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

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Little documentary about Arturo Ripstein

I thought I'd post yet another YouTube video in relation to the Mexican film director Arturo Ripstein. It's a great little documentary made in homage to him and his partner, the screenwriter Paz Alicia Garciadiego, for a conference in their honour that the two attended at the Universidad de CI in Mexico in May, 2003. Sadly (for non-hispanohablantes, at least), it's only in Spanish with no subtitles, but it's a very compact retelling of Ripstein's career, from his entry into the Mexican film industry working alongside his father, the producer Alfredo Ripstein, through his early apprenticeship working alongside Luis Buñuel on El ángel exterminador/Exterminating Angel (1962) and other films,up to his most recent work. There are some nice clips from his films which show how varied they have been.

For those interested, there's some useful and interesting information (in English and Spanish) about Ripstein's biography and filmography to be found at his own website: and even more to be found at the New York Times site: