Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Different Intonations of a Mumble

Over the last couple of years, much has been written, both good and bad, about a number of young independent filmmakers in America. Eschewing – though not always or necessarily through choice – both the luxuries and the confinements of big budget filmmaking, these filmmakers have gained a reputation for telling real-life stories about real-life people. Among the filmmakers I'm talking about are Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg, Aaron Katz, and The Duplass Brothers (Jay and Mark), and collectively they are often referred to as being part of the 'mumblecore movement'. As has often been noted by others, this tag is misleading in more ways than one, not least because the word 'movement' implies some kind of group planning or signed manifesto which simply does not exist between these filmmakers. However, despite this fact, it seems almost inescapable for a film by one of these filmmakers to be spoken or written about without recourse to the term 'mumblecore', or indeed without reference to one another.

Although I don’t want to deny that these filmmakers share similarities (principally, low budgets and a focus on what's happening in the film as opposed to getting bogged down with technical issues), I think it's time that people began to take a closer look at the individual filmmakers whose work is often placed under the 'mumblecore' umbrella. I say this because although there definitely are good things about the umbrella – like increased exposure – I think there's a danger that the individual achievements of the filmmakers will remain unacknowledged or overshadowed. Without wishing to return unabashedly or incautiously to the auteurism of the 50s, I think that it's time it was recognized that at the heart of the movement lie a number of talented filmmakers with distinct visions (discernable even through their collaborations with each other).

The reason why I have singled out the particular filmmakers mentioned above is that I believe each one (or duo) goes about creating films in a different way, the result of which is a number of films which are clearly distinct from one another.

I have neither the time nor the intention of turning this into a thorough or exhaustive analysis of these filmmakers and their works, but instead wish to broadly outline my point in the hope of generating something approaching an alternative direction to the way that people discuss their films (and please forgive me if this point has been made before, or better, by others).

So, a quick summary of what I perceive to be the main differences between these filmmakers is as follows, though please note that this is only my opinion and that these statements are in no way meant to be taken as definitive.

Andrew Bujalski, first and foremost, makes films about characters.
Joe Swanberg, first and foremost, makes films which explore ideas.
Aaron Katz, first and foremost, makes films which act as social commentaries.
The Duplass Brothers, first and foremost, make films based around concepts.

Of course, I'm not trying to suggest, even for a second, that, for example, Bujalski's films don't have strong ideas behind them or that Swanberg's don't have great characters, and I hope that my words won't be taken in this way. What I'm attempting to do is outline and suggest independent identities for a group of individual filmmakers who I feel are in danger of becoming permanently consigned to a single, restrictive tag. That said, I feel it necessary to briefly qualify my statements.

Taking a look at the films of The Duplass Brothers, starting with This Is John, it becomes possible to see the concepts they are based on (here, the struggle of a man trying to record a new answer phone message bringing about a crisis of identity). The Puffy Chair, meanwhile, could be defined 'as a road movie which focuses on a guy's relationships with his brother and his girlfriend as he travels to give his father a birthday present'. Of course, this is a crude reduction and I'm using 'concept' only for want of a better word, but hopefully my point is clear.

The clearest hint that Aaron Katz's films can be viewed as social commentary perhaps comes from their titles: Dance Party, USA and Quiet City. Taking the titles as our starting points, it becomes possible to read the events and characters of the films as metaphors (perhaps microcosms is a better word) which explore the state of society as a whole.

For my conclusions on Joe Swanberg's work, I'm going to take the example of LOL. Although I might be wrong, I get the impression that the film grew out of Swanberg's desire to explore the idea of what technology means for us and our relationships – this is what I mean when I say that his films are primarily idea based.

Finally, to return to Andrew Bujalski. I believe that, perhaps, of all the filmmakers mentioned, his films are the least concerned with conventional narrative and the most concerned with characters. This is not to say that Bujalski's films are completely void of narrative any more than it is to say the other filmmakers are making films with a strong emphasis on narrative. The point is more that, where The Duplass brothers give us a road trip (with a destination), Bujalski simply gives us Marnie wondering from one situation (and person) to the next.

Although what I’ve said about each of these filmmakers is indeed contestable (and please feel free to start a debate in the comments section), I hope that I have at least gone some way to demonstrating that each of these filmmakers has their own identity and deserves to be considered as an individual filmmaker and not viewed only in the light of the so called 'movement'.

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Monday, 29 September 2008

Borges

Thinking over the post I placed up yesterday, I've decided I'd like to expand a little bit on the subject of Borges.

Borges is, for me, one of the most powerful and important writers whose work I've yet encountered (I readily admit to being less well read than I'd like to be). Rather than writing a long polemic about the beauty of his wording or the intrigue, implications and profundity of his ideas, I'd like to simply illustrate my belief with another quote:

There was no one inside him; behind his face (which even in the bad paintings of the time resembles no other) and his words (which were multitudinous, and of a fantastical and agitated turn) there was no more than a slight chill, a dream someone had failed to dream.

This sentence is the opening from his piece Everything and Nothing found in Collected Fictions and Dreamtigers (I recommend the Andrew Hurley translation of the former). In my opinion, it demonstrates perfectly the power of Borges' writing, and indeed the reasons why I love his work.

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Sunday, 28 September 2008

Quote for the Week

Earlier this week I started reading Borges’ The Total Library, and the quote below, from his early piece Verbiage for Poems, stood out for me as something worth noting down in my journal. Several days later, it seems worthy of being my inaugural ‘Quote for the Week’:

Language is an efficient ordering of the world’s enigmatic abundance. Or, in other words, we invent nouns to fit reality...All nouns are abbreviations. Instead of saying cold, sharp, burning, unbreakable, shiny, pointy, we utter “dagger”.

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Saturday, 27 September 2008

15 Years of Shitting Brown Water

Last Saturday I went to see The Wildhearts play a 15th Anniversary gig for their album Earth Vs The Wildhearts. I first got in to The Wildhearts around this time - like I suspect a lot of people did - when I saw them playing Caffeine Bomb on Top of the Pops. I was nine at the time. And they've been my favourite band ever since, despite the highs and lows that have occurred since then. Having lived with the Earth Vs-era songs for so long, it's easy to forget just how incredible they are. This is as true of the B-Sides as it is of the A-Sides.

When the band released their new, self-titled album last year, it was heralded as being their best album since Earth Vs. Although I don't really agree with this statement, I wouldn't want to go on record as disagreeing - all in all I like each of their albums equally, for one reason or another. And that's my point.

By calling their last proper studio album (not counting the recent covers album) their best since Earth Vs, I feel that critics (and fans) are, in a way, overlooking the achievements of the band in the interim period (an oversight comparable to that made by people who claimed that The Departed was Scorsese's best film since GoodFellas, despite the fact that he's actually made better films than GoodFellas since GoodFellas). I feel that this is especially true of the album Endless Nameless, which is disliked by many fans, and, as rumour has it, current band members. In my own, minor, way then, I feel it's time to call for a critical reappraisal of this album. Although the album is admittedly buried under a coat of potentially inaccessible noise, the songs (and the b-sides from the singles) are as good as any others written by the band. When they toured at the end of last year, a couple of songs from the album made it into the set. I hope that this will continue, and that, when the album turns 15 in 2012, the world will be ready to embrace a similar celebration to the one that took place last weekend. In the meantime, roll on 2010 and a 15th anniversary show for p.h.u.q.

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Friday, 26 September 2008

Candlelight

It seems only fitting than one of my first posts to this blog should be about one of my favourite films, made by one of the (if not the) greatest filmmakers of all time: Ordet by Carl Th. Dreyer. Based on a play by Kaj Munk, the film tells the story of three brothers, one of whom falls in love with a tailor’s daughter (only to have their parents disapprove of their interfaith relationship), one of whom declares himself agnostic, and one, Johannes, who declares himself to actually be Jesus Christ. Many people more skilled and schooled than me have written about this masterpiece of filmmaking, and I make no attempt here to dissect the text in full. Instead, I wish to focus my comments on one particular scene, which occurs near the beginning of the film, and show how it illustrates Dreyer’s genius and perhaps helps with a basic understanding of the film and its characters.

The two 'sane' brothers and their father sit around the living-room table, when Johannes enters. He strides over to some large candles which sit on top of a chest of drawers, and begins to light them. Once lit, he moves the candles over to the windowsill, so that his 'light may shine in the darkness'. Johannes then leaves the room, and Inger, the wife of Johannes' agnostic brother, walks straight up to the candles, blows them out, and returns them to the chest of drawers. The family then begin to discuss Johannes' madness.

Although ostensibly a minor action, Inger's behaviour in this scene is just one example of the sheer brilliance of Carl Th. Dreyer, and perhaps one of the great cinematic metaphors, perhaps also acting as a perfect microcosm of the film itself.

Ordet is, in every way, a complex and dense work, perhaps never truly unlocked and certainly as mystifying as it is captivating: as Chris Fujiwara states in his essay The Strangeness of Ordet, it is, by all means, a difficult film. And yet, taken at one level, it is a film – I would say perhaps even a simple film, but this would be misleading given its complexity – about faith.

By looking at the film through this lens (and examining it as a film about faith), Inger’s behaviour is a clear metaphor, the act of blowing out the candles representing a staunch defiance to believe. Although some of the characters claim to believe, their refusal to see Johannes' 'light', as it were, can be seen as representing their refusal to truly believe.

The film's ending, which is perhaps the most powerful ending in cinema, shows that anything is possible when people do have faith (excuse the digression, but at this point I feel I should mention that the ending is so powerful that Carlos Reygadas felt the need to rip it off almost shot-for-shot – but notably with none of the power – in his film Silent Light). However, even in the run up to the miracle with which the film ends, the family still do not have faith: they are still not ready to believe, to accept the light. It is only Inger's young daughter who believes wholeheartedly; a comment, perhaps, on the childlike worldview (dare I say purity?) that one needs in order to believe wholeheartedly.

Thus, the metaphor of the candles brilliantly shows that despite what some of the characters claim, none of them have faith or belief. This one, seemingly insignificant, piece of action tells us everything we need to know about the characters and, in the context of a reading of the film as a text about faith, even underscores and outlines a major theme of the film, while also foreshadowing its ending. To me, that is the genius of this metaphor, and the genius of Carl Th. Dreyer.

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Thursday, 25 September 2008

A Rather Unfortunate Piece of Film Marketing

Hmmm…

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2008/sep/24/righteouskill.deniro

Wrong time, wrong place. Possibly even wrong tag line, but that's a debate for another day.

That aside, when I saw this poster the other day, I was both amused and amazed that anyone thought putting Pacino’s name a little higher than De Niro’s was a good idea. I mean, I understand why it was done and appreciate the diplomacy and all…but don’t they realise that it just looks stupid?

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Naming This Blog and the Anxiety of Influence

So, although I have a ton of more useful and more important stuff to do today, I thought I'd start a blog. Not because I feel that I have anything desperately important, original or insightful to contribute to the blogosphere, but because I’ve been thinking about doing this for a while and thought now might be as good a time as any. I’m hoping to use this blog to chalk down random thoughts and opinions that I have that I think might be worth sharing for one reason or another. I suspect that usually these posts will be about films or filmmakers, but don't be surprised if entries pop up on art, literature, music, or anything else for that matter.

So, ignoring the pile of work I have on for today, I sat down to set up this here blog. It'll only take a few minutes, I foolishly think to myself. I have a killer title, after all: Reflections from a Kino-Eye, so I'm all good to go. Before I start though, I decide it might be worth just Googling my ‘perfect title’ to check it hasn't been used before…and it has. Twice. Right, never mind, I sigh, on to idea number two: Scribblings of a caméra-stylo. Only, of course, that's been taken too...

Frustrating, but how about this: I'll take something from Waking Life
how about 'Salsa Dancing with my Confusion'. It's perfect! No one will have thought of that!

But of course they had…

When I was at University, my good friend Timo Tolonen and I made a film entitled Is This a Question? Is This an Answer? which was, in part, about how everything has been done before (and, of course, we knew that even the idea of making a film about how everything had been done before had also been done before, such being the world that we live in).

In our postmodern world where everything is pastiche and bricolage, the idea of creating or writing (or hell, even thinking) anything which is truly original seems even more elusive and further from our grasps than ever before. To kill our idols and overcome our anxiety of influence is a task which I fear we will never be able to totally achieve, though of course we must try. I fear though, that perhaps the best we will ever manage is to put a new spin on an ageing concept, a new coat of paint on a hunk of rusting metal. But perhaps I’m being a little overly cynical and pessimistic here: great art is still being produced the world over, and this is something to be celebrated (and I hope indeed to celebrate it in future postings to this blog).

So, perhaps our anxiety of influence is unfounded. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if we’re telling a story or repeating an idea which someone has had or told before us. As long, of course, as we give it a new lease of life. And this idea, of shedding our fear and embracing a new lease of life brings me (perhaps a little tenuously) right back to where I came in. And so, I leave you with a passage of dialogue from Richard Linklater’s sadly forgotten, underrated and appallingly unavailable masterpiece, subUrbia, from which the title of this blog has been taken:

You know, like, like, I would always think, uh, you know, what if I make the wrong move? But maybe there isn’t any right move…I can do anything I want, as long as I don’t care about the result. Anything is possible. It is night on planet earth and I’m alive. And someday I'll be dead. Someday I'll just be bones in a box, but right now, I'm not. And anything is possible. And that's why I can go to New York with Sooze because each moment can just be what it is. There's no failure, there's no mistake. I just, I just go there and live there and what happens, happens. And so, right now I'm getting naked and I'm not afraid. You know? I don't, I don't need money, man. I don't, I don't even need, I don't even need a future. I, I could knock out all of my teeth with a hammer. So what? You know, I could poke my eyes out. I'd still be alive, you know? At least I'd know that I was doing something real for two or three seconds, you know? It's all about fear and I'm not afraid anymore, man. Fuck it! Fuck fear!

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