Thursday, 11 December 2008

Yet another definition

Auteur…it’s a word halfway between amateur and autocrat.”

from Overheard at The Auteurs

Friday, 28 November 2008

Viral replication: Virgil Widrich's Copy Shop

I spent some of my happiest hours in some of my most formative years working in a photocopy and print shop, at the same time as pondering questions of originality and copying as part of PhD research into notions of authorship. So, for me, a truly must-see film was Austrian filmmaker Virgil Widrich 's dizzyingly virtuosic Copy Shop (2001). This film 'consists of nearly 18,000 photocopied digital frames, which are animated and filmed with a 35mm camera' (see the 'Making of Copy Shop' HERE). Its full-length version is quite widely available as part of the Cinema 16: European Short Films (2006) DVD.

Below is the little essay about Copy Shop reproduced on its website. Along with the video interview with Widrich embedded beneath it, it's an interesting example of what I call (following Timothy Corrigan's conceptualisation of the extra-textual notion of cinematic authorship - 'the commerce of auteurism') 'Directing Cinema' discourse, the phenomenon by which the director (or the 'ghost director' - i.e. a film marketing department) attempts to 'direct' (us) before, during, and (as here) after the film's production.

Identity and the cinema
Cinema enables the viewer to adopt an "alter-ago" for a while, safe in the knowledge that, no matter what happens, the film will be over at some point. This alter-ego can "slip into" one or more of the characters on the screen. In movies, identification is usually achieved by using "subjective shots" so that the viewer sees what the character "sees", thus merging with the character. A sequence of this kind usually looks like this:
A) Objective shot: The character looks past the camera

B) Subjective shot: The camera shows what the character sees

C) Objective shot: The character reacts to what he/she has seen

"Copy Shop" takes this a step further: the viewer is identified with a character, who then proceeds to lose his own identity.

1. Objective = Subjective
In the cinema, one important rule must be adhered to so that the viewer registers the change from an objective to a subjective angle, at least subconsciously: the difference between objective and subjective angles is that the one watching must never be directly visible in a subjective shot. In "Copy Shop" this rule is deliberately broken. The same shot is used first as an objective angle, and again later as a subjective angle, i.e. the same perspective can be perceived by different observers. For example: At the beginning of the story "we" (objective shot) see Alfred Kager wake up and go into the bathroom.

In a later scene "we" (objective shot) see Alfred Kager standing in the bathroom looking into the bedroom. "We" see what Alfred Kager "sees", and for this exactly the same shot is used as was used at the beginning: a doppelgänger, who looks like Alfred Kager, is lying in bed (subjective shot), wakes up and goes into the bathroom.

In a still later scene, when there are already three Alfred Kagers, the objective view of Kager standing in the bathroom and looking, which has already been seen, becomes the subjective view of Kager observing a doppelgänger standing in the bathroom, who is in turn watching, in a kind of subordinate subjective shot, as a further doppelgänger lies in bed, wakes up and goes into the bathroom. The first two thirds of the film give the viewer time to come to grips with the game. As long as the viewer knows who is "who", it is also perfectly clear to him/her which of the identical characters is the real Alfred Kager. It is not until the final third that the film gathers speed to such a degree that the identifications become confused.

2. The frame as a copy of the original
"Copy Shop" shows a protagonist fighting for his originality as an individual. But in "Copy Shop" not even the frames are originals; they are only copies. This is done not only to express the fact that the cinema copy is the usual kind of copy for movie theatres, but also that the frames are really and truly "copies" in the literal sense of the word. The technical realization of "Copy Shop" involved the transfer of every single frame from the digital video tape into the computer once the shooting had been finished, from where the frames were printed out on a black and white laser printer and then filmed again with a 35mm animation camera. Thus video becomes paper, paper becomes film and the story of "Copy Shop" is brought to life again "copy by copy".

3. Cinema as a copier
"Copy Shop" is about a copy centre, in other words about the duplication of single pictures which are whisked through machines (in this case copiers) at ever increasing speed. The speed of this duplication, which rises to 24 frames a second in the course of the story, represents an acoustic and optical correlation to the related process of a film projector’s operation. Kager, the hero of "Copy Shop", fights not only against his doppelgängers, but above all against the pictures that they copy and thus against the film in which he is forever entrapped.

Thanks a lot to Joanna Kerr for telling me about this film. And thanks to Virgil Widrich, its brilliant director.

Incidentally, the new Cinema 16 - World Short Films (2008) has just been released.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Headless auteurism! Lucrecia Martel in London

La mujer sin cabeza/The Headless Woman director Lucretia Martel and producers Pedro and Agustín Almodóvar at the film's North American premiere at the 46th New York Film Festival, October 6, 2008

Sorry it's been a little too quiet round here again, this month. Next Tuesday (nasty cold permitting) I am due to give a paper at a Screen Medias and Cultures Research seminar in Cambridge, and I've been hard at work on it beyond cyberspace, along with fulfilling some other commitments (book reviews and suchlike; plus other blogging, of course).

I will be talking about the 'experience of auteurism' in contemporary film culture, and Pedro Almodóvar will be my principal example. In this paper, it's important to talk about a director I love, as experiences of 'director love' (alongside auteur desire, as Dana Polan so wonderfully called it) are precisely what I am looking at. I am sure to write more about this topic here, after the talk.

Next to Almodóvar, the other director whose work I love -- more than most others, at any rate -- is the Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel, and next week I will finally get to see her new film La mujer sin cabeza/The Headless Woman which will have its UK premiere as part of the seventh annual Discovering Latin America Film Festival. Martel will be at the screening at the Tate Modern's Starr Auditorium (or 'the filmwomb', as I like to think of it).

Martel's latest film has inspired both utter devotion and ridicule (see Peter Bradshaw's article on it for today's Guardian Film Blog: 'How I lost my head for The Headless Woman'). It also seems to have provoked, albeit on a much smaller scale, the kind of polite but frenzied attempts to nail down its central enigmas unwitnessed since Michael Haneke's Caché deliberately foxed many a metropolitan-elite film audience a few years ago.

If you've seen the film, or if, like me, you are impatient to experience it, then you might like to read by far the best English language film review of The Headless Woman of the many I've read: that by Michael J. Anderson for his great weblog Tativille (one of the best websites out there for elegantly written and judicious film criticism, by Anderson and his partner Lisa K. Broad - thanks to Sergio Dias-Branco for his original tip, way back when, to check Tativille out).

If you are just regularly curious, below is the trailer for the film (sorry not to have been able to locate a version with English subtitles). Hasta la vista.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

'Antonioni: Extreme Aesthete of the Real'

A quiet month at Directing Cinema draws to a close (quiet here at the blog at least; noisier with the book, thankfully). But I wanted mark a chilly, damp beginning to Autumn in East Sussex with a warm and sunny recommendation for an article by a friend and former colleague of mine: James S. Williams, Professor of Modern French Literature and Film at Royal Holloway, University of London. James Williams has written on major authors and filmmakers such as Marguerite Duras, Albert Camus, Jean-Luc Godard, Roland Barthes, Jean Cocteau, Cyril Collard and Claire Denis.

Williams has just had an article on a non-francophone director published in the 50th anniversary issue of the journal Film Quarterly (Fall Issue 2008, Vol. 62, No. 1, pp. 46-57). It's available online if you have a subscription or JSTOR (etc) access. The article is entitled 'The Rhythms of Life: An Appreciation of Michelangelo Antonioni, Extreme Aesthete of the Real'. The abstract reads as follows:
This essay assesses Antonioni’s oeuvre in its totality, focusing in particular on its constant negotiation of two extremes: documentary and melodrama. The essay argues that Antonioni’s is a visionary project which, by achieving a genuine encounter between art and technology, extends an earlier tradition of the European avant-garde. [hyperlinks added]

What I think is especially valuable about this essay is that it treats Antonioni's film techniques, across all of his work, in much more detail than most other studies (and, certainly, than all other studies I have read of academic article length). It manages to make, as many other works do, plenty of interesting observations about Antonioni's themes, but it does not subordinate an exploration of formal aesthetics in the process: its focus remains assuredly and insightfully on how Antonioni’s techniques 'resensitize us to the world' [p. 53]

Williams notes that Antonioni's 'highly ambivalent aesthetic attitude to documentary reality was already visible at the beginning of his career':

Despite Antonioni’s deep concerns about scientific logic and any objective representation of reality, in purely formal terms his work is always defined by a clear tension between what I would call on the one hand a documentary impulse, and on the other a drive towards fiction pushed at times to the level of melodrama.

[...] however hollowed-out and experimental Antonioni’s works become, they always constitute fictions since they present characters in artificial situations. As Antonioni himself put it, his primary interest lies in the moment when the context or environment suddenly takes on “relief.” Which is to say, his hybrid narratives marked by temporal disjunction, disorientation, black holes, ellipses, and a lack of resolution serve to provide just enough justification for human figuration, however “unnaturally” heightened and stylized, to take hold. This recourse to melodrama, broadly defined, offered Antonioni a means of shortcircuiting and sculpting the Real in slowed-down, distended form in order to capture it as a series of tableaux vivants. [p. 50]

Williams' article is especially good, I feel, on Antonioni's deployment of melodrama in the interests of 'an exploration of the processes of human perception and modern subjectivity':

Alert to the tensions in the spatiotemporal relations between people, objects, and events, the director must, according to Antonioni, engage with a “special reality” and be “committed morally in some way.” What this means in practice is dedramatizing the narrative event in order to focus attention on the physical context that both makes it possible but also eludes it. Antonioni propels his protagonists into new or alien environments, and we follow them almost ethnographically as they develop new perceptual powers in order to negotiate their changed conditions'. [p. 52]

In a section of the article entitled 'A New Techno-Aesthetic?', an insightful connection is made between Antonioni's melodramatic techniques and what fellow Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, in his famous essay, 'Cinema of Poetry', called Antonioni's free indirect subjective [p. 55 - see Patrick Keating's useful article online HERE for a good discussion of Pasolini's essay).

I'm not teaching about Antonioni's films to students at the moment, but, if I were, Williams' beautifully written and gloriously illustrated essay would be top of the class-reading list. Please don't just take my inevitably biased word for it: take a proper look at it yourselves.

Other online resources I have used previously in teaching about this Italian director are given below.

HERE's a link to the excellent bibliography of materials on Michelangelo Antonioni provided by the UC Berkeley Library.

And below are some links to other, good, online articles:

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Mike Figgis blogging

I am very much enjoying following British film director Mike Figgis's guest blog for Film in Focus (the Faber & Faber film site). Catch it while you can.

Figgis's company website - - is also worth a visit. And while we're in the linking business, here's Figgis's commercial showreel (via QuickTime). Boy oh boy, can you can read his signature there...

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Mamet on directing film

Short but good Bloomberg interview with David Mamet (Night Talk, July 2006)

On of my favourite writers on film directing is film director David Mamet. He's not my favourite film director, but his short, insightful and peppery book On Directing Film is a very good read and, along the way, argues for the 'objectivity' of film directing; it's a kind of self-help guide cum film-school-degree-zero.

Here are some of the key snippets from that book on what Mamet thinks that film directors (should) do:

‘The main questions a director must answer are:

  • “where do I put the camera?”and “what do I tell the actors?; and a subsequent question, “what’s the scene about?”'
  • (On Directing Film, p. 1)
  • ‘The work of the director is the work of constructing the shot list from the script.
  • The work on the set is nothing. All you have to do on set is stay awake, follow your plans, help the actors be simple, and keep your sense of humour. The film is directed in the making of the shot list.
  • The work on the set is simply to record what has been chosen to be recorded. It is the plan that makes the movie.’
  • (On Directing Film, p. 5)
  • ‘It is always up to you to decide whether you are going to tell the story through a juxtaposition of shots or whether you are not.
  • It’s not always up to you to decide whether or not that process is going to be interesting.
  • Any real technique is going to be based on things within your control. Anything that is not based on things within your control is not a real technique.'
  • (On Directing Film, p. 103)

Mamet has also made a film about filmmaking: the wonderful State and Main (USA, 2000). Here's the trailer:

Posted on YouTube (link HERE) by lidiablogspot on May 8, 2008

[See also Matt Zoller Seitz, 'From the short stack: David Mamet on the Steadicam', on the great The House Next Door blog]

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Good Directing: The Dark Knight 2

The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, USA, 1942)

My series of discussions of 'good directing' continues today, as promised, with my drawing on VF Perkins' article 'Moments of Choice', first published in The Movie, no. 58 (Orbis Publishing, 1981) and republished online (link HERE) by the Australian film journal Rouge (issue no. 9, 2006).

I do this because it's hard to begin discussing good directing in relation to a particular film without a detailed sense, in advance, of what the potential components of a good directorial performance might be. One of the best, and certainly the most detailed, senses of this, I believe, can be derived from Perkins' subtle understanding of mise en scène as the complex film texture (my phrase) that emerges from many 'moments of [directorial] choice' (his phrase).

I will begin by snippeting (in their original order) what I think that 'Moments of Choice' sets out as the component parts of fine film directing in classic, 1930s-50s Hollywood films - 'Old Hollywood', as Perkins refers to it below.

[Just to contextualise the first snippet in my list, Perkins opens his article with a remarkable discourse on Orson Welles's expensive choice to build a set for The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) 'inside the largest available refrigeration plant', showing the lengths to which some Hollywood directors went in achieving their 'vision'. He concludes that passage with this next sentence.]
  • "The very breath of an actor can be made significant when the director places it in an expressive relationship with the other aspects of the scene."
  • "[D]irecting a film is always about making choices of this kind – hundreds of them every day and at every stage in the translation from script to screen."
  • "Many of the choices are matters of craft. The director works to make the scenes vivid and varied, so as to achieve an arresting presentation of the characters and their story."
  • "The most promising script, judiciously cast, will still fall flat if the director is unable to get all the elements of the production working together – either in harmony or in lively contrast – so that the end result flows when it is played to an audience. If it does not work on the screen, we are likely to think that there was not much of a story or that the performances were lacking. But often the fault lies in the director’s inability to find a style that brings the material convincingly to life. Just as often, it is the director who should take the credit for our belief that we have seen a credible and forceful story with colourful and engaging characterisation."
  • "Old Hollywood was well aware how much its product stood to gain, as entertainment, from a style that rendered its drama effectively and made it look, move and sound as if it had a sense of direction."
  • "[Old Hollywood] expected directors to be capable production managers and to complete their work on time, on budget and without major damage to studio morale. But it also valued and rewarded the ability to control performance, image and editing so as to create moods and viewpoints through which the story could persuade and grip the audience."
  • "Physical aspects of production like décor and dress can help the actors to feel themselves into their roles. But the detail of performance that brings the characters to life – movement, gesture, intonation, rhythm – has to be established on the set. Here the director’s job is, particularly, to hold each and every moment of performance within a vision of the scene as a whole so that the impact and effectiveness of today’s scene is not achieved at the expense of what was filmed last week or what remains to be shot. The continuity of the end product is, most often, an impression that has to be constructed and protected in spite of the radically discontinuous method of shooting."
  • "The pacing of a scene may seem just right in itself, but how will it look when the audience reaches it halfway through the film? Directors work in the knowledge that nothing is right ‘in itself’ but only in relation to the developing design. Balance and proportion are crucial."
  • "[I]n movies everything is designed to be filtered through the eye of the camera and remade in the patterns created on the cutting bench. [...] The camera’s frame and the editor’s scissors provide the means whereby the director carves a particular path through the world constructed on the set. [...]Selection and sequence are the keys to viewpoint that the director controls. [...] Cutting and camera movement are both means through which direction shifts and manipulates viewpoint."
  • "[T]he expansiveness of a film style is so much a matter of balance, of what happens when you put together, in a particular way, a posture, a facial expression, an off-screen voice and a camera viewpoint. At the very centre of the director’s job is this task of co-ordination. Direction works with the various talents of highly skilled artists to ensure their contributions meet in a coherent design."
I would further summarise Perkins' points as follows. Fine film directing in 'old' Hollywood involved:
1. Taking responsibility for 'expressive relationships'

2. Achieving the 'vivid and varied' presentation of characters, scenes, and story as part of the translation from script to screen

3. Getting the end result to 'flow' when presented to an audience; including taking responsibility for the appropriate shifting and manipulating of spectatorial viewpoint, as well as for the 'developing design' -- the pacing, balance, and continuity -- of the end product as a whole.
4. Ensuring that the contribution of all the creative participants in filmmaking meet in this coherent design, thus achieving, in the final product, a style which, amongst other things, might give a particular film a rich sense of direction.
On this final matter of style, in the last part of his essay Perkins draws an interesting distinction between the full directorial achievement of ‘style’ and that of ‘manner’, as follows:
Many directors seem to have lived quite happily within these prescriptions [those of 'the classic ['Old Hollywood'] approach which valued formal design only so long as it supported the spectator’s involvement, understanding, pleasure and belief in the narrative' and in which 'quite strict notions of what was appropriate were in play'], being ready to exert their skills within a range of genres to achieve effective versions of the accepted manner. The limitation of such adaptable know-how was that it would seldom carry a film beyond the qualities of the package originally handed down by the studio. A movie directed by, say, Michael Curtiz would be neither more nor less than the sum of its carefully blended ingredients. Sometimes that was enough. It is no mean praise to say that Casablanca (1942) was as good as its script and cast.
But it is probably fair to claim that Curtiz’s best films achieve a dramatically effective manner, rather than a style. The various elements of the film are harnessed only to a reliable judgement of what will make the story work. More is possible. The films of Ophuls, Ray and Sirk, among others, are there to demonstrate how, with no sacrifice of movie-craft, the director can bind the movie together in a design that offers a more personal and detailed conception of the story’s significance, embodying an experience of the world and a viewpoint both considered and felt. At this point, manner becomes style.
Personally, I don't think it is possible to 'quantify', or indeed to 'qualify', very good, Hollywood, film directing any better than this.
In my next post in this series, I will turn my attention fully to Christopher Nolan's direction of The Dark Knight, and ask some questions of it, including the following:
  • Will Perkins' thoughts, which were very much intended to be contextually specific (referring to the classic Hollywood years), help us to discern the extent of directorial achievement in Nolan's contemporary Hollywood work?
  • Will they help us know what to do with an interesting issue raised by Len Esten (of the Illiterary Fiction blog?) in his comment about my first post on The Dark Knight: what of those moments where films seem deliberately to choose not to be 'vivid and varied' but, indeed, to be potentially ponderous and verbose (e.g. the 'psychiatrist sequence' near the end of Hitchcock's Psycho [USA 1960])?
  • Do we need to have lots of information about the production process in order to apply Perkins' insights about 'moments of choice'? Or can his insights be applied retroactively, the choices, and thus their 'directorial quality', 'read' off the resulting texture of the finished film?

In the meantime, please feel encouraged to comment about these and other questions on this topic.

© 2008 Catherine Grant

P.S. There's an insightful and beautifully written blog post -- entitled Good Manners -- on television authorship and mise-en-scène (in particular relation to Kim Manners' direction of fifty or so The X Files episodes) by Sergio Dias-Branco, my very talented friend and former colleague in Film Studies at the University of Kent, the first of several upcoming posts by him on this important topic.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Ye Olde Movies About Movies Blog-a-Thon

Just discovered that the rather fantastic goatdogblog held a (now so over) movies about movies blogathon. 28 films were written about, from the 1930s to the present day, ranging across lots of different national cinemas.

Plenty of films you'd expect to see in the list, including Mulholland Dr., King Kong (1933), Be Kind Rewind, and La Nuit américaine (also see HERE); and some I hadn't come across before: Babae sa Bubungang Lata (Woman on a Tin Roof) (Mario O'Hara, 1998), and Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers) (Guru Dutt, 1959).

Please visit goatdogblog for all the links to entries. I look forward to reading them, belatedly, and also to expanding my most active blogroll, as a result, over at Film Studies For Free.

My upcoming post about - On Good Directing: The Dark Knight 2 (see 1)- should be ready in the next couple of days (it's a little bit of a b l o c k b u s t e r).

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Humberto Solás Dies

Sadly, the great Cuban film director Humberto Solás died from cancer on September 17th, aged 66.

There's a great and touching obituary by Latin-American film scholar and fellow filmmaker Michael Chanan in today's Guardian newspaper (online link HERE). For anyone who wants to know more about Solás's film work, including his wonderful 1968 film Lucía, there's a good study by Peter Rist (Concordia University, Montréal) for the Canadian online journal Offscreen (Volume 10, Issue 2 (February 28, 2006), accessible HERE.

In his obituary of the Cuban filmmaker, Chanan writes of Lucía:

Lucía was a tour de force: three episodes in three different cinematic styles about three women, each called Lucía, set during three different moments in Cuba's history. Lucía 1895 is shot in a histrionic style, influenced by the Italian director Luchino Visconti, replete with the extraordinary image of naked black liberation fighters riding out to meet the Spanish cavalry. Lucía 1933 turns to Hollywood models and adopts the more sedate style of domestic melodrama by Cukor or Kazan, while Lucía 196? takes on the hue of the nouvelle vague

Here's a (sadly unsubtitled) YouTube video of some sequences from Lucía, posted by videotrading on August 06, 2006. The video gives some sense of Lucía's radical form.

And, finally, here's a wonderful YouTube video of a Cuban television segment, posted by cedecom in July of this year, in which Solás talks about cinema and his career, including his turn in latter years to digital technology. Apologies, but it's also unsubtitled.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Good-looking new book and article on auteurism

I'll return very soon to The Dark Knight, but a little narcissistic 'aside' first: isn't it always the way that, when you are very near to finally 'pronouncing' on a topic, in print, you discover that someone else has just pipped you to it... The good thing about this, almost inevitable, pre-completion phenomenon is that the researcher who publishes the later tome will have the undoubted benefit of being able to bounce off the work and the insights that others have laboured long and hard over. In my previous experience, it's usually been a highly productive authorial circumstance, as I'm sure it will be in the instance of it I'm about to describe.

My own book on contemporary global film directing practices and auteurism (Directing Cinema: The New Auteurism, for Manchester University Press) should come out next year. This project, which is obviously very closely connected in its topic to the Directing Cinema weblog, builds on my already published work on this topic over the last ten years, in particular my article for the millennial issue of the journal Screen (2000 41 (1). pp. 101-108), called '' (links to some online versions of this earlier work can be found HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE).

Anyway, all of this is why I was probably more interested than many film researchers -- not to say more anxious than most! -- to hear of one new academic book, and one new, peer-reviewed article, which focus, respectively, on Western European and Spanish forms of auteurism. I look forward to reviewing both these items, on this blog and elsewhere, in due course, once I've studied them properly (Maule's book is hopefully on its way to me in the post), but they both look excellent, so I wanted to publish some information about them, and their authors' other related work, immediately.

The new book is called Beyond Auteurism: New Directions in Authorial Film Practices in France, Italy and Spain since the 1980s, and it is written by Rosanna Maule. Maule is the author of lots of very high-quality work on film authorship: amongst other books and articles, there's a very good essay of hers on the authorship of Germaine Dulac online at Senses of Cinema (link HERE); but she also published a 1998 article on the auteurism of Pedro Almodóvar (“De-authorizing the Auteur: Postmodern Politics of Interpellation in Contemporary European Cinema.” in Cristina Degli-Esposti, Ed. Postmodernism in the Cinema) which was very influential on my own thinking about auteurism (see '').

The publisher's blurb for Maule's new book reads as follows:

Beyond Auteurism is a comprehensive study of nine film authors from France, Italy and Spain who since the 1980s have blurred the boundaries between art-house and mainstream, and national and transnational film production. Maule examines how the individuals have maintained a dialectical relationship with the authorial tradition of the national cinema to which each belongs. In considering this tradition, Maule seeks to illustrate that the film author is not only the most important symbol of European cinema’s cultural tradition and commitment, but is also a crucial part of Europe’s efforts to develop its cinema within domestic and international film industries. The book studies the work, practices and styles of European film-makers including Luc Besson, Claire Denis, Gabriele Salvatores and Alejandro Amenábar. Beyond Auteurism offers an important contribution to a historicized and contextualized view of film authorship from a theoretical framework that rejects Western-centred and essentialist views of cinematic practices and contexts.

The new article on some aspects of Spanish auteurism is by Núria Triana-Toribio, author of the classic study Spanish National Cinema (Routledge, 2003). Triana-Toribio has also published other influential work on film authorship, including a co-authored article (written with Peter Buse and Andy Willis): on Spanish filmmaker Alex de la Iglesia 'The Spanish "popular auteur": Alex de la Iglesia as polemical tool', New Cinemas, 2: 3 (2004), pp.139-48., which was followed up by a co-authored book on that filmmaker. The article and the book helped to further establish in academic discourse the notion of 'popular auteurism' (following on from the foundational work on contemporary film auteurism by Timothy Corrigan, which began with his 1990 essay 'The Commerce of Auteurism' [JSTOR link HERE]), and usefully focused study on the seeming migration of previously 'highbrow' and 'middlebrow' artistic concepts into areas of popular cultural commerce.

Triana-Toribio also wrote one of the best studies of Pedro Almodóvar that I have had the pleasure to read: her 1994 PhD thesis, 'Subculture and popular culture in the films of Pedro Almodovar', a section of which is available in a pamphlet version, in addition to two article versions (1996: 'Almodóvar's Melodramatic Mise-en-Scène: Madrid as a Site for Melodrama', Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, Vol.73, 179 - 189; and also 1996: 'Pedro Almodóvar's Recreation of Melodrama', Journal of Iberian Studies, Vol.9, 46 - 54).

Triana-Toribio's new article on auteurism appears in the new issue of Screen (2008 49: pp. 259-276). It is entitled 'Auteurism and commerce in contemporary Spanish cinema: directores mediáticos' (restricted Screen Online link HERE). Here's the abstract:

This article studies the evolution of auteurism and commerce in Spain using technologies such as the Internet. Spanish directors are becoming mediáticos (media friendly and using media as marketing tools) in response to the new conditions in which the national cinema is immersed among them the saturation in European screens and the ever-present competition with Hollywood. Those directors who can claim the status of auteur do so as part of their commercial strategies. In this analysis of the present-day conditions in the commerce of Spanish cinema, the focus is on two case studies of media-friendly and established auteurs, Isabel Coixet and Álex de la Iglesia who have and manage homepages where information about their work, their careers and other aspects of their authorial personas. Both auteurs can be considered to be at opposite ends of the spectrum genre cinema/art cinema within the Spanish cinema traditions. The questions that inspire this exploration deal with the functions of these homepages and what they can tell us about the present and future of film commerce and auteurism in Spain.
So, lots of reading to do of Maule and Triana-Toribio's studies of aspects of 'new auteurism'. I'll post again on what I find.

Monday, 15 September 2008

On good directing: The Dark Knight 1

I saw The Dark Knight yesterday. Yes, I know, I was a tad late in so doing, for a researcher of contemporary cinema, but, in my defence, it's been a busy summer of moving house and jobs...

Anyway, I found it such an interesting film and think it a perfect candidate upon which to pin a whole series of blog posts, over the coming weeks, on the notions of 'good' and 'bad' film directing, of which this is but the first instalment. I've been preparing the ground for this in my recently posted discussions of the practice of film directing (see HERE and HERE).

As in those earlier posts, I will be elaborating on the insights about film directing set out by Victor Perkins in his brilliant chapter 'Direction and Authorship', in Film as Film (London: Penguin, 1972), as well as in his great essay on film directing 'Moments of Choice', available online HERE.

Despite the fact that The Dark Knight is not the usual kind of film to which seemingly 'auteurist' concepts are routinely applied (say, for instance, notions of the quality of directorial mise-en-scène), I'm convinced at the outset of my exploration that Christopher Nolan is a director whose previous record of achievement can easily bear a very great deal of critical weight. While I haven't yet seen Following, Nolan's first movie (I've just ordered it), I have long been a fan of his film writing, producing, and directing (Memento [2000], Insomnia [2002], Batman Begins [2005], and The Prestige [2006]). Before I saw The Dark Knight, I believed him to be one of the most talented directors working in English-language cinema today.

As for The Dark Knight itself, much of the critical discussion about it, online and in print, has endlessly pondered its value as a 'good film'; but, in any case, do 'good films' have to be 'well-directed' (do 'bad films' have to be 'badly directed', for that matter)? Indeed, is the notion of a 'well-directed, good film' a rhetorical tautology, or two different kinds of evaluative statements? With its two separate Oscars awarded for 'Achievement in Directing' and 'Best Motion Picture', the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences clearly ascribes to the latter view, but should everyone else?

Of course, many critics, including Stephanie Zacharek, reviewing Nolan's film on July 17 2008 for Salon.Com, were not at all convinced that The Dark Knight was a 'good film' in the first place. Zacharek's review opened thus:
Somewhere between his first hit, the tricky backward teaser "Memento," and his most recent picture, the tricky dueling-magicians teaser "The Prestige," Christopher Nolan began gathering, like a lucky squirrel having stumbled upon a hoard of exquisite nuts, comparisons to Hitchcock [not the least of which was one drawn, back on October 20, 2006, by Zacharek's Salon.Com colleague Andrew O'Hehir - see HERE]. "The Dark Knight" makes me question whether he has actually seen any Hitchcock. It's true that Nolan, like the filmmaker he's so clearly trying to emulate, takes delight in teasing and tricking his audience. But Hitchcock was more than just a tease. He was a visual storyteller who knew how to build complex narratives frame by frame. He'd never use two shots if one would do. Although he used sound brilliantly, the dialogue in a Hitchcock film generally tells us very little; the visuals, and the implied but indelible connections between them, tell us everything. The trickery of Hitchcock is interactive, springing directly from the demands he makes on us: Even when we can't believe our eyes, we have to trust them, because they're all we've got. [my emphasis]
Like this quotation, which uses Alfred Hitchcock as a kind of gold standard for 'good directing', the rest of Zacharek's review is full of fascinating assumptions about this concept (like those ones I've emboldened, to emphasise them, above). I will return to these and other assumptions about film directing in my future posts on this topic.

I would, as always, be fascinated to hear what any of you think about these matters; so please consider yourselves very warmly encouraged to comment.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Film directing in La Nuit américaine/Day for Night: agency within constraints

Opening sequence of La Nuit américaine/Day for Night (François Truffaut, France/Italy, 1973)
(YouTube clip posted by siobhanalba)

In François Truffaut’s great 1973 film, some of the forms of 'agency within constraints' which comprise on-set film directing are clearly represented. We see (and hear) the call to ‘Cut! ('Coupez!’), actioned by the director Ferrand (played by Truffaut himself). We also watch Ferrand perform urgent gestures, in between takes, in his repeated attempts to get the actors (Alphonse, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud and Alexandre, played by Jean-Pierre Aumont) to do his bidding.

Film directing on set (like assistant directing on set, for that matter, too) is an activity thus shown to be largely comprised of performatives -- in other words, the doing of things with words (verbal utterances) and gestures (physical utterances), 'doings' which are executed in the hope of generating certain actions in others (with no automatic guarantee of success, it must be added); as well as of necessary (preceding or concurrent) reflexive processes (decision-making, etc.). In this sequence, individual directorial actions are shown in (unpredictable) interaction with the agency of those others who occupy different places in the on-set hierarchy.

What I love about the opening sequences of a number of films about film directing (see my previous posting on this topic), is that, as we can see in La Nuit américaine/Day for Night, there is often a hugely celebratory quality to the (re-)presentation of the processes of filmmaking. In this instance, the opening sequence of La Nuit américaine concludes with a virtuosic crane shot (repeated later in the film); our view of the plateau (film set) is dramatically pulled back and up, away from the organised bustle of the set, a move underscored by the equally soaring, or swelling, strains of the film's musical theme.

The scale of the visual spectacle in this sequence, together with the exuberance of its musical accompaniment, evoke for me notions of orchestration and, especially, conducting. The latter idea, in particular, resonates because of the presentation of Ferrand/Truffaut’s gestures as he verbally and physically directs (guides, orders) and conducts (leads) his actors and technicians. Because of the mode chosen here of the director's 'irruption' into the film (a jump cut from a long shot of the actors performing to a brief close up of Ferrand/Truffaut speaking), Ferrand (and Truffaut) is seen as a Little Big Man, compelled by his vision, and repeatedly, even frantically, trying to impose it throughout the various (fragments of) takes that we see, before, it seems, finally getting everything more or less together. The subsequent crane shot then leaves us with a harmonious and pleasurable image of cinema, produced under its usual ‘factory-like conditions’ (V.F. Perkins, Film as Film [London: Penguin, 1972], p. 158); the shot retrospectively imputes some calm, harmonious method to the evident, partial discord and madness of the whole process.

Alongside the depiction of the activities of a director, what is also graphically figured in the opening sequences of La Nuit américaine/Day for Night, then, are the huge constraints of the space within which the director’s activities take place. Here and in other films (another good example would be David Mamet's State and Main, 2000), this space (here, that specifically of the plateau) is clearly shown to be a ‘time-space’: a field of, and for, action which is constrained by time, by ambient conditions and practicalities, by multiple agencies, and by the need to co-ordinate/orchestrate the activities in this field, these circumstances, to get everything (or as much as humanly and technically possible) done in time.

(Some thoughts on the conceptualisation of the practice of film directing, which draw upon 'Film authorship studies and the concept of agency', a paper I gave at the Screen Studies Conference, University of Glasgow, on July 1, 2000).

© 2008 Catherine Grant

Monday, 25 August 2008

Film Studies For Free: On the Director's Cut

Back from my holiday, and in the middle of moving house (nearly done...), I chose a fine time to post the first entry to my new blog: Film Studies For Free, but that's the way things often are. The description of the new blog reads as follows:
Film Studies For Free actively espouses the ethos of Open Access to digital scholarly material. It aims to promote good quality, online, film and moving-image studies resources by commenting on them, and by linking to them. These resources will include published scholarship or research in various forms: from film and media weblogs, through online peer-reviewed journals, to other forms of web-based scholarly writing, as well as online works of film/moving-image research by practice.

I won't cross-post between different blogs normally (my vanity-publishing does have some limits...), but the content of the first post to FSFF could have happily resided on Directing Cinema, so here's the full text:

"Three very worthwhile items on the concept of the Director's Cut, of clear interest (inter alia) to researchers of film authorship like me, have appeared recently, in two regularly excellent online resources. First, Jonathan Rosenbaum's increasingly unmissable website carried an article of his on 'The Perils of the Director's Cut' that recently appeared in French translation in Le Mythe du Director’s cut (Paris: Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2008), a collection coedited by Michel Marie and François Thomas, and was also adapted from a lecture he gave at a conference about 'Directors’ cuts' that was held at the Toulouse Cinémathèque in early 2007.

Rosenbaum attempts to distinguish between 'aesthetic and business ways' of dealing with Director's Cuts, and in so doing he also broaches some useful ontological questions more generally. He concludes the bulk of his discussion with Ridley Scott's comment about the 1992 'director's cut' version of his film Blade Runner: “The so-called Director’s Cut isn’t, really. But it’s close. And at least I got my unicorn.” To this, Rosenbaum adds:

Scott’s philosophical acceptance of this version as “close” significantly resembles the usual position of publicists regarding such matters–which is that in the final analysis, chaque film a deux versions, une version correcte et une version plus correcte [each film has two versions: a correct one and a more correct one]. The notion that any version might be incorrect is one that belongs to history and aesthetics, but not to business.

Rosenbaum notes, in his online introductory blurb, that while his article examines the first two versions of Blade Runner (1982 and 1992), it was written prior to the release of Blade Runner: The Final Cut. Ridley Scott's multiple versions are the subject of another useful and provocative meditation on the Director's Cut (published by the online Bright Lights Film Journal) by Erich Kuersten. In his article, Kuersten alights upon what may become quite common forms of film 'replicanting' in this age of exaggerated hypertextuality and concludes thus:

If Orson Welles was working today, I wonder how many different versions of Touch of Evil or Citizen Kane there would be? Perhaps what was once considered indecision and fussiness will soon be a strength — as hypertextuality and increased bandwidth continue to dissolve the boundaries between memory and "reality," the finished and the forever open, the retro and the futuristic, and the impossibility of a cut ever being truly "final."
In the same issue of Bright Lights (no.61), in which a number of other pieces on film remaking and revisioning appear (incuding an interesting look at Michael Haneke's two versions of Funny Games, 1997 and 2007-8), Jason Martin Scott discusses John Cassavetes re-editing of his 1976 film The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and the release of his new version two years later. In his article, 'A Real Director's Cut', Scott argues that the fact that Cassavetes was prepared, very unusually for the time, to re-edit an already released film is indicative of his determination to change direction at this point in his work:

the re-edited Bookie is the most fully realized of all Cassavetes' films, and a viewing of both it and its prototype provides a rare opportunity to witness a great director's substantive and formal evolution in the making.

I'd be very interested to hear of any more useful online references to the director's cut and to film 'revisionings' and 're-versionings' more generally."

Friday, 25 July 2008

Some sense of available choices

Just before departing on a short holiday, I wanted to post some thoughts about films about film directing and directors (e.g. Ed Wood [Tim Burton, 1994], Gods and Monsters [Bill Condon, 1998], Shadow of a Vampire [Elias Merhige, 2000], Living in Oblivion [Tom Di Cillo, 1995], State and Main [David Mamet, 2000], Sex is Comedy [Catherine Breillat, 2003], and The Five Obstructions [Jørgen Leth/Lars Von Trier, 2003]) -- which have been central to some of my university teaching about film directing, but also form the basis of a chapter in the book I am beginning to finish on contemporary auteurism: Directing Cinema: The New Auteurism.

In an essay in Movie which treated questions of film authorship (V. F. Perkins et al, ‘The Return of Movie,' Movie 20, Spring 1975, p. 12), the editors of that journal wrote that ‘in order to recognise particular sets of choices, one has to have some sense of available choices.’

Whether they are ‘fictional’ or not, films about film directing represent what it is difficult to to conjure or to conceptualise in words, even after meticulous film-studies research. They give us moment by moment evocations of the multiple agencies involved in the creation of films. They reveal that the individual agency of filmmakers is almost always creatively enabled by the necessary structure and constraints of the processes of production (say, of deadlines, of collective working, of budgets, of on-set disasters) as well as by the agency of others involved.

The films often give us a better general, but also a more precise and specific, sense of the kinds of choices available to a director than much academic writing on cinema, which often only attempts to recognise the multiplicity of these choices for the purposes of thematic or interpretative reading -- such are the usual limitations of film authorship studies, alas. But there are lots of other interesting and equally authorial questions that can be asked of films and film directing that can be inspired by on-screen representations of movie-making.

Not all writing on filmmaking is so limited, of course. In the following words from the brilliant chapter 'Direction and Authorship', in his magisterial book Film as Film (London: Penguin, 1972), Victor Perkins notes:

On film, as in any impure medium, we do not find one coherent material given stable form. Rather we are offered a variety of materials, disparate in kind and function, brought into relationships which we can hope to find pleasant, beautiful, amusing, surprising, significant and so on. The film-maker’s control is over these relationships rather than over the separate elements from which they are constructed.

Being in charge of relationships, of synthesis, [the director] is in charge of what makes a film a film. […] The director’s authority is a matter not of total creation but of sufficient control. [pp. 183-184]

I can only assert, in conclusion, here that, like Perkins, these contemporary films about directing (as well as classic ones, such as La Nuit américaine/Day for Night, directed by François Truffaut, France/Italy, 1973) testify to very few obvious traces of the Romantic conception of authorship and artistry, even as they usually also point to the indispensable role of the director in all aspects of contemporary filmmaking and film culture.

See you again after my break, when I will hopefully post some more thoughts from my book chapter on these matters.

© 2008 Catherine Grant

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

‘The Director must not be credited’: Authorship, Auteurism and the Films of Dogme ‘95

Although the original Dogme ’95 Brothers agree wholeheartedly with the anti-bourgeois impulse of the 1950s and 1960s directors of the French New Wave, the Dogme manifesto makes it clear that the ‘means’ of those directors – the creation of a cinema based on auteurist ‘personal expression’ – were flawed. I quote their tongue-in-cheek condemnation: ‘The auteur concept was bourgeois romanticism from the very start and thereby… false! […] Predictability (dramaturgy) has become the golden calf around which we dance’ (ref. HERE) To correct these and other flaws, the Vow of Chastity intends its participating directors to forswear their role as film artists, to ‘refrain from personal taste’ and, importantly, to regard the film instant as more important than ‘creating a “work”.’

The Dogme ‘movement’, however, remains a remarkably auteurist enterprise, on the whole, with its highly visible and audible interventions -- in advertising, review snippeting, and newspaper, magazine and documentary profiles -- by filmmakers whose names may not appear in their film credits, as the manifesto requires, but whose names and ‘personas’ clearly help to provide an extra brand label (alongside that of ‘Dogme’) with which to sell their films, to orient audience expectations, and to channel meaning and pleasure.

These realities of the contemporary independent film market aside there is, nonetheless, a great deal of variety in directorial practice among Dogme films. In a later, full length version of my work for publication, I shall examine three different versions of authorship among Dogme filmmakers, by comparing the case of Lars von Trier, moving from relatively high budget ‘art’ filmmaking to the ‘artisanal’ practices of Dogme in Idioterne/The Idiots (Denmark, 1998), Harmony Korine’s relative consistency from Gummo (USA, 1997) to Julien Donkey-Boy (USA, 1999), and the case of the Argentine first-time filmmaker José Luis Marqués and his very low budget film Fuckland (Argentina, 1999; I will henceforth try to avoid use of the profane title), passed as Dogme #8. In this much shorter version of my work, however, I will be focusing just on the latter film, since it offers a particularly interesting case study of the claims around the ‘instant’ and the ‘work’ that the original manifesto raises. I shall examine these claims not only in the light of the film’s aesthetics but also, more briefly, in the light of the publicity surrounding Marqués’s film. While it may not surprise us that the semi-humorous ‘intentions’ of Dogme directors are much more complicated than they might at first seem, the ways in which they ‘work’ in the circulation of films in an inescapably auteurist independent cinema culture prove to be important ones to consider in the context of contemporary film authorship more generally.

[Note: Much of the following information about the film was taken from its original website between 2000-2001, originally HERE – at a URL long since taken over by a different film company, who promote, inter alia, Argentine porn films]. The film was shot in one week in December 1999, when its Argentine director José Luis Marqués took three digital video cameras, two actors (one British and one Argentine), and three other technicians and production assistants to the British-occupied Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean. The title of the film comes in part from a common mispronunciation of the British/colonial name of the islands by non-native English speakers. The Falklands, or Malvinas as they are known by much of the rest of the world, continue to be the subject of the historical Argentine claim for sovereignty that had led, in 1982, to the war between Britain and the South American nation.

Marqués and his team were among the first Argentine citizens to land on the islands since the war, taking advantage of their opening up to Argentine tourism. They did not inform anyone that their intention was to make a film, and much of the film they made was shot clandestinely, with one camera adapted to look like a still camera, and the others either fixed so that they appeared to be switched ‘off’ when they were actually recording, or hidden in bags and coats. The crew and the actors pretended not to know one another. And in addition to this general secrecy, the British actor Camilla Heaney was not told what the idea for the film was. She was just instructed about her character (an Islander born and bred, working as a nurse) and was told to improvise as situations unfolded. None of the many islanders who appear in Marqués’s film knew that they were ‘performing in a film.’ So the film is a very interesting experiment in mixing fiction and documentary.

The finished seventy-minute long film tells the story of Fabián Stratas, played by an actor of the same name, an underemployed magician who travels on his own to Port Stanley, the islands’ capital, on a mission to impregnate a Falklands inhabitant. He explains his preposterous motives in a speech in Spanish at the end of the film, which I translate here: ‘If other Argentine patriots follow my example, in a few years the islands will be full of Argies. And if this place were full of Argies, it would change. You know how? They want to be English people. Let them. But the next generation will be the one to make decisions. Then we’ll talk.’ The film’s premise, which many spectators in Argentina and elsewhere found offensive especially in the light of the protagonist’s constant expression of racist, xenophobic and misogynist views, is actually a humorous interpretation of the indiscreet comment by an Argentine government minister some years ago that the best way to re-conquer the islands would be to buy up all the land bit by bit. Rather than by capitalist stealth, or again by war, the film suggests that any future ‘re-conquest’ lies (not entirely consensually) in making love.

Fabián succeeds in seducing an islander, played by Heaney, and leaves the island in triumph, unaware that she has recorded a message for him on his video camera. This reveals that she was aware of his falsity, if not the real reason for it, and was sickened by his cavalier treatment of her. The proto-feminist message does not arrive at its intended destination, however. It is played back only to a non-diegetic audience, while the blissfully unaware protagonist takes a shower and sings along a rock version of the Argentine national anthem, while the final credits roll.

Rolling final credits? Surely not - this is a Dogme film. But, of course, like the other certificated films, it breaks a number of the manifesto’s rules: non-diegetic scored music and sound, most notably the protagonist’s voiceover; the digital video shooting, although the film was transferred to Academy 35mm; and José Luis Marqués’s name as director is the first to appear in the final credits. Nonetheless it seems clear that for the Dogme brothers, the improvised spirit of the film (and its to-the-letter adherence to all other rules) deserved to be rewarded with the label Dogme #8. As for the director, he disingenuously remarks in a number of interviews and statements that he can’t remember which came first – the idea for the film or the idea that it should be filmed according to the Dogme Vows of Chastity. Interestingly, on the website originally devoted to the film, to which I will come back later, the director reproduces nine of his own Vows, which in some ways add to the Dogme manifesto’s constraints, but which were produced after making the film. The vows that concern my central question in this paper about the privileging of the ‘film instant’ over the ‘directorial work’ read as follows:

3. Each actor will operate his own camera.

7. The director will not participate in the moment of filming.

9. The mise-en-scène will depend exclusively on the circumstances of each moment.
Let me offer up for your contemplation a clip [posted on YouTube on May 11, 2008, by leosargento] which exemplifies the role of the protagonist’s voiceover, and his typically clandestine mode of filming (although there is plenty of English-language dialogue, apologies for the lack of subtitling for the dialogue in Spanish):

On the film’s original website, just before the director goes on to list his extra Vows of Chastity, Marqués makes the following observations:

Some time after making the film, a few people confessed to me that at certain moments they couldn’t tell what nationality the film was. This game that I had set up, mixing action with reality, ended up confusing the film crew, and caused a lot of uncertainty and suspicion. In practice, we all became actors because each of us had a role to play. At the same time, it was a very interesting inversion that occurred: the actor acted as director, and the director had to become an actor.
In a sequence roughly halfway through the film, though, this inversion is fleetingly stalled, as the director, (or one of the technicians under his direction) picks up the camera and engages in handheld shooting of a love scene involving the main actor (as in the screenshot below).

Although it is very likely that quite a lot of the ‘disembodied’, moving footage for the film was shot by people other than the main actor, this sequence is one of only two in the film where we can clearly see that it cannot be the actor holding the moving camera. The other sequence is at the end of the film, set back in Buenos Aires, when a moving camera closes in on the tiny screen of a digital video camera to take in the message that Camilla has left for Fabián, and then there is a parallel edit to a shot of Fabián in the shower. In both of these sequences, an invisible but detectable ‘Hand of God’ moves the camera, and risks breaking the film’s illusion, or ‘game’ as the director puts it.

The director’s brief comment about the confusion over the film’s nationality also raises the question of directorial control, and the issue of whether or not it is ‘his’ film, and therefore an ‘Argentine’ film, displaying a discrete point of view about the events it narrates which might be ‘knowable’ in advance. Obviously, his method of filming means that in many key ways, Marqués cedes conventional directorial control. This clearly enhances the element of ‘unpredictability’ so cherished by Dogme filmmakers in their attack on the sensibilities of bourgeois cinema. Even as he had a loose objective or story, Marqués could not know at all in advance exactly what form the ‘instants’ in his film would take: as they happen, then, these ‘instants’ are, in a very clear sense, directorially ‘uninflected,’ to use term much beloved of David Mamet in his book On Directing Film.

To use the Dogme manifesto expression, they are lacking in ‘dramaturgy’. This makes Marqués’s film, rather more like a ‘documentary’ than even the other Dogme films. While most of these films use improvisation to a greater or lesser extent, and also borrow many of their practices from documentary and news filming (the use of multiple, handheld cameras, for instance), their greater reliance on pre-planning, the relatively conventional location set up of their film crews, and the knowledge of most of their ‘actors’ that they are appearing in a film (even if they don’t know exactly what will happen) results in a much greater amount of directorial ‘inflection’ during the filming process.

But a strange disavowal about other forms of directorial control has occurred in discourse on this film and on Dogme more generally. For example, no mention is made in any of the publicity on Marqués’s film that I’ve seen of the post-shooting assembly of the film, and its relation to aesthetic choices that were clearly made during the pre-production process. In any film, editing is obviously where the ‘instants’ are selected and finally juxtaposed to form the ‘work’, and is a process usually overseen by the director, especially in independent film practice. An analysis of the aesthetic organisation of Marqués’s film reveals it, like all the other Dogme films, to be a remarkably ‘motif-ridden’ work. Its non-diegetic music and post-dubbed sound effects draw on allusions to horror cinema sound design, and serve to underscore the film’s expression of anxiety surrounding the clandestinity of its filming. This aural manifestation of uncanniness is matched in the film’s visual style by the preference for strange camera angles, lens distortion and unusual variation in focus, all of which, admittedly, emerged organically from the mode of filming. There is also the ‘less organic’ insertion of progressively more anxious montage sequences of curious images from around the islands, representing the protagonist’s increasing nightmare about discovery and the consequences of his actions.

The film’s general atmosphere of stealth, magic and ghostliness, (strikingly similar to motifs in other Dogme films, such as Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen [Denmark, 1998] and Kristian Levring’s The King is Alive [Sweden, Denmark, USA, 2000]), is clearly connected, consciously or unconsciously, to the casting of a well-known magician for the part of Fabián, and we see him performing several sleight of hand tricks to entertain the people he meets. But, in the case of Marqués’s film, as we have seen, this kind of directorial ‘inflection’ has not only taken place during pre- or post-production. In its duration, the film draws attention to the ongoing process of its formation as a ‘work’ precisely on those occasions where it chooses visibly to break its own narrational rules. In Marqués’s film, the ‘Hand of God’ has to intervene to enhance the ‘strangeness’ of the ‘instant’ in ways that a static camera could not capture.

Finally, I would briefly like to consider the matter of directorial inflection and the display of auteurist agency in relation to the role of marketing and publicity of this film. José Luis Marqués’s job in an advertising agency made him well placed to emulate the low budget marketing strategy of The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, USA, 1999). A cinema trailer was launched not directly to advertise the forthcoming film (which had not then secured a release date) but to draw public attention to the film’s website, where the ‘character’ of Fabián presents his experiences as a ‘true story’ and a ‘how to’ manual, putatively in order to encourage other Argentines to visit the islands to continue his ‘mission’. The website also prominently displays the director’s rationale, and the film’s status as a Dogme product. When the film was distributed to 60 cinemas across Argentina on 21 September 2000, and was subsequently shown at film festivals around the world, the director appeared at premieres and screenings, often accompanied by his main actor, to ‘tell the story’ of the film’s unusual production. Press interest in the film has been very high wherever it has been shown. By the time they got to the cinema to watch this film, then, the audience was rather more aware of what was going to happen in Marqués’s film than most of the people who actually appear in it.

In a chapter in his 1991 book A Cinema Without Walls, Timothy Corrigan writes that

[In the cinema] Auteurism as agency […] becomes a place for encountering not so much a transcending meaning […] but the different conditions through which expressive meaning is made by an auteur and reconstructed by an audience […] the commercial status of [the director] now necessarily becomes part of an agency that culturally and socially monitors identification and critical reception. [p 105]
Corrigan examines the role of directorial publicity in contemporary filmmaking, and concentrating on a ‘“semi-textual” strategy that is often taken for granted in the relation between a filmmaker, the films, and an audience’ (p. 107), he argues that

The interview […] is one of the few documentable extra-textual spaces where the auteur, in addressing cults of fans and critical viewers, can engage and disperse his or her own organizing agency as auteur. Here, the standard directorial interview might be described according to the action of promotion and explanation: it is the writing and explaining of a certain intentional self; it is frequently the commercial dramatization of self as the motivating agent of textuality. (pp. 107-108).
While we learn very little about his ‘self’ from first-time director Marqués’s many multimedia interventions in the promotion of his film, we can certainly bear witness to numerous examples of the commercial dramatization of his story of the film production. These stories, as well as directly informing us of what to expect from his film, also tell us more indirectly of his undoubted ingenuity, skill and bravura – the stories generations of filmgoers have wanted to hear from many other ‘New Wave’ film pioneers.

In conclusion, it should not surprise us that ‘Dogme’ claims about auteurism and ‘uncredited’ directorial authorship turn out to be false, or at least to be overstating their case. Indeed, this is typical of the entertaining sleight of hand characterising the whole enterprise of this film ‘movement’. But it is important to remember that the Dogme manifesto has not generated an avant-garde filmmaking practice, but a variety of ‘art’ filmmaking, especially in terms of distribution and reception. The generic issues of diversity within standardization are of paramount importance, therefore. It is hard, if not impossible to imagine a form of commercially viable filmmaking that could be truly ‘unpredictable’, and while the films of Dogme ’95 make an extremely good stab at this, their necessary immersion in the practices and discourses of auteurist film distribution and exhibition means that their ability truly to shock us is attenuated by the otherwise rather conventional ways in which they have reached us.

[Conference paper originally given by Catherine Grant at the Society for Cinema Studies Annual Conference, Washington DC, USA, 27 May 2001]

© 2008 Catherine Grant