Tuesday, 15 January 2019

A Year in Film Pt. 2

A Viewing List for Twenty Eighteen

Married to the Mob [Jonathan Demme, 1988]:

Watched: Apr 16, 2018

Once again, it's the personality of director Jonathan Demme that enlivens and enriches the experience of the film. From his eclecticism - that bold mishmash of colours, fashions, music and settings, so vibrant and diverse - to the unwavering humanism already evident in previous films, such as Citizens Band (1977), Melvin and Howard (1980) and the preceding Something Wild (1986), the attitudes and relaxed stylisations favoured by the filmmaker succeed in charming the audience at every conceivable turn. Even when his characters are shady, or when the social milieu is suggestive of a particular threat of violence and criminality (as it is here), there's always a resolve and determination to these people, which is infectious. As such, the film becomes a celebration, with Demme allowing his actors the space to define and develop their characters through an expression of their own individual personalities; their quirks and idiosyncrasies on full display. The ensemble cast is incredible throughout, with standout turns from Michelle Pfeiffer as the film's strong-minded protagonist Angela, Dean Stockwell as the slimy mob boss Tony 'The Tiger' Russo, and Matthew Modine as Mike; a boyish FBI agent-cum-love interest.

Ghost Stories [Andy Nyman & Jeremy Dyson, 2017]:

Watched: Apr 19, 2018

Pitched in its promotional materials as a kind of horror anthology - a film in the same tradition as Dead of Night (1945), Spirits of the Dead (1968) or Tales from the Crypt (1972) - the eventual presentation of Ghost Stories soon expands into something far more character-driven and cohesive. Framed around the attempts made by a paranormal investigator to debunk three supernatural cases that led to his former mentor's disappearance, the individual vignettes presented by the investigation soon begin to suggest a different type of story; one that eventually propels the film towards its revelatory third-act twist. While the general nature of the three cases and the over-reliance on conventional jump-scares does initially seem to promise only modest thrills, it's the film's later sequences - and their clever dismantling of the fourth-wall between the supernatural and the psychological - that opens the film up to a more emotional interpretation, as well as moments of genuine surrealism. Co-written and co-directed by lead actor Andy Nyman and the former "League of Gentlemen" collaborator Jeremey Dyson, Ghost Stories is a film that riffs on the well-worn clichés of the horror genre; playing with the language and iconography that we've come to expect from other supernatural works - from The Shining (1980) to The Sixth Sense (1999), etc.  - but distinguishing itself through a kind of post-modernist deconstruction. It's a film rich in atmosphere, visually inventive and one that creates a palpable sense of fear throughout. However, the most disturbing aspect of Ghost Stories is the sense of loneliness that comes to define the character's journey as the film draws to a close.

Force of Evil [Abraham Polonsky, 1948]:

Watched: Apr 27, 2018

The film noir as art film; elusive, inscrutable and rich with allegorical interpretation. The two brothers representing Cain and Abel; a descent into subterranean worlds as a kind of figurative "Dantean" inferno; Faustian pacts and capitalism as a literal black death. The love story seems like an afterthought, but it's the performances, heightened and emotional, like the great American theatre, and the dialog, which has a kind of poetry to it, that are entirely gripping. Most movie dialog is merely perfunctory. It attempts to evoke naturalism; finding in its construction the awkward pauses, lack of cadence and layman's vocabulary that define the ordinary, or the everyday. Force of Evil however presents something far more interesting in its use of dialog. There's an "ornate" quality to the language here; a certain grandeur, though a grandeur that belies an undercurrent of violence and betrayal. In this sense, one could argue that the film is something of a precursor to the work of the American playwright David Mamet. Like Mamet's best writing, the dialog of Polonsky's screenplay has a rhythmical, almost musical quality to it. It has repetitions and reiterations that continually shift the emphasis from word to word; changing the subtleties and meanings of sentences in a profound way; finding subtext and insinuation; expressing everything and nothing simultaneously. The direction and cinematography are also incredible, utilising the full creative arsenal of post-German expressionist cinema to create a world full of atmosphere and emotion.

Secret Beyond the Door [Fritz Lang, 1948]:

Watched: May 1, 2018

Unfurling with an inscrutable dream-logic rife with visual symbolism, Lang's enigmatic, proto-Lynchian mystery, ties the Gothic intrigues of classic novels like "Jane Eyre" and "Rebecca" - with their similar presentations of lost girls, damaged men and figurative allusions to rooms that are off limits - to something comparatively more modern in its psychology and approach. From the very start of his career, Lang's cinema seemed preoccupied with matters of the subconscious. Think of the vengeful inventor Rotwang in Metropolis (1927), driven insane by grief, or the titular master criminal at the dark heart of The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933), casting his insidious influence over the city, like a veritable plague. Using the bare necessities of his routine genre assignments to explore more interesting ideas perhaps closer in presentation to the form of the psychodrama, Lang's greatest works frequently dealt with this conflict between the inner and outer self. This is most apparent in the film in question. While considered a poor effort by many critics, Secret Beyond the Door is nonetheless a film where Lang takes his Freudian/psychoanalytical interests to the absolute limit. The entire film has an internal quality to it, where the use of voice-over monologues establish the notion of a character looking back on their own experiences. Not merely 'from the past', in the conventional sense, but as if suspended; hovering above the narrative, trancelike; as if recalling events through a form of hypnotic suggestion. It's a film full of mirrors and mirror imagery, suggesting ideas of replication, doppelgängers, self-reflection and the fragmentation of the self. It's also one of Lang's most visually inventive and expressive films.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time [Mamoru Hosoda, 2006]:

Watched: May 16, 2018

As with Blade Runner 2049 (2017), this is another film that I didn't manage to make any notes on after my initial viewing. As such, I'll try to extract from memory the things that most impressed me, though again, I feel it's a film I'll need to return to in the not-too-distant future. Nonetheless, the animation here is stunning. Unlike American animation, which is often loud and hectoring - an endless blur of action, colour and movement that always seems to be in a great rush to get to the next big set-piece - Hosoda's film is quiet and reflective. While there's a definite high concept at work here - a presentation of time travel and repetitions of chance and coincidence that seems to owe a debt of influence to the film Groundhog Day (1993) - The Girl Who Leapt Through Time doesn't allow its science-fiction elements to boil over into action or spectacle. Instead, it remains focused on the relationship between its characters; the moral concerns and personal considerations, which are engaging throughout. It's a film that seems content to focus on the small, seemingly inconsequential daily routines and activities that define the lives of these characters. The emotions are overwhelming.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 [David Yates, 2011]:

Watched: May 20, 2018

Harry began the story as an innocent. During the course of his childhood a war breaks out. As a result, the youth must radicalise; preparing themselves for battle and the uncertainties ahead. As the series drew to a close I was struck by how much this parallels the experiences of its own audience. Those that came of age with the franchise: roughly speaking, millennials, or "Generation Potter"; these children of Marvel and J.K. Rowling. Like Harry, these kids would've experienced the relatively more colourful adventures of The Philosopher's Stone (2001) in a state of complete innocence. As the fall of the Twin Towers brought terrorism and tyranny on a global scale, the subsequent instalments - beginning perhaps with The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) - saw the battles at Hogwarts coincide with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan; the books' subtext of 'in-world' prejudice (the slurs against the "mud-bloods") or the characters displaced by war, connecting with the grim realities of the migrant crisis, racial intolerance and an overwhelming climate of fear. This probably sounds intensely pretentious, but I couldn't help seeing a connection. As the film's final moments found its characters framed against a landscape of death and destruction - ruined buildings and the soil still black from war - I felt the films had somehow become a mirror to the experiences of a generation, and the wider cultural events that surrounded their formative years. Not in the sense of the themes being inspired by these events- which would be impossible, given that the books predate both the films and the political climate - but adapted in response to them; giving this culmination to the seemingly disposable film series an incredible weight and depth.

Lunacy [Jan Švankmajer, 2005]:

Watched: Jun 16, 2018

Combining a number of possible inspirations - from two texts by Edgar Allan Poe, "The Premature Burial", and more significantly, "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether", to the writings of the Marquis de Sade - Švankmajer's fifth feature-length film, Lunacy, is perhaps best surmised by the well-known idiom: "the lunatics have taken over the asylum." Set mostly within the walls of a decaying psychiatric hospital, the early scenes of Švankmajer's film are a bizarre and sometimes alienating experience. As an audience we witness these early scenes through the eyes of our protagonist, Jean; a young man that has been suffering from night-terrors following the death of his mother. We share his bewilderment and sense of disbelief as he's initially taken in by a man who claims to be the embodiment of the aforementioned de Sade, and who allows the patients at his hospital to run riot as a part of some bizarre form of behavioural therapy. However, as the film progresses and more revelations become clear, we begin to recognise where the influence of "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether" is eventually leading us. Without giving too much away, the satirical crux of Lunacy is a depiction of society under both the left and right-wing systems of government; a political commentary that feels somewhat relevant to the world of 2018, in which the perception of society is now torn between the two extremes of the modern left, with its social-constructs, micro-aggressions, identity politics and safe spaces, and the modern right, with its rhetoric of intolerance, ignorance and hate. For Švankmajer's, both systems are inherently flawed. Too much order leads to oppression, censorship and abuse; no order at all leads to chaos. As such, the argument of the film seems to be this: that to find true freedom one must accept a compromised middle-ground between the two extremes of anarchy and totalitarianism. It's a bold and provocative supposition, but one that is intelligently conveyed.

The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque [Éric Rohmer, 1993]:

Watched: Jun 19, 2018

Conversational to the point of didacticism, Rohmer's extended rumination on the political divides of a small village and its questions of commerce and redevelopment in the face of a changing cultural identity is exhausting, but also quietly adventurous. While much of the film is presented in the characteristic manner that one associates with Rohmer's work - familiar as it may be from earlier or even subsequent films, such as The Aviator's Wife (1981), Pauline at the Beach (1983) and A Tale of Springtime (1990) - there are nonetheless several bold deviations from the typical "Rohmerian" aesthetic. These deviations include 1. moments of actual documentary - comparable to some extent to similar sequences found in the filmmaker's earlier and no less brilliant Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (1987) - 2. a sub-plot that feels more befitting of a Hollywood romantic comedy, and 3. a later sequence that can only be described as a kind of folk-musical. The last of these deviations was the most surprising, not least because it broke from Rohmer's typically relaxed sense of naturalism; aligning the work instead to the stylised historical opera of something like Moses und Aaron (1973) by Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet. Arriving at the end of what is otherwise a kind of dry cinematic discourse on the themes aforementioned, this coda felt entirely remarkable; connecting the film, in some small way, to the legacy of one of Rohmer's most bold and unconventional earlier efforts, the masterful Perceval le Gallois (1978).

The Whispering Star [Sion Sono, 2015]:

Watched: Jun 19, 2018

If we were to attempt to simplify the experience of the film, then The Whispering Star is essentially The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) remade by Andrei Tarkovsky. Again, it's a simplification. However, like The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Whispering Star involves a non-human character who travels to our planet to fulfil a specific task - in this instance, delivering packages to the scattered pockets of civilisation - and invariably becomes a kind of witness to the folly of mankind. Aesthetically, it's more modern - if not post-modern - than any of Tarkovsky's films, particularly in its transformative final scenes, but nonetheless, the film shares an affinity for Tarkovsky's contemplative tracking shots, monochromatic  imagery, ruined locations that suggest the collapse of civilisation, and an interest in the elements; the rain, wind, sand and fog. Apparently filmed in and around the district of Ōkuma - the site of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster - the authenticity of the film's desolate locations and its depiction of humanity clinging to the last semblances of contemporary existence while poverty and desperation take hold, is quite extraordinary. Like Jia Zhangke's brilliant Still Life (2006), a film where the writer and director set a fictional relationship against a real backdrop of the village of Fengjie - at the time being destroyed by the building of the Three Gorges Dam - the placement of the science-fiction story into this particular setting suggests a clever blurring of the line between fiction and documentary. It also gives an added weight to the central character's observations on human experience, perseverance and survival.

Amour Fou [Jessica Hausner, 2014]:

Watched: Jun 21, 2018

Hausner's control of the formalist elements of the film are impeccable. In terms of the aesthetics - the art direction, costume design, cinematography, etc. - Amour Fou is a complete work. However, there is much more to the film than just stylisation. In telling the story of the relationship between the writer Heinrich von Kleist and his lover Henriette Vogel - a courtship that resulted in the pair committing to a murder-suicide pact in the winter of 1811 - Hausner views the events through a modern lens; inviting an element of irony (even cynicism) into this retelling of history in order to challenge the audience's perceptions of Kleist, German Romanticism and the myth of the male genius. In keeping with this ideological approach, the film's depiction of Kleist is not that of the romantic dreamer, the sensitive soul or even the vulnerable adult beset by crippling neuroses, but a cold, aloof, ineffectual figure; a man-child who doesn't so much die as an attempt to express some fatalistic sense of devotion, but instead, selfishly kills Vogel and then himself out of a state of manic depression. In presenting the story in such a way, Hausner creates an intentional indictment of Kleist and a sardonic dismissal of romanticism in general.

Monday, 7 January 2019

A Year in Film Pt. 1

A Viewing List for Twenty Eighteen

I didn't get around to compiling one of these lists for 2017, which is unfortunate, as I saw some great films over the course of that particular year. Some of the obvious highlights included Split (2017) by M. Night Shyamalan, Dragons Forever (1988) by Sammo Hung, Cosmos (2015) by Andrzej Zulawski, The Babadook (2014) by Jennifer Kent, Dogtooth (2009) by Yorgos Lanthimos, Hangmen Also Die! (1943) by Fritz Lang, La Cérémonie (1995) by Claude Chabrol, Big Fish (2003) by Tim Burton, mother! (2017) by Darren Aronofsky, It Follows (2014) by David Robert Mitchell, and perhaps the best of the bunch, Over the Garden Wall (2014) by Patrick McHale. This year I thought I'd renew the tradition, so I've compiled, in chronological order, a four-part list of the forty best films I saw over the course of 2018.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince [David Yates, 2009]:

Watched: Jan 06, 2018

For me, this is the most cinematic of all the Harry Potter films and the first to feel relevant beyond its own specific franchise demographic. Whereas previous instalments had the feel of illustrated text - bland and visually generic fantasy affairs concerned mostly with telling a story in the most basic terms - The Half-Blood Prince actually succeeds in translating its themes into images. In this sense, it's not simply an illustration of the story, but something that engages visually with the subtext, ideas and emotions being expressed; not through spoken exposition, but through the iconography (uses of mirror symbolism, imprisonment; a birdcage within a birdcage, etc) as well through the formalist aspects of lighting, colour and composition. The tone is still uneven and often talkative, but there does seem to be a much greater emphasis on the emotional journey of the characters; the sense of loyalty and betrayal. There is also a compelling and ever deepening emotional intensity that works brilliantly, not just from an audience perspective, but more significantly, in bringing together many of the thematic and narrative plot-points that had developed through the previous instalments.

Howl's Moving Castle [Hayao Miyazaki, 2004]:

Watched: Jan 27, 2018

The transient nature of the castle and the backdrop of an encroaching war suggest a subtext of how war itself displaces people. In rejecting the kind of easy spectacle that animation can so ably depict, Howl's Moving Castle instead adopts a relaxed, almost contemplative tone; creating a suggestion of war, not as an excuse for action and adventure, but as something that forces us, as a species, to lose connection to the people and places that define us. It's a rich idea and one that plays beautifully to the film's sensitive depiction of old age (suggested here by the experiences of the heroine, Sophie; old before her time). So few films, especially ones aimed at children, give space to the struggles of those at the end of life, but here the character's attempts to find peace are genuinely heartfelt. The journey of the film, as such, has less to do with the fantastic odyssey these characters take than the emotional journey of Sophie, as she attempts to get back to a state of being (and a sense of self) that existed before the war (and its curse) intruded upon her existence, changing it forever. This adaptation of a novel by the English author Diana Wynne Jones may at first seem an unconventional choice for Miyazaki, but it's nonetheless a film that connects many of the great narrative threads that have run throughout the filmmaker's career.

The Coward [Satyajit Ray, 1965]:

Watched: Jan 28, 2018

Feeling somewhat more European in its influences than Ray's more celebrated works, such as Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956) and The Goddess (1960), to name just three - films in which the influence of neo-realism was applied to a culturally specific and historically authentic milieu, unburdened by western perspectives - this intimate, almost theatrical memory-play, shows the filmmaker's further development and mastery of diverse narrative forms. Perhaps owing as much to the influence of the Southern Gothic of writers like William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams as it does to the stifling chamber-films of Ingmar Bergman, the shifts from naturalism towards a kind of heightened stylisation, create an almost dreamlike quality; a sense of ambiguity in terms of the story's place between reality and fiction. While apparently underrated and even discredited by many film critics and devotees of Ray's cinema, The Coward - with its stark modernist compositions and sensitive performances from the three main leads - presented, for this particular viewer, a wandering "dark night of the soul" examination into the themes of lost love, fragile masculinity and the fear of commitment, where ghosts of the past and fears of the present freely intersect.

Blade Runner 2049 [Denis Villeneuve, 2017]:

Watched: Feb 19, 2018

This is the only film on the list that I didn't write something about after my initial viewing. I'll need to see it again before attempting to write anything more substantial, but it's sufficient to say, I found the film utterly compelling, beautiful in both design and conception, and thematically profound. While it largely contradicts the most fascinating question that runs throughout the Ridley Scott-directed original - e.g. is Deckard a replicant? - Villeneuve's sequel nonetheless compliments the earlier instalment's existential themes regarding identity and what it is to be human. Such conceptions feel more relevant now, in our current climate of smart phone technology and further developments in the field of robotics than they perhaps appeared when explored three decades ago, and as such there's a greater sensitivity, if not empathy afforded to its android characters, which suggests this societal blurring of the real and artificial. While Villeneuve's work does draw heavily on the template of the original film, the aesthetics of Blade Runner 2049 are very much its own. While one can point to the influence of a film, such as Steven Spielberg's masterwork A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), or the philosophies of Mamoru Oshii's similar sci-fi noir Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004), there's also something of Tarkovsky and Solaris (1972) in its sombre mood, slow pace and elemental concerns.

Steamboy [Katsuhiro Ōtomo, 2004]:

Watched: Feb 28, 2018

Anyone going into this expecting a film along the same lines as director Katsuhiro Ōtomo's great masterwork, Akira (1988), will be sorely disappointed. While Seamboy once again showcases Ōtomo's tremendous visual sense, his ability to create vast worlds that feel utterly immersive and entirely authentic, as well as his obvious flair for creating scenes of large-scale action and destruction, the film is a lot more grounded and conversational than that aforementioned cyberpunk classic, with little of the violence or grotesquery that propelled that particular film to its lasting cult status. Instead, Ōtomo uses a fantasy of late 1800s Britain to draw a line from the industrial revolution to the tragedy of how such miracles of modern engineering would pave the way for the great wars and devastation that would come to dominate the 20th century. In doing so, he turns this beautifully crafted steampunk adventure story into an oblique anti-war commentary; wherein the protagonist - the boy-inventor, James - has to protect his grandfather's innovations from the corrupt and capitalist warlords trying to use them for their own insidious ends.

Gerald's Game [Mike Flanagan, 2017]:

Watched: Feb 28, 2018

My first experience with director Mike Flanagan was seeing his earlier films, Oculus (2012) and Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016), during the latter half of 2017. Both films impressed me on a level far greater than what I'd expected. It was my interest in Flanagan's work that led me to subscribe to Netflix and to the film in question. Throughout its claustrophobic narrative, Gerald's Game succeeds in capturing the internal, almost stream-of-consciousness quality of its source material (the novel by Stephen King); inhabiting its protagonist's subconscious the way one might conventionally inhabit a room. Here, Jess's thoughts and fears become personified, taking physical form. While her body is bound her mind is free to wander off into the darkened reaches of her own psyche; into the past or somewhere else. While the ending of the film proved to be problematic for some, the coda seemed necessary to me, providing a point of catharsis. It underlines the central themes of abuse and survival, while also showing how the protagonist is finally able to accept that she wasn't to blame for her own experiences. The way the editing of the film conflates the two abusers of Jess into one supposedly imaginary bogeyman figure, reinforces the idea, quite disturbingly, that some monsters are real.

Before I Wake [Mike Flanagan, 2016]:

Watched: Mar 02, 2018

As much as I was enthralled by Gerald's Game (2017), I loved this one even more. Not only is the film genuinely terrifying, employing a slow-burning, long-held observational aesthetic influenced by "J-horror" filmmakers like Hideo Nakata and Kiyoshi Kurosawa (albeit, with the occasional Hollywood style jump-scare there to lower the tone), it builds to an emotional climax that is actually heartbreaking. Like the best films of M. Night Shyamalan, Flanagan uses the supernatural to explore themes of catharsis and grief. His monsters aren't embodiments of pure evil, but emotional manifestations, filled with pain and fear. If we were to follow the Shyamalan/Flanagan comparison to its logical conclusion, then Before I Wake is this filmmaker's Lady in the Water (2006). On the surface, it's Flanagan's lowest rated film to date, but like Shyamalan's similarly derided effort, I found it sensitive, imaginative and refreshingly earnest in its emotions. It's also beautifully cinematic.

Something Wild [Jonathan Demme, 1986]:

Watched: Apr 04, 2018

The spirit of the French New Wave collides with the energy of the American independent cinema in this seemingly simple but actually quite rich and intelligent road movie; a highlight of the very brief "yuppie in peril" subgenre that also gave us the brilliant After Hours (1985) by Martin Scorsese and the quite enjoyable Into the Night (also 1985) by John Landis. However, the elements that make Something Wild an actual masterpiece are almost distinct from the narrative itself. While the original screenplay by E. Max Frye is perfectly well developed, it's the depth of personality and sensitivity that is brought to the film by director Jonathan Demme that defines the overall experience. In particular, it's Demme's seemingly earnest love for alternative cultures, old Americana, reggae music, street art, indie rock and the natural eccentricities of people that elevates Something Wild beyond what could've been a fairly standard or straight-forward screwball romance into a genuine time capsule of specific attitudes, people and places.

The Mystery of Picasso [Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1956]:

Watched: Apr 07, 2018

A film that should've done for live-drawing what The Last Waltz (1978) did for the rock concert. Quite why so few filmmakers have followed in Clouzot's footsteps and produced a similar arts-based documentary might be what the mystery of the title refers to, though if nothing else, one could perhaps see this as something of an early precursor to a perennial favourite like The Joy of Painting (1983-1994), hosted by Bob Ross. Nonetheless, Clouzot's documentary is a fascinating and in some sense historically significant study in the practicalities of form; a work preoccupied not just with the creation of images, but with the notion of how images can be used to tell a story. In collaboration with cinematographer Claude Renoir, Clouzot devises an intricate system that allows the audience to see Picasso's paintings come to life almost in real-time; it's not animation, but actuality; although it sometimes has the same effect. In doing so, the filmmakers provide an extraordinary insight into the famed artist's methodology, his abilities and approach.

Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life [The Brothers Quay, 1995]:

Watched Apr 07, 2018

Having discovered and explored many of the animated works of the Quay's during the course of 2017, I was very keen to check out their first live action feature, the beguilingly titled Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life. As with their earlier works, such as Nocturne Artificialia: Those Who Desire Without End (1979), the acclaimed Street of Crocodiles (1985) and the underrated Rehearsals For Extinct Anatomies (1988), Institute Benjamenta is a slow, carefully composed and stylised work that carries a definite European influence. Its tone and stylisations owe something of a debt to Jean Cocteau - specifically his Beauty and the Beast (1946) - as well as Eastern-European folk tales; to say nothing of the legacy of its author, the German-speaking Swiss writer Robert Walser. Enigmatic and inscrutable to the point of rejecting almost all logical interpretations, the Quay's sub-textual deconstruction of Walser's 1909 novella, Jakob von Gunten, embraces a dreamlike, almost fairy-tale narrative, which envelops rather than compels. While themes of incest, repression and existentialism seem to circle, the film impresses more as a work of carefully designed and beautifully photographed craftsmanship, where individual sequences of intricately choreographed sound and movement stand out.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Ways of Seeing

Thoughts on the subjectivity of film viewership:
Using, as examples, a discussion of the films Porco Rosso (1992)
and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2016)


This past weekend, I attended a screening of the Hayao Miyazaki film Porco Rosso (1992). It's a work that I've seen several times before, with the initial viewings stretching as far back as my late childhood/early adolescence. It's also a film that I carry a great deal of affection for, despite its somewhat lesser status among aficionados of Miyazaki's work. This time however, seeing the film with an audience of friends and discussing the experience with them immediately after viewing, I was struck by a moment of self-realisation that made me question my own response to the film, and even my approach to film-viewing in general.

It was a question of perception, really: how much of a film exists on-screen - as a readable, definable subject that is understood through the interaction between the characters and the plot - and how much of it exists in the heart and mind of the individual viewer, who interprets the scenario and its iconography, creating for themselves their own meanings and significances, which, over time, defines for us what the film is effectively about?

I've spoken in the past about the subjective nature of film (and film criticism); how films are essentially dead objects that an audience gives life to by enlivening the characters and situations with their own personal thoughts, feelings and recollections. However, this past year, I've become increasingly cognisant that my own interpretation of films is not only personal to the point of impenetrability, but often invisible to anybody looking at the film from a different point of view.

To preface this, I wanted to share a short note I wrote last year about the Tim Burton/Jane Goldman adaptation of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2016). Writing on MUBI, I surmised the film as follows: "The subtext is incredibly sad. A wounded boy disappears into a story told by his grandfather; a child of the Holocaust who saw men become monsters. In this story, dead children killed by war remain frozen in time. The narrative then becomes an attempt by the child to reconcile with his grandfather's own experiences through an interaction with the old man's memories and his own encounters with death..."

While I acknowledge that Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is a flawed work, far below the standard of Burton's greatest efforts – such as Ed Wood (1994), Big Fish (2003), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) and the animated Frankenweenie (2012) – it was the themes and subtext of the film that struck me as so profoundly moving that I was willing to overlook any discrepancies in its creative delivery. However, other people that I've spoken to about the film not only failed to respond to it on this same kind of a personal level, they didn't even recognise such elements as being present in the actual work.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children [Tim Burton, 2016]:

Porco Rosso [Hayao Miyazaki, 1992]:

The experience of discussing Porco Rosso with friends brought me back to this same relationship between 'text' and 'subtext'; what Jean-Luc Godard, in A Letter to Freddy Buache (1982), further clarified as the distinction between 'a film on' and 'a film about.' So the question is this; do we see a film first and foremost as a kind of passive illustration – a story of characters attempting, through action, to achieve a specific goal – or do we see it as a means of exploring, through the relationship between those characters and the world the filmmakers create, issues of politics, history, sociology, identity, etc? In short, "narrative" or "theme"? Does a  film necessarily have to succeed on both levels in order to be considered of great merit, or can we choose to elevate a film with a thrilling or provocative subtext, even if the basic storytelling is perhaps flawed or weak?

Unlike the example of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, I would never call the storytelling of Miyazaki's film flawed or weak; quite the opposite in fact. The film is engaging, amusing and enlivened throughout by a combination of breathless action and adventure, broad slapstick comedy and scenes of a genuine pathos. Nonetheless, the film certainly plays fast and loose with its own fantastical mythology; it leaves space for the audience to question and interpret the predicament of its central character (and their relationship to the plot) by effectively refusing to provide closure or clarification.

For the uninitiated, Porco Rosso tells the story of a former WWI fighter pilot, Marco Pagot, carving out a post-war career as defence against rampaging 'sky pirates' in the Adriatic. The twist here is that the pilot has been afflicted by a magical curse that has left him with the head of a pig. Friends seeing the film for the first time were left frustrated by the film's lack of answers about how the curse worked; the background of it, the particular context, the resolution, etc. While the curse is mentioned in the dialog, it's never really explained. There are playful fairy-tale like allusions throughout about the curse being broken by a kiss, but unlike the presentation of the similar porcine-related curse cast upon the young Chihiro's parents in the subsequent Miyazaki-directed masterwork Spirited Away (2000), the film in question doesn't really concern itself with the finer points of the who, what, why or how.

Porco Rosso [Hayao Miyazaki, 1992]:

Spirited Away [Hayao Miyazaki, 2000]:

From my own perspective, there's never been any mystery regarding the true nature of the pig's curse, or the inference at the end of the film that it may have been broken by the character's own actions following the course of the narrative. For me, Marco's appearance was always directly related to his loss of humanity; a literal loss of face. Even as a child I took it as granted that the curse - as presented by the filmmaker- was in part a metaphorical gesture; one that felt explicitly connected to the film's anti-war/anti-fascist commentary, and the character's own betrayal of his innate sense of human decency following his experiences in battle.

Attempting to explain how I came to such a conclusion I pointed to a specific scene. Midway through the film, when asked how he became a pig, Marco retells an otherwise unrelated story to his young companion - the budding mechanic and aeronautics engineer Fio - about an experience he had during the war. Following an especially vicious mid-air dog fight, Marco found himself the last remaining pilot. His plane, lost within a skyscape of desolate cloud, just drifting into the white void. Here the film stops for the first time; the breathless action and colourful adventure replaced by a moment of odd but transcendent serenity. Now Marco, like the audience, is compelled to watch as the other pilots, both friends and enemies, float away into some celestial cosmic procession of an afterlife transfiguration; or is it a less literal expression of the true cost of war personified by this trail of dead souls?

Porco Rosso [Hayao Miyazaki, 1992]:

It's by far the film's most beautiful moment. An eerie, ethereal encounter with a world or phenomena both greater than our own conception; rendered with the same sense of awe and wonderment that Miyazaki brought to his better known fantasy films - such Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) or Howl's Moving Castle (2004) - which works to both deepen and enrich the overall experience of the film and its carefully interwoven commentary on loss, responsibility and regret.

While the seeming significance of this scene and the connection between the idea of war, as a genuine tragedy, and humanity as something easily lost or corrupted (like innocence, or the sense of self) had always been central to my own enjoyment and understanding of Porco Rosso, the friends I watched it with didn't see it quite the same way. For them there was nothing in the film to make this connection explicit, or to even suggest it as a possible explanation of events. I began to question how I might have arrived at this particular interpretation; what had led me to blindly accept that this character had been cursed with the physical form of a pig because of his own self-hatred following the perception of his actions during the war; or that breaking the curse was a way of reconciling those experiences, regaining his sense of self and in a way being able to recognise that for all the shame and guilt, there was still an inherent humanity present in his actions? Had I read something that pushed me in this direction? An old article or review from some long-since forgotten publication of my youth? Had the director himself suggested it in an interview once? Was it something I'd read online? The answer to this question is: I don't know.

Am I guilty of projecting ideas onto the film that were never really there to begin with? Have I become like the kid in M. Night Shyamalan's brilliant and perpetually underrated Lady in the Water (2006); reading signs on cereal boxes? Finding patterns in things that don't really exist? Again, I couldn't say. My response to the film still feels authentic to me, but the prevailing emotions of the film, which had always been so strong and profound, now seemed somewhat muted. Seeing the film with friends and experiencing it, to a small extent, through their own uninitiated perspective, did make me wonder how much of the film's emotional and philosophical weight, or my long-held interpretation of the text, had been a figment of my own invention; something that no one else is able to see.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

I Get Overwhelmed

Notes on a film: A Ghost Story (2017)

That feeling when you see a film and it hits you in such a way that you need to run through the streets in the middle of the night so you can tell all your friends about it. Then you remember you don't have any friends, so your blog has to suffice...

I've wanted to watch A Ghost Story (2017) since I saw the earliest publicity images for it over a year ago. At first I was a bit alienated by it. I'd heard it described as a film about death - about grief  specifically - but I found the earlier scenes fatally underdeveloped. The stilted, drawn-out, almost 'pornographic' depiction of mourning felt unnecessarily laboured. Without a strong connection developed between its two initial protagonists during the short scenes before Casey Affleck's character dies in a car accident, it was difficult to feign interest in the story, and the subsequent scenes of Rooney Mara's extended grief spiral seemed unearned.

Then Mara's character reaches a kind of catharsis and  leaves, but the film doesn't end with it. Affleck's ghost remains in the house, and witnesses years of life and solitude, birth and decay unfold all around him. Scene after scene, the film kept unfolding, revealing new depths, new secrets, like a succession of Chinese boxes; each new sequence broadening and enriching the story and the themes of loss, death, time, meaning, purpose, commitment, etc. Moving between moments of past, present and future, as civilisations fall and are rebuilt; as dead stars go out, only to be replaced by new ones that burn just as bright, and just as briefly.

A Ghost Story [David Lowery, 2017]:

Then the film eventually comes full circle; returning to scenes from the earlier domestic life between Mara and Affleck, showing shades and variations of their relationship that tell a different, no less tragic story; one not necessarily about grief and death, but nonetheless centred on loss and the inability to move-on. The connection to all of these various events, the futility, the hope for something greater, the desire to move the stars so as to carve our own names (and others) in the night sky, or to say "I was here; I existed!", was so beautifully realised that I actually cried.

I loved that the house became a metaphor and that the ghost became a witness to the human condition. I loved that it uses the old Academy film ratio (1.37:1), even if certain shots were a bit kitsch, and others too closely resembled "Instagram chic." I love that Will Oldham's in it, and appears just at the precise moment when the film makes its leap from 'interesting curio' to 'genuine masterwork.'

Friday, 6 July 2018

Robby Müller

In Memoriam

In general, I tend not to make too many "R.I.P." posts. Other blogs that are more active than mine make such tributes a regular feature of their postings, but given that I'm not a very prolific writer here at Lights in the Dusk, I could imagine such posts becoming overwhelming given the general lack of other content. The sad fact is that too many great artists come and go and if I were to acknowledge each of them this blog would turn into an obituary.

However, Robby Müller, the great Dutch cinematographer famed for his collaborations with Wim Wenders, among other filmmakers, passed away this week, and it seems necessary to break from this tradition and share a few words (and images) about his extraordinary career.

To Live and Die in L.A. [William Friedkin, 1985]:

Müller was one of my absolute favourite cinematographers and was someone who seemed to gravitate towards projects and filmmakers that speak to me on a profoundly personal level.

It's difficult to choose a favourite film photographed by Müller. Throughout his career he brought a style, atmosphere and inventiveness that always seemed right for the specific project. In other words, he served the material. Whether he was working in 16mm black and white, as in Alice in the Cities (1974), 35mm colour, as in Barfly (1987), or pioneering the use of digital video, as in Dancer in the Dark (2000), My Brother Tom (2001) and 24 Hour Party People (2002), respectively, Müller was able to create lasting images that were bold, iconographic and always attuned to matters of light, space, character and location.

Whether collaborating with mainstream Hollywood directors, such as William Friedkin, John Schlesinger and Peter Bogdanovich, or more idiosyncratic, independent talents, such as Alex Cox, Jim Jarmusch and Raúl Ruiz, Müller always seemed to bring a level of craftsmanship that was even more remarkable given the limitations that he chose to embrace.

It's not an overstatement to suggest that Müller could have had the same career as Roger Deakins, Robert Richardson, or more recently Hoyte Van Hoytema; working exclusively on big budget Hollywood pictures for so-called "prestige" filmmakers. Instead, Müller chose to work with filmmakers that were unconventional, controversial and often at the start of their careers. In doing so, he nonetheless succeeded in creating a lifetime's worth of astounding images on small budgets, short schedules and against incredibly difficult filming conditions.

Robby Müller filming Kings of the Road [photo attributed to Wim Wenders]:

Just focusing on his early collaborations with Wenders already illustrates Müller's amazing versatility. Moving from the stylised and Hitchcokian The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972) to the almost documentary like travelogue of Alice in the Cities, we can appreciate both his mastery of different mediums and his ability to switch between works of unforced naturalism and painterly stylisation.

The subsequent films that Wenders and Müller made together would only broaden their creative pallet, as the emphasis on landscape, or 'place', became a central concern in a film like Kings of the Road (1976) or the early scenes of Paris, Texas (1984), while the use of colour would become increasingly more daring and expressive, as in the Edward Hopper influenced Patricia Highsmith adaptation The American Friend (1977).

The lasting legacy of Müller is perhaps best surmised by Wenders himself, who in a tribute to his former collaborator, states: "Like no other, you were able to seize moods and to describe situations in your imagery that revealed more about the characters than long dialogues or dramaturgical structures ever could. You knew how to create a distinctive atmosphere for each and every film, in which the respective actors were, in the truest sense of the phrase, "in good hands." For a handful of filmmakers, among whom I was one, you were their most important companion, like Hans W., Jim, Lars, Steve. And you were a role model for a whole generation of young directors of photography."

Below are some images taken from my absolute favourite films photographed by Robby Müller, which I hope illustrate many of the qualities discussed here, as well as providing a chronological record of his stylistic progression, trademarks, characteristics and key works.

Alice in the Cities [Wim Wenders, 1974]:

Kings of the Road [Wim Wenders, 1976]:

The Left-Handed Woman [Peter Handke, 1978]:

The American Friend [Wim Wenders, 1977]:

They All Laughed [Peter Bogdanovich, 1981]:

Repo Man [Alex Cox, 1984]:

Paris, Texas [Wim Wenders, 1984]:

To Live and Die in L.A. [William Friedkin, 1985]:

Down by Law [Jim Jarmusch, 1986]:

Mystery Train [Jim Jarmusch, 1989]:

Korczak [Andrzej Wajda, 1990]:

Until the End of the World [Wim Wenders, 1991]:

Dead Man [Jim Jarmusch, 1995]:

Breaking the Waves [Lars von Trier, 1996]:

The Tango Lesson [Sally Potter, 1997]:

Dancer in the Dark [Lars von Trier, 2000]:

Ashes [Steve McQueen, 2014]: