December 5th, 2013 by Martin | Topic:
Making A Scene is a collection of 11 short films featuring Cate Blanchett, Bradley Cooper, Adèle, Greta Gerwig, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Robert Redford and Forest Whitaker. Directed by Janusz Kaminski, the films “screen” online at the The New York Times Magazine.
Jenison was inspired by Vermeer’s paintings and by the book Secret Knowledge, in which the contemporary English artist David Hockney theorized that Renaissance painters might have achieved photographic accuracy by employing tools that anticipated photography.
He proposed they may have used the camera obscura, a darkened room with a small aperture that a painter would have sat in as if he were inside a giant pinhole camera — along with lenses, possibly, or more likely concave mirrors.
Jenison brought an inventor’s mind to the task of putting these theories to the test, and Tim’s Vermeer, which explains the project and documents the results, is narrated by Jenison’s friend Penn Gillette, of the magic act Penn and Teller, and directed by the other half of that duo.
Though Penn and Teller’s act usually involves the latter working strictly in silence, Teller took himself off mute to speak with NPR’s Robert Siegel about the film and the method he believes Vermeer used.
“In the 1600s in Holland and that area of Europe, lenses and mirrors were quite popular as things for science hobbyists,” he says.” The telescope had just been invented, so the chances that Vermeer had very good access to all sorts of lenses and mirrors is very high.”
On the device Tim uses to paint in the film
By tilting the mirror at just a perfect angle, so that the artist can see the subject right up until the edge of the mirror, and then the canvas from that point on, he enables the artist to compare precisely the brightness and the color of the subject [with] the paint on the canvas.
On Tim’s re-creation of Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, for which he constructed a replica of the painter’s room
He had this notion for how Vermeer might have done this work. But he wasn’t content to just sort of sit there and say, “Well I’m sure it would work.” He felt it was necessary to basically go back in time and put himself under the exact conditions that Vermeer was working under. So Tim actually, in his warehouse in San Antonio, created a replica of Vermeer’s studio.
On Tim’s own artistic ability
Tim is not an experienced painter at all. He’s someone who’s worked with photographic images, someone who’s worked with computer images, so he knows imagery. But no, he’s not a draftsman or a painter at all. That’s part of the miracle of this, because what he turns out is something that is phenomenally close to a Vermeer.
On what it says about Vermeer if he did use a device to paint his masterpieces
Art is not sports. Art is an activity in which one human heart communicates to the other human heart. If Vermeer used this method, which Tim believes pretty strongly he may have used, that makes Vermeer better, not worse. What this means is that Vermeer was not only someone with wonderful and beautiful ideas, and someone capable of miraculous compositions, but that he was willing to put in the incredibly intense work to translate those ideas to paint on canvas. And it’s very possible that Vermeer himself may have invented this device.
On how, if this theory is true, the method could have been forgotten
In those days, as in these days, industrial secrets are kept very, very secret. And if someone had a means of creating extraordinary paintings, this would absolutely be kept to himself. There are not very many people in the world who have a clue how Penn and I shoot guns at each other’s faces and apparently catch the bullets in one another’s teeth. And probably three or four centuries from now, there will be even fewer people who will know that.
There’s another analogy to magic that I’m struck by. The biggest secret that any magician has is that he’s willing to go to way much more trouble than you would ever believe a person would go to to achieve an effect onstage. The trouble that he goes to is not pretty; the trouble is ugly and strenuous and involves trial and error and many things that you just wouldn’t want to know about as a viewer. And in the case of this method, this method is incredibly ingenious, but no fun to execute. So the analogy is pretty close.
On how this experience has changed Teller’s appreciation of Vermeer
I like Vermeer so much more now that I believe that Vermeer was a human being who was partly a scientist and partly a great artist. I think that a human being being able to do something amazing is much more interesting than a mystical being. But when I think of Vermeer as somebody as clever as I now believe he was, and as artistic as I now believe he was, I feel stronger as a human being.
Saul Leiter, perhaps the most famous non-famous New York street photographer, has just passed away at age 89. A pioneer who worked mostly in color in an age when street photography was still a predominantly black and white medium, Leiter captured the ineffable details than can only be seen and appreciated if you slow down and pay attention. Notes the obituary in today’s New York Times:
Mr. Leiter was considered a member of the New York School of photographers — the circle that included Weegee and Arbus and Avedon — and yet he was not quite of it. He was largely self-taught, and his work resembles no one else’s: tender, contemplative, quasi-abstract and intensely concerned with color and geometry, it seems as much as anything to be about the essential condition of perceiving the world.
“Seeing is a neglected enterprise,” Mr. Leiter often said.
Where other New York photographers of the period were apt to document the city’s elements discretely — streets, people, buildings — Mr. Leiter captured the almost indefinable spaces where all three intersect, many of them within a two-block radius of the East Village apartment in which he had lived since the early 1950s.
… Unplanned and unstaged, Mr. Leiter’s photographs are slices fleetingly glimpsed by a walker in the city. People are often in soft focus, shown only in part or absent altogether, though their presence is keenly implied. Sensitive to the city’s found geometry, he shot by design around the edges of things: vistas are often seen through rain, snow or misted windows.
“A window covered with raindrops interests me more than a photograph of a famous person,” Mr. Leiter says in the recently-released feature-length documentary, In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life With Saul Leiter, by the British filmmaker Tomas Leach. Here is the trailer for the film:
January 18th, 2013 by Jay | Topic:
Film, Music |
This a great. A young, unknown Frank Zappa (Allen and the announcer keep pronouncing his name “Zoppa”) on the Steve Allen show creating an interactive music happening with two bicycles, the studio band (playing “non-musically”), and recorded electronic music. Obviously inspired by John Cage, but very funny. Steve Allen makes some funny jokes, but has adds a nice, respectful coda, and Zappa cracks up repeatedly.
Zappa takes the opportunity to promote his new album, How’s Your Bird, due for release one week later, and the “world’s worst move” — The Worlds Greatest Sinner — for which he composed the score. The movie, by iconoclastic “grindhouse” actor/writer/director Timothy Carey, was not released, and would not be seen by the public for 50 years. So of course we’ll have to hunt it down and see it. Carey’s biography is very interesting, and among his many strange appearances on the fringes of popular culture, he is on the iconic Beatles Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, album, in a still from Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, though all but a small part of the back of his shirt (seen directly behind George) is obscured in the final version released with the album. Check out “The Sgt Pepper Album Cover Shoot Dissected” for more fascinating details about the murkier aspects of this most famous of album covers.
Three mysterious creatures in the wild: Bigfoot, Buddy the Elf, and J.D. Salinger (photo: Paul Adao, 1988).
The classic Bigfoot image is from a 1967 film by Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin, at Bluff Creek in Northern California (see video below). The Bigfoot might be fake, but the scarred and battered film stock is the real deal, real enough perhaps to inspire a few new Hipstamatic filters. The movie Elf is a Christmas classic from 2003, starring Will Ferrell as the feral elf, Buddy, seen here in Central Park in homage to Patterson’s Bigfoot. And the alleged and unverified photo of the late great J.D. Salinger was snapped by Paul Adao in 1988. Another Adao photo illustrates a wonderful New York Magazine story by publisher Roger Lathbury from 2010, Betraying Salinger. I scored the publishing coup of the decade: his final book. And then I blew it.
Bonus: there’s been another Bigfoot sighting — in our portfolio.
October 11th, 2012 by Martin | Topic:
Terri Gross interviewed director Paul Thomas Anderson on Fresh Air, about his new film The Master, staring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams.
Highlights from the interview include: Anderson’s father Ernie Anderson was the voice of ABC, and a Cleveland television late-night horror movie host known as “Ghoulardi.” Mr. Anderson attempts to imitate his father’s voiceover work, does so poorly. Why The Master was shot on crotchety 65 mm wide high-resolution film. Mr. Anderson has a sense of humor. Turner Movie Classics play perpetually in Mr. Anderson’s house like Norma Desmond Muzak.
Artist, filmmaker and composer David Lynch sports a head of hair that’s an art motif in itself, seen here in some famous paintings. Created / discovered by Jeremy Chen in his post, The Painter, which includes a couple more examples.
Chances are by now that you’ve heard of Christian Marclay’s brilliant work of art, The Clock (2010), though less likely that you have actually seen it (I haven’t as yet). As described by Wikipedia, the piece “is in effect a clock, but it is made of a 24-hour montage of thousands of time-related scenes from movies and some TV shows, meticulously edited to be shown in ‘real time’: each scene contains an indication of time (for instance, a timepiece, or a piece of dialogue) that is synchronized to show the actual time.”
A lot has been written about The Clock, and from what I’ve read, this is much more than just a collage of film images. The images not only work in sequence as a clock, but the pacing of the editing builds to moments of climax, as the top of the hour approaches, and then to a more relaxed pace after the hour has passed. And the soundtracks of the clips are overlapped and blended across transitions, creating new correspondences and “dialog” between disparate scenes. In short, this is a living, breathing clock, more like a day-long dream (a contemporary Ulysses?) than a typical film, clock, art work, or “typical” anything.
Part of Marclay’s fascination with the cinematic archive had to do with the way it resisted transfiguration. It wasn’t hard to turn a recorded sound into an estranged abstraction, by slowing it down or folding it into a new rhythm. But, even if you chopped a film into a single frame, specificity clung to it: Audrey Hepburn, Givenchy, Manhattan, 1961. Marclay wondered if he could fashion from familiar clips a genuinely unfamiliar film, one with its own logic, rhythm, and aesthetics. In his view, the best collages combined the “memory aspect”—recognition of the source material—with the pleasurable violence of transformation. If Marclay could turn the sky green for one day, he’d do it.
Later in the piece, Zalewski offers this observation about the paradoxical nature of time both in The Clock and in the viewing of it:
There were darker resonances, too. People went to the movies to lose track of time; this video would pound viewers with an awareness of how long they’d been languishing in the dark. It would evoke the laziest of modern pleasures—channel surfing—except that the time wasted would be painfully underlined.
… There was a lineage of avant-garde cinema that, with varying degrees of obscurity, examined the temporal qualities of film. Marclay’s contribution to the cinema of duration, though, would be pleasurable to watch. He sensed a creepy challenge. If his film was sufficiently seductive, he might coax people to sit for hours, literally watching their lives tick away.
There are several copies of The Clock owned by museums or private collectors that are in circulation, touring the globe for short-run performances. Be sure to catch all or part of it when it comes to a city near you, and watch your life tick away. I can’t wait.
May 23rd, 2012 by Martin | Topic:
Before An American Family (1973), The Real World (1992), Road Rules (1994), True Life (1998), Making the Band (2001), Project Greenlight (2001), American Chopper (2003), American Casino (2004), American Hot Rod (2004), Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County (2004), Dog Whisperer (2004), The Real Housewives of Orange County (2006), The Real Housewives of New Jersey (2009), The Real Housewives of Atlanta (2008), Ice Road Truckers (2007), Jersey Shore (2009) or American Pickers (2010), there was Salesman (1968). Featuring big, beefy, gin-soaked, topcoat-wearing, caddy-wielding bible salesmen like Jamie “The Rabbit” Baker, Paul “The Badger” Brennan, Raymond “The Bull” Martos and Charles “The Gipper” McDevitt. There are some wonderfully candid scenes and it is perhaps one of the most lifelike films (in pace, tenor and tone) that I have ever seen. The Maysles-Zwerin team are very, very patient observers, and they must have literally become flies on the wall to have captured the emotional nudity contained in this very empathetic film. There is no hint of the filmmakers either leading or directing the participating characters into “behaving,” “acting” or “performing for the cameras.” The dramatic (unscripted) rise and fall of many of the characters’ fortunes are in fact in the hands of a higher power and/or fate depending on your personal beliefs. Either way its a powerful reality and enjoyable to watch from a safe distance.
From the Criterion Collection: “A landmark American documentary, Salesman captures in vivid detail the bygone era of the door-to-door salesman. While laboring to sell a gold-embossed version of the Good Book, Paul Brennan and his colleagues target the beleaguered masses—then face the demands of quotas and the frustrations of life on the road. Following Brennan on his daily rounds, the Maysles discover a real-life Willy Loman, walking the line from hype to despair.”
April 27th, 2012 by Jay | Topic:
A composite of 1950s American, Italian and French movie end title screenshots from one of our favorite websites, The Movie Title Stills Collection, created by the most excellent designer Christian Annyas. Here are the film titles, from left-to-right, top-to-bottom:
FINE: Il Cammino Della Speranza (1950)
THE END: Human Desire (1954)
FINE: Non c’è pace tra gli ulivi (1950)
The End: Big Heat (1953)
FINE: Grido (1957)
THE END: Desk Set (1957)
FINE: Un Maledetto Imbroglio (1959)
The End: It Happened To Jane (1959)
FINE: Un Americano a Roma (1954)
The End: Teacher’s Pet (1958)
FIN: Bob le Flambeur (1955)
The End: His Kind of Woman (1951)
FINE: Guardie e Ladri (1951)
THE END: From Here To Eternity (1953)
FINE: La Grand Guerra (1959)
the end: 12 Angry Men (1957)
Fine: Le Notti di Cabiria (1957)
THE END: Not As A Stranger (1955)
To END this silly dialectic with one last FINE, here is a quick video of the end title sequence of Un Americano a Roma (1954), which I found after I had already begun contrasting the title languages:
Caine’s Arcade from Nirvan Mullick: A 9 year old boy – who built an elaborate cardboard arcade inside his dad’s used auto part store – is about to have the best day of his life.
“To stimulate creativity, one must develop the childlike inclination for play and the childlike desire for recognition.” ~Albert Einstein
You’ve probably heard by now the story of Caine Monroy, which began with an exuberantly creative 9 year old boy and his chance encounter with a kindred spirit, blossomed into an act of love, and went viral thanks to the 11-minute video above. Andy Isaacson wrote a great story about the Caine’s Arcade phenomenon in this week’s New Yorker, The Perfect Moment Goes Perfectly Viral, which is a must-read. It tells the whole amazing story, which is almost as much about the 37 year old struggling filmmaker playing in his artistic medium as it is about young Caine playing in his.
I find this story very inspiring, and a wonderful tonic to the glut of bad news we hear about every day. And it got me thinking afresh about the role of inspiration, joy, and creative play in our work here at Zinzin and in our everyday lives.
In our Manifesto (#13) we ask the question, When Was The Last Time You Enjoyed Naming?, and go on to say that the naming process, “should be engaging, thought-provoking, cathartic, stimulating, argumentative, enlightening, and just plain fun. You are creating a name that ideally will function as a very concise poem and catch fire out in the wider world. It’s a rush.” This belief is at the core of who we are at Zinzin, and Caine’s Arcade is a perfect example. We believe that what matters most is the capacity and willingness to perceive poetry and art in the words and life all around us. It’s not about “skills,” it’s about sensibility, and sensitivity. If you have it, you know it can’t be turned off. There is no down time, nor would you ever want there to be.
There is so much rich language all around us–past, present and future–that it’s simply the funnest thing in the world to play with it, mold it, break it down and rejigger it. This is the art of naming. This is the joy of creation and discovery applied to the real world task of creating brands. We strive to live in an inspired state all the time, because inspiration is joyful, and inspiration is addictive. This is what Caine Monroy embodies for me with every fiber of his being, and this is where all great art–and names–comes from. No wonder he almost always has such a big grin on his face–he’s only nine, but he already knows the secret of happiness. Let’s hope he stays “forever young,” for, as Picasso famously said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” I think Caine Monroy has a great chance to hold onto that spirit of creative joy, and Mullick’s wonderful little film will always be there to remind him of it.
April 25th, 2012 by Martin | Topic:
James Taylor is The Driver, Warren Oates is G.T.O, Laurie Bird is The Girl, Harry Dean Stanton is The Oklahoma Hitchhiker (as H.D. Stanton) and Dennis ‘Beach Boy’ Wilson is The Mechanic! Monte Hellman directs this 1971 bunch of small town car freaks chasing me across two states, make that three states. Pink slips for cars where to? DC? Then on down to Florida. Florida? Yes Florida. Color me gone, baby. Check out the rear end. This man is on something officer and may very well want to suck us up his tail pipe. And all they think about is cars, them small town car freaks. Are you trying to blow my mind in the far-out world of the high-speed scene! SFX: screeching careening tires and dueling approaching colliding car horns. Yes it is truly a mess, a muddle, a pickle, a befuddle, a heap, a botch, a blunder, a bust, a ruin, a fumble, a bumble, a snafu, a goof, and an utter shambles of a film, but what a glorious mess it is. And like any good wreck this 19 car pile up is bound to leave you gawking slack-jawed and rubbernecked. In fact Hellman’s Blacktop and Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny (2003) would make wonderful drive-in double feature. Here is an excerpt from the Criterion Collection synopsis:
“…Yet no summary can do justice to the existential punch of Two-Lane Blacktop. Maverick director Monte Hellman’s stripped-down narrative, gorgeous widescreen compositions, and sophisticated look at American male obsession make this one of the artistic high points of 1970s cinema, and possibly the greatest road movie ever made.”
Just who is Vinnie “T” Testeroni, the would-be daredevil spokesperson for “The Furniture Guy”? And why doesn’t “The Furniture Guy” appear in his own commercial? Whoever Vinnie “T” is, director Paul Thomas Anderson went to great lengths to recreate his character in the 2002 film Punch-Drunk Love. In fact, the main antagonist in the film, Dean “The Mattress Man” Trumbell, played here by Philip Seymour Hoffman, was based on the above commercial blooper for “The Furniture Guy.” Interestingly, this re-enacted scene, which inspired Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character in the first place, was deleted from the final film. Fortunately, this lovely re-enactment was found on the cutting room floor. Either way it served its purpose as muse to director Anderson.
The original “The Furniture Guy” commercial poses more questions, however. Does Vinnie’s middle initial “T” stand for Testosterone? Is he a real life honest-to-goodness guitarist or a stunt man? Or perhaps a stunt guitarist? Who knows? I searched high and low, but I couldn’t find any information about Vinnie “T” online. What we do know is that Mr. Anderson has an acute eye for the sincere detail, or “truthlikeness,” in every scene. To illustrate this, here is a list of details for this scene, showing their appearance in the original “The Furniture Guy” (FG) commercial and in “The Mattress Man” (MM) re-enactment:
Ambient white freeway noise
Unamplified perfunctory guitar strumming
Black leather jacket with flames on the sleeves
Mop of hair/wig resembling a condemned rodent’s nest
Mop of hair/wig secured in place by a Karate Kid black head band
Phone number is 351-3900
Awkward hesitation before opening line of dialog
Sad parrot infested “Southland” palm trees in background
Red racing trailer parked oddly across 6 parking spaces
5 mattresses piled on roof of early 1980s Stretched Lincoln Town Car
Awkward walking and talking tracking shot
“…got queen mattresses sets for 99 dollars”
“…and king sets for 129″
Sack of potatoes ‘Foley’ thump when body hits mattress
Account Executive with gray pants and compulsory “power” suspenders
Stretched gold Lincoln Town Car adorned with red flames along the front fender to driver’s door
Short cast shadows suggest mid-morning or mid-afternoon video shoot
Full name is obscured on the side of racing trailer
Production Assistant in mandatory black polo shirt holding note pad
Videographer with obligatory “correspondent’s” vest and requisite mullet hairstyle
Account Executive’s first response is to pick up the guitar cord
Videographer’s first response is to steady the guitar
Production Assistant’s first response is to adjust/reposition the mattress
April 12th, 2012 by Jay | Topic:
Screen shots of Zabriskie Point. Click to enlarge.
Concluding my recent obsession with Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 film, Zabriskie Point, here is the grid of 40 screen shots I mentioned working on in my previous Zabriskie post:
Every frame of this film is a work of art, and perhaps the best way to appreciate it is through stop-motion, frame-by-frame viewing of the DVD, something that was not possible to viewers back in 1970. That’s what I did, after first watching the film “normally,” in an effort to figure out how this thing was constructed. (I even shot a bunch of photos of individual frames, some of which I am putting together into a composite image for a follow-up blog post, to try to express visually this feeling I had while watching the film.)
Well, that “follow-up” post is now here. I took over ten times as many screen shots as you see above, so editing the grid down to this group of 40 images was challenging. You could easily make many other equally interesting composites out of different selections of images, and you might even find the task as interesting and enjoyable as I did.
As the narrator of the original Zabriskie Point trailer says, “Zabriskie Point. How you get there depends on where you’re at.” These 40 images represent where I’m at with this film, at this moment in time.
March 28th, 2012 by Jay | Topic:
Now considered a cult film, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 film, Zabriskie Point, was a huge commercial flop, costing $7 million to make–a huge sum back then–and grossing less than $1 million in its brief theatrical run. The director of the very successful Blow Up , his first of three English-language films, had blown up at the box office. The film also literally–as “literal” as a fantasy sequence can be in any film, especially this one–blew up at the end, as the above YouTube clip of the final scene depicts.
The music, which starts about half way through the scene, is by Pink Floyd (“Come In Number 51, Your Time Is Up,” a variation of “Careful With That Axe, Eugene”). The house didn’t really blow up — it is a fantasy of the beautiful female lead Daria (played by Daria Halprin), who is otherwise “a sweet, pot-smoking post-teenybopper of decent inclinations,” wrote Vincent Canby in his original New York Times review of Zabriskie Point. Why, I wondered, if a film at least looks this good, was it panned and attacked upon release by nearly everybody of every political and cultural stripe? Here’s Canby again:
The main problem with “Zabriskie Point” is that Antonioni has done nothing with his physical production to illuminate in any meaningful way the emotional states of his two principal characters—if, indeed, they have any.
They are completely instinctive people, but their instincts have been imposed upon them by an intellectualizing Antonioni, rather than by God. Everything in the film is calculated, including the prettily-photographed, conventionally-ironic contrasts between the principal locations—Los Angeles (used-car lots, absurd billboards, glass-and-steel office buildings reaching above the smog) and Death Valley, whose barren hills look like the remains of some cataclysmic oatmeal war of prehistory.
Paradoxically, even though everything is calculated, nothing within the film justifies its final, apocalyptic vision of the disintegration of the Western world to the accompaniment of a funky rock tune. It’s lovely to look at (books, furniture, food, a copy of Look magazine, all hanging suspended in an emulsion of deep blue), but completely absurd in the context.
Prettily-photographed, conventionally-ironic, is a deft putdown of any work of art with grand pretension, which Zabriskie Point had in spades. But times change, and so do opinions, at least some of them. It’s important to remember that Zabriskie Point was made in the era before home video, home theater, cable TV, movie channels, the Internet, TiVo, timeshifting, DVDs, Netflix, Redbox, movie streaming, Apple TV, YouTube, Vimeo, iPods-Phones-Pads and all the countless other ways we ingest, digest and otherwise consume “motion pictures” today. So when a movie stopped playing in theaters back then, if it didn’t get picked up by network television–the only kind of television there was–it was never heard from again outside the occasional art house screening. And since no TV network would ever show this film, it effectively vanished, and didn’t even get released on DVD until a few years ago. It became, in effect, a cultural time capsule of a most bygone era, rarely seen or discussed for nearly 40 years. Now that Zabriskie Point can be seen by an entire culture of fresh eyes, is the critical judgment any less harsh?
All this rancor is a little hard to fathom today. Recently issued on DVD for the first time by Warner Home Video, Zabriskie Point is of a piece with Antonioni’s best work: a luxuriant portrait of spiritual alienation with a sense of place far more expressive than its blankly beautiful characters…. But was Zabriskie Point out of fashion precisely because it nailed the zeitgeist?
In other words, if Zabriskie Point was actually a faithful depiction of a bad trip, then of course people at the time, many still living the bad trip, would hate the movie. Like waking up in the morning with the worst hangover in your life, stumbling into the bathroom and getting mad at the mirror for the hideous scene it depicts. And the “straight culture” that was critical of the bad trip to begin with would of course comply with the film’s artsy stereotype that they are “square” and summarily reject this film. Thus a movie that nobody, at the time, could like. So, could it possibly be likable now?
Having never seen this film, and being a huge fan of Antonioni’s earlier Italian films and his other two English-language films Blow Up and The Passenger (with Jack Nicholson), I decided to rent the Zabriskie Point DVD and finally see what all the fuss was about. I was skeptical, and prepared for the worst. But guess what? I loved the film. Yes, much of the acting is pretty bad (but not that of Rod Taylor as the land developer/boss/lover of Daria, and his compadres at Sunny Dunes Corp), and its attempts at social and political relevance are pretentious and clunky. Such damnation would sink most films, and have sunk this one for over four decades. But I believe the film succeeds in spite of all those knocks, and perhaps the negatives even add to its allure now, and become part of its charm. Because the naivete behind the director, writers and the characters is kind of charming from this vantage point, almost like some kind of primitive folk art.
What I think is most astonishing about Zabriskie Point is partly the very prettily-photographed scenes that Vincent Canby decried, but especially the craft and precision with which those scenes are put together. Every frame of this film is a work of art, and perhaps the best way to appreciate it is through stop-motion, frame-by-frame viewing of the DVD, something that was not possible to viewers back in 1970. That’s what I did, after first watching the film “normally,” in an effort to figure out how this thing was constructed. (I even shot a bunch of photos of individual frames, some of which I am putting together into a composite image for a follow-up blog post, to try to express visually this feeling I had while watching the film.)
Charged and sentenced
Vincent Canby complained that Antonioni had “done nothing with his physical production to illuminate in any meaningful way the emotional states of his two principal characters—if, indeed, they have any,” but I think he missed the point. I don’t think the emotional states of the main characters, especially Mark, are the focus here. I think its the emotional state of the camera, and by extension us, the audience, is what’s most important. We witness scenes and encounters more than much of a conventional “plot,” and the invention, to me, is in how strikingly third-person in tone it all is: the camera/director become our avatar in an alien world, forty years before James Cameron’s mystical blue people of planet Pandora did this literally, and much less interestingly.
When Canby wrote of the climactic scene that, “it’s lovely to look at…but completely absurd in the context,” I think it shows that he, like everybody at the time, misunderstood what the context of the film actually is, so of course it seemed absurd to him. If if the context is misjudged, then the way the film is shot can easily be seen as mannered, as Canby notes:
Various Antonioni mannerisms—the blank screen suddenly filled with a face, the endless tracking shots, the pregnant pauses between unfinished thoughts—are finally only tolerable because you remember the times when they were better used.
Whatever the faults of Zabriskie Point — and there are many — it is a visual and structural masterpiece. It is dense with signs and symbols — literally — but that alone isn’t what makes the film so interesting. It’s the way in which the film becomes a persona of it’s own that is so striking. I think that when it came out, a charged (and foreign) indictment of American culture released into a very politically charged environment, it became an easy scapegoat of all that is wrong, from every cranny of the political spectrum. It is a film that has suffered, in effect, from its own cataclysmic oatmeal war of (contemporary) prehistory. That war is now over. (Spoiler: nobody won.) We have our very own culture wars now.
The sound of silence
Zabriskie Point also has a great soundtrack, featuring music by Pink Floyd, Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia, John Fahey, The Rolling Stones, Roscoe Holcomb, and Patti Page. However, the strongest audio presence in the film is silence. Like a true ancestor of the Dogme 95 movement, most songs are only heard very briefly in the film, and usually only when a character turns on a radio; most of the time, there is no musical accompaniment, and nearly silence on the soundtrack. This gives the action on screen a lot more breathing room, and furthers the transformation of camera into character, as we are not distracted by the artifice of soundtrack music.
Perhaps the most telling comment of all comes from a throwaway line narrated in the original Zabriskie Point trailer: Zabriskie Point. How you get there depends on where you’re at. My advice for today’s viewer is to leave your ideologies “where you’re at,” and surrender to the thoroughly alien — and rapturously beautiful — world that is Zabriskie Point.
March 27th, 2012 by Jay | Topic:
Composite of frames from the film, Images du monde visionnaire, 1964, by the Belgian poet Henri Michaux, commissioned by the Sandoz pharmaceutical company. Click to enlarge.
Henri Michaux (1899–1984) was a beautifully strange and idiosyncratic Belgian poet, writer, painter, and maker of exactly one film. He was often called a surrealist, but did not really belong to that or any other group. Notes the Poetry Foundation:
Frederic Sepher pointed out that much of his poetry reads like short stories, although most of it does rhyme. He stated that while Michaux is probably the “least lyric of all contemporary French poets,” and employs few metaphors, “he is brilliantly imaginative, inventive and rythmic. He even verges on the musical in his haunting, desperate litanies with their repetitions and developments.”
Haunting, too, is Michaux’s emphasis on “the strangeness of natural things and the naturalness of strange things,” as Andre Gide once described Michaux’s philosophy. Like Swift, Flaubert, and Lautreament, Michaux created imaginery lands inhabited by equally chimerical creatures. The royal spider, the Hacs, the Emanglons, and the Gaurs are just a few of the inhabitants in what are considered his best works, including Voyage en Grande Garbagne, Au Pays de la magie, and Ici, Poddema. These creatures are portrayed as being more real than human beings.
Michaux traveled widely and experimented with drugs, which landed him the job of making his only film, Images du monde visionnaire, in 1964: Here is a description from the website Ombres Blanches, which tells the story about this amazing and forgotten film:
It’s not an experimental but an educational film which was produced in 1963 by the film department of Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz (best known for synthesizing LSD in 1938) in order to demonstrate the hallucinogenic effects of mescaline and hashish. Still it shares many traits with some of the more interesting efforts in avant-garde film making of its time. Maybe the most remarkable [thing] about it is that it is the only venture in film of notable French writer and painter Henri Michaux who wrote several accounts of his experiments with drugs. In charge with the filmic translation of Michaux’ prescriptions was director Eric Duvivier (a nephew of Julien Duvivier) whose other films include an adaptation of Max Ernst’s collage novel La femme 100 têtes.
The page from Ombers Blanches is quoted on UbuWeb, where you can also watch the entire 38-minute film. I went through the film and assembled the above composite of 30 images that especially struck me and evoke the flavor of this film. It’s a beautiful film, and no drugs are required.