Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Academy's train not taken


* * * * *

I don't really believe in the concept of "perfection" in art, and I love many of my favorite works of art for their flaws, limitations, and shortcomings as much as I love them for their precision, their ambition, or their aesthetic achievements. But if you were to ask me what film I considered the closest to "perfect" of those I've seen, I probably would blurt out Sunrise without giving it a second thought. This film is a technical and stylistic marvel that sums up much of the history of film up to its moment of release in September 1927, including in its palette many of the hallmarks of German expressionism, French impressionism, Soviet-style montage, Scandinavian pastoralism and Hollywood melodrama. Critics and admirers of the film have pointed out the many dichotomous structures that make up Sunrise, and though I loved the film before I read it, I very much like Lucy Fisher's opening argument from her BFI monograph on the film, in which she proposes:
Rather than embrace fixed divisions, Sunrise is a text marked by fluid boundaries - junctions that trace the subtle connection between entities rather than their clear demarcation. It is this complex mode of 'border crossing' (this world of 'Both/And' -not- 'Either/Or' [Berman, 24]) that makes the film so poignant, resonant, fascinating and modern.
What is probably most enchanting about Sunrise for me could be described as one of these dichotomies or "border crossings": its extremely sophisticated telling of its extremely simple story, of a man and a woman falling in love with each other all over again, as if for the first time. To me, a sophisticated telling of a simple, even primal, story is the raison d’être of most of the greatest narrative cinema I know, and I can't think of a more classical example than this film made by German director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau on his first Hollywood try.

For it is a Hollywood film, with a budget larger than any its studio (Fox) had ever allocated to a single film, Hollywood stars Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien (both of whom grew up here in Frisco) in the lead roles, and studio-dictated probable compromises to Murnau's vision such as intertitles, and in some prints, a score and a resultant lack of tinting. However, it was more of a critical sensation than a commercial one. Which brings me to the point of this post.

As you may have noticed, Sunrise is often listed or grouped among the films that have won the A.M.P.A.S. Award for Best Picture. This is because the first year that the Academy Awards were held, there was no category called "Best Picture". Instead, there were two categories, which according to my favorite source of Academy Awards information (data and dish alike), Damien Bona and Mason Wiley's Inside Oscar, were entitled "Best Production" and "Unique and Artistic Production". The former went to the large-scale fighter pilot saga Wings, while Sunrise took the latter category's prize.

As little as I talk about them on this site, like many cinephiles I'm fascinated by the Oscars, even as I've grown very cynical about their usefulness as a barometer of genuine aesthetic achievement. For years, perhaps as a kind of sentimental attachment to these awards, I've liked to think of Sunrise and Wings as equal Best Picture winners at that first ceremony (which I've learned was not held until May 1929). So last month, when fellow blogger Edward Copeland researched the Academy's official position on whether the two films' awards were "roughly equivalent" and learned that the official word was that, no, only Wings deserves to be considered a "Best Picture" winner, I wasn't surprised, but I was very resistant to his suggestion that I "defer to the Academy" on this issue. It sparked a somewhat intense, though civil debate in the comments section of his post. In case you don't feel like reading all the comments, I'll quote a pair of sentences that form the crux of my position:
I have never encountered any evidence that in 1928[sic] the Best Production award won by Wings was considered any more prestigious or important than the Unique and Artistic Production award Sunrise won. There's even a paragraph (unfortunately unsourced) in wikipedia that suggests the opposite.
Well, I've recently encountered some evidence that Wings was considered more prestigious and important. Perhaps vague, perhaps inconclusive, and definitely incomplete. But evidence nonetheless, and I feel I ought to present what I have so far.

I thought that by looking up articles on the first Oscars I might be able to learn these two awards relative importance at the time through their prominence in media coverage. So I went to the public library's microfilm holdings. It turns out that, though the first Oscars were handed out by Academy president Douglas Fairbanks at a very brief ceremony held on May 16, 1929, they had been announced nearly three months earlier. The February 20, 1929 issue of Variety magazine lists the winners in a page seven article entitled "Academy Awards Talent Credit for Making-Writing-Acting-Titling". Titling? It refers to the first and only Oscar awarded for the writing of silent movie intertitles, which went to MGM's Joseph Farnham. And the award is listed in the eighth paragraph of the Variety article, after mentions of the awards for best performance (Emil Jannings & Janet Gaynor), best direction (Frank Borzage, dramatic for Seventh Heaven & Lewis Milestone, comedy for the Two Arabian Knights), and best writing (Ben Hecht for his original story Underworld & Benjamin Glazer for his adaptation of Seventh Heaven). Continuing in Variety's order, cinematography (Charles Rosher & Karl Strauss, Sunrise), art direction (William C. Menzies, the Tempest and the Dove), and engineering effects (Roy Pomeroy, Wings) are listed before the article comes to the categories in question in the twelfth (Wings for "production of most outstanding picture") and thirteenth (Sunrise for "production of most unique and artistic picture") paragraphs of the story.

Twelfth and thirteenth paragraphs? This was not what I expected. I thought I'd be able to determine which was the "real" best picture winner from the headline, like you can on every newspaper throughout the land on Oscar Monday these days. I didn't know how to interpret the burying of these two awards almost to the end of the article, just before the "Special" awards for the Jazz Singer and Charlie Chaplin. Did the fact that the "outstanding picture" award came slightly first mean that it was slightly more prestigious (though still less prestigious than title writing or engineering effects)? Or was saving "most unique and artistic picture" to next-to-next-to-last, rubbing shoulders with the award to the film that "revolutionized the industry", and to the man cited for "acting, writing, directing and producing the Circus" a more prestigious placement?

Reading the May 22nd, 1929 coverage of the ceremony itself told me that in the months since the announcement of the results, Variety had made up its mind as to which was the most important award. As a side note, Frisco Bay residents will be interested to know that the lead paragraph of this page 4 article relays the intention of Stanford University to follow "the lead of the U. of Southern California in recognizing the [motion] picture as a subject for a formal course of study" the coming fall, which was apparently announced at the same dinner where the awards were distributed.

But the only awards mentioned in the article, other than a quick sum up of the winners and runners-up (but not the categories they were honored for) in the last couple paragraphs, were Wings, for "most outstanding picture of the year" and the special award to Warner for the Jazz Singer. The award to Paramount head Adolph Zukor for Wings was presented in an unusual manner. A "screen dialog" between the Academy president and Zukor was, as the article puts it, "photographed and recorded in New York and projected by a small portable machine". This may not be conclusive proof that the Academy itself considered the Wings award the most important of the evening; there could have been equally unique methods of presentation for the other awards that Variety chose not to cover, or it could be that Zukor only got this treatment only because he was unable to cross the country to attend himself. But I have to admit these are at best weak possibilities, not at all corroborated by the more detailed description of the event in Inside Oscar (which still doesn't mention how the "most unique and artistic picture" award was received). I'm pretty convinced that the "most outstanding picture" award won by Wings really was the big award of the night, and that it's only sensible to consider it the predecessor of the "best picture" award, to the exclusion of Sunrise's award.

I can't decide if I'm disappointed or not. I like Wings a lot. William Wellman is one of my favorite directors of the late twenties and thirties. And, as one of the biggest spectacles of the year, filled with ground-breaking special effects and an epic scope, it makes some sense that Wings would be the first in a line of films to include the likes of Ben-Hur, Patton, Braveheart and Gladiator, even if I personally value it more than all those combined. However, I also like to imagine a world in which simple or primal stories told sophisticatedly, like say, Shadows, the Conformist, Dead Man and Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, might have been the ones earning the film world's most prestigious honor the year they were released, without consideration of their box office success. In that world, Sunrise is definitely the Best Picture of 1927.

Speaking of that year, this post is an under-the-wire entry in the 1927 Blog-a-Thon, which includes another take on Sunrise as well.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Hong Sang-soo at the SFIAAFF


* * * * *

The SF International Asian American Film Festival has wrapped up here in Frisco, but it lives on this weekend at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and the Camera 12 in San Jose. The latter venue will provide the last chance to sample the festival's retrospective on Korean director Hong Sang-soo, when it screens his newest and perhaps most accessible film Woman on the Beach on Sunday at 6:30 PM.

It's been a wonderfully hectic week for me, between immersing myself in Hong's films, taking in the odd film by another director (like Ryuichi Hiroki's It's Only Talk, which wasn't as odd as I'd hoped,) hosting a Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Blog-a-Thon and reconnecting with cinephiles I hadn't seen in a while. One was Asian cinema devotee and sf360 contributor Jennifer Young, who swapped reactions with me at the AMC 1000, making me wish I'd had time to fit the just-announced prize-winner Owl and the Sparrow into my viewing schedule, just before we ducked into a question-and-answer session with Hong following Tuesday's screening of Woman on the Beach, which I'd seen on Sunday. She also had the foresight to record Hong's responses on a digital recorder, and the generosity to offer her transcript up for publication here at Hell On Frisco Bay. Here it is:
Q: What’s your take on reality?

Director Hong: In the true sense there's no such thing as reality – it's just a word that we use for convenience. There's no such thing as reality. For example if I say, "Can you pick that apple up," you know it's an apple because I point at it, and we both agree to call it that. But when I look at the apple I perceive different things, you perceive different things, so it's approximate. So when I say something and you seem to respond, we feel we are in the same sense, the same perception, but in actuality we don't share the same exact thing. Even though we try to share our feelings about the same apple if I tried for 100 years to explain how I feel about this apple you will never understand how I feel. Right? So it's always an approximate thing- reality. So there is no such thing as reality.

Q: What's the starting point for your films?

Director Hong: Usually for me I am starting with a stereotypical attitude. I try to detach myself from the temptation to make something because I feel...[can't hear the rest of this sentence]. I try to tell myself I start from the structure and if I'm lucky I may get to the point where I find something new. And the new thing can be truer than my stereotypical reaction to the things.

Q: Who were some directors who inspired you?

Director Hong: Very many, many directors I liked. Jean Renoir. Eric Rohmer. Luis Bunuel. Some films of John Ford. Very many directors. When I was looking at them for the first time they stayed in my mind as a kind of reference point. So they told me something. Each director. When I'm doing something wrong one of them says to me "you are doing something wrong"! That's what I hear in my mind.

Q: Drunkenness and how it's been a catalyst for the characters in your films.

Director Hong: The situations or the characters I don’t realize when I choose. A situation comes to me and when it feels right I use it. The drinking scene happens to be the kind of scene that appeals to me. I can say that because I drink a lot. It comes to me more often. It just comes to me when I think about the script. I don’t find any reason to refuse it so I just use it."

Q: How did the long shot become such a big part of your style?

Director Hong: In the beginning of my filming I didn’t think about that, but like the drinking scene it just happened. I just used this kind of style of framing and the long take and then I tried to analyze it myself and I couldn't find the real answer. The only answer I found was that each director, I think, needs to discover a space, a temporal limit, and in that limitation that he feels he can explore more. So instead of putting into smaller frames when I have this bigger frame and the long take I feel I can bring up more things from myself.

Q:On the topic of style, you used to not use any kind of zoom but you did in Tale of Cinema. I believe and you use it in Woman on the Beach too. Talk about your use of the zoom and what it means to you.

Director Hong: It doesn't really mean anything. [Audience laughs] Like many elements in my movies they change, as I grow older. In Woman is the Future of Man when I was shooting I wanted to use the zoom but time was not enough so I had to postpone to when I was shooting Tale of Cinema. The first day of shooting I could use the zoom, I used it. It technically shows the actor's face closely without cutting in. If you cut in you have to stop and re-shoot with a long take and you have to ask the actor to do the same thing, which I really don't want to do. That’s one reason for not shooting it. And the other is a little bit of an alienation thing. When it's too emotional I like to feel detached a little – not too much. In Tale of Cinema I used it more. Here it was more a technical reason. I used it to show the face more closely without asking the actor to do the same thing.

Q: Was the final scene an attempt to change her negative perception of Korean men?

Director Hong: She says she doesn't have much respect for Korean men but right after that she needs help from Korean men. I thought about that scene near the end of a shooting day. A long time ago I was in Seoul in the metro. I was very tired and depressed. It was summer, so I was wearing short sleeves and this woman hit me here on the arm. I was surprised and I looked back. She was very gentle; she had a very gentle face and had a baby on her back. She just saw a mosquito on my arm and she hit my arm. And she was so embarrassed but when I saw her face I felt so good. Even though she's a total stranger and a female a mosquito is biting this man so she must stop it. It's very – you know what I mean? I felt so good. So I wanted you to experience the same thing.

Q: Does the setting of the seaside resort having any meaning for you?

Director Hong: I don't travel a lot, so the places I've been are very few. I tend to choose the settings from the places I've been, and I like that place.

Q: Talk about the repetition; every feature has at least one story that is repeated twice and the comment by the character in this film that she'll not be repeating the same thing he did; perhaps this is a comment on a departure of this style in future films?

Director Hong: When I released this film I wrote a simple statement where I said the repetition of the structure is a very good medium to show things, but if we repeat as a human being it's a sign of sickness. By using that structure I show how bad it is to repeat. We all know that each moment has to be perceived as a new moment but somehow in our brains like hair something is always twisted or tangled and you repeat things. For example somebody praised a specific action or you did something very well. Then inside something twists and you want to do it again for somebody who doesn't need that thing. Our mind is so fragile it's always being twisted. That's why we do repeat things. But to show that one of the means is comparison so I try to show that through repetition in the structure.
Thanks so much, Jennifer, for sharing this!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors: the Blog-a-Thon directory


* * * * *

You've come to the right place. This post is the hub of the Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Blog-a-Thon being held all day today, March 21st, 2007. It will be updated with links to other blog entries on Hong Sang-soo's 2000 film, also known as Oh! Soo-jung, as they come in. If you have written (or drawn, podcasted, etc.) something about this film today, please leave a comment below or e-mail me with an alert.

The contributions are already coming in, starting with Squish's review at the Film Vituperatem, presented in his usual segmented reviewing style- only moreso, as befitting this divisive film.

Oggs Cruz in his write-up of the film at his Oggs' Movie Thoughts talks about his "metaphorical devirginization, into Hong Sang-soo's cinema" and then of Soo-jung's devirginization.

David Gray starts a piece that he e-mailed me for publication here that begins with the "image of a tram halted in mid-air", and works out from that crucial point in the film.

Adam Hartzell has posted an essay using a Chuck Stephens line as a jumping-off point to a much larger discussion of "doubt" at Notes Inspired By the Film, his new blog adjunct to

And my own first piece, a reflection on my original experience with the film, and why I selected it for this Blog-a-Thon, is now up as well. I've also written what amounts to a "dog ate my homework" note. Hopefully my kind (and smart! and extremely good-looking, all of you!) readers are more understanding than Mr. Holmes, Social Studies, 7th Grade.

Philip of London Korean Links has posted a delightful contribution that assesses the access to Hong's films in the UK and contemplates Rashomon, kissing, and his own mixed feelings about Hong. Sometimes "rambling" (his word) can be a hell of a lot of fun to read.

UPDATE 3/22/07:

Michael Guillen, proprietor of the Evening Class, brought his trusty digital recorder to the q-and-a following last night's screening of Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors at the Pacific Film Archive, as part of the SF International Asian American Film Festival. However, Director Hong is soft-spoken enough that Michael felt the recording would be better represented by this reconstruction than an attempt at a literal transcription. It was cross-posted at Twitch. I can't think of a more fitting way to present a discussion of a film that, as Michael puts it, "says so much about the limitations if not the fabrications of memory".

UPDATE 3/23/07:

Jennifer Young sent me her transcription of the greater portion of Hong's q-and-a from the previous night's screening of Woman on the Beach. Though he doesn't speak specifically on Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors here, most of his comments lean enough toward the general, encompassing and illuminating all his films, that I think it's well worth including them.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Those are the "official" entries so far. I'm expecting a few more after-the-official-deadline pieces to come in, so continue to look back in the next day or so.

A hearty thanks to Andy, Atom, David, Girish, Philip, Samuel, Thom and the sf360 staff for helping me spread the word about this event, as well as anyone else I'm overlooking.

Here are a few links to other articles on the film, which were published long before I even thought of, much less announced this Blog-a-Thon (let me know if I’ve left any out):

acquarello at Strictly Film School.

Michael Atkinson at the Village Voice.

Marshall Deutelbaum has indicated that his essay, "The Deceptive Design of Hong Sangsoo’s Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors," which appeared in the November, 2005 issue of New Review of Film and Television Studies, is available at in its entirety on line here.

Darcy Paquet and Adam Hartzell at

Cable Car Suspended


* * * * *

I'm very pleased with the way this Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Blog-a-Thon has gone. And it's still going: comments sections are starting to sprout discussions, and I'm expecting at least three late entries to arrive in the next couple days, so keep your eye on this site. I'm a little embarrassed to reveal that one of the late entries is my own. I'm happy with the reflection I was able to complete, but I haven't been able to finish my essay yet. This is what I get when I mix one part over-ambitiousness, two parts procrastination, two parts delightful distraction (including unexpected houseguests among other things), one part disorganization, and one part having all my notes swept by a gust of underground wind out of my satchel and onto the third rail of the BART train as I was about to head over to the Pacific Film Archive to hear Hong's q-and-a (I'm not joking, and you should have seen the look on my face when I realized what had just happened), and stir.

The thing about notes, though, is that the act of writing them down is almost as helpful a memory aid as looking at them afterward. I'm pretty sure I still have most if not all my ideas up there in my head, clamoring to get out onto an essay. And perhaps it's for the best; viewing the film once again and hearing some of Hong's answers in the q-and-a helped clarify some of the issues around his working method in general and Virgin Stripped bare By Her Bachelors in particular.

Thanks for your patience.

Intention, Perhaps


* * * * *

The first Korean-made films I ever saw were actually in-flight videos on a trans-Pacific Korean Air jetliner. I don’t remember much about these videos; only that they were promoting historical sites to visitors to the country, and I wasn't even visiting the country. I was only stopping over in the Seoul airport on my way to Thailand, where I was planning to try my hand at teaching English as a Foreign Language, eating lots of vegetarian Thai food and living in a semi-tropical climate for as long as I could stand. All of which I did. (It turned out to be exactly 500 days.)

The Seoul airport was the first ground I ever touched in Asia, and the only place I ever went to in Korea. Any traveler will tell you it doesn’t really "count"- I never got my passport stamped or left the duty-free zone. But I still have extremely vivid memories of my brief time in that airport without any family or friends – traveling outside the United States without them being another first for me.

When I came back to live in this country after those five hundred days I still had a hunger to connect to the world outside of it, especially to the countries I'd visited, however briefly, in East Asia. So when the spring 2001 film festival season in Frisco rolled around, I determined to see films chosen from those countries: Iron Ladies, which I’d somehow missed while in Thailand, Land of Wandering Souls from Cambodia, and Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, my first Korean-made feature film. At the time I was unconditionally blown away by Land of Wandering Souls, a documentary about the laying of fiber-optic cables under one of the poorest countries on Earth, but my response to Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, while very positive, was more qualified. I loved the glimpses into daily life in a city I never saw for myself except through the window of an airplane, but was just starting to fumble my way around true "film festival" cinema. I still hadn't seen very many films more structurally experimental than Mystery Train or Memento yet, and though I loved the conceit of recounting the same events from differing perspectives a la Rashomon, I wasn't certain that Hong's approach, difficult if not impossible to fully synthesize on a single viewing of this film, was the correct one.

After the passage of time I came to feel that it was. Not only had many of Hong's images and lines of dialogue stuck in my memory, but reading other discussion of the film, usually on the internet, had helped to make its clear virtues stand out and any questions or doubts I might have originally had recede. I eventually started trying to catch up with Hong’s other films on DVD (up through Turning Gate), and though they all impressed me, especially the latter, none seemed to match up to what I was now considering to be the formal brilliance of Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors. The structural complexity of the film and its parallel but asymmetrical repetitions, I now felt, stressed the importance as well as limitations of human perception and perspective on defining our reality, or realities.

But, though I now owned it on DVD and had checked out a scene or two, I still hadn't rewatched the film in full. And I knew that my memory of the actual film was becoming incomplete and distorted. So when I got it in my head to run a Blog-a-Thon on a single film, it was one of the first to come to mind: a film I knew I'd liked and would want to share with others, one I wanted to see again and had easy access to, and as a bonus, one that deals directly with something I greatly enjoy about internet discussions of film but don’t feel I see much of on my own blog: the friction and reconciliation between (slightly or greatly) differing viewpoints.

Seeing the film again last Friday, and subsequently studying it carefully on DVD in the past few days, I finally realized just how much I’d misremembered it. I'd completely forgotten whole scenes and even characters like Soo-jung's brother and Jae-hoon's other love interest. I'd forgotten major aspects of even the lead characters, such as Jae-hoon's wealth (in each of the Hong films I've seen this week, morally weak but sexually successful male characters all have a trait that lets them trump more "average" guys: fame, fortune, beauty, a position of authority, or a combination thereof). I'd even gotten the basics of the structure I so admired wrong: I’d only remembered a telling and a retelling and in my post announcing the Blog-a-Thon had referred to the structure as simply "bifurcated", overlooking the fact that the parallel scenes were nested in a flashback structure and were temporally fragmented in a much more complex way.

However, as you can probably guess, I don't feel weird or bad or anything but fascinated by the distorted mirror through which I've been recalling my first experience with this film. It only provides further evidence, though it might be overly "neat" for me to say it out loud, of the "limitations of human perception and perspective on defining our reality, or realities."

This reflection was a part of a day-long Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Blog-a-Thon. My second piece on the film will be published here later today.

David Gray on Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors

This summary is not available. Please click here to view the post.