In Defense of Lists

moses und aron

I wish to preface this by saying that I bear no ill will toward Dr. Elena Gorfinkel, Another Gaze, or indeed anyone especially opposed to the practice of list-making with regards to cinema. Such a pastime is, of course, not for everyone, and a certain temperament is required in order to sit in front of a computer for hours on end, entering the same title over and over into a website in order to constantly keep certain lists updated. But I found Gorfinkel’s piece, and indeed the largely positive reaction to it, to be more than a little worrying, considering the openly antagonistic tone to a pursuit that, like many in film culture, contains far more facets than one might assume from the commercialized and rigid co-opting by the innumerable mass of film websites (with some worthy exceptions). So I wanted to write this rebuttal, not only as a means of defending a practice that I find to be immensely rewarding, but also in order to properly engage with this piece, and perhaps to in the process form a politique des listes, if you will.

The aim is to examine the essay line-by-line, or at the very least point-by-point, though given the manifesto tone of it some statements are difficult to expand upon. The statements from the original piece will be written in bold, with my thoughts on them directly below; these are intended to be as open-minded and in good faith as possible, but given my biases I apologize for anything too overtly polemical. For reading convenience, they are numbered; I realize that by doing so I’m transforming Gorfinkel’s piece into its own list, which adds a nice irony.

1. Lists of films will not save you.

This opening line immediately sets the stage both for Gorfinkel’s incendiary approach and my pronounced distaste, and demands a personal preface. I originally got into films because of my long-held obsession with lists: first the AFI top 100 list (as limited as it is) when I discovered it in 2010 and then They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They’s aggregate top 1000 in 2015. Obviously, both have their limitations, and possess no shortage of consensus concessions, but they provided me an entryway into the medium that, to indulge in just a little bit of hyperbole, provided me an earthly salvation. So yes, lists of films saved me.

2. Lists of films will not save films.

This, more than anything, begs the question of what exactly we mean by “saving” a film. Is it in the processes of restoration and preservation? This idea is brought up a few statements later, so it might be assumed that Gorfinkel means it in a broader sense, in the evolution and decay of the medium as a whole. In that case, it’s nigh impossible to ascribe the task of saving cinema to any single pursuit, even one as possibly pervasive as the act of listmaking. Saving film requires a more cohesive and holistic defense.

3. Lists of films will not reorganise how films gain and lose value.

I’d argue this is exactly what lists do, or at the very least should strive to do. With the ever-increasing glut of film lists, especially at the end of this decade, it is natural that consensus favors the well-known or the acknowledged masterpieces, but this only constitutes the general, not the particular placing of certain works; any reader should strive to consider the films they have not seen, and use the list as a guideline. Even the reevaluative nature of some lists, like a publication issuing a Best of the 1990s list a decade apart, inherently reorganizes the value of certain films, based on what have risen and fallen.

4. Lists will not preserve all those thousands and thousands of films decomposing in alleys, basements, storage lockers: films lost, unseen, and unpreserved.

I could be pedantic and name the National Film Registry as a list that does precisely that, but it’s even more worth pointing out that almost everything related to film culture (including film writing) doesn’t accomplish this either. Unless one fancies themselves a film archaeologist, climbing into abandoned movie theaters and trying to trace the paper trails leading back to Bill Gunn’s Stop or something along those lines, nothing they do can preserve those films.

5. Lists of films will not write new film histories.

As with point 3, this is exactly what lists of films can and should do; what is a history of film if not a list of films and their makers? Context is key, so many other sociopolitical and cultural histories must be brought in, but they are nothing without the actual works that have been made.

6. Lists are not neutral or innocent or purely subjective.

Gorfinkel seems to contradict herself between the former two and the latter descriptors, in a way that I find difficult to parse, but each of them feels faulty. Claiming the neutrality or objectivity of a list is inherently false, of course, but doing so seems much more at the hands of film publications or enormous polls; to any discerning reader, the list indicates “the X greatest films in [insert category] as chosen by an aggregate of X contributors,” not the end-all be-all truth. Even more importantly, lists should not be innocent, at least in my conception of the term, which signals naiveté and lack of an even slightly expanded knowledge of the world of film. Innocence is for those without visual literacy or film history. As for “purely subjective,” what is Gorfinkel striving to convey? That lists and viewing should come one’s pure id, uninflected by valuable learned information? These structures are necessary for establishing one’s foundational vantage point on film, so their inclusion in lists should be no surprise.

7. Lists do not enshrine your hallowed taste, they only dilute it.

It’s hard for me to understand this statement, simply because I feel that the former is a strong argument that can be made against my list obsession. But calcification (a process which I hope my lists escape) is a different process than dilution, and Gorfinkel seems to be arguing that it encourages the listmaker to stick to their established lists and nothing else, which goes entirely against my idea of lists as forever in flux, dynamically responding to each film I watch and reevaluate.

8. Lists are attentional real estate for the fatigued, enervated, click-hungry.

It’s somewhat difficult to argue with this with regards to websites, but more than anything it feeds into the desire to get one’s own ideas and thoughts about film into a evermore public space. Indeed, such a charge could be made of this very article (not to mention my own), and lists merely ease the process along. And individual lists are just as often furtive, secretive acts, made for personal uses and deliberately designed to not be seen by others.

9. Lists aggregate the already known and consolidate power.

See point 3.

10. Lists count and account and ceaselessly weigh and measure ‘genius’ and ‘greatness’ as if they are empirical substances.

This varies from list to list, but part of what excites me is the quicksilver nature of listing, of comparing such vastly different works to each other. It is as evaluative as assigning a rating to a film, and allows for a certain dialogue and unforeseen resonances to emerge. In this conception, genius and greatness are by nature undefinable and intangible: it is the job of the writer or listmaker to express them in some slightly more graspable way, that shifts each time either looks at their piece, their list, or the film.

11. Lists convert numerical appearance into that seeming empiricism of the prodigious.

See point 3, with the added note that individuals’ lists by no means always aspire to be empirical or definitive.

12. And who in the longue durée has been bestowed those plaudits?

Without going into exact details, I don’t exactly fit the standard hetero cis old white man image of a listmaker; the times they are a’changin’, and denying the potential of budding cinephiles to create lists is foolish at best.

13. Lists won’t create new canons – especially not of lost women, queer, trans, Black, Latinx, global south, decolonial and anti-colonial filmmakers.

What is a canon but a form of listing? The onus, as always, should be on the viewer to seek these out, and lists can and sometimes (if not often) do so.

14. Who will ask Barbara Hammer, Kathleen Collins, Kira Muratova, and Sara Gómez for their lists?

This deliberately polemical statement especially rankles, largely because it uses the demise of these filmmakers as a cudgel. Leaving aside the notion that listmaking isn’t for everyone, or that plenty of non-European female filmmakers have been asked for their lists, what difference does it make for those who wish to make their own lists?

15. Lists pretend to make a claim about the present and the past, but are anti-historical, obsessed with their own moment, with the narrow horizon and tyranny of contemporaneity. They consolidate and reaffirm the hidebound tastes of the already heard.

I don’t think it’s impossible or even difficult to embody both history and a present obsession with the contemporary. Both lists and tastes are formed outside of a vacuum, influenced by factors as seemingly insignificant as the time since one has seen a film or their viewing environment, or something as significant as the restoration of a long-lost film. Creating a list can be as much an act of history, reassessing and reevaluating one’s conception of what came before, as of a contemporary mindset, one which will always continue to evolve. As for the hidebound tastes, listmakers can and should strive to expand their tastes, and are just as often unheard as “already heard,” though even the latter can provide new discoveries.

16. Lists colonise the mind and impoverish the imagination.

The idea of lists affecting the mind is absolutely true, particularly in my case, but the specific use of “colonize” especially bristles, especially when it brings up global history in a manner that feels inappropriate at best. At their best, lists expand the imagination, asking the reader to consciously construct a profile of the listmaker’s taste or otherwise to decipher their precise process in choosing these particular films at the exclusion of others.

17. Lists will always disappoint, even as they promise an inexhaustible world, an infinite plenum.

As opposed to films, which invariably provide unbelievable amounts of pleasure? Lists rarely, if ever, promise infinity, especially considering the proliferation of lists set in specific categories or with strict parameters, so only the most sweeping or authoritative can disappoint (which yes, can include lists like the recent BBC films-directed-by-women list).

18. Lists bludgeon the dispossessed with a metric of popularity, as if it is a universal value.

As mentioned in points 3 and 6, lists cannot and should not be seen as universally applicable or as solely describing the popular, and, if read with a proper mindset, should be interrogated but not totally discounted.

19. Lists assert property, mastery, possession.

Possession feels apropos in a certain regard, though it all depends on one’s mindset; at least for most, films are not merely names on a piece of paper or on a website, but codified and yet mysterious objects, which shift and change; this idea of the listmaker as lepidopterist only fitfully applies, and ignores the desire to explore the film just below the surface.

20. Lists are an anti-film politics.

Herein lies the central point of disagreement: Gorfinkel sees lists as existing against film, whereas I see them as uplifting and supporting film. Obviously, exclusions have to be made, but this applies in every film pursuit, when one chooses to write about one film instead of another. In many ways, lists are precisely worthwhile because they illuminate what the listmaker values most, which is inevitable and desirable when choosing to value film as an artform.

21. Lists are metrics.

See point 8.

22. Metrics are our enemy, and the enemy of art and of political struggle. Every list is by necessity impossible, and must remain unwritten, a private reckoning. The unwritten list tarries with the inevitable vortex of unknowability into which all films will certainly fall, unless we can defend and describe them better, making space for their work as live and active forms.

I don’t necessarily disagree with the first sentence, which does contain a certain truth about the state of media economy in which we live. However, the act of listmaking is first and foremost a private reckoning, asking the listmaker to evaluate certain films, and thus their own conception of their aesthetic taste. Likewise, listmaking acts as an invaluable step in defending and describing the films, especially when justification is demanded and provided for certain choices.

23. Burn the list to free your ass.

I half-admire the outright polemicism of this statement, which exists so much in the manifesto format that I can’t really dispute it — save for the perception of freedom that I perceive in my dynamic conception of listmaking.

24. The impulse to list is allied with collection, a desire to record, to archive, to remember, to preserve experience and the aesthetic feeling of films one might not otherwise recall. These are meaningful, important and historically enshrined activities, on their own terms. But in this hyper-mediated moment, the recirculated compulsory form of the list – list as desiderata of consumption, a grocery receipt of your watching – has become an instrument of commodity fetishism, of algorithmic capture, of priapic, indulgent self-exposure. Look closely. Who exactly produces this flurry of lists?

Here, Gorfinkel gets at something potentially more truthful and in good faith, before reverting to the far too general castigation of her manifesto. Ideally, lists are by no means compulsory, except if readers expect them. Following this idea, fetishizing taste and self-exposure is much more a tendency of film culture, as seen in point 8; also, as far as I’m aware, my lists aren’t being used as part of any algorithm. And what exactly is wrong with keeping track of what one has watched? Memory already fulfills at least some of that tendency, and relying on the written word instead of the ravages of the mind seems to be an entirely reasonable and worthy endeavor.

25. How many lists must we read to know that their makers have captured the essential existence of these works in a graspable net? Ceaselessly writing, reading and consuming this polluted ocean of lists, we enter into the rotten mercantilism of the cinephilic soul. Perhaps more pernicious practices aggrieve film culture, but even so, lists are as banal and telling a symptom as any of this spoiled, melting world.

This point largely speaks out against the state of film culture, which can frequently be as harmful as Gorfinkel says it is. But, as in points 10 and 19, the lists by no means harness or contain the essential nature of these works, other than the fact that they exist and that they are valued according to the parameters of this list. Furthermore, dynamic lists are by definition ever-expansive and mutable, which is a far cry from the tyrannical, graspable net.

26. Torch your list. If you must count, write as many words about any film not on your list.
Read as many words about a woman filmmaker or filmmaker from the global south.
Or convert those words and characters into units of time, watching a film never on your list.

The sentiments expressed here are slightly admirable, but it begs the question of whether all time should be solely dedicated to the watching of films. Even with such an activity, decompression and space is needed; speaking for myself, listmaking is frequently a therapeutic and relaxing activity, far more (temporarily) concrete than the daily goings-on. And putting a film on a list can do as much to spotlight a film as writing about it.

27. A potlatch of lists: redistribution of resources redirected from the collective energy of list-making.

See point 26.

28. Claiming aesthetic supremacy begins with the list. Would that we had other ways to create spheres of value or to abolish the shallow terms of value altogether, and along with them the capricious and impoverished arbitration of what counts as cinematic art, art worth watching and worth fighting for. The list consolidates as if self-evidence, reasserting in all that it doesn’t list, all that its lister failed to learn, to see, to know.

This contains a central contradiction, insofar as spotlighting and writing about a film inherently categorizes it as “worth fighting for,” whether one puts it on a list or not. The simple fact is that not all art is equal in the eye of any single beholder, which is not to say that not all art should be preserved. But in thinking about film, in discussing it, at least some structure of valuation is necessary to direct one’s energy and focus. As for the last sentence, no person nor group of people has seen every film, and as such their blindspots are inevitably revealed, whether in list or in writing.

29. Lists are for laundry, not for film.

See point 23.

30. If we wash out our eyes and ears and minds, we will find that what clings to us, after the suds clear, are the tendrils of another cinematic world, of images, spaces, voices, passages, struggles, and time: time recovered from its theft by narcissistic cinephilia’s allegiance with capital.

Many lists bear little to no allegiance with capital, and many pieces of writing do, and most importantly practically all possess a certain narcissism. The very nature of the term cinephilia implies a personal relationship and passion with the medium, and discounting that reeks of hypocrisy. And suggesting that individual aspects of a film can’t be evoked by the list is absurd: just seeing the title of a film carries with it such associations for the person who has watched it, and lists offer a way to put them into dialogue.

Ultimately, I don’t wish to discount the importance of writing and research in fostering a sense of cinephilia whatsoever. But for me, lists provide a unique and compact way of expanding the reader’s ideas about film, of giving them the chance to explore more and become exposed to new works and reframing their ideas on those they have already become familiar with. Lists are by no means superior to the films, but provide a structure for them, allowing them to wait for the next person to uncover them and discover the pleasures that await within.

A Few Notes on the Oeuvre of Terrence Malick

fields

Since Terrence Malick is, for good reason, one of the most hotly discussed and alternately valorized and vilified auteurs currently working, laying out his aesthetic obsessions and goals seems more than a little futile. But what fascinates me most is the way in which his predilections change, sometimes radically, from film to film. Aside from someone like, say, Godard, no other prominent filmmaker has had such a radical turning point or concrete stages of their career, but at least from my view it seems just as helpful to group each of his (narrative, feature-length) works into duos, specifically ones where the second of each group of two provides a notable stepping-stone point with which Malick leaps to his next stage of either profundity or pretension, depending upon your stance.

The most obvious of these, naturally, is that of his first two films, Badlands and Days of Heaven. At the risk of being reductive, they are the two films even most Malick detractors enjoy, as they have an altogether grounded and staunchly character-driven narrative, and Badlands in particular has a more conventional look and feel to it than any of his other films. But even in Days of Heaven lie the seeds of the next stage of development: there is a rather notable reliance on the handheld, and overall more and more attention is paid to the natural elements surrounding the love triangle. And of course, Linda Manz’s voiceover is characteristically opaque, though it acts more as a backbone – as in Badlands – than the ruminations that are to follow.

Another fairly standard pair comes in the form of The Thin Red Line, Malick’s return to the stage of American cinema, and The New World. The similarities are patently clear: they are both historical films dealing with pivotal events (if not individual moments) in American history, and they are the longest films of Malick’s career (when looking at the extended cut of the latter, which is is the one I viewed). Additionally, both are immersed in nature, respectively beginning and ending with scenes of the natural world that feel at once serene and disquieting, and seem to be told in both very broad and very intimate strokes. The New World, with its relative freedom from something on the order of the tense action of the Battle of Guadalcanal (though it too boasts a remarkable, visceral battle sequence) reaches ever more towards the meditative scenes of connection in an almost primal state; the scenes of John Smith commingling with the Powhatan are among the most moving in his entire filmography.

Easily the most illogical pairing, on the surface, comes from arguably his most acclaimed and most underrated films, respectively, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder. The first is his grandest, most “cosmic,” while the second is, to my eyes, his simplest and most small-scale (and his first film set fully in the modern world). But both provide some of his richest and most finely attuned work with characters, and both are (creation of the universe digression aside) firmly situated in the South. Days of Heaven also shares this setting, but it feels paramount to these films, a setting both clearly definable and yet universal to Malick’s own sense of Americana. And both have scenes of immense catharsis and power: The Tree of Life with its beach/heavenly reunion and To the Wonder with a climactic, almost halo-infused parting – religion figures prominently in these two films as a central touchstone of the culture, including but not limited to Bardem’s character.

Leaving aside Voyage of Time, with its necessarily protracted production and putatively documentary aspects, the final pair thus far is of two films situated in specific entertainment industries: Knight of Cups with its ennui-ridden Hollywood and Song to Song with its hedonist Austin music scene. Both rely heavily on their respective milieus and have a surfeit of cameos, and both feel relentlessly modern; while To the Wonder has a certain timeless quality only occasionally broken, these two are utterly of a specific moment already gone. What progression Song to Song offers is unknown, especially with the purportedly back-to-basics nature of Radegund, but it is important to say that Malick has and, God willing, never will regress. He does recapitulate and return to certain themes and ideas, but his cinema is one of innovation and breathtaking beauty and empathy.

Entry #1: The Personal

An entry in the now-abandoned A Personal Consideration of Silence essay series.

Note: This essay was written without a copy of Silence at hand and based off of recollections from two theatrical viewings, hence there may be more inaccuracies than usual.

It is, of course, conceited and undeniably inaccurate to claim that a film serves as an exact mirror to one’s life journey. Both a great movie and a person are inordinately complex, and it is impossible to truly distill either essence into a relatively uncomplicated and accurate summary. But nevertheless I feel a pull, a certain resemblance of my own experiences with faith and doubt in Silence, one that I think deserves some explication before I dive further into the movie’s many complexities.

I was born into a Christian family, and while I have never lived in Taiwan—the country of my heritage, and coincidentally the filming location for Silence—for more than a few weeks, there is nevertheless a strong sense of culture, both secular and nonsecular, that has been instilled by my family and communities throughout my life. I grew up going to church, first in an Chinese church in Seattle (that I am currently attending) and then, when my family moved to Southern California, to Saddleback Church, the famed megachurch. Moving from a small congregation of roughly three hundred to a gigantic conglomerate of twenty thousand had multiple effects on me, some for good and some for ill.

For one, I feel that I arrived at faith and religion early, probably too early. I declared my faith independently around the age of six or seven, and was baptized at the tender age of eight. As far as I can ascertain, most people are baptized as teenagers, and I can’t help but wonder if this early zealotry made my sense of doubt more acute as I grew up.

And I was, regrettably, a zealot of sorts, perhaps too much invested in the letter of the Bible and too little in the spirit. I went on a few medical mission trips with my family, and while I wasn’t necessarily the most interested in them (I’ve never been one for traveling), I did dedicate myself whole-heartedly while I was there. I was far too public about my beliefs and too inconsiderate of others, and only somewhat recently have I felt true remorse about what I did and how I did it.

All of this is to say that I relate strongly to the spirit, if not the letter, of the padres’ journey in Silence. Like them, I have gone through extreme periods of doubt (though mine are based more on the various cultures and communities I’ve been through), but more important is the manner in which this doubt has manifested itself. It does not lie in sudden moments or public declarations, but instead arises internally over a vast period of time. I am thinking specifically of that magnificent interlude, where Rodrigues prays alone on a grassy mountainside, overcome by loss as he tries to search for meaning in his suffering. To a religious person, the absence of God can feel like a total absence of life, and, as I stand now, religion is more than anything a quest for meaning, a desperate and hopefully fruitful attempt to survive in this world, something that I think Silence embraces as well.

Hopefully, I can refrain from this level of personal exorcism henceforth, but this series will be inextricably bound to my various identities. I (and hopefully you) wouldn’t have it any other way.

Statement of Intent

An essay in the now-abandoned A Personal Consideration of Silence essay series.

In my limited experience, there are two types of “favorite” films. This does not apply just to films that the viewer relates to on a personal level (although that plays a significant part) or to the towering masterpieces of cinema, but to a very particularly moving form of connection that the experience of watching and subsequent reflection activates in a viewer. These two types, described in terms of what each individual lover has to say, are as follows:

1. It is immensely difficult to articulate the nature of the film’s greatness or general quality for whatever reason. Usually, this seems to stem from more intimate movies, ones that are difficult to evaluate from an impersonal lens. They are usually films that lie closer to real life, in the small interactions and little snippets of dialogue.

2. The viewer has an inordinate amount of things to say about the film from a variety of self-imposed perspectives and aspects. This more often than not occurs concerning mammoth films that are clearly great, grandiose productions (not to be conflated with Farber’s conception of white elephant art, as these are usually incisive works), whether they be in the canon or not.

Obviously, this binary is, as all binaries are, reductive, and there are many of my favorite films that fall somewhere in between these two extremes. Nevertheless, all of them are aligned somewhat with these dual categorizations. More importantly, never have I felt the urge of the second type as strongly as I have with Silence, Martin Scorsese’s depiction of incredible, purposeful, and troubling faith in the most hostile of locales. It is a film that gives no quarter, leaves no stone unturned in its repeated questioning of its central character and by proxy the viewer, and what results is a kind of affirmation, a complicated ambiguity that feels irresistible.

It is perhaps only fair to lay out my rather considerable shortcomings in undergoing this venture of writing multiple long essays on this great film. I have seen a grand total of—at this time of writing—six Scorsese films, and among the unseen are a good deal of films both relevant (The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, The Wolf of Wall Street) and not but still essential (Mean Streets, The Age of Innocence). I also have not seen Masahiro Shinoda’s version of Silence, nor Shūsaku Endō’s original novel, though I do know the context in which the latter was made. And of course, I am a neophyte of cinema at best, whose cursory knowledge vastly outstrips any benchmark of actual viewing.

So why do I want to tackle such an extraordinary film in such a brazen manner? The film’s majesty, of course, speaks for itself and even for someone as unlearned as me I want to discuss it. The decidedly mixed response of the consensus as a whole (in that the detractors have stated their opinions as vociferously as the supporters) is another reason. But certainly the strongest is my identity as an Asian Christian and the ways in which it deals with that ideal. Silence challenged and moved me in ways even religion cannot, and I relish any attempt to grapple with it further.

This project of sorts will take some time, and I anticipate that posts will come out irregularly. There is no set outline at this time, but each essay will attempt to tackle some different facet of Silence, some focusing on more technical sides and others on more theological issues.

For now, this is what I have to say about Silence. There will be many, many more words forthcoming, and I pray that they will not come in the form of unadulterated fawning, but as a testament to the glory of this truly monumental work.

A Few Immediate Thoughts on The Before Trilogy

So many echoes, both conscious and (I presume, though putting anything past these three geniuses is risky at best) unconscious. Each film has a scene of “acting” in a certain way, and the rhythms and often content of the walks are admirably similar, but each feels so differentiated by the ravages of time and love. A car ride that forms the climax of Sunset becomes the first act of Midnight, the glory of Sunrise becomes more and more attenuated until it acts as a divider, and through it all Linklater grows ever more confident, as vital as ever; the sense of worldly weariness comes from the roles, not the collaborators.

Thoughts on an Aborted Viewing of Evolution of a Filipino Family

A large part of what made Out 1 such a compelling, mesmerizing experience was the fact that I saw it in a theater and with other people. Watching such a film of notorious duration in a place where I couldn’t just get up or pull up another screen helps, certainly for every film but especially one of this kind. Leaving aside the fact that the two and a half hours of Evolution of a Filipino Family didn’t impress me nearly as much as the first episode of Out 1, I feel that the meditative pace of Evolution would have played significantly better in a theater where the rewind button was not an option.

The rewind button, however, helped little when it came to the surprisingly convoluted plot. Neither the Boyhood-esque portrait from Robert Koehler’s review at TIFF nor the non-linear style I had read from someone online, it is instead two parallel storylines, roughly speaking, a fact gleaned later on after I had taken numerous breaks and rewinds in an attempt to figure out the plot. Out 1 offers numerous pleasures aside from its relatively inconsequential plot, but the contours that I found most informed Evolution seemed fragmented. If I had gotten further, and been more in tune with Lav Diaz’s elongated rhythm, then things could have been different, but as is…

It must also be mentioned that Diaz’s style seemed rather different from expected. Though in the first half hour there are some long takes of landscape and people moving through it similar to that of Weerasethakul (in my limited experience) much of the film proceeds in a rather uninhibited vein: the shooting style is the same but the comment is filled with violence and intimations of the surrounding world, along with those rather odd radio stories; whether they are meant to echo the narrative or not seemed inconclusive.

MUBI’s New York Film Festival Projections 2016 Selections

The first short of the selection, “Regal” achieves the feat of conforming exactly to the viewer’s idea of what it is and sneakily suggesting something more. It is in effect a showing of an immensely degraded print of a Regal Theaters preshow advertisement, and there is a certain thrill in watching these images broken down to their elemental colors, but Karissa Hahn complicates this by foregrounding how it is being shown—on a laptop screen. There is much buffering and playing/pausing, coupled with the amusing sounds of the space bar and a computer alert, though it is complicated further by having the play/pause icon that pops up look as degraded as the ad. The short is capped off by showing a download button, and though Hahn’s point doesn’t necessarily come across cleanly, her images are a delight nonetheless.

“Now: End of Season” also pulls off a similar mixture, though to slightly less successful results. Using footage of Syrian refugees in Turkey and overlaying it with an archival telephone call of former Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad trying to reach Ronald Reagan as the latter is horseback riding, Ayman Nahle mixes the present and past in a somewhat oblique way. This juxtaposition is further displayed by the focus on things of the present that act as extensions of the various figures: cell phones, suitcases, clothing, and other such items. If Nahle is attempting to imply some sort of political message related to modern day Syria (e.g. on American intervention), it is mostly lost under the just-too-long running time and the inexplicably ominous thrum of the electronic score, but the short remains engaging throughout its run.

On the other hand, “Cilaos” goes for extreme artifice, combining a ’70s blaxploitation aesthetic, a capella musical numbers, and a rigorous style to tell the story of a woman searching for her father. The moody celluloid look is matched by the soulful singing of the three actors, especially Christine Salem, and Restrepo frames them often against empty backgrounds as they look directly at the camera. Throughout, a spirit of experimentation is as present as the narrative, using the same actor to play two different roles in the same shot and framing. In the final third, Restrepo abandons the narrative in favor of pure celebration, as the woman seems to assume her father’s role and the short breaks down. It is a wonderful, mystifying short all around.

Almost certainly the most exciting of the entire program (from both parts) is “Foyer”, by Ismaïl Bahri. The setup is simple enough—a blank piece of white paper is placed in front of a camera filming a street in Tunis—and even if the sole content of the film was to capture the way the light and wind subtly change the color and texture of the shot, it would remain thoroughly absorbing for at least a good portion of the runtime. But Bahrain uses the sound to an astonishing extent, using what appears to be unscripted conversations with random passersby as they ask the purpose of his filming the paper and, especially in the earlier parts, about how it relates to the traditional conception of cinema. Consequently, the short remains more than lively throughout, with only a few lulls in between certain conversations. The second half takes an unexpected but even more delightful turn, as police officers ask Bahri to take his camera to the station to be examined. The tension is quickly dissipated after the officers quickly realize the contents of the recording (the sound continues even as the filming is ostensibly stopped, which leads to some question over whether everything is as is) and gradually the short turns into a study of the mindset of Tunisia in the current decade. At once a study of the image and a unexpectedly expansive piece of ethnography, “Foyer” is even more rewarding than initially meets the eye.

In stark contrast, “Indefinite Pitch” seems to almost provoke the viewer with its confrontational approach. Beginning as a pitch for a film set in Berlin (originally unspecified), the short quickly devolves into an extended reflection on the Northeast, the town of Berlin, New Hampshire, and even the culture of today, all using the pitch that has been reconfigured from a 1927 silent movie filmed in Berlin. The monologue itself is surprisingly dense, and perhaps takes on too many topics in such a short timespan, but the deftness with which Wilkins returns to certain points seems almost too clever. Unfortunately, as a result of a possibly jaundiced worldview on the part of the narrator (whether or not Wilkins fully shares the views he is espousing is unclear), there is a strong tinge of nastiness that is only amplified by the continual escalation then deescalation of the pitch modulation that, at the halfway mark, turns into an alarm-like whine which does dissipate after less than a minute. The still images are visually pleasing enough, occasionally echoing the narration, but their purpose only becomes clear towards the end, as Wilkins continues his game of metaphorical cat-and-mouse with the viewer.

The Profound Religiosity of THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER

The religious aspects of The Night of the Hunter are apparent from the very premise—it is, after all, a film about a deranged, amoral so-called preacher. But what struck me most on this rewatch, especially with a slightly incredulous audience, was the purity of the movie, especially in its depiction of religion, faith, and innocence. Laughton and Agee made no attempts to conceal the hypocrisy of the community, but that in and of itself is a faithful gesture, and at least for me, it worked wonders.

From the very beginning, The Night of the Hunter blatantly positions itself as a fairy tale; Lillian Gish appears in space a la the beginning of Dune, and this is matched by the ending, where she talks directly to the camera. But like her nightly teachings, and quite unlike Mitchum’s fiery sermon, the film never feels preachy, treating its events with the utmost sincerity.

Brian De Palma Wrap-Up

A Brian De Palma Ranking

  1. Passion
  2. Carlito’s Way
  3. Femme Fatale
  4. Body Double
  5. Blow Out
  6. Casualties of War
  7. Carrie
  8. Phantom of the Paradise
  9. Dressed to Kill
  10. Scarface
  11. Snake Eyes
  12. Raising Cain
  13. Sisters
  14. Mission: Impossible
  15. The Black Dahlia
  16. Greetings
  17. The Fury
  18. Obsession
  19. Home Movies
  20. The Untouchables
  21. Mission to Mars
  22. Dionysus in ’69
  23. Hi, Mom!
  24. Murder à la Mod
  25. The Bonfire of the Vanities
  26. Redacted
  27. Get to Know Your Rabbit
  28. The Wedding Party
  29. Wise Guys

Top Ten De Palma Performances

1. Al Pacino, Carlito’s Way
2. Michael J. Fox, Casualties of War
3. Sissy Spacek, Carrie
4. Noomi Rapace, Passion
5. Nicolas Cage, Snake Eyes
6. John Travolta, Blow Out
7. William Finley, Phantom of the Paradise
8. Gerrit Graham, Home Movies
9. Antonio Banderas, Femme Fatale
10. Tom Hanks, The Bonfire of the Vanities

A Few Scattered Thoughts on the “Master of the Macabre”

To the average cinephile, De Palma is most known for his cynicism and, in his most famous film Blow Out, a perversely nihilistic sensibility. Yet this is probably not an accurate viewpoint: of his 29 films (to date), only 4 have unambiguously tragic and saddening endings, though it is perhaps not a surprise that most of them are among his greatest works (an argument could also be made for Scarface):

  • Carlito’s Way
  • Blow Out
  • Phantom of the Paradise
  • Redacted

By comparison, no less than 15 De Palma films have more or less happy endings:

  • Femme Fatale
  • Body Double
  • Casualties of War (despite tinged with sadness)
  • Snake Eyes
  • Mission: Impossible
  • The Black Dahlia (shockingly, given the absolute sordidness that had immediately preceded it)
  • The Fury (again, debateable)
  • Obsession
  • Home Movies
  • The Untouchables
  • Mission to Mars
  • Dionysus in ’69 (cheating, but it counts)
  • The Bonfire of the Vanities
  • Get to Know Your Rabbit
  • Wise Guys

and the rest of the films fall into either ambiguity or a gleeful twist. It is perhaps most accurate to classify De Palma as a filmmaker who is perfectly willing to give his characters a happy ending, even if it comes abruptly, so long as he puts them through absolute hell first.

De Palma is also known for his meditations on the image, and so here is the list of his films that I believe contain something of this sort, whether it be in celluloid, flesh, or some other medium.

  • Passion
  • Carlito’s Way
  • Femme Fatale
  • Body Double
  • Blow Out
  • Casualties of War (if you count the girl on the subway)
  • Phantom of the Paradise
  • Snake Eyes
  • The Black Dahlia
  • Greetings
  • Home Movies
  • Murder à la Mod
  • Redacted

“Formative” Films/Timeline

Prompted by the occasion of Kiarostami’s passing, an attempt to chronicle some measure of the development of my cinephilia. An even more stream-of-consciousness post than usual.

(tentative list)

Formative Films: Blade Runner, The Battle of Algiers, Close-Up, Eraserhead, Sans soleil, Jeanne Dielman, Yi Yi

It must be said that, especially before the first wave or phase of my cinephilia, I retain random, often off-color memories from bad movies that I happened to watch; hopefully these will fade eventually. Perhaps inevitably, most of my favorites are in here, though important films/probable former first-place favorites to me, like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Back to the Future, are not.

Pooh’s Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin: at least for the foreseeable future, I think this is the first film memory I have. The timeline fits: it was released the year I was born, obviously is a children’s movie, and conceivably I could have seen it when I was only a few years old; I still remember the “skull” and the shadow of Christopher Robin (no clue on what was the first film I saw in theaters though, might go back and try to figure it out)

First Wave of Cinephilia (summer of 2013?) 2001: A Space Odyssey, City Lights, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Blade Runner, Citizen Kane, The Searchers, Raging Bull, Vertigo, North By Northwest, The Deer Hunter(?): some mixed reactions from this time; e.g. distinctly remember being awed by 2001, though not to the extent I am now, while my mother and sister fell asleep, and was somewhat underwhelmed by most of the latter half; kind of happy that this wave ended quickly, wasn’t nearly invested enough to truly engage with the films. From these films, Blade Runner was probably formative; remained my favorite film for an extended time and I truly was in awe of the soulful spectacle.

Autumn Semester Break Weekend 2015 (January 29-February 2) Breathless, Chinatown, La jetée, Badlands, 8 1/2, Night and Fog, The 400 Blows, Seven Samurai, Singin’ in the Rain, Casablanca, Sunrise, Tokyo Story: pretty sure that this is the weekend that restarted my cinephilia; must credit They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They for making me aware of people like Tarkovsky (and, memorably, Salo), but I don’t think it really clicked in a sense deeper than a film like Apocalypse Now until that weekend; mostly on an emotional level then but I still remember certain moments, like the marsh tracking shot and the city zoom in Sunrise, that struck me on a technical level even then.

The Battle of Algiers, Close-Up (first half of 2015, June 25): if I can call any two films formative before I started Letterboxd, it would be these two (maybe discounting 400, Sunrise, Tokyo Story). It helps that I saw these at relatively isolated points, and though I remember seeing various films like Vivre sa vie, La dolce vita, and L’avventura distinctly on their own, these two were the ones that  especially stood out, Battle for how boldly political it was (especially at a time when I was staunchly conservative) and Close-Up for its heartbreaking celebration of cinephilia; I was aware of the various techniques of both but they swept me up with such gusto, such awe.

Eraserhead (midnight June 6, 2015): this is my B.C./A.D. The visceral impact, the technical perfection, the pure nightmarish quality shook me to my core. I saw Mad Max: Fury Road later that day and was underwhelmed because of how profoundly affected I was at the time.

Sans soleil: if Close-Up is the must-see film for cinephiles, then Sans soleil is the must-see film for any living person; I remember I started to watch it but was interrupted 15 minutes in by my dad, who wanted to watch Kingsman (we both hated it); I restarted the next day and was destroyed and rebuilt.

Days of Heaven: don’t know why I chose to restart my Letterboxd (which had lain dormant with only one diary entry for Moonrise Kingdom, I think on April 18?) with this, but perhaps the move to Georgia emboldened me to usher in a new stage; last film I saw before was Grave of the Fireflies on the plane.

Jeanne Dielman/Persona: a bit unsure on these but I think these two, especially Jeanne Dielman, inform my sensibilities to a strong extent; both two immensely formal and daring works that shocked me to no end.

Yi Yi: I could put just the camera move on Ting-Ting when she’s taking out the trash on this list and it would suffice, it was such a revelatory use of simple but pure camera movement to convey  a sense of humanism, of emotion that put me in a true state of awe. The crosscutting between the first date and the reminisces was similarly revelatory, but everything felt so alive yet so precise; just so .

Queen of Earth: I remember being surprised that, in a day of seeing (and meeting!) Wenders and Melville that this film by a director I had heard little about was the best I saw. I wouldn’t necessarily  stand by this statement now, but I’m fairly certain that this was the first truly  independent film, and was an important step for me to rely slightly less on the canon.