Archive for March, 2007

Notes on Marie Menken

Martina Kudlacek’s Notes on Marie Menken offers a much-needed portrait of one of the American avant-garde’s forgotten filmmakers. Kudlacek’s film serves less as a straight biography of Menken and more as a diffuse portrait of a virtually forgotten figure. Menken, whose poetic, observant films, influenced artists including Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas, later became known as one of Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls and was also the model for Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Kudlacek’s documentary will frustrate viewers looking for a straight biographical approach to Menken. As Manohla Dargis observes, the documentary omits several important details about Menken’s life, including the fact that she studied art at the Art Students League, and while the documentary mentions the death of a child, filmmaker Kenneth Anger has mentioned in other interviews being visited by a child of Menken’s. Given the lack of knowledge about Menken (I knew little about her before watching this documentary), that may be a bit of a disservice, but Notes does emphasize the need to revisit an artist whose works are in danger of being lost to the ravages of time and fading memory, as well as the fragile materiality of the film medium. In addition, Notes effectively captures Menken’s sense of wonder, her ability to see the beauty in everyday life.

Kudlacek depicts the fragility of cinematic memory through an early sequence in which we are led into a small storage closet in which many of Menken’s films and collectibles are stored. Menken’s nephew leads us into what seems like an abandoned space holding up rusting cans of film for our inspection. Many of the films have clearly been damaged, yet another reminder along the lines of Bill Morrison’s Decasia, that too much of America’s film history is in danger of being lost or becoming damaged beyond repair.

Of course, one of the strengths of Kudlacek’s film is its compilation of many of Menken’s most powerful films, providing viewers with an overview of Menken’s eye for everyday life. While watching Menken’s Glimpse of the Garden and Arabesque for Kenneth Anger, I found myself thinking about Benjamin’s concept of unconscious optics, which he defined in “The Work of Art” as film’s ability to reveal “entirely new structural formations of the subject.” Menken’s camera often focused on everyday details, seeing them in new ways while filming in a playful, often improvisational style, and as Anger observes in the documentary, Menken seemed especially interested in the play of light with the camera, which is evident during several of Menken’s films. But one of the more compelling film clips is a playful “duel” with Andy Warhol using Bolex cameras on the top of a New York City building.

Finally, the film offers a number of valuable interviews with the avant-garde filmmakers and artists who ran with Menken, including Jonas Mekas, Kenneth Anger, and Gerard Malanga, who all provide background into Menken’s life story. Mekas, in particular, reminisces about their shared Lithuanian heritage and praises Menken for her engagement with the everyday, an influence that is no doubt visible in Mekas’s “home movie” approach to avant-garde filmmaking. Even though the film is short on biographical detail, these moments make Notes on Marie Menken well worth further attention, and the Menken footage left me wanting to learn more about Menken’s work and her influence on other American avant-garde filmmakers.

Notes on Marie Menken is available from First Run/Icarus Films.


Lazy Post-SCMS Blogging

Still recovering from SCMS, but here are some links I don’t want to lose:

  • First, via the cinetrix, the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival has announced its list of new documentaries in competition at this year’s festival. Among the many cool choices, blog friend AJ Schnack’s Kurt Cobain About A Son, North Carolina neighbor Godfrey Cheshire’s Moving Midway, and Talk to Me, filmmaker Mark Craig’s compilation of twenty years of answering machine messages.
  • The cinetrix also points to The Onion’s list of movies starring “Magical Black Men.” I still think the Nic Cage Wonderful Life rip-off, The Family Man belongs somewhere on that list.
  • Dr. Mabuse has a few SCMS links, including Michael’s wrap-up post and Chris Cagle’s review post.

According to my count, this is my fifth SCMS conference–somehow it feels like more–and like Michael, I can’t help but respond to the conference’s tremendous growth over the last decade. This growth speaks to the continued relevance of film and media, and I’m happy to see the conference become a much larger tent, welcoming panels on television, music, radio, and digital media. I don’t really have time to blog specific panels, but the conference was a rewarding one.

Update: Via GreenCine, Joe Swanberg and Kris Williams’s Nerve video series Young American Bodies is entering its second season. I was a big fan of the first season, and the first video of the second season looks promising. GreenCine also has a video interview with Swanberg.

Update 2: GreenCine also has a report from Austin about Austin native Richard Linklater’s SXSW conversation with John Pierson.


SCMS 2K7 Blogging

I’m hoping to write a longer SCMS post later, but because of a mild cold, I haven’t had a lot of energy. Plus, I’m poaching wireless and I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to stay connected. But Tim Anderson has been blogging quite a bit. I did get a chance to catch Drew Morton (of Dr. Mabuse fame) and Michael Newman’s panel on independent cinema, which raised a number of useful questions about how we define indie cinema.

Also worth checking out: Michael has a great post about a number of films that are readily available on the web, including tons of Griffith, Melies, and Lumiere films, as well as films by Maya Deren and others. As Michael points out, there are enough films out there (on Google video, YouTube, etc) to supplement an entire film history course.

I’ll be presenting on Unknown White Male tomorrow. More on that later.

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Frederick Wiseman at Duke

Just found out that acclaimed documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman will be giving a lecture at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies on Monday, March 26, at 5 PM. I’ll be traveling, so I won’t be able to attend the lecture, but in anticipation of his appearance, the Center for Documentary Studies will be screening several of his films, including Law and Order, Model and Titicut Follies. Looks like I’ll be wearing out the highway between the ‘ville and Durham over the next few weeks.


Jean Baudrillard, RIP

Just found out via Karina on Twitter that French philosopher Jena Baudrillard died yesterday at the age of 77. The New York Times has a brief, if not terribly flattering, obituary that emphasizes Baudrillard’s concept of simulation, focusing as much on the Wachowski brothers’ appropriation of his ideas in the Matrix trilogy as anything else. There’s also a surprisingly snarky reference to Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s description of much postmodern thought as “fashionable nonsense.” Baudrillard’s concepts of simulation and simulacra and his analysis of the unreality of Gulf War I footage have been helpful to me for much of my academic career, and I will miss his ongoing contributions to media studies and philosophical discourse in general.

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Twitter Thoughts

Instead of finishing my paper for SCMS, I’ve been checking out the latest social networking site, Twitter. So far, like Jill, I’m still not quite sure how useful Twitter will be, at least for my interests, but I generally feel some obligation to see how sites like Twitter work.

In Jill’s comments, Liz raises the valuable point that Twitter combines the communications features of IM and text messages with the permanence of blogging archives. Karina has suggested that using Twitter might be a useful way of keeping track of people at conferences, and if I had more time, I’d experiment with it at SCMS. I’ve never really used text messages that often, so I don’t know how much experimenting with Twitter at this particular conference would tell me.

Meanwhile, McChris observes that Twitter’s limited post length of 140 characters potentially invites relatively inane posts (which would certainly describe my early contributions to Twitterdom). Still, I’ll be interested to see what uses of Twitter emerge. And if you want to become my Twitter friend, that’s cool, too.

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CPAC on YouTube

Nation reporter Max Blumenthal attended the Conservative Political Action Conference last week and put together a short video, CPAC: The Unauthorized Documentary. The video opens with footage of Michelle Malkin refusing to sign a photo of a Japanese internment camp and includes Ann Coulter’s homophobic jab at John Edwards and a Tom Tancredo supporter who won’t display his Confederate lapel pin for the camera. There’s also an interview with David Horowitz, in which Horowitz continues to insist that liberals wish all conservatives would die. Thanks to Shakespeare’s Sister for the link to the video.

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I celebrated the beginning of my spring break by seeing Roger Michell and Hanif Kureishi’s Venus (IMDB). Because the preview suggested a pop-styled Pygmalion story, I considered skipping the film, but Kureishi’s earlier work (My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) piqued my interest, and the chance to watch Peter O’Toole on the big screen proved too much to resist. Plus, after seeing ten other movies at the Cameo, I had earned a free ticket. I’m still not convinced that Venus escapes the Pygmalion problem, but O’Toole’s self-deprecating performance at least manages to complicate it to some extent.

O’Toole plays Maurice, a seventy-something actor who is part of a generation of British actors now fading away, their virility and masculinity undercut by old age. This point is underscored by the opening scene in which Maurice and fellow actor, Ian, divide up their pills in a local coffeehouse. Ian somewhat reluctantly hires his grand-niece, Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), as a live-in nurse, and Maurice quickly takes an interest in the teenage Jessie, who has vague wishes to become a model, though she does little, at first, to pursue this career, preferring instead to sit idly in front of a loud television set, snacking on crisps.

The scenes in which Maurice goes about introducing Jessie to the theater are sufficiently breezy and slyly subverted when Maurice gently chides her for not knowing the author of Hamlet. Jessie counters by pointing out that Maurice doesn’t know who wrote a pop music lyric she likes, and Jessie never fully relinquishes her tastes, saving the film, at least to some extent from becoming just another Pygmalion story. At the same time, Maurice seems fully aware of the absurdity of his crush on a woman fifty years younger than him, but I’m not quite sure the film fully escapes from this criticism, in part because the desires that might be motivating Jessie’s actions are not addressed as explicitly as Maurice’s. Instead, for much of the film, she comes across as slightly sullen until Maurice begins to see something interesting in her. In some ways, I thought Venus worked best in its depiction of a class of aging British actors and actresses, including Maurice’s ex-wife (played by Vanessa Redgrave, who should have received far more screen time), and the long friendships they had shared.


“We Have Become Our Own Movies”

Via Robert Young (and my friends): Neal Gabler’s fascinating Los Angeles Times editorial on the state of Hollywood, “The Movie Magic is Gone.” Gabler argues that despite a reported increase in box office in 2006, that the central place of moviegoing in the American psyche is being lost, adding that movies no longer “matter” in the same way they once did. He adds that the shift in emphasis away from moviegoing to other forms of entertainment is independent of the quality of the films themselves, as audiences increasingly seek out other forms of entertainment and amusement, including social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube. But like David Denby did a few weeks ago, he sounds a cautionary note about the changes in moviegoing and moviemaking as prctices.

Gabler’s article has a lot to recommend. I think he’s right to argue that the activity of moviegoing has lost its appeal for a number of people, including the 18-24 group which has been one of the major audiences for Hollywood films, in recent history at least. And I think he’s also right to point out that the adventures of TomKat, Brangelina, and Britney have been far more exciting than the relatively tepid films they’ve been making recently (we don’t need yet another Mission Impossible sequel, and quite frankly, I’m just as interested in Angelina Jolie’s commendable humanitarian efforts as I am her next film). And, finally, there’s no denying the power of social networking and video hosting sites such as YouTube and MySpace that produce their own micro-versions of stardom and celebrity (or at least infamy); just look at the instant popularity of lonelygirl15 and The Pit Breakup.

But Gabler’s comments miss (or at least misconstrue) pretty much everything that is valuable about this new shift in entertainment. First, it’s a slight overstatement to suggest that movies no longer have a central place in American culture, or what might be called a popular culture public sphere. For better or worse, few cultural events have mobilized political opinion as effectively as the two recent documentaries, An Inconvenient Truth and Fahrenheit 9/11. While both films were probably more frequently discussed than seen, both films also reignited conversations about global warming and the Iraq War respectively. Certainly there are dozens of other films that pass by unnoticed, disappearing from theaters before we even know they are there, but hasn’t that always been the case?

It’s also worth complicating Gabler’s numbers about MySpace and Facebook use as well as the implications of those numbers. Gabler reports Fortune magazine research that suggests that 54 million of those visitor spend, on average, 124 minutes on a visit to MySpace. What may get lost in these numbers is the fact that MySpace users are likely multitasking while “visiting” the site, keeping multiple windows open while engaging with other forms of media content. At the same time, many of these pages are filled with references to favorite movies and television shows (including a number of videos that remix Hollywood films in creative ways), suggesting that these narratives have not lost their vitality entirely.

Finally, as Robert Young argues, I think it is a mistake to regard media democratization as leading to narcissism as Gabler does. Instead, like Young, I think that a better way of characterizing the new landscape is in terms of “digital self expression.” While part of this self-expression may be the escape that Gabler associates with the fantasy of “imagin[ing] ourselves to be Cary Grant or Bette Davis,” the modes of direct address associated with videoblogging seem to imagine a different model of self-expression. In this sense, I think there is less reason to be alarmed or concerned about these changes in definitions of community and desires for new narrative structures than Gabler suggests. And as more people continue to participate in sites such as YouTube, we may find that the movies themselves will be reinvented.

I didn’t intend to write at such length about Gabler’s article, but I will be talking about related talks in my paper at MIT 5 in April, so I’ve been waiting for an excuse to work through some of these ideas.

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