May 27, 2015
[This post constitutes me thinking out loud in a forum not as ephemeral as social media. If you want to start a fight, the comments here or elsewhere would not be the place to do it. E-mail me instead.]
In 2008, this scholar Timothy Murray published a book on the “digital baroque,” in which he’s arguing for a Deleuzian connection to early modern aesthetic forms in contemporary art films by Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, and Peter Greenaway, among others. Murray argues that cinema has both helped structure modern perceptions and has simultaneously “folded in on itself” along with other, earlier art forms such as painting. This has led to a shift in cinematic and new media creations toward manic, quasi-mystical meditations that conflate technology and spirituality in a glorious aesthetic mess.
In 2015, there was this Australian/American/Namibian/South African co-production called Mad Max: Fury Road that – in my mind – actually exemplifies what I’m calling the “digital baroque” Maybe one could call it the “21st Century baroque?”
Anyway, this Mad Max film is an absolutely important entry in our contemporary film-theoretical discourse, crossing between media history, nerdy world-building, and socio-political activism without sacrificing its own integrity as a simple production that remains legible to any audience. It stands next to sci-fi works such as Dredd (2012) and Snowpiercer (2013) in this respect…. though we can debate as to how.
It bridges between the paranoid and socially critical sci-fi of the 1970s such as the Parallax View (1974) and Silent Running (1972), the greatest of American and Italian westerns, and the possibilities afforded by digital painting and editing tools. It models rigorous, consequential writing and storyboarding, even though many of the names and visual concepts might very well have come from a 14 year-old boy or girl’s private sketchbook.
I am aware that many posts have been made on Mad Max: Fury Road, especially with regard to its aesthetics and openly feminist social politics. It has been called “the future of pulp.” Our massive data aggregators Google and Twitter have been so bombarded with information about this film made by 70 year-old director George Miller that even they are struggling to keep up with The Conversation about this film. My speculation is that the film is re-opening specific debates that were shut down in the transition between the wild and weird Hollywood experimentations of the 1970s and the blockbuster-formula quests of the 1980s: How much punishment can be dealt to male figures? Is there world-building that transcends the marketing of products? Should women link together into a grand sisterhood with their male allies to fight the heteropatriarchy? Questions, questions.
Or one could frame it like this: Most audiences do not remember or discuss the 1st or 3rd Mad Max films, but rather Road Warrior (1981), which this popular fourth entry most resembles. The first film is filled with male-charged sexual violence in the same way as its predecessor A Boy and His Dog (1975), while the third film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) has been continuously accused of being “clunky” and ambiguous at best. This Australian film series has incited thoughts and discussion about societies of absolute scarcity, but has also received askance looks from the film community for its bizarre qualities. Simply put, Miller has (rightly) turned toward a more “baroque” pulp production aesthetic and unambiguous political program in order to bring the woolly elements of the 1st and 3rd films into the blockbuster formula of the 2nd.
Wikipedia tells us baroque things use “exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur.” Mad Max: Fury Road is a film relentlessly edited and adjusted to fit a lay audience, with frame-rates tweaked on individual shots and careful attention paid to continuity and physics of otherwise utterly ridiculous car creations. Exaggeration and excess pour out of every pore of the skin of this film, but care has been taken that the basics – can I see this character’s eyes? what is happening in this shot? who is in control here? – are not overwhelmed. The gender politics, which have received a well-deserved heap of attention, at least give us a breath of fresh air with regard to the agency and capabilities of specific marginalized groups. (Although don’t get me started on the race politics of the film.)
Such technique is how a film so batshit crazy on so many levels can also seem cool, collected, disciplined. Moreover, Mad Max: Fury Road makes many of its peer genre films seem ponderous, phoned-in, mired in artistic and fiscal conservatism.
How are Dredd and Snowpiercer also related to Mad Max: Fury Road?
Well, for one thing – Hollywood seems less involved in their creation than usual. Dredd is a British / South Africa co-production, Snowpiercer a South Korean / Czech co-production. Such sci-fi films have permitted their directors and crew relative free rein over their resultant content, meaning creative experimentation beyond the Hero’s Journey-driven, Chosen One SFX vehicles that any film budgeted above $150 million usually become. Another aspect would be their direct, careful engagement with the basic tools of filmmaking. These are serious films that do not take themselves as deadly seriously as those of Christopher Nolan or J.J. Abrams, who pride themselves on adding random plot twists to otherwise pat genre narratives. They reference earlier productions without screaming from the hilltops like Tarantino that THEY KNOW EARLIER FILM HISTORY DAMMIT. The lay viewer can “get” the film – and be challenged by it – without previous fan buy-in or loads of film-history background. This is a good thing for a culture genuinely ignorant of such meta-level details and expecting their apps, hotel-room-ordering and video-game tutorials alike to be immediately user-friendly. All three films structure their action around a concrete dystopian scenario that a 5 year-old could get, and then pack them full of immediately persuasive cinematic details. Slo-Mo makes your life like an awesome, colorful music video. There’s an Ax Gang protecting this train. Nux has a V-8 engine tattooed on his chest. The redundancy becomes both necessary and an art form in of itself. Finally, each film offers a genuine digression from dominant paradigms of gender and social representation: Curtis and Edgar can have a queer relationship, Furiosa can be competent in charge, Dredd can sincerely respect his female colleague. Racial and ethnic diversity as found in several of the recent Fast and Furious films has become increasingly visible across these productions, although this area is need of improvement.
So yeah, “baroque” is the word I’ll continue to use and develop.
21st Century baroque?
August 31, 2010
Long live The Guy in the Black Hat.
Three observations I made yesterday:
* Here’s a simple one: the Private sector could not manage to be regularly profitable without the Public sector. A corrupt Public sector hemorrhaging resources (i.e., capital, social, environmental, etc.) in large amounts is the only way we humans seem to be able to drive the large-scale Private sector that would generate the necessary profits to satiate our greed. Think about it. Hollywood is a dirigiste film industry, massively subsidized by assorted forms of federal and state-level assistance (Toby Miller, 2002). Nationalism and other forms of social imaginary generate imagined communities (Benedict Anderson, 1983) that it then re-processes into a system of consumer good distribution across networks. Private 4-year colleges benefit from being near enough to Public graduate universities to have access to its cheap, energetic graduate labor supply. And don’t get me started on Halliburton. Without governments there to round up the aggregate labor and exchange value of a populace, the Private sector might as well stay at the level of small to medium-size businesses. Instead, it is an engine quite clearly propelling us toward the End of Human Civilization.
* I may be destitute since my time abroad, but my ability to write and think has increased volumes since being returned to proximity of the UMass library. Give me a solid research foundation and I’ll live.
* Arcade scores are only three letters because kids can do so much damage with four-letter words.
Daybreakers (Spierig Brothers, US, 2010)
Everyone thought the premise on this movie was golden, let alone fitting for our times: in the near future, vampires have taken over the world, but now they are starving to death due to a lack of human blood to drink. “Society” deteriorates as resources dwindle. We rented it on behalf of several recommendations, as well as Kat’s natural affinity toward vampires. Neither of us were impressed by the film’s utterly predictable narrative, overwrought seriousness, flat acting (except from Willem Defoe), ill-timed and gratuitous gore effects, and disastrously stupid protagonists. I thought Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Sunshine, and a host of other good sci-fi media had moved us into the new era of “clever” protagonists, but apparently there are still some stragglers caught in 1998, including this film.
March 6, 2010
This week has been structured by two parallel visits with DEFA personalities involved in the creation of the studio’s genre films, namely: star Gojko Mitic (pictured at right) and cinematographer Otto Hanisch.
On Tuesday March 2, I attended Mitic’s reading/q&a at the Urania cinema near Nollendorfplatz. The event was in part blatant advertising for the recent DEFA-Stiftung fan book Gesichter der DEFA, and in part a kind of nostalgic service (in the religious sense) for the fans. I was easily the youngest person in the theater, for example, whereas most of the people present were likely from the target demographic of Mitic’s Indianerfilme in the 1960s and 70s: GDR children aged 6-16.
The Serbian star narrated his life for the audience, repeating interview material from the newspapers with almost knife-like precision. The man is a true professional. Nevertheless, the legend proved moving: the moderator confessed that he always wanted to become an Indian while he was growing up (whereas Mitic always wanted to be a sea captain) and Mitic claimed that he always stayed in the GDR out of the tremendous love his fans expressed for him. He continuously returned to the kind of “spiritual socialism” (socialist spiritualism?) expressed in his films, namely utopian thoughts of correcting injustice around the world through culture and combating the greed of capitalism by re-writing history. But the audience was truly moved. Mitic’s speeches were greeted by spontaneous applause, approving laughter and enthusiastic questions. After the lecture was over, the 70-year old actor was mobbed by 40 and 50 year-olds for autographs. I’ve never seen anything like it. Mitic was perhaps the GDR’s only real star after all.
On Thursday, screenwriter Stefan Kolditz (Atkins, Burning Life) was so generous as to bring me to the Berlin apt. of Otto Hanisch, his father’s top cameraman. I had done my homework for the interview, so I knew that Hanisch was a WWII veteran who had survived a sinking submarine and had spent three years in Soviet gulags, before becoming a painter and a cinematographer under the GDR’s genre film directors. I knew he had apprenticed under UFA legends Bruno Mondi (Jud Süß, Das kalte Herz) and Robert Baberske (M, Der Untertan), and had to improvise a great deal to get the DEFA-Indianerfilm to “work” filmically in comparison with international westerns in the 60s. Frankly, I had no idea what he would be like.
It turned out to be a wonderful afternoon. Hanisch and his wife warmly greeted us and invited us to coffee and cake. “What do you want to talk about?” Hanisch asked me. I explained my interest in DEFA genre films and broke out the digital recorder. “Put that away,” he said. “And I’ll show you all my production materials for Spur des Falken and Signale.” Well, I couldn’t pass that deal up, so for the next 3 hours we pored over photos of stuntmen falling off horses and talked about his difficulties in getting the DEFA Indianerfilm genre off the ground, etc. Hanisch openly bore great respect for Gottfried Kolditz (okay, his son was present, but still…), always referring to him as “The Doctor,” and they clearly saw themselves as “Fachmänner” of a sort — expertly trained filmmakers who overcame grave difficulties to create some of the most popular genre entertainment in the GDR, despite little recognition for their work from the government. He complained of the “thin” scripts he received from Dr. Günter Karl, that they then had to convert into compelling stories on a limited budget. He detailed production difficulties in Georgia and Mongolia, but reminded us constantly that his encounters with film professionals from those countries were always cordial. “We all spoke the same language: film.” he remarked. Only interactions with politics and political ramifications in the Cold War seemed in hindsight to be challenges he could’ve done without. “But then at least we got to make films,” he said. “Not like today where it’s very difficult to get work outside of specific networks.” His point is well-taken, especially with what my colleagues at the HFF have said to this effect.
Both Mitic and Hanisch were seen as true experts at what they did, existing in some sphere outside of politics where all that matters is stunts performed and stunts recorded. Is the “stunt” necessarily an apolitical act? I’ll have to muse on this.
Chingachgook, the Great Snake (dir. Richard Groschopp, 1967)
The Last of the Mohicans, except with a happy socialist ending.
President (dir. C.T. Dreyer, 1919)
A masterpiece of silent storytelling by Dreyer, following many of his usual motifs, namely persecution, guilt, and religion. A local judge seeks to do penitence for not marrying his childhood love because he promised his father he would not wed out of the nobility. Even though the improvised piano soundtrack was lacking this time around, there is little damage it could do to a gorgeous print of a compelling film.
The Scout (dir. Konrad Petzold, 1983)
Ever wanted to see a movie about Native American cowboys? Gojko Mitic plays one here: a Nez Perce sent to lead the white men and their horses astray. Shot in Mongolia, this was the film that nearly killed Gojko in a stampede and only made after its original director Gottfried Kolditz died while location scouting in Yugoslavia. No wonder this was the last DEFA Indianerfilm.
Come Drink with Me (dir. King Hu, 1966)
One of the early, pre-Bruce Lee kung fu films that left their mark on action-film posterity. A general’s daughter is sent disguised as a man to rescue her brother from evil bandits, only to be helped by a beggar-kung-fu-master along the way. The constellation of characters and narrative are simple, but effective.
October 17, 2009
This week marked the beginning of our film projects at the HFF Konrad Wolf. The assignment: The approximately 100 incoming students are arbitrarily divided into 10 groups of 10 to shoot a 3-minute feature with only a DV camera + accessories at their disposal. In addition, the students must work in an area that’s different from their Studiengang – cinematography students can’t do camera, acting student can’t act, etc. We were all collectively given the topic for this year’s project of “Was bisher geschah” (“What happened before now”), which understandably gave us a lot of leeway to come up with ideas. Most of the time, creative projects assembled arbitrarily seem to lead to artistic tension and inefficient action. Ours has been quite the opposite: we decided on a great idea within an hour of brainstorming (which I will disclose once the film is completed), everyone kind of naturally settled into their assorted changed-up roles, and production details were quickly arranged. Even the first day of shooting went precisely according to plan and gave us some great starting footage. I’d like to personally thank Alex, Anna, Laura, Maurice, Nick, Burkhart, Cate, Claudio and Veit for such a smooth and entertaining student film experience. If only all productive endeavors ran like this!
Tuesday was something of a “play-date” – we were let loose inside the Studio Babelsberg Filmpark and given tours of the Babelsberg facilities. This was a mixed experience for me. I’ve been working with the legacy of the Babelsberg Studios starting from their genesis under Guido Seeber in 1912 to their Weimar artistic glory to their UFA Nazi heritage to the “totalizing workshop” of the DEFA in East Germany to their purchase by Vivendi and conversion into an international filmmaking prestige location. So on the one hand, I was visiting very sacred ground for me: the origin point of what we consider to be major-league German studio cinema. This is where Murnau developed those fantastic tracking shots in The Last Laugh (1924), Heinz Rühmann flitted about in Feuerzangenbowle (1944), Alfred Hirschmeier developed sets for Silent Star (1960), Herwig Kipping tore apart what remained of the GDR in Land Beyond the Rainbow (1991), and Roman Polanski depicted Nazi-occupied Warsaw in The Pianist (2002). On the other hand, this was all very banal: here’s the building where they keep the props, there’s the television studios, here’s the fake street for some scenes from Sonnenallee (1999), there’s some retired junk from our stunt show, here’s a few Universal Studios-esque rides, there’s some paraphernalia from assorted terrible German co-productions, here’s the wall where they shot part of the Baader-Meinhof Complex (2008), there’s a set of tourists who actually paid the 18 euros to see this stuff. In many ways, the Museum für Film und Fernsehen was far more enticing. Then again, my lack of enchantment might have stemmed from the itinerant hail landing on our heads as we meandered around outside.
On Wednesday night, I had a very nice evening with Sylvia Fischer, a prospective Ph.D. student who must have visited at least half-a-dozen U.S. schools in an effort to literally change her present way of life for the (intellectually) better. We ate at a restaurant in Friedrichshain, a place with which I’m becoming more familiar by the day, and swapped tips about Berlin and U.S. graduate school respectively. I’m always happy to meet up with assorted people in Berlin, and the city fortunately makes it quite easy to do so.
Some more observations:
• The consensus among both German nationals and foreign students is that the StaBi (the Berlin city library) kind of sucks and could be greatly improved in a myriad different ways. Someone oughta form a committee…
• In terms of causing human discomfort, the moist cold of Berlin kicks the butt of the semi-dry cold in Massachusetts hands down, but Iowa in October is still worse than either.
• German waiters are very quick mathematicians (due to their regular dealings with split checks), and probably use much more of their brains than American waiters, whose job is nevertheless much more aggressively about both pleasing the customer and forcing them to leave the establishment.
• Dogs are people here.
Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (dir. Eric Brevig, USA 2008)
Thanks to the formidable resources the HFF Konrad Wolf has placed at our disposal so that we might produce and consume films, I saw this Brendan Fraser adventure flick for free and in glorious 3D. Now our blogs are not yet 3D-image capable, but in this case I wish they were, because this film can only be described in 3D terms. In effect, Eric Brevig (of Xena: Warrior Princess fame) created an almost encyclopedic homage to every major 3D trick in the book, from the “yo-yo in your face” to the “flying water droplets” to the “roller coaster” to the “suspend a floating object against a dramatic backdrop.” Rather than evolving a “new” 3D vocabulary, Brevig seems content to offer a carnivalesque array of 3D attractions nestled in a skeletal, cliché-driven plot designed to get us from one effects sequence to another. In this respect, the movie thoroughly succeeds from an effects angle, and Fraser proves himself as the sympathetic human to whom special-FX-related events always seem to happen.
I am Legend (dir. Francis Lawrence, USA 2007)
This post-apocalyptic film was quite spectacularly bad, but instructively so. The Last Man on Earth (1964) brought us Vincent Price as the doomed hero who would discover he is the villain. The Omega Man (1971) brought us Charlton Heston in a similar idiom, except less adept at the task of acting. But I Am Legend (2007) spins an elaborate escapist post-apocalyptic fantasy in which Will Smith becomes a Christ figure and unequivocally saves humanity with his selfless actions – more analogous to Byron Haskin’s 1953 Christian re-interpretation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds than to either of I Am Legend‘s two predecessor adaptations of the Richard Matheson text. All of the movie’s foregrounding of a decimated Manhattan isle aside, the chief focus is just how virtuous albeit lonely Will Smith is with his dog. I don’t know what to make of it, other than as Hollywood dumping a pile of syrup on an otherwise perfectly serviceable parable about human decadence and then expecting an introspective piano score, edgy mise-èn-scene, and post-Bourne hand-held camera action sequences to convince us this is a serious work espousing something constructive. It isn’t.
Destricted (dir. various, UK 2006)
I watched some of this with Steve Wilson before I left, but the HFF just so happened to have a copy on their shelf so I got to watch the rest. Advertised as “the most controversial and sexually explicit film ever to receive an 18 certificate from the BBFC,” Destricted is a collection of seven short films from acclaimed art-film directors directly exploring pornography and sex in our times. Larry Clark (Kids, Ken Park) provides us with interviews of young men about how they grew up with pornography, and then proceeds to cast a young man paired with a porn-star for some on-camera action. Clark’s film highlights the indexical as well as the audience-performance aspects of pornography. Gaspar Noé’s film (I Stand Alone, Irreversible) is a strobe-heavy exploration of a man sexually assaulting a blow-up doll in his room. Sam Taylor-Wood’s film “Death Valley” is an actor candidly masturbating against the backdrop of, well, Death Valley. Matthew Barney strapped himself naked inside some massive machine and shaped some pottery with his member. Richard Prince distances the audience from a cliché porn flick with Boards of Canada-style ambient music and the fuzzy color distortion that one gets when one crosses film and digital video. Marco Brambilla has a brilliant 2-minute clip of thousands of images from romance and pornography cut together to overload one’s senses with the conventions of the porn industry. Marina Abramovic uses a combination of live action and animation to portray assorted Balkan superstitions involving the genitalia. All in all a worthwhile view, but only if you’ve got the stomach for both the ugly bits and the strobe effects.
Red River (dir. Howard Hawks, USA 1948)
Whoever thinks Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) is the first gay cowboy movie has obviously never set eyes on this classic. In the era when movies seemed to possess a cinematic subconsciousness and deep social subtext (Gilda, Fury, Casablanca, Some Like It Hot all spring to mind), Red River explores the macho manly activities of cattle-herding and trail-blazing from Texas to Missouri, as John Wayne and Montgomery Clift meanwhile develop one of the most bizarre, sexually repressed man-on-man relationships ever to hit the silver screen. I watched it for the clear justifications for American imperialism, but it turned out to be far more entertaining in its subtext than its principle plot.
September 23, 2009
On Saturday, I visited the Museum für Film und Fernsehen in Potsdamer Platz. It is now a place with which I am thoroughly familiar: after 5.5 hours of me poring over every inch of every exhibit, they had to kick me out since they were closing. Of certain interest beyond original documents associated with films I know and love such as Joe May’s Asphalt, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, etc., was a giant wall with nothing but TV screens containing post-war German directors and buttons one could push to see a sampling of their work. I loved it – I was able to get to know one or two new directors and their work in such a short time span! It’s quite clear, however, that the museum is primarily concerned with Marlene Dietrich, her legacy and her estate. They even had the Negerpuppe and the Chinesenpuppe that were featured in Sternberg’s The Blue Angel which she brought around with her for good luck. That’s going into my dissertation somewhere…
On Monday morning, I took a trip down to Potsdam-Babelsberg just to see what it was like. The film school itself blew me away: a giant four building structure encased in a cocoon of glass and bound together with assorted stairwells and catwalks. Of course, I was looking for a bureaucrat in that labyrinth, so I suddenly felt like I was in Brazil or something (don’t you know we imagine in movies now?). I would go up a stairwell and only reach half the offices on a floor, because the others were on the other side of the catwalk. In addition, you can check out films from the library and watch them in these weird little space-age pods that slide around in the lobby…
The only downside to the earlier part of this week? No Fulbright money yet to speak of, no good opportunity to get a Visa until after I register for classes (which I need a Visa to do ironically…), and with no money, little travel in and around the city. This should all change within a week or so, one hopes.
Signale – ein Weltraumabenteuer (1970, dir. Gottfried Kolditz)
I watched this East German stylistic riff on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey late at night in the States, and I don’t remember finishing it then. Since it forms a core part of my dissertation research, I sat through it again and probably will do so once more in the future. Though I am a fan of Gottfried Kolditz and have seen most of his oeuvre, this film is one of his least successful productions by far. The plotline is this: the Ikarus spaceship is hit by an asteroid cluster and his badly damaged, such that the Laika has to mount a rescue mission to save the ship’s crew. I remember East German critics bashing this picture on account of it being a “space adventure without excitement,” and now I fully agree with them. The editing of the film is outright terrible, such that one has little orientation between assorted effects shots and where characters are positioned. And speaking of effects shots – these largely consist of the camera spinning like in 2001 and leaving it to our imagination that we’re in OUTER SPACE. For my dissertation though, the multicultural starship crew is a prime example of what I’m talking about in terms of the establishment of race hierarchies amidst an “equal” set of crew members. It is also interesting that the African-American expatriate Aubrey Pankey turns up as he did in Osceola: The Right Hand of Vengeance, again in a strange bit part.
Whisky mit Wodka (2009, dir. Andreas Dresen)
A thoroughly delightful film that also thoroughly references film history as well as the exigencies of filmmaking. Wolfgang Kohlhaase’s script is elegant in its simplicity: an alcoholic, aging film star Otto Kullberg (Henry Hübchen) proves unreliable in the eyes of the producer, so another actor Arno Runge (Markus Hering) is brought in on the set to shoot all of Kullberg’s scenes right after him in case the celebrity flakes out. Using a similar formula to Grill Point (Halbe Treppe, 2002) or Summer in Berlin (Sommer vorm Balkon, 2005), Dresen latches onto the complicated interpersonal relationships between not two but five main characters (the two actors, two actresses and the director) and explores those relationships to their logical conclusion. It does not matter what film material is used in the final cut – a question posed by the film and never answered – nor should the audience care. There are also some special moments for us East German film scholars in there, as Dresen cites Solo Sunny in a piano riff played by none other than the DEFA composer Günther Fischer, and there are several moments where Runge is asked about being from the East – even though he’s one of the few main actors NOT originally from the East. I felt fortunate to be one of four people in the theater to take it in, since the film isn’t that popular at Potsdamer Platz, apparently.
Read or Die OVAs (2001, dir. Kouji Masunari)
A recklessly paced set of three anime episodes if I ever saw one. Read or Die is part James Bond-style thriller, part superhero film, and part sci-fi: A secret organization associated with the British Library is charged with retrieving a lost Beethoven score before it is used to destroy the world. Fast-paced and drawing a great debt from the grandiose silly action foregrounded in my favorite anime of all, Giant Robo, the Read or Die OVAs are very cleverly staged and executed, with paper-manipulating hero The Paper performing dozens of neat superhero feats on her quest to save the world. My major criticism is, as I said earlier, in the pacing. The first two episodes establish a kind of pattern for what one thinks is a longer series, and then the plot is ramped into overdrive to resolve in the third episode. I’m thinking it was budget-related…