a page of madness

film writing by nicholas vroman

Je Te Tiens

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molina

Some thoughts on a film by Sergio Caballero, with Angela Molina, Virginia Rousse, and Sosaku Miyazaki as the Snowman.

I am riding down the road with that obscure object of desire*. The road goes through landscapes of lapidary tumult, trees snow-flocked to a fare-thee-well, anguished and twisted totems. The landscape – that which is outside the window – is constantly changing, become more frigid and alien. When she speaks she holds her hand over her mouth. She hides her anguish, as best she can, as she attempts to talk down her daughter’s dead-endedness. Where did this come from? The object of desire considers her all-consuming conflict – as any mother would – to save and to bear witness to her responsibility to a woman she brought into this cold world, lost in fear and having a desire to end her life.

Poster

Je te tiens,
Tu me tiens,
Par la barbichette
Le premier
De nous deux
Qui rira
Aura une tapette.

The tapette becomes a vraie gifle. No more children’s games. We are grown up, growing old, and serious now. And we are going nowhere. This only moment of physical violence in the film where a mother strikes her child, hinting at an unspoken history that may have created her daughter’s trauma in the first place.

The landscape changes and changes. Deeper and deeper into a colder and colder artificiality. From the rear window, things recede, yet are always coming forward. An endless loop that ultimately continues in stasis.

And what about the man who appears to be in control? Following far too close, looking out the hand-wiped porthole of his snow-encrusted joke of a car. Standing outside the big box terrarium, where nothing will survive, where a car with a mother and daughter go nowhere, their journey never resolved, physically or emotionally. Where art and artifice suffice to capture their traumas and fears for my voyeuristic pleasure. Where an artist/god/director/snowman controls the horizontal, if not the vertical, crafting an infernal machine to capture that perfect moment of devastating and weirdly thrilling emotion. The voyeur in me can’t help but say, “yes, I understand” and then turn away in shame.

Not even the sea brings release – which is where we end up, me and that obscure object of desire and her daughter. We may see it, surrounding our little universe, but it is always out of reach. It is only a projection. A projection of our mutual desires.

I have you
You have me
By the little goatee.
The first
Of us two
Who laughs
Gets a little slap!

Trailer – Je te tiens from Claudia Mallart Toupy on Vimeo.

Here is a link to Sousaku Miyazaki’s website – http://www.loloysosaku.com/. I am particularly fond of his painting machines.

*That obscure object of desire is Angela Molina, an actress that played a role shared with Carole Boquet as the object in Luis Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire. She has had a long and illustrious career in Spanish cinema.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

August 12, 2019 at 5:45 am

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Best Films of the Year 2018 Continued – Tagaq / Nanook of the North

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In my rush to send out my best films of 2018, I neglected to write about my best film experience of 2018. It had nothing to do with any recently released film. It was a presentation/performance of Robert Flaherty’s 1922 documentary, Nanook of the North, with a live music by Tanya Tagaq and band, percussionist Jean Martin and violinist Jesse Zubot. For those who don’t know, Tagaq is an Inuk throat-singer, who’s pushed her working of a very traditional art to something beyond. She’s collaborated with the likes of the Kronos String Quartet, Bjork and Buffy Sainte-Marie – among many others. I had the happy experience of seeing her perform over 20 years ago, early on in her career when she jammed with Kinny Starr in a venue in North Vancouver. I’ve been enamored of her and her work ever since.

At South Sound Community College on February 1, 2018 she came with her collaborators, to perform her “soundtrack” to Nanook of the North.  I use quotation marks around soundtrack because it was so much more than a soundtrack. It was an accompaniment, for sure, but it was also a a critique, a dialog and a discussion, a howl of invective and anger, a coming to terms with the past and a deep dive into pain, the fissures and the fractured legacy and history of the Inuit/Inuk world.

I’ve used words that utterly fail to communicate the depth of her performance. She sang the landscape. She sang terror and transcendence. With her body and her voice she made the contradictions of Flaherty’s  masterpiece clear and created a path through them, not with a critic’s pen,  but with a inarguable voice that spoke directly of the point of view of her life, her culture’s dark, broken legacy and its resilience.

I have seen many contemporary soundtrack performances for silent and less-than-silent masterpieces. I’ve seen Tim Brock conduct his score of Dr. Mabuse to a 6,000 seat house in Paris. I’ve seen Metal Men do create a joyfully noisy industrial  soundtrack to Tetsuo for house of about 30 people.

I’ve never seen/heard such and emotionally stunning, intellectually engaging piece of music ever composed for a silent movie than Tagaq’s Nanook of the Norh.

Sorry Prokofiev. Sorry Tim. Sorry John and Eric.

Listen to Tanya.

She’s created the movie score/soundtrack with such resonance, emotion, and a measure of integrity and honesty that all composers and performers will have dig extra deep just to try to reach a modicum of what she’s done with her music for Nanook of the North.

 To read about the background of Nanook of the North and the 20th century tragedy that befell the Inuit people – that still has deep resonances and continues today – I recommend reading Melanie McGrath’s The Long Exile: A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

January 15, 2019 at 6:21 am

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Best Films 2018

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I live in a small town

A small town where it’s at

Just 14 million people

And myself… and my cat.

– Lyrics to a song I wrote in Tokyo a few years ago.

But now I really live in a small town. Upsides and downsides. One downside is getting to see films. I still haven’t had the chance to see some films that would probably have made my best list – Burning, If Beale Street Could Talk, The Favourite, Bisbee ’17, You Were Never Reallty Here, Cold War. Some of those titles may never make it here. But some are on the way. Thank you Olympia Flm Society. Heaven forbid if I’ll ever get to see films like Season of the Devil, Jinpa, What Are You Going to Do When the World’s on Fire and a so many other films that are making waves, pushing boundaries, keeping the art of cinema alive. But I’m going to keep pushing, making sure that I see films that are really important. This year I promise to see more films and keep on the cutting edge. Think I’ll send an email to Lav right now and see where I can catch his most recent film(s) online.

Herewith, though, are a few films that made an impression on me this year – and will stick with me. Some are mainstream, others a bit obscure.

This is America – D.Hiro Murai

I know this is the year that a new wave of black cinema was, as explained to us by white critics,  taking off. Black Panther, the big push into the Marvel universe of big, big, special-effects movies was supposed to be a breakthrough. I’m glad it made a mess of money and a bunch of black actors got paid a lot, but all in all it was a pretty lame story full of cliche tormented-black male tropes and goes to show how far Ryan Coogler has fallen since Fruitvale Station. But hey, I liked the Afroed Amazonian guards and the battle rhinos. Sorry To Bother You – huh? A forgetably baroque something-or-other masquerading as a black comedy. And Blackklansman, a welcome return from Spike Lee, but its attempt at mixing blaxploitation with true-life crime drama and agitprop missed the mark. The agitprop worked best – an exploration of the roots of racism that set the tone for Hollywood blockbusters and the final montage of Trump world. It was great to see it in a mall cinema in a small town. Very necessary. The most of the film just didn’t really take off.

However, the 2 minute 16 seconds of Hiro Murai and Childish Gambino’s amazing music video brought agitprop, music, dance – and a serious exploration of the role of entertainment by black men to an impossible nexus, where enjoyment becomes pain and pathos, where we are all forced to address the fundamentals of racism, racist violence and what the fuck Trump -America is doing to us all.

First Reformed – D.Paul Schrader

Taxi Driver meets Diary of a Country priest with a little Carl Dreyer thrown in for fun. This is what Schrader’s been working toward all his life. It may not have the cultural import and zeitgeist that Taxi Driver had, but as a late bow (I hope Schrader has a few more years and films up his sleeve) he’s made his most transcendent and beautiful film.

Zama – D.Lucrecia Martel

Martel’s first period piece showcases a brilliant performance by Daniel Giménez Cacho in a grubby vision of colonialism and the imperialist ethic.  With lives debased and absurd in the New World, these freaks were still the masters. Zama does get his comeuppance, though, in a scene of strange transcendence. A more mystical, impressionistic view of the early colonial period than How Tasty was my Little Frenchman, but a perfect companion piece to Dos Santos’ seminal work.

The Hymns of Muscovy / Гимны Московии – D.Dimitri Venkov

Moscow as the city of some sci-fi future. Venkov does a simple and beautiful trick of filming the monuments of classical and soviet architecture upside down. Set to the soundtrack of nationalist anthems, these images of what seem to be monumental space stations simultaneously reify, critique and strangely find the visual wonder in the modern state of Russia.

Roma – D.Alfonso Cuarón

Cuarón’s best film since Y tu mama tambien. Visually stunning, but listen to the soundtrack. There’s so much detail going on offscreen, filling out context and background to the great black and white images. The film, even with references to the bigger events of history, seems all about background to the more intimate story of Cleo, a bit mythicized, but made real by the the great portrayal by Yalitza Aparicio.

Trote – D.Xacio Baño

The tragedy of Trote is endless. Not only the one that the viewer is thrown into – the death of the mother of a family – and is revealed slowly by the taciturn players and their failures to speak about their grief, but the one that invades the entire place and culture. The central character, Carme, breaks out of it for a short moment, but the stunning – and terrifying – denouement, documenting the Rapa das Bestas (a brutal ritual of men wrestling horses) puts an enigmatic, but final end to that hope.

Shoplifters / 万引き家族 – D.Hirokazu Koreeda

Koreeda’s drama/exploration of an intentional family expands his familial obsessions over the years as he himself has become a family man. It’s not quite the masterpiece that I Wish/奇跡 was. It seems that Koreeda-san’s still working through some stuff. Which is great! He’s an artist that continually pushes himself. The ending seems a bit pat in its resolution of all the incredible stuff that happens through the first three quarters of the film. And he does throw away a lot of forgiveness when he has little Shotu-kun recognize Osamu as his dad at the end. That said he gives Lily Franky and Sakura Ando the roles of their lives – along with the the kids – Kairi Jou and Miyu Sasaki. And a shout out to the small role by Akira Emoto as the old shopkeeper – he’s one of my favorite character actors.

Aliens – D.Luis Lopez Carrasco

La Movida Madrileña is one of Carrasco’s obsessions – what it meant and how it has set the course and influenced contemporary Spanish society. In Aliens he looks at scenester Tesa Arranz. Described as “la musa de la Movida,” she’s comes off as a bit of a sad parody of herself, describing her high life, which was pretty drink- and drug-addled. On top of all this, her delusions about aliens is amply illustrated by her countless naive paintings of said aliens.  That said, she’s a survivor, a cultural touchstone, and a ruin, but Carrasco shows her humanity and a bit of pride in that weird time in Spain’s history that allowed for someone like her to flourish.

Sweating the Small Stuff / 枝葉のこと- D.Ninomiya Ryutaro

Ryutaro, in his second feature outing, starring himself again, relentlessly explores his ideas about death, relationships – all filled with a searing sense of regret. Like his previous film, The Charm of Others, it’s intensely personal. He’s one of the few Japanese filmmakers who honestly portrays down-and-out dead-end-jobbers – and brings their feelings, limited aspirations and lives to the screen. By putting himself at the center – and his complete immersion into his acting (ala Casavettes), he makes things more than real. Sweating the Small Stuff is not a perfect film – and that’s what makes it perfect.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

January 11, 2019 at 8:54 am

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Best Films of the Year – 2017

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Das unmögliche Bild / The Impossible Picture

D. Sandra Wollner

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Sandra Wollner’s debut feature talks of movies, family and national histories, the acts of creation and revelation. Seems she wandered off from Paris, Texas and found herself in  a different and more interesting place than Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard.

Fajr

Lois Patiño

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Lois Patiño continues his investigations of man and his relationship to the landscape. This installation/short film invokes silence, moods and mysteries that ground Patiño in a formalist humanism akin to Kiarostami.

Visages, villages / Faces Places

D. Agnes Varda, JR

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Agnes Varda and JR traverse France doing a bit of a photo op, but creating spontaneous art, bringing people together, and developing and building bonds – something which Godard seems to have forgotten about.

Downsizing

Alexander Payne

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Alexander Payne takes a deep – and bitterly humorous – journey into a little world, reflecting on big issues, and creating, finally, a male character who manages to take a tiny step into a bit of self-realization and positive action. A small step for a man. A giant leap for Alexander Payne.

The Square

D. Ruben Östlund

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What was promoted as a facile put-down of the pretentiousness of the art world brings into finer focus the compromises, the cynicism, the vapidity of buttering up to the 1% for the to keep culture alive. From confrontation (Terry Notary’s and Ruben Östlund’s brilliantly performed, choreographed, and edited sequence) to The Square itself – the simple, quiet peice that stands at the moral center of the movie, Östlund cleverly and cogently speaks to pressing issues of our time.

Montañas ardientes que vomitan fuego / Burning mountains that spew flame

D. Helena Girón, Samuel M. Delgado

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Robert Smithson had some ideas of what underground cinema should be. Helena Girón and Samuel M. Delgado make it manifest in their brilliant film that fuses history, geology, mythology and more in their igneous approach to cinema.

Montañas ardientes que vomitan fuego / Burning mountains that spew flame (Trailer) from Samuel M. Delgado on Vimeo.

Ark

D. Lynn Siefert

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Lynn Siefert’s counterpoint to Mauro Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead shows the other side of dead end capitalism at sea. Rather than the deadening beauty of the dystopian supply world of Herce’s masterpiece, Siefert captures dystopian consumption as the world comes to end – and it’s just as beautiful and banal.

方繡英 / Fang Xiuying/ Mrs. Fang

D. Wang Bing

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Wang Bing’s Mrs. Fang works its slow, burrowing depth concentrating on the face of dying. Isn’t that what cinema ultimately is? Death in motion? As Mrs. Fang dies and Bing unflinchingly makes us watch her sad passing, the world, her family continue on in cliched ritual. The sadness runs deep.

Nuevo Altar / New Altar

D. Velasco Broca

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The devil probably? The devil definitely in Velasco Broca’s twisted Gnostic parable. The probable heir to Buñuel, Velasco Broca is the only real surrealist working in cinema today.

Get Out

D. Jordan Peale

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I add this, not because it’s a great movie – the ending falls into some predictable and cliched turns. No, I add this because it’s a great movie and Jordan Peele deserves all the accolades and more that have come his way.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

January 7, 2018 at 6:17 am

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Best Films of the Year – 2016

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bestof2016

A little behind in some ways. Still haven’t seen the likes of Tony Erdmann or Moonrise. I live in Tokyo, after all, which is always a little behind.

A little ahead in other ways. I get to go to film festivals. I track down filmmakers who interest me and make sure I see their work.

And I saw a lot of good films this year. Some, that have made the general best of lists, I liked. I actually really liked The Man in the High Castle – the first season. But apart from just liking films, I’m always looking for the ones that excite me, challenge me, make me stand up and salute and keep me interested in the art and the edges of cinema. These are the ones that make my own best of list.

It’s been a great year.

Herewith is my somewhat obscure list of my favorite films of the year. All very much worth tracking down, seeing, living with, remembering.


Bad Black (2016)

Nabwana I.G.G.

I was introduced this year by Miguel Llansó to Isaac Nabwana’s Who Killed Captain Alex, his 2010 calling card that introduced him to world via youtube. The delirious mix of no budget production, over-the-top action and cheesily transparent computer-generated effects – all with the icing-on-the-cake of a benshi-like “video joker” in the form of VJ Emmie, giving commentary, shout-outs, promotions and hilarious asides over the whole thing. Captain Alex was great. The question was: Where would Nabwana go next? He’s made many a film, most unavailable since Captain Alex. Bad Black, though, played Austin this year. And what a film. His filmmaking prowess, already steady, has leaped and bounded. The agency of his critique and exposure of life in the slums of Kampala more pointed. His filmmaking even more delirious and joyful. Word up is he’s made at least a couple new films since the September premier of Bad Black and started production of a TV serial. I can hardly wait to see them.


Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis (2016)

A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery

Lav Diaz

A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, Lav Diaz’s meditation on a key moment in Filipino history rides the line of late Carl Theodore Dreyer, Miklos Jansco, and Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment. The black and white cinematography is mesmerizing. The 8 hours of screen time reveal an almost clinical focus on the time, the people, the events and the myths that make up a key moment in the history of an uprising against colonialism that continues to haunt Diaz – and his intrepid viewers.


Nuestra amiga la luna (2016)

Our Friend the Moon

Velasco Broca

Velsco Broca’s welcome return after a long absence finds him pushing his vision in new directions. The film, ostensibly a reflection on the 3rd century Gnostic text The Hymn of the Pearl at first viewing seems less accessible that his Echos der Buchrücken trilogy. But the images sear. Parts of it look like long lost outtakes from Renoir’s The River. Other parts go to some sort of Gothic otherworld. The parable of the pearl, the elusive and ephemeral treasure of this world is given a transcendent and mysterious take through Velasco Broca’s fecund imagination.


Qingshui Li De Daozi (2016)

Knife in the Clear Water

Xuebo Wang

Xuebo Wang was the producer of Pema Tesden’s Tharlo. Behind the camera for the first time he takes a bit of Tesden, with his look into the little seen corners of China’s minority communities. But he also shows his own complete vision, less reliant on making the viewer feel like an outsider, marveling at this strange place in China, or pounding on big thematic tropes. Instead he brings a profound humanism to the story of an old man facing the end of his life. The film is almost ethnographic, concentrating on the rituals of life, the steady beat of it ebbing from a man’s very full life. Beautifully shot in 1:33 (just like Diaz’s and Velasco Broca’s films!) it acts like a window on a different world while highlighting the intimacy of a singular drama.


Lampedusa in Winter (2015)

Jakob Brossmann

I have yet to see Rosi’s Fire at Sea, the other, more famous film on the refugee crisis on the island of Lampedusa, but if it’s half as good as Brossman’s take, it’s probably all right. Lampedusa in Winter is a pretty classically structured documentary. But what stories! What people! Between refugees, fisherman, the mayor (one of the most honest and embattled politicians ever seen on film) and a host of other good people stuck between a rock (the island of Lampedusa) and a hard place (the machinations of the government, industry and the horrific detritus – manifesting itself in boatloads of desperate refugees) of globalization, the film shows a very human and clear-headed take on the human condition circa 2015.


Lucifer (2014)

Gust Van den Berghe

Tondo-riffic! Gust Van den Berghe’s sly parable on the bringer of light/evil into the world is presented in a rigorously and beautifully composed round frame. The conceit works! The beguiling frame limits the viewer’s vision like a telescope, focusing on faces, feelings and philosophy with a clinical and purely voyeuristic gaze. Somewhere up in heaven B Traven and Bunuel are having a good laugh at what Van den Berghe’s showing them.


The Other Side (2015)

Roberto Minervini

Roberto Minervini’s harrowing document of life in the hinterlands of East Texas and Louisiana shows why Trump won. It may be America’s most important movie of 2016, dissecting and exposing what’s at the rotten core of America with unrelenting and troubling honesty. Not a pleasant experience, but necessary viewing. Minervini, who’s been making fascinating, but uneven portraits of lumpen America, finds his dark center in the swamps of drugs, guns, patriotism and sentimentality that informs how fucked up much of America is.


Noite Sem Distância (2015)

Night Without Distance

Lois Patiño

A formalist romantic, Lois Patiño takes his austere vision to explore the borderlands of Galicia and Portugal – the myths, the people, the economy of smuggling. Midnight is exposed, dare I say magically, through the entire film being shown in negative. What was in the shadows becomes the objects of focus, chimeras of the night are made perceptible. The sheer beauty of the images, the beyond Bresson narrative and directorial methodology, bring a sense of transcendence to Patiño’s continued exploration of the landscape and how humans relate to it.


Pow Wow (2016)

Robinson Devor

Rob Devor got lost somewhere on the way to Vernon, Florida. But he found himself in the Coachella Valley, where he met a mess of folks who make up a richly-textured collage of of a place caught in a world of betweenness. Between the desert and the golf course, between a Fordian steamrolling of manifest destiny over the wilderness of the western landscape and the native Americans who originally conquered it. Tell them Willie Boy was there. And Shecky Greene too.


Heart of a Dog (2015)

Laurie Anderson

Lolabelle, Laurie Anderson’s rat terrier (played by a number of stand-ins and seen in real documentary footage) is the focus and the metaphor for Anderson’s meditation on loss – the dog, the victims and survivors of 9/11, Lou Reed, America. Her abstract sensibility, her way of making connections, spoken with her steady, familiar, transfixing voice, provide a contemplative balm for the losses we all feel. The visuals, the anecdotes, the meditations and the music come together brilliantly, reminding me that Laurie Anderson’s art, which has alway had a bit of a veneer of art damage pop superficiality, has always been, and has gotten even more, profound.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

December 26, 2016 at 2:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Chatting with Michael Snow

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In February, I had a few brief minutes to talk with Michael Snow when he was visiting the Punto de Vista Film Festival in Pamplona. They were having a rare screening of La Region Centrale, his three and a half hour opus documenting a landscape in northern Quebec. La Region Centrale is one of the monuments of avant-garde cinema – austere, uncompromising in its vision/obsession, stunningly beautiful, intriguing and ultimately an exciting piece of filmic and conceptual exploration.

Mr. Snow was suffering from an intense bout of jet lag, something that hit his 86 year-old body stronger than he expected. However, he’s a generous soul, witty,engaged and engaging – and one of the greatest artists (not only in film, but in photography, sculpture, music and more) of our time. I was honored to have this short, if somewhat insubstantial, chat with him.

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NV – Why did you chose that area (the place where he shot La Region Centrale)?

Michael Snow – It could have been anywhere in a sense. I wanted something that was visibly unpopulated, and then, not touched by man in any way. But I also didn’t want it to be really picturesque. It wasn’t about exploiting the beauty of the place. So, I searched by looking in… The province of Quebec has a place where you can get aerial photos of the province and the machine that I used was made in Montreal, so I wanted to be able to go from Montreal as easy as possible. And I found a couple of areas by looking at photographs and I went to one of them and rented a helicopter. So we went out, and I asked them to land here and land there. And it happened when it landed there. I like the fact that there was glacier residue. The rocks are very interesting. They punctuate the space into the complete distance. And then there’s a big rock. But I really didn’t want it to be too appealing, but to be wild looking in some ways. It could have been something else, but that’s what it was.

NV – Is there some historical. mythic or personal relationship to the place?

Michael Snow – No

NV – Have you been back since?

Michael Snow – No. I suppose it could be found again.

NV – We have to turn it into a pilgrimage spot – a Michael Snow place for people to visit.

Michael Snow – Sort of related to what you’re saying – the loft I shot my film Wavelength in – I’ve heard back, that the owners of the building have cut that room in half. So that now some windows are in this room and some are in this room. And somebody wrote to me that they got permission to have a look at it and they were appalled. So they thought they’d share their appalledness with me.

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NV – Scratch marks, dirt and dust that create this other level. While the camera’s panning you are very aware that the film is running vertically

Michael Snow – It makes another reference, similar to the frame in some senses. But that was a digital version. It wasn’t 16mm.

NV – But there are still some scratches and dirt on it.

Michael Snow – Yeah, it’s a copy of the original film.

NV – The scenes going to the blue of the sky, more field of color, that the emulsion of the film had a kind of liveliness to it.

Michael Snow – Yeah.

NV – I think it’s that films age. It’s not exactly texture, but it’s kind… it creates yet another plane of…

Michael Snow – It’s partly when you photograph the sky, something that is basically white it affects the recording aspect in a different way. Something that’s just eliminated. It’s just direct light that’s coming through. I don’t think I can pin that down, but I think it makes a different effect technically.

NV – It strikes me as the film ages, as it gets a little dirty it is actually adding more stuff.

Michael Snow – There are relatively new prints. It was made in 1971 but the prints are not from 71. The original negative is, from which new prints can be made. That’s getting more and more scary. Pretty soon you won’t be able to make prints anymore.

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NV – Another thing that I loved about the film was the moon shots. I don’t know if you had this in mind, or if it was bit more of a happy accident, I noticed in the screening room here the moon became like a spotlight on the audience.

Michael Snow – Oh yes, it’s like a beam.

NV – As it went, the proscenium has a couple of reveals and there are some light fixtures on top and it was casting shadows into the house.

Michael Snow – (Laugh)

NV – And I thought it just broke open the frame completely to a whole new level.

Michael Snow – Yeah, that’s true.

NV – I don’t know if you had seen this happen in other screenings

Michael Snow – Well, you noticed that you see it as a beam. Of course I didn’t think of that when I was making it, but it’s another sort of byproduct of doing something.

NV – You talked about, today, about your controlling the machine in a sense of playing the machine.

Michael Snow – As an instrument.

NV – But you had in your mind a kind of larger structure for the piece, or was it pretty random in some ways?

Michael Snow – I worked for months and months on trying to find ways to imagine the movie and how to motate what I imagined. And some of it’s simple, in a way, the beginning, the first 20 minutes. I knew exactly what I wanted to do there. It’s like the St. John Passion by Bach. It starts low and it gradually goes higher and higher. So I knew the speed that I wanted to… It’s actually after that that it becomes complicated because it became more subtle in a certain sense. But I did try to imagine it and I did write a score, which I tried to follow. But I found that I really got immersed in imagining what was happening, because obviously, we couldn’t see results of the piece. That could be done with the attaching of a video camera, but I didn’t do that, or perhaps I couldn’t have. Anyway. And so, after playing it, so to speak, for a few hours, I started to feel a little more comfortable. I don’t why, because I didn’t see the results, but it was just, I thought that I could… when I wanted to change the speed from 2 to 3, I felt that I knew what I was doing. And it’s true.

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NV – As I was watching the film, by the end, the last few movements, as it may be, after the sunrise and the next day, it was kind of like, and maybe it’s me projecting some feelings on to it, but it felt like the film was easier, in the sense that it kind of learned how to make itself, for lack of a better way to say it.

Michael Snow – I think that’s in way that I said it was. I started to feel a little bit more comfortable about how I was playing the instrument, despite the fact that I couldn’t see any results. And there were many difficulties. We shot one 400-foot roll and went to look at it in the camera and it was jammed full of broken film. The film had broken and it filled the camera. We had spent hours trying to clean the camera. So, stuff happened that got in the way, but obviously, it did get done.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

April 28, 2016 at 6:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Devil Made Me Do It

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Lucifer
“I work for people. I do what they need.”

Lucifer, Gust van den Berge’s tondo-cropped pearl of a film, loosely adapted from the 1645 play of the same name written by Joost van den Vondel, describes the descent of Lucifer from heaven, where he touches the Earth for a little while, leaving his mark on humankind, before moving on to his his new kingdom – Hell. Lucifer, the bringer of light, as his name states, is described by van den Berg as “once God’s favorite – [he] has been banished and is on his way to Hell. He is no longer an angel, but isn’t yet a devil and is therefore never depicted as such in the film.  He was the first being to carry within himself both the knowledge of good and of evil.  It is Lucifer who gave us this knowledge. And therefore it is he who is responsible for the original sin and also for the emergence of human free-will and consciousness.”

I beg to differ. At least with what I saw in the film. In van den Berge’s parable, Lucifer (Gabino Rodríguez) comes down a ladder from heaven – unseen, but believed in by the villagers living near Parícutin, one of the newest volcanoes on Earth. A place where time seems to have stood still. He comes across Lupita (María Acosta) and her granddaughter Maria (Norma Pablo), who live with Lupita´s brother Emanuel (Jeronimo Soto Bravo), an old geezer who pretends to be bedridden so he can avoid work and spend his days gambling with and fleecing his buddies. Lucifer sees this sham clearly and says he will deliver a miracle of healing to old Emanuel. His miracle is simply to threaten Emanuel with spilling the beans. Blackmail is the devil’s work. And it’s also miraculous. The idea of Lucifer giving us po’ folk knowledge of sin, belies the fact that Emanuel knows he’s doing wrong. He’s got the knowledge. Perhaps Lucifer shines his light on sin, making us, reluctantly, good.

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He proceeds to knock up Maria, kinda Holy Spirit-like – we don’t see it, but we acknowledge the miracle, one of the tenderest and most subversive reconsiderations of the God/Lucifer/Christ myth that van den Berge illustrates with the simplest economy. That along with equating Lucifer with Christ – rescuing a lamb – van den Berge posits a sort of structuralist continuum of myth and symbols. That’s where Lucifer shines – not in any straight reading of what’s largely be relegated to the Apocrypha and pushed into some sort of simplistic dichotomy of good and evil.

Lucifer soon disappears from the scene. Maria is quickly castigated, by those not touched nor direct witness to, as the seductress of the delivering angel, blamed for his leaving. Things fall apart within the widening gyre. The  Federal Marshal (Fernando Silva), with the most insincere and devilish smile appears, demanding back taxes from Lupita, a result of her brother’s duplicity. In the meantime the  village priest (Sergio Lazaro Cortez) is on the rampage to get a new church built, with a speaker tower  – a newer, crasser Tower of Babel.

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We will wait for you here

Miracles, though will happen. The birth of Lucifer’s son. The deaths of Emanuel and Lupita, ripped out of a B Traven dream. And sacrifice and redemption, though not necessary for the miracles, seem to be the misapplied logic to seal the deal. In the denouement, the villagers make a surreal and wondrous pilgrimage to around the rim of the volcano with Lupita joining a group of prisoners, of her own volition, to walk on their knees until one of them dies, giving absolution to the villagers. It’s heroic and meaningless. It keeps the myth and the reason for being alive.

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Van den Berge shot Lucifer in what he calls tondoscope, a circular format. He has a rather hilarious website devoted to it here. There are a few scenes that are shot in genuine tondoscope, a fish-eye-like process. But most of the film is matted, shot through normal lenses. He justifies the use of this format by saying, “The film is shot in a circular format because for me paradise is enclosed, with Heaven at its centre. The approach is philosophical, connecting the micro cosmos with the macro cosmos: we look at the world, as if from heaven, we see it in its true planetary form. At the same time we find ourselves looking at the world through a periscope, and experiencing it as molecular tissue.”

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Which I would suggest is pure bullshit. Though his explanation doesn’t demean the effect of watching his genuinely intriguing meditation on myth, faith and the propensity for humans to construct stories and justifications for the facts and mysteries of everyday life. However, the very thing he doesn’t allude to, the elephant in the screening room, is the iris shot. One of the mainstays of silent film grammar, and an effect still used – and brilliantly used by the likes of Sam Fuller and Francois Truffaut and Chuck Jones.

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Sam Fuller / Forty Guns

4 François Truffaut Shoot the Piano Player Tirez sur le pianiste DVD Review
Francois Truffaut / Tirez sur le pianiste

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Chuck Jones / Wiley Coyote

The iris. The direct relation of the camera lens to the eye. The camera has a mechanical iris that mimics the human eye. Do we see paradise through this eye?  With heaven at it’s core? Apart from the willful confusion of two different ideas – heaven above, paradise below, heaven the place we (Christians) aspire to go to, paradise the place that we will never return to – the tondo, the circle, the iris speaks of limiting the vision (despite what renaissance artists may have said in justification). Sure, the metaphor of the circle – completeness, the world, the whole – but the fact is the limited, the micro, the specific. Van den Berge is a little more truthful in the second last part of his statement, short of the periscope metaphor. I prefer the telescope for my metaphor. He suggests running silent, running deep. I suggest the tool of the voyeur. Which is what cinema is really all about – despite all those WWII movies about submarines.

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Robert Wise / Run Silent, Run Deep

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Alfred Hitchcock / Rear Window

Not to denigrate van den Berge’s accomplishment. It’s a beautiful and intriguing movie. He presents his case as slyly as Lucifer. His justifications, his words hide what lies behind. There are myriad explanations for phenomena, for how the world works and functions, for why we make movies. Ultimately, words fail us. And justifications too. What’s left is the light on the screen, on the monitor, that illuminates a few things, that casts a new light on the world. The way Lucifer and savvy filmmakers like van den Berge do.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

March 16, 2016 at 12:11 pm

Posted in Uncategorized