Thoughts on Spring Breakers, the Male Gaze, and the Objectification of Power

Michael Powell, in 1960, made a film that departed from his famous work of the 1940s and 1950s with Emeric Pressberger. It was a horror film called Peeping Tom. Similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s more popular Psycho, it depicted a man who murders women as he films them. A film of fantastic psychological complexity, one of its most daring aspects is the way it embodies the male gaze inherent in narrative cinema and brings it to the forefront, a full 15 years before Laura Mulvey would publish her famous essay on the subject, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”

In Powell’s film, the pleasure Mark Lewis, the titular peeping tom, gets from the act of watching is taken to its logical, violent end point. The camera becomes a tool of destruction, a weapon that not only objectifies with its gaze, but literally kills. The camera is not only used to record; Lewis attaches a knife blade to one of his tripod legs. The violence of the male gaze in narrative cinema is made flesh.

Last night, I saw the nascent year’s most discussed film, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. I doubt there will be more written about another film in 2013, and for obvious reason. It stars three teen idols, playing against the (somewhat) clean image they have in the media, and James Franco, who seems to become, in the eyes of entertainment media, an iconoclast by pushing the limits of picking controversial projects in the age of picking controversial projects. Add to the casting decisions the fact that Korine himself is going against his own reputation, making a film about four college girls and an amateur drug dealer named Alien after films like Trash Humpers, Gummo and Julian Donkey Boy, and Spring Breakers is a TMZ wet dream.

Spring Breakers could have been successful just by performing some sort of fantastic prank on its audience of Disney Channel loyalists and Franco fans. The film is, in many ways, the exact opposite of what its marketing campaign and seedy plot description promises. While it delivers bikini-clad, sapphic college girls robbing drug dealers set to Britney Spears, the editing, structure and voice over reminded me more of Malick than Bound. Droves of unexpecting Selina Gomez fans would have shown up, and just as many would have walked out confused and disgusted (I’m sure the kids behind me in the theater were members of these droves). Korine has done something more than played a joke on the biggest audience of his career, though. With Spring Breakers, Korine has made a film that embodies the male gaze and its effect better, perhaps, than any since Peeping Tom.  

Korine starts Spring Breakers with a montage of the kind of images with which anyone who’s seen a Girls Gone Wild commercial is familiar. College girls take off their bikini tops, soaked in beer poured by drunken college boys, all bleached by the overwhelming Florida sun. Instead of letting his camera stay at a safe, concealing distance, he zooms in on the shaking, wrinkling flesh of the girls’ thighs and buttocks, marked by cellulite, which is natural to anyone with any kind of body fat. It’s exactly the kind of image that you’d never see in the pornographic images presented in normal spring break movies, but even in the first moments, Korine wants us to see the things that the fantasy of spring break tries to conceal.

That fantasy is where the idea of the male gaze comes in. Unlike Powell’s concept of the gaze, Korine’s is less actively violent and more enticing. The girls in the film react to something they’ve been exposed to in footage from spring break. The idea of spring break, to them, is some fantastic fantasy world where they escape from their college campus for a week and “let loose.” Letting loose, is, to each of the girls, something very different, but each of their concepts are based in the debauchery they’ve been exposed to over and over by television. Insidiously, the ever-present cameras in our culture draw them closer and closer to a fantasy world that doesn’t exist.

Even the way the girls get the money to get there is based in media saturation. The girls discover that they’re short on money despite saving all year. After a quick discussion, three of them decide to rob a local restaurant, stealing their professor’s car to use in the robbery. One of the girls tells the others to “just pretend like it’s a video game” or a movie, and as such, the scene is shot with a sense of distance. We watch from the passenger seat of the getaway car while the driver circles the restaurant, watching the chaos the other two girls cause inside through the windows. Much like Powell’s point of view footage of murders in Peeping Tom, Korine’s decision here, at the beginning of his film, makes us complicit in the robbery, and by extension, the corruption of these girls.

The question of whether it really is corruption is a good one. Two of the girls, Brit and Candy, the ones who drive the others toward more and more dangerous activities throughout the film, may not be corrupted, but instead corruptors. Their characters are the most interesting to me, in the sense that they embody the way the male gaze has transformed in the 53 years since Peeping Tom and the 38 since “Visual Pleasure in the Narrative Cinema”.

Formerly, the male gaze left women powerless. Under the camera eye, women frequently became sexual objects, victims, or both. Very rarely were they presented as powerful, and when they were, they were corrupting influences on the heroes of their stories, the classic example being the femme fatale in numerous films noir. In the past 20 years, images of powerful women have become more frequent. While the portrayal of powerful women is, on its surface, a positive change away from the male gaze, it often leads to a different kind of objectification. Instead of victimized objects, the camera frequently turns women into objects of power, associated more with how much violence they can unleash and sexual control over men rather than control over their own image.

This image, the powerful woman, an archetype more than a character, is what entices Brit and Candy. This becomes most evident in the “look at my shit” scene, in which Alien shows the two of them the things he’s gained through his horrible lifestyle. At the end of this scene, Brit and Candy pick up two loaded guns, and force Alien to perform fellatio on the silencers attached to their barrels. They tell him they could kill him easily, to which is response is “I think you’re my soul mates”. This is exactly what they think they want. To be as powerful as a man who gained power by selling drugs and murdering people. That Alien may be as much a pretender to that power as they are is irrelevant. The image is what matters to them. As long as they have Scarface on repeat and the piano by the sea, the image of power is maintained.

The concept of power as physical violence is followed through in the final scenes, where Brit and Candy invade a drug dealer’s compound. The action unfolds like the climax of a typical action film, with bodies falling into pools and faceless bikini-clad women running from the bullets aimed at the the men who were fondling them a minute beforehand. What differentiates the climax of Spring Breakers from that of a typical action movie is the way in ambiguous expressions the girls wear as they drive away in Archie’s Ferrari. The girls look bored as they speed down the highway, and it’s unclear whether they are merely disappointed that, after the rush of their life with Alien and its violent conclusion, they are returning to their dull lives in college, or if they are disappointed that for all their violence and wildness, they didn’t become something they were merely pretending to be.

Reconstruction (1970)

Theo Angelopoulos was a filmmaker who transcended Greek culture while he documented it. His 13 features, from 1970’s Reconstruction to 2008’s The Dust of Time, are inextricably Greek, but also belong to a much larger tradition, somewhere between Michelangelo Antonioni and Bernardo Bertolucci, and talking about his films outside of Greece or outside of the larger context of world cinema is impossible.

His first films were made during a period where reactionary military juntas dominated the Greek government and his final films were made during a period of economic depression, and the unrest of the times in which he worked is written directly on the film. By the same token, he began making films just after one of the most fruitful times for European cinema (and cinema in general), and his work can be seen as a continuation of the disconnection and societal paranoia that filmmakers like Andrzej Wadja brought to the forefront in the 1960s.

When Angelopoulos released Reconstruction in 1970, Greek cinema focused primarily on the Greece the rest of the world knew. Greek directors like Michael Cacoyannis made significant films, but Reconstruction was still a fantastic step forward for the country’s film community artistically. It’s hard to imagine a scene where a groundskeeper, who recently murdered his lover’s husband, wanders through a small Greek city, only to stumble on a group of homeless men singing a haunting song existing before Angelopoulos.

The film begins by explaining that the village of Tymphaia had a population of 1,250 in 1939 and a population of 55 in 1965. Angelopoulos doesn’t let the issues behind his films linger as subtext, but instead starts his first film by practically stating the fact that poverty had driven many Greeks from the country, and then spends the next 97 minutes reenacting, in minute detail, the events surrounding a real murder that was tangentially caused by a husband leaving his family to find work in Germany. While other filmmakers may have let the pointed, palpable anger behind the film dominate the tone, Reconstruction is an exercise in quiet and subtlety.

This political anger, neither subtext nor screed, would become a defining trait of Angelopoulos’ films. Reconstruction, as a whole, sets forth many of the techniques that Angelopoulos would make his stock-in-trade. The languid pacing, slow tracking shots and handheld long takes, and non-linear structure contribute to Reconstruction telling a simple story in a very complex way, similar to his later masterpieces The Travelling Players and Landscapes in the Mist.

The tension of the film doesn’t come from whether or not Eleni and the groundskeeper will be caught, but from the guilt and alienation of a small-town gossip. The murder takes place off-screen, and then only at the end of the film, but there’s a certain indignity to the investigation and titular reconstruction by the detectives and journalists as the two murderers confess. Details of the murder emerge slowly from two points of view: the investigators, working off the details given to them second-hand, and the lovers, whose story is shown on screen. While the police and community paint Eleni as a whore and make a child who’s about to be sent to an orphanage point out the cellar in which his father’s body was hidden, the audience see a lonely woman fall in love with a man, almost unwittingly, and seek escape after her abusive husband returns.

This fascination with the disconnect between the truth and the details that emerge afterwards predicts some of the great things that have happened in Iranian cinema in the past 25 years. It’s hard to watch the detective in charge of the investigation list the details of the murder after we’ve seen the complexity of the relationship that led to it without thinking of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence, in which the facts behind a true incident of violence are revealed through the making of a film about it, or Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up.

Angelopoulos is, to my mind, a filmmaker who brought about a transition in world cinema from the disengagement of the 1960s and 1970s to the shifting points of view and non-linear structures of the 1980s and 1990s. His feet are very clearly in both worlds, and he represents the best of two styles which are rarely associated. Reconstruction is the first film of his transitional filmography, and, much like his later films, it is a great work of European neorealism and a great work of Eastern Mediterranean political documentation, reflecting society in a broken mirror.

In Which I Talk About Death Too Much

Cinema raises the dead. No other medium does that. Photographs, painting and sculpture can show us what someone looked like, music can tell us what they sounded like, but no other medium can make them live again. Every day, people that have been dead 60, 80, or 100 years walk and talk before the eyes of the living. From Lillian Gish and Humphrey Bogart to Heath Ledger, anyone with a Netflix account can see these people, who they’ve never met, just like they’re alive in this very moment.

Maybe that’s why Frankenstein is such a popular story in cinema. One of the most frequent subjects of film, as an art, is escaping time and its nasty cousin, death. From Resnais’ Melo to Coppola’s The Conversation, films that deal with attempts to escape death or preserve life in the face of the inevitable often show how futile this quest is. Every story ends the same way. Frankenstein is the purest expression of this. A man raises the dead, defeats the nemesis that no one can defeat, only to create a monster.

Bill Morrison is the Dr. Frankenstein of cinema. Most famous for Decasia (of which Errol Morris said “This may be the greatest movie ever made”) and Film of Her, Morrison has spent the last 20 years stitching together parts of decaying films, unrestored, to create beautiful collages of deterioration. He brings dead movies back to life, in many cases movies long past the point of restoration. Instead of monsters, though, Morrison has created some of the most fascinating, beautiful non-narrative films I’ve ever seen.

If 2010’s Spark of Being is any indication, Morrison himself buys into the comparison with Frankenstein. In the film, he uses pieces of films in various states of disrepair to recreate Frankenstein. Like Lewis Klahr’s Altair, there’s not so much a plot as there is a mood, but Morrison creates a loose structure using chapter titles from Mary Shelley’s novel which, along with our familiarity with the story, lends it some semblance of a storyline.

Spark of Being begins with images of life in its most basic form. Microphotographed footage of squirming cells and other single-celled organisms are soundtracked by a jazz-fusion score composed by trumpeter Dave Douglas. These images give way to the ocean, and our first chapter, “The Captain’s Story,” made up of footage from various arctic expeditions. The only life we see in this place is the sailors aboard the ship breaking through the ice, but we know that microbial life is teeming just below the surface of everything. Even here, riding over the ice on a dog sled, the doctor, the man who wanted to escape death, cannot escape life.

The jazz score is an important part of Morrison’s film. Many of his films are commissioned by or collaborations with musical artists, most frequently jazz musicians and minimalist composers. Jazz seems to be the most suitable music for Morrison’s work. Improvisation in film usually refers to actors making up their lines as they go along, like in Blake Edward’s The Party. Morrison’s films feel improvised in a different way. The deterioration of the film he uses in his collage takes on a life of its own. It’s beautiful, but it’s accidentally beautiful. Morrison is as much an editor as he is a director. What he does is closer to choosing the best take of a song than to composing it. Jazz, the most improvisational genre of music, fits Spark of Being better than any traditional score.

The next chapter, “The Traveler’s Story,” begins with the image of candle being placed into a phantasmagoria, and the lens being fitted in front of it. What’s projected through this lens is a fetus. The phantasmagoria was cinema in its fetal form. Before photography, before Muybridge, before Edison and the Lumieres, the phantasmagoria was the first step toward the greatest artform of the 20th century. From this still image of a fetus projected on a wall, the traveler’s story progresses to a baby, a child, a preteen, and finally shot looking out the window of a train as it leaves the station.

The next two chapters, “A Promising Student” and “The Doctor’s Creation,” present us with our first looks at the deterioration with which Morrison is so often identified. “A Promising Student” begins with footage from films on biology. The music takes on a more artificial tone (Dave Douglas’s band includes DJ Olive, who provides much of the music for this chapter). The chapter ends with footage of dead birds on decomposing film. It is the start of the doctor’s obsession with death. “The Doctor’s Creation” starts where “A Promising Student” leaves off, but instead of dead birds, we’re shown dead bodies being dragged through the mud of a warzone: the doctor’s models. The highlight of this section is a long, clear image of the titular spark of being. Electricity dances around the screen as a jazzy. patternless line. It recalls another non-narrative film, Len Lye’s 1958 animation, Free Radicals:

The free radicals sequence is followed by an explosion. The screen is filled with crystalline deterioration, constantly moving and changing, before a moment of quiet, dread-filled silent footage of destroyed lab.

One of the recurring themes in Spark of Being is the differences and relationships between learning and seeing. The preteen in “The Traveler’s Story” is shown learning from flashcards, and the image is followed immediately by the train pulling out of the station, which, in this context, is young Victor Frankenstein leaving his small village home to actually see the world. Later, four sections from the point of view of the creature are titled “The Creature Watches,” “The Creature’s Education,” “Observations of Familial Love,” and “Observations of Romantic Love.” As opposed to the doctor, who learns in more traditional ways, the creature’s education is a fragmented observation of the world with his own eyes. He does not experiment, read, or interact. He watches with a terrified distance through a lens of decay.

The four chapters from the creature’s point of view are the creative climax of the film, to my mind. Each of them are composed entirely of decaying footage. They are jumbled, fragmentary, and confusing. In “The Creature’s Education,” Morrison jars us with rock music, blasts of color, pieces of random text and images of insects swarming flashing through the storm of decomposition. Just when we’ve come to accept the style of Morrison’s film, we’re all of a sudden in a very different world than we were before.

As “The Creature’s Education” and the chapters that follow progress, the images begin to make more sense. “The Creature’s Education” ends with the image of a blonde girl playing basketball, and then a slow-motion shot of a basketball going through the hoop. For anyone who’s read Frankenstein, this will recall the little girl playing with the flower, who the monster, not understanding the game, drowns in the lake. We’re watching the creature’s logic, the gears of his mind working, in this scene. “Observations of Familial Life” shows footage of families, but it’s somehow unclear what sort of unit this family is. They all seem to be in different places in the world. There doesn’t seem to be any order. They are a family because they’re associated in his eyes.

The last chapter of this section, “Observations of Romantic Love,” is the simplest. It’s one shot, watching a nude man and woman running through a forest, probably footage from a long unseen softcore porn. Around them, the film burns, unable to stay on the reel. The creature seems so close to understanding this. It’s not jumbled or confusing at all, but it is somehow obscured. We see exactly what’s happening, and know exactly what’s going to happen next, but we can’t quite see the end of the scene.

After these kinetic scenes, full of of frantic editing and jazzy, uncontrollable decay, the rest of the movie is jarringly slow. The creature’s education and observation scenes are mostly in color, and the return to black and white in “The Doctor’s Wedding” would feel strange even if the chapter wasn’t composed of slow-motion footage from an early-20th century German wedding, with several looped scenes of men dancing at the end. The scene, one of inclusion, community, and happiness, is juxtaposed with the next chapter, “The Creature in Society,” the film’s shortest but most alienating. The camera pans across a large group of men, who turn and stare at it, probably the first movie camera they had ever seen. In this context, however, their stares are directed right at all the ugliness in the creature, and all the ugliness in us.

The next 3 chapters bring us back to the opening scenes, closing the loop of this circular film. “The Creature Confronts His Creator” is filled with images of ice and snow, both foreshadowing and recalling the end of this story, while “The Doctor Flees” and “The Creature’s Pursuit” physically bring us back to the arctic setting of “The Captain’s Story,” using much of the same footage. After the journey we’ve been through, though, this footage takes on another feel.

I wrote in my notes during “The Doctor Flees” that the footage here reminds me of Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s Manhatta, considered by most to be the first American avant-garde film. Not necessarily in terms of technique, since in Manhatta the camera is still, and all the movement occurs within the frame, but in terms of intent.

Manhatta and other early symphony of a city films (most famously Berlin: Symphony of a Great City and Man With A Movie Camera) are so focused on the marvel of movement. The mere fact that the audience was looking at a moving photograph was still mind-blowing. The footage used in “The Doctor Flees” is a marvel in the same way. Icebergs moving among the waves, wonders that most of the world had never seen before and never would see with their own eyes. In a film that is as much about film as Spark of Being, footage like this transports us back into the mindset of an early filmgoer. We’re no longer watching something confrontational, weird, and alienating. We’re looking at a new part of the world we live in, and watching that world get smaller.

Of course, the idea of a smaller world becomes terrifying when you’re trying to escape something. “The Creature’s Pursuit,” the last chapter of the film,  is very similar to “The Doctor Flees,” but everything seems to be falling apart. The structures and distance we could put between us and the creature seem to be disappearing. The film is disintegrating on the screen. The doctor, no matter how hard he tries, no matter how far he runs, will never be free of the creature. The last shot of the movie, which appears to be footage shot in a desert, is a man in a cloak, slowly walking toward the bottom of the frame until he disappears.

Perhaps it’s the Beckett fan in me, but, as I said earlier, I’ve always read Frankenstein as being about the inevitability of death. The doctor is running to the literal ends of the earth, but he still can’t escape his creature, the image of living death. With the invention of cinema, the world found a way to preserve the world as it was. We may not be able to travel through time, but we can see what New York looked like, in a vividly alive way, in 1921 when we watch Manhatta.

What Morrison reminds us in Spark of Being and his other films is that even that can rot. Footage is constantly deteriorating. The world we once felt was necessary and important to record is disappearing. But it can still be beautiful. There’s beauty in death, and there’s beauty in decay. It’s appropriate that Morrison chose Frankenstein for a basis here, not only because it’s stitched together from dead bodies, but because Frankenstein is one of the most identifiable horror stories ever told.

Horror movies, more than any other genre, have pushed back against the notion that film preserves life. People go to see a horror movie to confront death, to be thrilled by the notion that life is fragile and can end in an instant. It’s the only genre where we know, in the end, that everything won’t be OK. The monster may be defeated, but we know it will be back. We’ve only had a temporary reprieve. In Spark of Being, Morrison shows us the same thing. The man in the cloak has walked off screen, but only for now.

How To Drive His Private Dick Wild

What many non-narrative films lose with lack of conventional story, character, and performance, they make up for with simplicity. What may take a traditional narrative film anywhere from an hour and a half to 3 hours to express, a non-narrative film can relate in a matter of minutes. If you watched Puce Moment, highlighted in last week’s entry, and Sunset Blvd. back to back, you’d know exactly what I’m talking about. The two films tell essentially the same story, but Billy Wilder’s film is nearly two hours long, compared to Kenneth Anger’s 6 minute glimpse. Not to say Anger’s film is better, of course. It just has the advantage in one department.

In some cases, simplicity is more of an advantage than others. Without being bound to story and characterization, a filmmaker can be free to express an idea that may be too difficult to construct narrative film around. Lewis Klahr has made his career a constant reminder of this fact. I’m sure he’ll come up again here (his Pony Glass is one of my favorite animated movies, and one I’m excited to write about), but today I’d like to focus on his third film, 1995’s Altair.

Underneath the noir trappings and Stravinsky music of Altair’s collage of late-1940’s Cosmopolitan advertisements and images, astronomical maps, playing cards, and drink menus, Klahr critiques the idea of that women should conform to a beauty standard, and that for women, physical attributes are much more important than any personality traits for success in society. The tools he uses—the aforementioned media, music and mood—manipulate what we feel to reveal just how little the world had changed between 1945 and 1995—and 1995 and today, for that matter. He’s not merely making a film; he’s writing with images.

Klahr himself describes his process as a form of language. “It’s got a lot to do with hieroglyphics: this kind of visual shorthand, storing cultural memory,” Klahr told the Village Voice in 2000. “I’m the kind of person who used to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to the Egyptian exhibit, because I was fascinated by the idea of this string of images forming a kind of sentence; I never took the step to find out what they meant, because I didn’t want to know. It’s the same with Hollywood: This image of a woman, this image of a car, this of a gun, you’ve got a noir in three images.”

In Altair, the woman, the car, and the gun are all there, and the noir is too. The women of Altair are both angelic and dangerous, both the typical good girl and the iconic femme fatale that would appear in many classic noirs. These women are cut from advertisements, and as such, both the victims and perpetrators of the beauty myth. The women in these advertisements are reduced to character types: the perfect housewife, the sex kitten, the concerned mother, etc. These were the only options Cosmopolitan and their advertisers presented to women in the 1940s.

The music Klahr chose is a part of his collage, an extension of the hieroglyphics he uses to speak to us. Beyond matching the noir feel of the film, the “Lullaby” movement in Stravinsky’s 1910 ballet, The Firebird, is a moment when the several of ballet’s characters fall into a deep sleep, bewitched by the titular Firebird. The women of Altair are hypnotized by advertisements, magazines, doctors, their husbands, and society as a whole to conform to the roles to which they were ascribed.

Images of liquor are repeated throughout Altair. Bottles of whiskey, half-empty rocks glasses, and drink menus share the screen with their female co-stars. In one of the first shots of the film, where characters—I use the term very loosely—dance in front of a list of different liquors and what part of the body they affect positively. This list appears several more times over the 8-minute course of the film, always as a partially obscured background to some sort of action. I can’t help but think this menu, joining liquor and the body, is as important to the feel of the movie as any other, suggesting the drunken, abusive husband, the leering barflies, and dulled pain.

There are very few images of men in Altair. In most cases, men are suggested rather than directly represented. However, there are three repeated male characters, who appear in succession several times in the film: a judge, a doctor, and what appears to be a pharmacist. I’m hesitant to assign any image in such a dense film a set meaning, but I looked at the judge as a representative of the government, the doctor as a representative of science, and the pharmacist as a representative of commerce, three bodies that constantly attempt to limit and control women’s bodies. Of course, they could just be characters in the story Klahr has in his mind, or mean something else, or be dadaist unrelated images.

I’m completely willing to admit that there are a lot of parts of Altair I just don’t understand, and may never understand. For example, several times during the film a telegram, the words unintelligible, appears on screen as a background to an action. The judge, the doctor, and the pharmacist frequently appear in front of the telegram. I’m less convinced the telegram has a meaning than that it’s meant to convey a feeling. The image of a telegram is never one that connotes good news to me. In my mind, I associate it with dead soldiers and other tragedies. The image is meaningless, but it still leaves an impression.

Playing cards have certain symbolic significances; they are somewhat closely related the tarot and can symbolize the inescapability of fate. They also represent the seedy underside of a culture based on possession, and the American dream that with one good hand your fate can change. Playing cards appear at random times throughout Altair, and they don’t feel, in this context, at all lucky. There’s no chance of a big break here. There’s no chance you’ll hit 21. There’s just the fact that the women in this story will continue down their terrible paths, without any hope of escape.

The Klahr films I’ve seen deal with conformity. Altair is about the horror of conforming to a beauty standard, while Pony Glass speaks to the anxiety of a gay man in a world still very unwilling to accept him as he is. There’s no more appropriate medium for a nonconformist message than the non-narrative films. Not only is Klahr unwilling to submit to what the society considers normal, he won’t use traditional plotting, character or media in breaking free of this idea. But his movies are incredibly watchable. Non-narrative film can be dauntingly inscrutable, but Klahr’s work never really feels difficult. Klahr focuses on mood, evoking a feeling using familiar images, and while you or I may not understand the meaning, we understand the intent.

The Master Returns

(Because of the unexpected nature of last night’s screening and the desire to get this up in a timely manner, I’ll be posting this week’s non-narrative film update on Monday)

I saw The Master last night. For those of you who don’t know, the screening had been announced 24 hours beforehand, and it may be the only time that the film screens in its intended format, 70 millimeter film, in Chicago. I hope that’s not the case, because I want others to have the chance to see this movie the way it was meant to be seen.

Jaoquin Phoenix plays the Renfield to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s psychic Dracula. Phoenix is an animal, drunken, wild and destructive, and Hoffman’s charismatic Lancaster Dodd is a man that believes human beings are not animals. He believes we are better than animals, that we have souls that have been alive for trillions of years. Into his belief system he has ensnared apostles all over the U.S., chief among them his wife, played with an unbreakable intensity and power that I’ve never seen from Amy Adams before.

The scenes between Phoenix and Hoffman are the movie’s best, as Phoenix’s violence collides with Hoffman’s calming platitudes. The crux of the film occurs in a jail cell. Hoffman and Phoenix are dragged into their cells. Hoffman stands, unaffected by his arrest, while Phoenix goes on a rampage, smashing his toilet, kicking the wall, screaming at Hoffman, who is only angered by the fact that he can’t seem to get through to Phoenix. Phoenix is his one pupil that seems completely resistant to his methods. The contrast between the two characters, one trying to civilize the other, one dragging the other into drunkenness is what makes The Master so exciting.

Somewhere between the major, feeling-the-rotation-of-the-Earth masterpiece that was There Will Be Blood and the minor, who-cares-about-the-world-out-there originality of Punch-Drunk Love, The Master is Anderson leaving his past behind. In his last three films, Anderson has become his own filmmaker, and a filmmaker who is never comfortable. He will never make another There Will Be Blood, and those who go into The Master expecting Daniel Plainview will be disappointed. Those who go in ready for another masterwork from the best American filmmaker of the last 16 years, on the other hand, will surely have their expectations met.

The headlines have been about Scientology, and that’s what they’ll continue to be, but The Master isn’t about Scientology. It’s about something much larger. The idea of human being as animal, the concept (or perhaps the lie) of freedom, and the peace we seem to search for in places that can only breed more violence are ideas that existed long before Scientology. If Anderson had made a film merely about Scientology, it may have been great. But I have little doubt that it would have only been a tenth as great as The Master.

Mystery, Tragedy, and Comedy: Three Takes On Celebrity

Celebrity has a strange position in contemporary culture. The cliche is that celebrities are our versions of the gods, complete with their own mythologies. But that’s superficial. We look down upon the stars as much as we look up at them. Their stories are as much about loneliness and fear as they are power and grace. For every Tiger Beat, there’s a Sunset Blvd. If the stories of immortal beings in mythology reflect our mortal existence, celebrity is the point where immortality and mortality meet.

Non-narrative filmmakers are often as fascinated by movie stars as the autograph collectors waiting outside Jerry Lewis’s studio in The King of Comedy. But instead of waiting for hours for a scribble on a piece of paper, they honor (or degrade) their idols in more creative ways. For the second entry in my introduction to non-narrative film, I’ll be looking at three films by three filmmakers who turned a fascination in celebrity into great works of art in three entirely different ways.

The first is Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart, which is the classic example of the relationship between non-narrative and narrative film. Cornell worked in collage film, and his career is one of the hidden gems of non-narrative cinema. Cornell may be one of the most influential filmmakers ever, but his name and work are obscure even in comparison with those of underground filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Ken Jacobs (who would later work for Cornell and on whom his influence can most clearly be seen). Rose Hobart is his masterpiece. Reportedly, during its 1936 premiere, Salvador Dali was so jealous of the genius of the film that he kicked over the projector, which should give you some idea just how ahead of its time it was.

Rose Hobart is edited from a mostly forgotten 1931 talkie called East of Borneo, and takes its title from the lead actress in the film. Cornell pared down the original film from 70 minutes to 20 by removing all the action scenes and any footage that didn’t revolve around Hobart. He projected this chopped and shortened film through blue glass at silent speed, removed all the dialogue and replaced it with repeating samba recordings.

The result is jarring. Cornell turns a run-of-the-mill adventure melodrama into something mysterious and dangerous. The technique may be apparent right away, but the effect it has on Hobart takes a while to make itself clear. Through the churning rhythm of the film, we see Hobart encased in blue amber. Her body is rarely shown completing a movement and her mouth seems to move wordlessly, and the effect is that of some strange suspended animation. She is preserved in time.

Cornell would later make similar films focused on other actresses, including Hedy Lamarr and Lauren Bacall, but what makes Rose Hobart so singular is that it’s about Rose Hobart. Hobart made 48 appearances on film and TV between 1930 and 1968, perhaps most famously as Muriel Carew in 1931’s Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. She survived being blacklisted for standing up for other actors. She’s not a well-known actress. She’s not what you’d call a celebrity. But by making this movie, creating a mysterious, beautiful film just from 20 minutes of footage of her, Cornell turned her into a celebrity. Her name survives as the title as one of the most important non-narrative films of the 20th century.

Cornell’s editing is a form of characterization. Approximately 7 minutes into Rose Hobart, there’s footage from a scene in which Hobart’s character talks with the villain of East of Borneo. Each time the camera cuts to the villain, Cornell cuts back to Hobart after less than a second. He shows the audience to  that there is someone in the room with her, but reminds us that Hobart is the interest here. She’s the subject. The only things that are allowed screen time without Hobart are natural: an erupting volcano, the moon, a tiger stalking through the jungle, alligators being forced by natives back into a river, and an eclipse. Hobart joins them, in Cornell’s mind, as a force of nature.

13 years after Dali interrupted the premiere of Rose Hobart, a 22-year-old filmmaker who claimed to be a former child actor would attempt a different kind of hagiography. Originally planned as a film about silent movie actresses called Puce Women, Puce Moment is 6 minutes of technicolor kitsch introduced as “A Film By Anger.” Anger, of course, is Kenneth Anger, perhaps the most famous and controversial character of non-narrative film, who would go on to be the infamous author of Hollywood Babylon, a masterpiece of filth that presents the tabloid as the truth. Only two years after making his debut with Fireworks, which I’m sure I’ll discuss at some point, Anger turned his lens away from the black-and-white homosexual sailors and onto Yvonne Marquis, who would later become the mistress of the former president of Mexico, as a silent film starlet.

The film opens with opulent gowns shaking in front of the camera. Each one is presented to the audience, and then tossed to the side in a dance of the seven veils, until the final veil is held to the camera, a black lace dress, through which we can see hints of a face. For the first shot of the film, the focus is on the external, superficial details. The human behind these dresses doesn’t matter in these opening moments; what matters is the dresses, and as each one is thrown away, it is forgotten entirely. They only exist for the brief moments they are in front of the camera.

Puce Moment

Behind the last veil we finally see the starlet who owns all these dresses. She rubs the last dress over her naked body, but the look on her face isn’t sexual: it’s overjoyed. She’s simply happy in that moment, surrounded by perfume bottles and jewelry. The setting evokes the silent era, and her acting matches. Her bosom heaves, her eyes roll and flutter, and she expresses herself purely physically. The film is silent except for two folk songs with which Anger replaced an opera by Verdi in the 60s. After she is dressed, the starlet is shown standing outside her mansion in the Hollywood hills, holding three greyhounds on a leash. Gone is the ecstasy we saw in her dressing room, replaced with a vampy coldness that would fit Irma Vep more than Lillian Gish.

Puce Moment is a relatively obscure Anger film, and one that doesn’t fit comfortably alongside the rest of his filmography. If it has an analog in his work, it’s the aforementioned Hollywood Babylon. Puce Moment could be cut from Hollywood Babylon: the silent-era star, forgotten too soon, locked in her Hollywood house, trying on her gowns only to take her dogs for a walk on the grounds. The songs picked for the soundtrack are by Jonathan Halper. The first, “Leaving My Life Behind,” is played over the dressing room scene and has an Eastern, transcendental feel to it. The second, “I’m a Hermit,” is played over the footage of Marquis and her dogs and features a refrain of “I’m the hermit, my mind is not the same.” Rose Hobart preserves celebrity; Puce Moment presents it as something fleeting, something that is easily thrown away.

If Rose Hobart shows the ecstasy of celebrity and Puce Moment presents the sadness of its decline, George Kuchar’s I, An Actress explores the strange, interstitial identity of an actor striving for celebrity. George and his brother Mike worked for decades in their own strange, campy corner of the cinematic world. Starting before they even entered their teens, the Kuchar brothers presented campy little masterpiece after campy little masterpiece, complete with titles like Hold Me While I’m Naked and The Sins of the Fleshapoids, right up until George’s death in 2011. The IMDb director filmography for George lists 217 titles, but that’s probably just a fraction of the actual works he made on film and video between the early 50s and his death.

In addition to being prolific filmmaker, George Kuchar was a legendary teacher. His classes had a reputation for being as chaotic as the films that made it to the screen. When I had the pleasure of seeing a selection of his video works in February, Abina Manning of the Video Data Bank recounted the last time she visited him in the hospital only to be greeted by an ailing Kuchar directing a movie with his students from his bed. He insisted that his classes collaborate on creating a film. With 10 minutes left in a class one day in 1977, Kuchar had his class help one of his students, Barbara Lapsley, to create a screen test. The result is I, An Actress, one of the funniest and most inventive movies of the 70s and one of the least effective screen tests of all time (and Lapsley’s only onscreen credit).

Lapsley begins the film alone on camera, lit from the front against a wall with the words “Keep It Fonky” scribbled to her left. She delivers the first lines of a melodramatic monologue to a dummy wearing a cheap wig. We hear Kuchar yelling direction to her. As her monologue continues, Kuchar becomes more involved. He jumps into the scene and directs her, performing the monologue himself. He runs his hands over his chest as if he were fondling his own breasts. He presses his body against the wall and performs with all the intensity and drama of Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind. Lapsley can’t help but laugh at him. Lapsley and Kuchar’s gigantic shadows on the wall match their outsized emotions.

Lines are repeated over and over, by both Lapsley and Kuchar. To give you an idea of the tone of this monologue, the two lines repeated most are “When I cheat, it’s not for sex,” and “I’m on my knees, Harold. Do you like see a woman on her knees, or is it only on their backs?” An odd phenomenon occurs as the movie goes on: Kuchar becomes both director and actress. The “I” of the title isn’t Lapsley; it’s Kuchar. While I, An Actress may be a tossed off afterthought of a film that took 10 minutes to make, it shows how natural the genius of George Kuchar was. In those 10 minutes, Kuchar blurs not only the line between the actor in front of the camera and the director behind it, but the line between male and female. In 1977, performing this way was a major statement.

I, An Actress also presents us with its own take celebrity. To Lapsley, celebrity is something she’s working for. She wants to be an actress; she wants to be a star. To Kuchar, though, celebrity is something playful. He spent most of his career making tributes to the cheap and tawdry side of Hollywood idolatry, and I, An Actress fits into his career just as well as Hold Me While I’m Naked. Kuchar is comfortable in his relative obscurity. As long as he can play Douglas Sirk and Lana Turner at once, he’s content. Celebrity was never a dream for Kuchar, but a reality that he made for himself.

It’s interesting that the three movies I chose to look at for a post about celebrity only contain one actress that could really be considered a celebrity at any point, Rose Hobart, and even she is obscure today. Yvonne Marquis and Barbara Lapsley never appeared in another movie after their respective starring roles, and Kuchar is hardly well-known outside critics and cinephiles. It’s just the result of a three films I happened to pick this week, of course, but it also says something about the way non-narrative filmmakers analyze the idea of fame. From their vantage point, they have a different view. Cornell may never have had to interact with a star personally in his entire career, and from obscurity, he can see the glamor and mystery of fame in a way his narrative counterparts never could.

An Introduction to an Introduction

I can trace my interest in avant-garde film back to day in March of 2009, when Noel Murray wrote an interesting article for The A.V. Club about the struggles of being a fan of the experimental brother of the narrative films we all love. If you know the name I used to comment on the AVC back then, you can find my thoughts on avant-garde films from the time. I viewed experimental film more as a breeding ground for techniques I’d see in the films I love than as a genre of film I could love myself. The techniques I’d see in Béla Tarr and Martin Scorsese films were born in avant-garde, but beyond that, I couldn’t appreciate them as fully formed works of art. I admitted I wasn’t right to think that way, but it was the way I thought.

    The part of Murray’s article that stuck with me was the idea that more people might not only appreciate, but actually love, avant-garde film if there were the non-narrative film equivalent of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Having been somewhat lost in the jungle of movies that rarely make any sense for the past 3 years, I can attest to the fact that having a guide would be welcome to millions of cinephiles around the world. So I’ve decided to try it. This series, however long it runs, will hopefully provide you with an opportunity to learn more about a style of film that, while entirely different from the great narrative films we all love so much, offers just as much entertainment and opportunity for thoughtful engagement.

     You should know I don’t claim to be anything resembling an expert on avant-garde film. In fact, I’ll get this out of the way now: I’m a novice. This series of blog entries serves two purposes: to introduce people who want to learn more about the subject to new gateways and to teach myself more about it, too. I feel like I’m in the position where I can teach others about avant-garde film because I have my foot in both worlds. I know more than I did on that probably dreary morning in 2009, but I also know that I’m only familiar with a tiny fraction of a fraction of the world I’m writing about. But since the day I read that article, I’ve seen some great films by directors like Stan Brakhage, George Kuchar, Hollis Frampton, and Chantal Akerman, and I understand just how wrong I was. I hope that I’ll be able to show you how wrong I was, too.

     I’ve been thinking about writing something like this for about a year, now, and I’m still trying to figure out how to do it. What are the sticking points for someone who wants to know more about avant-garde film (besides, you know, everything about it)? One of the first things that comes to mind is the term itself. Avant-garde film. It’s so artsy. So pretentious. So French. It sticks on the roof of your mouth and makes you feel like you’ll never be able to understand anything about this entire genre. So I say we start by throwing “avant-garde” out the window. That and “experimental.” Lots of films are experimental. Powell and Pressburger, Hitchcock, Welles, they all made experimental movies. But none of them are included in the genre of “experimental films”. Frankly, I think there term, when applied to a single group of movies, is bullshit.

     So what do we call this genre? There’s no perfect term for it, just like there’s no perfect term for the movies playing at the multiplex. But I’ve settled, after a lot of thought, on non-narrative film. It’s imperfect, since a lot of non-narrative films have what you might call narratives (including our first film). But even those movies subvert or downright abuse the idea of a traditional narrative, to the point where they’re nearly unrecognizable as (if you’ll excuse my scare quotes) “traditional” narrative films. For our purposes, non-narrative film is simply the best term for this genre.

     Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about the actual meat and potatoes of what we’re going to do each week. The idea I want to get across in this series, with a hat tip to Noel Murray, is that while non-narrative films may seem foreign and inscrutable, we’re more familiar with the terms they present us with than we think. Music videos, commercials, YouTube videos, and even home videos have introduced us to worlds without logic, images that, when presented in succession, take on new meanings, and entertainment and emotional connection without anything resembling a traditional narrative. We’ve all been subjected to these things before, and most of us have watched them willingly and enjoyed them.

     Keeping that in mind, I want to make sure my focus stays firmly on the films themselves, rather than delving too much into the culture they influenced. When I talk about Kenneth Anger, I’m going to talk about Kenneth Anger. Not Martin Scorsese, not David Lynch, not John Waters. They’ll come into my discussion, I’m sure, because they’re the filmmakers on whom Anger most clearly exerted an influence, but this series is about first appreciating and hopefully loving non-narrative film as an artform itself.

     Each week, I’ll watch a non-narrative film, and write about the ideas and themes which I think make it worth watching. Most of these movies are short and on YouTube, so I’ll link to the film itself as often as possible. After the body of the post, I’ll try to include a short selection of music videos, commercials, and movies that I see as gateways to enjoying the movie in question, essentially a “if you like that, you might like this” section.

     I hope that eventually these posts will inspire some conversation in the comments, but I don’t expect much by way of that at first. But please, if you’re reading this, I want to hear your opinion. If you agree, if you disagree, even if you have input on my process, I welcome it.

So without further ado we’ll start with our first film: Chris Marker’s most famous work, La Jetée.

     As most of you know, Chris Marker died on monday, the day after his 91st birthday. When I tweeted about his death, one of the first responses came from Peter Labuza, who pointed out that La Jetée may be the best entry point to non-narrative film for the uninitiated. The more I thought about it that day, the more I agreed. La Jetée tells an exciting sci-fi story, avoids the cold emotional distance that many non-narrative films proudly engender, and inspired Terry Gilliam movie with a devoted cult. Not only is it one of the best gateways to non-narrative film, it may be the most seen non-narrative movies ever made. So I think the fact that it is such a great entry point combined with the timeliness of Marker’s death make La Jetée a perfect place to start.

    In just 27 minutes, La Jetée presents us with an amazingly complex story about memory and love. It’s rarely mentioned among the greatest love stories in cinema, but wholly deserving of a place among them. The story begins with a memory of a young boy witnessing a death at an airport. From this introduction, we’re thrown into the outbreak of World War III. Paris is destroyed in a nuclear attack, and the survivors are forced to live under the city as either “victors” or “prisoners.” The victors perform experiments on the prisoners. One of the prisoners (none of the characters are named, he is only credited as The Man) is selected for his intense memory, the memory of a child witnessing a death from the opening. This vivid memory will allow him to travel backwards in time.

    The Man is injected with a serum by The Experimenter, at which point he travels back to a time before the war. Each time he time travels, he encounters a woman who he remembers from the day of the murder.. The Woman is his connection to peacetime, and they fall in love. The bulk of the film is spent on their love affair. She refers to him as “her ghost.” After one trip back,a visit to a museum of natural history, The Experimenter explains that the experiment has been a success, and that The Man is to be sent to the future to get help for the fallen society. The Man realizes he will no longer be sent back, and he will never see the woman he loves again. He accepts this fact; he has no choice. He travels to the future, he’s given a power source which will help with reconstruction, and goes back, knowing that he will most likely be disposed of. He was only a tool to The Experimenter.

    Instead, as he lays in his cell, the people from the future come to him (they can travel easily through time) and tell him they want him to join them. Without hesitation, he asks to be sent back in time to be with the woman he loves instead. They oblige, and he is sent back to the same day of his childhood memory. The Woman stands on the far end of the airport’s concourse. He runs to her, but before he can reach her, he sees The Experimenter, who shoots and kills him. He realizes, as he dies, that as a child, he witnessed his own death.

    What separates La Jetée from films with similar themes, such as Solaris, is the way in which the story is presented on screen. It is told entirely with still images. Where a normal film would present us with a shot in which the camera and its subjects move, here, every image we see is static (save for one). In addition to this, all dialogue is whispered in German, and the story is narrated by a pleasantly monotone voice.

    Essentially, Marker took the basic concepts of cinema in the sound era and broke them down. Sound combines with images, but not in any way we’re familiar with. In a conventional film, images become motion. In La Jetée, motion becomes images. The film is projected the same way as any other film. The flicker effect that creates the illusion of movement is still there, but instead it creates the illusion of an image sitting unmoving on the screen, followed by another image, and so on. There’s no reason for La Jetée to be presented as a film rather than a book with pictures, except that it shows us the reality of what we see every time we sit in a dark theater.

     One of the reasons La Jetée is such a strong gateway to non-narrative film is that it’s rooted in something we all innately understand from the time we’re children. Two or more images combining to create a larger narrative isn’t just the basis for film, comic books, and picture books; it’s the basis for language itself. Anyone reading this sentence understands the concept. But when we watch a movie, we’re used to images being presented in such rapid succession that we don’t recognize them as still photographs or drawings.

      In the booklet for the Criterion Collection DVD of La Jetée, there is a short recollection from Marker about where the idea for the movie came from. He tells a story about a small viewfinder through which he slid frames from movies like Abel Gance’s Napoleon; in a way, it was an early form of home video. He loved looking at the frames so much, he eventually endeavored to make his own. He got a hold of some transparent film and drew several frames. When he presented it to the most creative boy in his class, the boy scoffed and told him that movies were supposed to move.

     Marker’s story betrays the playfulness under the black-and-white, the classical music, and the meditative tone in La Jetée. It may be the most important thing about the movie. We’ll come back to the concept of playfulness a lot in this series, because I think it’s one of the things that starkly separates non-narrative film from narrative film, and also makes films more accessible than they may seem at first.  Here, Marker isn’t just creating a beautiful film; he’s having a lot of fun doing it.

     La Jetée is so playful that it doesn’t even follow its own rules. I mentioned above that I consider it one of the greatest love stories ever told, up there with The Apartment. One scene in particular pushes it onto another level. For the first 20 minutes or so, La Jetée is, as you know, presented entirely in still frames. On one of The Man’s trips back, though, we see images of The Woman laying in bed, lit by an early morning light, nude and covered by bedsheets. There’s no narration and no music in this scene, just the sound of hundreds of birds singing cacophonously at once. The images move faster and faster as she wakes from her sleep, until finally we get to a single shot of her face looking directly at the camera, and she blinks twice. Not a still image of her blinking, but a traditionally filmed shot of her blinking. In that moment, everything that seemed artificial before becomes painfully, beautifully real.

     Unlike many of the movies I’ll be writing about going forward, La Jetée is grounded in emotion as much as it is intellect. It’s not a romantic film, but it is an emotional one. It’s a film about memory, and the ways that memory ties us to the past and holds us there. The Man rejects the utopian world of the future for the past, and because he’s trapped in that memory, he dies. Still, I don’t think there’s any question that Marker is at least sympathetic to The Man’s desire to stay with The Woman, the one memory he has to hold onto in a dying world.