Monday, May 4, 2015

Film as Film, and what is film? (a status update in the form of rambling personal musings)

Three and a half years ago, I recorded some of my frustrations with writing about and watching movies. In VertigoVertigo Variations, and Watching Movies While Blogging, I wrote about "a disengagement from actually experiencing, enjoying, and understanding the movies themselves" that resulted from almost obsessively trying to organize that experience. Since then I have experienced both an escalation of that process and a re-discovery of the central phenomenon that was getting eclipsed at that time.

Perhaps the apex of my desire for organization/presentation came two years ago when I joined Twitter. I decided that it would be fun to tweet screen-caps of every movie I watched, along with a one-line epigram. If anything, this seemed like an easy dodge, a way to engage with and record my experience of movies, without exhausting myself in prose analyses. But the project quickly became a Frankenstein's monster as I began to watch movies precisely so that I could "log" them in my ever-growing directory of #WatchlistScreenCaps. By the end of the year, this activity was mostly dictating what I watched and when I watched it; the resulting collection of images is worthwhile for me, but it's not an experience I would seek to relive.

Almost as soon as that endeavor ended, another intense interest came along. This one, however, was much healthier and more productive for my blogging, leading not to a self-enclosed obsession with organizing disparate works but rather to a deepening, expansive engagement with a single work (albeit in many manifestations). I am speaking, of course, of Twin Peaks.

You would think that focusing all of my attention on a single work (and I barely watched any other movies or TV shows in 2014) would have a limiting, rather than expansive, effect on me. But I think the intensity of that focus was exactly what I needed. I had been scattering myself too widely as I leapfrogged through cinema history, losing sight of the trees for the forest (an apt metaphor in conjunction with David Lynch's woodland mystery). I'm not entirely on board with the critic Manny Farber's famous white elephant vs. termite dichotomy, splitting works that attempt too much off from those that properly devote themselves to a single task at a time. But my emphasis on Twin Peaks certainly had a termitic quality to it, allowing me to cultivate certain ideas and feelings, to experiment with them and incorporate them into my own work.

The culmination of this process was Journey Through Twin Peaks, the series of video essays I labored on over four and a half months this past fall and winter. This project veered more toward elephant territory than termite, as I attempted to take in the whole series (and the film), to explore the overall shape as well as the nooks and crannies, even postulating that the messy work formed a coherent whole. But I was able to zoom in for the details and zoom out for the big picture because this project was done after six months of extensive research and engagement with Twin Peaks. I felt I had a firm grasp on the core of the work.

This may be the biggest change I've experienced in the past few years. A growing sense that beneath the chaotic onrush of information and sensation is a more fundamental, deeply-rooted order - a realization that does not just apply to cinema, although that is the aspect we will mostly focus on here.

I have never cared for postmodernism and always maintained a sense that individual films belonged to some larger system of meaning: "the movies," "cinema," call it what you will. Often, however, I attempted to overlay this structure from outside which entails artificiality, as opposed to the more organic process of discovering the order from within the work. At a certain point, it becomes necessary to step back from the body of the film and identify, in a clear-eyed way, the "soul" of the film. The phenomenon of all art, of which cinema is one form, is human emotion. Everything else, the techniques employed, the history within which it is enmeshed, the connections to other works, are essentially appendages, serving to either assist or obstruct the delivery of the core material: an emotional experience offered by the work. I don't think a full engagement with art can take place without a spiritual, even mystical, appreciation of that phenomenon.

For that reason, among many others, I am finally committing myself to creating video essays, in which the analysis is enmeshed with the work, and the essayist can employ other techniques alongside the verbal. The past few years have been characterized by occasional forays into video (as far back as 2009), often producing the best work I've done on this blog, followed by retreats for long periods. Even recently, after completing Journey, there was been a break of several months. But during this time I have been exploring other video essays (I had seen only a handful until this spring), discussing their possibilities (most notably in an interview with Kevin B. Lee), and beginning work on video essays for Fandor, where my first post will hopefully appear in the next few weeks.

These videos also allow me to engage with a work without, in effect, "leaving it behind." And, as I've realized both in my conversations with Kevin and my own work in the past year, the possibilities are endless. The film remains an anchor while simultaneously providing a springboard into something new, because video essays can serve as a vital bridge between criticism and filmmaking. Video essays certainly have a notable penchant for deconstruction. But I am increasingly interested in their constructive quality, their ability to create something new.

Recently I have been reading the book Film as Film by V.F. Perkins (yes, I finally got to the title of this post). It has offered a ringing confirmation of something I have been feeling lately, especially as I uncovered the unlikely, illuminating bond, and not just the opposition, between the visceral, immediate Fire Walk With Me (the Twin Peaks film) and the cooler, more detached Twin Peaks (the TV series). Likewise the dual elements of film - illusion and reality - may exist in fruitful tension, a dynamic relationship of contrasts that fuels the restless excitement of moviegoing. But, when realizing their full potential, they also achieve a fundamental, holistic harmony that sustains the satisfaction of cinema. And this is often true where dualities emerge.

This really has been the growing theme for me in the past few years, most notably/publicly through my own journey through Twin Peaks, but also in personal reflection, work experience, books I've read (The Gift by Lewis Hyde being one notable example), and in forms more difficult to define: a growing, hesitant trust in intuition over intellect, openness to experience vs. fighting against circumstance, and (the biggest challenge) faith beyond willpower. I don't know where any of this will lead, am not totally sure how to articulate it beyond these vague suggestions (or if it should even be articulated), and am only tentatively scraping at the surface right now, but it is a start.

Here are some passages from Film as Film, which I find pertinent, revealing, and provocative. I don't necessarily agree with all of Perkins' observations but many ring a bell.

"Story-telling, the representation of imagined action, is not an autonomous form but one which both assumes and informs the character of the medium used in the telling. It is not opposed to poetry, novel, strip-cartoon or theatre, and it cannot reasonably be seen as hostile or irrelevant to cinema. The movie incorporates the real object or fictional event into the medium itself. The basic vocabulary of photography recognizes this; 'raw' film is 'exposed' to the features of the given subject but 'developed' only when it reveals the image derived from them."

"[T]he [orthodox montage] theory is most emphatic where it should be most cautious, in imposing obligations on the artist; it is least helpful where it should be most relevant, in developing the disciplines of criticism. A useful theory will have to redirect attention to the movie as it is seen, by shifting the emphasis back from creation to perception. In order to arrive at a more accurate and inclusive definition of film as it exists for the spectator, it will need to concentrate not on the viewfinder and the cutting bench but on the screen."

"Bazin mistook his own critical vocation to the defence of realism for the 'true vocation of the cinema'. His theoretical statements threaten a purism of the object as narrow as that of the image. Despite Bazin's careful qualifications and disclaimers, realist theory becomes coherent only if we identify the cinema's 'essence' with a single aspect of the film - photographic reproduction. In defining the film by reference to one of its features it resembles the orthodoxy, as it does in making a criterion out of a preference for particular aspects of film technique. Both theories discriminate in favour of certain kinds of cinematic effect, in other words certain kinds of attitude given cinematic form. The image dogma would assess quality in terms of the artist's imposition of order on the chaotic and meaningless surface of reality. Object dogma would derive its verdict from his discovery of significance and order in reality. Each of these positions presupposes a philosophy, a temperament, a vision - terrain which the theorist should leave open for the film-maker to explore and present."

"Thus the cinema is a device which creates an illusion of movement as much as it is an 'extension of photography'. Every method of using film presupposes movement, but there are movies - in particular certain forms of cartoon - which do not involve photography." 
"In its conception and at its birth, the motion picture was a curious hybrid: the magic lantern was crossed with the optical toy, and the offspring of this liaison was mated with the camera. The cinema bears to this day (and for the forseeable future) every mark of its mixed parentage. The relationship between illusion and reality is usually ambiguous and often chaotically muddled."

"I do not believe that the film (or any other medium) has an essence which we can usefully invoke to justify our criteria. We do not deduce the standards relevant to Rembrandt from the essence of paint; nor does the nature of words impose a method of judging ballads and novels. Standards of judgement cannot be appropriate to a medium as such but only to particular ways of exploiting its opportunities. That is why the concept of the cinematic, presented in terms of demands, has stunted the useful growth of film theory. Helpful criteria are more likely to be based on positive statements of value than on prohibitions. To regard criticism positively, as a search for the most satisfactory definitions of function and value allows an escape from academic systems of rules and requirements. Criteria then relate to claims which the critic can sustain rather than to demands which he must make. The clarification of standards should help to develop the disciplines of criticism without seeking to lay obligations on the film-maker. Criticism and its theory are concerned with the interplay of available resources and desirable functions. They attempt to establish what the medium is good for. They cannot determine what is good for the medium, because the question is senseless. The search for appropriate criteria leads us to observe limitations; it does not allow us to prescribe them. Anything possible is also permissible, but we still have to establish its value. We cannot assess worth without indicating function."

2 comments: said...

We all have to walk a careful line, keeping our hobbies and interests as hobbies and interests so we can continue to enjoy them.

Joel Bocko said...

Yeah, and even on the fortunate occasions where they have the opportunity to become something other than hobbies/interests it's important to maintain that amateur enthusiasm.