Getting (re-)indoctrinated into cognitive and historical poetics as a way to think about reading and understanding literature has thrown up some questions about how we perceive, categorize and move about the objective world we find ourselves in, in terms of the definition and location of shapes. That is, books, paintings, and films use their respective media to present shapes distinguished from each other via edges, literal edges like in the composition of a shot, but also conceptual edges between different lines of dialog, or types of ground.
This fixation has fed back into movie-watching. People talk about binge watching as a problem but in fact I struggle to take a break from reading (professionally, vocationally, and non-productively) and do something else to relax. Some people just keep working to cope. It’s awful.
But at least I can leverage my privilege as a coastal elite to see analog 70 and 35mm prints of old movies in NYC.
Obviously movies are replete with edges, and it was nice to attend to them with a renewed interest. Moreover, analog film is excellent! Projected film improves every cinematic experience, even DEATH ON THE NILE.
The organization Subway Cinema has been collecting and exhibiting vintage prints of great Hong Kong action movies that used to play in movie houses throughout Chinatown and Times Square. I had the pleasure to see DYNAMITE FIGHTERS, the first leading role for Michelle Yeoh (whose victory lap performance in EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE blew out my expectations), shot on location in Manchuria—and the film grain made the setting so alive!
Another treat was Jet Li starring in FIST OF LEGEND. This remake of FIST OF FURY is more lighthearted and more complicated in plot. Once again high level production design for a period piece. What a joy to see the Golden Harvest logo on the big screen, jittery, strobey, scratched to hell and with the optical soundtrack not yet working. The host noted we were watching an English dub of mysterious origin. It was different from the one you can find on YouTube, thankfully.
After viewings on a portable DVD player from the early aughts and on YouTube, a full scale analog screening of Eisenstein’s great film convinced me it was the best movie ever made.
Soon as it began the realization hit me that this was a nearly 100-year-old piece of film stock (maybe younger, it was a MoMA export print). The picture looked fantastic. There was no soundtrack whatsoever, and it wasn’t missed. I was looking forward to seeing the red flag raised on the battleship, but apparently the tint faded away over time.
Many shots were absolutely epic: the revolting sailors diving into the water to rescue their fallen leader trapped in the rigging; the massive crowd shots in Odessa, naturally. The editing goes without saying: the sailor dashing the plate to the floor like a discus thrower, the stone lions “awakening” along with the masses under the cannons of tsarism. And I remember a shot that “doesn’t really work” in terms of standard compositional practice: we see workers coming up a gangplank onto a jetty I think, but they’re thrown to the right edge of the frame while the camera is mainly looking at a wall, so that the main attraction is the shadows they cast on it.
Something the projectionists did at the Anthology theater that I had never really seen before was allowing the tail ends of each reel of the film to go on screen (I snapped a picture of the very last bit of the last reel above). This must be the avant-garde alternative to both the changeover system and platter towers.
I caught this Weerasethakul short from 2018 at the BAM. There was a woman struggling to sleep, lying in a bed outdoors, the bars of the bedframe lined in shadow above her head, her blue fleece blanket outlined against the dim backdrop. We also see two painted backdrops, of a path by the sea at sunset, to a view of perhaps the same path leading to a temple or pavilion. A scrolling mechanism transitions from one to the other. It seems to stall for a moment. Back to the insomniac woman, a dim orange flare grows in her chest, as if expressing a nightmare. The flare soon becomes a campfire, and its crackling comes onto the soundtrack along with the insect drone. The fire grows and starts throwing light on the ground—it’s clear that the fire is reflected in a glass pane, so that it superimposes itself on the sleeper. Then the film opens up to more varied and wider angles: there is a real fire, and a pane of glass between it and the backdrop. Is the scrolling automatic or human-operated? The stand of a tall overhead lamp lives conspicuously in the foreground along with some plant props. The woman’s bed is out in the open with a white outline drawn around it on the ground. Sometimes she is falling asleep, at other moments she gazes with her eyes wide open. These automated yet handycraftish optics and scenery, plus a spectator-sleeper, partly dreaming and partly perceiving, present for us the whole apparatus of cinema, but there’s another surprise: a shot through the glass pane to the scenery makes the flame appear over the ruby red sunset, a small but unexpected mix of the given elements, and the touch that deepens the whole thing beyond a pat allegory.
UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES
The short was a DCP projection, but the main attraction was in glorious 35mm. UNCLE BOONMEE is one of my very favorite films in the last decade, and watching it loud and big was genuinely refreshing. It’s a cliche but I felt I had seen it for the first time, probably because I’ve only ever watched it on Netflix.
For being only twelve years old, the film stock was absolutely scuffed, especially compared to the MoMA print of POTEMKIN. Giant green and white vertical scratch lines, the thickest of such artifacts I’d ever seen, cut into the frame every now and then, which looked terrific. The greenery of the jungle had a blue tint behind it that I’d never appreciated before. And the monkey ghosts with their red laser dot eyes oozed into the backdrop. Cuts that on home video seemed arbitrary or at least abrupt became shocks to the system, like a blue underwater frame full of bubbles and foam smash cutting to the pure photographic blackness of night at Boonmee’s country estate. The narrative is simple yet the filmmaking choices have the landscape enveloping the characters in these pastoral and transporting ways. BOONMEE has a few distinctive sequences, including a folk tale-like interlude with catfish cunnilingus and a vision of the future presented in still photographs. The film itself is part of a larger multi-media project called PRIMITIVE. Yet viewing it in a theater for the first time, the work felt wholly unitary and un-episodic.