My first project for Nonfiction is complete! The assignment was a 60-second self-portrait with non-sync video and audio.
Monthly Archives: September 2011
The second in a series of writings on the observational sessions I am conducting for CAMS 270: Nonfiction.
I wanted to observe light last night.
Walking towards the Weitz, I saw the isolated domes of the stained glass windows of the church across the street, lit from within. It was a sweet little surprise, to see these geometric patches of bright color seeming to hang in space, in the supposed-darkness. I went to stand before one of them, in order to contemplate color, but as soon as a came to pause before it in the middle of the street, the light from within was extinguished. The colors quickly changed into darker grey interpretations of themselves, and the all that was left was the skeleton of iron between the panes, and a retinal afterburn of something.
I was surprised that though I had been looking at these colors moments before, I could suddenly remember nothing of where any given ‘color’ had been in the whole brilliantly lit array — had this triangle bit been orange? Was there even much blue in the whole pattern? I wondered then, had I been looking at the colors themselves, or the window as a whole? I thought I had been taking in the window, drinking it in with my vision as I approached, but perhaps I had not been fully. If we ‘see’ a thing, and then it changes unexpectedly before our eyes, how do we continue to see it? We think it is the same thing, in some external sense, a window that I could run forward and tap on, or stoop to take a rock and shatter that glass, but it is not the same in my eyes. Nor in my brain, for that matter, as I struggled to reconcile my just-forming perception of the colored window with the ensuing darkness.
I turned away soon after; I wonder why. We are drawn like moths to light, and are startled and saddened when it leaves us. But I could still see the window; awake, we are never quite without light, even when we close our eyes, and when we dream our minds create an inner light of memory to play across our eyelids. So there was something there to see, still — and perhaps to find beauty or form in these darker places is just as important, if not as easy, just so or more so rewarding. Perhaps I should return tonight, and find the light in stained glass gone dark.
It’s Sigfried Kracauer week in Film Theory! That means reading, among many other things, his classic essay “The Little Shop Girls Go to the Movies”. So far I’m finding that I love his style — it’s hard not to get carried along by the rather impassioned polemic that is played out in powerful prose. And for the most part, I think I agree with some or many of his arguments (let me get back to you on that once I’ve had several class discussions on this past weekend’s reading) — but I am troubled by the gendering of “Little Shop Girls”, particular in its equation of the female spectator with a disparaged and low-brow mode of artistic and cultural reception. Kracauer may be a mighty polemicist, but he’s no feminist.
“In the endless sequence of films, a limited number of typical themes recur again and again”(Kracauer, 294). “Little Shop Girls” is organized around Kracauer’s scathing attacks on these stereotyped film forms he sees as glutting the Weimar cinema, presenting with admirable rhetorical strategies a series of eight typical modes, “textbook cases…subjected to moral casuistry” (Kracauer, 294). One of these examples was particularly fascinating to me, in that it essentially outlines a historical-Germanic version of (500) Days of Summer — that is, Kracauer has written a 1920s description of the infamous Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, in critiquing what he has christened “The Golden Heart”. It’s not too long, so I’m taking the liberty of including it in full:
“A young Berlin wholesaler, an industrious manager of a first-rate company, visits a business friend of his father’s in Vienna; the paternal friend’s firm is going to pieces because of the disorder in Austria. The quest would leave, if it were not for the business friend’s daughter, a sweet Viennese gal who makes it clear to him that there are other things besides management: the waves of the Danube and the wine gardens specializing in new vintages. With delight the young man from Berlin discovers his dormant feelings. He cleans up the company, which will soon be turning a profit again, and gets the gal for home use.—Even without close-ups, this course of events would be believable. Whether in the city of waltz dreams or on the beautiful beaches of the Neckar—someplace, but not here in the present, the rich are falling in love and discovering in the process that they have hearts. It is not true that they are heartless: films refute what life would make one believe. Outside business—which admittedly would not be the right place for heart—their hearts are always in the wrong place. They are brimming with feeling in situations where it is of little consequence and are often unable to do as they like, only because they waste their feelings so uneconomically in private affairs that their supply is continually running out. One needs to have experienced the tenderness and gentleness the young man from Berlin expresses to the Viennese girl under the Stephansturm in order to understand once and for all that his brutal behavior on the telephone does not indicate a lack of sentiment. The camera reveals this. What he really loves is operettas, and what he really longs for is an idyllic retreat in which, undisturbed, he can open his poor heart, which he has had to close off in all other situations. If there were no Viennese woman in the to keep his heart from interfering in economic matters, it could in a pinch, be well accommodated by the record player. Through films, one can prove on a case-by-case basis that with rising prosperity the number of emotional nature preserves is constantly growing. The little shopgirls learn to understand that their brilliant boss is made of gold on the inside as well; they await the day when they can revive a young Berliner with their silly little hearts.”
While this obviously differs a bit in the details, the overall scheme he lays out kept my mind’s eye fixated on a Joseph Gordon-Levitt in lederhosen, who instead of The Smiths “loves operettas” and “really longs for…an idyllic retreat” to the 1920s German equivalent of Ikea. Kracauer’s every invocation of “the little shopgirls” began to look like a long string of aspiring Zooey Deschanels and Kirsten Dunsts and Natalie Portmans.
It is interesting enough in itself to note this evidence of the early genesis of the MPDG trope, but what intrigues me more is the way it is critiqued. These days, Anita Sarkeesian and others in the feminist and/or media blogosphere tend to take the trope to task (along with its perpetuating screenwriters/directors/et al.) for it’s limiting and fairly unrealistic portrayals of women, to the point of arguable misogyny. Kracauer’s position is obviously not in line with this post-third-wave-of-Feminism understanding: his contempt for a female audience that is just as two-dimensional and frivolous as the 1920s-equivalent MPDGs on screen in clear. His contention with the archetypes, while based in a similar understanding of their un-reality, is more largely focused on the economic and class disparities that he sees, distinctions which he highlights at the expense of the equally present gender inequalities and unfair portrayals of “little shopgirls” and the type of women they are looking to on the silver screen.
Like I said, Kracauer isn’t exactly a feminist. But at least he can get riled up about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and her Wimpster, which makes for good reading.
As part of my Nonfiction course, we are currently doing several exercises in observation, miniature studies in perceiving the world that will, hopefully, help us observe and render the world as we perceive it, through the medium of film. Taking our cues from the untutored vision and searches for “the tree with lights in it” of Stan Brakhage and Annie Dillard, we are supposed to look and listen and hopefully have transcendental experiences. This is the first in a series of writings on these observational sessions.
“Find something that is hidden and observe it.”
I am entering the girl’s bathroom on the third floor of Burton residence hall. I am brushing my teeth with the toothpaste on my finger, washing my face with foam from the soap dispenser, drying my face with rough recycled paper towels. I am the only one in the bathroom, alone with the sounds I am making and some room tone, most likely the ventilation. I look in the mirror to assess the level of exhaustion revealed by the strain under my eyes, quiet with myself, and to my left I discover a sound that is persistent, but distinct, not of the over-riding ventilative hum of the linoleumed space, but its own strain of sound waves. At first it is a bit annoying, because it is quiet, but just so as to pick at my attention even as my other senses (or rather, my eyes) are focusing on the mirror. But I look for the source, an exact point, bring my ear close to this spot on the partition and feel the relative volume swell as the distance between me and this hidden sound is traversed with the shifting of my shoulders. At first, I think of it as a buzz. It intrigues me. I stand on my tip toes to bring my ear flush with the source. I feel a tiny push of particles against the top of my earlobe, the movement of space around this border between the sound and its perceiver, the air moving with perhaps the sound itself, or at least some rush of air that is perhaps the reason for the sound, a pent up microcosm of swirling gaseous potential within this wall that is spitting itself out through the tiniest of punctures in the partition. It is no longer a buzz; I give it the word ‘hiss’.
I come back two days later, and stand in the bathroom, leaving the lights off deliberately in order to sense the sound of this hissing wall spot as if I am just a pair of ears. Standing in the center of the room, it is faint, among the other steady noises of the space, among the external bangs and creaks and footfalls and uttered words that pass through the walls from the hall beyond. I go directly to it, listen with my right ear pressed against the wall, turn my head to let the left ear have a turn. The hiss passes through my sensory perception as if subject to a Doppler effect, but one created simply by the slow turning of my own sense of perception in relation to this hissing sound, the constancy of which is growing to be a comfort. There is a story of a Russian cosmonaut who goes into space, alone, and there in the cockpit of his spacecraft, begins to hear a steady clicking noise. It is driving him insane, he tears up the dashboard in search of the origin, hoping to alleviate his growing madness, but he can find no source. Knowing he will be alone with the sound for weeks before his return to the Earth, he is convinced he will go crazy; he will surely die. But then, instead of succumbing to the agony of the sound, he decides to fall in love with it. It becomes the most beautiful sound he has ever heard — it becomes music.
I make this decision from the start. After some minutes with my hiss, I begin to understand that it was not one sound but many; it has a layered quality where different lines take on tonal qualities, one soft high pitched sailing along above a rhythmic central hum, with fluctuating strains of midtones and a bass buzz below. It is a chord, the dynamics of which were subtle and shifting with the slight tilting and turning of my skull beside the cold linoleum wall. I fall, bit by bit, in love with this sound. I do not care that I am uncertain what it is, although a physics major who discovered me in releve with my ear against the wall suggested that it might be electricity or the like. It may be electricity to a scientist, but it is also music hidden in the walls and in the daily workings of our lives.
*Written as part of the Juxtaposition Blogathon at Pussy Goes Grrr!*
I’m going to be a bit of a maverick here, and compare two movies that I have never seen. Or rather: I am going to give way to a juxtaposition of one aspect of the film industry that was made intriguingly obvious to me at several points over the summer.
Living in Brooklyn, I went to quite a number of screenings at BAM Rose Cinemas; we’re talking Midnight in Paris, Tree of Life, Another Earth, Amigo, John Turturro’s Passione… When you go to a lot of screenings at the same small-ish art-house-ish theatre, you start to see the same trailers over and over again in the hushed dim of the pre-feature cinema. I saw the trailer for The Debt half a dozen times, I’m sure, and the one for Contagion a few times as well. But almost invariably, the previews for two new films, Pariah and Gun Hill Road, played, and almost invariably, they played back-to-back. It would probably require possessing the faculties of a lump of concrete in order to fail to notice the connections between the two — the first time I saw them, I wondered (and still do) whether BAM had programed the trailer order as such on purpose.
If you watch the two above, in the same order that I usually did, and the parallels immediately become obvious: each is a drama set in New York City that centers on the conflicts within an ethnic families where the coming-of-age trajectory of one child is failing to adhere to standards of gender and sexuality within their respective cultural communities. The first time you see them together like that, it’s hard not to think — I just saw two different trailers for essentially the same movie. I’ve done a little extra-textual reading about the films, but for the purposes of this comparison, I want to stick with what we get in the roughly two minutes of each trailer, alone, because in a Surrealistic way, that was the manner in which the sewing machine and umbrella were placed on the operating table before me. Beyond this, the way that movies are presented or marketed, especially ones about similarly highly-charged subject matter, speaks very directly to the politics and discourses surrounding the way we are approaching the media itself and the content of that media.
In Pariah, we see Alike, a high school-aged African American girl living in Brooklyn (surmised from the look of the bus she is riding as the trailer opens, confirmed by the Focus Features website about the film…), a budding poet and a lesbian whose discovery of her sexuality brings her into conflict with her parents. In Gun Hill Road, we see Michael, a high school-aged Latino boy (?) living in the Bronx (Z train! …could technically be Brooklyn, but this is also confirmed online and fits with some of the typical ideas of where certain ethnicities have tended to settle within the Five Boroughs…), a dancer in a club and a trans-(something — we, like Michael’s potential hook-up, miss exactly what he says) whose assertion of his womanhood brings him into conflict with his parents. At core, two films of the Other within the Other, the sexual minority within the racial minority, further facing generational opposition and struggling for what makes one a self.
Beyond these broader thematic similarities, a few other aspects strike me in particular. The structure of each trailer turns on a sort of revelatory early dinner conversation in each family, where one parent asks their child about going to a certain event that is tied through cultural construction to ‘correct’ gender presentation, Alike’s mother nagging her about who she is going with to homecoming and Michael’s father asking him why he doesn’t want to go to a baseball game with him. Both Alike and Michael reject these suggestions with a declaration of their desire not to go, creating within the arc of each trailer a genesis of conflict, or at least the revelation of the already brewing oppositional forces within each film. The choice to represent this in both with a dinner conversation, allows the center of the ethnic family, the domestic space, to be interrupted with each sudden tension over traditional gender-normative activities.
Each trailer is also strung together with shots of transformations in each young person’s appearance — we first see Alike riding a bus, removing a doo-rag and other masculine garments, presumably in preparation to return home, and later her mother laments the fact that Alike never wants to wear what her mother has selected for her, as she stands before her parents in a pink cardigan, looking ready to die and pleading “This isn’t me.” In any number of mirror shots, Michael applies make-up and does his hair, puts on dresses and skirts, as his father asks about sports and whether he likes school, later to be confronted for his failed masculinity.
Each trailer is also structured to lead up to a moment of violence, a miniature climax within the two-minute presentation of the film — in Gun Hill Road, Michael’s father brutally cuts off his son’s gorgeous locks, and in Pariah, a shouting match between Alike’s parents is followed by a cut to her flying out of her home, kicking garbage cans and releasing her anger and frustration.
While the parallels (including the metaphorical loneliness and isolation of late-night NYC public transportation) abound, the distinctions may be most telling — the primary conflict in each film seems to rest between the parent and child of the same (biological) gender, while the other parent, Alike’s father or Michael’s mother, seems more a tenuous but weakened ally to their child, the parent who can escape from taking their child’s gender ‘failure’ as a personal affront to their own self. As Michael’s father tells his friend, it’s not Michael’s life, it’s his — each trailer reveals a strong thematic concern with the relationship between a parent and the child they want to teach to be like them, to craft in their own image. Which makes it all the harder, of course, when these children are coming of age only to find that they cannot craft themselves into the very images that society and their respective parents would have for them.
The absence of specific words about gender and sexuality is itself conspicuous — we never hear the word lesbian, and Michael’s one moment of naming his self as trans must be translated (or only so through a failed translation) by another who doesn’t hear and consequently does not fully repeat the title Michael has given himself. In both trailers, the term “man” is heard, repeatedly (and more so than “woman”) — in Pariah, Alike’s mother screams “Your daughter is turning into a damn man!” at her husband, and in Gun Hill Road, Michael’s father confronts him by saying “Talk to me like a man! I didn’t raise you to be like that”. Are these films primarily concerned with the struggles of their young protagonists, or do they deal more broadly with the anxieties of masculinity in these strongly gendered ethnic communities?
I think this is where the themes and plotlines of the two pieces begin to part ways — while Gun Hill Road (or at least its trailer…) privileges the character of the father, and his relationship with his son and his son’s sexuality and gender identity, Pariah is really about Alike. We see this in something as simple and obvious as who we see first, and whose voice we hear first: Alike appears, and we hear her reading her poetry, and we see and hear Michael’s father speaking to his parole officer before we ever see Michael himself. And the moment of violence that creates each trailer’s climax is similarly acted by these character focal points, Alike and Michael’s father.
So when we begin to tease apart these two seemingly equatable dramas, I think we discover that they are in fact about very different facets of the same complicated world of gender, sexuality, race, and class. Gun Hill Road is clearly a meditation on machismo, but is Pariah about being female (and lesbian), or does it simply echo the concerns about masculinity that exist in the other trailer? Does Alike seem to be a more central and stronger character because she, as a lesbian, is shifting along a spectrum from that which is feminized to that which is masculine (while Michael clearly shifts in the opposite direction)? (I realize that sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same thing, and are distinct facets of an individual, but the film seems to be working within a framework that attaches masculine presentation with at least Alike’s own brand of lesbianism.) That is — even in the consideration of two films that clearly give voice to the stories of young sexual Others in the 21st century, a democratic and socially just and plain-old compelling set of stories, are we not perhaps faced with some proof of this tricky, tricky embedded privileging of that which is male as strong, that which is female as weak?
The answers to these questions will undoubtedly find the seeds of their answers in the ultimate actual viewing of the full films, which I look forward to doing come winter, when Pariah is released (and when I can finally see Gun Hill Road, since Northfield is devoid of independent cinemas) — perhaps even juxtaposed, back to back, just like their trailers.
As I have mentioned, I am now back at the lovely (yet irritatingly cold!) Carleton College, and as classes began on Monday, I entered this week thinking I knew exactly what shape my academics would take for the term: Film History I, Cinema Studies Topics Seminar (aka Film Theory), Graphic Design, and Working with Gender, a history/women’s-and-gender-studies course on the history/gender politics of labor in the U.S. But on Wednesday, on my way to leading a discussion of Eisenstein’s Beyond the Shot in my theory seminar, I was reminded by some fellow CAMS majors that the Nonfiction I production course exists. My reaction: how on EARTH did I forget/overlook/muddle-headedly ignore what is probably the most appropriate class of all classes EVER for me, the aspiring theory-headed-feminist-experimentalist-documentarist??? The only issue was that Nonfiction shares the same class time as Working with Gender, and I was kind of loathe to take four CAMS classes in a term (also known as overloading here at Carleton, a prospect that was beginning to seem less appealing by the day). After some serious pondering/discussion/inspirational discovery that I might know what my comps will actually be, I decided to drop Working with Gender (and Graphic Design, for good measure) for Nonfiction. Phew. It was a crazy day. (This was Wednesday.)
And after yesterday, I am convinced it is the best decision I have made in years.
What I love about Carleton CAMS is the attempt to marry theory and practice, as someone who is themselves constantly torn between the fascination and appeal of both areas of the discipline. So even in a production class we have readings and screenings and incredibly engaging discussions, and in this class in particular, our new and wonderful visiting professor, Laska Jimsen, seems already to be facilitating such a bridging of production and contemplation in a way that is totally exciting to me. Our first assignment is a 60-second non-sync audio/visual portrait of ourselves, so in yesterday’s class, we touched on the good, the bad, and the ugly potential roles that social media plays in our lives. (Which makes me mildly self-conscious about blogging regarding the discussion, since we were working from an article that totally eschewed the theoretically life-sucking qualities of ‘teh internetz’…) Then, working from the first major reading, we traced the historical trajectory/roots of the connections between autobiography and documentary, from the avant-garde of Brakhage/Conner/Mekas/all the guys who were kicking around at my recent place of employment, Anthology Film Archives, to the mid-century reactionism against ethnographic and Otherizing documentary that maintained pretenses of objectivity and non-interventions, to the self-reflexivity of the European cinema of Godard and the rest of the French New Wave. And then we watched some Brakhage (The Stars Are Beautiful).
BEST. CLASS. EVER.
On top of all that, we got to watch Sherman’s March about an hour and a half later, in the brand new Weitz Cinema! I’ve been meaning to watch this Ross McElwee film for quite some time; you know you are in the right class when the first screening is something incredibly high on your Netflix queue.
I am currently in the [slow] process of unpacking everything that I own and settling into my room in Memorial Hall. In doing so, I have come across two flash-drives, ancient but still functional relics of my high school and very-early college writings, academic work, and even, lo, film-making efforts.
Like anyone, I find it rather surreal to be re-reading things that I penned (or typed) so many years ago, watching bits of film I crafted or perusing half-finished screenplays I abandoned. It’s like meeting yourself from the past all over again, cringing at the ferocity of your tweenage angst or the frequency with which you referenced Catcher in the Rye in all of your poems, remembering that you were quite the rap-writing enthusiast back in the day, and re-discovering how you tried to sell yourself in prose to the college you are now attending. Most of the things I have encountered this afternoon are probably of little interest to anyone but me, but I’d like to share a couple of them here.
When you apply to Carleton (or at least when I did, so many falls ago), you are asked to answer several supplementary questions in addition to submitting your Common App essay. This was one of the questions.
Do you have a tentative (or firm) career plan (or dream)? Please describe it.
In my heart of hearts, I would like to make films. I want to capture human relationships and emotions and mix them together in just the right way so as to make people stop and think and perhaps behave a little more humanely to one another. This is definitely more of a tentative dream than a firm career plan, but nonetheless, film is a powerful and glamorous medium, and I am drawn to it.
I think that somewhere between leaving home and arriving at Carleton and beginning to discover that theory exists, the person who said this got a little lost. I’m rather thrilled to find this proof of my own passion, almost objective in its feeling of having been written not by the me of today, but about the me that will always be in love with the cinematic. And to have my 17-year-old self quietly and boldly remind my 21-year-old self that we must be humane, and that art can humanize us, and that is within my power — that strikes me.
For one of the later questions, I had also written two responses and labeled one as “Director’s Cut” and the other as “For Release in Theatres”. This amuses me immensely, but even more, it echoes this sense of a historical inclination to film that I am encountering in my digging through my own past.
I also found something that I have been looking for since the beginning of this summer, the first little experimental film that I made during Fall Term of my sophomore year, as a part of the illustrious Profesore John Schott’s Avant-Garde Film and Video course.
It is based, roughly on the e.e. cummings poem “a total stranger one black day”:
a total stranger one black day
knocked living the hell out of me
who found forgiveness hard because
my (as it happened) self he was
but now that fiend and i are such
immortal friends the other’s each
I don’t claim to be proud of it, but I find it interesting in its first-ness: a rather sketchy imitation of Brakhage and shades of Deren, an overly dramatic banter with the ability of Final Cut Pro to overlay many many layers of video of varying opacity, but an earnest attempt to create a sort of cinepoem, to strive for what Deren suggests is the greatest form of the film, the vertical communication that defies narrative and allows the interplay of image and suggestion and light to create a psychological space. The imagistic relationship between the poem and the film continues to intrigue me.
And so, the artist that the me of today is becoming has communed with the person that the artistically-inclined me of the past was intending to be; how very different and yet the same our conceptions may have been and are.
Well, that was a summer.
I know it’s been a while since I’ve written, but my silence itself speaks to the extent to which I was devoting myself to non-blogging activities in my last few weeks as a New Yorker. Now that I am back at Carleton, it all seems a little too far and too near, at once an immediate dream that no one else can quite share or remember. Fall invariably brings questions about the break between two school years. How do you sum up a summer?
Here’s the standard answer I’ve been giving: “Summer was great, I was living in Brooklyn, I made a movie and a half.” This seems to be sufficiently satisfying as far as quick but interesting replies can be expected to go — because we ask this question, for the most part, out of convention. Does everyone who passes and says “How was your summer?” really want to hear about all the amazing screenings I went to at Anthology, and the array of interesting people and places I delivered programs or films or secret messages to on Anthology’s behalf, and the hours and hours and hours I spent syncing footage from a surveillance camera-based video installation in Chelsea, and the gallons of water I drank and then immediately sweated out within the confines of the set for Men With Arms, and the documentary on that very movie that I have been trying to collect enough raw material for? Probably not. Don’t get me wrong — at Carleton, I have SO many friends who genuinely would love to hear all about this stuff, and about whose summers I would similarly sit and listen for many an enthralled hour. This is a wonderful thing about the school I get to go to, and the people who go here, too.
But conversational conventions exist, and it’s good to be able to ask and answer the summer question in less devoted situations, like passing on the sidewalk to Burton or standing side by side in line for some sort of tofu dish at Wild Thymes. It just makes me think about how I am processing the summer for myself. When I ask myself that question, can I really yet put words — or rather, the right words — to the dizzying array of experiences that came at me? The palpable shifts in what I think and how I think and, perhaps, who I am or intend to be in this world?
In having about four days off before classes begin, I’ve been doing my best to do nothing. This has proven, as might be expected, pretty impossible, especially for someone like me. But perhaps when I tell myself that I ought to be doing nothing, I am simply fumbling for a way to remind myself that as I make this fairly significant transition from a year of transience to a foreseeable nine months of permanence — relative, yet pregnant with possibility — I should make some room in my mind and heart to simply allow for the processing that the question invites.
Tomorrow morning, as part of my grand scheme to do “nothing”, I will be riding either a metric or a English Standard century in the Jesse James Bike Tour. I haven’t decided which yet, but either way, I’ll have a good solid several hours to simply spin between cornfields and let my brain play passenger to the motion of my bike and my body across miles and miles. So if you’ve already asked me how my summer was, it’s not that I didn’t give an honest answer. Just ask me again tomorrow afternoon, and you may get a different one.