Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Anu Silfverberg: Sinut on nähty / [You Have Been Seen] (a book)

Anu Silfverberg : Sinut on nähty [You Have Been Seen]. Helsinki : Kustannusosakeyhtiö Teos, 2020. 244 pp.

Anu Silfverberg's Sinut on nähty [You Have Been Seen] is a book of anger. It's a passionate confession and indictment. The Me Too movement, the term coined by Tarana Burke in 2006 and the movement launched by Alyssa Milano in 2017, opened the floodgates to condemn harassment and abuse towards women. I believe that the final outrage that ignited the movement was the vulgar misogyny in the U.S. presidential campaign of 2017.

I have experienced powerful waves of feminism before: in society in general in the 1960s, and in film studies of the 1970s and the 1980s. Feminism was a major trend in the Screen magazine. But never before has there been a wave like this.

"The male gaze" was a favourite concept in film studies almost 50 years ago, and now Silfverberg returns to Laura Mulvey's essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (1973 / 1975). Silfverberg has been inspired both by Mulvey's ideas and her provocative manifesto attitude.

In her definitive statement on the subject, the book Afterimages : On Cinema, Women and Changing Times (2019), Mulvey renders a synthesis of major interests in her scholarship: woman as spectacle, studies of race and gender, avantgarde and counter-cinema, and new approaches to movie watching made possible by home and mobile formats.

There is an appendix, "Ten frequently asked questions on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema'" (pp. 238–255) written for this book. Mulvey says that at some point she stopped giving permission for republication of the essay, because she found the text, meant to be a provocation, now completely archaic.

But she found herself proud of its continuing influence. "It seems to me that my personal thoughts about 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' are not really that relevant today, as the essay no longer belongs to me but to continuing and contemporary discussions on the topic. After all, spectacle has proliferated massively since 1975, and its politics are more urgent than ever".

In contemporary media culture: "Certainly, the spectator of 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' has given way to infinitely more complex, and ultimately playful, ways of relating to the screen. And on the screen gender images are now, in some kind of synchronicity, also more complex, more flexible and more playful than the spectatorial straightjacket I wrote about in 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema'."

Silfverberg's manifesto is more furious than Mulvey's inspirational text. Her rage against mainstream cinema makes it compelling to read. Silfverberg is candid about her passions, articulating something close to a primal bond between the viewer and the spectacle, an atavistic state of being, a symbiosis between the movie and its audience.

Silfverberg reports a conversation with Elsi Hyttinen, a literary critic, who has reassessed the meaning of watching together during the corona epidemic. Something experienced as a part of a big shared audience body is crucially different from a lone experience in front of a home screen. They discussed an article by a biologist about how in the cinema and other auditoria human bodies tune to a shared wavelength, how we communicate via pheromones et cetera to the herd how we are feeling.

This blissful state is the starting point, leading to a violent disillusion when images prove fundamentally distorted. Women can relate to their images on the screen only with feelings of embarrassment and incredulousness. Women do not recognize themselves in these representations. They are not based on women's self-definitions but on the male gaze. Now women are refusing to accept this state of things and rebelling against it.

Like with Mulvey's original, it would be possible to criticize Silfverberg's text about being single-minded and one-sided. But sometimes the way to new complexities proceeds via provocative exaggeration.

Like in the project of Peter Berger's Ways of Seeing team (BBC series and Penguin book 1972), Silfverberg refers to the bias of Western art: men look, women are looked at. The male gaze is objectifying, about not seeing the female as an equal, but as an object of the gaze. The terminology dates back to Freud (Schaulust / scopophilia, in Über Psychoanalyse : fünf Vorlesungen, 1910) and Sartre (le regard in L'Être et le néant, 1943).

We are dealing with deep and largely unconscious issues here, and the project is about making them conscious. When I register a few reservations here, they are in the interest of making the case stronger. They do not undermine the argument.

Peter Berger's team discusses the category of the nude in European oil painting. "One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight." (Ways of Seeing, p. 47).

Peter Berger's project is valid about nude oil paintings from the Renaissance to Modernism, but perhaps no longer about Post-modernism. Also not about the thousand years of Gothic art, nor about the Golden Age of Greek art where the nude male was the chief object of the gaze and identification, and women were more often clothed. Nor about the millennia of Egyptian art. "It is worth noticing that in other non-European traditions – in Indian art, Persian art, African art, Pre-Columbian art – nakedness is never supine in this way" (p. 53). Let's also register the LGBT look of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, et al. In Finland, Magnus Enckell's look has an affinity with the classics of Greek Antiquity: men were nude, women wore clothes.

I know that Laura Mulvey's views are much more sophisticated than in her famous essay. A key figure is Josef von Sternberg, and I find it striking that in his Marlene Dietrich cycle of seven films for instance both the first and the final one (The Blue Angel and The Devil Is a Woman) are about the sovereign woman and the impotent man reduced to a clown. The sexual politics of the films is highly ambiguous, as is the star persona of Marlene Dietrich, who was always grateful for Sternberg for helping cultivate it.

Another beloved subject of Mulvey's is Alfred Hitchcock, and everybody who has paid attention to his films is likely to be aware of his double gaze. The gaze, the look, is, indeed central in Hitchcock's films also in profound thematical and self-reflective ways, and the philosopher Heikki Nyman (a Ludwig Wittgenstein expert) has written a 1800-page study on the theme. The double gaze was intimately based on the close collaboration of Alfred with his wife Alma. The director was aware that when a couple goes to the cinema, the woman is the one who decides what to see. He wanted to make such a film that when the daughter comes home and tells her mother about it, the mother wants to see it, too. There is a simultaneous male gaze and a female gaze in Hitchcock's films, but at least since The Lodger, there is also the queer gaze. Mulvey has, of course, acknowledged such complexities, for instance in the essay on Vertigo in her new book.

In the beginning there was no job title of the "film director" (and there were no credits in films anyway). Already then it was possible that it was the superstar who had agency. One of the first international superstars was Asta Nielsen, always proud and unconventional, always in charge, always in possession of the look. A case in point is also Sarah Bernhardt, whose Queen Elizabeth (1912) had such a huge success that it more than any other film led to the breakthrough of the institution of the feature film in the USA. One of the most powerful figures in the cinema (and the world) was Mary Pickford, who, although she was not the director, was the one who called the shots and produced her films. The history of the cinema and the history of the gaze is complicated. Formidable female stars had huge followings until the demise of the studio system in the 1960s. Molly Haskell has impressively tracked the paradoxical development in her classic study From Reverence to Rape (1974 / 1987). The liberated and emancipated 1960s led amazingly to the end of the power woman syndrome that had been central to the cinema since the beginning. Almost every year almost all top ten stars have been men since the 1960s.

Anu Silfverberg lambasts directors from Martin Scorsese to Krzysztof Kieslowski. It may all be true what she says about The Wolf of Wall Street and La double vie de Véronique. It annoys me, too, to observe photomodel aesthetics in works of masters. (Also Andrei Tarkovsky, Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick have displayed a weakness for photomodel superficiality). But it would be fair to remember from Scorsese Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and his Fran Lebowitz project. And from Kieslowski Trois couleurs : bleu and A Short Film About Love (based on Decalogue : Six). The last-mentioned film belongs to the cinema's most ruthless critiques of the male gaze, together with Vertigo, Peeping Tom and John Carpenter's Someone's Watching Me!

Women are making more films than ever. The Finnish Film Foundation is following a 50/50 principle in movie funding. I would have expected from Silfverberg more attention to the already impressive number of great films directed by women, from Finnish artists to start with. The recent survey by Mark Cousins in his giant film series Women Make Film (14 episodes, 40 chapters) offers a vast selection. It would be nice to have some promotion for Laura Mulvey as a film-maker, too.

This is just a start. The world is changing. There is no turning back.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

My Top 14 Exercises (Haustafel)

8) Stretching my imagination
9) Suspending disbelief
10) Exercising leaps of logic
11) Reaching into many disciplines
12) Pulling out all the stops
13) Racing against time
14) Throwing a party

Tuesday, March 16, 2021


Chloé Zhao: Nomadland (US/DE 2020) starring Frances McDormand as Fern.

Nomadland / Nomadland.
    US / DE © 2020 20th Century Studios. P: Highwayman Films / Hear/Say Productions / Cor Cordium Productions. Theatrical distribution in the US: Searchlight Pictures. P: Frances McDormand, Peter Spears, Mollye Asher, Dan Janvey, Chloé Zhao.
    D+SC+ED: Chloé Zhao – based on the book Nomadland : Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (2017) by Jessica Bruder. DP+PD: Joshua James Richards – colour – 1,90:1 (IMAX) – 2,39:1 – CFast 2.0 – source format: ProRes 4444 (3.sK) – master format: 2K – release: D-Cinema. AD: Elizabeth Godar, Tom Obed. Cost: Hannah Peterson. M: Ludovico Einaudi. S: Sergio Diaz, Zach Seivers – Dolby Digital / IMAX 6-Track / DTS / Dolby Atmos.
    C: Frances McDormand (Fern), Gay DeForest (Gay), Patricia Grier (Patty), Angela Reyes (Angela), Carl R. Hughes (Carl), Douglas G. Soul (Doug), Ryan Aquino (Ryan), Teresa Buchanan (Teresa), Karie Lynn McDermott Wilder (Karie), David Strathairn (Dave), Tay Strathairn (James).
    Themselves: Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells.
    South Dakota: Badlands, Wall Drug, Custer State Park, Deadwood.
    Nebraska: Scottsbluff.
    Nevada: Empire, Black Rock Desert.
    California: Northern California coast: Mendocino County: Point Arena. – San Bernardino County.
    Arizona: Yuma.
    108 min
    Triple festival premiere: 11 Sep 2020 Toronto / Venice / Telluride Los Angeles Drive-In.
    Finnish festival premiere: 19 Sep 2020 Helsinki International Film Festival.
    Planned Finnish theatrical premiere: 26 March 2021 – distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Finland with Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Timo Porri / Janne Staffans.
    Corona security: max 6 capacity, face masks, distancing, hand hygiene.
    Press screening at Tennispalatsi 5, Helsinki, 16 March 2021.

Official synopsis: "Following the economic collapse of a company town in rural Nevada, Fern (Frances McDormand) packs her van and sets off on the road exploring a life outside of conventional society as a modern-day nomad. The third feature film from director Chloé Zhao, NOMADLAND features real nomads Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells as Fern’s mentors and comrades in her exploration through the vast landscape of the American West."

AA: Nomadland is a masterpiece and a great American movie, directed by Chloé Zhao, a Chinese, featuring an exceptional performance by Frances McDormand in the leading role.

Nomadland revisits basic concepts of the Western and overturns the classic desert vs. civilization dialectics. A company town turns into a ghost town, and Fern, a diligent worker, turns into a nomad, a van-dweller. Her quest takes her to the end of the West, to the Pacific Ocean. There is even a good man who loves her. In the finale we realize that Nomadland is indeed a great love story, too, but Fern's choice is not what we might expect.

Nomadland belongs to a thriving topical trend of women directors reinventing the Western, including Kelly Reichardt (Meek's Cutoff), Sofia Coppola (True Grit) and Emma Tammi (The Wind). The female Western has a long lineage, starting with Nell Shipman and Texas Guinan. Because of Nomadland's stark realism I was also thinking about The Lady of the Dugout, directed by W. S. Van Dyke.

Nomadland is profoundly landscape-driven. The cinematic revelation of landscape as soulscape was discovered before the WWI simultaneously by Americans (Griffith, Ince) and Frenchmen following the Lumière inspiration such as Perret. Ever since it has been a basic attraction of the Western. A major reinventor of the landscape-soulscape epiphany was Antonioni, who as a guest director even made an American film (Zabriskie Point). As for Zhao, she has a fresh and original way to see the landscape and the talent to make the familiar to look unfamiliar. The cinematographer Joshua James Richards creates powerful compositions and visions in scope. They need to be seen on a cinema screen for full impact.

The anti-glamour approach brings to mind Agnès Varda's nomadland saga Sans toit ni loi. It also evokes 1930s Depression classics such as The Grapes of Wrath, but Nomadland is not a political film. It states facts bluntly, and the viewer is free to draw one's consequences, but Chloé Zhao is not interested in social engagement. In a way, her film is closer to Dersu Uzala. Like in Kurosawa's film, the nomad is invited to join friendly and loving family circumstances, but Fern's choice is the same as Dersu's. The mythical Japanese practice of ubasute (the old person retreating to a mountain top to die) familiar from film adaptations of The Ballad of Narayama, comes to mind.

The idea of suicide is evoked. The terminally ill Swankie returns to Alaska and sends Fern a video of the mountain with hundreds of swallow nests that was his greatest dream to revisit. Fern stands by the Pacific Ocean and contemplates the crushing waves. "Goodnight Irene" is being sung as a lullaby ("sometimes I get a notion / to jump into the ocean"). But taking her own life is the path Fern will not take. Nomadland is a work of Stoicism. Chloé Zhao is Chinese, and I do not know Chinese philosophy. Might we be dealing with a Confucian Western?

Though not a work of social engagement, Nomadland is full of rich and vivid social observation. Based on Jessica Bruder's non-fiction book, it is an engrossing account of the modern American nomad culture featuring several real-life nomads, including the charismatic leader and spokesman Bob Wells.

Visiting her sister, Fern joins a dinner with successful real estate businessmen, and her frank opinions about their line of work instantly brand her as an outsider in the family.

Amazon is a key presence in Nomadland. We see unforgettable views of endless Amazon storage halls. Fern is always a welcome worker there, and contrary to what we might expect, Amazon is portrayed as a fair and just employer. One of Nomadland's many aspects is that it is a fascinating survey on the life of the workers today, including camaraderie, friendship, fun and dancing. It is a saga of the deferential worker who is getting dealt a bad hand.

It is also a grim revelation about never affording to retire. A classic text relevant to the discourse, “The End of Retirement: When You Can’t Afford to Stop Working”, first published by Harper’s Magazine, Vol. 329, No. 1971, August 2014, is quoted in the final credits. Unmentioned in the movie and not relevant to it but unavoidable for me as a critic to observe as an aside is the role of Amazon in this context. Big Tech companies such as Amazon have destroyed the livelihood of millions of people working in the cultural field, in professions of literature, art, publishing, media and criticism, because people have been taught to expect everything for free online. Thanks to the business logic of advertising, creative talents get nothing, and Big Tech gets all.

Zhao's emphasis is wider, expanding into cosmic views. In the desert we are closer to the stars. Zhao does not shrink from kitchen sink realism, but she also keeps casually returning to Shakespeare, having Fern quote both Macbeth ("tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrow") and the 18th Sonnet ("shall I compare thee to a summer's day").

The performances of actors and real-life nomads blend together seamlessly. There is psychological depth in the characters, the film keeps growing in my mind, and it demands to be seen again.

American cinema has always been great in welcoming foreign talent, in the course generating some of the best movies of all times from Murnau (Sunrise) to Polanski (Chinatown). We can now add Chloé Zhao and Nomadland into their number.