To Sleep With Anger

•August 15, 2011 • 1 Comment

To Sleep With Anger (1990)

Dir. Charles Burnett

When Killer of Sheep was ceremoniously re-discovered and released in 2007 with great fanfare, director Charles Burnett had a triumph over obscurity that would be enviable to any living, working filmmaker long relegated to the recesses.  It was a success story that felt truly deserved, a bona-fide independent finally finding his place in the pantheon of American filmmakers, and more than a few declaring him the greatest of all African-American filmmakers.  Killer of Sheep is indeed quite the achievement, but as with many of the truest of independents, the fanfare was fleeting, and the perception stands that the heroic director of Killer of Sheep is ultimately a tragic case of a filmmaker led astray by obscurity, and worse, a hired hand whenever work presented itself.  This, of course, is certainly not the case, and a cursory glance at his career will unveil an unassuming little family tale that is quite possibly one of the finest of American films, To Sleep With Anger.

This is a grand statement, sure, but this unassuming quality of Burnett’s film is exactly what works in its favor, an exterior of a quaint family comedy/drama that contains multitudes lying just beneath its surface.  To Sleep With Anger is in its essence one of the great Southern Gothic films, encompassing both a classic tale of good and evil and a family drama firmly rooted in Greek theater, but told in such a deft manner that it never once strays from its humble roots, and more importantly, told with great, lifting humor.  It is The Night of the Hunter re-imagined as the blues, its dialogue and imagery rendered not as horror, but instead given a musical quality so deeply ingrained in folklore and a vastly perseverant heritage.  Its themes of deeply rooted tradition giving way to a conflicted sense of modernity feels uniquely, unmistakably Southern, and while its action takes place in South Central L.A., To Sleep With Anger never loses that true, evocative sense of Southern culture.

To Sleep With Anger stars Danny Glover, in surely his most magnetic performance, as a man named Harry who drops by unexpectedly to an old acquaintance’s home, where he, Gideon and his wife, Suzie live in their quaint, middle-class home, children grown and living their own middle-class lives in the area.  What Harry brings with him are memories of long ago, a wild existence left behind with age by Gideon and Suzie, but held firmly by Harry, a drifter through and through.  With these memories come forgotten resentments and insults, however, and while Gideon and Suzie don’t seem to bear any grudges, a few of their life-long friends who made their way out west as well sure do.  At the brilliant introduction of Harry in the film, we can sense in one brief moment in the interaction with a very young boy that Harry carries a great weight with him, a weight of great superstition and tenuous grasp of the social niceties.  More importantly, there is an air of evil about him, not one of a murderous variety per-se, but one of pure temptation and indulgence, a threat to the comfortable fabric of a family on the surface doing just fine.  However, and this is key to the success of this film, this is blatantly false, and Harry’s mere presence brings out something always lying dormant within the dynamics of the family, specifically in the youngest son’s place within, a young man known to his family as Babe Brother, a name he finds degrading and emasculating.  Babe Brother proves receptive to the charms of Harry, and Harry brings out in him what he likely once maintained in his earlier life, a sense of choice to stay true to the potential of the solitary man, even if that means leaving his family behind.

I won’t divulge too many of the details of plot in this film, but in many ways, the plot itself is a very familiar one, once again stemming from its classic, theatrical roots.  As with any great masterpiece of film, however, the beauty is in the details, and To Sleep With Anger has such an impeccable sense of character and heritage, not to mention geography, that its details really resonate beyond its familiar story.  I hesitate to think of many films, for instance, that have such distinct, snappy and resonant dialogue; I had to double-check even that it wasn’t a theatrical adaptation.  The dialogue is exhaustive, but never breaks that hallowed “show, don’t tell” rule, as the motivations of the characters’ words often belie their true intent, and in this the visual medium is perfectly attuned to pick up on such details; the face never lies.  Charles Burnett crafted a script that could just as easily have been a brilliant piece of writing, but its tempo so beautifully suited for film in the end.  It is not a masterpiece of cinematography, but its framing always allows for the details to shine through, whether it be a discreet facial gesture lying on the outskirts of words, or a detail that gives the home a real sense of being lived in, a surprisingly sketchy area in much of filmmaking.

What I of course haven’t touched upon is that To Sleep With Anger is above all else that rare, even to this day, beast in film; a deeply respectful and perceptive film about African-Americans, by an African-American filmmaker.  Not only that, but one that doesn’t even come close to calling attention to itself like so many others.  It doesn’t exist to be an “important” film, nor does it seem transfixed on the societal struggle so prevalent especially in this era of American film. To Sleep With Anger predates Boyz in the Hood by a year, a markedly much different telling of the South Central experience.  This is not to undercut the achievement of that film, as perhaps this even greatly contributes to Anger’s neglected status, given that a subtle family melodrama likely didn’t speak to the volatility that was consuming the area of the time.  I’m sure Burnett’s film came across as woefully old-fashioned at the time of its release, especially when played against something like Boyz, or Menace 2 Society a couple of years later, but at the time of this writing, it feels like something equally revolutionary as those films felt on their release, a film that truly speaks to a cultural experience not often tenderly shown in cinema, and more importantly humor that comes from within, and not at the expense of any public perception of such a culture.  In short, this is one of the great films about family dynamics, and a stunningly beautiful, graceful ode to a heritage often pushed to the side in film.  Yes, Charles Burnett may just be the greatest of African-American filmmakers, but To Sleep With Anger is an achievement that speaks much louder than that designation allows.  It’s an American masterpiece.

Outer Space

•August 8, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Outer Space (1999)

Dir. Peter Tscherkassky

So I’ve got much catching up to do.  Many films were viewed, many books were read in this long absence for Febriblog, but as I feel compelled to write on them, I will.  This time has been taken to attempt, gasp, creative writing once again, in hopes to one day use this here outlet to hawk my own projects.  That’s what having a blog is really about these days, isn’t it?

Anyways, today I bring you one of the finest experimental shorts I’ve come across lately, a particularly brutal re-appropriation of a semi-forgotten Barbara Hershey-starring horror film titled The Entity from 1982.  In this film, filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky assembled found footage, and in the grand tradition of Mekas, following through to the more recent works of Bill Morrison, takes this footage and manipulates it to the point of pure abstraction.

Outer Space is truly a masterwork of editing technique, this must is irrefutable, but the tone of utter dread is the true star of this piece.  This is a film that David Lynch may have even considered while editing Mulholland Dr., particularly in that film’s haunting finale, but Outer Space makes that film look restrained in comparison, as the epileptic images and haunting distortion of the found film’s diagetic sound provide a relentless collage of nightmares.  However, perhaps there’s a better parallel here.  It seems that The Entity involves a woman who is sexually molested by an invisible demon (this is just inferred from the trailer, correct me if I’m wrong), but here Tscherkassky instead coaxes a sort of quasi-remake of Repulsion out of the material, repositioning the demons to the interior kind.

A house lies dormant but nervous in the distance, terrified faces seemingly fold into one another, the interior finds itself melding into an impossible kind of architecture before its protagonist’s scared eyes… It’s an intense watch, one that could understandably prove troublesome for some viewers, if for no other reason than its assault on the senses, but its sustained tone is truly something to behold.  I look forward to seeing this filmmaker’s new work, Coming Attractions, that made a splash at TIFF last year, and of course, delving into his rich ouvre more.  Enjoy.

Fuller on Fuller

•February 11, 2011 • 2 Comments

On capturing war on film:

See, there’s no way you can portray war realistically, not in a movie nor in a book.  You can only capture a very, very small aspect of it.  If you really want to make readers understand a battle, a few pages of your book would be booby-trapped.  For moviegoers to get the idea of real combat, you’d have to shoot at them every so often from either side of the screen.  The casualties would be bad for business.  Such reaching for reality in the name of art is against the law.  Hell, the heavy human toll is just too much for anyone to comprehend fully.  What I try to do is make audiences feel the emotional strife of total war.

On his feelings of the misconception that he revels in the glorification of violence:

I hope one day, maybe in the year 2293, a film student will be analyzing one of my films on a desktop gizmo.  He’ll ask his professor what’s that funny “thing” the soldier is holding.  “Well, my boy,” the professor will answer, “that was a weapon, in those days.  They called it a ‘rifle.’  You only see them in museums nowadays.  We no longer need weapons.’

The ‘Third Face’:

See, you’ve got three faces.  Your first face is the one you’re born with, the one in the mirror every morning, a touch of your mama in those blue eyes, Papa’s ruddy cheeks and thin lips, or maybe, like me, a set of crooked chops from an ancestor only some fake genealogist could identify.  Your second face is the one you develop thanks to ego, ingenuity, and sensitivity, the one people identify as “you,” laughing at punch lines, downcast when things aren’t going well, exhilarated by passion and success, cold when confusion and fear set in, charming when seduction is part of the battle plan.

Then there’s your third face.  No one ever gets to see that one.  It’ll never show up in any mirror nor be visible to the eyes of parents, lovers, or friends.  It’s the face that no one knows but you.  It’s the real you.  Always privy to your deepest fears, hopes, and desires, your third face can’t lie or be lied to.  I call it my mind mistress, guardian of my secret utopias, bitter disappointment, and noble visions.

From Samuel Fuller’s masterful memoir, A Third Face, quite simply one of the most eloquent and exciting accounts of a life I’ve ever had the fortune of having read.  Fuller was a born story-teller, from his days as a newspaper man to his ups and downs of remaining a true independent in all his years in film.  Most remarkably, however, is the utterly transfixing account of his harrowing journey on the front lines in WWII, his days proudly wearing “The Big Red One”.  An essential document of 20th century American history as far as I’m concerned.  And a masterful display of his inimitable acerbic wit.

Samuel Fuller. A Third Face. New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

Update: The (Possibly) Great Unfinished Films – The Other Side of the Wind

•January 23, 2011 • Leave a Comment

The Other Side of the Wind (1972)

Dir. Orson Welles

Well, I am happy to report at least some semblance of progress on the release of Orson Welles’ great lost film, The Other Side of the Wind, which I did a profile on here.

The Guardian has just reported a development in the potential release of this unfinished masterpiece, and while it is met with some speculation over the potentially opportunistic nature of its completion without the direct participation of the author, the parties involved do seem to agree on its exhibition being of historical importance, and intend to release it with such reverence.  I anxiously await the arrival of this film, and while I’m sure it will be met with a myriad of conflicted opinions on the nature of artistic intent, it will nonetheless another fascinating link in one of the most audacious and revolutionary careers in cinema.

Kieslowski on Kieslowski

•January 20, 2011 • Leave a Comment

On The Double Life of Veronique (1991):

“I don’t film metaphors.  People only read them as metaphors, which is very good.  That’s what I want.  I always want to stir people to something.  It doesn’t matter whether I manage to pull people into the story or inspire them to analyse it.  What is important is that I force them into something or move them in some way.  That’s why I do all this – to make people experience something.  It doesn’t matter if they experience it intellectually or emotionally.  You make films to give people something, to transport them somewhere else and it doesn’t matter if you transport them to a world of intuition or a world of the intellect.”

“Of course I’m playing on emotions.  What else should I play on?  What else is there other than emotions?  What is important?  Only that.  I play on them so that people should hate or love my characters.  I play on them so that people should sympathize with them.  I play on them so that people should want my characters to win if they’re playing a good game.”

On Red (1994):

“There’s something beautiful in the fact that we can give something of ourselves.  But if it turns out that while giving of ourselves we are doing so in order to have a better opinion of ourselves then immediately there’s a blemish on this beauty.  Is this beauty pure?  Or is it always a little marred?”

On just being excessively modest:

“I haven’t got a great talent for films.  Orson Welles, for example, managed to achieve this at the age of twenty-four or twenty-six when he made Citizen Kane, and, with his first film, climbed to the top, to the highest possible peak in cinema.  There are a few films like that.  Citizen Kane will always be in the top ten.  A genius immediately finds his place.  But I’ll need to take all my life to get there and I never will.  I know that perfectly well.  I just keep on going.  And if somebody doesn’t want to or can’t understand that this is a lasting process then obviously he or she will keep saying that everything I do is different, better or worse, from what I’ve done before.  But for me it isn’t better or worse.  It’s all the same only a step further, and, according to my own private scale of values, these are small steps which are taking me nearer to a goal which I’ll never reach anyway.  I haven’t got enough talent.”

Danusia Stok. Kieslowski on Kieslowski.  London, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1993.

The Tree of Life

•December 15, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Sorry I’ve been away for a bit, but here it is folks… Next year’s front-runner, in a nifty two minute package.  My heart is still racing.

Avant-Garde 101

•October 13, 2010 • 3 Comments

(This list began as an e-mail to a good friend of mine, but I figured it would be appropriate for discussion here on this site.  There is quite a lot else to say about this topic, and the films mentioned, so I more than encourage furthering discussion.  In the meantime, here’s a basic overview of an impossibly dense movement known as the avant-garde.  I’m sure to be ashamed of a myriad of exclusions.  Enjoy.)

So I believe that any avant-garde retrospective should clearly begin with one film; not the first, nor the most exploratory, but most certainly the most beloved and well-known, Un Chien Andalou.  So even if you’ve seen it before, once or twelve times, it’s never a bad idea to watch it again, and again, and again.  Jesus, I’ve probably seen this film 10 times at least by now.  It’s just unfailingly good.

(Also on Netflix Instant)

Now that the big boy’s out of the way, let’s fuck some shit up…

Without a doubt in my mind, the greatest experimental filmmaker who ever lived, and quite honestly, one of the greatest of any disposition, would be Stan Brakhage.  You should really make the investment at some point for the Brakhage Criterion sets, they are beyond essential.  So much so that I just purchased the big Vols. 1 and 2 Blu-ray set they released a couple of months back, and sweet jesus are they stunning.  Who knew hand-scratched and painted 8mm would look so vivid and remarkable.  Which brings me back to the point.  Brakhage is best known for a technique he pioneered in, oh, the late 50’s-early 60’s, which involved him taking raw 8mm stock and pasting objects to it, making animations through scratches or carvings, and most successfully, and a career-defining stroke, making moving paintings frame-by-frame on the film stock.  His films offer no easy explanations, and are as pure and visceral as cinema gets, whether it be from his minute-long Mothlight, to the ultimate in ambition with the 75 minute Dog Star Man.  (Personal note: My friend Andrew and I used to stage impromptu live scores to a worn-down VHS copy of Dog Star Man that I rented from the community college media library.  It’s clearly the greatest live-music backdrop in the history of cinema.  And yeah, no music, no sound.  75 minutes of dead silence.)

Brakhage began his career making fairly humble experimental films, often with his wife, peaking with the remarkable and, well, incredibly graphic Window Water Baby Moving, in which he makes a beautiful abstract film around his wife giving birth.  Good luck!

Later on, his career became pretty exclusively dedicated to the painting films, which are just hypnotic spectacles, often burying images so deeply embedded within the frames that it practically becomes a sort of Rorschach test of cinema.  Black Ice is a particular favorite, a devastating film that has a sense of movement like nothing I’ve ever seen before.  If Hitchcock’s Vertigo weren’t so perfect in every way, I would have fantasized about a collaboration with Brakhage.  Brakhage had a sense of movement and falling that would go well beyond any realms of mere illusion.  Nevermind, I’ll fantasize anyway.

Jumping around a bit, let’s go back to the surrealists and the dadaists, shall we?  The great contribution of this movement in cinema, was not only to shake up the mores and conventions of decency, but more successfully a playground for experimentation in movement.  One gets the sense of sheer giddiness of invention that was still present in cinema as an art form.  This kind of unabashed, childlike experimentation only comes at a special moment when the institution and rules have not yet sealed shut, allowing for an audience still thrilled by the mere spectacle itself and a group of filmmakers willing to move a camera in a way that had not been accomplished.  This is my way of building something up that may not inspire much on actual viewing in this day and age; we are so pre-wired to accept this kind of movement that its experimentation does not seem to lead to much besides simple shapes and patterns oscillating on the screen.  Not to mention the fact that it’s being viewed on a computer monitor as we speak.  Nevertheless, while more refined efforts in experimentation of movement still impress greatly, such as Murnau’s Sunrise, one has to at least slightly admire the playfulness that these films by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp have to offer.  They don’t detract from the artists’ true masterstrokes, in photography and painting, respectively, but they point to a movement of pure abandon and (re)invention.

Then there was the mother of the avant-garde, the greatest female poet of the movement, one who devoted her career to an undying appreciation of the body and movement, to dance and to the surreal; Maya Deren. Meshes of the Afternoon, unequivocally her masterpiece, and one of the finest films of any distinction ever made, is a culmination of these obsessions of hers. It takes not only the fine explorations of the movement of the body that embody both ballet and modern dance, but also takes a cue from Un Chien Andalou, in its deeply psychological examination; the self and the mirror of one’s self, carnal desires, and above all else, the ruminations on memory and perception. It’s also delightfully cinematic, an ever-roaming camera just soaking up the architecture, of both the setting and of the person, each little moment being lingered upon, be it the shuffling of feet gracefully up a stairwell, to a cascading water outside a window. The repetition explored in this film has been vastly influential on many a film, as has the eternally
imitated “mirror face” figure. Beyond essential.

Deren’s exploration of movement extended into studies of dance itself, in a uniquely cinematic way. Here’s A Study in Choreography for the Camera.

No discussion of the avant-garde can be complete without Jonas Mekas, a filmmaker important not only for his own, singular works, but perhaps more significantly for his position as a prominent cultivator and ambassador for the avant-garde.  Mekas formed the Filmmaker’s Cinematique, AKA the Anthology Film Archives, one of the most important exhibitors of the avant-garde, even to this very day.  It’s due to Mekas that many of these films have remained in-print and even restored over the years, notably in a recent DVD retrospective, Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde 1894-1941.  His archival work has a great deal to do with this very article, not to mention the widespread availability in which these avant-garde films can be seen, but he was an estimable filmmaker in his own right, a very personal and revealing artist, one who often used his films as personal diaries.  One of his more personal and accomplished films, Walden – Diaries, Notes and Sketches, unfortunately cannot be displayed in its entirety here, but comes off as a whiplash of a film, a poem to the burgeoning avant-garde scenein New York, with all of the key players, and of course, all of the abstraction one would come to expect from the godfather of the movement.

As of late, Mekas has become an even more peculiar figure in the avant-garde, an increasingly exploratory filmmaker who proposed in 2007 a series of 365 films to be released on iTunes, a film a day for a year, and boy oh boy, there’s some wonderfully eccentric doozies in there, including a little piece exploring the Britney Spears head-shaving phenomenon.  A restless spirit indeed.

And who could forget Paris Hilton…

Speaking of restless spirits, seems like as good a time as any to detail very briefly the most fascinating of subjects, Chris Marker.  La Jetee, which I have touched upon on this very site, is my personal favorite of the form, and at the very least one of the defining moments of the avant-garde, both in its perpetual influence and its impact on a larger exposure on the world’s scale of cinema, much to the dismay of many in the movement I’m sure.  However, this does not insinuate a mainstreaming of the form seen in his works, but rather an influence drawn from Marker’s films into the hands of many an artist, which along with the fellow filmmakers of the New Wave, allowed for avant-garde tendencies to pervade the popular culture for a brief moment in film history, for better or worse.  Marker, though, seemed to see this in his work, and being the transient artist he is, has followed an incredibly diverse career over a myriad of media, from film to video to CD-ROM to, incredibly, Second Life.  Like Mekas, Marker seems to embody the avant-garde in his very persona, playing off popular media through the generations, always finding inspiration in the world around them, upholding no greater tradition and feigning no rules.

You can get an idea about his Second Life in this film.  It’s as peculiar as you would imagine.

This list could indeed inevitably go on for pages and pages, so I am now going to briefly touch upon a series of other films vastly important to the contribution of avant-garde cinema.

Hollis Frampton’s (Nostalgia) is a personal favorite of mine, personal filmmaking at its rawest and most poetic, and one that has bored film students for generations now.

Necrology by Standish Lawder.  Best viewed in its intended silence, but this clip infused with Grizzly Bear is longest I could find.  This is the kind of film that just washes over you, hypnotic in its voyeurism.

One of the finest examples of the avant-garde still alive and well today, in the works of filmmaker Bill Morrison.  I’ve touched upon Light is Calling in the past, but certainly the most grand and affecting of his films is the hypnotic Decasia, a feature-length piece of anthropological filmmaking, as well as the history of cinema itself, and the way the medium was inherently temporary by design.  It’s a stunning work, an intense rumination on how film shapes our collective perceptions, and the way the medium was inherently temporary by design.

The avant-garde has certainly over the decades taken a turn towards animation, almost fulfilling the series of experiments conducted by Duchamp in the earlier years, as the exploration of movement is limitless in the form of animation.  On this site, I have detailed a great many of the great experimenters of animation, some fully upholding the “tradition” of the avant-garde (that is, to accept no tradition at all).  In fact, to even touch upon this influence on the world of animation would be to get in way over my head, as the two seem so inextricably tied to one another by now.  However, it is a fascinating path to follow, on the public willingness to accept avant-animation as a popular medium (witness the explorations of the form inherent in Fantasia, or more currently, the rise of Adult Swim and Don Hertzfeldt), but also the near-complete rejection of experimental film in the live-action realm.  Sure, filmmakers like David Lynch, David Cronenberg, and even someone like Ken Russell have successfully popularized avant-garde influences, they are just that, influences.  Certainly the Adult Swim example confirms this tendency of the avant-garde to be accepted in short doses, while a long-form influence seems doomed to alienate its audience.  Perhaps it’s the years of parody that have significantly altered the perception of what avant-garde cinema is intended to explore, surely the true curse attached to anything gracing the mainstream for a time.

Then again, avant-garde cinema also seems to be defined by a certain impenetrable learning curve, a challenge to sit through the most experimental of forms and demanding complete attention in doing so.  It will always thrive in the showcases of film festivals, rewarding the most adventurous of viewers, and guaranteed to infuriate in the process.  This, after all, is the promise of the avant-garde; to ruffle feathers, to shake the conventions to their core.  And, of course, to consistently blur the line… After all is said and done with this article, I haven’t done any better job of defining what the avant-garde is, nor have I intended to do such an incomprehensible thing.  The thing that links these films together is simply a feeling of not being able to define what you’ve just seen, whether you enjoyed the experience or not.  There is no proper genre distinction here, only a cinema of feeling and pure impulse.