses of the film. Vicky is the stable skeptic, prudent and attached, and Christina is the fickle lover, obsessed with her freedom and her self-image. These two may both fit archetypal roles, but at the very least, their archetypes are explored in the course of the film.

Vicky and Christina's counterparts... the latin lovers Juan Antonio and Maria Elena... are carved from pure stereotype. They're the idealized, romanticized Spaniards, poetic and sensitive, confident, artistically gifted and sexually free. They come across as basically flawless, though in two very different ways. Was Woody Allen conscious of his lack of subtlety? Was he using them as icons of an American stereotype, instead of trying to develop them as characters?

I guess, in terms of the story, there's actually something to this role-affirming characterization. Like so many films, Vicky Christina Barcelona is about personalities striving to evolve and individuals trying to transgress their own limits. Like Shrek trying to break out of his cynicism, or Harold Crick struggling to break free of his predetermined lifestyle, Vicky and Christina are both facing the possibility of breaking through their own limits. Vicky finds her commitment shaken by a new infatuation, and Christina finds herself in a romantic situation that might convince her to finally settle down.

The difference between Shrek and Stranger Than Fiction, referenced above, and Vicky Christina Barcelona, is that in the latter, these transgressions fail miserably. Essentially, this film is about two identities that are challenged, but ultimately confirmed by those challenges. The latin couple's erotic allure almost overturns both Vicky's and Christina's self-appointed roles, but ultimately, they're too volatile for Vicky and too stable for Christina. The two protagonists finally return to themselves and go on living their self-images. Presumably, these roles are enough for them, and both go on to live happily.

You may have noticed that at the end of Vicky Christina Barcelona, nothing has changed. Nobody has gone through a great self-discovery, except to reaffirm their previous decisions, and nobody's life has drastically changed course. Vicky's relationship with the lovable Doug is saved, and even the capricious Christina seems stable in her transience. Juan Antonio and Maria Elena are still the same violent, creative couple, vascillating between love and hate, but we never expected them to change in the first place... they were just a sounding-board for the identities of the other two characters.

Anthony Burgess actually commented on this in his introduction to A Clockwork Orange, wherein he explained the significance of his final chapter: "When a fictional work fails to show change, when it merely indicates that human character is set, stony, unregenerable, then you are out of the field of the novel and into that of the fable or allegory." In this sense, then, Vicky Christina Barcelona is a fable, rather than a "novel" (still comparing it to literature). This makes it an interesting exercise, but perhaps less interesting as a film... a fable of romantic and sexual self-affirmation, where we may find the characters compelling, but where the opening monologue tells us all we need to know about them.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Amelie and Eternal Sunshine: Deconstructing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl

I'm excited whenever I see smart, useful film criticism emerge from the orgy of popular commentary, and when it comes to film, The Onion AV Club is one of the more reliable sources for good ideas. In a recent article on Elizabethtown, Nathan Rabin coined the term "Manic Pixie Dream Girl," which he describes thusly:

"Dunst embodies a character type I like to call The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (see Natalie Portman in Garden State for another prime example). The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family."

This is good, solid criticism, the type of thoughtful generalization that can be applied across a broad range of films (as the AV Club does again later). The MPDG archetype is a lot like the Magical Negro archetype, which I've written about before. She embodies something that our culture subconsciously idolizes and holds sacred, and just as the Magical Negro gives us some insight into our racial stereotypes, so the MPDG gives us some insight into our gender stereotypes.

I want to touch on the MPDG in two movies... not to criticize them for their stereotypes, but to praise them for their deconstruction. These are Amelie and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Both films are widely praised as thoughtful, well-written films, but it's hard to say what exactly works about them. I think their unconventional treatment of the MPDG is at least one thing that both have going for them.

In Eternal Sunshine, Clementine starts the film as the essential MPDG. When Joel, reserved self-hating male, feels inspired to do something spontaneous and go to Montauk, she appears magically on a train, beckoning to him. They share an inexplicably intense afternoon (the traces of their former relationship, it turns out) and Joel finds himself beginning to loosen. Clementine is the inspiration for the blossoming of his personality in the Long Island winter snow.

However, as we dig into the chronology of the story, we start to see glimpses of this MPDG-driven relationship, and where it's taken them before. The second key scene, developing their emotional dynamic, is their fight in early 2004. In this scene, Clementine's absence and irreverence prompt Joel to air his grievances with the relationship, and we discover, to our surprise, that those free-spirited qualities that drew Joel to Clementine in the first place have started to wear on him. For Joel, her attractive sexual confidence has started to seem like lust and manipulation, and her spontaneity has threatened his own sense of stability.

This is, in a sense, a critique of the male investment in the MPDG. She may fulfill the male's fantasy of sex and happiness for a short time, but eventually the idealization will fade away, and the disillusioned man will be left with a real person, whose quirks may occasionally become less than endearing. By putting Clementine on a pedestal, Joel has doomed himself to disappointment and resentment... all she wants is to be treated like a real person, flawed and uncertain.

Amelie takes the stereotype and places it at yet another angle. Jeunet's 2001 film is about a girl who undertakes the mission of disrupting the lives of everyone around her, always in innocent ways, in order to make them reevaluate their lives. In some cases it works, and in some it doesn't.

Amelie Poulain is the perfect MPDG. She is friendly, lovable, and spontaneous, looking for intimacy, and bringing a sense of playful disorder to her surroundings. She only breaks the MPDG stereotype in one way: the MPDG is always a secondary character with a one-dimensional inner life, whereas Amelie is the primary protagonist, living out a personal history and chasing her desires. She is the MPDG of so many other movies, but in this little masterpiece, we are seeing the world through her eyes.

Is Nino the reserved male pseudo-protagonist to Amelie's MPDG? Perhaps... he spends a good deal of the film enduring a job he doesn't like and pursuing an introverted hobby to the ends of the earth. When Amelie starts leaving him clues as to her whereabouts and identity, he is eager to engage in her game. However, he doesn't have Jeunet's spotlight. In this spotlight, we find Amelie, and we discover certain intricacies of character that we wouldn't see in a conventional MPDG film.

In particular, Jeunet's camera shows us that Amelie loves to bring disorder to the world around her, but that her quirky hobbies are actually almost a form of self-sacrifice. She spends so much time trying to disrupt the lives of her friends that she hasn't taken the time to look for a love of her own. Her mysterious romance with Nino is her first attempt to take control of her own life, rather than disrupting others' control of theirs. In a sense, this is what every MPDG does: she sacrifices her own desires in order to be a vehicle in others' stories. She has positive influence, but she has no motive.

Amelie is the MPDG who decides to do something for herself, and by doing so, she discovers that she is a genuine agent in her own story, rather than simply a device in somebody else's.