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Archive for the ‘Experimental Cinema’ Category

The Invisible Cinema of Marcel Hanoun

Sunday, November 24th, 2013

I have an new essay in Film International on the deeply underappreciated filmmaker Marcel Hanoun.

As I note at the beginning of my article, “When Marcel Hanoun died on September 22, 2012 at the age of 82, it caused barely a ripple in the media, and even in the world of experimental cinema. And yet Hanoun was a major filmmaker, whose near total critical eclipse after an initial burst of critical interest is an indictment of cinema history as a function of canon. It’s true that Hanoun’s films are difficult, but no more so than Jean-Luc Godard’s, who was a fan of Hanoun’s work; it’s true that Hanoun turned his back on commercial cinema to work as a perennial outsider, but again, cinema has many rebellious figures in its history who continue to hold a claim on our memory.

But Hanoun is in death, as he was in life, an almost phantom figure, ‘discovered’ in the early 60s, and then summarily dismissed. There is a French Wikipedia page on Hanoun, cited in the works below, but not one in English. Most of his films, with the exception of his first, Une Simple Histoire (1958), are not readily available. His list of film credits on official websites like IMDb is woefully inaccurate. What critical writing there is on him in English is mostly from the 1960s and 70s, and after that, it just stops. Indeed, for most of his films, there’s scant information to be had in any language. To me, this is inexplicable. Hanoun’s importance is clear. Nevertheless, it’s a sobering fact; most people have never heard of Marcel Hanoun.”

You can read the rest of this article here; again, my thanks to Daniel Lindvall, editor of Film International.

Light From the Screen: Cinema, Painting and Spectatorship

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

Here’s my recent essay on the relationship(s) between cinema and painting for Film International.

As I noted, “Noël Coward once observed that ‘television is for appearing on – not for looking at,’ but as the twenty-first century takes firm hold of our collective consciousness, it seems that everyone has become, in one form or another, a spectator of the events of everyday existence, whether at home or in the cinema. Reality shows and YouTube videos offer the prospect of instant stardom for the ‘lucky’ few whose videos ‘go viral,’ but for every video posted, there are literally millions of viewers who would rather watch than participate in the production of images.

It has become so much easier – and potentially safer – to stay home and let the images come to us, rather than to go out to a public place and view them with a crowd of strangers. Indeed, this is the era of what the theorist Gabriele Pedullà has described as “the spectator’s extreme volatility” (original emphasis). Images are anywhere, and everywhere, and there seems to be no escaping them, even if we wanted to, and weren’t constantly returning to our various digital screens for another visual ‘fix.’ And we aren’t only watching movies and videos; we’re viewing paintings, sculptures, drawings, live video camera feeds; we like to watch, just as Chauncey Gardiner did in Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979). Life was ‘real’ for Chauncey only if it was on television; for us, too, the image has become more real than life itself.

With lightweight portable tablets, smartphones, and other electronic devices proliferating rapidly in our culture, when one looks at images of family gatherings in 2013, one is struck by the fact that everyone is watching something on their own portable image device, and ignoring each other; we’re all watching each other all the time, but on some sort of electronic device, rather than face to face, and we have little time, thus, for any real communication or intimacy. We have been gradually transformed from a culture of human communication into a mediated society in which simulacrum images of the real have replaced human interaction. We’ve been both spectators and participants in the process of image production since the dawn of imagistic representation, but now it seems that more and more, we are content to simply watch anything that’s on, removing ourselves from existence.”

You can read the rest of the article here; my thanks again to Daniel Lindvall, the editor of Film International.

To Save and Project: The 11th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation – October 9–November 12, 2013

Saturday, October 19th, 2013

Here’s an opportunity you can’t afford to miss.

Once again, The Museum of Modern Art is running a stunning series of films, saved and restored from archives around the world, in film format, as part of their ongoing annual series To Save and Project, MoMA’s international festival of film preservation, which celebrates its 11th year with gloriously preserved masterworks and rediscoveries of world cinema. Virtually all of the films in the festival are having their New York premieres, and some are shown in versions never before seen in the United States.

As the program notes indicate, “this year’s edition features a Carte Blanche selection by filmmaker Alexander Payne (Nebraska, The Descendants, Election). Other guests include Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman, who introduces Hotel Monterey (1972) and News from Home (1977), her beautiful New York films of the 1970s; and Filipino sensation Lav Diaz, who presents the full-length version of his 2001 crime drama Batang West Side. An evening with the great American writer E. L. Doctorow, a special presentation of Le Conversazioni literary festival, includes a screening and a conversation moderated by its artistic director, Antonio Monda.

A sidebar dedicated to the Royal Film Archive of Belgium, includes classics of Belgian cinema as well as a fascinating rediscovery: the first American anti-fascist film, Hitler’s Reign of Terror (1934). To Save and Project also features Jacques Barratier’s gorgeous French-Tunisian drama Goha (1958); Rowland V. Lee’s demented pre-Code puppet romance I Am Suzanne! (1934); and one of the most anticipated films in the festival, the world premiere of Karl Brown’s Stark Love (1927), with a new musical arrangement performed live by the NYU Cinemusica Viva Players, conducted by Gillian B. Anderson. The festival also includes gems of film noir; the premiere of rarely screened Andy Warhol film shorts, followed by a panel discussion with Warhol collaborators and scholars; a Modern Mondays premiere of Bruce Conner’s Crossroads (1976); and a theatrical run of Mikko Niskanen’s Eight Deadly Shots (1972), together with Peter Von Bagh’s The Story of Mikko Niskanen (2010).

What distinguishes To Save and Project among the world’s film preservation festivals is that nearly all the titles are presented on celluloid, respecting their original format of 35mm or 16mm. This festival, then, is a celebration of the vital work of archives around the world, including MoMA’s Department of Film, as well as Hollywood and international studios, distributors, and independent filmmakers, to save our cinema heritage.”

Organized by Joshua Siegel, Associate Curator, Department of Film, this is an event not to be missed. Click here, or on the image above, to get a complete schedule of all the screenings for this remarkable event.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Yayoi Kusama

Friday, October 18th, 2013

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay on Yayoi Kusama and Jud Yalkut’s film Self Obliteration in Film International.

As Foster notes, “as an internationally acclaimed Japanese/American artist, Yayoi Kusama rejects any Orientalist assumptions about her work or her self. Yet her playful performances and challenging happenings of the 1960s at times featured images of her wearing the traditional Japanese kimono. Kusama seemingly catered to the audiences of the West in evoking the spectacle of the demure and passive Asian female as much as she challenged those very notions in her performances and films. Kusama subverted the image of the woman in the kimono by juxtaposing it against her ‘happenings,’ which featured images of nude (often white) American bodies, often cavorting in sexual displays associated with the period, especially as seen in the New York art and experimental film subculture.

In filming and practicing the self and her own female Japanese body as art, the experimental visual artist and filmmaker Yayoi Kusama overturns Western white feminist and Eurocentrist notions of identity, especially those of the late 1950s and the following decade. Her work defies the borders of identity as much as it defies the reception of women artists, particularly Japanese women artists and filmmakers. Furthermore, by refusing to limit herself to film and video, she challenges the definition of the visual artist to include forms that range from poetry, music, novels, performance art and happenings, to digital artistry and conceptual films.

Similarly, her artistry and performance of her self-as-artist effectively displace any easy or overdetermined notions of the objectified Japanese female Other as a subject that is often seemingly ‘mastered’ or received as exotic, inscrutable, small, cute, foreign, nurturing, quiet or representing the passive sexually available female. While not limited to refashioning the Japanese female body as a self-mastered entity, her art and film work move the viewer into an active postionality that fosters a contemplation of art and bodies that are not easily defined.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Claire Denis’ Beau Travail

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new article out on Claire Denis’ classic film Beau Travail.

As she writes in her essay, “Reconsidering The Landscape of the Homoerotic Body in Claire Denis’s Beau Travail” in the September 10, 2013 issue of Film International, “I begin, as my title suggests, with a quote from Agnès Godard, the cinematographer of Beau Travail (1999): ‘The most inexhaustible landscapes for me remain faces and bodies.’

The inexhaustible possibilities for cinematically inhabiting the homoeroticized male body are remarkable in Beau Travail, a tale told largely in aestheticized shots of male bodies. As Claire Denis states, the abstract nature of the film relies on performativity; ‘the abstraction was in the meeting of the landscape and the rules, and all those bodies doing the same thing.’

Jim Hoberman argued that ‘in its hypnotic ritual, Beau Travail suggests a John Ford cavalry western interpreted by Marguerite Duras’, and the comparison seems extremely apt. It is a film that relies on memory editing techniques, memories of bodies sutured together by the voice-over of the central protagonist, Galoup. Denis also relies on performances rendered through the subjective re-membered gaze of a narrator whose mental landscape is rife with homoeroticized images of faces and bodies.”

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Robert Heide on the Death of A Great Newspaper – The Village Voice

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

Click here to read Bob’s full story in WestView News on this deeply troubling event.

The Village Voice used to be the arts newspaper in New York. It had the best film criticism – Andrew Sarris, Jonas Mekas, Jim Hoberman, Amy Taubin and many others all wrote for The Voice. It had the best critics in dance, theater, literature, and the liveliest coverage of the New York City scene in general. It was, indeed, essential reading. You couldn’t really say you were “up” on the arts in the city without it.

Then, The Voice went “free,” when it used to be sold on newsstands, and could thus have some independence from advertisers, which was the beginning of the end, and then it was sold to a national conglomerate that runs supposedly “alternative” newspapers, and then management started firing people, thinking they could just plug in this or that person and the quality would be the same, but it isn’t.

This leads to cultural degradation; as Ian McEwan, the distinguished British author of such novels as Atonement and Amsterdam, said of criticism from people who clearly have no idea what they’re talking about: “Reviewing takes expertise, wisdom and judgment. I am not much fond of the notion that anyone’s view is as good as anyone else’s.” This is now in short supply at The Voice, which has gone from being an essential part of city life to a throwaway piece of trash that isn’t fit for wrapping fish.

But the management won’t care; as long as they can sell ad space, and hire a few freelancers to write some meager editorial content, they’ll be content. They don’t want care about running a newspaper; they just want a vehicle for their advertisers. The demise of a great newspaper is always a sad event; in the case of The Voice, there is nothing that even come close to replacing it for those who read it, and for those whose wit and intelligence graced its pages for so many years.

This is the end of The Village Voice, and I am sorry to see it go; its coverage is irreplaceable.

Gutai Art Exhibition at The Guggenheim Museum

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

I recently saw a stunning show of Gutai Art at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

As Ming Tiampo, Associate Professor, Art History, Carleton University, Ottawa, and Alexandra Munroe, Samsung Senior Curator, Asian Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York wrote of the exhibition, “Gutai: Splendid Playground presents the creative spectrum of Japan’s most influential avant-garde collective of the postwar era. Founded by the visionary artist Yoshihara Jirō in 1954, the Gutai group was legendary in its own time. Its young members explored new art forms combining performance, painting, and interactive environments, and realized an ‘international common ground’ of experimental art through the worldwide reach of their exhibition and publication activities. Against the backdrop of wartime totalitarianism, Gutai forged an ethics of creative freedom, breaking through myriad boundaries to create some of the most exuberant works and events in the history of Japanese and international avant-garde art. Yoshihara’s Please Draw Freely (1956/2013), a collective drawing on a freestanding signboard reconceived for the Guggenheim’s rotunda and created by visitors, invites adults and children to collaborate, think, and imagine for themselves.

The Gutai Art Association (active 1954–72) originated in the cosmopolitan town of Ashiya, near Osaka, in western Japan. Spanning two generations, the group totaled 59 Japanese artists over its 18-year history. The name Gutai literally means ‘concreteness’ and captures the direct engagement with materials its members were experimenting with around the time of its founding in 1954. From its earliest festival-like events, Gutai artists sought to break down the barriers between art, the ordinary public, and everyday life, and continuously took on new artistic challenges using the body in direct action with materials, time and space, and nature and technology. Charting Gutai’s creation of visual, conceptual, and theoretical terrains, this exhibition is organized throughout the museum in chronological and thematic sections: Play, Network, Concept, the Concrete, Performance Painting, and Environment Art.

The outdoor exhibitions of 1955 and 1956 literally set the stage for the group’s artistic strategies. Held in a pine grove park in Ashiya, these events brought art outside and released it from its confines, like Motonaga Sadamasa’s magisterial Work (Water). The Guggenheim commissioned the artist to recreate this work for the rotunda, where he hangs common, polyethylene tubes of varying widths filled with brightly-colored water between the rotunda levels, making giant brushstrokes out of catenaries in the open air that catch the sunlight (Work [Water], 1956/2011).

Moving from what Yoshihara decried as ‘fraudulent . . . appearances’ to lived reality, Gutai artists invented ways to go beyond contemporary styles of abstract painting into concrete pictures, blurring representational significance by incorporating raw matter, as well as time and space, as the stuff of art. Tanaka Atsuko’s Work (Bell) (1955/1993), reimagines painting as an acoustic composition of living sound through a sequential ringing of electric alarm bells wired along the entire expanse of Rotunda Level 2. Her interests in schematic and technical representation, wiring systems, lights, and the human form reached a pinnacle in her best-known work, Electric Dress (1956). The artist wore this spectacular costume made of flashing incandescent light bulbs painted in bright yellow, green, red, and blue for her performance during Gutai Art on the Stage (1957), whose documentary film is projected on Rotunda Level 5.

Like Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism, Gutai rejected psychic automatism for acts of corporeal materiality in the real world. Yoshihara’s involvement with the revitalization of Japanese traditional arts, specifically Japanese calligraphy, also informed his idea of art making as an unmediated experiential encounter between artist, gesture, and material. Shiraga Kazuo’s Untitled (1957), made by the artist painting on the floor with his bare feet, or Murakami Saburō’s Passage (1956), a performance painting made by the artist flinging himself through taut paper screens, both demonstrate Gutai’s call to release the ’scream of matter itself.’ In the context of live events, Gutai artists extended their objectives to theater, music, and film. The Gutai Card Box (1962) transformed the act of viewing paintings into an interaction, with the viewer purchasing a work from the artist hidden inside a vending machine.

As the global pioneers of environmental art, Gutai’s participatory environments take the form of organic or geometric abstract sculptures incorporating kinetic, light, and sound art, turning exhibition spaces into chaotic dens of screeching, pulsing, machine-like organisms. Yoshida Minoru’s erotic machine-sculpture Bisexual Flower (1969) mines the psychedelic effects of this approach. Gutai environments drew from contemporary architecture, technology, and urban design to promote a futuristic, space-age aesthetic. This can be seen in Nasaka Senkichirō’s giant armature composed of aluminum plumbing pipes punctured with holes, broadcasting a music composition as it zigzags its way up the exhibition space. This site of creativity is what Shiraga called ‘a splendid playground’ and what Yoshihara sought as a ‘free site that can contribute to the progress of humanity.’”

I was lucky enough to see the show — which ran from February 15–May 8, 2013 — on its last day of exhibition; I was unaware at the time that the show would soon be dismantled, but I was stunned by the originality, lack of commercialism, and genuine sense of wonder that the show displayed, which was also documented in numerous short films and videos projected throughout the museum. The Gutai movement was clearly very much ahead of the curve in terms of art in the United States, and in the happenings and performance pieces of the late 1950s and early 1960s done in the US, you can more than a little of Gutai’s influence.

However, due to the fact the international boundaries were more defined during the pre-web era than they are now, very little of Gutai’s output made it to the United States, except for those artists who visited Japan during the period when the group was active, and obviously took home notes. The other aspect of the Gutai movement that’s fascinating is that they knew when they had accomplished ewhat they wanted to do, and having worked continuously on creating boundary-breaking art since 1954, called a halt to the group’s activities in 1972, rather than just continuing on as a commercial entity. This is art at it’s purest, most genuine, and most affecting.

Click here, or on the image above, for a video on this exceptional show.

Taylor Mead 1924 – 2013

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Taylor Mead, center in the photograph above from the 1960s, and one of the authentic stars of the American underground film, has died at the age of 88.

As Elaine Woo wrote, in a sharply observed and deeply sympathetic obituary in The Los Angeles Times on May 11, 2013, “Taylor Mead, an underground cinema legend whose comic charm and sense of the surreal inspired Andy Warhol and other seminal figures in the alternative film world, died Wednesday in Denver. He was 88. A fixture of bohemian New York who was also a poet and artist, Mead was visiting family in Colorado when he had a stroke, said his niece, Priscilla Mead.

Called ‘the Charlie Chaplin of the 1960s underground,’ Mead was an elfin figure with kewpie-doll eyes who appeared, by his count, in 130 films, starting with the 1960 art house classic The Flower Thief. In a review for the Village Voice, film critic J. Hoberman pronounced him ‘the first underground movie star.’

He later became one of Warhol’s first superstars, appearing in films such as Tarzan and Jane Regained … Sort Of and Lonesome Cowboys. He also was known for his work in Ron Rice’s The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man and Robert Downey Sr.’s Babo 73. Indie auteur Jim Jarmusch, who cast Mead in a moving vignette that closed his 2003 film Coffee and Cigarettes, considered Mead one of his heroes.

A dropout from a life of privilege, Mead allied himself with Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and other early leaders of the San Francisco Beat scene of the 1950s before settling in New York to eke out a living as a member of its thriving arts underground. He was a familiar face on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he wandered the streets with a notebook, read his poetry in coffeehouses – often against a background of a Charles Mingus recording – and fed feral cats in the predawn hours.

‘Taylor was a spark who inspired filmmakers, poets and artists on both coasts,’ said Haden Guest, director of the Harvard Film Archive, which sponsored a Mead retrospective last fall. ‘He saw his life as his art and his art as his life and didn’t separate them the way we do today.’ He was the subject of Excavating Taylor Mead, a 2005 documentary by William Kirkley that knits the actor’s personal history with later struggles to hold on to his decrepit New York apartment and maintain his free-spirited life.

Born on the last day of 1924 in Grosse Pointe, Mich., Mead was the son of a wealthy businessman and his socialite wife who divorced before he was born. He floated through boarding schools and a number of colleges before his father found him a job in a brokerage house, which was not to his liking.

Openly gay since he was about 12, he left the East Coast in the mid-1950s, hitchhiked to California and studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse. Inspired by Pull My Daisy, a short 1959 film based on the Kerouac play Beat Generation, he collaborated with Rice on The Flower Thief, a somewhat haphazardly structured film shot with a handheld camera that features Mead wandering through San Francisco coffeehouses and dives carrying a flower, an American flag and a teddy bear. ‘There was no plot, no planning,’ he told the Philadelphia City Paper in 2005. ‘It was … extremely spontaneous, and all of us were just crazy anyway.’ Village Voice critic J. Hoberman praised it as ‘the beatnik film par excellence,’ with Mead playing ‘a kind of Zen village idiot.’

In 1964, before Warhol was a pop-art mega-celebrity, he invited Mead on a road trip to California for the opening of a gallery show. They wound up making Tarzan and Jane Regained…Sort Of, a spoof of Hollywood adventure movies that was Warhol’s first partially scripted feature. It starred Mead as a Hollywood Tarzan cavorting with a naked Jane in a bathtub at the Beverly Hills Hotel, exercising on Venice Beach and having a bicep-flexing contest with Dennis Hopper as a rival Tarzan. Mead would appear in about 10 Warhol films over the next decade.

Calling himself ‘a drifter in the arts,’ Mead also acted on stage, winning an Obie Award in 1963 for his performance in the Frank O’Hara play The General Returns From One Place to Another. He published poetry and three volumes of his journals, displayed his art in the 2006 Whitney Biennial and read his poems weekly at Manhattan’s Bowery Poetry Club. ‘His whole campaign was, stay creative, active, busy. And he did,’ said filmmaker and friend Clayton Patterson.

He made his biggest splash in decades in 2003 in Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, a loosely connected series of vignettes with a wide-ranging cast including Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, Tom Waits and Iggy Pop. Critics were moved by Mead’s performance as a janitor on a coffee break who doesn’t want to go back to work. The film ends with Mead closing his eyes to the strains of a favorite Mahler song, which resonated with his colorful past:

I am dead to the world’s tumult,

And I rest in a quiet realm!

I live alone in my heaven,

In my love and in my song!”

Taylor Mead, one of the authentic figures of the American avant-garde.

Post Tenebras Lux (Light After Darkness)

Sunday, May 12th, 2013

I just got back from a research trip in New York City, where I saw a brilliant film.

I saw Post Tenebras Lux at Film Forum, and was absolutely mesmerized by the film. As Film Forum’s official notes for the film explain, “Post Tenebras Lux (‘light after darkness’) is a new autobiographical feature from acclaimed director Carlos Reygadas, winner of the Best Director prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. Ostensibly the story of an upscale, urban family whose move to the Mexican countryside results in domestic crises and class friction, it’s a stunningly photographed, impressionistic psychological portrait of a family and their place within the sublime, unforgiving natural world.

Reygadas conjures a host of unforgettable, ominous images: a haunting sequence at dusk as Reygadas’s real-life daughter wanders a muddy field as farm animals loudly circle and thunder and lightning threaten; a glowing-red demon gliding through the rooms of a home; a husband and wife visiting a swingers’ bathhouse with rooms named after famous philosophers. By turns entrancing and mystifying, Post Tenebras Lux palpably explores the primal conflicts of the human condition.”

When the film was screened at Cannes, there was a near riot, and many of the audience members walked out in protest, but for the life of me, I can’t figure why. The film’s narrative is at once straightforward and filled with magical realism, as in the scene, pictured above, in which a glowing red demon silently enters a middle class house, toolbox in hand, intent on wreaking havoc in his wake. Indeed, I’ve seldom seen a film that was more accessible, and at the same time more mysterious, lingering in the memory long after the final images have faded from the screen.

Click here to read an interview with the director, Carlos Reygadas.

S.F. Trips Festival, An Opening – Ben Van Meter

Saturday, April 27th, 2013

People often ask me what experimental cinema was like in the 1960s; here is the answer.

Ben Van Meter’s S.F. Trips Festival — An Opening is one of my favorite films of all time, for a number of reasons, but the main reason I like the film so much is its’ economy of images; made for less than $100 to final print, van Meter shot the film over two nights — January 21-22, 1966 — on two and a half rolls of Ektachrome color reversal film, running each reel through the camera multiple times to create a labyrinth of images, effectively conveying the ecstasy and beauty of the scene in a very short space of time — roughly nine minutes. I’ve seen this film literally hundreds of times, and it never fails to impress me as an absolutely accurate document of a time and place now lost beyond authentic recall.

No money, just sheer inspiration and artistry, and a real commitment to embracing chance in the process of creating the film. Now, it’s here for everyone to enjoy; this used to be the model for experimental cinema until the Hollywood dominant model took over sometime in the early 1980s — the film school model — but even the most casual viewing of this film reveals the incomparable richness of Van Meter’s work. And all the editing was done in the camera; this is straight out of the Bolex, simply spliced together. Back then, nobody had the money for more raw stock than was absolutely necessary, but they made a virtue of penury, and they tried to jam as many images as possible into their films; the result is dazzling.

Absolutely stunning; click here, or on the image above, and see for yourself.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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