Thursday, September 4, 2008

Piercing the Realm of Glamour


Experimental filmmaking has a lineage that goes back to the starting point of the medium. Those first Georges Melies shorts, devoid of story but rich in cinematic fantasy, could be said, in a stretch, to be the first experimental movies. In fact, non-narrative moviemaking has been around long enough and produced enough variety that the terminology itself has expanded to define the different sub-genres within the catch-all phrase "experimental filmmaking" or "abstract filmmaking." Maya Deren made Avant-Garde films (a generic catch-all term in and of itself) , Michael Snow made Structural films and Luis Bunuel worked in Surrealist Cinema.

The Avant-Garde and Surrealist movements in Experimental filmmaking took hold until Michael Snow's Wavelength brought the structuralist movement into the forefront. With new artists jumping into the fray regularly, the structuralist film has expanded greatly in the forty years since Michael Snow made Wavelength. Structuralist film is defined by P. Adams Sitney as employing fixed camera positions (the camera can zoom but it remains in place), strobe effects, rephotography (showing photographs of the same subject at different times or intervals within the film) and looping, wherein the same scenes or shots are repeated many times throughout.

This is all well and good but if I may, some abrupt questions: Can any of this be enlightening or entertaining? Is it worthwhile to make a film that has no story, at least no discernibly narratively composed story of characters and dialogue? Do people watch Wavelength for fun? Why am I going on about this anyway?

I don't have concrete answers to all of those questions but I do know why I'm going on about it. I'm going on about it because last weekend the Cinema Styles staff (myself, my wife and our youngest) took in The Cinema Effect, currently on exhibit at the Hirschorn Museum in Washington, D.C. and coming to an end this Sunday (and through sheer coincidence so did Nathaniel of The Film Experience - here's his take)

The exhibition has the works of 19 experimental filmmakers in a multi-staged exhibit that one must weave through, picking and choosing what to sit and watch (unless one has hours and hours to spare). As the New York Times review says, "Fatigue may set in by the second half of the show, which is unfortunate, because this section features several installations of dizzying structural complexity. Among them are Isaac Julien’s sweeping multi-screen projection 'Fantome Creole' ..." I couldn't agree more.

As I walked through the exhibit watching snippets of this film here and shots from that film there it was Isaac Julien's Fantome Creole that stopped me dead in my tracks. Projected on four screens and filmed in the arid region of Burkina Faso and the arctic region of Iceland the film follows two people (Vanessa Myrie and Stephen Galloway) as they wander through these landscapes, never interacting with one another or anyone around them. In between we see townspeople, beaches, waterfalls, hallways and ruins. Occasionally everything stops and faces of the "characters" in the movie appear, staring at us for several seconds. The effect is unnerving.

For the most part, the camera is fixed, shots are re-used and images from different vantage points and times are employed. I didn't notice much of a strobe effect (although at the end there is "light show" effect, so to speak) but all in all it's a fine example of a Structural Experimental film. And despite the rather dry description given in the above paragraph, it's captivating. Why? I really couldn't tell you. What's the film about? I don't care. You read that correctly, I don't care.

Here's a short description of the film on Isaac Julien's website. If you're anything like me that description will send you running and screaming for the exit. Go ahead, click on it and read it. It's a doozy (implied interiority!??!?). Here's the thing, I despise anti-intellectualism and am constantly dismayed at what I view as the dumbing down of our culture by elevating the pedestrian to the desirable social status and diminishing the culturally urbane to the status of social pariah. But I'm just as annoyed with pseudo-intellectualism and that description smacks of it. I don't know if Julien approves the copy for the website or if someone does it for him but my suggestion is scrap the flowery descriptions and the purple prose and let the film speak for itself.

And Fantome Creole does speak for itself, boldly. It proves once again that the right images and juxtapositions orchestrated by the right director can be entrancing. I have my own meaning that I drew from those images and different viewers will perceive different meanings than I did. But despite a lack of standard narrative I never had a feeling I was watching randomly placed images on a screen. I felt, and knew, I was watching a story. I wasn't sure what the story was at first, but I knew upon further viewing and later reflection that the cracks would be filled in. To me that's the sign of a filmmaker in control of his art and I look forward to more work from Julien in the future. I'm glad I got to see Fantome Creole and if it's ever on exhibit at an art museum near you I highly recommend going to see it.

So why does Experimental Film get such a bad rap? Most would point to its excesses (Empire, Sleep) but every genre has excesses. Every genre has greatness and mediocrity and garbage. Experimental is no different. And yet, I avoid it myself. Fantome Creole is a film with which, had I only read the description on the website, I would have said, "Thanks but no thanks," and I would've missed something special. Having now seen it and enjoyed it I may still have the same reaction to future experimental films. Why? I have my own personal answer to that.

For me personally, and despite my build-up about avoiding them, I believe experimental forms of filmmaking within the mainstream have become ubiquitous. They're no longer viewed as something special or unique. Whereas several decades ago one would have to turn to an experimental film to see wild fantastical images juxtaposed sinisterly with the mundane now every other CGI summer movie does just that (Speed Racer, The Incredibles). Or how about going to experimental film because it was the only place for quiet rumination and insight into the human psyche that standard narrative films couldn't provide? That too happens in the mainstream now, perhaps not as financially successful as the summer fare, but it does occur (Cache, Mulholland Drive). And so purely experimental filmmaking seems superfluous, or worse, antiquated. And somewhat elitist. I found myself thinking throughout The Cinema Effect exhibit, "I've seen this idea done better on YouTube." Yes, YouTube. But the folks uploading their home made experimental films on YouTube don't have the grants or financial backers to get their movies made on 16 or 35 mm film and shown at an international exhibit.

Experimental film feels unnecessary now but it's not. It's all around us. We're not avoiding it, we're consuming it every day on television, the internet and the cinema. To make a point of going to see something that has been so thoroughly integrated into everything else as a stand alone event feels redundant now to many people. It's true, I would've missed something special by not seeing Fantome Creole but I've also seen some amazing work on the internet and a part of me feels that the internet work deserves my attention more because it's done by filmmakers and artists just trying to get noticed. In fact, I find myself retreating more and more from big screen cinema and exploring the rarities and lost classics that DVD and the internet offer.

In the end, experimental film is alive and well. It has successfully assimilated the mainstream into its way of thinking, a clever trick that. It's imagery, at one time disturbing and mysterious, has now been made acceptable in the Hollywood Realm of Glamour. And while it may seem superfluous in this sensory overloaded age of integrated imagery I am still thankful for the filmmakers like Isaac Julien. If nothing else, Fantome Creole reminds me that the best filmmakers still only need images to tell their stories.

37 comments:

ARBOGAST said...

I despise anti-intellectualism and am constantly dismayed at what I view as the dumbing down of our culture by elevating the pedestrian to the desirable social status and diminishing the culturally urbane to the status of social pariah. But I'm just as annoyed with pseudo-intellectualism

And it's at that point that I usually pop Monster of Piedras Blancas into the VCR and hoist a can of Colt 45.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Uncultured slob.

Marilyn said...

It's interesting that you would post this today. I got an e-mail from an "alternative film" organization in town inviting me to see the following:

Daughter Rite is of the key films from the 1970s alternative film scene--a time when feminism, theory, progressive politics, queer issues, and a general sense of questioning of experimental,
documentary, and narrative norms were all being felt. Daughter Rite combines many of these concerns to create a fascinating and influential hybrid, a genre-bending film that remains a vibrant and timely exploration of reality and fiction 30 years after it was made.

"Daughter Rite is a classic, the missing link between the 'direct cinema' documentaries and the later hybrids that acknowledged truth couldn't always be found in front of a camera lens. Scandalous in its day for bending the rules of representation to enlighten its audience about filmmaking, Daughter Rite has a lot to teach folks hooked on reality TV, too." (Ruby Rich)

I decided to see it.

I don't see a lot of experimental films, but I tend to like them, just as I like abstract art, installation art, and multimedia exhibits. There is something so "real life" about it for me, and I know that sounds like a paradox, but to me, it's not. When I see a feature film, the story is fiction, it relates to my life in a secondhand way through my reactions to it. Documentary is so often about other people's lives - it's almost pure observation as a kind of educational tool.

Experimental films, just like abstract art and the like, often don't tell me anything. I bring meaning to it. I slide down the slide of its undigested experiences and feel them myself, internally. Even more narrative-style experimental films like L'Age d'Or trade in sensations that have a much more personal nature than even the sublime manipulations of the most superb narrative film.

I do take your point about this work being everywhere, but the value of really engaging with an experimental film is the opportunity to focus on it exclusively (not as part of a commercial or music video) and live it.

I took my mom to see a modern dance performance. She asked me, "But what did it mean?" I countered with "What did you feel?" That's my approach.

Jonathan Lapper said...

There's so much to quote and respond to here. Let me get started.

I don't see a lot of experimental films, but I tend to like them, just as I like abstract art, installation art, and multimedia exhibits.

Same here. My wife is an artist and about three weeks ago a co-worker at the gallery where her work is displayed told us that a woman was looking at my wife's work and asked the co-worker, almost angrily, "Why is this art?" The co-worker said, "Well the artist is right over there. I could bring her over and you could ask her directly." The woman of course refused. My wife loved the reaction because she and I are both very much interested in why some people only consider representational work to be art. My wife can do representational with the best of them (when she's uninspired she will draw still lifes in pencil and they look like a photograph that someone put a photoshop "Pencil" filter on) but she prefers to let her imagination run wild and express herself in less representational ways.

She and I alternate our trips downtown between the National Gallery which covers all styles but mainly pre-20th century art and the Hirschorn which deals exclusively in what many would call "Modern Art" for lack of a better term. That's how we came upon The Cinema Effect exhibit because this trip we were in the mood for the Hirschorn.

it's almost pure observation as a kind of educational tool.
Experimental films, just like abstract art and the like, often don't tell me anything. I bring meaning to it.


That's exactly how I felt about Fantome Creole and why I loved it so much and why the description on the website bugged me so much. The description is trying desperately to tell me what the movies is about, what it means. What baloney! The movie means whatever the hell I want it to mean and besides, I would hope that Isaac Julien would want to say as little as possible about the work so that it would speak directly to the viewer according to their own interpretations.

I do take your point about this work being everywhere, but the value of really engaging with an experimental film is the opportunity to focus on it exclusively (not as part of a commercial or music video) and live it.

I agree again. I probably sounded more curmudgeonly about that aspect (experimental merging with the mainstream) than I intended. I feel the same way about focusing on it exclusively, on DVD, on YouTube or in a museum where it's just the work and my reactions. My statements about the experimental work on its own now being superfluous clouded the issue. I should have put more weight on the great experience I had seeing Fantome Creole and clarified that the merger of experimental and mainstream makes some of it superflous, some of it not, and all of it worth something.

Jonathan Lapper said...

To make it clearer I made a few edits:

In this line, "And so purely experimental filmmaking seems superfluous" I italicized "seems."

I added the 'but it's not' after this line 'Experimental film feels unnecessary now'

And finally with the lines "To make a point of going to see something that has been so thoroughly integrated into everything else as a stand alone event feels redundant now to many people" I added the "to many people" part.

These edits will hopefully make my feelings on the matter a bit clearer. Sorry about that.

Marilyn said...

It's also funny you should mention the Hirshorn, because that was one place where I went into a fit over an exhibit. I don't remember exactly what the show was, but it had to do with words mixing with art. Each piece had statements made by the artist about what the pieces meant as part of the work of art, not as optional information you could choose to read or not read. I felt so betrayed by these artists and this entire "trend."

It was in the 80s, so I suppose this was the time that artists wanted to reach deep-pocketed acquirers (not collectors because they only wanted the cache, not the work itself). Interestingly, Blue Man Group parodied this period in art very effectively, but their comedy has gone out of date and they had to change the show. I really enjoyed it, though.

Jonathan Lapper said...

I don't mind a filmmaker or painter or musician talking about their work, what it means to them, what processes they go through, etc but I can't stand it when they start explaining. What you describe would have pissed me off as well. And like you said, it wasn't optional like the Julien website page.

By the way, did I ever mention the implied interiority of Frames of Reference? I don't think I ever did. What the film is about is the meaningless sublimations of everyday existence that deprive the human spirit of a workable ontology while at the same time inducing an epistemological response to the ...

Rick Olson said...

Reading this piece, several thoughts came to me. Like Marilyn, I love non- representational art, art installations and multimedia installations. Unfortunately, I live in a place where it is difficult for me to see much of it. When Jonathan describes seeing "Fantome Creole" projected on four screens, I say to myself, well, I'll never see it, unless I'm in Washington and visit the Hirschorn while it is there. In a certain sense, this art is elitist, in that it is not available to the masses.

Of course, much experimental film -- that of Snow, Stan Brakhage and Bill Morrison, for example -- does not require an "installation," and so is available to more of us across the country on DVD. I haven't seen much of it, but what I've seen I can appreciate. Will I buy it or seek it out again? Probably not. They take too much energy and concentration, and I have to be in just the right mood.

I think, Jonathan, that what you're describing happens in every field ... in science (I used to be a Research Biologist for the Feds), theoretical (basic) research eventually bleeds over into applied science. Molecular physics becomes materials science; molecular biology feeds agricultural science. In music, the avant-garde (Philip Glass, eg) feeds popular music; in literature, more serious, innovative stuff eventually enriches the tool-boxes of more mainstream novelists.

I see this as a normal, healthy progression; of course you see elements of avant-garde, experimental films in mainstream fare, many mainstream filmmakers went to film school and saw Brakhage, Morrison, Snow, Deren ...

The problem comes when the basic/theoretical/experimental work dries up; sure as shit, if that happens, the "applied" will surely die. It's happening in science right now, as funding for basic science is cut by short-sighted congress-people, without basic science there is no applied.

I think it's fabulous that as the anti-intellectualism runs over the country, and arts funding becomes scarce and re-channeled into "safer" avenues, alternate venues (like YouTube and private websites) for experimental filmmakers are arising. It gives me hope that the enrichment of commercial film by the experimental will somehow continue.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Rick - After watching Fantome Creole I thought that it would work well on a DVD done in widescreen with four frames going across. You'd get roughly the same effect but the only problem would be that the images would have to be rather small. You'd end up with a thin band running across your screen so you'd lose the, pardon the pun, Cinema Effect. A part of what made the installation intriguing was that the screens went from floor to ceiling, like a room where the entire wall was a screen. And the sound was amazing.

One part that had me transfixed was when two of the screens filled with a roaring waterfall. The camera was positioned so you could not see the cliff or trees or the river, just the center of the fall. Without perspective it was difficult to tell how big or small the waterfall was, though it was clearly big, you just couldn't tell how big. Then, an eagle enters the screen (this is all real, no special effects or CGI) flying across the front of the fall and it's TINY in comparison. Suddenly you realize this is one MASSIVE WATERFALL and the realization of its size, and the size of the screen on the wall and the immensity of its roar created quite a stirring effect. Meanwhile on the other two screens we the shoes of Vanessa Myrie as she walks across a desert and the hands of Stephen Galloway in Iceland letting snow and ice fall through his fingers.

What does it mean? That's up to the viewer, I just know the impact was dramatic and remained so for all 23 minutes. My seven year old didn't squirm for goodness sakes. She was as taken as my wife and I.

And your science analogy is dead on. Leading as it does to your discussion of the arts and funding in an anti-intellectual environment I can't help but feel that venues like YouTube are a way of the artistic community saying, "You can't kill us off, not even if you try."

I have only a few small experimental pieces on YouTube under my real name and it's heartening that they have even a few hundred views. Ten years ago the only people who would have seen them would've been my family and friends.

Sheila O'Malley said...

I have been thinking about this piece, Jonathan, ever since you first posted it. I wasn't sure what I had to say - I just know that it really got me thinking. I won't even try to put it all into words, but I will say - this is a fantastic thought-provoking piece.

One of my favorite literary "awards" is the "Bad Academic Writing" writing award - given every year to an actual piece of writing that is particularly incomprehensible in that way that only academics have (you know: "interiorly interior" or whatever - hahahaha) ... I love reading the entries and runners-up in that award because you just feel like it HAS to be a joke - they can't ACTUALLY think that they are being clear?? I think part of it has to do with a "style" that has come up in that kind of writing, where they are only writing for each other - it's insular, and unquestioned - and anything even close to clear prose is seen as questionable.

Anyway ... sorry for such a messy incoherent comment ... Just know that your post really got me thinking.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Couldn't resist. Went and tracked down one of the winning entries in the Bad Academic Writing Award. Are you ready? Here is the winning sentence for 1998:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Marilyn said...

Sheila - That's great. I was struck by something your wrote in the first comment:

"where they are only writing for each other - it's insular, and unquestioned"

That could apply to any specialist and not necessarily academic writing. When I tool around the film sites, I know that they are writing for other film buffs, not for the general public. So many inside jokes, quotes, and lack of explanations for terms like POV and mise en scene. They assume an educated film audience, which is great for those of us who are pretty knowledgeable, but a waste of time for those who aren't. And maybe that's ok, but I think we need more people turning on to Kiarostami and Bresson, not turned off because they haven't a clue.

Sheila O'Malley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sheila O'Malley said...

Oh, absolutely - it's definitely not just academic writing - I was just describing the contest itself, which focuses only on dissertations and PhDs from academia. Some of the entries are just ... Jabberwocky gibberish!

It's off-putting language, totally!!

I think we need more people turning on to Kiarostami and Bresson, not turned off because they haven't a clue.

Totally agree!!

I feel the same way about literature, especially the great books, the ones in the canon - and how usually they are surrounded by a smokescreen of "seriousness" couched in incomprehensible lit. crit. theory. The language used to describe such books seems like it is there to scare a potentially casual reader off. Then you read the actual book and more often than not you find out how awesome it is, how fun, how accessible. (For the most part.) James Joyce said something funny about Ulysses - something along the lines of: "The problem is that professors will pick through my book looking for a moral, or a lesson, and I swear, on the honor of a gentleman, there is not one serious word in it."

Ha!!

Marilyn said...

Sheila - You might be interested that I'm starting a series on movies from works of Nobel laureates in literature. I did one on One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and am preparing one on Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird. The latter should be interesting: two films were made, one with Shirley Temple in 1940 and one with Elizabeth Taylor in 1976. I'm going to watch them both.

The series is going to be intermittent because I'm a slow reader, but next after that is Gunter Grass' The Tin Drum.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Very exciting! What an interesting project!

Fox said...

Ha! I love that clipped part from the Bad Academic writing that Sheila posted.

When it comes to that type of faux-intellectualism via empty unintelligibilty in the music & film world, I always think of WIRE Magazine and Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Marilyn said...

Hey, Lay off J.R. Dave Kehr is 10 times worse and was the original film critic of The Reader. When J.R. came on, it was a blessed relief!

Fox said...

My beef with J.R. goes beyond his writing. I think he's a bitter, mean man as well.

Last year when called Jeannette Catsoulis a xenophobe because she didn't gush over an Indonesian film the way he wanted her too, well, to me, that was just another example of his brutal agenda driven writings.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Hey everyone, some stupid thing called work has been occupying my time today. But while I've got a bit of a break...

Sheila, thanks so much I'm glad you liked it. I've heard of the Bad Academic Writing award before but I've never seen a winner until now. And I thought "implied interiority" was bad. Well, it is bad, very bad but that winner you posted is incomprehensible. There's not a word in there that I don't know the meaning of and yet, it makes no sense.

I certainly hope I'm not too guilty of putting people off here because as much as I love discussing film and taking it very seriously I try to avoid "academic speak" at all times. However, with me, it's not necessarily because I'm trying to be egalitarian it's just that I personally feel too much technical language gets in the way of emotionally communicating the movie to a reader.

Being steeped in the arts since childhood I have noticed a distinct difference between artists(painters, filmmakers, musicians, writers, etc) and those who love their work and critique it but don't produce any art. I've noticed the artists understand their work to be acts of communication. As such a connection must be made with the audience and so the artists in my life view it very emotionally, something I have always done myself. I don't mean sentimentally, although that does apply at times, but that good art and great art, and even mediocre art that has one or two fascinating facets, connect with me on an emotional level.

The critics on the other hand often view it analytically and search for connections within the work rather than feeling a connection with the work. That's why, for me, the best critics have always been the ones who eschewed techie talk and dove into the movie as a whole (James Agee comes to mind).

And finally...

Fox - Boy, you've got a knack for saying the wrong thing to Marilyn.

Fox said...

I know... I keep forgetting. And I think that was my third strike!

Coinicidentally, I just received a LIVE video feed of this:

A stuffed animal fox sits on a table. 30 seconds later, two hands grab it and rip it in half. She/he takes some of the stuffing from the animal, dips it in paint, and writes TEXAS SUCKS! on a poster board... screen goes black.

But, I mean... Marilyn, uh, she wouldn't ... like ... do something like that now, would (nervous laugh) she????

Marilyn said...

Just remember - I make Cubs fans cry AND I punch old ladies...

Jonathan Lapper said...

Fox - I remember the brouhaha over the review of Jeannette Catsoulis last year and I recall reading Matt Zoller Seitz's reply to JR and JR's reply to him. I sided with Matt but the exchange was very polite and congenial and neither tried to make the other out to be a villain. But I do think JR's original criticisms of Jeannette were unfair, if I'm remembering correctly.

As for Rosenbaum the movie critic, I have found him to a very good writer, not one to put me off with overly analytical double speak. I suppose I can see him as coming off as distant and removed however. I rarely get passion from him outside of Welles, Tati and Jarmusch. That said, when you see him interviewed it's just the opposite. He comes off as a little boy enthralled with the movies and I guess I wish a little more of that feeling had informed his writings for me.

Jonathan Lapper said...

BTW - I should say of Jeanette's review above. The way I wrote it makes it sound like Jeanette's the movie.

Marilyn said...

J.R. is a gushing film geek at times. He was beside himself when Jackie Raynal was on stage with him for a screening of Deux Fois. He didn't really seem to get the film although he said he's seen it dozens of times. He also has an irrational love for everything Kiarostami does. He's a real film lover but lived in France during the French New Wave,so he's got a bit of 'tude. I find him much less approachable than Ebert. I've been in screenings with J.R. several times, but never felt comfortable talking to him. He is kind of self-contained and intellectual, but not obnoxious.

Kimberly said...

This exhibit sounds fascinating so thanks for sharing your thoughts about it. I think Kael's complete disdain for experimental film has probably effected popular opinion a lot. And I'm totally wish ya when you say:

I despise anti-intellectualism and am constantly dismayed at what I view as the dumbing down of our culture by elevating the pedestrian to the desirable social status and diminishing the culturally urbane to the status of social pariah. But I'm just as annoyed with pseudo-intellectualism

I couldn't agree more. I tend to enjoy and watch a lot of films that dabble in experimental editing, etc. And once you fall I love with the work of directors like Buñuel, Resnais, Godard, Fellini, etc. I think it's easy to appreciate what could be considered more avant-garde cinema by filmmakers like Maya Deren, Warhol, Kenneth Anger, etc.

And I've also got to agree with Marilyn when she mentions:

When I tool around the film sites, I know that they are writing for other film buffs, not for the general public. So many inside jokes, quotes, and lack of explanations for terms like POV and mise en scene. They assume an educated film audience, which is great for those of us who are pretty knowledgeable, but a waste of time for those who aren't. And maybe that's ok, but I think we need more people turning on to Kiarostami and Bresson, not turned off because they haven't a clue.

When I'm writing about directors like Godard, Resnais, Anger, etc. I try to talk to average film viewers and I often get emails from people who had never tried to watch a Godard film for example thinking they'd be "bored" or "beaten over the head with radical political views" and they were really grateful for me encouraging them to step outside their comfort zones and watch a challenging film. I think it helps that I'm not afraid to champion something like a Hammer vampire flick right alongside Godard's work.

I expect that my writing will change (and my vocabulary will expand) now that I'm back in college but please kick me if I ever start writing like a blowhard. I will save that for all my academic writing about British Romanticism and I'll probably find myself with a Bad Academic Writing Award in 2010.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Kimberly, you've never engaged in dry academic writing. You're reviews are very personable and relaxed. You approach the movie as a fan, not an analyst which often provides much better analysis ironically.

I wasn't aware of Kael disliking experimental film but it doesn't surprise me. Too bad because it's just one more way of exploring the world cinematically but people rear back and stiffen their spine when they hear "experimental film" like someone's about to force castor oil down their throat. And so often, they're damned entertaining.

As for Godard and Fellini, they have reputations that have nothing to with their films. Their movies are very accessible, funny, and alive but when a non-cinephile hears those two names they think bizarre surrealistic tropes in which the hero stares blankly at a wall for two hours before a chipmunk walks onscreen and utters, "Fish."

krauthammer said...

On Kael not liking experimenal film, Sarris didn't either. Although he did later admit seeing "genius" in Chlsea girls, you definantly got the feeling that it was something that he could perhps intellectually appreciate on some level, but could never feel anything for.

I'm facinated by experimental film. Have you ever seen any of Man Ray's film? He has one or two which are slip-shod, but Emak-Bakia is one of my all time favorites. It's a shame that so little of it is on DVD, even some of the most acclaimed stuff. Though I suppose you could say that about any form, unfourtunately.

MovieMan0283 said...

Jonathan,

I'm with you 100% when you decry pseudo-intellectual rationalizations for experimental works - their primary value is that they circumvent the rational and reach the viewer on an intuitive, emotional level. (At least that's how I see it.)

But we part ways somewhat on the avant garde in the mainstream. In a narrative film, an experimental passage is a little safer, it has a context. It's not as open as a work which is purely experimental. (Not that many of these sequences aren't great on their own terms.) And as far as a commercial, the form is so exploitative and maniuplative that it tends to contaminate everything it touches, at least for me.

Marilyn, I feel I should say something about your point, given that I recently used "mise en scene" without explanation in a blog entry! I try to write accessibly, but also don't concern myself too much with avoiding references or terms that not everyone would understand. I do this because I didn't learn most (not all, but most) of these terms academically, but from my own independent reading. I didn't always understand the writers myself, but I always got the overall sense of what they were saying, and my knowledge was enriched in the end. My feeling is that people will read what you write, and as long as your point isn't contingent on them getting every reference or allusion, they'll understand and become curious and look into the things they don't understand. I know that's how it worked (and still works) for me.

MovieMan0283 said...

Marilyn - while commenting on this site, I also have been checking out a couple blogs in different windows - sometimes I forget which one I'm looking at. On one I saw the term "mise en scene" used without explanation - then I scrolled down and saw I was reading Ferdy on Films! Not to knock your point (or the blog entry, which was good) - just thought that was kind of funny (I generally agree with your point though).

Marilyn said...

Movie Man - I do take your point, and I think I pulled out mise en scene because I had just read it in Rod's review. I don't express myself that way, but Rod is another story. I don't edit him much at all, don't change his British spellings, and don't tell him what to explain. That's just my level of respect for his integrity. If it goes against what I believe, well, that's just the way it goes.

Jonathan Lapper said...

krauthammer - I haven't seen Man Ray's stuff. His photos of course, but none of the experimental works. I'd really like to. I'll do a search of YouTube. I'm sure they have something up. Thanks for reminding me of it.

Jonathan Lapper said...

MovieMan -

But we part ways somewhat on the avant garde in the mainstream. In a narrative film, an experimental passage is a little safer, it has a context. It's not as open as a work which is purely experimental. (Not that many of these sequences aren't great on their own terms.) And as far as a commercial, the form is so exploitative and maniuplative that it tends to contaminate everything it touches, at least for me.

I definitely agree that experimental work contained within commercial work is not the same. I'm torn between my feelings on it. I like the fact that the fringes of artistic movements get their due by eventually being accepted into the mainstream. Rock and roll, punk rock, abstract painting, abstract architectural design, all shunned and ridiculed or even demonized by the mainstream at first eventually became inseparable from it. Punk is used in Visa commercials for god's sake!

At the same time it's dismaying because by co-opting it the mainstream strips it of its power.

But then I'm torn again, because a part of me sees that as a good thing because it doesn't allow the artistic community to rest on its laurels. Once something has been co-opted by the mainstream they are forced to go in new, bolder directions which is a great thing.

Nevertheless, I agree, experimental work contained within artistic work is not the same.

Jonathan Lapper said...

MovieMan and Marilyn - As to the "academic" writing style, speaking only for myself here, I'm not talking about mentioning the odd phrase here and there. I've probably never once explained what "Film Noir" means and even "Mise en Scene" I think can be easily understood within the context of an article. A writer can "explain" what a term means by writing about it meaningfully. I'm talking about writing that cannot be understood within the context of an article, phrases like the now infamous "implied interiority" which means... what exactly? That the characters have no interior life or that they do but lack an overt expression of that interior life being implied to the viewer? Either way, it in no way contributes to a better understanding or reading of the film Fantome Creole. It's bullshit. It's meaningless. That's the kind of analytical double speak I'm talking about and I thing with very, very few exceptions, we all avoid it.

MovieMan0283 said...

Jonathan, I make the distinction between popularization and co-option. If people from the suburbs, a working-class berg, a big city, the ghetto, a ranch, etc etc are all listening to the same music - great! I don't buy into that "it's only good when middle-class students who think they're edgy are listening to it" argument.

But use in a commercial is different. Advertisers are very sophisticated and there's a level of manipulation and calculation going on there that I find to be a huge turn-off. A winkingness like, we know what we're doing, and you know what we're doing, but we're going to sell you down the river anyway. Irony and pop culture hipness has only made the commercial world more unpalatable.

Anyway, I don't want to say that a punk song loses credibility when it's used in a commercial because I don't think co-option can sap a great work of its strength. While I'm hearing it in the commercial it may be cheapened but listening to it on the radio or CD it still retains its power.

Jonathan Lapper said...

I don't buy into that "it's only good when middle-class students who think they're edgy are listening to it" argument.

Well I certainly don't mean that, I hope you didn't think I did.

Perhaps popularization doesn't srip something of its power but it does strip it of its uniqueness. I have nothing against a well painted landscape but I also feel that there's nothing wrong with saying, "That's been done and accepted. Let's try something new." So I think popularization and co-option are, in the end, good for the artistic community and its creativity.

And while I don't think the original stand alone song "Revolution" loses its power when used in a Nike commercial I do believe it loses its power within the commercial. It becomes just so much background noise for corporate shills. However, if the use becomes too ubiquitous then I think the original does lose its strength because the commercial becomes irrevocably connected with the piece. Not in all cases but sometimes. Rhapsody in Blue for instance has been pretty much ruined for me by United Airlines.

MovieMan0283 said...

"Well I certainly don't mean that, I hope you didn't think I did."

No, no - not at all. Sorry if that was the implication. I think with music in commercials, it can ruin it for a while but the stain always where's off. Like "Bargain" by the Who - I'm not sure what company used it, but I heard it in commercial way before I was a Who fan. When I listened to Who's Next all I could think about when I heard that song was a commercial. But not anymore.

But yeah, for a while overuse can color your perception of a song - whether in a commercial or just from being overplayed. In a way, this is a test of the song's quality. If it eventually retains its appeal when the novelty's worn off, it's a great song and not just something that was catchy at the moment. You could probably say this is true of movies, paintings, or any other art as well.