Saturday, December 21, 2013

Best of 2013

Because I've seen quite a few recent films this year, and because I hate the Cahiers du Cinéma list.

To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, 2012)
Like Someone In Love (Abbas Kiarostami, 2012)
Diablo (Mes De Guzman, 2012)
Inori (Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio, 2012)
Outtakes From the Life of a Happy Man (Jonas Mekas, 2013)
Two Meters of This Land (Ahmad Natche, 2012)
Jai Bhim Comrade (Anand Patwardhan, 2011)
Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz, 2013)
By the River (Nontawat Numbenchapol, 2013)
At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, 2013)

Films completed:

Animal Spirits (9 minutes, 16mm)

Monday, June 24, 2013

Alex Herboche's And Their Phantoms

Alex Herboche’s And Their Phantoms is the most inspiring independent film I have seen all year. Shot on Super 16mm, it dispenses with formalities such as plot, character, and even dialogue. What’s left is silence (often the true emptiness of audio drops, like gaps in our consciousness), landscape, people, and the film (embodied by the ever-present film crew).

The film’s premise is general – three people (we never learn their relationship to each other) go on a trip together with the ashes of a loved one. We never see them beginning their journey (because there is no beginning); we don’t even learn if they eventually get to their destination. The film, like its elliptical title, doesn’t end or begin so as much as it abruptly springs to life and runs out of life. It is a film of the Warholian order – automatic in the sense that it begins with the push of a button, and ends because the film eventually runs out.

And Their Phantoms is especially exceptional with its use of space. Throughout, the people are constantly dwarfed by the imposing landscape. Harsh mountains bear down and gaseous springs bubble up to consume the people in their wanderings. After all, the only appropriate response to overwhelming nature is mute, dumb fear. There is an inability for this landscape to even coalesce into affection (as a character himself wonders in an unfocused, grainy close-up) – we wonder if it is because we are not perceiving it in the right way at all.

The enormity of it all – of death and grief – reels the film into shock. Sound goes absent, the image goes blind (with violent losses of focus), and sound/image become unhinged. At every cut, the machinery of the film dies, only to be reborn. Every cut produces its shadow (what could be, what could have been, what will never be) and the film crew’s presence only reinforces that. After all, what a film crew chooses to shoot or record is almost entirely up to the whims of nature – which direction the wind blows that day, how many crickets are singing at that moment. The record is unreliable – it could have been so many other things, and yet it is often taken as truth. Herboche’s rumination on cinema is bracing and utterly innovative.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Night of the World

"The human being is this night, this empty nothing, that contains everything in its simplicity—an unending wealth of many presentations, images, of which none happens to occur to him—or which are not present. This night, the inner of nature, that exists here— pure self—in phantasmagorical presentations, is night all around it, here shoots a bloody head—there another white shape, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears. One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye—into a night that becomes awful, it suspends the night of the world here in an opposition. In this night being has returned."

--Hegel; Realphilosophie manuscript of 1805–06

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Year of 2011

My inspirations 2011:

Kuhle Wampe (Slatan Dudow, 1932)
Biutiful (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2008)
Jam (Chris Morris, 2000)
In Girum Imus Nocte Et Consumimur Igni (Guy Debord, 1978)
Scream 4 (Wes Craven, 2011)
The Death of Empedocles (Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, 1987)
Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, 2006) + Night and Day (Hong Sang-soo, 2008)
Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (Jean-Luc Godard, 1990)
Before the Revolution (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1964)
Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, 2011)
Ashes and Embers (Haile Gerima, 1982)
Harvest: 3,000 Years (Haile Gerima, 1976)
House of Pleasures (Bertrand Bonello, 2011) + Weekend (Andrew Haigh, 2011)
Evolution of a Filipino Family (Lav Diaz, 2004)

Films completed:

Eclipses (103 minutes, 16mm)

No Images (8 minutes, 16mm)

Works in progress:

Animal Spirits (8 minutes, 16mm)
Quijote (120 minutes, 16mm)

Friday, October 14, 2011

Look at this mountain, it was once fire

"I believe that what we’ve looked for, consciously since Moses and Aron, is monumentality (that’s Seguin’s word). The monumentality of the character in relation to the set, the monumentality of the set in relation to the character. Something that in the spirit of two painters who I never think about while shooting but who I think about while imagining. The first is Giotto, not Giotto in general, but the one who I discovered in 1951 by riding my bike to Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Films don’t have anything worthwhile if you don’t manage to find something that burns somewhere in the shot. And most filmmakers no longer have any relationship to the language they were born into, in which they work. There are films where the manner that people talk has nothing to do with the house in which they were born which is the same as their mother tongue. A specific language, not a universal language, because cinema is not a universal language the way the Italians, Lizzani and others pretend. Speech is a touchstone for judging films: there are films where the German or Italian language becomes sick (those by the Taviani brothers or Francesco Rosi, for example). The other aspect is that at each second of each shot, what Renoir called the magical, the magic of reality, must be felt. And that’s why Stroheim is the most important, more important than Griffith and John Ford, even though for me the most important thing that I know is Civil War in How the West Was Won. That everything you show is both magnificent and the opposite must be felt. Bunuel’s idea that we don’t really live in the best of all possible worlds, but that in spite of everything it’s the best of all possible worlds because we haven’t yet found a better one… The other painter is the one who painted Montagne Sainte-Victoire so often and who said “Look at this mountain.” He was trying to capture it as a mountain and not something else. It wasn’t abstract painting although it already went beyond that, it was already cubism and something that was richer than cubism. He said, “Look at this mountain, it was once fire.” And that, that goes for everything that we show: it’s like this but it could be different, it’s magnificent and horrible, man is not the center of the universe. Or again Rosa Luxemburg’s idea: the death of an insect is no less important than the death of the revolution."

--Jean-Marie Straub interviewed by Alain Bergala, Alain Philippon and Serge Toubiana, Cahiers du Cinema no. 364, October 1984 Translated by Ted Fendt, 2011, from

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Notes on Debord

In In Girum Imus Nocte Et Consumimur Igni, we see images of Venice over Debord's monologue. Venice is a city where life has been completely drained. It is like a photograph, an empty shell of a spectacle that is animated externally, rather than internally. The shopkeepers/restaurant owners in Venice are like specters – they appear only when there are tourists, only where there are transactions to be made, then disappear off, during the night, to nearby Mestre, where they live most of their lives. Venice is a city that is kept alive by capitalist consumerism, the need for images of the past. The merchants of Venice do not trade in real goods, but in images – they sell an image of the city's past, whether they be in the form of a cheaply made souvenir, or the false impression of activity/movement/life.

In many ways, images have become like Venice. They no longer have the power to teach, convince or prove. They no longer speak. It is no wonder that Hollywood now only concerns themselves with making live-action 3D cartoons; the images of Hollywood these days are empty spectacles that refuse to engage with the world. Yet, these images cannot be dismissed; they are more powerful than ever. The way these images are produced ensures an uninterrupted global chain of consumerism; they construct barriers of entry so high (CGI spectacles are so expensive to produce) that it is impossible for any other film industry without the same means of production to keep up. Half or more of every country's screens are filled with Hollywood images, essentially murdering the possibility of seeing different images, of seeing even our own images. It is a form of colonialism, legitimized by the 'given' that is money.

The most saddening fact is that this form of hegemony has been so deeply ingrained in cinema that it is no longer just a Hollywood thing to say: 'Films are bad because they are not technically good,' as if cinema should only be made a certain way, in a certain style (shot-reverse shot), within a certain narrative structure. Hollywood does not need to oppress filmmakers; filmmakers will oppress themselves just to get their film seen, just to survive. In a sense, Hollywood has the exact same function as capitalism. Capitalism deals in money – by making currency the absolute given, capitalism forces people to be part of the system in order to survive. Hollywood, on the other hand, deals in images – by making emotions/fantasy/art the absolute given, Hollywood forces filmmakers and audiences to accept nothing else.

And so, there is a sort of fear even in the most subversive images, even in Debord's film. There is fear, because filmmakers have absolutely no control over how audiences consume images, because we know that, no matter what we do, consumption has come to depend on Hollywood/capitalism. There is fear, because despite resisting Hollywood/capitalism and trying to do something different, we might after all still be part of the same system we hate. There is fear, because we know that there is no exteriority in capitalism; there is no way of removing ourselves from society in order to fight against it – all the better, perhaps, because we are forced to engage from within, to fight instead of wait. As Debord says in the film, we cannot wait for a 'right time' – because by doing that, we take for granted that the enemy's strength is equal to that of ours. Instead, we have to strike at any opportunity we can, or risk fading away without having done anything at all.

The question, then, is how to strike? How can we fight against a system that we detest, but is so ubiquitous that it has infiltrated every single aspect of our lives? Is fighting against this system more like fighting against ourselves? These questions seem to come up, again and again, in the conversations of our generation. Debord's film is slightly discouraging – it speaks from the point of view of the vanquished. Debord has had his revolution, but it was not entirely successful; the Bolsheviks and the Chinese Red Guards have had their revolution, but it ended in something much worse than before; our generation (at least speaking from the point of view of a Singaporean living in the U.S.) has not had ours. It is difficult to see the failures of past generations and not be discouraged, and so many people have already been defeated before they even began. The age of real passion has passed. We live in the cynical 'hipster' age today, where everything has to be seen ironically, where even passion must be doubted. It is an even more cynical form of capitalism; we accept everything as long as we can take everything ironically, as long as we are 'conscious' that we might be wrong in everything we do.

I humbly reject this cynicism. This is why I prefer Debord's earlier films, and Isou's Venom and Eternity. Godard once talked about the characters in La Chinoise as being childish. If that is what being childish means, then perhaps we must always remain childish, and not, like our generation, be old before even being young. Like Howls for Sade and Venom and Eternity, films should be terrorist acts – acts that disrupt a continuum, acts that enrage in order to provoke a discussion, re-evaluation. Nostalgia, such as in the second half of In Girum Imus Nocte Et Consumimur Igni, is perhaps just fetishistic and reactionary; lamenting a bygone era only reinforces the victory of the system we are fighting against. We need to focus our energies into progressive thoughts, into putting these thoughts into action, and into obtaining concrete results from these actions. I still believe we are on the verge of something. Or, as in Debord's message to our generation at the end of the film, 'À Reprendre, Depuis Le Début.'

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Notes on Twin Peaks

The dream of a film is to become multiple, to expand beyond its frame rather than close down. It is to become double, triple, quadruple, multiplying endlessly... We see this in Apichatpong, in Hong, and also in Lynch. This doubling can take place on the level of people (as in Hitchcock's Vertigo), on the level of structure/framing (as in Apichatpong's Tropical Malady), or on the level of the psyche (as in most, if not all, of Hong's films).

We see all these levels in Twin Peaks, which is not strictly a Lynch film. Lynch left the series to the writers in the second season, when the series arguably got better, when it was left to expand on its own. Lynch himself divides into two (Mark Frost) and multiplies into the various writers - Robert Engels, Harley Peyton etc - and directors - Duwayne Dunham, Caleb Deschanel, Uli Edel, and most remarkably, Diane Keaton. Curiously, it is Keaton's episode that best captures the philosophy of the show. Perhaps because she's a woman directing a male-heavy crew, perhaps because she is the most formal of all the directors.

The best direction provides an opening into the material, a window, a frame, a point-of-view into the world (an idea that has been lost in contemporary cinema, where direction = creation). There is hardly anything special about the story arcs in Keaton's episode (a strong point of the show is its frequent banality) - plot points are extended, characters move around in their troubles 'animated from outside,' as Daney have pointed out. But Keaton seizes on the doubling, multiplication - her closeups of fingernails (long, red, painted fingernails) on Evelyn as well as Josie immediately pairs the two together; the swinging door as Cooper talks to Pete emphasizes their coupling; the closeup two-shots (sometimes framed by a door window, sometimes completely naked) divide as well as unite at the same time. In her episode, and henceforth the series, shot-reverse shots do not establish difference, but rather similarity - in the scene at the bar, Donna transforms into Evelyn, and vice versa.

Nothing has changed in the series, only the point of view. And so we see the huge transfiguration of souls in the series - people becoming other people, as if identity is an amorphous cloud hovering over each character, possessing them as easily as it leaves them. Lynch's films have been fixated on potential - the potential to beauty just as easily transforms into the potential to violence. This potentiality finds its physical manifestation in Twin Peaks - the town and its people (which is why Lynch started with a town, instead of a story; in a story, identities point toward a finality; in a town, people are not yet even identities). In the town, everybody is latent. There is a great potentiality to become another, to become not-oneself. If only we could recognize this in our society as well...

But then perhaps it's wrong of me to talk of one philosophy. There are multiple philosophies in the series - multiple creators, multiple points of view. Its beauty is that it is hardly unified; it is always shapeshifting, always expanding to include more - democracy of voices, constantly dividing itself into finer and finer threads.