Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Second Game

The Second Game
dir. Corneliu Porumboiu, 2014, Romania
genre: experimental documentary
French-release DVD (French subtitles only) available from

To me, one of the more exciting trends lately has been the convergence of the documentary world with experimental approaches that could be considered akin to structural filmmaking. I don't know if Porumboiu is explicitly influenced by or in dialogue with structural film. Maybe something about the slow cinema project of the Romanian New Wave arrives at similar ends from another route. But The Second Game would suggest that something beyond simply durational art cinema but rather a spectatorial experience of being distanciated from the very basics of the medium, the very split between sound and image. 

The concept is simple enough: a 1988 soccer match refereed by Porumboiu's father between two of the major football clubs (Dinamo and Steaua) plays without original commentary while the Porumboius, father and son, discuss the match. It's not a tidy commentary on the Communist era or the politics of the revolution that would follow, but the now-and-then conceit does underline the stakes of historical knowledge and historical passing. Films from the vantage of post-Communist public spheres have the challenge of critique the pre-1989 regimes while understanding that daily life under Communism was a complex affair, not entirely reducible to the great historical picture the West in particular has of the era. Soccer does not neatly allegorize the Ceausescu era but it does pose the problem of citizen ethics to the present. The Second Game thereby manages to use soccer/football as an occasion for political and historical issues, but it also examines the game on its own terms.

Aesthetically, The Second Game brackets television within cinema and asks the spectator to read both the aesthetics of TV and the politics of state-controlled broadcasting. Much of the affect of the film lies in its desaturated and degraded video images.

All the while, the film is a durational exercise - an ultimate one-scene film. At one point the filmmaker makes a wry commentary about his fiction-film style, in which "nothing happens." As he puts it in the director's statement: "If you were to ask which football game says the most about everything, I would tell you it is the one which is most banal." If Soul Food Stories shows the instance of a log line overpromising for a film, The Second Game shows the difficulty of creating a log line for an experimental doc that defies an easy summary or "hook." Think of it as an art-doc version of Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Tourisme International

Tourisme International
dir. Marie Voignier, 2014, France
genre: experimental documentary
available streamed at Doc Alliance (free through May3)

Tourisme Internationale is a fascinating experiment in documentary sound. Other precedents like Loznitsa's and Ujica's work have used foleyed sound to give a sense of presentness to archival footage. Voignier instead takes present-day footage--of an international tourist visit to North Korea--and removes almost all spoken word in favor of foleyed sound effects and ambient sounds. The effect is an uncanny play on presence and absence, on documentation and the fantastic. 

One clear role of the move is as a power play between a government which wishes to control images and a filmmaker who refuses to allow the government's version to stand. By putting the voices under erasure, Tourisme Internationale obliquely gets at a portrait of contemporary North Korea that it otherwise cannot access. In the process, too, it figures the missing voices of the populace. (The tour guides are all well-connected elites.) Most of all, it's a film in which the concepts are experiences as much as intellectualized.

The one instance of spoken word allowed in the film is the dubbing of a North Korean fiction film. The film takes a wonderful turn of meta-reflection on cinema, sound, and the role of classical cinema language in our understanding of the medium. The putative propaganda of state-sponsored media gets a "real" presence in the film that the putatively more real tours of cities do not.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Soul Food Stories

Soul Food Stories
dir. Tonislav Hristov, 2013, Bulgaria / Finland
genre: observational
not currently in distribution

I don't know how often a film's log line gives a bait-and-switch for a film, but I have to say that Soul Food Stories was not exactly the film the description set me up for:
“Soul Food Stories” is a 70 minutes long observational documentary that tells of a place where practices of food and the rituals around the table have not been changed in the last centuries. The film consist of a series of vignettes, each one telling different story. The protagonists Djamal and his wife Aishe are Pomacs (a Slavic Muslim population native to some parts of Bulgaria). Their parents and grand parents have been always living from the land. They produce everything - from the cigarettes they smoke and the clothes they are wearing to the milk and cheese on the table. During the Communist regime, Djamal and Aishe had to change their names, the way they dress and speak as part of the state-supported assimilation campaign in 1989. Djamal and Aishe’s children represent another part of the story – they immigrated to the USA in a search for better life and more opportunities and thus they lost connection with their nuclear family and their traditions – part of which is the food. “Soul Food Stories” seeks to explore not only why the food bring us together, but the many ways it could enrich our lives. At the same time it touches upon themes such as religion, the past and the reconciliation with it, the family and the kids, etc. Or as the director Tonislav Hristov puts it - “Soul Food isn’t a film about the food itself. Soul food is the ritual of getting together around the table when each one of your friends brings his own spice in the sense of experiencing each other."
The main issues are there, and the main thematic use of food preparation, too. However, rather than the redemptive narrative of "food overcomes social divisions," the film has a more open tapestry of the social conflicts of rural Bulgaria. The villagers represent certain aspects of social divides marking contemporary Bulgaria: women/men, Orthodox/Muslim/Roma-Evangelical, Communist/reformist, older/younger, and while the people do voice a sense of shared community never do they put aside differences. (It is hard to tell how much of the discussion is provoked by director Hristov, but especially in this case I'm not sure that makes much difference.)

What I find refreshing is that the documentary tackles two motifs common to recent documentaries - the waning of pre-industrial agricultural parts of Europe and the economic challenges facing depopulated rural villages. But something about the observational approach gives a new spin on these: rather than static shots of empty spaces or rural tranquility, Soul Food Stories offers instead a group of Finnish tourists and village spaces that are lively, if aged.

The documentary does show the impact of poetic style on observational film, as in the long take of the funeral, done with locked down camera.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Hand Gestures

(photo courtesy the filmmaker's Twitter)

Il Gesto delle mani/ Hand Gestures
dir. Francesco Clerici, 2015, Italy
genre: poetic/observational
not currently in distribution

I do wonder if there is a documentary equivalent of the heritage film, dedicated to celebrating national aesthetic and historical traditions. Hand Gestures would probably fit the bill and is in fact produced by a century-old firm specializing in bronze sculpture, the Battaglia Artistic Foundry. On a literal level, the film could be seen as an advertisement of sorts for the Foundry and for Velasco Vitali's sculptures. But it easily transcends this as a creative documentary with both formal rigor and a clear aesthetic eye for the process of art creation.

There has been a recent cycle of documentaries about artisanal crafts, but what immediately strikes me about Hand Gestures is the adoption of certain aspects of the poetic-doc form rather than a more familiar character-driven format. It's not a slavish fit with the genre, as the film uses a faster montage,  for instance, but the lack of voiceover narration and minimal spoken word pushes the spectator to experience the pace and subtextual narrative of the sculpture process. Not only does Hand Gestures excite me to be studying contemporary documentary but it also inspires me to write about it.

The use of archival footage is both entirely legible in its historicity (unlike many "craft" documentaries, Hand Gestures suggests continuity between now and then) and related to experimental activation of archival footage in the work of Forgacs, Loznitsa, Ujica, etc. Most of all, it provides a lyrical structuring device for the documentary.

Hand Gestures is currently on the festival circuit, having won a critics prize at Berlin Film Festival. Here's hoping this film gets a broader theatrical or video distribution stateside.

Thursday, April 09, 2015


dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Ilisa Barbash, 2009, US
available on DVD or via iTunes

My list of shame is long, and I am a late comer to the entire Sensory Ethnography Lab work, and I have to admit some trepidation approaching Sweetgrass. After all, I have had a tendency to be underwhelmed by some of the critical favorites in recent documentary (Stories We Tell, Act of Killing, and others). Yet, I was blown away by the film, I believe because it confounded my expectations in two ways: it did not fully fit the mold of the contemporary poetic documentary, nor did it exactly play the role of slow cinema in the way I thought it might. 

The key to both is that Sweetgrass does not restrict itself to static long takes shot at a wide distance. Indeed, those shots are there, but camera movements (handheld and controlled) and close shots balance the shooting style. My understanding of Sensory Ethnography is that it balances the objective poetic-observational shots with strategies that suggest the phenomenological aspect of its subject. Watching the film, it also occurred to me that Sweetgrass fits what David Bordwell calls parametric narration, in which the stylistic system of the film develops (partly) independently of the meaning structure. This is an idea I'll have to reflect on and develop.

I was also surprised how much a traditional Griersonian spirit lay at the heart of the film. Not exactly an issue film but a objectifying eye to how ranching is declining in the contemporary American economy and Western environment. It's a theme not spelled out in detail or hit over the head, but it does sustain the film, through its portrait of the shepherds to the final titles.

Probably my experience of the film was colored by seeing it in 35mm - a transfer from video and a sonic remix from low-quality recording, apparently, but still, quite gorgeous. The low-light videography in particular is amazing, with images at times barely registering but somehow still affective. 

I definitely look forward to watching more Sensory Ethnography work.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Classical Cinema SIG for SCMS?

On Twitter, I tossed out a quick idea that maybe it's time for there to be a Scholarly Interest Group (SIG) for SCMS geared toward those of us who work on classical cinema. There is a good reasons there hasn't been one up until now: SIGs have emerged to champion emerging research areas or those historically overlooked in the fields of US- and Canadian-based cinema and media studies. Classical Hollywood in particular was the canonical and culturally dominant hegemon at the center of film studies stretching back through the history of the Society, going to the SCS days. Why carve out a interest group niche for something that was already established and widespread?

I think there are two reasons it's time to do just that. First, it's hard for me not to see SIGs gaining in importance in SCMS. There's currently not anything like the divisions at the MLA Convention, neatly organized along clear subdisciplinary lines. Maybe they'll never have that rigidity or clarity. But the conference's and society's continued growth means that there's going to be increasing pressure for sub-division, and the SIGs and Caucuses are a logical mechanism to manage this pressure. If these do become more important, than SIGs no longer need to be limited by the emerging or "minority" approaches in the discipline, but even heretofore dominant approaches may find a need for organizational representation.

Second, classical cinema studies is not as dominant as it used to be. There are still a good number of papers on classical Hollywood at the conference, but not as many as there used to be. Papers on the studio periods of other national cinemas are much sparser. I wouldn't want to put forth the case for a SIG as a rearguard action to preserve the status quo of a canon - it's great that both contemporary cinema and alternative practices are getting more of their due. But a SIG can provide a form and cohesion to what now feels scattershot. SIGs provide community and help for a collective agenda setting and in the process raise the profile for excellent work that is already being done.

These goals seem particularly vital because classical cinema studies is actually a dynamic area now, hardly dead despite the sense of many in the field that the area is too well charted and everything has already been said. Not to make an exhaustive list, I would point to a few trends worth highlighting:

  • The availability of films (via video, cable TV, etc) has radically transformed our understanding of the period, both popularly and academically.
  • An generational difference from the period compared to the flurry of scholarship in the 1970s and 80s means that scholars have a different relation to the period and are asking different questions. 
  • Scholarship has increasingly reappraised the criticism contemporary to the films themeselves, opening up a dynamic account of the history of writing on film. The scholars of "useful cinema" have impacted how we see even the history of entertainment cinema.
  • Work in other areas, such as transitional cinema, have challenged and refined canonical accounts of classical cinema. Incidentally, this is one reason I think limiting the purview to "classical Hollywood" would be a mistake.
  • There is sometimes a sense of stalled impasse after the theory/history debates of the 1990s, but I see an opportunity. Classical cinema is one key area in which scholars often work across these disciplinary traditions and combine them in innovative ways.

For these reasons and more, I would love to see a Classical Cinema SIG. I honestly don't know how much groundswell of support the idea would have, but it's worth putting the idea out there.

Monday, April 06, 2015

SCMS2015 Reflections

It's remarkable to go back and read my posts after previous SCMS conferences because some things are still the same for me, and others have changed. This year, I embraced the conference as specialized tracks rather than attempt a generalist sampling. In all, I felt much happier doing this, though I am sure I missed terrific papers that way.

Terrific online schedules. I used the Guidebook app and loved it. The Sched website version is also great. I appreciate the work of the conference organizers in providing these and getting them out in advance.

Conference is too long. I've said this before, but it bears repeating. The conference is too long. Yes, I know people can go for only part of the time, but that's actually a problem. Gone is the sense of a shared conference experience. In a 2 day conference I end up seeing more papers than in a 5 day. This is because SCMS is about more than papers, certainly, but it's also because the exhausting schedule is not as conducive to the presentation and exchange of ideas as smaller conferences.

Scheduling is too tight. Expecting 4 papers and a robust Q and A to fit into 1h45m is not realistic in most cases. My panel experienced technical difficulties that ate into presentation and question time, but beyond my experience I can say that the only active Q and A sessions I saw were for panels of 3 presenters. Which I gather SCMS discourages.

We need lunch. The conference length or overall schedule has some major constraints, but if I could change one thing, it would be to add a proper lunch break each day and prioritize common breaks in the scheduling.

Conference hotels are getting better. At least in terms of conference room size and facilities, common meeting areas. The breakfast at the Fairmont was a nice addition to the conference experience.

SIGs are growing but still underutilized. I do think that Caucuses and SIGs provide the best way forward of achieving a manageable scale within an unwieldy conference. But they still do not involve a majority of the membership or anything approaching.

Weirdly enough, each time I attend the conference I find it an ungainly conference with problems, but I always enjoy it and value the experience. I do look forward to Atlanta.