Tuesday 15 December 2015

Defending Cinephila (5) - Adrian Martin sums up a personal 2015

In the DVD viewing room at the Rotterdam Film Festival in January, I watched Manuel Mozos’ touching essay-portrait João Bénard da Costa: Others Will Love the Things I Loved. Due to my particular life path (and especially, until my late 30s, lack of money for overseas travel), I missed any possible encounter with this legendary figure (1935-2009) of global (and especially Portuguese) cinephilia – just as I never crossed paths with another legend glimpsed in a photograph here, Peter von Bagh (1943-2014). Others Will Love the Things I Loved – the title alone is a poem, or prayer, about the ideal of ‘cinephilic transmission’ – has an almost solemn air, as it accompanies clips from Gertrud (1964) or The Shop Around the Corner (1964) with passages of Bénard da Costa’s richly incantatory prose devoted to them. But, as I had the opportunity to write in the March issue of the Spanish film magazine Caiman, we have at least one, truly global tribute to his life and work, thanks to the Internet – his text on Johnny Guitar (1954), which also features in Mozos’ film, translated into no less than eleven languages here: http://www.apaladewalsh.com/2014/06/joao-benard-da-costas-johnny-guitar-play-it-again-in-nine-tongues/

Michael Henry Wilson (2007)
Among the final films I taught in my courses at Goethe University, Frankfurt, in February, was John Cassavetes’ sublime Gloria (1980) – a film I’ve worshipped first seeing it since my early 20s (when 16mm prints could still be hired from commercial distributors). When planning the course during 2014, I always planned to use my favourite contemporaneous review of it, from Positif, by Michael Henry Wilson. He died between me having that thought and teaching the film. A little-known figure outside France, even though he spent much of his time as a critic and filmmaker in USA, Wilson was the main brain behind Martin Scorsese’s Personal Journey through American cinema (1995). Wilson reclaimed that prime authorship, in a sense, by compiling his monumental final work, a hefty book titled À la porte du paradis – or Heaven’s Gate. It covers ‘100 years of American cinema and 58 directors’; since finally getting my hands on a copy, it has become an indispensable reference work for me, alongside Jacques Lourcelles Dictionary of Cinema: The Films, Richard Roud’s Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, and not too many others.

Twelve Angry Men
A mysterious website, devoted to an area of cinephile activity I am especially interested in nowadays: Filmscalpel (http://www.filmscalpel.com/), collecting, creating and commenting on the burgeoning field of the ‘audiovisual essay’, or critical/poetic essays on movies formed through the re-editing of their images and sounds. Filmscalpel is mysterious because it is anonymous: impossible to tell whether it’s by one person or a collective, or even in which country it’s based (the only clue being that its very intelligent texts are in English). It’s a commendably broad-church site, surveying and explicating many approaches to this field – with a foot both in the academic camp and in the do-it-yourself practice ethos. And best of all are the site’s own works, such as a recent brilliant re-version of Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men – with all the talk taken out. This piece asks the sharp question: does the mise en scène, the style, still function without that TV-theatre gab? Watch it and find out.

Paul Vecchiali
I vaguely knew of Paul Vecchiali – director, producer, figurehead to many adventurous French filmmakers who fall well below the ‘post Nouvelle Vague’ watermark in exhibition venues around the world. But getting a big hit of his filmography at the Sevilla Film Festival in November (I had relocated myself to Spain in the meantime) was a total revelation. His work of the 1970s, such as The Strangler, is strange, florid and disturbing; but it is especially his ‘digital rebirth’ today – three features made in the past two years, at the age of 83 – which amazes: Nuits blanches sur la jetée, C’est l’amour and Faux accords are at once intimate, novelistic, hyper-stylised, and disarmingly direct in their tormented emotions of love, desire and rage. This is a case for DVD discovery, now that the Vecchiali box-sets are at last appearing from France.

Hou Hsiao-hsien
It was the aforementioned Peter von Bagh, in a lovely piece I am proud to be publishing in the December issue of LOLA (www.lolajournal.com), who evoked the charm and the power of certain, magical film culture events mixing screenings, scholarship, connoisseurship, and sociality … It can happen at film festivals, but for me, in May, it happened at what was, ostensibly, an academic conference in Belgium (across Antwerp and Brussels): a symposium devoted to Hou Hsiao-hsien. So there was a small bunch of us invited experts giving presentations to a large (mainly student) audience – James Udden, Bérénice Reynaud, Richard Suchenski (editor of the splendid Austrian Filmmuseum book on Hou), my beloved Cristina Álvarez López (the reason for my relocation to Spain), and Chris Fujiwara who gallantly stepped in and flew over when David Bordwell, alas, couldn’t make it. There were our wonderful organisers and hosts: Tom Paulus, Bart Versteirt, Anke Brouwers. But there were also magnificent screenings: the restoration by the Belgian Cinematek of The Green, Grass of Home (1983), the local premiere of The Assassin (second-best film I saw in 2015, under Nanni Moretti’s Mia madre). There were meals, discussions, laughs – plus Nicola Mazzanti, Cinematek Director. And there was Hou himself! (Olivier Assayas also flew in, for the public chat with him and brilliant screenwriter/novelist Chu Tien-wen.) For Cristina and me, it led to the making of not only the audiovisual essays on Hou that we used in our talk (you can see these at https://www.fandor.com/keyframe/stirring-in-a-scene-from-hous-millennium-mambo and http://www.16-9.dk/2015/10/a-mere-formality/), but also three more (almost an hour’s worth) for the Cinematek’s forthcoming box-set of Early Hou. All in all, it was an extended moment of the type of genuine, productive mobilisation of passion that cinephilia, in its best senses and in the best cases, represents.

© Adrian Martin, 8.30-9.30pm, 14 December 2015.

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