Monday, December 23, 2019

Best Film Criticism in 2019

Just like last year, I'm reminding you that some of the best film criticism you can find is at Cineticle (alas, in Russian only) but since I'm on the editing team there it's not going to be represented in this collection (well, almost). The list is extremely partial, incomplete and may be expanded later on. Also, the pieces here are mentioned for various reasons: some may be excellent criticism, others might offer illuminating research, or present a summary that I found useful for one reason or another.

This year books have been way more satisfying than single articles, so that's where I'm going to start:

  • Breaking the Spell: A History of Anarchist Filmmakers, Videotape Guerrillas, and Digital Ninjas by Christopher Robe (PM Press, 2017)
  • Cruising the Movies: A Sexual Guide to Oldies on TV by Boyd McDonald (Semiotext(e), 2015)
  • Frame by Frame. A Materialist Aesthetics of Animated Cartoons by Hannah Frank (University of California Press, 2019) - available for free download here
  • Green Eyes by Marguerite Duras (Columbia University Press, 1990)
  • Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy: The Genesis of China’s Fifth Generation by Ni Zhen  (Duke University Press Books, 2003)
  • October. No. 169 Annette Michelson: A Special Issue, edited by Rachel Churner and Malcolm Turvey (2019) - availanle for download here
  • On Cinema by Glauber Rocha (I.B.Tauris, 2019)
  • Евгений Марголит. В ожидании ответа. Отечественное кино. Фильмы и их люди (Rosebud Publishing, 2019)
  • Пол Кронин «Вернер Херцог. Путеводитель растерянных. Беседы с Полом Кронином» (Rosebud Publishing, 2019)
  • Сергей Эйзенштейн. Красный Эйзенштейн. Тексты о политике (Common Place, 2017)

Written or published in 2019

  • Some of the most stimulating film criticism I've read this year was from Piges Choisies, Luc Moullet’s review collection translated into English by Srikanth Srinivasan and some others. Check out his own writing there, too. In fact, reading these articles was so enjoyable I even translated one into Russian.
“If you go through the horrible photographs of Pasolini’s corpse’s discovery, there is one, maybe the most horrible, which shows the tortured body, surrounded by some investigators and policemen on their knees. There is a policemen sitting next to Pasolini’s corpse, he smiles. The photo shows it unmistakably: it is a scornful smile, a disdainful smile. This image can be taken as a sample of a worse Italy, one we should refuse, condensed in that black and white image, published at the time on many newspapers’ front pages.”
  • Éditions Macula has recenrly published the collected works of André Bazin. For that occasion, Sabzian are going to publish nine of his texts, both in the original French version and the Dutch and English translations. My choice for now is “Every Film Is a Social Documentary”, originally published in 1947 and translated by Sis Matthé:
“In a sense, cinema can’t lie, and every film can be considered a social documentary. As long as it satisfies the dream needs of the masses, it becomes its own dream. The only objective criterion is success. Any producer who makes a film that pleases has managed to fill the imaginary void in which their film perfectly fits. Commercially, a good producer is one who detects the unexploited dream gaps in the audience and hastens to fill them.” 

The All-Union Creative Conference of Workers in Soviet Cinematography, 1935. First row: V. I. Pudovkin, Sergei Eisenstein, Edward Tissé, and Alexander Dovzhenko. Second row Yuri Raisman, Annette Michelson, et al.

Saab’s curiosity took her well beyond the Arab world, yet she always pursued subjects close to her heart and the causes she maintained solidarity with. La dame de Saigon (1996) is a portrait of Dương Quỳnh Hoa, health minister of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam, a woman who, after having fought the Americans, continued in her struggle outside the Communist Party. “We had the illusion of power, but only the illusion. You don’t really have power,” the sprightly lady replies when asked why she decided to leave institutional politics to continue fighting injustice. No longer young, she continues serving the people through medicine and catering to those who were left behind, even under communist rule. Very much like Hoa, Saab continued fighting to the very end, putting her work in the service of the downtrodden. One of her very last works, the 2017 photographic exhibition One Dollar a Day, exposed the brutality and squalour Syrian refugees are forced to live in, abandoned by the Lebanese government much as the Palestinians have been for the past 70 years, blamed for everything—from unemployment to diseases—and forgotten by most. Not by her, though. Not by Jocelyne Saab.
“The treatment of temporality in The Battle of Algiers is a controversial aspect of the film. Critics have noted the film’s complex sjuzhet but have argued that the film offers ‘an episodic view of history quite alien to the possibility of understanding [history] as an open horizon of possibilities and alternative realities’ (Sainsbury 1971: 7); the film is said to be guilty of an ‘excess of historical teleology’ (Khanna 2006). My own study of The Battle of Algiers, which I have taught for many years and have recently been writing about in a short book (O'Leary 2019), has convinced me that the orders of time that fashion the film are not reducible to the teleological (though that dimension is certainly there, and it is registered, wryly I hope, in the video essay). And so, work on this video essay was intended to capture something of the complexity of the film’s temporalities and to encapsulate something of the viewer’s experience of these.” 
  • My favorite video essay, however, was S/Z by Maksim Selezniov. If you read Russian, do read Dmitriy Bunygin's comment there, the video itself in English is here:
“The initial idea of the essay was simple, even didactic. Something akin to a short lesson to the viewer's eye drawn from the example of a fragment from the classic Lucio Fulci's horror 'Zombi 2'. The iconic scene where, by a strange coincidence, a living dead gets underwater and battles with a shark. A spectacle of a bloody duel where two monsters devour each other, in all fairness, must feel either frightening or disgusting, or at the very least must induce laughter at its trashy absurdity. However, either due to the very feel of shooting a live shark with a stuntman, or because of Fulci’s bizarre directorial manner, the prevailing mood of the fragment is not that of fear or even humor, but rather of tenderness and weird poetry.”

Browsing the archives

“People ignoring cinema in order to have an opinion. People judging before seeing, without seeing. People watching and watching without reflecting. Is it more important to know what we want from cinema or to not know what we want from cinema?”

  • Among the older articles by Celluloid Liberation Front (“this multi-use(r) name, an open reputation informally adopted and shared by a multitude of insurgent cinephies, transmedia terrorists, aesthetic dynamiters and random deviants”) I caught up with this year was this defence of Uwe Boll and indictment of mainstream film criticism:

“Almost unanimous in its condescending dismissal, the respectable response to Boll’s latest film while diligently picking at its many imperfections features itself its own share of amusing nonsense. Suddenly everyone is amazed by the absurdity of the main character’s actions, from his public guerrilla training to his limited range of facial expressions. Since when do action scenes have to be plausible in action movies? Since when does testosterone call for immaculate, heartfelt acting? The most ludicrous reaction of them all though has to be the phoney, moral outrage at the film’s body count. Give us a fucking break for Chuck Norris’ sake!”

Russian and Belarusian language / русскоязычное / беларускамоўнае
“Маргерит Дюрас считала, что ее фильмы следует слушать. Первостепенное значение имеет текст, изображение его лишь дополняет. Существует расхожее мнение, что в ее лентах ничего не происходит. Однако если внимательно вслушаться в звучащий текст, окажется, что событий происходит невероятное множество. Только вот отношение они имеют к миру внутреннему, не внешнему. А внутри таится столько всего, что затмит любой боевик. Кино Дюрас переполнено символами, недомолвками и шифрами. И фильм «Женщина с Ганга», возможно, самый сложноорганизованный, самый многозначный и  для кого-то – самый трудный для восприятия. Во всяком случае, когда смотришь его впервые, еще не погрузившись во вселенную великой писательницы. Попробуем разобраться.”
  • «Кто вы, мистер Альберт? Александр Довженко в документах советских спецслужб.» Части первая и вторая.
  • Голливудская эпопея Трофименкова раздражала меня приблизительно в той же степени, что и радовала (бесконечные разветвления и кое-какие неточности, сомнительность общего посыла), но объём работы внушает уважение, а малыми кусками – замечательное чтение – «Итак, джентльмены, где бабки?»
  • Статьи и книги о Тарковском настолько часто макулатура, что вызывают понятную настороженность. Ту же «7½​, или Фильмы Андрея Тарковского» упомянутой выше Майи Туровской я на дух не переношу, и всё же – «Икона в глубоком космосе» Инны Кушнарёвой. 
  • Архіўныя выпускі Krakatuk Віктара Сямашкі.
Саўндтрэкі 1930-40-ых (ч.1)

гукавыя дарожкі да фільмаў Белдзяржкіно:
- "гістарычна-рэвалюцыйная" стужка "Вогненныя гады" (1939 г.) і "сацыяльная драма" "Сям`я Януш" (1941 г.) з музыкай Аляксея Туранкова;
- "буржазная камэдыя" "Песьня пра дружбу" (1941 г.) з музыкай Самуіла Палонскага;
- нязьдзейсьнены кінасцэнар Янкі Купалы, песьні на словы Пятруся Броўкі ды Кандрата Крапівы;
- аркестроўка фартэпіяннае п`есы Мадэста Мусаргскага "Балет нявылупкаў";
- апрацоўкі фальклёрных сьпеваў і танцаў, у тым ліку "Ой, арол" і "Мікіта";
- "самадзейны хор вёскі Вялікае Падлесьсе Баранавіцкае вобласьці" – будучы Нацыянальны акадэмічны народны хор імя Цітовіча;
- Аркадзь Райкін і Жорж Дудка, клявішнік-ксёндз і інструмэнт-вынаходка, любоўны квадрат і сцэна спакушэньня, алімпіяда й спартакіяда, "рускі ды яўрэйскі шавінізм",
- а таксама пара запісаў з грампласьцінак – "Песьня кузьні" (1929 г.) ды "Калыханка" (1937 г.)

музыка беларускага кіно часоў вайны ды неўзабаве пасьля яе:
- дзьве “Беларускія навэлы” (1943 г.) з музыкай піяніста Аляксея Клумава;
- “Беларускі кінаканцэрт” (1943 г.) зь песьняй на верш Арсенія Таркоўскага;
- “вадэвільная” стужка з чорнага сьпісу “Новы дом” (1947 г.), аздобленая парай Ісакаў – Дунаеўскім ды Любанам;
- фільм-канцэрт “Родныя напевы” (1948 г.) Самуіла Палонскага – канцэртовыя нумары ў рэальных абставінах;
- манумэнтальны эпас “Канстанцін Заслонаў” (1949 г.) з саўндтрэкам Анатоля Багатырова;
- "апальны" Корш-Саблін, Яніна Жаймо – “Папялушка” з Ваўкавыску, Нэйгаўз і Шнітке як адмоўныя пэрсанажы, "кінасахарын", літмантаж, фольк-апрацоўкі, песьні на словы Купалы ды Броўкі,
- а таксама запісы з грампласьцінак – “Бульба” ў выкананьні 1-га беларускага вакальнага квартэту (1936 г.) і “Янка”, сыграны аркестрай Анатоля Бадхена ў студыі пры арцелі Плястмасаў (1952 г.).

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