REVIEW – Day for Night (1973)

FilmJuice have my review of Francois Truffaut’s thoroughly excellent Day for Night, also known as Nuit Americaine in reference to the practice of recreating night on-screen by shifting the white balance and deliberately under-exposing the shot.

Despite not having seen this film in about twenty years, Day for Night was absolutely central to my discovery of art house film. I first discovered a love of film while my parents were getting divorced as my mother would take me to the video store and allow me to rent as many films as I wanted, regardless of their age-appropriateness. I took my love of film to the next level as a teenager when my GCSE English teacher started showing us films in an effort to make us think critically about texts. I rather enjoyed the process and so started going out of my way to rent unusual films and one of the films I stumbled upon quite early on was Day for Night, a film whose true brilliance I really only understand now that I’m able to spot all the jokes and references…

Day for Night is a film about film-making or rather the process of film production and how films are assembled by a combination of authorial vision, individual incompetence, collective brilliance and blind fucking luck:

Throughout the film, characters frequently ask themselves why they have chosen to work in the film industry and whether cinema can ever be more than a job and a way of making money. Though never addressed directly either in the plot or dialogue, Day for Night must be viewed as an answer to both of those questions as the film can be read as a picture of what Marxists refer to as non-alienated labour, which is to say work that offers spiritual and psychological succour as well as financial remuneration. Imagine a job that does more than just fill the pockets of wealthier people. Imagine a job that defines you as an individual and provides you both with a sense of purpose and a tangible connection to the people that surround you. Imagine a job that you look forward to doing because it tells you who you are, where you came from, and where you are headed tomorrow. Imagine a job that makes both yourself and the world a better place and you will understand how François Truffaut felt about being a filmmaker.

The film is full of lovely moments and great performances but the really famous bit is a montage sequence when everything on a seemingly disastrous and doomed production suddenly slots into place and — as Truffaut famously put it — cinema reigns:

 

A Farewell to Arms: Midnight Eye

I recently spent several thousand words complaining about how 21st Century film journalism has allowed itself to become little more than an unpaid cog in the Hollywood marketing machine but there will always be exceptions to the rule. For as long as I have been reading about world cinema on the internet, I have been aware of the brilliance that is the website Midnight Eye.

For over fifteen years old, Midnight Eye has set the gold standard for online film criticism. Devoted where others were fickle, serious where others were glib and passionate where others were opportunistic, Midnight Eye has showcased the new and the old in Japanese film and now its journey has come to an end as its operators Tom Mes, Jasper Sharpe and Martin Mes have decided to stop updating and get on with their lives.

As readers will have come to expect, their parting message is as insightful as it is despairing about the nature of contemporary Japanese cinema:

There is still quite a bit of guts and artistic vision on the no-budget end, but that side suffers from a lack of outlook – for the vast majority of young indie filmmakers there is nowhere to grow after they make their first self-financed feature, even if they had their film shown at festivals abroad and picked up a few awards along the way. Self-financing a movie is an exhausting process that you are not terribly likely to repeat (unless you are Shinya Tsukamoto and it’s in your DNA). They can’t go professional either, because there is simply no room for them in the industry: since the collapse of the video and DVD market medium-budget productions have to all intents and purposes vanished, while the production committees of the high-budget films prefer to hire someone of whom they can be sure, which means either a TV director familiar to the network that has a stake in the production or an experienced hand like Takashi Miike or Yukihiko Tsutsumi who already has a track record making hits.

Things go in waves (or in circles), so surely these recent developments in Japanese film (and hopefully those in politics too) will eventually be replaced by other trends. That an increasing number of directors are looking to make films overseas is both a sad consequence of the current situation and an opportunity to redefine our views of what constitutes a “Japanese film”. But the current situation and the films it engenders do not exactly fill us at Midnight Eye with the enthusiasm we need to keep this website running when so many other important things require attention.

The closure of Midnight Eye has left me wondering whether cultural scenes might not just wind up getting the critical press they deserve. How can we expect film journalists and critics to be brave and pioneering when the creators they write about seem content to chase the last big hit?

I have long been an admirer of Midnight Eye and will profoundly regret their closure… great works should not end in a chorus of indifference.

How Film Writing Works in the 21st Century

Step 1: Come up with an angle from which to promote the film and ensure that said angle features prominently in all pre-release promotional materials including fan-oriented press releases and interviews with talent.

For example, suggest that Guardians of the Galaxy is very similar to the original Star Wars as a way to (i) cross-promote two franchises that are owned by the same multinational corporation, (ii) get-over any (Green Lantern-inspired) resistance the target audience might have to a space-based action movie by comparing Guardians of the Galaxy to a film they already know, and (iii) give the adult audience an excuse to infantilise themselves and set aside their cynicism by inviting them to approach Guardians of the Galaxy in the same way as they approached Star Wars as children.

 

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A Perspective on Perspectives

The Good people at Nerds of a Feather are currently experimenting with a couple of new formats including the Blogtable I was lucky enough to participate in earlier this week. The second format they have tried is called Perspectives and it seems to involve a number of bloggers responding to a particular piece or event. For reasons best known to The G, they chose my reviews of Terraform and Uncanny magazines as the basis for their first Perspectives.

Whenever people respond to anything I write (particularly negatively, natch) my first instinct is to mutter about them getting the wrong end of the stick but this time, I was reminded of an old article by John Clute in which he talks about the wonders of ‘misprision’ and how someone’s decision to latch onto a meaning other than the one you intended can serve to open up interesting perspectives on the original piece. Plus… it would be a bit off of me to argue that the author is dead and then argue that people have failed to interpret one of my essays correctly! So rather than seeking to ‘correct’ their responses or ‘punish them for their impudence’, I’ll respond to their ideas directly and use them as an opportunity to clarify some of my own thinking.

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Don’t Let Pop Culture Tell You Who You Are

Frequent visitors to this blog will by now have realised that both the form and frequency of my posting is subject to a good deal of fluctuation. Sometimes I crank out sizeable pieces on a regular basis, sometimes I provide only links and other times I post links to short reviews and publish larger essays. The reason for these variations is that my motivations sometimes change and when my motivations change, so to does the nature of my output.  These changes in motivation were particularly obvious when, earlier this year, I ceased to write very much at all.

At the time, I found this sudden lack of motivation rather distressing as I have always been able to re-motivate myself by shaking things up and writing about different things in different ways. In fact, this lack of motivation was so traumatic that I soon came to believe that my time as a critic might have come to an end. Needless to say, this did not actually happen but the reasons for this creative impasse strike me as interesting enough to warrant a proper post, if only for the sake of other people who may be experiencing similar motivational problems.

The problem was that I was going through the process of selling my childhood home and moving to an entirely new town. On a purely practical level, this made sitting down to write rather difficult. On a psychological level, this made it almost impossible to think about anything that was not directly related to the move. Unclear as to why I was finding it so difficult to sit down and write, I managed to convince myself that my motivation for writing has been completely destroyed by the realisation that there was really no point in sharing my views with anyone about anything. The reason I reached this particular creative impasse was that I encountered a number of works that encouraged me to think of myself purely as an introverted outsider and introverted outsiders tend not to be all that interested in sharing their opinions with other people. This is a post about the dangers of labelling oneself and then coming to believe that those labels exhaust your entire identity.

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Zona (2012) By Geoff Dyer – Then, after about 15 minutes, you’re spit out into a ditch on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike!

Geoff Dyer is a man who knows the value of an unconventional job title. Rather than sauntering through life as a simple novelist, critic, travel writer, historian or essayist, Dyer has tried his hand at many different forms and somehow evaded becoming particularly associated with any of them. Geoff Dyer is not a novelist who writes criticism or a travel writer who produces novels, he is all of these things and yet none of them. Like a Renaissance princeling or Imperial Khan, his name is habitually appended with an ever-growing succession of baroque and idiosyncratic job titles ranging from the mundane (writer) and the old fashioned (intellectual) to the endearingly preposterous (intellectual gate-crasher). Frankly, if Dyer began describing himself as a servant of the Secret Fire and wielder of the Flame of Anor I doubt that anyone would be particularly surprised. Dyer evades encapsulation in the same way as Pynchon evades publicity… his elusiveness is central to his charm.

In a typically warm, insightful and engaging interview conducted by Colin Marshall, Dyer explains the reasoning behind his steadfast refusal to either commit to any particular form or abide by the rules of any of the forms he operates in.  Dyer’s end game is to create a body of work whose allure bears no relation to its actual subject matter. For example, you may have no interest in the life and work of D.H. Lawrence but this should not prevent you from being entertained by Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage (1997), a book about trying to write a book about D.H. Lawrence. Similarly, you might prefer the idea of burying your face in an ants nest to reading another novel about spiritually disaffected upper-middle class people but this should in no way prevent you from enjoying Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (2009).

With no apparent form or subject matter to call his own, the seat of Dyer’s charm is… well… Dyer himself. As Michael Silverblatt put it when he interviewed Dyer, there is something decidedly likeable about a man who travels the world only to obsess over finding the correct local iteration of his preferred breakfast. There is something instantly recognisable about a man who loves books and films but never the ones that he is supposed to be reading at any given moment. As in the works of J.G. Ballard, this persona may change slightly from book to book and from article to article but that voice and that character are present in everything that Dyer writes. Chances are that if you like the persona that Dyer presents in all of his writings then you will happily read anything that Dyer has to say as the true subject of Dyer’s books and articles is invariably himself.

Those immune to Dyer’s charms may well view Dyer’s methodology as supremely egocentric and dishonest. Indeed, how many people have purchased Out of Sheer Rage expecting an award-winning biography of Lawrence only to discover that the book is actually the amusing tale of a hapless writer who scoffs almond croissants goes on holiday and crashes his moped? These un-named and potentially fictitious critics may well be completely right about Dyer but they are also missing the point.

There are many reasons for deciding to read a particular book (plot, characterisation, social commentary, prose style) but one of the most compelling is that the process of reading someone else’s thoughts allows you to gain access to that person’s headspace for extended periods of time. To read a book is to experience something – a time, a place, a film, a relationship – through the eyes of an author and when that author has a set of sensibilities as distinct and engaging as those of Geoff Dyer then sharing that author’s headspace can become an end in itself. If the point of Dyer’s writing is to allow us to hear the world described by his voice then his latest work Zona (2012) is his most successful to date.

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BG47 – Hang All The Critics

Futurismic have just published my forty-seventh Blasphemous Geometries column entitled ‘Hang all the Critics: Towards Useful Video Game Writing’.

I originally wrote the column about ten days ago but last weekend I became aware of two significant blogospheric shit-storms that seem to provide an interesting context for the column.  The first shit-storm involves a bunch of people being upset by an article about yoga and the second shit-storm involves a bunch of people being upset by a review of an epic fantasy novel. Though ostensibly very different in their origins and subject matters, both shit-storms involve a community reacting very angrily to negative coverage from a perceived outsider. In the case of the ‘yoga community’, the outsider is the New York Times senior science writer William Broad and, in the case of the ‘epic fantasy community’, the outsider is the Strange Horizons reviewer and post-graduate student Liz Bourke.

The link between these blogstorms and my most recent video games column is that ‘Hang All the Critics’ is an attempt to confront the fact that the age of the critic has now passed. Criticism and its less well-heeled cousin reviewing rely upon the assumption that a person of reasonable insight and creative flair can consume a cultural product and issue an opinion or reaction to that will be of use to other people despite the fact that these other people might have very different tastes and interests.

It is no accident that the role of the critic has its roots in the cafe culture of the 17th Century as the coffee shops frequented by the likes of Samuel Johnson tended to be cramped places where all kinds of bourgeois intellectuals were forced to rub shoulders. One of the unfortunate side-effects of the Internet’s infinite potential for space is that people from a particular class and with a particular set of interests are no longer forced to rub shoulders with people with ever-so-slightly different sets of tastes. These days, if you are interested in steam locomotives but not other forms of train then you are in no way obliged to encounter the opinions of people who consider steam trains to be a quaint but outmoded form of technology. The more the Internet matures, the more interest groups fragment and the more interest groups fragment, the more isolated and tribal these communities become. There is no place for criticism in a world dominated by tribal conflicts and persecution complexes, this is why Liz Bourke and William Broad got it in the neck and this is why Rotten Tomatoes is filled with people reacting angrily to the idea that a film they haven’t seen might not be as good as they expect. The age of the critic is at an end and it is time to change the way we do business.

Needless to say, I am not the first person to notice the collapse of our culture’s public spaces. Indeed, many reviewers and critics have attempted to respond to the increasingly commercial and tribal nature of the public sphere either by retreating into the walled-garden of academia or by creating a tribal space of their own. While I can entirely understand this desire for retrenchment, I think that it is ultimately an act of cowardice:

As someone who has never once tried to review a game for a major site, I am not in the least bit opposed to the fracturing of public space in order to create environments in which inaccessible forms of writing are protected from the vagaries of commerce and popular tastes. A recent comment on one of my pieces described my style as “masturbatory” and I find myself absolutely powerless to disagree. There is something decidedly self-indulgent about sharing one’s opinions online — particularly when one makes little or no effort to reach out to the majority of people interested in a particular topic — and this kind of self-indulgence is not about subjecting games to serious intellectual scrutiny or ‘consolidating a continuous counterbalance’; is a cowardly retreat from the public sphere, driven by the recognition that my opinions are of use to nobody but myself. There is absolutely nothing brave or revolutionary about taking your ball and going home.

My problem with the critics of Bourke and Broad is not that they are wrong to feel the way they feel. Life in the 21st Century is frequently lonely and it is easy to begin thinking of one’s sub-culture as a kind of family that provides us with both an identity and a set of values. When you invest yourself that heavily in a particular sub-culture then it makes perfect sense that you should bristle when that elements of that sub-culture come under fire from outsiders. Even if you don’t like a particular novel or have your own concerns about the way that yoga is taught, it is one thing to hear those feelings from someone you trust and quite another to hear them from someone you don’t know. Ever bitched about a sibling to a member of your family? ever defended that same sibling when they came under fire from someone else? Some truths can only be spoken inside the family.

My problem with the critics of Bourke and Broad (or the people who complained about Uncharted 3 only getting 8 out of 10) is not that they are wrong, it is that they are being insular. As I said elsewhere, the most wonderful thing in the world is to have someone care enough to listen to you and tell you that you are completely full of shit. By wanting to protect epic fantasy from outsiders like Bourke, the defenders of epic fantasy (and those of yoga) are closing themselves off to a potential source of cultural renewal.

I would like to believe that there is a place for people like Bourke and Broad because I would like to believe that there is a place for cultural generalists and for people who take the ideas and values of one culture and carry them into those of another.  This blog is very much devoted to the idea that a single person can look at radically different forms and subject matters and say something of value about them. Unfortunately, while I would like to believe that there is a place for that form of cultural generalism, I think that the Internet is growing increasingly hostile to it. After all, why listen to random strangers when you can only listen to fellow academics, fantasy fans, yoga enthusiasts, republicans or furries? Why listen to anyone other than yourself?