Friday, March 18, 2016

Explication de texte - Abendland

Wei Lee
Prof. Deirdre Boyle
World Documentary Today
March 17th, 2016

Abendland, or “west” in German, literally meaning “evening land”, is an implicit reference to the centrifugal Europe. The Austrian filmmaker, Nikolaus Geyrhalter, explores and focuses on one old question of how we live, in the sense of the historical idea of the West, “Abendland”. Then he extends it to two important areas: Firstly, Europe's obsession with technology and how European countries manage their own people with machinery. Secondly, Europe’s perception of security, meaning the flow of people within the union.

Geyrhalter provides an insight for the viewer about the infrastructure in Europe. He undertakes an associative journey, surveying Europe by night in terms of its many different facets. These include the service providers, bulwarks of security and exclusion, urban civilization, decadence of earthly delights, traditions, and highly developed culture. According to Michael Sicinskia, he states that Geyrhalter has a “take” on how our world works, and his films display the evidence he finds in our world to support that take.

The sole unifying theme of the film, apart from the European continent, is that all the action happens at night. According to the interview between Geyrhalter and Claus Philipp, the filmmaker recalls it was Maria Arlamovsky who developed the film with him. The team began to use “Abendland” rather than “Europe” as the working title. That decision sharpened the outline of the film immediately and inspired the method of interpreting the title in its two senses, as the West and evening land, and shooting after dark exclusively. In terms of the dramatic structure, which is the title that Geyrhalter gives to his long-time collaborator and editor Wolfgang Widerhofer, this decision also helped develop suggestive rhymes and resonances across the course of the film.

The film opens with a self-reflexive image of a surveillance camera rotating in a green field. Subsequent shots alert us to the fact that this is surveillance equipment, and that we are witnessing the night shift on border patrol. It reveals the main theme of the film straightaway. In the director’s statement, Geyrhalter describes Europe in the early 21st century as a paradise, and he mentions the idea of “Protection”. “What enables this privileged life is exclusivity, restricting the enjoyment of the benefits, and limiting participation, for the simple reason that the available resources wouldn’t be sufficient otherwise. That’s why this paradise is sealed off by an insurmountable electrified fence.”, he states. The protection is not only from the external but also the protection of the internal, which the viewers can find in the sequence of maternity clinics, hospitals, nursing homes and the suicide prevention center, Echte Aandacht. Whether the protection of the internal or the one from the external, there is a consistent theme that technology is viewed as the vehicle to help achieve that protection.

The technology that is portrayed in the film is almost omnipresent. Instead of apotheosizing it, the filmmaker sees its dualism. “Technology is shown as a highly elastic border, or semi-permeable membrane, that both separates human beings and allows them to convene,” observes Joseph Jon Lanthier in Slant. It can be said that although technology is meant to unite people, it can also have the effect of dividing individuals from one another.

Apart from the concept of protection, Geyrhalters implicitly asks another question: Who gives a group of people the right to decide how the society should work? In the sequence of the European Parliament, the French minister states, “The militarization of social life. We can also call this regimentation: the assignment of social formations to military units for the sake of regulation, control, and uniformity; the implementation of a regimen, a systematic plan designed to improve economic performance”. I believe that Geyrhalter’s contention that we must challenge the current system or institution is not radical, but merely serves to provide some insight. Another question arises: Does the European Union function as conceptually unifying as it probably should be?
The film is ingeniously structured. It is composed of a number of segments. Each segment happens at a single location or event, typically in a series of three or four individual medium-length takes. In this way, each part has a strong theme that supports and demonstrates the concept of the film. Based on Michael Sicinski’s article, A Metonymic Cinema: Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s "Abendland" and "Danube Hospital", each of these modular units is formed with a degree of autonomy; the larger film, then, is shaped through the larger structure of these single nodes of documentary information. Moreover, some segments are also symmetrically paired and the pair could be either similar or contrary. For instance, the first segment is paired with the scene at the Spanish and Moroccan border, sharing the idea of security and protection. The viewer can also find the same idea in the sequence of the refugee relocation, which echoes with the scene where the British news anchor delivers a report on the clearing of a refugee camp. Another example is the birth and the death. The third sequence where the infants are being monitored corresponds with the Dresden crematorium. From the moment that a person is born to the end of his or her life, the person is always being protected and served by technology.

Except for the pairing, each segment of the film is poetically and metaphorically connected. For example, a waitress carries a massive plate of rotisserie chicken through a beer hall in Munich Oktoberfest, then Widerhofers cuts to a team of doctors, hurrying an injured man through the double doors of a hospital. Later, the man is connected to beeping machines, from which the editor cuts to the humming and whirring of surveillance monitors in the next vignette.
The film form represents a detached point of view. Rather than dramatize, the camera restricts itself exclusively to two operations: static and tracking. It resonates with the cameras and monitors as an observer. Geyrhalter is a director who insists on observation to allow the audience to suspend immediate judgments. In Abendland, he attempts to activate the viewer, without direct exposition, to draw their own association between the collective capitalist structures and their own personal lives, encouraging the audience to take ownership of these revelations. Moreover, there is an emphasis on the use of the long take in Geyrhalter's films. According to Anna Schneider in "Slow" Documentaries: The Long Take in Contemporary Nonfiction Films, she points out that long takes function as an observational means in films that raise questions for which we have no absolute answers. Geyrhalter is not the first documentarian who applies this technique. In this case, Chantal Akerman can be viewed as his predecessor when she approached important statehood and international border issues in Là-bas and D'Est. Nevertheless, a conventional documentary usually only makes use of the long take for limited purposes. These can include objectives such as presenting uncut interviews, or to advance the film's narrative argument. A documentary that is built on the long take, on the other hand, would comprise more of the open present, in which the filmmaker shot the image.

Australian ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall explains in an essay in the 1992-93 issue of Film Quarterly "When Less Is Less: The Long Take in Documentary," that his fellow documentarians often ignore the long take: “Filmmakers continually sacrifice footage which they know would permit a more complex understanding for the subject but which, for reason of length, the film cannot afford” (42). MacDougall says that many filmmakers recognize a sense of loss in their complete work, and he locates that loss in the often fast pacing of editing. When uncut, we retain a sense of the excitement in the contingency of everyday life: "While finished film suggests a past tense, rushes seem to unfold in the present tense of a camera running" (41). However, long takes can be seen as risky to documentary filmmakers for reasons beyond the “efficient” storytelling of the paradigmatic documentary structure. In response to that, MacDougall argues that the dead moment (le temps mort), in which nothing seems to be happening, is a forbidden topic among his filmmaking peers. He finds the origin of the taboo in a paradox of Cinema Vérite and Direct Cinema: the belief that documentary must adhere to and defend "ordinary life" while also portraying it as extra-ordinary. The long take allows the objects represented onscreen to shift in the audience member's perception from autonomous symbols to background noise and then to return to the fore. In Signs of The Time, film scholar Laura Marks suggests that nonfiction films should shake off convention and find power by creating a space between purity or sensation and symbolism. As opposed to fiction films, documentaries already often deal with real world images of raw sensation (197). Marks adds that the experimental films that adapt long takes open the genre up to new forms that contribute to the maintenance of a healthy semiotic flow of information and society.

While Abendland is mostly composed of static long takes, there are also tracking shots. The first one appears in the Oktoberfest sequence. Geyrhalter leads the audience to the center of the vortex and to the different layers of the business. For example, we see the roast chicken on a rotating rack, the robotic movement of the staff filling up beer and the kitchen after the feast. Regarding the framing, Geyrhalter prefers the medium and wide shot while occasionally including a medium-close-up, which mostly serves as an insert. In regards to the length of the shot and the pacing, if the camera works as human eyes then Abendland is a film that only blinks when necessary. The filmmaker works with a Zen-like patience and indifferent curiosity. Each time when the film blinks or breathes, it opens up spaces between ideology and the material. Besides, Geyrhalter also plays with the camera angle. In the sequence of the Pope in Vatican, there are three different angles. It starts with a slightly lower angle shot of the Pope giving a speech from the audience’s point of view, and then moves to a high angle shot of the crowd watching the Pope. The next one is an eye-level shot of the crowd, and finally the shot of the Pope leaving. The Pope is protected by numbers of the guards. The scene looks almost absurd.

While I was parsing Geyrhalter’s visual grammar, I was curious about how he prepares his camerawork. Luckily, I found my answer in the interview that is provided in the press kit on the film’s website. Geyrhalter explains that when arriving at a location he always tries to perceive the reality simultaneously as a kind of play. A stage on which reality plays out. And he believes that the image he captures should reflect that. He states, “You always sense the filmmaker, even though I’m never present. I don’t talk, we stay in the background, but the observer can still sense that someone’s there, looking through his camera at that same moment.” Furthermore, Geyrhalter states that he does not try to pretend that he is secretly filming nor that the subject is not aware they are being filmed. That’s why it all has a theatrical aspect, though the theater is placed in the reality.

Another thing that I noticed is much of the international dialogue is without subtitles, as though the filmmaker wants the audience to tune out each sequence once we have learned its general meaning. Also, there is no narration or title to inform the viewer where the proceedings are taking place. Some places are easily recognizable, such as the European Parliament, British Sky Broadcasting or Munich’s Oktoberfest. However, that does not matter much as Geyrhalter primarily shows us the common Zeitgeist of contemporary Europe. This Europe is portrayed as one nation.

In terms of Geyrhalter’s contribution to the documentary tradition, the filmmaker’s work has been understood as being part of a loose confederation of experimental documentarians and essay filmmakers who have implicitly rejected both the presumed self-evidence of the image and the godlike explanatory power of the “objective,” the unseen voiceover. Geyrhalter's film possesses a strong belief in the visual. What he tries to create is to enable a new way of seeing. While the film form that Geyrhalter chooses functions less rhetorically than the films that are from the Soviet school, his work shows a more comparative form of montage. Geyrhalter and Widerhofer draw comparisons and connections from the factual material, which could be understood as a node within a global socio-economic system, subjecting it to a camera gaze. According to Stanley Cavell in The World Viewed, he suggests that the magic of cinema arises, “Not by literally presenting us with the world, but by permitting us to view it unseen” (1979:40). Geyrhalter also mentions in the interview with Claus Philipp that he wants people to finally see these things that they know happen in the background, and which are normally blocked intentionally. He adds, “As an impetus, to provide the basis for discussion. This is where the actual film begins.” Geyrhalter reveals that European culture in our globalized, neoliberal world today is highly instructive. Michael Sicinski calls Geyrhalter’s films “metonymic cinema”. That is to say, although the perspectives that Geyrhalter deliberately presents in Abendland are just several single locales or institutions, they are intended to stand in for larger implied wholes.

Furthermore, the metaphorical narrative that Geyrhalter adopts to structure the film - namely one camera recording the other camera, seems like an ambitious mise en abyme. For example, let us examine the opening sequence where the audience watches a man hunched over a joystick controlling a camera on top of the border fence. We watch him as he watched his monitor scanning for suspicious human activity but finding only a rabbit and a patrol van performing the same labor as himself. The filmmaker positioned himself behind the ones who monitor everything. Apart from that, many sequences of the film are characterized by the omnipresence of the camera and monitor, so that the viewer is in the position of gazing upon other people who are themselves gazing upon some presented object image.

In closing, the essential theme of Abendland is presenting the portraits of various activities in different countries in nighttime Europe. However, the underlying theme is surveillance and protection. Established in the opening sequence of a remote camera, facing the audience straight while roving a border for suspicious activities and illegal trespassers. The film reveals its central theme straightaway. The decision of recording all action happens at night unified the rhythms of the film and the editor Widerhofer builds the film on a symmetric structure. In the director’s statement that’s provided on the film’s website, Geyrhalter describes Europe in the early 21st century as a paradise, where a comprehensive social safety net is in place, should it be needed. “Whoever lives in paradise must be prepared to protect it.”, He argues. Whether the protection of the internal or the one from the exitrnal, there is a consistent theme that technology is the approach to help achieve that protection. The long takes that are used in the film encourage open association, however, the spectator is encourage to pick up on specific themes. Geyrhalter and his long-time editor Widerhofer state that they do not intend to "spoon feed" information to their audience and the long takes seem to be the solution.

In this film, Geyrhalter sees the Europe as one nation rather than individual states. This concept is reconfirmed in Claus Philipp’s About the Unjustment of Being Born. He compares Abendland with the British novelist John Berger’s Once in Europa, which examines the unjustness of being born into certain conditions. He says, “ A similar motivation may have driven Nikolaus Geyrhalter and the resolute gaze he directs at present-day life in this unjust Europe: a love of humanity that grows stronger through distance.”.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Interview with Woody Allen on NRP

Full Interview here
Q: You wouldn't consider yourself crazy?

Allen: No, no. My problem is that I'm middle-class. If I was crazy I might be better. That probably accounts for my output. I lead a very sensible life: I get up in the morning, I work, I get the kids off to school, do the treadmill, play the clarinet, take a walk with my wife. It's usually the same walk every day. If I were crazy, it would help. If I shrieked on the set and demanded, it may be better, but I don't. I say, "Good enough!" It's a middle-class quality, which does make for productivity.


Monday, April 6, 2015

Close Analysis of Steve McQueen's Hunger

March 16th, 2015.
Wei Lee

In terms of mise-en-scene, the director Steve McQueen applies a realistic style to this film. Firstly, I would like to discuss the lighting. Although we would imagine there must be plenty of artificial lights in an airtight place as HM Prison Maze, the filmmaker chose natural lights over the artificial, which brings out a realistic style. In the 17-minute long take of the conversation between Bobby Sands and the priest (45.35-1.09.55), the sunlight pours in from the window on the top of the wall and becomes a natural backlighting. In regards to the camera framing, McQueen did not adopt shot reverse shot for this act, which most mainstream films would embrace for the purpose of continuity editing. Instead, the two characters are in a wide-angle shot, and the camera becomes the third person as a witness of this debate, sitting right next to them. In this case, this technique creates an incredible tension between the two characters and because it is a static single long take, the viewers are able to pay close attention to the dialogue. I contend the classical shot reverse shot would be totally unnecessary for this scene. If the dialogue of screenplay is meaningful and has substance, a long take does not bore the audience. The Average Shot Length of this film is 11.1 seconds per shot, which is noticeably longer than a regular feature film. The pacing is generally slow. And from the overall film and the 17-minute long take I mentioned previously, we could see McQueen is not a filmmaker that likes assembling brief shots into a montage. Nonetheless, the ASL of the scene I chose to do the shot-by-shot analysis is only 2.21 seconds per shot (37.00- 37.55), and it is the turning point of the the story. Why is there such a dramatic transition in this scene? Firstly, this scene functions as an introduction in the whole riot segment. And secondly, I believe McQueen changes the pacing of this segment in order to build contrast and make it stand out from other segments. However, the pacing is not the only technique that McQueen plays with. In this scene, McQueen only shows the riot in the cell but not the prison guard's response to it. Instead he put two insert shots of the empty hallway. The fear of human beings is often originated from our own imagination. Therefore, the viewer perceives that something is going to happen without necessarily seeing what is happening on the other side.

Subsequently, the overall choice of the camera lens is less noticeable and the framing is fairly neutral. For instance, most of the close-ups are used when there is a detail that needs to draw the audience's attention, or when the IRA prisoners are looking outside of the window in the second segment. McQueen also adopts close-up shots of details in the first segment to portray the prison guard and his daily routine. Surely, Steve McQueen tried not to overly expose the emotion of each character. Another example is the scene of the riot officer where the young armed police is weeping on the other side of the wall while his comrades are beating the prisoners (43.05-43.18). It starts with a relatively simple medium close-up which last for 4 seconds and then cuts to a 9-second medium shot. In addition, the camera angle constantly shifts between high and low angles depending on the subject. The camera angle certainly represents the director's perspective. In the scene of the forced haircut and shower, the camera is always positioned in a high angle when Bobby Sands in the shot, conversely, the viewers see the prison guards from a low angle through the camera. Aside from that, let us examine the depth of field of this film. I believe there is not a marked preference for staging in depth or shallow depth compositions, nevertheless I noticed that McQueen employs a deep focus for the last shot of the film (1.30.31-1.31.28). I thought it would be a static shot and then cut to another one, surprisingly when two prison guards pushing the car that has Bobby Sands' body on it to almost in front of the camera, the camera pans to the right and follows the guards walking to the outside. Then the camera maintains the same position, observing the whole process from a distance. After Bobby Sands' death, the camera steps back to a straight and wide-angle position.

There is always a reason behind Steve McQueen's choices of camera movement. Following the scene of the riot in HM Prison Maze, it is the arrival of the armed police. From the moment that the riot officers start beating the IRA prisoners (40.48-42.49), I noticed that the camera switches from a static composition to a mobile frame. It is a 2-minute handheld take and the camera is constantly moving, following one prisoner to another. This choice brings a vivid and chaotic feeling to the viewers and it is emotionally very powerful, as if we are in the riot as well. It is also the first time the camera captures this incident and becomes more expressive. The framing of this sequence contains all wide-angle, medium and close-up shots. Regarding the film's audio-visual relations, the dialogue is mostly truncated except for the conversation between Bobby Sands and the priest. Nonetheless, I would like to point out the two inserted speeches of Margaret Thatcher in the film, which is a significant use of non-diegetic sounds. The first part goes “There is no such thing as political murder, political bombing or political violence. There is only criminal murder, criminal bombing and criminal violence. We will not compromise on this. There will be no political status” (9:24-9:42) , and the second part “Faced with the failure of their discredited cause, the men of violence have chosen in recent months to play what may well be their last card. They have turned their violence against themselves through the prison hunger strike to death. They seek to work on the most basic of human emotions—pity—as a means of creating tension and stoking the fires of bitterness and hatred.”(1:12:54-1:13:25) While the film remains disconnected from the larger political situation, focusing on the specific living conditions of those imprisoned in the Maze, these are the only two times that the audiences learn responses from outside of the world. Through the whole film, we do not see any images of Margaret Thatcher or the British government, only the voice vibrating in the ghastly prison and the guards mercilessly executing their mission as an embodiment of inhumanness.

Hunger follows the principles of mainstream editing, and it does maintain continuous and clear narrative action. The film starts with this following structure: we are introduced to a middle- class, middle-aged man. We learn after that he’s a prison guard at the Maze, and see him isolated from his colleagues, seemingly emotionally wounded by his job. There is basically no dialogue in the first act. Then the film’s perspective shifts to the side of the prisoners, where it will rest for the remainder of the film until the death of Bobby Sands. Here comes a new prisoner who refuses to wear the prison uniform. We then get glimpses of what life is like for prisoners in the Maze. Following the previous act, this is all presented with very limited narrative or character development. We merely observe the prisoners in action.

Why McQueen chose to interpret this film in a realistic fashion? I believe we can sense it simply by looking at the title of the film. First of all, the film is not called “Bobby Sands” as it may be if it is an biographical film. And indeed is it not. There is no myth nor exaggerated emotion in this piece. Many believe it is not a conventional plot to draw us from beginning to end. Nevertheless, McQueen uses this techniques that enable Hunger to surpass the limits of traditional cinema, which is he lets the image tell the story instead of giving a verbal explanation, allowing an emphasis on one element. The viewers are forced to concentrate on every detail in each scene. McQueen refuses to let the formalist get narratively comfortable. By taking such a harsh attitude, Hunger also shows that traditional films, especially Hollywood films, seem to believe that audiences will not be able to comprehend if the exposition is not presented in an extremely obvious way. The result not only disrespects the audience, but more insults the film’s intelligence. Sadly, more and more people treat film merely a tool of storytelling but not an art form.

What relation does the filmmaker hope us to have with the characters? Are we asked to identify with characters or to share their experiences? In narrative terms, McQueen holds an objective perspective and our access to story information is restricted. In this film, we are merely an observer who walks through the story with the characters, following the Director's mise-en-scene. The story of Hunger concerns the fierce battle between the Irish Republican Army and the British government. Steve McQueen is not trying to have his audience choose one side from the other. And the film is not necessarily about the rights and wrongs of the British in Northern Ireland, but about inhumane prison conditions, and the conflict between the adamant determination of IRA members and the refusal of the British government that was led by Margaret Thatcher. There is hardly a sentence in the film about Irish history or politics, the ideology involved is not even mentioned in the long dialogue scene. In fact, for an audience like me who did not know much about the history of this period, I did a background research after watching the first 30 minutes of the film. Another obscure concern of this film is the disagreement between the priest and Bobby Sands. The priest discusses the hunger strike entirely in terms of its utility and futility, never once mentions suicide as a sin. In opposition, Sands believes starvation to death will have an impact. The priest foresees that if this action does, Sands will sacrifice himself in the end. Certainly, Sand's willingness to die reflects his inveterate beliefs as an Irish Republican, yet Sands' death is shown in an illustration of increasing bleakness. Looking back in history, did the hunger strike eventually achieve its goal? After the number of victims climbed to 10, the Thatcher government finally compromised and granted the prisoners political recognition, although Thatcher never said so out loud. Today there is peace in Northern Ireland, but the island nation is still divided. And Bobby Sands remains dead.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Bolex 16mm Short Film Project #1

*可切換到1080p HD


我是真心覺得Bolex 16mm的這個作業很困難,至少對我來說。因為底片很貴,一卷2分50秒就要60塊美金,每分每秒都要計較。在前製的時候我連一個take究竟要多長也難以決定 (通常這種事都是等剪接的時候才想,實在是太偷懶了),加上最近看了幾部一樣是16釐米的實驗電影,我才意識到自己究竟有多習慣電影作為一種敘事的媒介而不是一種藝術形式。深刻的反省中。