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Monday, January 07, 2008

Roundtable 1 : CCC synopsis

To pursue the issue debated by Rosenbaum and Durgnat in the text recommended by Adrian Martin earlier (Obscure Objects of Desire: A Jam Session on Non-Narrative) I propose our first roundtable would take a look at how CCC is "summarized" and sold to the readers in today's press in the form of short capsules, press kit synopsis, or year-end statements.

Please post the best and the worst of what you've read this year on the recent CCC films. Just a few lines. When the author is pressed to extract the "essence" of the film in just a few words. What are the main elements used to represent a "plotless" film. Do they go for an atmospherical suggestion, or try hard to give minor plot points? Do they talk about the form or the content? Do they recommend/diss it for its atmosphere or for its length or for its plastic beauty or for its confused story?

Post anything, whether it comes from the distributor, the auteur in an interview, or from critics in the press or on a blog, or from your own reviews. And let's comment them.

You could also give it a shot and propose your own capsule for a given film (for exemple the ones listed on the sidebar for 2006 and 2007 releases, or older if you prefer). That would be interesting to find new creative ways to describe CCC, more poetical/evocative/artistical, and less conventional/narrative/literary.

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HarryTuttle said...

A couple ones from the year-end lists for Stellet Licht/silent Light (2007/Reygadas/Mexico). My emphasis in bold.

- Nick James (Editor, Sight and Sound, UK) : "Almost painfully slow and tender, this paen to illicit love among terribly sincere Mennonite farmer types is platitude-rendingly distinctive despite its flyblown Ordet tribute coda."

- Maria Delgado (Professor of Drama and Theatre Arts, Queen Mary's, University of London, UK) : "Carlos Reygadas's uncompromising, contemplative, elegant film pushes at the very boundaries of what we understand as cinema."

- Derek Malcolm (Critic, Evening Standard, UK) : "Reygadas may not be to everybody's taste, but this slow but haunting homage to Dreyer, and possibly Bergman, can legimitately be called as much poetry as prose."

- Peter Matthews (Critic and academic, UK) : "Reygadas' homage to Carl Dreyer's Ordet is a triumph of measured, contemplative cinema."

- Jonathan Romney (Critic, The Independent on Sunday, UK) : "Reygadas is a film-maker who manages to pack an element of surprise into every shot - just as much in this contemplative, subtly troubling film as in his confrontational Battle in Heaven. This film combines a sublime simplicity of image with a remarkable complexity of feeling and signification."

HarryTuttle said...

These are comments from critics who elected the film in their top10 list! Why would they feel sorry about recommending them then? I don't understand...

What is so painful about slowness? Are you in a rush to get things done out of the theatre? Take it easy, Carpe Diem dude...
Do you expect a high content/time spent rate? Maybe it's slow and painful compared to our crazy intense lifestyle, the MTV zapping TV type, the overstated narrative of our content feeders...
But slowness is not inherently negative. We should characerize it in negative/pejorative terms. CCC needs a change of vocabulary and an evolution of mentality too.
CCC is good BECAUSE it's slow, now tell us why. That's what we want to know from critics. :)

Carlos Ferrão said...

For Paranoid Park:

- Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, UK)
The movie doesn't narrate what happened so much as immerse itself in Alex's numb state of alienation and denial, which I didn't find quite as rewarding as I guess I was supposed to.

- Kirk Honeycutt (Hollywood Reporter, USA)
As his own editor, Van Sant has composed an emotional mosaic that brings you inside Alex. As with most non-pro actors, Nevins isn't very expressive. But this plays right into his director's hands. He wants a kid who is so scared and confused he can only stare back at the world.

-David Nusair (reelfilm.com)
Paranoid Park is certainly the filmmaker's most inaccessible effort to date, as the movie - which is chock full of all his expected stylistic quirks, including long tracking shots of people walking - ultimately feels as though it's about 20 minutes worth off story stretched out to fill a 90 minute running time. The non-linear plot - which essentially revolves around a skateboarding teen who may or may not be involved in a murder - has been padded out with slow motion and instances of repetition, and while there is admittedly something initially mesmerizing about the whole thing, there does reach a point at which the viewer begins to long for something more concrete.

Edwin Mak said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Edwin Mak said...

"...painfully slow and tender..."

What is interesting here is how Nick Jones has positively charged his use of the traditionally negative adverb "painfully". He is not employing it in a negative (at least derisive sense).

We can induce that "painfully" is welcomed in this sense. I like this comment for this reason, it is an acknowledgment of what can be interpreted as a masochistic pleasure of the slow.

Perhaps this opens another avenue of questioning, that of 'contemplativeness' and its relation to pleasure.

Adrian said...

These (often hilarious) quotes helpfully compiled so far tell the truth that I discovered when I was a journalist: when serious critics recommend contemplative films, they instinctively APOLOGISE for them, even if (maybe especially if) they love them!! I made a big, conscious effort over 15 years to NEVER use phrases like 'It may not be to everyone's taste, but ...' or 'Just stay in your seat and give this film a chance, because it gets better' ... which is how sympathetic, sincere journalists almost always recommend Hou, Tsai, etc, to their 'general' readers. (The UK convention is worse: terms like 'painfully slow' seem to imply: 'You will suffer, just as I suffered, but it will finally be good for you to watch this film'!) All of this tone/address arises from incredible defensiveness about writing for the general audience/reader - everything has to 'softened' (so the assumption goes) for this 'normalised' flimgoer, everything has to be related to conventional narrative entertainment ... it takes a strong, committed and very conscious critic (like Jonathan Rosenbaum) to avoid or eschew such a posture.


Edwin Mak said...

I agree with you Adrian, this is symptomatic of the fact that these films are in a sense not universal. It would be enlightening to see what proportions of spectatorship enjoy contemplative films. The other disclaimer/warning I noticed more lately is the "slow-burner" remark.

These films are not good simply because they are slow, rather it is the potential of cinematic exegesis when they films are not fast. I tend to think about these ideas in terms of negation.

I would love the chance to write a unapologetic tag lines or reviews for pull quoting in terms of negation.


Elegantly devoid of digressive gimickery.

You shall not experience a greater cinematic unease this year.

HarryTuttle said...

Nice quotes Carlos. I'm especially interested in the last quote (by David Nusair) which is typical of an anti-contemplative mentality. Even though I didn't like Paranoid PArk personally (I think it's his most conventional plot and editing job of his "Bela Tarr series"), the comments here are definitely unfair, and show how the critic resists to get into the film and adopt its own language.

I understand the ironic use of "painful", but what strikes me, like Adrian Martin says, is the guilt induced by such comment. the critic feels obligated to warn the mainstream readers about a potential "boredom", as if boredom was a universal reaction to such film. It denies the possibility of an audience who doesn't mind slow pace and long takes.
Would it even occur to mainstream critics to warn readers about the number of dead people in Titanic, or about the risk of crying towards the end? They usually assume these kind of details are positive points for the film within its genre, and feel no need to apologize for it.

Hi Adrian,
thanks for dropping by for this blogathon! I agree with you about Rosenbaum, but these critics who tries to escape the comformism of mainstream conventions and an "idealized" normative audience are very few in today's press. That's why we need to change this, little by little, by pointing to bad wording and unfair reviews. This is the role of this blogathon and this blog too.

HarryTuttle said...

Andrew Tracy (cinemascope) : "Even for those blessed few (the present writer included) not obliged to catch the big tickets, meet deadlines, or talk shop, the viewing pace can leave behind only residual snatches of film memories, encapsulated in a few quickly tuned phrases intended as much for oneself as for possible audiences, willing or unwilling. As the inescapable pressures of festival-going naturally produce soaring overpraise and cataclysmic denunciation in abundance, the key is to find moments of sanctuary, pockets of restfulness where films can find some breathing space to turn over in the mind—and hopefully, some films that adopt that relaxed tempo as well, in contrast to the hard-sell products that dominate so many festival reports."

HarryTuttle said...

Chris Darke (Film Comment) on Kawase's Morning Forest: "A car accident strands them in a forest where, in the film’s final third, through an understated tour de force of direction and camerawork, Kawase engineers catharsis for the characters and an epiphany for the viewer."

Alexander Horwath (Film Comment) on Benning's RR: "a majestic film of moving trains and how they “define the Z axis” in pictorial space, RR is among Benning’s finest works. Never in a hurry, it’s nevertheless a rush, a swelling of velocities in space and of the cultural and political meanings that attach themselves to the 43 trains on view. RR also gives us, to quote photographer Allan Sekula, “the image of a vibrating continuous pipeline of goods, a monstrous snake moving through the landscape, unstoppable until it meets a magical forest of windmills.” At 65, Benning is at his peak."

There are "positive" phrasing too.

HarryTuttle said...

Ian Johnston (Not Coming on The Man From London:
"This failed to work for me — an almost bitter disappointment given Béla Tarr’s track record so far. The problem is that in spite of isolated moments of Tarr brilliance Simenon’s spare downbeat novel is hardly appropriate to the weight that Tarr’s slow and deliberate style brings to bear on it."

Adrian said...

I am enjoying this! Two other popular devices frequently used by journos/bloggers/etc to supposedly 'popularise'/make palatable contemplative films:

1. The 'On Drugs' Device:
- It's Bresson on crack! / Tarkovsky on acid! / Sokurov on XTC ! / etc

2. The 'Mixed With' Device:
- it's Ozu mxed with KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE! / It's Brakhage mixed with MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING! / It's Dreyer mixed with HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE! / etc

... let us also not the 'grudging cynical praise' device: "If you like those slow 5 hour films from Afghanistan [insert demonised country of choice] about a peasant peeling potatoes in static long shots and with just the sounds of birds twittering, you'll love this one ... "


celinejulie said...

This is a synopsis of THE KITE (2002, Aleksei Muradov, Russia) in TIME OUT FILM GUIDE, written by Geoff Andrew. I love this film a lot, but I think Andrew wrote this review by being conscious of different groups of his readers—those who love contemplative films and those who don’t.


“From the opening scene of an alcoholic boozing by night to the somewhat unexpected ending, this slow, sombre film refuses to make things explicit or easy for the viewer. The narrative shifts focus almost as much as the camera, demanding patience as it reveals only gradually what's going on or why. If anything, it's a vision of hell on earth: a couple row endlessly, drained by the difficulties of work and of caring for a disabled son. The film does finally reward the attentive viewer with revelations and moments of true tenderness, but it's probably a bit too gloomy and ungiving for most tastes.”

--As for the kind of short review I like, I like what my friend Filmsick wrote for RAISED FROM DUST (2006, Gan Xiao Er, China) in his most favorite film list of 2007 in a Thai website (www.onopen.com) , because it’s the review which makes me know instantly that this is a must-see film for contemplative film lovers, though he may use some words which may seem like a warning for those who don’t love contemplative films.

I tried to translate his review from Thai into English here. My translation is not 100 % accurate compared to his Thai review:

“This film is about a poor woman who has a sick husband staying in a hospital and a daughter who can’t pay tuition fees. What’s surprising is that the film contains no melodramatic scene. This is a low-budget film, full of static shots and stillness. The images seem to be transfixed by the empty atmosphere of rural China. Every scene is so natural, so life-like and so long that it can be a torture. The film is like a documentary without an ounce of sentimentality. We rarely see a close-up scene of the heroine. The story doesn’t seem to move forward. There is no music. Even in the climactic scene, we can only hear a sound of the wheels from her vehicle. This is not a kind of slow-but-deep films as Hou Hsiao-hsien’s, nor a kind of slow-bittter-humorous films as Tsai Ming-liang’s. But this is a film of stillness and silence which is extremely hurtful and powerful.”

HarryTuttle said...

Good ones Adrian!
I've seen quite a few of (1), it combines both namedropping, to show the readers the writer has seen high-brow cinema, and to justify the awkward comparison (which is too often far-fetched as much stylisticaly as ideologicaly) and at the same time dissmisses the master reference (who is probably too slow when not doing drugs) and the film reviewed (which is a bad imitation with a delirious rhythm).

(2) is a general problem in film reviewing! Though I admit I use that sometimes to give an idea of the film type or its area of taste when recommending it to a friend in just a few words.
We can also see "cross mating" : This is a cross of Psycho with Alice in Wonderland (Gilliam's Tideland).

Or there is always "the new Hitchcock", "the new Cassavetes", "the new Brigitte Bardot"... as if critics were desperately nostalgic, afraid of novelty, falling back safely on proven zeitgeist references.

Anyway this is turning into another instalment of my Critical Fallacy series... ;) hehe

HarryTuttle said...

From the article recommended by CelineJulie :

Jonathan Romney (The Guardian, UK, 2000) : "The film in question was Satantango, made in 1994 by the Hungarian director Bela Tarr, and something of a legend among aficionados of painstakingly slow European art cinema. A film that long and that sombre is not likely to become an international art-house hit along the lines of Jean de Florette, or even to find a comfortable slot on the festival circuit. But Tarr's film has a reputation as something more than a lugubrious oddity of monstrous proportions - it is a powerful, visionary piece of cinema that creates its own stark world and keeps the viewer compellingly locked in for its duration.
(...) his most recent film Werckmeister Harmonies recently caused a stir at the Edinburgh Film Festival, where viewers received it as a genuine cinematic UFO. Filmed in Tarr's characteristic slow, analytically prowling shots, Werckmeister Harmonies is set in a desolate rural settlement where a violent communal madness is sparked by the arrival of a bizarre fairground attraction - the preserved body of a huge whale.
[Fred] Kelemen's films are severe to a fault - although he does have a penchant for trashy Euro-disco on his soundtracks."

HarryTuttle said...

On Still Life (2006/Jia Zhang-ke, China)

Charlotte Garson (Critic, Cahiers du Cinema, France) : "At the Festival du reel in Paris in 2005, when head of the jury Jia awarded YANMO, a Chinese documentary on the Three Gorges Dam, one knew the mind-bending landscape of the Yangtze River was almost the logical following to THE WORLD. Jia's melodramatic"

James Quandt (Critic and programmer, Cinematheque Ontario, Canada) : "Jia Zhangke assures his position as the bard of the new China with these, the first a melancholy portrait of two people searching for a past that has been literally washed away, the latter a documentary ostensibly about fashion design but really about expendable humanity."

Jonathan Rosenbaum (Critic, Chicago Reader, US) : "No contemporary filmmaker has more to say about the ravages of capitalism than Jia, and possibly no Chinese film since Tian Zhuangzhuang's shamefully overlooked DELAMU has done as much with landscape as this quirky epic about the development of Three Gorges."

HarryTuttle said...

Du Levende / You, the Living (2007/Roy Andersson/Sweden)

Derek Malcolm (Critic, Evening Standard, UK) : "If you believe that comedy isn't funny unless there's something serious about it, Roy Andersson's absurdist vision of the perils of everyday relationships marks him out once again as a highly distinctive and cherishable director. This series of tragic-comic vignettes could only come from a Nordic film-maker but manages to seem totally universal. This is even better than Songs from the Second Floor and was one of the most memorable films shown at Cannes in 2007."

Jason Wood (Critic, UK) : "A tough call between this and Christian Petzold's generally underrated Yella, Roy Andersson ultimately won out for providing some much needed hilarity."

HarryTuttle said...

The Mourning Forest (2007/Naomi Kawase)

criticized by a panel of French critics from the radio program Le Masque et la Plume (France Inter, 11-11-2007)

Jérôme Garcin (host): "This is a slow film, sometimes very slow. Mysterious, sometimes very allegorical. Which is worth it for its beautiful photography. The words are less important than the images."

Danièle Heymann (Marianne) : "It starts well and ends bad. [sarcastic voice] They go to the forest, and they walk, then they sit down, and there they talk, then they stand up again and walk again, then they get lost, then they sit down, then they think and thalk, then they stand up and walk again... This is a vegetal, mineral, abysmal ennui."

Michel Ciment (Positif) calls the auteur "Anemic Kawase" (paraphrasing Marcel Duchamp's famous anagram of "cinema") because he's pissed of that she got the Grand Prix in Cannes and the Coens brothers didn't get anything. "It's a pretty film, that pleases foreigners who have in their imagination a fake idea of Japan. It's boring, but it's beautiful."

Jean-Marc Lalanne (Les Inrockuptibles) defends the film: "She challenges this prettiness by breaking the calm with an unexpected shot, less sophisticated, hand-held reportage, hybrid mise-en-scene, the film invents itself as it goes...
It's a wild psychotherapy descending into the forest, into the psychoanalytic depths of the protagonist." He References Deliverance (Boorman) in the scene of the river stream overflow.

See how Heymann can only give a pedestrian run-down of the succession of events seen in the film to ridicule the absence of "action" and "drama". She implicitly compares the film to a mainstream format of storytelling where a plot drive gives meaning to every single shot, every single event, and where transitional mechanical mundanity is usually cut out. This parody could be applied to Antonioni's films too (L'Avventura, Deserto Rosso, L'Eclisse) where most of the time we are looking at a protagonist wandering around aimlessly, without any obvious plot drive. The mundanities described in Kore-eda's Nobody Knows or Distance also amount to the same succession of anti-climactic slices of life, with "boring" cycle of events such as walking, getting food, eating, sleeping, staring... yet the poetry of the film is elsewhere. The point of the film is not in the quantity of action, or the ability to give a riveting summary to the readers. This kind of film plays on another level of narration, on the subtle variations of mood and atmosphere throughout the film. which is obviously difficult to render in a short synopsis, or even in words at all.

HarryTuttle said...

more on The Mourning Forest

Kong Rithdee (Critic, The Bangkok Post, Thailand): "The Cannes critics weren't wowed, though for me, this is one of the year's most luminous films. Kawase's movie has the absorbed femininity and Japanese delicacy that inspire a touch of cosmic sadness in the story of two people, joined by the soul-sinking weight of grief, who get lost in a damp forest where their redemptions - probably their rebirths - are as philosophical as it is humanistic."

Here we see the critic doesn't emphasise the plot or the events, but instead tries to find an interpretation of the sum, to reach a transcendental level of storytelling.

HarryTuttle said...

From readers of Film Comment (March-April 2008):

Stellet Licht / Silent Light

—Jason Philip Wierzba (Calgary, Canada) : "A literally stunning film (although somewhat fitfully so if viewed in the company of Londoners at the Prince Charles Cinema, who have a tendency to alternatively wretch and snigger at all the “ugly geezers snogging”—these are clearly not a people familiar with the director’s previous two films), Silent Light also invokes another word: revelation (not just as in The Book of..., but that too). Garnering comparisons from usually restrained critics to late Tarkovsky and paying self-conscious homage to Dreyer’s transcendental Ordet, Reygadas has presented himself as one of the great young upholders of the cinematographic tradition and the very question of the necessity (or, indeed, the very seat of power) of the cinema. A master of audiovisual tone and tempo resembling Bruno Dumont, but better here than the French iconoclast has ever quite been, he also shares an incredible ability, also demonstrated by Lucile Hadzihalilovic in her remarkable Innocence (04), to preserve the naturalism of non-actor children while directing them through complex blocking and exacting wide-angle-lensed frames. Finally there is the extraordinary poetic undressing of the most minor of North American microcommunities demonstrated in the greatest works of Jon Jost, the unheralded master of this stuff. Silent Light is the cinephile’s favorite type of triumph: one hoped for from the artist, but all the same utterly unforeseen."

Syndrome and A Century

—Lana Wilson (Brooklyn, NY) : "When watching this movie, I felt something I’ve never experienced before—a strange suspension in time, with no interest in moving forward or backward in the narrative. I was content to be hovering in midair with these characters, floating gradually from one situation to another and then back again, feeling my perceptions retraining themselves within this wholly new environment."

HarryTuttle said...

Susan Sontag, "Aesthetics of Silence", in "Styles of a Radical will", 1994 :

"Committed to the idea that the power of art is located in its power to negate, the ultimate weapon in the artist's inconsistent war with his audience is to verge closer and closer to silence. The sensory or conceptual gap between the artist and his audience, the space of the missing or ruptured dialogue, can also constitute the grounds for an ascetic affirmation. Samuel Beckett speaks of "my dream of an art unresentful of its insuperable indigence and too proud for the farce of giving and receiving." But there is no abolishing a minimal transaction, a minimal exchange of gifts, just as there is no talented and rigorous asceticism that doesn't produce a gain (rather than a loss) in the capacity for pleasure.
And none of the aggressions committed intentionally or inadvertently by modern artists have succeeded in either abolishing the audience or transforming it into something else. (A community engaged in a common activity?) They cannot. As long as art is understood and valued as an "absolute" activity, it will be a separate, elitist one. Elites presuppose masses. So far as the best art defines itself by essentially "priestly" aims, it presupposes and confirms the existence of a relatively passive, never fully initiated, voyeuristic laity which is regularly convoked to watch, listen, read, or hear — and then sent away."

"The systematic violation of older formal conventions practiced by modern artists gives their work a certain aura of the unspeakable — for instance, as the audience uneasily senses the negative presence of what else could be, but isn't being, said; and as any "statement" made in an aggressively new or difficult form tends to seem equivocal or merely vacant. But these features of ineffability must not be acknowledged at the expense of one's awareness of the positivity of the work of art. Contemporary art, no matter how much it's defined itself by a taste for negation, can still be analyzed as a set of assertions, of a formal kind."

"In my opinion, the myths of silence and emptiness are about as nourishing and viable as one could hope to see devised in an "unwholesome" time — which is, of necessity, a time in which "unwholesome" psychic states furnish the energies for most superior work in the arts today. At the same time, one can't deny the pathos of these myths.
This pathos arises from the fact that the idea of silence allows, essentially, only two types of valuable development. Either it is taken to the point of utter self-negation (as art) or else practiced in a form that is heroically, ingeniously inconsistent."

HarryTuttle said...

Nick James (S&S, April 2010, UK):

"I admire and enjoy a good many of the best films of this kind, but I have begun to wonder if maybe some of them now offer an easy life for critics and programmers. After all, the festivals themselves commission many of these productions, and such films are easy to remember and discuss in detail because details are few. The bargain the newer variety of slow films seem to impose on the viewer is simple: it’s up to you to draw on your stoic patience and the fascination in your gaze, in case you miss a masterpiece.

Watching a film like the Berlin Golden Bear-winner Honey (”Bal” Semih Kaplanoglu, 2010) – a beautifully crafted work that, for me suffers from dwelling too much on the visual and aural qualities of its landscape and milieu – there are times, as you watch someone trudge up yet another woodland path, when you feel an implicit threat: admit you’re bored and you’re a philistine. Such films are passive-aggressive in that they demand great swathes of our precious time to achieve quite fleeting and slender aesthetic and political effects: sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes not. Slow Cinema has been the clear alternative to Hollywood for some time, but from now on, with Hollywood in trouble, I’ll be looking out for more active forms of rebellion."