Monthly Archives: November 2011

Magnificent Obsessions series: No. 2 Camera Buff

Camera Buff (which has the less sensational title Amator (amateur) in the original Polish) was Krzysztof Kieślowski’s first internationally recognised film, prior to the institution of martial law in December 1981, which stymied the release of Polish film beyond the domestic market. Having produced a variety of films (short features and documentaries that reflected both the realities of the Communist regime while offering guarded criticism), this film was his second feature, but marked a digestion of all his work until that point and its effect on his private life.

The plot seems to begin at the exact moment that most films reach their conclusion. Filip (Jerzy Stuhr, who had starred in Kieślowski’s first feature, The Scar (Plizna) the previous year) has a wife, friends, a job and is expecting his first child. From this, an inexplicable drive away from the ‘complete life’ begins. Filip’s wife Irka (Malgorzata Zabkowska) becomes increasingly frustrated at his alienation from their lives, while Filip believes he is immortalising it. The body of the film is then a tale of the uses of cinema (preservation, documentation, manipulation, propaganda) and the paradoxical removal from experience that comes with the attempt to capture the ‘realities’ of life.

In the best sense, Kieślowski’s filmmaking is still that of a documentary maker here. His tender application to the daily life of ordinary humans, the anxious approach to the politics of depiction, and the feeling of serendipity rather than artifice in his best shots: all of this extends from a firm grounding in documentary practice. Furthermore, Kieślowski chose to feature many non-professionals to depict themselves.

Kieślowski emerged from the National Film School in Łódź, along with Roman Polanski and Andrej Wadja (though unlike Andrzej Żuławski, whose Possession is the final film in this series). Like many of the centralised film schools in Communist Europe (FAMU in Prague seems to have provided a similar outlet), their influence lay not necessarily in the teaching environment – which could often be stultifying and prescriptive – but in offering a group of similarly impassioned people to interact and collaborate. There was also the opportunity to watch a broader selection of films than those offered to the general public.

Although Kieślowski claimed never to have shared the protagonist’s preoccupations (‘I wasn’t ever fascinated with the camera like that. Later on I made films because that was my profession, and I was too lazy or too stupid or both to change profession at the right moment.’) he does shares Filip’s reticence to share the title of auteur or artist. Instead, he considered himself an artisan. Even if Kieślowski had not been engaged in the difficulties of raising his own young family, his camera eye had turned to a young couple’s delivery of a baby in his 1974 documentary short First Love (Pierwsza Miłość). Kieślowski’s humility places him firmly in the world of the amateur film clubs that have such an ambivalent presence in the film. Although their subsidy was certainly in the service of glorifying the Soviet state, the reality they captured was impossible to convert to pure propaganda. Their legacy was celebrated in an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery by Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska entitled Enthusiasm, offering samples of the films in a recreated 1970s Communist milieu.

The self-reflexivity of the film is actually a double reflection: not just about a film about filmmaking, it is about Kieślowski’s specific experience of filmmaking. Although he has denied the central dialectic of the film – that ‘normal’ life is incompatible with artistic creation – the parallels with his own creations are clear. Kieślowski’s career leading up to this film had alternated between feature films and documentary pieces, mostly depicting single figures – a night porter, a bricklayer – and their nobility in the face of vast bureaucracy. Camera Buff finds Kieślowski at a crossroads, meditating on the difficulties of the past and setting an agenda for the future.

Please visit to view an archive of the films from the Whitechapel Gallery exhibition.



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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Citizen Kane

Kane spoiled by the adoring critics

One of the fantastic things about education is that it forces you to do a lot of things you wouldn’t ever dream of doing without the spectre of obligation upon you. I would have sincerely doubted anyone who told me that I would find myself deeply, embarrassingly in love with Citizen Kane. Yet so it is.

Personally speaking, I think the reason that I didn’t appreciate Kane on first viewing was that I first watched it as a literature student. While it wasn’t a film that I disliked enough – or was arrogant enough – to dismiss (though there are plenty of those), I remember being distinctly underwhelmed. Rewatching it now, I can see that the reason its revered by filmmakers and film writers is for its use of specifically filmic techniques. Kane is rife with cinematic tricks. Non-genre films are rarely noticed for their special effects (most likely this is because they are in the service of an unshowmanlike verisimilitude rather than self-conscious spectacle), but according to Pauline Kael eighty percent of Kane’s stock was treated to add multiple exposures and impossible compositions. It’s a treat that’s only half-baked (or worse, given Orson Welles’ famous dismissal of the McGuffin of Rosebud as ‘dime store Freudianism’) for the literature student because of all these ‘distracting’ stunts and visual gimmicks.

That said, it’s also a film that you kid yourself you know better than you do. It’s been often parodied to the extent that the shorthand of Kane=Rosebud is known to those who have never seen the film (if Family Guy were less relentlessly shallow and anti-art, it might realise that its maelstrom of reference and inserts is at least in part in debt to Kane. As in all areas, the more recent Fox animation pales in comparison with the original and best’s take on Kane). It’s also contains multitudes – scenes from multiple viewpoints, achronological structure and a sketch-like approach that leaves whole scenes floating free from a digestible narrative context – and these multitudes are conveyed in such a frenzied, hyperstilized fashion that it is hard to encompass them in recollection.

Furthermore, the film can feel like listening to someone playing two different songs, in quicktime, simultaneously. The Screwball speed of the dialogue – just one way in which The Social Network plunders from Kane’s storehouse – is constantly competing with the density of imagery before you.

Pieces of a jigsaw puzzle

And most critically, its status as shibboleth rest heavily upon it. If the critics who vote in the once-a-decade Sight & Sound ‘best film ever’ poll were truly keen to offer it tribute, they would refrain from elevating it the heights of isolating greatness it has so consistently maintained. It’s humiliating to want to turn to people and say, ‘You know what’s a really good film? Citizen Kane.’

 It’s a great shame, because if it held non-classic status, people would be able to be personally seduced by its greatness.  Discussion and division amongst respectful – and healthily disrespectful – peers is what makes for a worthwhile critical community. I certainly felt betrayed by Shakespeare when I finally turned to Hamlet, and I think as a play it’s a victim of its unimpeachable reputation. It has been some time since the tides of critical debate have lapped against Kane’s greatness. Without the thudding consensus, audiences would take it to heart as a cult item and allow it to breathe and be reconsidered. I think those who dislike it should take the time to make an impassioned and brattish call against it (it’s a far from perfect film). Unfortunately, I’m not the one to hack it down so that others can rise to its defence: I loved it.

'Did you hear about that Citizen Kane? What a stinker!'

And I loved it for its small moments. Citizen Kane continually offers you the compliment of getting the hint yourself, especially in its most minor touches. There’s one shot I’d like to say a brief word about that stands in for any number of others with such plangency.

It’s a short shot in which Jim Gettes watches over Kane as he makes his demagogic and presumptuous speech to the masses. The comparison to The Triumph of the Will is obvious (its imagery was well-known in Hollywood at the time; apparently, there was a constant petty struggle to borrow MOMA’s copy of Riefenstahl’s film), but the fashion in which Kane’s failure to rise to political office is preempted in this scene is nothing short of genius. At the height of his grandstanding, the action cuts to a high window showing Jim Gettes – though we don’t know him yet, even though we’ve heard his name decried endlessly in Kane’s speech – surveying Kane’s peroration.

This new viewpoint has a sense of fatalism about it, with Kane’s laughably hubristic campaign poster dwarfed and his ambitions brought to a footnote in history; there’s something funereal about the fashion in which Gettes dons his bowler, and, at this height, the stage has a hint of the scaffold about it. Obviously, this position above Kane has a sense of omnipotence and puppetry (we see it pay off in the next scene as Gettes’ machinations come to a head), but there is a deeper visual meaning that is specific to this film in particular at play here.

In Kane, there’s a visual scheme that links memory with miniaturisation (we shrink into the snowbound scene through Thatcher’s diary, but more importantly the snowglobe allows this thought to be held in the palm of his hand). With this shot, we see Gettes and the camera simultaneously bury Kane in history, reducing his ambition to the same frustrated, painful past as the snowglobe scene.

It’s a piece of filmmaking of incredible economy, that only becomes more so in trying to capture it in mere leaden words. It’s ironic that a film about a man whose biography cannot be told because of his elevation, is itself obscured from view by critics who prevent us from truly seeing it for its high esteem. But I can’t really fault anyone for voting for it as best film ever: like the gimmick of Rosebud itself, the secret of Citizen Kane’s genius are forever out of grasp and therefore forever compelling.


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New Film Screening Series: Magnificent Obsessions

Yes, that's a real squid
Birkbeck College have once again been kind enough to allow me to host a series of screenings this Autumn term. The theme this time is Magnificent Obsessions: Films in thrall to mania, compulsions, fixations and addictions. The films are shown every Wednesday until Christmas and start at 6:30. There’s a brief introduction to each film and I produce programme notes to accompany each screening. I’m really proud to say Laura Mulvey, one of the most interesting and well-regarded interpreters of film,  will be introducing two of the films in the series. Leave a comment if you’d like any more information about the programme. This film screening series is free to attend and for educational purposes only. 

Wednesday 12th October
Black Orpheus
 (Marcel Camus/1959/Brazil/107 minutes)

Wednesday 19th October
Camera Buff (Krzysztof Kieślowski/1979/Poland/117 minutes)

Wednesday 26th October 
The White Diamond
 (Werner Herzog/2004/Germany-Japan-UK/94 minutes)

Wednesday 2nd November
Special Screening in alliance with Laura Mulvey’s Avant-Garde Cinema Course
Wavelength (Michael Snow/1967/Canada/45 minutes)

Wednesday 9th November
Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl/1945/USA/110 minutes)

Wednesday 16th November 
The King of Comedy 
(Martin Scorsese/1982/USA/109 minutes)

Wednesday 23rd November
Special Screening in alliance with Laura Mulvey’s Avant-Garde Cinema Course

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai De Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
(Chantal Akerman/1975/Belgium/201 minutes

Wednesday 30th November
Tropical Malady (
Apitchatpong Weerasethakul/2004/Thailand/118 minutes)

Wednesday 7th December
Double feature:
Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg/2010/USA/83 minutes
Vernon, Florida (Erroll Morris/1981/USA/55 minutes)

Wednesday 14th December
Possession (Andrzej Zulawski/1981/Germany/127 minutes)


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