25 April 2011

In his cinematic essays, Deleuze mentions Brechtian 'jest,' "the link or knot of attitudes between themselves... [that] do not depend on a previous story" (Cinema 2 192), and that Brecht, like Lang, passes the act of judgement onto the viewer (139), but the conspicuous absence of reference to Brecht - or Brechtian theory in the hands of Benjamin or others - when writing about Ophüls, who named Brecht as one of his closest friends, is, I think, a result of Deleuze's sparring with the Frankfurt School over the legacy of Bergson and, by extension, dialectial materialism. Max Horkheimer's Zu Bergsons Metaphysik der Zeit complains that Bergson's generalities of time trivialize the truth of individual experience, its suffering, and unpleasant social realities, and in "Materialism and Metaphyics," Horkheimer decries "Bergson's depreciation of theoretical thinking" "defenselessness.. before any and all supernaturalist tendencies".. "helplessness in the face of spiritism and occultism".. "the neglect of the theoretical in favor of the bare immediate datum.. wholly robs philosophy of its illuminative effect" while years later, the dialectical Badiou credits the anti-dialectical Deleuze for "single-handedly.. secularizing Bergson." (AB's Deleuze 99) Lola Montès is film's closest thing to a full catalog of Brechtian effects, the parts of which were used with more intensity by Godard in the following decades. It's unclear whether or not Ophüls was influenced by Bergson, but as Badiou says of Deleuze "Bergson.. is his real master" (AB's D 38), Deleuze's interpretation of Lola Montès can be read as an attempt to view Brectian theater as an object within a Bergsonian whole.

Defining the crystal-image as the "formation of an image with two sides, actual and virtual" (Cinema 2 68), Deleuze sees the circus-track of Lola Montès and the round of episodes of La Ronde as his spinning crystal, with Lola (Martine Carol) being "thrust on stage" by the Circus Master (Peter Ustinov) in search of a virtual image of herself. After we are appraised of the physical toll the circus is taking on her, Lola asks the girl who plays her as a child about Lola-as-circus-attraction:

Lola: Do you like this?
Girl: Uh huh.
Lola: Do you still like it in the same way?
Girl: Oui madame. I hope it never ends.
Lola: (hugs her) You're right. Go...

The real Lola Montèz never performed in a circus and Ophüls was originally hired to make a film only about Lola's relationship with the Bavarian King Ludwig I. The Circus Master's cracking the whip while warning the audience of "a creature a hundred times more murderous than any beast in our menagerie" through whom "we'll show everything that women dream of doing, but lack the courage to do," whose "authentic revolution" in Bavaria is heralded by Lola impersonators juggling Lola heads and repeating in unison "authentique," may seem to some today - me at least - as a parody of Nietzsche ("the truth and nothing but the truth"), but the "bloodthirsty monster" and the whip go back to Félicien Champsaur's 1888 pantomine Lulu (left), from which it was also lifted by Frank Wedekind for his 1895 play Earth Spirit, and Champsaur's Lulu was loosely based on the stock character Colombine of the Commedia dell'arte, which was entrenched in French culture by the 17th Century. Another traditional theatrical device is that of the Bänkelsang (bench song, pictured below) technique which Ophüls got from Brecht's The Threepenny Opera, in which the balladeer (or Brechtian chorus) would stand on a bench and gesture to stories pictured on a scroll, the scroll of tableaux which opens and closes Lola Montès, doubling as an allegory of depth of field. The "bench song" was common in Italy in the 16th Century and dates back to 6th Century India. Brecht was against the presentation of iconic, essentializing characters and the film's implied distance from the descriptions of the exploitative circus master has led Lola Montès to be called a feminist film. Ophüls chose neither the subject matter nor did he want to shoot in color, but after Michael Powell, who turned down the film, colorfully filmed Ophüls' beloved Tales of Hoffman, he may have warmed to the idea of shooting a circus in color, deconstructing with Brechtian irony the Colombine/Lulu icon.

Bergman's classic b/w circus drama Sawdust and Tinsel had been shot in Sweden in February 1953 and released the same year, a year before Ophüls was signed to direct Lola, while Jean Renoir's color Commedia dell'arte farce The Golden Coach was released in early 1953. These three masterpieces provide a window to an era of itinerant performance long since vanished. All three were lambasted by the critics at the time and later praised by Andrew Sarris, who said of The Golden Coach: "To claim, as reviewers of the time did, that Renoir had failed to produce a convincing narrative, is to scorn Matisse and Picasso for not painting plausible pictures." The Golden Coach turned a profit, but the other two almost ended their director's careers: In the Cahiers du Cinéma interview with Truffaut and Rivette near the end of his life, a life which may have been cut short by stress over this film, Ophüls expressed optimism that Lola Montès would "slowly recoup its money," which it didn't. In addition to the trashing it took in the French press, the police stood in front of the Théâtre Marigny, a few feet from the Fourth Republic military displays on the Champs-Élysées, telling viewers to avoid the films of the "cosmopolitan" Ophüls.

For Ophüls, the episodic format used in Le Plaisir and La Ronde and the chorus of La Ronde function as what Walter Benjamin considered the modern form of allegory he found in Brecht's plays and Eisensteinian montage.. As Ophüls told costume designer Yuri (George) Annenkov (recounted in Masao Yamaguchi's essay For an Archaeology of Lola Montès): "Lola is merely an axis around which the drama unfolds.. this is not to.. minimize her role.. I am displacing the center of gravity.. she is the one who provokes the dramas that interest us, she is their trigger..." the tabloid femme who enters the viewer into the realm of the composer Franz Liszt, of Ludwig I, the artistically inclined King of Bavaria, grandfather of the more Wagnerian Ludwig II of Neuschwanstein Castle fame, as well as the domestic drama of her first husband, who digests the customs of his class with alcohol and calls her "the eternal victim." 'High art' and political power are represented in the circus by Lola's ascent on the trapeze into vertical space "higher, Lola, higher!," in which the middle classes are told that royalty trumps being Richard Wagner, who the king's ear doctor doesn't like "you could hear him from the bottom of a whale," or the "even greater and very famous Chopin," a spiral which The Circus Master mirrors himself while ascending a spiral staircase (common in Ophüls films) singing a song (referenced in Godard's My Life to Live) while the cameramen are instructed the change color filters in the middle of a shot, something that hadn't been done before because it was believed impossible. Vertical dimensions take on a significance throughout the film determined by the subculture around them: that of the hotel, the opera house, the baroque staircase at Ludwig's palace and at the event where she meets her first husband; the circus' symbolism of vertical space is equally contexual.

Unlike the "all-knowing interlocutor" that introduces La Ronde, the suspect character of the Circus Master warning us of Lola the "murderous creature" provides a Brechtian filter from empathy for the protagonists. There are very few shots of Lola's point of view: only that of the chandelier, accompanied by the repetition "remember the past?," corresponding to her red balloon as a little girl and setting up the 312-frame dissolve from the opening circus scene to the first recollection, seeing the Latin teacher (Oskar Werner, Truffaut's Jules) hiking through nature in a horizontal depth of field, later looking down at the Latin teacher - with whom she could have settled down with instead of taking up Ustinov's circus offer - from a second floor (ergo lower cost) hotel room, and the looking down before the climactic shot of the leap. Her gaze at cultural rituals like the society dance through the porthole of the ferry (with just a brief POV before her reaction), looking into the dormitory accommodation she so detests on the ferry to Europe, looking at the stars symbolizing her social ambitions at the bow of the boat, and the Bavarian military parade are mediated through the sight of her seeing.

Ophüls, normally evasive and coy, seemed to confide to the kindred spirit Annenkov, a renowned painter (right, Portrait of the dancer Elena Annenkov, 1917) who designed costumes for circus dramas in Russia, resulting in a book by Annenkov about Ophüls in French that hasn't been translated. Ophüls described to him how the color scheme of the circus was a virtual mirroring the actual: "In my film, the circus assumes precisely a symbolic sense... I want all colors to collide with each other in the arena of the circus, because my circus runs through an entire life, encompassing all its stages." If this sounds like Baudelaire's poem "Correspondences" ("through forests of symbols.. // Perfumes, sounds, and colors correspond..,") Ophüls wrote in a play called "Thoughts on Film" that "Baudelaire knew all about [the camera as a human eye] long before their were films" and then recited Baudelaire's prose poem "The Window": "A man looking out of an open window never sees as much as the same man looking directly at a closed window. There is no object more deeply mysterious, no object more pregnant with suggestion, more insidiously sinister, in short more truly dazzling than a window lit up from within by even a single candle. What we can see out in the sunlight is always less interesting than what we can perceive taking place behind a pane of windowglass. In that pit, in that blackness or brightness, life is being lived, life is suffering, life is dreaming...." This reference by Ophüls provides a key to not only the many shots through windows (the brothel in Le Plaisir, Lola looking through the porthole at the dance) but Ophüls' constant practice of placing screens and obstructions between the camera and the scene, something von Stroheim had done in Hollywood before him.

But as Andrew Sarris, the inventor of auteur theory, added to his 1962 proclamation "Lola Montes is in my unhumble opinion the greatest film of all time, and I am willing to stake my critical reputation, such as it is, on this one proposition above all others" (pdf) the 1969 update "I stand by that judgment.. I have been told by authorities in the field that it even fits into the pot [marijuana] scene as it swirls and swoops through space with its delirious director's camera," it is, most notably in the circus scenes, the symbolic encoding between the correspondences of sense, including color, vertical space, depth of field, memory, dolly shots, color filters, personae and caricatures, costume, representations of time and places, filtered through an all-encompassing Brechtian irony, that dispenses of acquired perceptive assumptions to return the viewer to state of child-like discovery, without the manipulation that often awaits children in theaters. As King Ludwig I was notorious for promoting the arts at the expense of the public, hard of hearing and lascivious, Ophüls turns this episode into a running cinematic allegory of sense: at the opera house, tapping his fingers to Lola's dances to music he can't hear, judging a painting by the duration of its production, having Lola replace cigars with pastries while they conspire to dismiss the university faculty, remarking next to a giant model ear at the doctor's office that "there are things I wish to hear nor see" while the white pamphlet against him enters a 76 frame dissolve into a riot scene, reading aloud Hamlet's "How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,/ Seem to me all the uses of this world" while the masses riot outside.

In the final shot (don't watch it if you don't want to see the final shot) the virtual image of Lola and the circus reflects back to the actual phenomonen of the cinema, wherein audience with the former mistress of kings and composers is being offered to the masses for a small fee, deposited into the head of the Lola statue, while the camera pans back at Lola in her animal cage, the cinematic image that André Bazin has likened to a sarcophagus, shrinking behind a crowd of men in hats which can be seen as both a egalitarian celebration and Brechtian alienation-effect, which I fancy to be a precedent to Antonioni's distancing of the female protagonist in L'Eclisse, but as in L'Eclisse retains the melancholy - enhanced by the melody of the barrel organ - of this distancing, both from the empathy towards the protagonist and the circus culture that is vanishing on the horizon of time, blocked off at last by the closing of the Bänkelsang scroll and its illusory perspectives and separated from our eye by that single leaf spiraling in the air.

English translation:
Circus Master (aside): I was terrified, you know. I couldn't live without you. Thank you.
Lola: It'll be alright.
Circus Master (aloud): Treat yourself to a good time, gentlemen. Come and see Lola! Only one dollar!.. Mind your cigar, sir! Roll up, gentlemen! An unforettable souvenir for a dollar!.. Step right up! Only one dollar. It's next to nothing. You won't regret your money, gentlemen!

18 April 2011

Conveniently one of the directors on my list for the top 15 films meme has a photography show - two shows - at Peter Blum so I can combine the two items into one post. First the films, in chronological order by color format with director noted:

b/w: L'Atalante (1934, Jean Vigo), The Lady from Shanghai (1947, Orson Welles), The World of Apu (1959, Satyajit Ray), Viridiana (1961, Luis Buñuel Portolés), Accatone (1961, Pier Paolo Pasolini), L'Eclisse (1962, Michelangelo Antonioni), Alphaville (1965, Jean-Luc Godard), Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman).

Color: Lola Montès (1955, Max Ophüls), Muriel, or the Time of a Return (1963, Alain Resnais), Edvard Munch (210 minute version, 1974, Peter Watkins), Heart of Glass (1976, Werner Herzog), Stalker (1979, Andrei Tarkovsky), Sans Soleil (1983, Chris Marker), A Passage to India (1984, David Lean).

While I'm mentioning Heart of Glass there's an online clip of the prophecy scene from the recent re-release:

"The crystal is expression. Expression moves from the mirror to the seed. It is the same circuit that passes through three figures, the actual and the virtual, the limpid and the opaque, the seed and the environment. In fact, the seed is on the one hand the virtual image which will crystallize an environment which is at present amorphous; but on the other hand the latter must have a structure which is virtually crystallizable, in relation to which the seed now plays the role of actual image. Once again the actual and the virtual are exchanged in an indiscernibility which on each occasion allows distinction to survive... Perhaps this is also the perspective from which to understand the splendour of the images in Herzog's Heart of Glass, and the film's double aspect. The search for the alchemical heart and secret, for the red crystal, is inseparable from the search for cosmic limits, as the highest tension of the spirit and the deepest level of reality. But the crystal's fire will have to connect with the whole range of manufacturing for the world, for its part to stop being a flat, amorphous environment which ends at the edge of a gulf, and to reveal infinite crystalline potentialities in itself ('the earth rises up from the waters, I see a new earth...'). In this film Herzog has set out the greatest crystal-images in the history of the cinema." (Deleuze, The crystals of time from Cinema 2)

"It should not be hard for you to stop sometimes and look into the stains of walls, or ashes of a fire, or clouds, or mud or like places in which.. you may find really marvelous ideas." (Leonardo, Notebooks)

Chris Marker's Sans Soleil is the only documentary on the list, aiming straight at the time problem. Interestingly the English version replaces the Racine quote "The distance between countries compensates somewhat for the excessive closeness of time" at the beginning with T.S. Eliot's "Because I know that time is always time/ And place is always and only place/ And what is actual is actual only for one time/ And only for one place" then:

If you haven't seen it, I think it would be interesting to read the text of the voice overs before hearing them with the images, am not as sure about reading snippets out of context, but can't resist a few (in order of appearance):

"All women have a built-in grain of indestructibility. And men's task has always been to make them realize it as late as possible."...

"Pac-Man is the most perfect graphic metaphor of man's fate. He puts into true perspective the balance of power between the individual and the environment. And he tells us soberly that though there may be honor in carrying out the greatest number of victorious attacks, it always comes a cropper."...

"I have listened to the stories of former guerrilla fighters, who had fought in conditions so inhuman that they pitied the Portuguese soldiers for having to bear what they themselves suffered. That I heard. And many more things that make one ashamed for having used lightly—even if inadvertently—the word guerrilla to describe a certain breed of film-making." ....

"In Portugal—raised up in its turn by the breaking wave of Bissau—Miguel Torga, who had struggled all his life against the dictatorship wrote: “Every protagonist represents only himself; in place of a change in the social setting he seeks simply in the revolutionary act the sublimation of his own image.” ...

"I envy (video artist Hayao Yamaneko) in his 'zone,' he plays with the signs of his memory. He pins them down and decorates them like insects that would have flown beyond time, and which he could contemplate from a point outside of time: the only eternity we have left." ....

This quote about Guinea-Bissau: "Amilcar Cabral was not afraid of ambiguities—he knew the traps. He wrote: 'It's as though we were at the edge of a great river full of waves and storms, with people who are trying to cross it and drown, but they have no other way out, they must get to the other side.'”... reminds me of Graham Greene's theological crisis at the end of his Haiti novel The Comedians, in which Duvalier's opponents are forced into a tragic, mortal struggle against his armies, most pertinent now that the Obama-backed puppet Micky Martelly, winner of a fixed election, is bringing back the death squads which "openly claim to be Duvalierists." The film version with Burton, Liz Taylor, Ustinov, and Alec Guinness is also recommended.

If you prefer your documentaries to be about a specific political or historical topic, watch your favorite after Marker's A Grin Without a Cat and see how it holds up. You're hanging with Prokofiev and Shostakovich if you think you can write music for Eisenstein footage, and Luciano Berio's re-orchestration of Luigi Boccherini's Night Music of the Streets of Madrid after the opening voice over is up to the propagandist task.. English translation: "I didn't see Potemkin when it first came out, I was too young. I remember the shot of the meat - definitely - with the maggots, the little tent where the dead man was laid out, and when the first person stops in front of it, and the bit when the sailors take aim on the brink of the battleship and just when the officer gives the order to fire, a huge sailor with a big mustache shouts a word which spreads itself all over the screen: 'БРАТЬЯ!' ('BROTHERS!')"

Stills from Sans Soleil were shown at Blum three years ago, and Marker's attentions have shifted from Japan to Korea for part of this show, utilizing a range of effects, but much of the show takes place in the subway, displaying the comic and tragic dislocations, paratactical realms, play of surfaces, reflections, and windows that have inspired many.

In recent years Marker has inserted master paintings that resemble the female passengers in the photographs, thus avoiding what Baudelaire called the "war of the imagination" caused by presenting the circumstantial without the eternal, which Piri' Miri Muli' readers recall from the third paragraph of last July 4th's post, followed in the next paragraph by Baudelaire's overview of beauty and time.

The Russian painter Semyon Faibisovich has for years documented the juxtapositions and reflections of cars and buses as well as other public places and has recently switched at times to photographs to achieve these same effects, focusing more frequently on the alienation and deprivation found in these settings.

17 April 2011



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15 April 2011

Friday capsules

Best American Poetry: The most literal poet in town spearheads the project, in the event someone out there doesn't understand his poetry.

Best American Fiction: The cover says Best European Fiction, but the first adjective is ludicrous and the second inaccurate, save for László Krasznahorkai's Venetian art story (a theme this blog didn't get from War & War. See, three sentences.) getting in through the grandfather clause (legitimacy anchor), featuring even a story called "Raymond is No Longer with Us - Carver is Dead" from Montenegro, a few hours' drive from the Camp Bondsteel Writers' Workshop.

I only get a chance to say "I don't praise many books here" a few times but I will use one for Kit Robinson's Determination, since Silliman is working 24/7 after having the nerve to apply for academic jobs despite no BA, thinking he knows something, and doesn't seem to have time for the the normal scathing aspersions he casts on those Language poets; Robinson sustains the context of a poem more than his earlier work for reasons that are reprieved in each case and maintains at times the structure of his early work with similar results.

Just in time for the lyric revival.. actually, no, I think I missed the lyric revival.. Buck Downs proffers a screen display of returned post cards, which is how Ray Johnson would have obtained his own postal works unless he'd spring for one of these mass produced portraits for the mantelpiece with writing attached.

11 April 2011

There comes the interval where the gang stands around arguing about weather patterns, which I'm convinced has little to do with the weather patterns. For Leonardo, laboring to keep the light in his inn, Socrates' disparaging of the sun is an allegory of sight and connotation, but for Socrates I think he suspects he can pull it off but he's not quite sure. Aragon wrote "The storm takes pity on the sea and tells me: let her be, the poor old thing. We were made for finer whores" because Lautreamont found the sea first, and, by extension, the wind (I typed window) driving the sea. So the storm, form escaping banality, even if "columns of mist start fly down" leads to "Business Opportunities too !!" Such is fortune that the weather doesn't even look at the pictures.