Editor’s note: The following excerpts are taken from “FILM AFTER FILM: Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema?”, a new book written by J. Hoberman and published by Verso Books earlier this month. In the book, the former Village Voice film critic and current ARTINFO contributor addresses the shift from film to digital cinema in the first decade of the new millennium. This first page contains an excerpt from the preface; subsequent pages contain brief essays on individual films that reflect the book’s subject.
Hoberman has curated a screening series to coincide with the book’s release at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. The series begins September 15. For more details about the series, go HERE. To order “FILM AFTER FILM,” go HERE.
It may seem absurd, barely a decade into the millennium, to speak of a distinctly “twenty-first-century cinema.” Despite the universal pre- dilection for organizing trends by decades, it’s obvious that cultural development is neither determined by a timetable nor bound to an arbitrary calendar. And yet, in the case of the cinema there are two—or even two and a half—reasons to consider the possibility that, since 2001, the nature and development of the motion picture medium has become irrevocably altered.
This new situation, which was accompanied by the oft-articulated per- ception that motion pictures, as they had existed in the century following the Lumière brothers’ first demonstration of their cinématographe, had entered a period of irreversible decline, arises from a technological shift in the basic motion picture apparatus—namely, the shift from the photo- graphic to the digital that began tentatively in the 1980s, and gathered momentum from the mid ’90s onward. The digital turn occurred in the midst of and was amplified by pre-millennial jitters, not unlike the fantasy that the world’s computers would crash when the date shifted from December 31, 1999 to January 1, 2000.
The second, more unex- pected and less rational, reason for the new situation occurred barely nine months into the twenty-first century. This was a world-historical happening, namely the events of September 11, 2001. As watched by millions “live” and in heavy rotation on TV—which is to say, as a form of cinema—these events could not help but challenge, mystify, and provoke filmmakers as individuals while, at the same time, dramatizing their medium directly in an impersonal way. No less than “Titanic” or “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy or the saga of “Harry Potter” (and actually, a good deal more so), the events of 9/11 were a show of cinematic might.
This is not to say that twentieth-century cinema no longer exists— even nineteenth-century cinema is with us still. But the digital turn, accompanied by a free-floating anxiety regarding the change in cinema’s essential nature and a cataclysmic jolt out of the clear blue sky that, for the vast majority of the world’s population, was apprehended as a manmade cinematic event, have all combined—perhaps conspired—to create something new. That new thing is the subject of this book.
“LOL” (Joe Swanberg, 2006; USA)
All in their mid twenties, the three male protagonists of, and col- laborators on, Joe Swanberg’s ultra-low-budget, semi-improvised, collectively written satire LOL are more involved with various cyber- relations than with any human at hand. “LOL” maps a system based on cell phones, instant messaging, websites, and YouTube, to suggest a virtual world more compelling than the real one.
The movie’s first shot is of a computer screen with a moving mouse scampering about until it clicks on a link where some boor has posted his girlfriend’s private (albeit suspiciously professional seeming) striptease. As she dances and disrobes, eyes never leaving the camera, Swanberg intercuts close-ups of a half-dozen, notably unattractive young guys home alone and comically transfixed by the performance. Could there be hundreds, even thousands, of them enjoying this secret performance? To add to the embarrassment, one spectator—the aspiring musician Alex (Kevin Brewersdorf)—receives an unexpected visit from his friend Tim (Swanberg) and is nearly caught with his pants down. “Have you ever met any of your internet girlfriends?” Tim will later ask Alex.
Alex is seriously infatuated with an image named Tessa, a feature of the website “Young American Bodies,” to whom he sends regular (unanswered) emails in hopes of arranging a meeting. Chris (C. Mason Wells) argues with his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig)—who is only present in visual or audio recordings, since she is currently living in another city— complaining that the naked pictures she emailed him, at his request, are too “cold.” Tim, who has a flesh-and-blood girlfriend, sits on the couch sending cyber-messages to his buddy over her head and, even in bed keeps one eye on the computer screen in case an email arrives.
While LOL is a form of neo neo-realism, it’s also an attempt to make a contemporary new wave film. Swanberg’s production is characterized by primitive jump cuts and all manner of sub-Godardian sound/image dis- junction. A panicky voicemail message is heard over a montage of faces, email messages function as silent movie intertitles. Alex, the most serious as well as the most deluded of the protagonists, is a musician composing a montage of people making mouth noises—as “if MySpace could sing” per the commentary included on the movie’s DVD release. This reference is only one of the things identifying LOL as a near-instant period piece. Smart phones and Skype for Mac were introduced barely six months after “LOL” was completed. Social networking is primitive. The protago- nists are compelled to use cumbersome email and cell phones—rather than Twitter—to report on the minutiae of lives. Even the notion that Alex compulsively checks his email twenty times an hour seems quaint. Stranded without access to the internet, having gone home with a young woman who doesn’t have a working computer (and only checks her email once a week), he panics. Still hoping to hear from Tessa and failing to get an ancient PC belonging to the girl’s mother online, Alex is forced to call Tim in the middle of the night to get his messages.
Posting on the website PopMatters, Jake Meaney described “LOL” as “an eighty-minute commercial for the pernicious effects of the contradictory bifurcation and conflation of the real and cyber,” making the point that the “proliferation and ubiquity of cell phones, Blackberries, computers et al has done more to drive people apart and garble communication than bring them together and make connections easier.” But Swanberg cele- brates, even as he satirizes the brave new world of cyber-communication. According to ancillary material on the “LOL” DVD, the movie was “born out of ideas batted back and forth via computer, cell phone etc and then filmed in the same manner that people use webcams or their cell phones … but for a few chance non-meetings or unhappy accidents, a much different film could have emerged.” Even the filmmaker’s unflattering self-portrait has a techno utopian component. If he could make this movie, you could too.
“Russian Ark” (Alexander Sokurov, 2002; Russia)
The ultimate trip, a post-2001 space odyssey, Alexander Sokurov’s “Russian Ark” is the longest continuous take in the annals of motion pictures, a single ninety-six-minute tracking shot in which the invis- ible narrator (Sokurov) and a historical figure, the nineteenth-century French Marquis de Custine (Sergey Dreiden), accompany a lively group of dead souls across several centuries and through thirty-three rooms of the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg.
The narrator wonders if this unfolding pageant has been staged for him, as well he might. Some 2,000 costumed actors and extras, including a full symphony orchestra, rehearsed this unparalleled stunt for seven months before it was shot, on high-definition digital video saved to disc on a custom-built hard drive. A participant in the action, Tilman Büttner’s camera peers into windows and swims among the artworks. The terrarium effect is enhanced as people slip and fall on cue, sidling through the slightly wide-angle field of vision. One can only imagine the crazy minuet going on behind the Steadicam. (There were evidently three short false starts, then the entire movie was shot straight through, in late December with only four hours of sufficient daylight.)
A kind of human arabesque, arms folded behind his back, Custine skips and strides through the whispery corridors, recalling his previous visit to the Winter Palace and commenting on the half-baked state of Russian culture. The narrator mildly contradicts—and at times, defen- sively corrects—the caustic marquis’s remarks as they wander together through history’s backstage, glimpsing Peter the Great beating one of his generals and Catherine II watching a performance in rehearsal (and then frantically searching for a pot to piss in).
By its nature “Russian Ark” emphasizes the forward flow of time, yet the movie is blithely anachronistic and slyly a-chronological. The walls are hung with images of frozen tumult. A blind woman—later identi- fied as an angel—explicates a Van Dyck painting of Madonna and child. The marquis meets the Hermitage’s current director and complains that there’s an aroma of formaldehyde. Eluding an attempt to close the museum on them, Custine and the narrator stumble upon a royal pres- entation—emissaries sent by the shah of Persia to apologize to Nicholas I for the murder of some Russian diplomats—and catch sight of Alexander III en famille. When the pair open a forbidden door, a custodial worker reproaches them for treading on the corpses of World War I. (The Nazi siege of Leningrad goes tactfully unmentioned.)
Although the viewer may be only intermittently aware of the ongoing tour de force, “Russian Ark” builds in hypnotic intensity toward a suit- ably mind-boggling finale of the Hermitage’s last royal ball. (Although nominally occurring in 1913, the event follows Custine’s description of a Hermitage ball as a procession “proceeding from one immense hall to another, winding through galleries, crossing the drawing rooms, and tra- versing the whole building in such order or direction as the caprice of the individual who leads may dictate.”) For eight minutes or so, the camera circles around and threads between hundreds of courtiers dancing the mazurka in the huge Nicholas Hall. (The marquis joins in.) Sokurov can be forgiven for the inscribed applause as the last chord sounds in this crescendo and a sense of pleasurably exhausted melancholy descends.
“Everyone can see the future but no one remembers the past,” some- body remarks. In a final flourish, Sokurov’s camera cavorts behind and—coming off the grand staircase—pirouettes ahead to gaze back at the exiting throng, revealing more and more people. History disappears into the Petersburg mist. The long day closes and the long take becomes its own meaning in this dazzling dance to the music of time. The narrator murmurs his farewell to Europe and yet, suddenly nostalgic, the marquis has decided to stay with the revelers. What, besides the movie, is ending? Is it modernism or museum culture, socialism or czarism, authentic Russia or bogus imitative Russia? Is it preservation or transcendence or the end of photographic cinema—which both preserves and transcends?
Does “Russian Ark” embody or derange a “progressive” notion of history? And where does Sokurov’s movie end? Does it leave us on the eve of the October Revolution (after a mysterious flash forward to the “forbidden room” of World War II) or in the Now floating on a digital sea of eternity?
“In Praise of Love” (Jean-Luc Godard, 2001; France)
Jean-Luc Godard’s “In Praise of Love” is tactile yet elusive—its tragic grandeur is as graspable as running water and as shifty as smoke. Like the earliest motion pictures, Godard’s new feature appears like a fact of nature. There’s a narrative—and an argument—but what’s initially moving, and ultimately as well, is the movie’s mournful celebration of its sensuous being.
The images are punctuated by bits of black leader and gnomic interti- tles, the action propelled by sweetly pulverized music and an effortlessly layered soundtrack of enigmatic conversations. Poetry is really the only word for it: “When I think about something, I’m really thinking about something else,” Godard’s protagonist Edgar (Bruno Putzulu) says twice in a film that is forever talking about itself (or its audience).
Not quite a filmmaker, Edgar is auditioning actors for a project that will, he explains, trace the four phases of love (meeting, passion, loss, and recovery) as played by three couples of various ages. This “trinity of stories” may also have something to do with the romance of the French resistance during World War II. There’s a shadowy young woman (Cécile Camp), typically seen with her back to the camera but recognizable by her voice and long hair, to whom Edgar is attracted and whom he seems interested in casting, but when he gets around to asking “her” (as she is known in the credits), he discovers that she is dead. Indeed, the movie’s French title translates as “Elegy for Love.”
There are many things that “In Praise of Love” laments and a few in which it rejoices. The motion picture medium is associated with history and historical memory. Edgar’s associates are concerned that their movie on the French resistance will become a Hollywood substitute for history. The movie itself is in part a sustained immersion in street photography and casual portraiture. It’s been over three decades since Godard last shot a movie on the streets of Paris, and doing so seems to provide him with an elemental pleasure. (According to Godard’s biographer Richard Brody, the filmmaker selected locations for their personal significance but did not personally supervise the shooting; the crew was sent to film without him.) Studied as they are, these unprepossessing, sometimes harsh images of the city and its inhabitants—many of them dispossessed —feel as newly minted as the earliest Lumière brothers’ views; they evoke the thrill of light becoming emulsion. Much of the movie is a voluptuous urban nocturne with particular emphasis on the transitory sensations that were the essence of the first motion pictures.
More specifically, the coordinates of Godard’s free-ranging cinephilia are mapped by his allusions to such modest and personal statements as teenage Samira Makhmalbaf’s docudrama “The Apple,” a movie about twin girls who spent their first eleven years confined to their house, and recently deceased Robert Bresson’s “Pickpocket,” which people trip over a beggar to line up for and which was shot on location in Paris the same summer that Godard made Breathless. At the same time, the industrial simulations of “The Matrix” and particularly “Schindler’s List”—which, in its totalizing re-creation of World War II and the Holocaust—serve as Godard’s prime negative object. America, it’s several times maintained, has no history of its own and hence must appropriate history from others. Europe—visualized as Paris’s timeless “there,” but really a stand-in for Godard’s own cinema—is nearly helpless before this voracious totalitarian appetite. “The Americans are everywhere, aren’t they, sir?” a Vietnamese chambermaid asks Edgar, adding, “Who remembers Vietnam’s resistance?” Resistance, for Godard, is a factor of memory.
Edgar’s project remains unmade; Godard’s is a-chronological (and indeed, having been planned for over four years, required the longest shoot of Godard’s career). The first two-thirds is filmed in an achingly rich black-and-white; then Godard rescues Edgar from his sorrowful stupidity by going back in time for a lengthy coda shot, in luridly over- saturated video, on the Brittany coast. (Reversing the logic of Schindler’s List, Godard represents the past in color and the present in shades of gray.) Edgar, in the midst of composing a cantata for Resistance heroine Simone Weil, pays a visit to a celebrated old Resistance couple who are themselves negotiating to sell their story to the Hollywood company Spielberg Associates. There, by chance, he meets their granddaughter. It is “Her,” encountered for the first time. Or is it again?
I can’t recall another flashback in a Godard feature—his movies have all been resolutely present-tense, and with good reason. The first filmmaker to recognize that cinema’s classic period was over, Godard took film history as a text. But the liberating energy with which his early movies mixed genres and collaged the old has long since been co-opted. The Spielberg Associates scenario has something to do with engaging William Styron to rewrite the Resistance romance as a Tristan and Isolde vehicle for Juliette Binoche. Godard bases his own resistance on another sort of memory. One way to look at In Praise of Love would be as a frag- mentary remake of Jean Cocteau’s “Orphée”—a movie about the attempt to retrieve a lost love that haunts Alphaville and is itself haunted by France’s German occupation. Another way is as a loop or even a film installa- tion—a paradox in that the movie demands to be projected as film.
A movie with a circular structure, “In Praise of Love” is designed so that a memory of the future guides us through the past. Toward the end, events start to decompose into flaming pools of color—an electric blue haze, a golden smear of sun, a blur of traffic—and then pure jumbled light. Since he embarked on his late, painterly period some twenty years ago, Godard has made physically beautiful movies—”Passion” and “Nouvelle Vague” in particular presented themselves as substantial celluloid rivals to the canvases of the old masters. “In Praise of Love” is something else. The old masters here are the impressionists. The image feels as fragile and fleeting as a reverie. This is a movie that disappears before your eyes— leaving only an elegy for itself.
All excerpts used with permission of the publisher. Taken from “FILM AFTER FILM: Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema?”, published by Verso Books. Copyright 2012.