Jacques Tati - Playtime (1967)

In an article titled "The Death of Hulot" originally published in Sight & Sound in 1983, film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum gave Jacques Tati's Playtime its most apt description: "the masterpiece that wrecked his career."

A decade in the making and, at the time, the most expensive film ever made in France, Playtime is indeed a cinematic masterpiece, and it indeed ruined Tati financially. He would go on to make two more films, Trafic (1972) and Parade (1974), but neither would come close to touching the achievement of Playtime and its simple, yet profound, observations of human life in the increasingly alienating modern world.

Of course, it is impossible to fully appreciate Playtime without having seen the two films that preceded it, M. Hulot's Holiday (1953), which introduced audiences to Tati's near-silent screen clown Monsieur Hulot, and Mon Oncle (1958), which used Hulot as a peripheral character in a study of two competing worlds, the old and the new. Tati and his cinematic alter-ego, Hulot, were both firmly rooted in the old world, symbolized in Hulot's pleasantly rough working-class neighborhood.

Playtime is borne directly out of Mon Oncle, with the difference being that there is no longer a competition between the two worlds: The old has lost, and the realm of sterile modernization--of synthetic black chairs, glass and steel skyscrapers, and glossy waxed floors--has prevailed. The only time glimpses of the old world we catch in Playtime are literally dim reflections in glass doors and windows. The rest of Paris has been subsumed by mindless progress and has devolved into an alien, but strikingly recognizable futuristic cityscape.

Of course, the Paris in Playime has never really existed. Built almost entirely on studio lots at great expense, the Paris we see here is a projection, Tati's imagination of the worst possible outcome of modernization in which all remnants of the old--the fully human--have been wiped away in the pursuit of cleanliness, order, and convenience. For Tati, this meant the erasure of all that was wonderful about humanity, and he literalizes this in the film by filling the distant background of his shots with cardboard stand-ins for people that don't do anything except take up space.

Like M. Hulot's Holiday and Mon Oncle, Playtime has no real plot to speak of. Tati simply follows his hero, Monsieur Hulot--always recongizable in the crowd with his pleasantly goofy stride and signature raincoat, hat, umbrella, and argyle socks--over the course of a day in Paris. He is ostensibly there to make an appointment in an office building, but it never comes about because of a series of misadventures and accidents. He ends up running into some old friends, and eventually winds up in a polished high-class restaurant that is the epitome of posh blandness.

In Playtime, we can see Tati's signature visual style reach the apotheosis of its subtle creativity. Few directors have ever reached the venerable auteur status with so few films to their credit (Tati only directly six features in his lifetime), yet few directors have been so unique and consistent in their cinematic vision as Tati. Playtime is composed almost entirely of static long and medium shots--there is not a single close-up to be found, and when the camera moves, it is usually a short dolly. Tati doesn't draw attention to any one thing in the frame because there is always more than one thing going on (this is why his films demand multiple viewings).

Playtime is by far his most complex work in terms of mis en scene. This was Tati's first use of widescreen, and he made the most of it, shooting the film in 70mm, the scope and detail of which gave him that much more of a canvas on which to work. His compositions are exquisite, deftly capturing the modern world and the people in it. There is no main character here; Hulot moves through the action, but he is rarely the center of attention. Rather, Tati's camera is fascinated by interactions--interactions among people, interactions between people and their environment, and even interactions among various parts of the environment itself.

Tati constructs the modern world as nearly monochromatic--most of the architecture is glass and cold steel, but even the interiors are bland and gray, from the office building, to the restaurant, to his friend's apartment. It seems that what bothers Tati the most about modernism is the lack of contrast, the uniformity of the world. This is perhaps best realized in a throwaway sequence in a travel agency, where the posters on the wall advertise trips to Mexico, Hawaii, and Stockholm, yet each poster features a picture of an interchangeable glass office building. The modern disdain for the ancient is best represented in a scene in a shopping mall in which reproducible remnants of ancient Greece are turned in kitschy garage cans.

Tati keeps the film rolling with his unique brand of comedy, which by this point he had fine-tuned to a near-perfect art. Tati's comedy is constructed of timing and composition. He doesn't guide the viewer to the joke, but rather lets him find it for himself. Tati is also fond of running gags, such as the doorman who continues to hold out a door handle and act as though he is opening a plate-glass door even though Hulot broke it. There are moments of great hilarity scattered throughout Playtime, but mostly you just marvel at Tati's invention and audacity. Playtime is certainly a masterpiece, and it can only be said that it is a shame that it wrecked Tati's career.

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at 12:33 PM  

Robert Smithson - Spiral Jetty (1970)

This film, made by the artist Robert Smithson, is a poetic and process minded film depicting a "portrait" of his renouned earth work -- The Spiral Jetty, as it juts into the shallows off the shore of Utah's Great Salt Lake. A voice-over by Smithson reveals the evolution of the Spiral Jetty. Sequences filmed in a natural history museum are integrated into the film featuring prehistoric relics that illustrate themes central to Smithson's work. A one minute section is filmed by Nancy Holt for inclusion in the film as Smithson wanted Holt to shoot the "earth's history". This idea came from a quote Smithson found ..."the earth's history seems at times like a story recorded in a book, each page of which is torn into small pieces. Many of the pages and some of the pieces of each page are missing". Smithson and Holt drove to the Great Notch Quarry in New Jersey, where he found a facing about 20 feet high. He climbed to the top and threw handfuls of ripped pages from books and magazines over the edge of the facing as Holt filmed it.

Smithson stated:
"Back in New York, the urban desert, I contacted Bob Fiore and Barbara Jarvis and asked them to help me put my movie together. The movie began as a set of disconnections, a bramble of stabilized fragments taken from things obscure and fluid, ingredients trapped in a succession of frames, a stream of viscosities both still and moving. And the movie editor, bending over such a chaos of "takes" resembles a paleontoligist sorting out glimpses of a world not yet together, a land that has yet to come to completion, a span of time unfinished, a spaceless limbo on some spiral reels. Film strips hung from the cutter's rack, bits and pieces of Utah, out-takes overexposed and underexposed, masses of impenetrable material. The sun, the spiral, the salt buried in lengths of footage. Everything about movies and moviemaking is archaic and crude. One is transported by this Archeozoic medium into the earliest known geological eras. The movie becomes a "time machine" that transforms trucks into dinosaurs."

The film recapitulates the scale of the Spiral Jetty. Disparate elements assume a coherence. Unlikely places and things were stuck between sections of film that show a stretch of dirt road rushing to and from the actual site in Utah. A road that goes forward and backward between things and places that are elsewhere. You might even say that the road is nowhere in particular. The disjunction operating between reality and film drives one into a sense of cosmic rupture.

As I looked at the site, it reverberated out to the horizons only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear a quake. A dormant earthquake spread into the fluttering stillness, into a spinning sensation without movement. This site was a rotary that enclosed itself in an immense roundness. From that gyrating space emerged the possibility of the Spiral Jetty. No ideas, no concepts, no systems, no structures, no abstractions could hold themselves together in the actuality of that evidence. My dialectics of site and nonsite whirled into an indeterminate state, where solid and liquid lost themselves in each other. It was as if the lake became the edge of the sun, a boiling curve, an explosion rising into a fiery prominence. Matter collapsing into the lake mirrored in the shape of a spiral. No sense wondering about classifications and categories, there were none."

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at 8:05 PM  

Gordon Matta-Clark - Fresh Kill(1972), Day's End(1975), Clockshower(1973) & Tree Dance(1971)

Gordon Matta-Clark's artistic project was a radical investigation of architecture, deconstruction, space, and urban environments. Dating from 1971 to 1977, his most prolific and vital period, his film and video works include documents of major pieces in New York, Paris and Antwerp, and are focused on three areas: performances and recycling pieces; space and texture works; and his building cuts.

Fresh Kill 1972, 12:56 min, color, sound, 16 mm film
This film records the complete process of the destruction of Matta-Clark's truck (which he called "Herman Meydag") by a bulldozer in a rubbish dump. Part of 98.5, a compilation of films by Ed Baynard, George Schneemar and Charles Simons, this piece was shown in Documenta 5 in Kassel, Germany.
Camera: Burt Spielvogel, Rudy Burkhardt. Producer: Holly Solomon, Burt Spielvogel.

Day's End 1975, 23:10 min, color, silent, Super 8 film
In May 1972, Matta-Clark worked on an abandoned pier in New York for two months, where he cut sections of the door, floor, and roof.
Camera: Betsy Susler.

Clockshower 1973, 13:50 min, color, silent, 16 mm film
In this film of one of his most daring performances, Matta-Clark climbed to the top of the Clocktower in New York and washed, shaved and brushed his teeth while suspended over the streets in front of the huge clockface.

Tree Dance 1971, 9:32 min, b&w, silent, 16 mm film
For the exhibition Twenty-Six by Twenty Six at the Vassar College of Art Gallery in Poughkeepsie, New York, Matta-Clark created a performance inspired by spring fertility rituals. He performed in a structure made of ladders, ropes and other materials, which he built at the top of a large tree.

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at 7:59 PM  

Jørgen Leth - The Perfect Human / Det Perfekte Menneske (1967)

"Look, the perfect human moving in a room. The perfect human can move in a room. The room is boundless and radiant with light. It is an empty room. Here are no boundaries. Here is nothing."

Portrait of Jørgen Leth in English.

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at 1:58 PM  

Juan Downey - The Looking Glass (1981)

"Shot in London, France, New York and Spain, The Looking Glass is a multilayered essay whose visual complexity parallels its subject: the meaning of reflections, illusions and mirrors in Western art, culture and life. In his analysis of the rich iconography of the mirror in painting, including Van Eyck's Arnolfini wedding portrait, Holbein's Ambassadors, and Velasquez's Las Meninas, Downey reflects on the psychological tension in the relation of the artist, the subjects of the painting, and the viewer beyond. Exploring perceptions of pictorial space, he uses computer graphics to diagram art historian Leo Steinberg's analysis of perspectival systems in Las Meninas, a painting Steinberg refers to as "a mirror of consciousness" in which the "viewer partakes of an infinity that is psychological." In a subjective illustration of the mirror as a reflection of the subconscious, Downey recalls his own experience of viewing Las Meninas as a young man in Madrid, when he immersed himself in the "Baroque space of the picture, in a total art experience... similar to orgasm." The Looking Glass is the first part of Downey's The Thinking Eye series."

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at 12:58 PM  

Jon Jost - Speaking Directly (1973)

"Speaking Directly is an essay-film making for a kind of State of the Nation address, from the perspective of someone other than the President of the United States, circa 1972-4. This film addresses both the political and cultural situation of the US at the height of the Viet Nam war, Watergate and its aftermath, and likewise addresses the personal life, in this context, of the filmmaker, at that time thirty years of age, recently out of two plus years in federal prison for refusal to accept military service."

"I can think of no other film like it. As a radical critique of American in the early 70's it is as essential a document, in a way, as the collectively made Winter Soldier... although the experiences it bears witness to are distinctly different (Jost was imprisoned in Federal custody from March 1965 through June 1967 for draft resistance.)"

"Far and away the most inspired feature by the tenacious US independent Jon Jost, Speaking Directly is a reflexive film about Jost's attempt to make a reflexive film during the Vietnam War. Despite its importance, the movie has surfaced here only rarely during the decade since it was made."

"In the history of the American avant-garde, Speaking Directly stands as a remarkable achievement: between the currents of pure cinema and "committed" documentary/fiction, it asserts a deliberate primitivism, a return to the ideological roots of American radicalism. As such, it also bears comparison with Godard's Le Gai Savoir, another discourse on method which refuses to take for granted what we think we know."

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at 12:53 PM  

Peter Greenaway - 4 American Composers: Cage, Glass, Monk, Ashley (1983)

Based on London performances under the aegis of the New York/Almeida Festival, this set of four one-hour documentaries, originally produced in 1983, introduced these avant-garde composers and their music to general British audiences. It is a tribute to the filmmakers' accomplishment (and a sorry comment on how we honor our own prophets) that the set provides no less valuable an introduction for American audiences a full decade later.

These videos merit viewing not simply for exporting the avant-garde to a general public, but for explaining it-or, rather, for letting the composers explain themselves. Compared to Meredith Monk and Robert Ashley, John Cage and Philip Glass are household names, yet their relative fame frequently turns on the persistence of misconceptions. All too often, even scholars who might be expected to know better portray Cage as either charlatan or nihilist. Critics in the 1980s tagged Glass's music as "classical music for people who don't like classical music," suggesting his shrewd exploitation of the yuppie market. Director Peter Greenaway and producer Revel Guest weave representative musical excerpts with interviews to present the personalities more accurately, and, in so doing, establishes a broader context for listening. Perhaps the most striking revelation of these documentaries is that such notorious iconoclasts are so soft-spoken in person (compared to the shy, halting Ashley, the loquacious Monk seems downright assertive).

Fans of Peter Greenaway will be disappointed (and his detractors relieved) that here, whether from documentary restraint or simple budgetary restrictions, he largely subordinates idiosyncrasies found in his other film work to the rhythms and forms of the live performances. A Music Circus, a seventieth-birthday celebration, features twelve Cage works performed within two hours, often overlapping, and thus motivates a kaleidoscopic assortment of brief snippets; the Philip Glass Ensemble's visually static performance inspires more prolonged swaths of uninterrupted music. Monk's cinematic approach to staging and choreography ("all the cinema language is how I think in terms of theater") and Ashley's video conception of his opera Perfect Lives more directly shape approaches to the filming of their work.

Of course, Greenaway is never the entirely invisible observer; he occasionally finds opportunities to assert his own style. These range from rapid, rhythmic intercutting images of the sound sources used in Cage's works, such as "27 sounds manufactured in a kitchen," to the slow-motion close-ups of Glass nodding cues to his ensemble. Most openly individualistic are the interviews with Ashley and his collaborators, in which they appear simultaneously in one or more on-screen video monitors, filmed from different angles and at different magnifications, and intercut with typescript title cards to underscore selected words and phrases. Though clearly modeled on a technique used in Ashley's opera, the result is unmistakably Greenaway.

At its best, the interplay of sound and image strikingly illuminates each composer's philosophy. Puzzling over the quirky, even bizarre choreography in Monk's Turtle Dreams (1983), which expresses the "pre-World War III anxiety" of contemporary urban life, we hear her explain: "It's like little templates or something, like little evocative nuggets, little psychic triggers. And it's all these little moments of explosion within this very formal, very abstract form that, in a way, you could look at and you could say it doesn't have any idea or content." Likewise, as we see musicians intently performing Cage's indeterminacies, we hear his account of orchestral shenanigans during 1958 performances, and his realization that he had to "find a way to let people be free without becoming foolish, so that their freedom will make them noble."

Occasionally, key information almost slips by unnoticed, as when Glass observes that "the whole development of popular music over the last ten years has been very helpful to us." One longs here for a narrator to emphasize that, thanks to commercial pop music's trends in the 1970s toward static harmonies and ubiquitous synthesizers, minimalism's popular appeal was neither a birthright nor an achievement, but genuinely thrust upon it (as Glass notes dryly, "It's not music with clearly populist intentions."). Of course, some contexts were unknowable at the time: although some of the images in Ashley's video opera strongly resemble rock video clichés, 1990s viewers must recall that the 1983 Perfect Lives immediately predates the rise of MTV.

Inevitably, the contexts provided in a one-hour format are tightly circumscribed. With Cage and Monk, we do acquire some sense of stylistic development. A Music Circus incorporates works from 1940 to 1979, and rather than follow a chance arrangement in performance, Greenaway and Guest present them chronologically. Although Monk's musical and stage works are presented in a more flexible ordering, her film works 16mm Earrings (1966), Quarry (1976), and Ellis Island (1981) do appear in sequence. But other than a quick excerpt from Music in similar motion (1969), the Glass segment includes only his work from about 1983, and the Ashley segment presents only Perfect Lives. Therefore, viewers for whom any of these documentaries provide a first encounter will have to turn to other media to build a fuller sense of the composers' outputs, especially in relation to contemporaneous developments in music and the visual arts. Nevertheless, the filmmakers' skillful integration of image, music, and text, especially in some of Greenaway's more subtle visual puns and symbols, as when the Cage segment begins with what appears to be the slow-motion demolition of a church-which, in fact, turns out to be its renovation, will reward viewers of all backgrounds.

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at 12:22 PM  

Chris Marker - La Jetée (1962)

First; if you've written me about an invite for karagarga after this post, you should have received one, if not; write me again.

The survivors of a destroyed Paris in the aftermath of World War III, live underground in the Palais de Chaillot galleries. They research time travel, hoping to send someone back to before the devastating war to recover food, medicine, or energy for the present, "to summon the past and future to the aid of the present". The traveler is a male prisoner, his vague but obsessive childhood memory of witnessing a woman (Hélène Chatelain) during a violent incident on the main terminal ("The Jetty") at Orly Airport is used as the key to his journey back in time. He is thrown back to the past again and again. He repeatedly meets and speaks to the woman who was present at the terminal. After his successful passages to the past, the experimenters attempt to send him into the deep future. In a brief meeting with the technologically advanced people of the future, he is given a power unit sufficient to regenerate his own destroyed society. On his return, he is cast aside by his imprisoners to die. Before he can be executed, he is contacted by the people of the future, who offer to help him escape to their time, but he asks to be returned to his childhood. He is returned and finds the violent incident he partially witnessed as a child was his own death as an adult.

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at 5:12 PM  

Jem Cohen - Free

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at 11:54 AM  

Vít Klusák - Ceský sen aka Czech Dream (2004)

Czech Dream is a documentary about a grand scale practical joke played on the Czech people by two student film makers. They pretend to be home-grown entrepreneurs opening a new discount hypermarket, named "Cesky Sen", and they launch a slick advertising campaign (funded in the main by the Czech Ministry of Culture) to advertise this non-existent retail outlet. Posters, flyers, jingles and TV ads all lure several thousand people to a meadow for the opening of the hypermarket. Needless to say, some people weren't best pleased when they found out that the front of the building was just a large billboard with nothing behind it except grass. The film goes behind the scenes of the advertising campaign and the opening of the shopping centre and presents itself on one level as a critique of consumerism, but on another as a satire of the Czech government's desire to persuade it's citizens to join the E.U. (the prospect of which the film makers clearly are not enamoured with). The film makers sneer at the "sheep" who walk through a field to find that their aspirations of emulating a Western European consumerist lifestyle are, both symbolically and literally, flawed. However their point was made at the expense of making fools out of several thousand people, many of whom were elderly, poor and handicapped. An interesting and unusual film which exposes the power of advertising and mocks consumer capitalism.

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at 11:41 PM