Tuesday, March 24, 2015

SMCS 2015

I'm heading to Montreal tomorrow for the SCMS conference. As always, I look forward to a rewarding time catching up with colleagues and getting (however partially) about the best snapshot of the field I could imagine. 

I will be contributing to the SCMS general conference twitter feed. The idea this year it to have a feed less about live-tweeting panels and more about general observations. 

My panel will be at Saturday, at 1:00pm. I'm excited to be in great company.

Film Festivals and the ‘Creative Turn’ in Documentary

Aida Vallejo (University of the Basque Country) 
“A Niche for Creativity: Defining Documentary in the Festival Circuit”
Ezra Winton (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design)
“Documentary, Film Festivals, and Distribution of the Sensible”
Maria-Paz Peirano (University of Kent)
“Expanding Boundaries: Film Festivals and the Emergence of ‘Creative’ Documentary Filmmaking in Chile”
Chris Cagle (Temple University)
“Character as Aesthetic Problem in the Festival Documentary”

Hope to see many of you there.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Workingman's Death

Workingman's Death
dir. Michael Glawogger, 2005, Austria
available on DVD or via iTunes

This film is now a decade old and therefore less contemporary than others I am watching for this project. But it's been on my list of shame for a while and moreover, I feel it's worth adding some films more readily accessible from time to time. 

Glawogger was, before his untimely death, a prominent documentary auteur and very influential for a vein of poetic documentary popular today, at least on the festival circuit. Workingman's Death resists the kind of documentary meaning we might expect out of the difficult, challenging subject matter we see. Critic Michael Atkinson writes, "Glawogger's film may be thematically loose-jointed, but Wolfgang Thaler's cinematography is the glue." However, the film does have thematic resonances, even if the spectator has to do much of the work for them. And, thematically, too, the refusal of certain explanation is itself meaningful; Glawogger seems to suggest that globalization is important for understanding labor but does not explain everything about it, either as economic fact or human condition. 

Setting aside the big picture, though, I'd like to focus on Atkinson's second assertion, which I do agree with. Take three consecutive shots in the opening Ukraine mining sequence. The first is static but not a posed shot, the second is a reactive pan as a miner appears above the hilltop, the last is a presentational pose setting up an ironic juxtaposition with a Leninist statue.

Whereas the last kind of shot is now common, even cliché, in documentary today, the first two show a real ability to balance compositions that are unusual yet harmonious without distracting from the subject. This is true, also in interviews and interior observation shots:

Looking back from the vantage of ten years now, what's striking about Workingman's Death is not only how influential Glawogger's approach is to poetic documentary but also how it doesn't fully live up to my expectations of what an aestheticized poetic doc would look like.

For instance, even the character-driven issue film Where Heaven Meets Hell (Sasha Friedlander, 2012) films the sulphur mines of Kawah Ijen with more striking beauty, both in composition and color. Some of this may reflect the developments of digital cameras and color correcting software, as well as filmmaker/audience expectations of how either can lend production values to documentary. But that's a larger story.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Autofocus (2013)

dir. Boris Poljak, 2013, Croatia
genre: observational short
not currently in distribution

Autofocus is an observational documentary but with more of a candid-camera approach. Rather than having close interaction between camera and social actor, director Poljak places fixed cameras on a landmark church (St. Nicholas at Nin) and records the tourists who come to visit the sight. The tight framing and distanciation are somewhat reminiscent of Scott Stark's Posers, but rather than comment ironically on its subjects, Autofocus gives a humanizing portrait of the various anonymous visitors.

One of my ongoing polemics is that documentary critics and especially scholars misread what observational cinema does because they filter the genre through the realism debates of post-1970s film theory. This polemic will take more work to flesh out, but for now I'll point out one way contemporary observational cinema can play with narration. There's a kind of question-answer game, wherein the film will introduce an ambiguous shot that is explained by the following shot. In this case, tourists, a father and son, do strange poses that initially do not make much sense. Only in the next shot does the film reveal the mother down the hill, taking photographs. With the telephoto, we are lacking the proper angle for framing but can retroactively read the poses against the church backdrop.

This is not an earth-shattering strategy, but it is one shared with more poetic docs (Abendland comes to mind) and suggests how observational doc is not reducible to naive realism.

Friday, March 13, 2015

MLA 2016 calls for papers

The 2016 MLA Convention will take place in Austin, Texas, January 7 to 10. The deadline for submitting through pre-constituted panels is coming up, as soon as this weekend, so I wanted to highlight a number that might be of interest to film studies scholars. In culling this list I have overlooked a lot: many panels are open to both literature and film as objects of studies and other touch on new media studies. The panels below have a majority focus on film.

Due dates are March 15, unless otherwise noted.

  • 1968 in Global Cinema [call]
  • Adaptation in World Cinema [call]
  • Austin Plays Itself [call]
  • Cinema and Cultural Memory [call]
  • Cinema and Public Spheres in Franco's Spain [call] (Mar. 18)
  • Francophone Media/na/tions [call]
  • The Ideological Space(s) of Italian Cinema and Television [call] (Mar. 20)
  • Latin American Film and Nation in the 21st Century [call]
  • Out of the Past: An Examination of Jewish Characters in Contemporary Romanian Cinema [call]
  • Trauma in Recent Cinema [call]
  • Women and Recent Francophone/Anglophone African Cinemas [call]

Anyone can propose a paper, but one must be a MLA member to present at the convention. [FAQs]

Monday, March 09, 2015

Contemporary Documentary Project: Beep

Kim Kyung-man, 2014, South Korea
genre: experimental documentary
not in general distribution

Beep is a short experimental documentary; actually, I would probably classify it as an essay film. Beep compiles South Korean anti-communist government films from the 1960s and 70s and adds a found soundtrack of a nonfiction account of a boy martyr who purportedly because he resisted North Korean soldiers. It's easy to use such material ironically, as fodder for camp, but I am impressed by how Beep is purposive with its historical material. Rather than using the found footage to signal an "then" to contrast with "now," it wants to trace a lineage of South Korean jingoism and propaganda that, I believe the film to imply, never fully went away. I'm not always a fan of Foucauldian genealogy, but this is genealogy in the best sense.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Actress (2014)

dir. Robert Greene, 2014, USA
genre: self-reflexive portrait documentary
available on iTunes or via Cinema Guild on-demand 
(DVD release presumably forthcoming)

I saw Actress only after reading director Robert Greene's manifesto about the "renaissance in documentary culture" which has seen "collapsing walls between fiction, nonfiction and art cinema." After his pronouncements and the many critical accolades (Bilge Ebiri calls it one of the best documentaries he's ever seen), I have to say I came to the film with higher expectations. Yes, I noticed the self-reflexive commentary on documentary performance in this portrait of Wire actress Brandy Burre; Burre is indeed a remarkably self-confident and camera-aware documentary subject. The value of Actress is that asks the spectator to evaluate the effect of this kind of self-consciousness on documentary, pitched somewhere between dramaturgy and Erving Goffman's performance-of-self. The tight framing of the climactic interviews additionally makes the emotion feel self-consicous. What I did not get an ontological unsettling of what documentary and fiction do (from Ebiri: "the entire film is dancing on this knife’s edge of real and make-believe"), or a sense of revolutionary documentary form. Other portrait docs create a "melodrama" out of real stories and problems, and others have moments of self-reflexivity. Perhaps that's just a matter of raised expectations or even of seeing on video rather than theatrically. Actress is a good documentary but not nearly one of the best I've ever seen.

One thing I did really appreciate in the film is Greene's eye both in filming and editing. There is one scene in which Burre's ex-partner, Tim, removes holiday lights after a Christmas party. It is a simple series of shots, but so simply captures the emotional tenor of their relationship through visual means. And while the slow-motion shots felt like filler to me, there are other, equally lovely video shots of the town and the landscape which give an emotional punctuation to Burre's story. As for the film's pace and structure, there is a wonderful sense of conflict that develops out of the mundanity of Burre's daily life. Greene does a good job of capturing just a sense of tedium which forms the status quo of the film's exposition, and it makes the identity and relationship crisis of the second half of the film that much more pronounced.

Finally, I valued in Actress what I might value in any character-driven documentary: the way Burre's story touches on bigger issues of work-life balance, of women's self-identity in a patriarchal culture, and of the sexism of theatrical and television casting. To take the issue of age-bound casting, this is something we all might have a knowledge of, but Actress shows the human toll on the women actors whose livelihood is made more difficult than men's. 

Monday, March 02, 2015

Men With Balls (2013)

Men With Balls
dir. Kristóf Kovács, 2013, Hungary
genre: character-driven documentary
currently not in distribution

I actually prefer the original title of this film, Besence Open, which captures the ironic juxtaposition of the conceit: a largely Roma and largely unemployed village in Southwest Hungary receives a grant to built a tennis court. A town with no tennis experience and a largely dispirited existence then must learn what is largely a rich person's sport. It's the kind of hook for either festival or television audiences, with its overlay of a Bad News Bears kind of sports drama on top of an issue documentary about social marginalization, economic development, and life in Hungary under the EU.

And I don't mean this in a disparaging way; even if European documentaries are on balance more tonally somber and contemplative than their US counterparts, there's still a lot of interesting work being done to embrace showmanship and experiment with the possibilities of the "new documentary." Formally, Men With Balls balances a playful tone (folk-ish scoring and plucked violin refrains) and well-composed shots of the village with more observational footage that gives a composite portrait of the social actors. Ultimately, the mayor emerges as the central character in the character-driven format.

I don't think it's spoiling too much to say that Men With Balls lacks a redemptive or even cathartic arc. Rather than intertwining the sports and issue subplots, the film actually thematizes how difficult it is do this kind of culture-driven economic development.

Something about it reminded me of The Overnighters. On the one hand that latter film has a richer and more extensive observational approach - and overall feels like a bleaker film. On the other hand, both films find a narrational solution to match the worldview of their main character, Biblical morality play in Overnighters, realist optimism in Men With Balls.