’We will see… landscapes,’ they announced, ‘in which the trees bow to the whims of the wind, the leaves ripple and glitter in the rays of the sun.’ Along with the familiar photographic leitmotif of the leaves, such kindred subjects as undulating waves, moving clouds, and changing facial expressions ranked high in early prophesies. All of them conveyed the longing for an instrument which would capture the slightest incidents of the world about us.
Film theorist Siegfried Kracauer writing about the dreams of photography pioneers Henry Cook and Gaetano Bonnelli, who in the 1860s invented a device called a photobioscope that combined stereoscope + zoetrope effects to show primitive short “3D” “movie” loops. It’s interesting to think about the decades in which photography was new and exploding in use, but it couldn’t capture the essence of normal day-to-day movement due to the long exposure times.
This is an excellent essay on Miyazaki’s / Studio Ghibli’s place in the canon of art cinema, the nature of “boredom” in the life of children, and how cinematic experiences can be so much more for children than our U.S. blockbusters lead us to believe.
When Roger Ebert asked Miyazaki about the “gratuitous motion” in his films—the bits of realist texture, like sighs and gestures—Miyazaki told Ebert that he was invoking the Japanese concept of “ma.” Miyazaki clapped three times, and then said, “The time in between my clapping is ma.” This calls to mind the concept of temps morts, or dead time, in the European art cinema of the 1960s. Temps morts is a pause, a beat, a breath, a moment that doesn’t advance the plot. But far from being dead, Miyazaki’s moments of “ma” are full of life—there is a simple joy in watching his worlds move. In “animating”—breathing life into—a world that looks like our own, Miyazaki carries forward a spirit from the very beginning of film history.
This is one of the greatest descriptions of the power of animation that I’ve read in a long time, and something that you can see in all of the small moments of Miyazaki’s films.
On children and boredom:
But I think some of the common thinking about children’s boredom and attention is inaccurate. Children are bored standing in line at the bank or the post office, certainly—they have no banking of their own to do, no mail of their own to send. But if you were to put a child and an adult in an empty room full of scattered objects, I suspect the adult would grow bored much faster. […] A child can never exhaust the possibilities of a park or a neighborhood or a forest. Totoro is travel and transit and exploration, set against lush, evocative landscapes that seem to extend far beyond the frame.
Some comedy for your Saturday: Shaw and Lee, AKA The Beau Brummels. We saw this Vitaphone short on TCM last week, and were mesmerized by the duo’s Andy Kaufman-esque deadpan delivery of bad jokes and Vaudeville songs (stick with it for at least a couple of minutes!). Strangely modern, or in any case I gather from digging around that this was considered a bizarre, unique act at the time.
Always eat when you are hungry.
Always drink when you are dry.
Go to bed when you’re sleepy.
But don’t forget to breathe or else you’ll die.
How this unprepossessing peak got its name is the subject of Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler’s beautifully made two-screen, high-definition video “Méliès.” To the sound of melancholy piano music, the 24-minute film interweaves panoramic landscapes and interviews with local people who vaguely recall that someone shot a silent movie, a western, on or near Movie Mountain early in the 20th century. No one is quite sure who made that early film, but two of the interviewees say they had relatives who were employed as extras. The artists conclude that Gaston Méliès, brother of the cinema pioneer Georges Méliès, made that lost movie around 1910 or 1911 during a stopover in Sierra Blanca while relocating to California from San Antonio. […] The meandering, understated emergence of cinematic fact and fiction is captivating to watch.
Paris Qui Dort (Paris Which Sleeps, aka At 3:25), an early short film by René Clair: a mad scientist uses a time-freezing ray on Paris, pausing everyone in their day-to-day life throughout the city. Everyone except for a random handful of people who happen to be up in the air at the time, who decide to take advantage of the perfectly still city. Proto-surrealist sci-fi with a dash of percolating social commentary.
I learned about this one from The Invention of Hugo Cabret, an excellent children’s historical fiction novel about early cinema, magic, automata, and Georges Méliès. Worth reading if you’re into any of those things.
When John Lasseter and his colleagues at Pixar set about making their first animated feature, they struck the exact same trouble that had beleaguered old Walt: two years into production, whilst presenting an early draft to Disney’s producers, they came to the realisation that their central character, Woody the Sheriff, was a sarcastic and unlovable brat. ‘A thundering arsehole’ were co-screenwriter Joss Whedon’s actual words. And so again the work of animation was halted, the production team regrouped and a major rewrite ensued, to ensure that Woody would be warmed to and therefore that the film could succeed. And in this case too I have little doubt that it was the smart thing to do; besides, there was no fidelity to be compromised in the process, no book to betray, unless one were somehow inclined to regard Pinocchio as an implicit ur-source, the ghost of puppets past haunting Woody from beyond the grave.
From François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, another turbulent French New Wave film to cross off of my list. Sort of charming and depressing at the same time, outlining the difficulties of juggling art, friendship and love in a turbulent era (its reportedly a near-biographical account of a love triangle between Marcel Duchamp, Henri-Pierre Roché, and Beatrice Wood). Very innovative cinematography and editing work for 1962. If nothing else, be sure to check out the famous tracking shot where the trio is riding bikes together downhill, evidently shot from the vantage of another bicycle, a scene made possible by the revolution in light-weight camera manufacturing.
P.S. for the Jean-Pierre Jeunet fans: this is the movie that Amelie’s watching in the theater, and I’m pretty sure that there are a lot of movies with voiceover narrators that took inspiration from this film…
Solaris (1972). Something of a lyrical Russian follow-up to 2001: A Space Odyssey, a story of personal grief and longing set aboard a space station hovering over an abyssal alien ocean. Great use of understated sets and on-Earth scenery with allusions to the style of the Old Masters. Between Solaris, Alphaville, and Children of Men, I’m discovering that my favorite cinematic dystopian futures are the ones that make little or no effort to appear futuristic.
From Hirokazu Kore-eda’s ワンダフルライフ (Wandâfuru raifu), released in the U.S. in 1998 as Afterlife. This is likely my favorite movie of all time. Dig up a copy at your neighborhood indie video store when you get a chance, it’s good. It’s a simple, quiet parable about life, death, loss, memory, love, and cinema, somewhere between Kurosawa’s Ikiruand Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine.
After whining for years about someone borrowing my out-of-print DVD copy without returning it, I finally looked around and discovered the vastly superior Japanese NTSC Region 2 copy of the movie. ¥3,990 later, I’m now able to enjoy it again as I saw it at the theater in anamorphic widescreen, optional subtitles, and none of the horrible digital low-pass smoothing that someone thought would “fix” the grainy 16mm film’s appearance. Time for a movie screening, I think…
It’s interesting to look back at the hype and spectacle of the early CD-ROM games (with novelties like Myst flying off the shelf the medium was hailed as the savior of declining video game sales) as a parallel to the hype and spectacle of the real 18th Century phantasmagoria and magic lantern parlor theater. From classic gaming site GOG.com’s short editorial piece commemorating their recent addition of Roberta William’s popular 1995 FMV horror game Phantasmagoria:
In the mid-1700s, long before horror pioneers like Alfred Hitchcock, films such as Dracula and Frankenstein, and even cinema itself, the predecessor to horror cinema was born in a tiny coffee shop in Leipzig, Germany. The proprietor of the shop, Johann Schropfer, welcomed patrons with a warm beverage and an invitation to shoot the breeze and some stick in his adjoining billiards room. But the extra attraction of running a table after a long workday didn’t do much to boost Schropfer’s steadily declining patronage. In an effort to drum up business, Schropfer cast out pool tables and converted the billiards parlor into a séance chamber. […]
By the late 1760s, Schropfer’s once-deserted shop had evolved into a hotspot where patrons gasped in awe at ghostly images projected onto smoke, chilling music, ambient sounds, and burning incenses whose aromas were evocative of malevolent forces. The masterful performance put on by Schropfer proved so lucrative that the coffee-shop-owner-turned-showman took his show on the road throughout Europe until 1774, at which time Schropfer, perhaps haunted by the specters he alleged to call forth from the afterlife, took his own life.
The poor image is a copy in motion. Its quality is bad, its resolution substandard. As it accelerates, it deteriorates. It is a ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution.
At present, there are at least twenty torrents of Chris Marker’s film essays available online. If you want a retrospective, you can have it. But the economy of poor images is about more than just downloads: you can keep the files, watch them again, even reedit or improve them if you think it necessary. And the results circulate. Blurred AVI files of half-forgotten masterpieces are exchanged on semi-secret P2P platforms. Clandestine cell-phone videos smuggled out of museums are broadcast on YouTube. DVDs of artists’ viewing copies are bartered.3 Many works of avant-garde, essayistic, and non-commercial cinema have been resurrected as poor images. Whether they like it or not.
A short clip from Double Take, a film by media artist Johan Grimonprez (there are a handful of other clips on YouTube). “They say that if you meet your double, you should kill him.” Hitchcock versus Hitchcock versus the Cold War, with cinematic history folding in on itself. There’s a worthwhile interview with Grimonprez over on the Cinema Scope website with more info.
In 1903, the specialty watch company Helios built a trial run of miniature Boilerplates. The master of the hoax, an expert on Victorian automata, Paul Guinan, “tried” to “rebuild” one of these. The head resembles gas masks that soldiers wore in World War I, but as ornamental brass. The chest is as tubular as a Franklin stove, but gleaming with Baroque detail. Its knobby limbs were fully articulated , like an armature for special effect stop-motion seventy years later, or a thing in The City of Lost Children. […] For over a century, thousands of boilerplates have come down to us. They wait patiently. Patience has always been a virtue of the boilerplate; and of all hoaxes, including the Wizard of Oz himself.
Potemkin villages were a new mode of special effects as power, as the erasure of memory in the late eighteenth century. But the principle evolves beyond one’s wildest imagination. All movie sets are Potemkin villages before they are shot as film. And all wars since 1989 have become Potemkin villages when they appear on global media. And yet, Baroque special effects already pointed toward this problem by 1650, that Baroque illusion served uneasy alliances to cover up the decay and misery of the kingdom.
Comenius begins his story with a pilgrim who is given mystic spectacles. But the lenses are cursed, ground by Illusion, rims hammered by Custom. Optical gimmicks were pervasive in many churches and theaters by 1622. Perspective could be accelerated or decelerated by tilting floors, narrowing walls, adding a deep focal point. Special effects were featured on ceilings: trompe l'oeil, accelerated perspective, anamorphosis – to induce a moment of wonder – a “vertigo” when the lid of a building simply dissolved. To many, these phantasms were progress, practical advances. But to Comenius, they might be the serpent’s eye.
Indeed in Labyrinth of the World, the spectacles distort God’s nature. To quote Shakespeare, the are “almost the natural man … [but] Dishonour traffics with man’s nature.” They are a prosthesis upon the eye, as McLuhan would say. To Comenius, they are an evil, not a cheerful global village. They make true distances vanish; ugly turns beautiful; black becomes white. However, luckily for Comenius’s pilgrim, these demonic spectacles do not fit properly. He can sneak looks below the rim, see the human labyrinth as it really is. If this were film, I would call what the pilgrim finds beneath his spectaceds Baroque noir, the town with no soul.
It is not important at all to me that you or anyone else should have this or that knowledge of anything written or recorded about my pictures of anyone else’s. It’s about experiencing the pictures, not understanding them. People now tend to think their experience of art is based in understanding the art, whereas in the past people in general understood the art and were maybe more freely able to absorb it intuitively. They understood it because it hadn’t yet separated itself off from the mainstream of culture the way modern art had to do. So I guess it is not surprising that, since that separation has occurred, people try to bridge it through understanding the oddness of the various new art forms. Cinema seems more of less still in the mainstream, as if it never had a ‘secession’ of modern or modernist artists against that mainstream. So people don’t trend to be so emphatic about understanding films, they tend to enjoy them and evaluate them: great, good, not so good, two thumbs up, etc. Although that can be perfunctory and dull, it may be a better form of response. Experience and evaluation – judgment – are richer responses than gestures of understanding or interpretations.
The street, in the extended sense of the word, is not only the arena of fleeting impressions and chance encounters but a place where the flow of life is bound to assert itself. Again, one will have to think mainly of the city street with its ever-moving crowds. The kaleidoscopic sights mingle with unidentified shapes and fragmentary visual complexes and cancel each other out, thereby preventing the onlooker from following up any of the innumerable suggestions they offer. What appeals to him are not so much sharp-contoured individuals engaged in this or that definable pursuit as loose throngs of sketch, completely indeterminate figures. Each has a story, yet the story is not given. Instead an incessant flow casts its spell over the flâneur, or even creates him. The flâneur is intoxicated with life in the street – life eternally dissolving the patterns which it is about to form. […]