Film Culture Reader

This compilation from Film Culture magazine—the pioneering periodical in avant-garde movie commentary—includes participants like Charles Boultenhouse, Erich von Stroheim, Michael McClure, Stan Brakhage, Annette Michelson, Arthur Miller, Dylan Thomas, Andrew Sarris, Rudolph Arnheim, Jonas Mekas, and Parker Tyler. This assortment covers a number of themes in 20th century cinema, from the Auteur thought to the industrial cinema, from Orson Welles to Kenneth Anger.

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Every frame is composed by the filmmaker as if it were a painting, displaying a profound attention for location and background, and an obsessive research for symmetry between the body of the interviewee and the space that surrounds it. In some cases, Greenaway creates a game of shadows behind the interviewee’s body; in other cases, he constructs an impressive depth of field through open doors and windows. In one interview held over the phone, Greenaway invents a shot with a strange perspective: a telephone handle in close-up looks unnaturally big, and from a window in the background the tops of some trees and a threatening sky are visible.

This is what Riefensthal achieves in Triumph of the Will, and also in her Olympia. It does not matter here if such portrayals are of things, nature or people, because, ultimately, everything is filtered through a human sensibility: we cannot escape the fact that every conception of reality is filtered through our human perspective. So, for example, in Joris Ivens’ Regen (1929), shots of reflections in a river, or of raindrops falling into a pool of water, appear emotionally moving not because they are so in themselves, but because we relate these images to our emotional and visceral experience of reality.

There is also a crucial distinction to be made here between these interview-based films and other types of documentary films which also use filmed extracts to illustrate their exposition. In such latter films, and as also argued earlier, a sequence is taken from a pre-existing film— which has a particular logic and coherence of its own—and is then inserted into the body of the host film in order to illustrate the exposition being mobilised by that film. However, as previously maintained, this is in fact a disingenuous and misleading type of illustration because the original footage was both intended and structured to illustrate another and completely different exposition, and may even not have directly illustrated any exposition at all but, rather, had the purpose of accompanying or even contradicting that exposition (if the original film even had an overall exposition).

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