A Revolution on Screen: The Cinema of the People's Republic of China, 1949-1966

"A Revolution on Screen" is a two-part video essay coinciding with the 2009 New York Film Festival Masterworks series "(Re)Inventing China: A New Cinema for a New Society, 1949–1966." This series is the first major U.S. retrospective of the films made during the "Seventeen Years" period between the establishment of the People's Republic of China and the Cultural Revolution. PART ONE: MOVIES FOR THE MASSES (AND A SMUGGLING OF ART)

PART TWO: THE FLOWERING BEFORE THE FALL

Video Essay for 890 (10). Johnny Got His Gun (1971, Dalton Trumbo) with music by Metallica

View main entry It's a real pleasure to unveil this latest video essay for several reasons. First, because it marks the first of what I hope will be an ongoing series of videos produced in conjunction with the Greencine Daily, highlighting notable DVD releases. This initial video just happens to be on a TSPDT 1000 film that I blogged about towards the beginning of this online project: Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun.  Interestingly, the three video clips I posted to accompany my blog entry have more views than just about anything else I've posted on YouTube. I think it has something to do with a) the film not being available for many years, even though it's based on a book that's still widely taught in schools; b) the film being referenced in Metallica's video for their song "One."  At one point I even put an open call asking if anyone knew of how to get the film released on DVD, since I was receiving dozens of similar inquiries through my YouTube account. At long last, the film is available on Shout Factory DVD.  And I must say, it's a gorgeous transfer, miles better than the out of print VHS I used for my initial viewing. It even includes the Metallica video!

Here's my video essay, which you can also watch on GreenCine Daily and on YouTube. Enjoy!

Video Essay for 955 (97) Hitler: A Film from Germany featuring commentary by Susan Sontag

Visit the original entry for the film It's been 30 years since Susan Sontag published her essay that instantly became the definitive analysis of one of her all-time favorite films. I've taken choice excerpts from her essay, as found in A Susan Sontag Reader (published by Farrar/Strauss/Giroux) to produce the following video.

Thanks to Margaret Donabedian for giving voice to Sontag's words, and Cindi Rowell for her invaluable assistance in editing the video.

959 (101). The Hart of London (1970, Jack Chambers)

screened Thursday March 11 2009 on DVD via fileshare in Weehawken NJ TSPDT rank #511  IMDb Wiki

While the link between experimental and horror filmmaking remains largely under-examined, there's no question that some of the great works of experimental cinema could double as outstanding horror films: Peter Tscherkassky's Outer Space (which commits unspeakable acts on footage from the 80s horror flick The Entity), numerous titles by Stan Brakhage (i.e. The Art of Vision; The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes), even Michael Snow's Wavelength exudes an existential nausea in stillness that anticipates Kiyoshi Kurosawa by a few decades. While horror films typically depict violence in cinema, these avant-garde works, especially Jack Chamber's deeply disturbing 1970 film, commit violence on cinema, doing things to the celluloid medium that can leave both the viewer and the art form traumatically transformed. In The Hart of London, the horror erupts from the clash of human civilization and the great unknown that envelops it: an endless, brutal battle waged on multiple fronts: past vs. present, man vs. animal, wilderness vs. domesticity, surfaces vs. essences.

The film kicks off with a beautiful slow-mo shot of a hart deer leaping out of a forest into the town of London, Ontario, where most of the film's footage was shot. It's capture and killing at the hands of the locals sets off a snowstorm of archival photos and film footage, a cinematic blizzard superimposed double exposures, horizontal flips and negative inversions. Chambers' achievement here is in making the most innocuous footage of small town Canada seem foreign and menacing, a frontier past whose contentious relationship with its environs belie the civic aspirations of its archival imagery. This maelstrom is set to a relentless soundtrack of crashing waves whose initial aural violence gradually settles the viewer into its steady rhythm.

The surf sounds eventually give way to the gentler but no less incessant gurgle of tidepools, introducing the film's singularly most disturbing passage, where images of  children alternate with footage of sheep being slaughtered, a stunning juxtaposition of humankind's aspiring mastery over life and death. Chambers orchestrates these dual modes into a flow made possible by the tidepool soundtrack and liquid superimpositions of body parts, vegetation and bodily fluids. A recurring theme of cutting recurs through footage of an infant circumcision, shrubbery being trimmed by giant scissors and a slaughterhouse worker sticking his blade through the necks of sheep, which segues to more brutal, bloody footage of an infant child yanked from a womb. Children frolicking in a too-blue swimming pool interspersed with blood red footage of aborted sheep fetuses (some indiscernible from human counterparts) and a heap of freshly-disemboweled sheep intestines still writhing in digestive activity.

The film's last movement seems satirically vicious with its leering portrayals of domestic life: Canadians engaged in idiotic lawn games like barrel boxing; posing with their gardens or with a trespassing wolf they've killed; pointing at family photos and showing off caged canaries. Despite all the brutality that Chambers has envisioned up to this point, he seems to find these images of safe human home life just as horrifying in their own, somewhat lobotomized way, and in no way reassuring from what lurks beyond their papered walls. The final images of Chambers' own children approaching wild deer at the edge of a park, as their mother repeatedly hisses "You have to be very careful," leaves the viewer hanging in a tense, perpetual stalemate between mankind and the world around him.

THE HART OF LONDON is viewable in its entirety on YouTube

THE HART OF LONDON PART ONE (scroll down for other parts)

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?

THE HART OF LONDON PART TWO

This rarely screened 1970 film by Jack Chambers is one of the cinema’s strangest masterpieces, mixing poetic and documentary footage to ponder the clash between nature and civilization. With its raw nervous energy, its juxtaposition of color with black and white, and its peculiar array of imagery (the birth of a baby, the slaughter of sheep, the filmmaker mowing his lawn, a field being plowed, dense superimpositions of images that sometimes bleach to near white), The Hart of London recalls an earlier oddball masterpiece, Christopher Maclaine’s The End (1953). Chambers’s film begins with news footage that shows a hart prancing through backyards in London, Ontario, in 1954; its pursuers capture and kill it, and that disturbing scene echoes throughout. In the first half, poetic superimpositions of London create an odd mix of seduction and rebuff, and in the second, Chambers mixes his own footage with news cinematography, suggesting that we’ve reduced both ourselves and nature to images not unlike store-window displays. Chambers, who was diagnosed with leukemia the same year he began the project, once said that the film was about “generation,” and the cycles of life and death are ever present.

- Fred Camper, The Chicago Reader

THE HART OF LONDON PARTS THREE AND FOUR

The Hart of London combines archival newsreels with original footage while adding an undercurrent of simmering violence to the mix. Superimposing found images of a deer being trapped and killed in downtown London with antiquated images of the city in industrial transition (trolleys and automobiles share the street with horse-drawn carriages), Chambers re-creates an urban history that is original, expansive, and severe. As a parallel to the thematic motif of the persecuted deer, Chambers introduces chilling colour footage of lambs being slaughtered (photographed on a return visit to Spain) at the film's midway point. Chambers writes, "In the second part of the film [these slaughterhouse] images become symbolic of the pursuit and death of the deer. This theme is repeated again and again in the real images of everyday life."  These "real images" include several staged, mechanical spectacles (a teenager diving into an icy river, crowds gathering to observe a brush fire), as well as repetitive, banal daily activities (a man trimming his hedges, Chambers cutting his lawn). The consistent tension generated and sustained over the course of its demanding length, without the aid of musical cues or voice-over exposition, demonstrates why The Hart of London is considered Chambers' greatest cinematic achievement. Fred Camper, for instance, identifies The Hart of London as "one of those rare films that succeeds precisely because of its sprawl."  Stan Brakhage, meanwhile, has described The Hart of London as one of "the few GREAT films of all cinema - 'great' in the meaning of the word which suggests the breadth and depth it contains within the length it supports."

Brett KashmereSenses of Cinema Great Directors biography
THE HART OF LONDON PARTS FIVE AND SIX
The Hart of London combines archival newsreels with original footage while adding an undercurrent of simmering violence to the mix. Superimposing found images of a deer being trapped and killed in downtown London with antiquated images of the city in industrial transition (trolleys and automobiles share the street with horse-drawn carriages), Chambers re-creates an urban history that is original, expansive, and severe.
Through the course of the film, man encroaches on nature from every angle. People emerge from underground transport, parachutes fall from the sky and bridges cross water. Even children make sand castles on the beach preparing for the next image of concrete buildings. In the final analysis, nature seems to confront London’s inhabitants as an enigma or threat. At the film’s very end, children (Jack Chamber’s own) approach a hart with food, and their mother whispers warnings; the animal as object, filmed from afar, suffers from a perceptual uncertainty. In the case of a dead wolf, its hunters turn it into their image and have it wave and greet their woman at home, like a man returned from the woods.
While man thrusts himself on the environment, containing it and turning it into his image, Chambers treatment of the filmed image creates a fracture between the filmed and the ‘film’. His jarring superimposition of positive and negative creates particularly interesting deployments of light. In the case of newsreel footage of a horse and cart ploughing the field, he overlays a positive and negative of the same image, and only a small time displacement between the images makes the superimposition readable.Whilst light in cinema creates image and thus life, here Chambers acknowledges this but pushes further asking what it is interpret and recognize, unlike the objective view as propagated by the newsreels he uses and subverts to this end.
THE HART OF LONDON PARTS SEVEN EIGHT AND NINE
Speaking to writer Avis Lang (whose article is reprinted in a 1984 issue of the Capilano Review), Chambers said that The Hart of London is about “generation.” The filmmaker was diagnosed with leukemia in 1969, the year he began work on the film, which might explain its numerous disasters and frequent juxtapositions of life and death. But there are other major threads as well. Like many avant-garde films it explores objective versus subjective perception, and Chambers also suggests that all things are mystically unified by light. His theme that we’re alienated from nature is hardly novel, but it’s intertwined with a brilliant analysis of how news cinematography caters to the viewer’s voyeurism.
Every other major sequence in the film recapitulates the opening’s tension between nature and humanity. About midway through, Chambers juxtaposes two aerial shots: the first shows a few swimmers dispersed across a body of water, the image crisp and high contrast; the second, clearly news footage shot from a passing airplane, records a catastrophic flood, homes surrounded by water in lower-contrast gray. Later in the film, possibly staging a publicity stunt for news cameras, a young man swims across an icy river in winter, until he’s forced out and hustled into a van by police, captured just like the hart. Next Chambers shows victims of some sort of bombing or mine collapse being led from a hole in the ground, the newsman’s lens treating them not as humans but as just another parade for the viewer’s entertainment. In yet another sequence an extremely lush close-up fills the frame with leaves before a focus change reveals a pair of metal clippers trimming the plants; they emerge so gently that one has to wonder if our very conception of nature is shaped by our desire to alter it for display. Near the end of the film Chambers appears trimming his lawn with a power mower, and the rectangular lawns stretching out behind him remind us that we all play a role in carving up nature.
As part of his attempt to deal with the unruly sprawl of life, Chambers embraces contradiction. Perhaps the most dramatic example occurs when he cuts from black-and-white footage of a baby being born to color footage of lambs being slaughtered, the latter shot during a return visit to Spain. The Christian symbolism may seem blatant, yet by juxtaposing color with black and white Chambers startles the viewer, short-circuiting the most obvious interpretation. Writing in Artscanada in October 1969 and December 1972, Chambers described his work as “perceptual realism” and later “perceptualism”; his writings are dense and theoretical, but apparently he wanted to prolong the moment of perception before a person interprets what he sees, placing him in “a state of receptive passivity that somehow releases a higher...sense.” By opening himself up to such “wonder,” a viewer might be able to “perceive the Invisible Body ‘behind’ the world.”
An early script for The Hart of London included images of Christ descending from heaven, yet Chambers’s work also seems related to gnosticism, a connection one might infer from his statement that reality is “an invisible pattern of energy which in its attenuated, material form becomes trees, river, people, sky.” The Hart of London seems to set up a similar dialogue between objects and light: dense superimpositions occasionally bleach almost to white, which contrasts image as the container of a recognizable object with image as pure light. Many of the images are of London, including a man with a rifle (echoing the capture of the hart) and an imposing grid of windows from a downtown building. Trees may “attenuate” reality, but human constructions are even more severe.
Chambers aggressively managed his own medical care and lived until 1978, yet The Hart of London reveals a heightened awareness of human vulnerability in the face of nature—the sequence of Chambers cutting his lawn is followed by an aerial shot of stone ruins. And in the film’s penultimate scene, home-movie-style footage that Chambers shot himself, two deer stand by a fence in the London zoo; they aren’t wild, but Chambers’s two young sons approach cautiously while on the sound track their mother repeatedly whispers, “You have to be very careful.” They succeed in feeding the deer, and afterward Chambers pans from a river up to the sky, ending with a view of pure natural light. While Avis Lang takes these last two scenes as optimistic assertions that “the world is a miracle,” the whisper hints that the deer may be dangerous, and more than once the film’s editing has transformed benign activities into disasters. The world may be “full of wonder,” in Chambers’s phrase, but it also has the potential to kill us.
- Fred Camper, from his feature review for The Chicago Reader.  An even longer review exists on Camper's website.

ABOUT JACK CHAMBERS

Wiki

Jack Chambers is one of Canada’s most famous and greatest living painters. Why then have his films been as neglected as they have been? I feel that it is because his films do not arise as an adjunct to his painting (as is true in the case of most other painter film-makers) but that, rather, Jack Chambers has realized the almost opposed aesthetics of paint and film and has created a body of moving pictures so crucially unique as to fright paint buffery: thus his films have inherited a social position kin to that of the films of Joseph Cornell in this country. The fact is that four films of Jack Chambers have changed the whole history of film, despite their neglect, in a way that isn’t possible within the field of painting. There are no ‘masters’ of film in any significant sense whatsoever. There are only ‘makers’ of film in the original, or at least medieval, sense of the word. Jack Chambers is a true ‘maker’ of films. He needs no stance, or standing, for he dances attendance upon the coming-into-being of something recognizably new: (and as all is new, always, one must question the veracity of all works, whatever medium, which beseem everything but that truth).”

- Stan Brakhage

Jack Chambers is a renowned realist artist, whose notion of perception as a synthetic experience was formally expressed in a distinctive collage style of filmmaking. Through this style, he influenced the development of the diary and landscape film. In 1969, his aesthetic manifesto, Perceptual Realism, affirmed his belief in art as an intuitive but mediated response to the unity underlying all things. It also confirmed his preference for the photograph as a memory-aid as it preserved the original image without distortion.

Chambers, as a painter, was formally trained in traditional art making. From 1954 to 1959 he attended Madrid’s Escuela Central de Bellas Artes de San Fernando where he excelled as a student, winning the state prize for painting and the Paular Scholarship for landscape painting. He chose to study in Europe because he felt constrained by London’s conservative environment and the inadequacies of his local technical school, H.B. Beal. In his 1978 autobiography, he wrote, “I could only go so far with what I was doing... coming to the same deadend again and again.”

Spanish culture exerted a major influence on Chambers, and many aspects of his work reflect this influence: the preoccupation with death and recollection, the surrealist challenge to the normality of surface reality, an appreciation for light’s revelatory power and references to Catholic iconography. Other influences include mysticism, especially the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila; the occult and parapsychology, where notions of an underlying life force or energy binds all things together. All of these ideas contributed to Chambers’ belief in the visionary nature of the artistic experience. For him, the moment of individual self-awareness when “our souls and the souls of things become present to one another” encompassed myriad associations, past and present, which took the form of temporal and spatial disruptions in his artwork.

Chambers might have settled permanently in Spain, but he returned home in 1961 because of a family illness. His encounter with the landscapes of his youth and the memories it engendered had a powerful effect on him: “The memory of such places multiplied the longer I remained so near them, and the images wedded to their presence surfaced in me like the faces of long lost friends.” He realized his representations of Spanish culture would never possess the same resonance, and so he returned to London.

Collage artist Greg Curnoe, Chambers’ closest friend, recalled that Chambers started using a 16mm camera in 1964 to explore the London landscape. In an interview with arts reporter Lenore Crawford in 1969, Chambers remarked on how film was a liberating influence: “After I shot hundreds of feet of film and then edited it to eliminate the non-essentials, I realized what I needed and what I could leave out of a painting.... A painting doesn’t need to tell a story of any kind. It can be appreciated for what’s in it. There doesn’t even have to be relation of objects.” This statement describes his films equally well.

Chambers’ reputation as a film artist is based on the five works he completed between 1966 and 1970: Mosaic (1964–1966), Hybrid (1967), R34 (1967), Circle (1968–1969) and The Hart of London (1968–1970). A mixture of newsreel footage, home movies and photographs, these films reject the notion of linear time, characteristic of popular cinema, because Chambers thought the narrative illusions that resulted misrepresented the true character of human perception.

Using various montage strategies — semantic and formal — his films invest the viewing experience with a sense of “presentness,” so that individuals undergo the same process of self-awareness as Chambers (confrontation of the fragility of domestic happiness, the brutality of human nature, the challenges of artistic ambition, the inevitability of death).

- Kathryn Elder, The Film Reference Library

Elder is the author of The Films of Jack Chambers. Published by Indiana University Press, 2003

The paltry critical recognition afforded Jack Chambers' films in the '60s and '70s by Canada's film intelligentsia is typical of the avant-garde's marginalised status during its formative period. It should not be surprising, therefore, that most of the criticism of Chambers' film work of that time was published in visual art periodicals such as Canadian Art, artscanada and Artmagazine, and usually integrated with commentary on painting. Barry Lord, writing in artscanada, suggests that Chambers' films have "begun to recapitulate the development of his paintings." Gene Youngblood, also in artscanada, states that "Chambers, in my estimation one of the most important painters at work today, manages to invest his films with that special quality of 'cosmic fantasy' that characterizes his paintings." Mario Amaya, in a review of Chambers' paintings published in Art in America, observes that Circle "approximates the analysis of changing light on a particular subject that so obsessed Monet." ) The expansion of Chambers' formal and thematic concerns from painting into filmmaking is also the theoretical underpinning of Bruce Elder's detailed analysis of Circle. His essay "From Painting into Cinema" is the most thorough and convincing example of this approach so far. By expounding on Chambers's period of silver paintings (1966/67) as a key transitional passage in the development of his cinematic interests, Elder cogently traces the artist's preoccupation with light and time as manifested in Circle, and investigates the Romantic character of Chambers' ideas about art, nature and perception, as set out in his artistic manifesto "Perceptual Realism," showing how these ideas, too, find a precise articulation in Circle.

Jack Chambers' position in the Canadian avant-garde cinema of the 1960s can be assessed by reference to the changing contours of Canadian cultural policy around the time of Expo 67 (held in Montreal). Other factors, such as the Canada Council's financial commitment to experimental film beginning in 1967, the emergence of the campus underground as a viable alternative exhibition network, the establishment of Canadian Artists' Representation (CAR), also in 1967, and the development of independent film distribution cooperatives in Toronto, London, Montreal and Vancouver late in the '60s, all helped to determine the practical conditions necessary for a sustainable Canadian avant-garde cinema.

Since the avant-garde cinema was proposing a new kind of film, a new kind of viewing environment was also necessary. The 16mm projection equipment that had been integrated into schools and universities during the 1950s helped to provide an exhibition and distribution network for the Canadian avant-garde in the 1960s: college campuses essentially began to function as a ready-made parallel theatre chain. Chambers' primary motivation for forming the London Film Co-op in 1968 was to get his films distributed. In the 1960s, thanks in part to the New American Cinema's breakthrough success (not to mention Andy Warhol's international celebrity), screenings of avant-garde films on Canadian university campuses became quite common. Through these screenings, Canadian film experimentalists such as Chambers had an opportunity to network with and gain knowledge from their American opposite numbers. Chambers was especially influenced by Stan Brakhage's work; Brakhage's Window Water Baby Moving (1959) has been cited as a primary inspiration for Chambers' first film, Mosaic. Brakhage was also instrumental in getting Chambers' films some distribution in the United States, initiating Chambers' first American screening, held on November 15, 1977 at Pacific Film Archive. However, because Chambers was unable to travel due to his deteriorating health and myriad artistic commitments, his films were, even then, seldom noticed beyond the occasional passing references in film festival or visual art overviews. The contrast between Brakhage's ubiquitous presence and Chambers' near absence (except close to home) on the late '60s university circuit helps explain why Chambers' films were not more widely seen and, therefore, written about.

The emergence of the campus underground, coupled with the establishment of film co-operatives like Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, London Film Co-op, the Intermedia Film Co-op (Vancouver), and the Independent Film Makers Co-op (Montreal), allowed an effective system of distribution to develop; this network of parallel co-ops also helped to establish lines of communication between filmmakers in different parts of the country who would otherwise not have had means of contact. Jack Chambers' pioneering involvement with CAR, a national arts service organisation founded on Chambers belief in "fair exchange: payment for services," assured that filmmakers would eventually be compensated for the exhibition and reproduction of their work. It was within this cultural-historical milieu that Chambers worked to unite the various aspects of what remains Canada's experimental film apparatus.

His most decisive contribution to the development of a sustained, alternative Canadian cinema, however, was in the films he made, expanding on his own artistic strategies and concerns. As an early predecessor of subjective autobiography, Chambers' work anticipates the first-person, diary strain that surfaced in Canadian avant-garde film during the 1960s and '70s, emerging simultaneously in films such as Chambers' Mosaic and Circle, Watersark (Joyce Wieland, 1965), and personal documentaries made by the NFB experimentalist Derek May. (21) The traces of this impressionistic diary mode can be located in a wide range of later films including House Movie (Rick Hancox, 1972), The Art of Worldly Wisdom (Bruce Elder, 1979), The Road Ended at the Beach (Phillip Hoffman, 1983), Was (Mike Hoolboom, 1989), and You Take Care Now (Ann Marie Fleming, 1989). And the integration of quotidian subject matter and amateur tactics into film texts and formal repertoire, by, respectively, Chambers and Wieland, effaced the boundary between avant-garde film and "home movie." Films such as Nursing History (Marian McMahon, 1989), Girl from Mouch (Gariné Torossian, 1993), Zyklon Portrait (Elida Schogt, 1999), and What these ashes wanted (Phillip Hoffman, 2001) testify to the enduring influence of Chambers and Wieland on the fusion of art and life in Canadian first-person cinema.

- Brett Kashmere, Senses of Cinema Great Directors biography

Video Essays as a teaching tool: a testimonial

In arguing for the right to produce critical video essays as those featured on this site, I don't think it takes much to see their potential as educational resources. But one doesn't fully appreciate this point until one starts to learn how they are being used as educational tools. Based on a couple of comments to some of the video essays on YouTube, I've learned that there are students who refer to these videos for their papers or class work. I only hope that they are properly citing the source; lest there be any confusion on the matter, copying soundbites from a video to one's own scholarship without citing the source amounts to plagiarism just as much as if one were cribbing from a written text.

But just recently I have learned of an instance where a teacher actually used one of my video essays in a classroom, and the way they did so is quite illuminating. I received this message from Misa Oyama, a former lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley (Go Bears!):

I just taught a senior seminar called "Modern Horror" (19 students) for UC Berkeley's English Department, and we spent one week on "Zodiac." I asked a student to hook her laptop to the classroom projector (Berkeley classrooms have wireless access), so that we could watch your YouTube video essay on "The Vanishing"/"Zodiac". It was probably the most effective illustration of film criticism the students saw all semester, because students could see the shots and scenes simultaneously with your commentary, rather than just reading descriptions of the scenes like they do with conventional film criticism. I used your essay in conjunction with Manohla Dargis's review of Zodiac, to show how different viewers could do close readings of scenes from the same film to support their own interpretations. What I think students really liked about your video essay was its accessibility; it's a rich, complex reading of Fincher's work but presented in a personal, sometimes informal (the line "fuck-it-all" for Fight Club got a big laugh) way. After reading lots of academic film essays, the students seemed to find this refreshing. One of my students said it inspired her to want to make her own short video essays about her own reactions to films. I think it also made some students want to see "The Vanishing," because they asked me about it afterwards (and I made sure to tell them to see the original, not the remake).

Before showing the video in class, I put the YouTube link in my bSpace website for this class, so that students could comment on it. However, not all the students have high-speeed internet access at home, so I got the feeling that most students were seeing it for the first time in the classroom.

It's weird that Big Corporate Media would have a problem with your work, because you're obviously not trying to pass these films off as your own, and you're encouraging people to look deeper at films they might not know about. I'm not sure if it was because of your video, but one student got so obsessed with the Zodiac story that she bought the Zodiac DVD.

I hope you continue making these kinds of films, because there is definitely an audience for them.

It's exciting to think that the use of this video essay in class was a valuable supplement (not a replacement) to more traditional forms of classroom "texts," and furthermore, that it may inspire students to try out this form of scholarship on their own. I'm still fairly surprised that this form still isn't as prevalent as it could be.

Here's the video essay on The Vanishing and Zodiac:

Interview with Soumitra Chatterjee, Satyajit Ray's main actor, on Days and Nights in the Forest

An interview with the legendary SOUMITRA CHATTERJEE about working with SATYAJIT RAY, his career and their masterpiece Days and Nights in the Forest. The phone interview was conducted by me and filmmaker Preston Miller in August of 2008. Here's a link to the main entry on the film, and two previous video essays that Preston and I produced.

Thanks to Preston for editing the interview to clips from the film!

Free at last, free at last...

Thanks to the Copyright Team at YouTube for getting into the spirit of Martin Luther King Day, and agreeing to temporarily reinstate my account while my counterclaim against INA over the fair use of "...And God Created Woman" is under review.  And thank you EVERYONE for your emails and messages of support, and for those who wrote about my ordeal on their respective websites. The publicity surrounding this mess had everything to do with YouTube contacting me last Friday and offering guidance on what steps I needed to take to get my account back online (at the time I didn't know how I could still file a counterclaim despite that I was shut out of my account). This has been a very educational experience and I hope to blog about it after I catch up on jet-lag recovery sleep. In the meantime, here is the video that got me into trouble, now viewable courtesy of Veoh. Happy MLK Day, and Happy Inaguration Day, and Happy Brigitte Bardot!

Watch Shooting Down Pictures #932: And God Created Woman in Entertainment Videos |  View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

Eastwood Critics Round Table Video #3: Shots in the Dark: The Eastwood Look

This is the thid (and my personal favorite) of the video series I produced based on a roundtable conversation with several film critics on the films of Clint Eastwood.  We generally recognize Eastwood as a director of great films - but is there a distinctive Eastwood aesthetic, a look or a shot that distinguishes him and gives definition to his world? This video attempts to answer that question:

Eastwood Critics Round Table Video #2: Gran Torino

WARNING - possible spoilers contained within video. The second installment of the video series I produced based on a roundtable conversation with several film critics on the films of Clint Eastwood. Today's is on <i>Gran Torino</i>.  Unfortunately YouTube and Warner Brothers have blocked embedding on this video - so you'll have to click here to view it. In that case you'd might as well rate it or leave a comment on the clip's YouTube page, or leave a comment here.

I'd also like to include some comments to the video that someone left me on Facebook, which I haven't had the opportunity respond to yet until now:

"While I appreciate the critical take on Gran Torino as *racist*, I do think that overlooks a level of complexity built into the film.  Perhaps it is yet further playing into stereotypes of Asians as model minorities, etc., and the minority that it is still safe to mock, but I do think that misses the mark.  There's likely a reason that Eastwood/screenwriter chose the Hmong community, as opposed to say a Chinese, Japanese, or Vietnamese community, given that the Hmong in Americans have faced greater levels of poverty and have not fit so neatly into the model minority category.

It also seems to me that this film cannot simply be dismissed as racist and focused entirely on a white, authoritarian savior.  This is the only major American film I've seen this year that gives a complex treatment to the lives of relatively poor Asian-Americans.  The final scene, in my opinion, with Thao driving the Gran Torino with Daisy by his side. is one of the most compelling visions of what it might mean to "become American" that I've seen in years.  Thao takes his place behind the old American vehicle, with an American dog at his side, driving into the sunset.

Walt comes to play a part in Thao's family reluctantly, and perhaps, in a perfect world, we wouldn't need the white central character to draw mainstream audiences into this kind of story.  (I guess we could refer to Slumdog at this point.)  But it strikes me as moving, and extraordinary -- and not in a condescending or racist way -- that Eastwood decided to take on this story, about this community, at this late, perhaps final stage in his career.  The entire film seemed to me to be trying to show how America is changing today, in the way it has always changed (as Kowalski became American, as his Irish and Italian friends became American).  The message of the film seemed to present a bracing, generous, and inclusive view of what it means to be American -- a view that seemed fresh and welcome in a mainstream Hollywood movie.

I agree that the ending was somewhat fairy tale and pat, but I didn't find it off-putting.  I agree that it was Eastwood playing through characters he's played before, and the archetypes those characters built on, but there was an interesting renunciation of violence (in the film's own martyred vision) by Walt after a lifetime of being haunted by his own violence in Korea.  (The parallels to Eastwood's own film career and the roles he's played in the past are unavoidable.)

The greatest weaknesses of the movie were probably its reliance on Walt's spoken commentary to tell us what he was thinking, and the somewhat uneven performances from the largely amateur cast.

In any event, I did feel that this was a great American movie, and, as many have said, the first movie of the Obama generation. By that I mean that this is a film that changes the mainstream Hollywood view, and mainstream America's view, of what it means to be American."

I certainly appreciate - and agree in part - with this response, and I've taken into consideration to what extent the film is not racist but about racism, depicting racism as a sort of rite of passage for how American men come to estabish a unique, somewhat perverse rapport with each other, a tradition into which the Hmong kid gets initiated. This certainly speaks true of my own life experience, especially when I was a kid doing blue collar summer jobs.  I agree that the film's meditations on violence - and the Eastwood character's ultimate act - makes for a poetic rebuttal against how Eastwood's screen persona has traded in violence for most of his career, and if you consider that this may be Eastwood's final film, the effect is incredibly moving. 

It's interesting that the Asian American community, from what I've been able to gather at least among friends, has for the most part embraced this film as a fair and honest depiction of racism towards Asians in America, and one that gives sufficient prominence to its Asian characters and culture.  All the same, I stand by my complaint that the film ultimately disempowers the Asian characters for the sake of emphasizing the Eastwood character's melodramatic sacrifice. It's a post-colonial trope that is already looking stale in the 21st century.  In that sense, I don't think it's so much the first movie of the Obama generation as the last movie of the McCain generation - it's told more from a McCain than an Obama point of view.  A truly Obama movie would tell the story from the Hmong kids' point of view, not from the creaky old racist man on his last legs. Hopefully the last shot of the Hmong kids riding Eastwood's car has a symbolic resonance to it - that minorities will have more opportunities to drive Hollywood movies in the near future.

And even if Gran Torino is ultimately more of a McCain movie than an Obama movie, I still prefer its wacky, brutal but unexpectedly self-deprecating honesty over the square seriousness we're seeing in decidedly Obama-era cinema: Rachel Getting Married, Wendy and Lucy and Milk, films that, while well-meaning and competently executed, have almost nothing in them that challenges their own safe liberal worldview.

Eastwood Critics Round Table Video #1: Changeling

WARNING - possible spoilers contained within video. Some time ago I had the pleasure of sitting among some of my respected colleagues to discuss the films of Clint Eastwood, who had another remarkable year in 2008 with the release of both Changeling and Gran Torino.  The round table was hosted by Evan Davis of Film Comment and included:

To listen to the entire audio podcast, visit the Filmlinc blog.

I took choice segments of the commentary to produce three short videos on Clint Eastwood. Today I present the first of them, on Changeling.  Have a look and listen, and if you like it well enough, please rate it. also, see if you can figure out which of these critics picked Changeling as their worst film of 2008:

Video Essay for 941 (82). The World According to Garp (1982, George Roy Hill)

For this video essay, I'm especially pleased to have as guest commentator someone who I've known for almost as long as I've been discussing movies on the internet.   Back when I was a frequent visitor on the iMDb Classic Film board, I considered Christianne Benedict - known there as Chris-435 - to be one of the most readable and down-to-earth participants around.  Chris' enthusiasm for movies really comes through in her writing, especially when it comes to horror.  You can find many of Chris' writings at krelllabs.blogspot.com If you like this video, please rate it!

942 (84). The Art of Vision (1965, Stan Brakhage)

screened December 22 2008 on 16mm at the MoMA Media Study Center TSPDT rank #677 IMDb

In some ways, Stan Brakhage's 4-plus hour magnum opus isn't so much an epic of experimental cinema as the most intensely comprehensive horror movie that hardly anyone has seen. It's a horror of metaphysical proportions: its five-part structure takes universal elements of existence and renders them into a symphony of shock visuals inducing a state of alienated perception.  Brakhage's exhaustive vision summons a bracing repertoire of filming and editing techniques, including whip pans, color tints, lens distortions, and scratched and painted frames. Assaulting and enthralling, this technique calls attention to the celluloid medium existing almost independently of the real world, and impels an ethos of seeing for seeing's sake.

The Prelude launches a barrage of images of the natural world chopped and decontextualized into a stream of organic gibberish. It's a ruthless effort to deprogram viewers from their anchoring in narrative and divorce vision from cognition, replacing meaning with the sheer sensory power of image-in-itself.  It's somewhat puzzling that he follows this brazen opening with Part I, which teases a basic narrative of Brakhage arduously scaling a snowy mountain, suggesting a symbolic struggle of everyday life. Part II returns to a more abstract representation, intercutting shots of an infant with flashes of the world around it: the bewilderment of childhood, naked and exposed to a fearsomely vast universe.

Part III, the most wildly sensual section, can stand on its own as one of the longest and strangest sexual acts ever committed to celluloid. Sex is conveyed not through literal intercourse but through lingering close-ups of skin and hair, lurid orange and blue tinted glimpses of naked flesh writhing in fluid, and nauseating shots of guts being torn apart, conveying both a physical and emotional rending of self in the throes of erotic passion.  It's charged with both excitement and dread, horrified and inflamed by sex as an act of both love and violence.

Part IV seems to end over and over in a relentless loop, repeatedly showing Brakhage hacking away at a tree with an ax, existence as a restless cycle of debilitation slowly winding down to death, while flashing to distorted shots of body parts, landscapes and scratched and painted celluloid. In the end, there is only the work as a remnant of life's toil and suffering, whose value amounts to nothing more than fiery embers eagerly consuming its own existence.

Want to go deeper?

The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Art of Vision on the TSPDT list of 1000 Greatest Films:

Annette Michelson, Sight & Sound (1992) Jonas Mekas, Sight & Sound (1992) Michael Tolkin, Sight & Sound (1992) Paul Arthur, Village Voice (1999) Yoel Meranda, The Cinematheque Top 10 Project (2007) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

Stan Brakhage, 37, a husky hypochondriac who lives with his wife and five children in a log cabin in Colorado, has radically rewritten movie grammar. By fragmenting his films into frames, Brakhage has established the frame in cinema as equivalent to the note in music; whereupon he proceeds to make films with frames the way a composer makes music with notes. His Art of Vision, an attempt to do for cinema what Bach did for music with his Art of the Fugue, is an ambitious example of what Brakhage calls retinal music. One problem: to watch the violently flickering flick for 4½ hours, a spectator would require steel eyeballs.

- from "Art of Light & Lunacy: The New Underground Films," Time Magazine, February 17, 1967

The Art of Visionis a film that can change our whole ideas about the relationship of seeing, perception, and emotion with the preoccupations of the mind and the subconscious. The immediate effect of seeing the film for the first few times is to discover oneself infinitely more sensitive to the meanings inherent in our perceptions of the physical qualities of everyday objects. To put it bluntly, Brakhage has shown the value and meaning of real seeing. The manner in which we perceive the physical structure of the world around us determines our view of that world. This is the principle on which all great films have been based. But it has never been clearer than in The Art of Vision.

- Fred Camper, from his indispensible introduction to The Art of Vision, first published in Film Culture 46, Autumn 1967

The Art Of Vision, which is made up of Dog Star Man , has a rather elaborate structure of relationships, and it is these interrelationships that make up the content of the film. The basic action is Brakhage himself portraying a woodsman with an axe, climbing a mountain with a tree, followed by his dog. He plants the tree, then tears it down and chops it up. But the things that are filmed mean far more to Brakhage. He has said, "I saw the whole forest in relation to the history of architecture, particularly religious architecture, at least in the western world. Sensing structure, architecture, history of the world emerging, I began seeing prismatic happenings through snow falling, etc., and in relation to stained glass windows, for one example." Another example of symbolism is the white tree, of which Brakhage said: "There are other kinds of white trees (there can be a silver tree) but if it's a white tree, then in the mind it's a dead tree." During the film, Brakhage journeys up the mountain, this is another gesture of symbolism, perhaps of conquest or exploration. His battle with the dog possible represents man coping with beast. The man is Brakhage himself-- he is his own alter ego. This symbolic complexity, of which Brakhage has a reason for every fragment, is combined with an attempt to illustrate the dream process. Apart from the natural abstraction of hand painting, everything else in the film is "hyperconscious." In essence, "The Art of Vision" is composed of the sum total of Brakhage's own accumulated experience from what he sees and how he lives, to what he has read.

- Pip Chodorov with quotes from Film Is by Dwoskin pp. 150-151, posted by Roger Raymond Jr.

Really when I had the sense of being finished with this work was when the four and one-half hour work got a title separate from the seventy-five minute Dog Star Man composite. That happened when I visited the Kellys. We looked at all that material in order I had given it. The morning after we had seen the whole thing, [Richard] Kelly said at breakfast: "It seems to me you ought to read a life of Johann Sebastian Bach." We took another couple of sips of coffee, and I thought, "Un-humm, well, that would be a good thing to do." Then suddenly he came out with: "Well, to get that sense of form whereby a whole work can exist in the center of another work, or spiral out into pieces in another work, as in Baroque music, and that second arrangement be another piece entirely." I said: "Well, you mean like - but that isn't exactly what happens in The Art of the Fugue, but something like that." Suddenly he came out with: "Why don't you call it The Art of Vision?" Immediately that seemed to me a completely perfect thing to do.

- Brakhage, interviewed by P. Adams Sitney. Published in Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-garde, 1943-2000. Published by Oxford University Press US, 2002. Page 204.

An art of vision possible in a medium that has dominated our century and that herewith frees itself from dependence on all other art forms. Film has tended, even in the most experimental contexts, to be a composite of literary and plastic arts, dance and music, the eye at the mercy of intention, culture, pretense, and imitations. Now Brakhage's Art of Vision exists utterly free of all that. It is a totality of making so intense it becomes a systematic exploration of the forms and terms of the medium itself. To explore the form without exhausting the form: A definitive making in any art is the health of the whole art, of the arts. Art in its oldest sense is skill, skill of making; The Art of Vision is the skill of making seeing. The Art of Vision, The Art of The Fugue, a presumptuous comparison only so long as we accord film only evidential value. This film makes immediate the integrity of the medium. Climax of the edited film, a new continent of the eye's sway. Mind at the mercy of the eye at last.

- Richard Kelly, "On the Art of Vision." From Stan Brakhage: Filmmaker. Edited by David E. James. Published by Temple University Press, 2005. p. 32

What interested me most about "The Art of Vision" was the effect the repetition of the images had on my mind. It was, in itself, a metaphor for seeing.

When an image is repeated many times, superimposed with different shots, and each time put into a totally different "context" by the shots preceding them, it is impossible to not realize how our seeing is affected by the state of our brains. The experience of the image is completely different each time it is shown and to realize of our ability to experience such different feelings towards the same "thing" is simply mind opening.

"Dog Star Man" is one of my favorite films, although I have seen it only on DVD. I also had the chance to inspect it frame by frame many times, which I'm sure added a lot to its pleasure. Watching "The Art of Vision" was completely different partly because of what I have mentioned above.

Also, I knew a bit about the film's structure but for some reason I thought the last reel of "Dog Star Man" would climb to a climax at the end, the individual rolls followed by more and more complicated superimpositions. I was wrong, of course, Brakhage knows much better than that. The sense of that amazingly beautiful 4-reel superimposition decomposing helps the film blend into the daily life, something very rare in cinema.

- Yoel Meranda, posted on a_film_by

About Stan Brakhage

The center of Brakhage's theoretical discourse was always the poetics of vision. In his later formulations, he used the phrase "moving visual thinking" to denote the incessant moiling of the optical matrices that ground all acts of seeing (even in sleep), which he repeatedly insisted are prior to and beyond the reach of language. His first dramatic act of artistic self-incarnation, at the age of seventeen, was to throw away his glasses. Here's what he told interviewer Scott MacDonald:

One time, an optician, on looking into my eyes, said, "Well, by your eyes, physically, you shouldn't even be able to see that chart on the wall, let alone read it. But, on the other hand, I have never seen a human eye with more rapid saccadic movements. What you must be doing is rapidly scanning and putting this picture together in your head." ... I wasn't trying to invent new ways of being a filmmaker, that was just a byproduct of my struggle to come to a sense of sight.

- P. Adams Sitney, from his eulogy for Brakhage, Artforum, 2003

Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of "Green?" How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye? How aware of variations in heat waves can that eye be? Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of color. Imagine a world before the "beginning was the word."

To see is to retain- to behold. Elimination of all fear is in sight - which must be aimed for. Once vision may have been given - that which seems inherent in the infant's eye, an eye which reflects the loss of innocence more eloquently than any other human feature, an eye which soon learns to classify signts - an eye which mirrors the movement of the individual toward death by its increasing inability to see.

But one can never go back, not even in imagination. After the loss of innocence, only the ultimate of knowledge can balance the wobbling pivot. Yet I suggest that there is a pursuit of knowledge foreign to language and founded upon visual communication, demanding a development of the optical mind, and dependent upon perception in the original and deepest sense of the word.

- Brakhage, from "Metaphors of Vision." Published in Religion, Art, and Visual Culture: A Cross-cultural Reader, edited by S. Brent Plate. Published by Macmillan, 2002. Page 46.

Brakhage's great subject was light itself, its infinite varieties seen as manifestations of unbounded and unrestricted energy and its concretization into objects representing the trapping of that energy, and his great desire was to make cinema equal to the other arts by using that which was uniquely cinematic — by organizing light in the time and space of the projected image — in a way that would be worthy, structurally and aesthetically, of the poetry, painting, and music that most inspired him. The subtleties of his work, the intricacy with which he used composition and color and texture and rhythm, resulted in films that

Chartres Series
strip from Chartres Series courtesy: The Estate of Stan Brakhage and Fred Camper (www.fredcamper.com).

virtually demand multiple viewings. The best known and most important of avant-garde filmmakers, he was also in my estimation among the half-dozen greatest filmmakers in the history of the medium — and, as I believe time will establish, one of the very greatest artists of the 20th century in any medium.

His central achievement is often seen as the personalizing of the medium, his transformation of the projected image away from the relatively neutral record of the world to which documentaries aspire to an expression of an individual's emotions, ideas, dreams, fantasies, visions, eye-music, closed-eye seeing, and nightmares. To achieve this transformation he marshaled — and in some cases pioneered — a daunting panoply of techniques, from out of focus and over and under exposure to rapid editing to painting directly on the film strip to anamorphic distortion to collaging objects directly onto celluloid to heating raw stock before exposure. Hand holding his camera allowed him to transfer his own physiology to film, through a controlled use of jiggle that suggested his pulse and heartbeat.

But "personal" cinema is in some sense too easy: almost any film student can figure out how to use imagery and editing to express an emotion, and Brakhage always meant to present much more than the affections. More significant is the way that his films elude predictability. There is, of course, none of the arc of anticipation created by conventional narrative, but his films are also less predictable even than those of most of his colleagues. At the moment that a few seconds of a Brakhage film appear to be establishing a pattern, he breaks the pattern, and his purpose in doing so was not simply to be contrary. At the center of his ethos is a desire to create a filmic parallel to what Gertrude Stein, a major influence, called the "continuous present." His films don't present themselves as a mappable terrain each part of which helps one understand the other — and in that sense his work is the antithesis of Peter Kubelka's, though they admired each other's achievement — but rather they continually locate, and relocate, the individual viewer in the perceptual instant. While the paragraph about trying to imagine childhood vision that began his first book, Metaphors on Vision, is his most-often quoted statement, less often mentioned is the desire, expressed in that same paragraph, to try to experience everything in life as "an adventure of perception." But "adventure of perception" is what his films aspire to: his avoidance of predictable forms places the viewer at the center of a figuring-out process that will not only be different for each viewer but is never intended to lead to a fixed conclusion.

One small detail of Brakhage's work that all too often gets left out is that his films are stunningly, even ravishingly beautiful. It's no easy or static prettiness that he was after, but the kind of beauty that cleans out one's sensorium, that seems to scour one's sight all the way from the cornea to the optic nerve, that reorients the very way one sees. Brakhage's films serve as eye-training, both for seeing other films and as an opening onto more imaginative ways of seeing the world. If I had a friend who wanted me to teach him how to look at films, and unlimited access to an archive of world cinema, I'd begin with a couple of months worth of Brakhage.

- Fred Camper, Senses of Cinema

Brakhage has moved... through the climate and space of Abstract Expressionism, severing every tie to that space of action which Eisenstein's montage had transformed into the space of dialectical consciousness. Brakhage posits optical space as the "uncorrupted" dwelling of the Imagination which constitutes it. Dissolving the distance and resolving the disjunction Eisenstein had adopted as the necessary conditions of cinema's cognitive function, he proposes, as the paradigm of contemporary montage style, an alternative to Intellectual Cinema: the Cinema of Vision.

- Annette Michelson, "Camera Lucida/Camera Obscura." From Stan Brakhage: Filmmaker. Edited by David E. James. Published by Temple University Press, 2005. p. 32 p. 36

One result of superimposition, collage, painting, negative imagery, fast cutting, anamorphic photography, and swish panning was the flattening of the visual field. In demoting photographic depth from the norm to the exceptional instance, Brakhage pushed the filmic image in the direction of the most ambitious painting of his older contemporaries, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still, and others without yet embracing their commitment to abstraction.

- Ted Perry, Masterpieces of Modernist Cinema. Published by Indiana University Press, 2006. Page 107.

Brakhage recounts his disastrous encounter with Andrei Tarkovsky at the 1983 Telluride Film Festival

Brakhage in conversation with painter Philip Taaffe

Lloyd Kaufman of Troma Studios shares the influence Stan Brakhage had on his studio and filmmaking

Become a fan of Stan Brakhage on Facebook

Video Essays for 926 (67). Aranyer Din Ratri / Days and Nights in the Forest (1970, Satyajit Ray) - featuring Preston Miller

Special thanks to Preston Miller, director of Jones, for his fastidious commentary and contributions to these video essays.  Expect one more in the coming days, edited by Preston and featuring an exclusive interview with Soumitra Chatterjee, star of the film. Introduction to the film:

Scene analysis - "The Memory Game:"

Video Essay for 923 (64). Grey Gardens (1975, Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer) with commentary by Vadim Rizov

Vadim Rizov is a contributor to The Village Voice, The House Next Door and Nerve, and co-host of the Lichman and Rizov "Live" at Grassroots Tavern podcasts.

Video Essay for 922 (63). The Draughtsman's Contract (1982, Peter Greenaway) with Karina Longworth

Karina Longworth is the editor of SpoutBlog. Her writing has also appeared in FILMMAKER Magazine, The Huffington Post, Netscape, NewTeeVee, The Raw Story and TV Squad.