Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Let Me In

A note on a film: Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986)

I have to admit, I didn't love this film. While the potential was there to take the story in a different direction, pushing the film further into the realms of the supernatural, or even the psychological, too much of the narrative falls back on trying to 'one-up' the effects-driven haunted house set-pieces that made the first film such a success.

Never quite delivering on the promise of its intriguing sub-title (where rather that emphasise or explore "the other side" as a central component of the plot, the filmmakers instead relegate it to a generic, last-minute depiction of the afterlife, necessitated to bring the story to a close), the film is simply too mired in unconvincing scenes of domestic melodrama and ridiculous special effects. For a supposed horror film, Poltergeist II does very little to generate tension, suspense or actual fear, with any semblance of the unsettling provided only by the towering performance of Julian Beck as the film's antagonist, the Reverend Kane, and a short sequence involving a more conventional movie-monster, this time provided by the surrealist artist H. R. Giger.

However, there are some elements to the film that are nonetheless quite remarkable, given the particular circumstances, and are possibly worthy of a closer inspection here.

Firstly, what I liked most about Poltergeist II was the way the development of the character Kane (as well as his personal back-story) both deepens and subverts an element from the original film that could be seen, by today's standards, as a little basic; even derivative. In the original Poltergeist (1982), the reason for the initial haunting is suggested as being the result of the family's house having been built atop the site of an ancient burial-ground; the phantoms and apparitions that take vengeance against the family are effectively the displaced spirits of the dead.

In Poltergeist II however, the spirits are revealed to be the ghosts of a religious sect condemned to death by their wandering leader: the aforementioned Reverend Kane. Eager for his clan to show their devotion, and convinced that the world is about to end, Kane has his band of followers entombed alongside him in an underground cavern; consigning each of them - men, women and children - to a slow and painful death.

Poltergeist II: The Other Side [Brian Gibson, 1986]: 

By itself, this element of the plot is both harrowing and unsettling. It's an example of a horror film evoking something that is terrifying because it's relatable; because it presents an instance of avoidable tragedy and human genocide that is all too real. The hopelessness of the followers' situation, the claustrophobia inherent in the subterranean setting, and the way the director Brian Gibson emphasises the pain and anguish on the faces of children (as their parents forever cling to the sermons of the evermore maddening Kane), are redolent of this more plausible, more human image of terror.

However, this element of the plot gives the film an added depth that is absent from its otherwise superior predecessor. As a character, Kane could be seen as a stand-in for almost any modern leader; a self-aggrandising individual willing to take his followers into oblivion in order to prove a point. There's an element of this that speaks to the dark heart of American history; the reality of people looking to men with no answers to provide them with a direction in times of great difficulty; as well as how these acts of self-sacrifice and religious hysteria gave fuel to the rhetoric of racism (one supporting character remarks that the Native Americans were initially blamed and persecuted for the disappearance of Kane and his followers).

Kane's presence could also offer an anti-theist commentary on religion in general, as the character enters the film like an anachronism; a skeletal preacher dressed in the garb of a pilgrim; softly singling 'God is in His Holy Temple' as he stalks his way up to the family's front door. Combined with the subtle inference of paedophilic intent - as Kane immediately focuses-in on the family's "little angle"; their youngest daughter, Carol-Anne - the spectre of religious fundamentalism, death cults and the devastating reality of abuse within the church, all feed back into our subconscious interpretation of the character and his attempts to infiltrate the family unit.

Poltergeist II: The Other Side [Brian Gibson, 1986]:

While this particular reading will always work to underline our own fears, concerns and suspicions (as triggered by the reality of daily news-coverage and what many of us learned as "stranger danger" at school), I still prefer to think of Kane as more of a general commentary on 'the banality of evil', as opposed to anything more specific. Rather than simply portray a conventional 'bogeyman' figure, or a monster in the lineage of Freddy Kruger or Jason Voorhees, the Reverend Kane is a more complex and multi-dimensional character; a supernatural entity that nonetheless feels like an embodiment of a very real trait; one that compels individuals in positions of power to act out of arrogance and self-belief (instincts that often result in the suffering of innocent people).

It's worth pausing here to once again compliment the performance of Julian Beck as the Reverend Kane. Beck was a multi-talented artist (a writer, painter, theatre director and performer) whose rare forays into the cinema also included an appearance in Pier Paolo Pasolini's extraordinary film of Oedipus Rex (1967) and a late appearance in Francis Ford Coppola's underrated The Cotton Club (1984). At the time of Poltergeist II Beck was sadly in the final months of a battle against cancer, and his incredibly frail, old-before his time appearance lends a powerful credibility to his characterisation here.

Oedipus Rex [Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1967]:

As a respected avant-garde performer working in the mainstream, Beck doesn't seem to have approached the role as something that was beneath him. Instead, he invests the character with a keen intelligence and elevates it to the level of something powerful; Kane is horrifying but oddly sympathetic.

One of the strongest sequences in the film, both in terms of the narrative construction and in its basic filmmaking approach, is the scene in which Kane first arrives at the house of the main protagonists. Initially engaging in polite (but oddly portentous) small-talk, the scene quickly escalates into something more threatening; as Kane's efforts to influence the family seem charged with a supernatural force. As a moment of great cinema, the scene stands out as the defining moment of the entire film, and remains - in its own right - a masterclass in screenwriting, direction and performance.

Poltergeist II: The Other Side [Brian Gibson, 1986]:

Part of me can't help suspecting that this particular scene may have had an influence on the later films of David Lynch; in particular Lost Highway (1997) - in which the protagonist Fred Madison encounters the sinister Mystery Man at a party in the Hollywood hills - or the filmmaker's as yet final feature, Inland Empire (2006) - in which a strange, initially beguiling, but soon threatening older woman arrives at the home of the film's main character.

Lost Highway [David Lynch, 1997]:

Inland Empire [David Lynch, 2006]:

In each of these films, the sense of anxiety and discomfort comes from the threat of the home invasion; the very real fear that many of us have about letting a seemingly benign stranger into our homes, only then to be confronted by the dangerous reality of their true intentions. Again, the scene works because it's relatable. We understand this situation and the fear that the family might face because it's something that could actually happen.

Scenes such as the ones mentioned above are thought-provoking and compelling, but they stand out as rare occurrences in a film that too often becomes preoccupied with empty visual excesses and scenes that feel derivative of the previous film. Sequences of inanimate objects brought to life and attacking the family are ridiculous because they're so divorced from anything that could ever really occur. While the fear of a stranger turning up on your doorstep and taking a worrying interest in your youngest child is so close to some semblance of reality that it triggers something of our natural anxieties, a chainsaw floating through the air and attacking a station wagon, by contrast, seems rather silly.

Had Poltergeist II emphasised more moments like the ones discussed above - or chosen instead to explore the "the other side" of its title as some kind of metaphysical labyrinth (a precursor to 'the black lodge' of the long-running Twin Peaks perhaps - to once again evoke Lynch) - then it may have proven to be a film worthy of Beck's incredible performance and the more interesting themes that exist only within these faint fragments of interpretation.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

The Outrage of Idiocy

An Open Letter to the 'Professionally Offended'

Another year, another predictable controversy blowing across the Croisette. Manufactured and self-perpetuating, the hollow show goes on; as if the participants in this play of second-hand indignation are merely following yesterday's script.

For the last few days I've struggled to put into words my reaction to the media coverage of the Cannes Film festival, and more specifically, the early response to The House That Jack Built (2018); the latest work from the ever-contentious 'provocateur', Lars von Trier. Since the film's premier just a few short days ago, the expected backlash (if not bloodbath) of public outrage, moral panic and shameless virtue signalling, has swirled around the tabloids and associated social media like a tempest; successfully ensuring that anything else connected with the festival this year has been lost within its wake.

For a moment you could be forgiven for assuming that we'd gone back in time; or that perhaps we we're all caught in some kind of infinite loop; like Groundhog Day (1993), or The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006). Less than a decade ago, von Trier's previous horror film, Antichrist (2009), premiered in competition at the same festival. There the general reaction from the public and press now seems like a dress rehearsal for the festival of 2018.

It was Albert Einstein who said: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results." And yet still, the play goes on...

You see, the problem is this: I don't believe that the level of outrage here is genuine. And I don't believe that these critics are passionate about cinema. I don't believe that the cinema speaks to them - or through them - whole-heartedly; as the sky speaks to the earth. I don't believe their indignation or frustration with von Trier's film stems from the fact that its very existence detracts from/or diminishes the potential conversations that the culture might be having about films and filmmakers more deserving of our respect.

You see, each of these individuals had a choice: talk about this "terrible", "abhorrent", "disgusting film" (in so much detail that they're literally transcribing - in ecstatic verse! - every grisly crime and grim atrocity perpetuated by its central character; and in doing so, turning the film into a genuine cause célèbre) or instead, choose to ignore it. Let its negativity, or its potential to offend, sink quickly beneath the waves of cultural discourse, and instead promote those other, 'worthier' films; the ones you feel should be demanding our attention.

Make the positive films - the "good" ones, the necessary ones - the real point of conversation. Tell us what we should be seeing, and why; not elevating what we're supposed to condemn.

The Passion of Saint Tibulus (Father Ted, Series 1, Episode 3) [Declan Lowney, 1995]:

The axioms are of course true: all publicity is good publicity; and there's no such thing as bad press. All of these critics, these journalists, these cultural commentators, were so eager to demonstrate their moral standing - their virtue and righteousness - that they succeeded in promoting The House That Jack Built to such a level that it has now eclipsed almost everything else at Cannes. Congrats!

The House That Jack Built is without question the defining film of this year's festival, and it was the outrage of people like Jessica Kiang, Ramin Setoodeh, Caspar Salmon, and the braying bandwagon-jumpers that follow such people across the wastelands of social media, that made it possible. It's because of them - with their sensationalist "hot takes", predictable handwringing and good old-fashioned finger-wagging conservatism (disguised as leftwing political correctness, no less) - that the competing films of Jafar Panahi, Jia Zhangke, Spike Lee, Jean-Luc Godard and Alice Rohrwacher (to name a few) have very quickly disappeared from the cultural conversation.

These writers could've used their platform to make the legacy of Cannes 2018 one of celebration; to emphasise the attempts by organisers to push inclusivity and diversity as the main agenda; or the tentative efforts to celebrate female filmmakers and industry professionals as an antidote to Harvey Weinstein's reign of abuse. Instead, these self-appointed arbiters of cultural decency were too busy relishing the violence and brutality of von Trier's film; feigning disgust and disapproval, while simultaneously pouring over every gory detail, and profiting from it, shamelessly.

While these critics accuse von Trier of arrogance, or of creating a toxic product, or of wallowing in human misery and - by extension - rubbing the noses of his collective audiences in that misery, they themselves were more than happy to do the same. Rather than lift their own art to a higher cultural level - creating content that enlightens and embraces the diversity of their readers' attitudes and opinions - they instead chose to promote negativity and disagreement; forcing their readers to experience the horrorshow of violent imagery contained in the film by putting it lovingly, and excitedly, into words. They themselves - Kiang, Salmon, and their assorted tabloid peers - succeeded in creating product every bit as violent, unpleasant and sensationalistic as von Trier's film is purported to be.

The lesson here is simple. You don't have to have an opinion on everything you see. To borrow a metaphor from von Trier's film: each of us is building a house of our own conception. Some writers refer to this house as 'the canon'; the pantheon of creative works that we find relevant and inspiring; or those that define us and our perceptions of humanity. If your agenda is to reject works that could be considered harmful or reductive, then actually reject them. Build a house of celebration; not destruction. Or simply: take what's good for you and leave the rest for someone else.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Crime and Punishment

A note on a film: Crime and Punishment (1983)

In a particularly impressive stroke, Kaurismäki's film - his first as director - begins with a scene taking place in some anonymous Helsinki slaughter house. In close-up, an insect crawls across a blood-splattered plinth. Almost immediately, a cleaver comes down and cuts the bug in two. Ominous music begins to overwhelm the soundtrack as we're subjected to an onslaught of emotionless, repetitive slaughter; a montage of drab, impassive young men in overalls cleaning meat from bone, sawing through sinew and hosing down pools of blood collected under a procession of strung-up animal carcasses.

This first scene introduces us to our central character, Rahikainen; a former lawyer turned butcher, still haunted by the loss of his young fiancé some several years before. However, it also introduces us to the theme of murder, central to both Kaurismäki's film, and the 1866 novel by Dostoevsky on which it is based. More specifically, it introduces us to the idea of murder as somehow existing to sustain balance; the order of murder, as it moves down the chain, from human, to animal, to insect, etc. It also introduces us to Kaurismäki's characteristically ironic and deadpan sense of humour; as he illustrates, in mundane miniature, the very essence of what the film - and, by extension, its esteemed source material - is effectively about.

Like the novel, Kaurismäki's modernised interpretation of Dostoevsky focuses on the attempts made by its central character to kill a principle. Not a specific person or target, but a concept; an ideology. Rahikainen's eventual murder of a seemingly anonymous businessman at first seems divorced from the more conventional justifications we might associate with the crime; such as vengeance and retribution. It doesn't seem motivated by anger or hatred, but instead seems an almost philosophical or moral provocation; an attempt to challenge the societal or evolutionary order of things, as the character sees it.

In this respect, the film predicts certain elements from Krzysztof Kieaelowski's startling Dekalog-spin off, A Short Film About Killing (1988), which probably owes some of its own influence to the work of Dostoevsky. Both films focus on young men cast adrift and unable to connect to a society that seems both cold and colourless, while both films share a thematic preoccupation with the correlation between crime and punishment itself.

Crime and Punishment [Aki Kaurismäki, 1983]:

A Short Film About Killing [Krzysztof Kieaelowski, 1988]:

The similarity feels obvious from the start. While Kaurismäki begins his film in a fully-functioning slaughter house, Kieaelowski famously begins his own film with the image of a dead cat hung from a railing (further accompanied by the sound of children running away in fits of mischievous laughter). Both films evoke the crime of murder, first in miniature, and as a precursor to later events, and both use these crimes against non-human entities to exemplify the loveless nature of the society that these characters are caught up in (Kieaelowski and his screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz go one further by predicting the method of execution that will eventually be favoured by the state; turning their first image into both a personal and political foreshadowing.)

Similarly, the world created by both filmmakers is ugly and dehumanising. Kieaelowski and his cinematographer Sławomir Idziak favour grotesque colour filters that plunge areas of the frame into total darkness, while saturating the remaining image in a wash of green and yellow hues. Conversely, Kaurismäki favours heightened minimalism. His framing is flat and perfunctory, with shots and inserts used sparingly to provide illustration. He focuses on naturalistic location shooting to present an inherent drabness, or dreariness, that seems to suggest something about his protagonist; his lack of prospects and direction; the void of hope.

A Short Film About Killing [Krzysztof Kieaelowski, 1988]:

Crime and Punishment [Aki Kaurismäki, 1983]:

There's also something of Robert Bresson to Kaurismäki's particular aesthetic; not just here, but as it would subsequently develop through his later, better films; such as Ariel (1988), Drifting Clouds (1996) and The Man Without a Past (2002). The presentational nature of the imagery, the use of insert shots, the pace of the editing and the very flat, mannered, almost emotionless delivery of the actors, can't help but evoke Bresson's legacy of works, from Pickpocket (1959) through to L'argent (1983). Pickpocket specifically is said to have been inspired, in-part, by Dostoevsky, and the ending of that particular film is appropriately echoed here.

Pickpocket [Robert Bresson, 1959]:

Crime and Punishment [Aki Kaurismäki, 1983]:

At the end of Pickpocket, the character Michel - the titular thief - finds a kind of spiritual transcendence through incarceration. In this sense, Bresson's film probably has a touch the "existential" about it, as the character intentionally sets in motion a chain of events that will see about his own personal downfall, or a kind of punishment for some perceived weakness or failure. This, as a conception, recalls Dostoevsky, but it also evokes some of the ideas found in Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness (published 1943) and the predicament of the character Meursault in Albert Camus's The Stranger (published 1942). Here the notion that "existence precedes essence", and the idea of a character committing a crime as almost primal scream (as well as an attempt to re-establish some kind of emotional balance within his own personal universe) seems to inform the philosophy of Bresson, and by extension, the philosophy of the film in question.   

As a debut, Crime and Punishment lacks much of the nuance and personality that would become characteristic of Kaurismäki's later cinema; which would really come into its own with the release of his third feature, Shadows in Paradise (1986). Subsequent works would take a similar approach to the one seen here, incorporating the same influence of Bresson and the milieu of socio-economic hardship as a backdrop to a more conventional filmic narrative, but would punctuate the deadpan humour and the mannered performance style with a sensitivity seemingly plucked from the quiet melodramas of Yasujirō Ozu (note the appearance of the red kettle in one of the screen captures featured above as an early nod to Ozu's cinema.)

Nonetheless, the film still provides a fascinating insight into Kaurismäki's early approach, his creative vision, and his particularly sardonic sense of ambition (a cavalier approach to adapting literary classics that would eventually carry through to his later, similarly modern and satirical adaptations of Shakespeare - Hamlet Goes Business, 1987 - and Henri Murger - La Vie de Bohème, 1992 - respectively). Crime and Punishment is a film very much worth experiencing, both in its own right, and as a way of introducing the rough essence of what an Aki Kaurismäki film is before approaching his subsequent, more interesting endeavours, such as those aforementioned.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Heart is Where the Home Is

Thoughts on a film: The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

With its extensive use of wide-angle lenses to distort perspective, prolonged tracking shots that unfurl through a maze of labyrinthine corridors and slow, penetrating zooms that seem to expose the hidden emotions of its characters, The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) is nothing if not a masterpiece of cinematic form.

In terms of its actual creative lineage, it was difficult not to be reminded of the films of Stanley Kubrick, both in its thematic design and its actual on-screen direction. More specifically, it brought to mind the presentation of Kubrick's similarly languorous and claustrophobic horror film The Shining (1980), where the discordant soundtrack, sense of isolation (both spatial and psychological) and the depiction of a family being pushed to the brink by external, possibly even supernatural forces, calls to mind the same events seen here.

However it also seems reminiscent of the detached and paranoid psychodrama at play within another of Kubrick's films: the often underrated Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Here, a successful doctor/surgeon is thrown into an emotional tailspin when his comfortable image of the world (and his own place within it) is challenged by an accusation that hits a little too close to home.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer [Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017]:

In keeping with the influence of Kubrick, Nicole Kidman once again appears as the wife of a successful doctor/surgeon whose all-knowing perspective on the narrative (and its secrets) creates a question of complicity. The role itself, and much of the resulting scenes, seem to offer a conscious throwback to Kidman's earlier role in Eyes Wide Shut.

Eyes Wide Shut [Stanley Kubrick, 1999]:

In Eyes Wide Shut, Kidman plays Alice; wife of the successful doctor Bill Hartford. It's Alice's initial confession about an erotic fantasy and possible extramarital affair that sends Hartford on his nocturnal odyssey; creating a question as to whether or not Alice is simply a victim of her husband's circumstances or a part of the greater conspiracy acting against him.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer [Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017]:

The frequent tracking shots through the labyrinth-like hospital feel specific to the point of establishing the location as an almost sentient space. Suggesting something of "the corridors of the mind" even; where the presentation seems to recall the vast passageways of the Overlook Hotel, or the hedge-maze and its wider (and applicable) connotations to Greek myth.

The Shining [Stanley Kubrick, 1980]:

Despite the Kubrickian similarities - as well as references and allusions to other works, which will be discussed shortly - The Killing of a Sacred Deer never feels like a copy or a work of imitation, but instead seems to have its own sense of morality and creative identity. It's an assemblage of influences, for certain, as almost all films today seem to be, but one that nonetheless reflects the general attitudes and worldview found in other films by Lanthimos and his co-writer Efthymis Filippou, such as Dogtooth (2009), Alps (2011) and The Lobster (2015).

Dogtooth [Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009]:

Like Dogtooth, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is preoccupied with exploring the roles and routines that come to define the conventional family unit. These routines depict a particular kind of American domesticity that is familiar from Hollywood movies and daytime television, but the scenes that feel most familiar, or recognisable, are robbed of personality, warmth and even basic humanity.

Again, as with Dogtooth - which presented an even more radical deconstruction of the suburban family - Lanthimos and his collaborators exaggerate these domestic routines until they become like little rituals of dehumanisation. Conversations about body hair and mp3 players or scenes of characters flossing their teeth are presented as a reality, but are depicted in such a way that it's as if we're witnessing aliens from a distant planet attempting to grapple with or engage with some rudimentary semblance of human behaviour.

Every scene in the film feels heightened, posed or artificial in construction. There's an almost 'autistic' quality to it, in the sense that so much of The Killing of a Sacred Deer is presented as if reflecting the worldview of characters unsure of how people are expected to respond or react to a situation; or where the intermittent bursts of discordant sound create a feeling of sensory overload; or where the mannered performance style and the bluntness of the dialog don't quite resonate with what feels 'recognisable' to us (whatever that might mean) and yet make sense within the context of everything else.

This aesthetic is symptomatic of the director's need to find new ways of expression; presenting familiar ideas, scenes and characters in a way that is aggressively unfamiliar. It's reflected in the imagery as well, as Lanthimos and cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis shoot from angles that are slightly left of the conventional; or use the wide-angle lens to dwarf the perspective of the characters, making them appear smaller, and the world around them, by contrast, appear greater, more overwhelming.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer [Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017]:

As an aesthetic approach it arrives fully formed with the film's astounding first image; a bird's eye view of a human heart beating inside the exposed chest cavity of one of the surgeon's patients. The shot immediately establishes context - who the character is, what he does for a living, etc - but also reinforces many of the thematic points of reference and interpretations that will develop as the film plays out. The idea of the heart as a symbol - with its conventional connotations of love, family, emotion (the expression, "home is where the heart is", etc) - but also the idea of the heart as a system. A functional organ that beats at the centre of things; like the character Martin; the teenage harbinger who enters into this family and disrupts it from within.

On the surface of it, The Killing of a Sacred Deer seems to blur elements of classical Greek tragedy - specifically the story of Iphigenia, with its themes of revenge, atonement and child sacrifice, as well as the implications of the title itself; which relates to Agamemnon's accidental killing of a deer in the grove of Artemis, who subsequently demands the death of Agamemnon's daughter, Iphigenia, as a penance - alongside further allusions to the film Teorema (1968) by Pier Paolo Pasolini.

In Pasolini's film, a beguiling young stranger enters into the life of a bourgeoisie family and attempts to destroy them from within; an element of the plot that is closely echoed here with Martin's initial acceptance within the family. There's also a suggestion of the children of the protagonist conspiring with the stranger to punish the father for some real or imaginary transgression; which seems to reflect not only the predicament faced by Colin Farrell's character in the film in question but also that of the Daniel Auteuil protagonist in Michael Haneke's similarly cold and clinical psychological study/revenge parable Caché (2005).

Teorema [Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968]:

The Killing of a Sacred Deer [Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017]:

Caché (aka Hidden) [Michael Haneke, 2005]:

The final act builds to a kind of theatre of cruelty that feels close to another of Haneke's films; the home invasion thriller/didactic cine-essay Funny Games (1997). Here the contrasting elements of Greek myth, psycho-thriller and suburban satire collide in a moment that surely ranks as one of 2017's most jaw-dropping cinematic moments. As a climax to an otherwise slow and hypnotic study in sustained tension and emotional distance, the violent inevitability of this climax, and the way that the characters embrace it so unquestioningly, is absurd and outlandish; illustrating just how far the filmmakers are willing to go in order to honour the bizarre rules and rituals that they've created for themselves through this concoction of influences.

However, the climax is not gratuitous in nature. It doesn't stray into the realms of exploitation or sensationalism, as many of Haneke's (or even Kubrick's) imitators so often do when attempting to provoke or outrage their audience's sensibilities, but instead presents a final reckoning that is unflinching in its commitment and intensity.

While The Killing of a Sacred Deer struck me as an excellent film, much of it only works if we approach it on a level of allegory. Like Darren Aronofsky's recent film, mother! (2017) - which is similarly divisive and similarly brilliant - it's a work that seems to be playing with symbols and representations as opposed to a more tangible kind of reality that an audience can invest in, either emotionally or philosophically.

If we hold the story and its characters up to any kind of close scrutiny then nothing actually works and the whole thing just unravels into a muddle of unanswered questions and loose ends. But it's worth grappling with these issues and inconsistencies in order to experience how the story unfolds, and to appreciate how Lanthimos and his collaborators are able to put together these diverse influences to create something that feels so singular and so different.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

The Road to Nowhere

A note on a film: Falling Down (1993)

The film begins, atypically, with an intense pullback shot from the character's half-opened mouth. It's a hideous close-up; distorted by the use of a wide-angle lens, which seems to exaggerate the as yet still concealed repugnance of this character. His propensity for violence, his racism and frustrations with the modern world - which will soon spill-out; defining both the narrative and the character's ensuing journey into the darkness of his own despair - are already transforming him into something not quite human. A monster maybe? Although not the literal type of monster as defined by Dr. Victor Frankenstein, or a Count Dracula even, but as something more recognisable to the concerns and general disposition of America in the last half of the twentieth century.

In this first image, the mouth - less a conduit for food, water and air; less a means for verbal expression - seems transformed into an open wound...

Falling Down [Joel Schumacher, 1993]:

The way the camera pulls back from this mouth is itself like an act of revulsion. In a sense, we, as the viewer, are too close to the wound of it; the stench, the hatred; the snarl of aggression is too much for the audience to bear at this point in the narrative. But the shot also represents a kind of visual exhalation of breath. The character breathes out, in time with the movement of the camera, and in this gesture the entire film is like the last gasp expression of all of the different anxieties and frustrations that compel the character to make his final stand.

From here the camera ascends. It moves over his nose, where sweat drips from the tip like a slow faucet leak, to his eyes piercing behind horn-rimmed spectacles; a meek and officious look that seems incongruous to that rictus-like rend that the camera had previously pulled away from. As the title appears on-screen, the character's now closed eyes suggest a state of trance, as if a primal force, once dormant, is about to be awoken. The suggestion that this character - this sleeping tiger - is about to be shaken from his complacency; from the deceitful delusion of the American dream.

Here, the iconic 'stars and stripes' appearing in the background of the shot seem significant. A sort-of symbol that defines the character (or his own conception of "the self"), as well as becoming a part of the film's essentially heavy-handed social commentary; which only becomes more hysterical and histrionic as the film plays out.

The same shot continues, unbroken. It movies down, over the character's hands - now gripped tight to the steering wheel, as if trying to anchor himself to this moment of mundane actuality - and further, along the body of the car now trapped in this social deadlock (the combination of the traffic jam and the tracking shot now recalling the iconography of Jean-Luc Godard's similarly controversial 1967 film Weekend - although the comparison is no doubt unintentional).

Weekend [Jean-Luc Godard, 1967]:
In Godard's film, the traffic jam/tracking shot seems to offer a reflection of the then-contemporary French culture at a kind of impasse. The cars are no longer moving, just stuck in one place, unable to progress or move forwards, but as ever, a semblance of life goes on. The two protagonists from the film, married couple Roland and Corrine, eventually break free from the inactive lifestyle represented by these cars, complacent in their immovable stagnation, and cut their own path towards anarchy, revolution and eventual destruction.

8½ [Federico Fellini, 1963]:
A more accurate but still perhaps unintentional point-of-reference to the scene from Falling Down could be this sequence from Fellini's masterwork 8½, where the idea of a traffic-jam as microcosm of modern-life is once more viewed through the eyes of a white, middle-aged, male protagonist on the brink of some kind of crisis or collapse.

Schumacher's camera keeps moving; a slow prowl across an overheated radiator - venting steam as a preface of things to come (the engine of the vehicle signifying the growing fury of the character off-screen?) - before tilting upwards and tracking closer towards the rear of the car in front.

Falling Down [Joel Schumacher, 1993]:

Here, the little girl with the plastic doll peers back at the protagonist with dead eyes that seem devoid of life and wonder; the gaze becoming more a gesture of judgement, or accusation, than of curiosity. To the audience she's just a kid like any other, but to the character she's a possible representation of the dual role of the mother and daughter that will soon define the film's emotional conflict (even the hair and appearance of the child is styled as if to resemble that of the actors Barbara Hershey and Joey Hope Singer, who respectively feature later in the film as the protagonist's estranged wife and daughter).

The camera now swings right, across another vehicle. It moves slowly, revealing the sight of a woman applying lipstick in the car's side mirror (another grotesque mouth; another exhaling expression) and across to a plush novelty Garfield toy suction-cupped to the rear side window.

The combination of vanity and consumerism becomes an affront to the character's position as someone drifting outside of the borders of conventional society; presenting another attack on the culture of indifference - or the inability to look at the world for what it is because we're all too concerned with our own private, hermetically preserved existence - but it's also intended, in its use of iconography, to again bring to mind the presentation of the mother and child.

The woman, enhancing her femininity (is her self-worth only defined by external appearances, or is the make-up another mask that people wear in order to face the world, or to conceal the monster within?) and the toy, as a reminder of childhood innocence, are offered to show, on a more subtle level, how these symbols (the mother and child) have become distorted by the central character's anger and contempt. His rage against the superficiality of the contemporary American society in stark contrast to the perceived idealisms of the past.

The shot continues now, moving further along the side of a school bus. Here unruly children throw paper planes from open windows, oblivious to the adult concerns of the traffic jam, or the grown-up fear of missing work or social engagements, and the penalties that such actions might incur.

Now the commentary becomes broader, less personal; the children as possible literal representations of the innocence of youth? They're not bothered by the traffic jam; they see it as an excuse to play. But their joviality and their efforts to make the best of a bad situation are once again an affront to the character's inner turmoil, and their voices, exaggerated on the soundtrack, cuts through the percussive assault of James Newton Howard's score like a dentist's drill.

As the camera descends, once again revealing the 'stars and stripes' emblazoned on the side of the bus, it would be easy to interpret this symbolically, as the literal "youth of America" (these kids, trapped in a state of innocence; in a sense protected from the horrors of the world outside), but it seems more likely that the flag is a reminder of the ideals that the character, in his anger and delusion, feels have been lost or corrupted. The flag as a reminder that America was once a land of opportunities, which seems incongruous if not cruel to the character's own position as a divorced, recently unemployed, forty-something male, reduced to living with his ailing mother in the bedroom of his childhood home.

The commentary continues as the camera maintains its descent. From a scene of children at play we pass over the heads of two young executives finding their own amusement as they sniff coke off the back of clenched fists and make deals on portable phones. For these yuppies, money never sleeps, and the traffic jam is just another opportunity to cash out or make connections; the "new America" of the energetic '80s drifting effortlessly into the burnt-out cynicism of the 1990s.

The shot finally comes to rest on the back of the protagonist's head, once again reinforcing his position as central to this image of America as a roadside microcosm; the catalyst for all subsequent events. This final shot, which signals the end of the credits and the end of this intricately planned sequence, places the audience inside the head of the central character; forcing us to identify, on some level, with his perception of the world before the full course of the narrative takes shape.

For me, this entire sequence is amazing, and along with Flatliners (1990), Tigerland (2000) and The Phantom of the Opera (2004), remains one of the greatest things Schumacher has ever directed. Unfortunately I can't say the same for the rest of the film, which despite its enduring popularity among certain audience members who feel the same sense of cultural alienation and displacement felt by the central character (and as such see his acts of reckoning and misdirected rage as justifiable), soon falls into the typically blunt, often judgmental hysteria that one might associate with the 'auteur' of films like St. Elmo's Fire (1985), A Time to Kill (1996) and Trespass (2011).

From here, Schumacher undermines the subtlety of the scene by repeating all of the same images, only this time within the context of a bludgeoning, Eisensteinian montage. It borders on parody, making obvious what has already been suggested, while turning what could've been a complex and multi-faceted look into a serious social and generational phenomenon (one that still has some sobering relevance if we think of the film in the context of the candidacy of President Trump, the rise of the 'alt-right' and the fascism of modern identity politics) into something with only a modicum more nuance and intelligence than the average Stallone or Schwarzenegger movie from the same period.