Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Things We Lost in the Fire


Notre-Dame de Paris / A Song of Stone

Having just watched Pompeii (2014) - an absolute failure of a film that renders the destruction and devastation of the ancient Roman city as if it were a kind of grotesque spectacle there to provide entertainment through set-pieces of sensationalist shock and awe - I make my way to the internet and find myself accosted by the news that Notre-Dame cathedral is on fire.

The coincidence is too specific to bear. While the daily news is forever full of terrible stories about death and bloodshed, suffering and exploitation, one can't help but feel something of a loss at the news of this sad destruction (partial or otherwise) of a work of art that has somehow survived the centuries. A structure of stone and brick that stood resolute through the chaos of the French revolution, the carnage of two-World Wars, the destruction of various terror attacks and the hostilities of countless protests. As a piece of architecture it has dominated the Parisian skyline for over eight centuries; becoming a symbol, an icon, a statement. Books, paintings, films and plays have been created to celebrate its once-eternal glory. And in a moment, it's gone, possibly forever.


The Fire of Notre-Dame [Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images, 2019]:

Seeing images like the one above not only hurts, on a personal level, but manages to sting even more so when I think about the experience of Pompeii and the horror of its conception. The crass, cynical commandeering of an actual historical tragedy to create moments of action and adventure suddenly seems even more insensitive; reminding us that the reality of the event in which people died, buildings fell and a vast moment of history became lost to the ashes of time, has little to do with the clichéd romantic soap-opera that the filmmakers have attached to it. To think about the destruction of Pompeii in light of the current damage of Notre-Dame only works to remind us that the overall feeling associated with the city's destruction by the erupting Mount Vesuvius is sadness. A sadness for the loss of life, the loss of history and the loss of place. This sense of loss is something the film in question fails to communicate, relying instead on a generic imitation of the Ridley Scott directed film Gladiator (2000), crossed with the dull romance of James Cameron's similarly egregious Titanic (1997).

Reading about the fire at Notre-Dame couldn't help put me in mind of a scene from a greater film; Orson Welles's rumination on the cathedral of Chartres in his masterpiece F for Fake (1973). The words come back to me as I scroll through social media images of Notre-Dame and the damage inflicted by the smoke and flames, and it helps me to rationalise why the potential loss of such a monument to history made me so genuinely upset; more so than I thought reasonable.

"Now this has been standing here for centuries. The premier work of man perhaps in the whole western world. And it is without signature. Chartres. A celebration to God's glory and to the dignity of man. All that's left, most artists seem to feel these days, is man. There aren't any celebrations. Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe which is disposable. You know, it might be just this one anonymous glory, of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust, to stand intact, to mark where we have been. To testify to what we had within us, to accomplish. Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades, or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in awe, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash. The triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we're going to die! "Be of good heart", cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing. Maybe a man's name doesn't matter all that much."


F for Fake [Orson Welles, 1973]:

As an addendum of sorts, I'd like to acknowledge that one moment from Pompeii does redeem the experience of the film, and quite significantly. It's in the final scene, which, while still working to fulfil the narrative arc of its boring, unearned love-story, manages to express the sense of life eroded, or of a moment frozen, historically, in time. An image of life itself made history by a tragic event. It occurs between the contrast of two different shots, each powerful in their own way, but more powerful when placed together in unison. In the first shot, a couple kiss and are then claimed by the erupting wall of molten ash and smoke that moves across the landscape, destroying it. In the second, the same kiss shared by the now long-dead lovers is preserved forever, in stone.


Pompeii [Paul W.S. Anderson, 2014]:

I'm reminded of this final image when I look at the sad stone face on the monument of Chartres, as documented by Welles, and when I think of the ruined stone and slate destroyed by the fire at Notre-Dame. As a film Pompeii is still very much a failure for all involved, though especially for its director, Paul W.S. Anderson, whose previous run of films, from Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010), through to The Three Musketeers (2011) and his best film, Resident Evil: Retribution (2012), had seen him arrive at a style of filmmaking that was bold, technically adventurous and arresting in its use of form. With Pompeii, Anderson has returned to the safety of coverage and illustrated text, creating a film that is as visually bland and morally tasteless as its generic storytelling.

However, this one cut between shots, this attempt to express the tenderness of the human spirit, in protest against the fire and brimstone reprisals of the natural world, is beautiful and inherently cinematic. In this context, and in the context of the various thoughts about history, and the inevitable loss of history, art, culture, life, etc, which now form before me, these shots evoke something about survival and perseverance; that we remain. Even in the face of disaster, somehow a gesture, a spirit or the traces of something else, survives. It struck me as incredibly hopeful, almost yearningly so.

Saturday, 13 April 2019

Crash


Thoughts on the book by J.G. Ballard

Going into "Crash" for the first time, I already had a distant familiarity with director David Cronenberg's 1996 film adaptation, which, even without the benefit of having read the book for myself, had always struck me as a truncated if still suitably provocative palimpsest of Ballard's text. Having now finished the book I'm perhaps better able to contrast and compare the experience of the two versions, with Cronenberg's film now appearing weaker, more inert and vastly more limited in its scope, imagery and psychology. This isn't to say that the Cronenberg film doesn't stand on its own merits, but rather, to do justice to the book, as an actual experience, the resulting film adaptation would have to be genuinely pornographic in order to fully capture how visceral, prescient and transformative the psychological study at the centre of Ballard's story actually is.

So much of the book's ability to confound, provoke and even disgust its audience, comes from the central conception of its characters finding sexual gratification through road accidents. While Cronenberg's film was controversial at the time of its initial release - actually generating the kind of ultra-conservative "ban this sick filth" tabloid outrage campaigns that are now the rhetoric of middle-class liberals afraid of being challenged or upset - it was too restrained, too polished even to put into images what the words of the book so daringly suggest.


Crash [J.G. Ballard, 1973]:

Throughout the book Ballard describes vehicular atrocity as if transcribing sex scenes from a hardcore porn film; finding something in the crumpled ruins of chrome and steel that's evocative of a genuine orgy of flesh and physicality. The fetishistic treatment of the automobile - in which the author goes to extraordinary lengths to describe each curve and contour of a car's bodywork (or the flashing lights and dials of the instrument binnacle) as if describing the corporeal form a current companion - is contrasted by the graphic physical descriptions of the human body locked in copulation. The association that Ballard creates between the two - which forms the central crux of the text - is intentionally graphic so as to humanise the automobile and to imbue it with an inherent physicality, while at the same time dehumanising the actual characters; reducing them to physical objects defining space.

For the protagonists of the book, who each seem to get drawn into the same strange auto-erotic delusion of self-discovery, it isn't just sex and death, or sex and injury detail that becomes the main preoccupation, but an actual union between the car and the human body. More specifically, the physical and psychological symbiosis between the car, and the destruction of it, and the human body and its own self-destruction.

What Cronenberg's film wasn't able to depict was the obvious associations between the visceral contrast of engine fluids and bodily fluids spurting out across vinyl interiors, or across the wet tarmac of an accident site. The contrast of the car, not just as a legitimate sex object, or icon of fetishisation, but the crash itself as a genuine act of intercourse. Ballad's book sees no distinction between the car crash and the act of coitous; they're both, in a way, presented as perverse encounters, of flesh against flesh, or metal against metal. The physical coming together of the two forms of the mechanical and the human, the organic and the synthetic. Penetrations across different forms.


Crash [David Cronenberg, 1996]:

One area where Cronenberg's film does arguably improve upon Ballad's source material is in its ending, which manages to convey the sense of hopelessness implicit in the book's image of civilisation; that existential, almost pre-apocalyptic feeling of dread and dissolution, of societal collapse. As the world and highways of the film become less and less populated, more empty and deserted, it's almost as if the disintegration of these characters' lives and their acts of transgression and self-destruction are a part of a wider cultural shift that's effecting the entire world. It captures the very 'Ballardian' notion of technology as a kind of virus or contagion; something that infects people, and drives them towards madness or acts of irrational violence. The ending of Cronenberg's film is fittingly absurd but grounded in an emotional plausibility. It has something tragic about it, suggesting the physical reunification between man and woman, husband and wife. It's much better and more affecting even than the book's ending, which I won't spoil, but which seems weakly symbolic by comparison.

However the film misses much of what makes the book relevant beyond its obvious sensationalism; the literal "car-crash" nature of its imagery and plot. For instance it never really feels like a character study. Because it loses the first person narrative of the book, its unable to place us in the thought-process of its central character. In the book, so much of the story can be read as kind of personal chronicle of obsession and mental collapse. There's an irony and self-awareness to the voice of this narrator, which is lacking in the film. There's an element of unreliability, which forces the reader to question how much of the book is a fantasy on the part of the protagonist, or if it's an actual attempt to make sense of something as destructive and irrational as an automobile accident (one that in this instance has resulted in the death of a fellow driver). In the book there is a strong implication that the character is dealing with unchecked issues of guilt, as well as obvious post-traumatic stress disorder, which are each leading him on a journey of self-destruction. Cronenberg's film lacks this important aspect while also neutralising the homosexual fantasies of the character, which he projects onto the scarred, similarly damaged figure of the obsessive Vaughn; the book's (sort-of) antagonist.

"Crash" isn't a book that I love as much as Ballard's subsequent works, such as "Concrete Island" (1974) or "High Rise" (1975), however it does explore much of the same interest in the collapse of western civilization. It's engagingly written, grotesque, sometimes funny, but always thought provoking. Its hints of depression narrative and suggestion of PTSD following an encounter with violence, disfigurement and death point the way forward to the author's later hypothetical studies on the fallout from acts of irrational violence found in the books "Running Wild" (1988), "Super Cannes" (2000) and "Kingdom Come" (2006).

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Agnès Varda

In Memoriam

I don't have the right words to pay tribute to Agnès Varda; that endlessly inspirational filmmaker who predicted the new wave of French cinema with her extraordinary debut feature, La Pointe Courte (1955). In that film, Varda took two professional actors - Philippe Noiret and Silvia Monfort - and placed their scripted melodrama against the backdrop of an actual fishing village; allowing the two strands of a story - one fiction, the other documentary - to contrast and collide. It was a film that advanced on the early concerns of the Italian neo-realists, allowing the actuality of the location and its inhabitants to become not just a counter-point to the conventional drama, but a genuine focus.

La Pointe Courte remains a quiet masterpiece; the debut of a film director who was coming to the cinema not out of devotion to the medium itself, but out of a deep and inquisitive interest in the world, and those that inhabit it.


The Gleaners and I [Agnès Varda, 2000]:


The making of La Pointe Courte [circa 1954-55, photographer not known]:

Unlike her contemporaries of the nouvelle vague, Varda wasn't looking at life through the cinema screen, the theatrical frame or the written word, but through the lens of her own camera. If Rohmer was wrapped up in books and Rivette lost to the stage, and if Godard and Truffaut thought life could only be understood when reflected on-screen, then Varda, more than any other filmmaker associated with that revolutionary period of French cinema, was preoccupied with people.

From La Pointe Courte she would go on to produce a similarly groundbreaking and enduring work in each subsequent decade of her career. Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), One Sings, the Other Doesn't (1977), Vagabond (1985), Jacquot de Nantes (1991), The Gleaners and I (2000) and more recently Faces Places (2017), each show the evolution of Varda's aesthetic, from black and white 35mm, to 16mm colour, to handheld consumer-quality video and finally digital. If the equipment was always changing, becoming less cumbersome, less distancing, more free and inclusive, then the technique, the focus and the sensitivity remained the same.

Throughout her career Varda would maintain a photographer's closeness and intimacy with her subject matter, telling personal stories, both from her own life and experiences, as well as the lives and experiences of those existing within the same vicinity. There were other interesting features made along the way, such as Le Bonheur (1965), Daguerreotypes (1976), Jane B. by Agnes V. (1988) and The Beaches of Agnès (2008), as well as short films, installations and photographic exhibitions. Varda's creative energy was inspiring, and her work remains thought-provoking, visually distinctive and essential.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Hedda Gabler

#WorldTheatreDay

I haven't been to the theatre this year. In 2018 I was fortunate enough to venture out several times over the course of the year, with highlights including the Theatre Royal Plymouth's production of "49 Donkeys Hanged" by Carl Grose and the RSC production of "Miss Littlewood" by Sam Kenyon. In addition I saw Erica Whyman's production of "Romeo and Juliet", also at the RSC, which was a definite experience, but a poor adaptation.

As today is World Theatre Day I thought I'd offer a throwback to one of the best pieces of theatre I saw during the last two years; "Hedda Gabler" by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Patrick Marber, directed by Ivo van Hove and performed at the National Theatre. It goes without saying that Ibsen's play is a masterpiece, but van Hove's modernist direction is intelligent and distinctive. It breaks from the traditional theatrical presentation favoured by many earlier directors to instead create something of a genuine audio-visual experience. It is, and remains, a perfect example of intelligent, forward-thinking theatre-making, which seeks to adapt the play into images, not words.


Hedda Gabler [National Theatre/Ivo van Hove, 2017]:

For instance, I loved how the ruined piano at the centre of the stage became a iconographic, almost conceptual representation of Hedda's own character; a once beautiful thing completely imprisoned and objectified; no longer able to find a proper use for itself; just a shadow of something once able to express and create falling further into decay. The setting, devoid of life, again shows a character held captive by her own circumstances; destroying the space and herself as the play progresses; suggesting something of an obvious symbiosis between the two. Part of what made the production such an experience was the phenomenal performances from Ruth Wilson, Rafe Spall and Chukwudi Iwuji, who each brought an intensity and sense of emotional abandon to their fraught but distinctive character arcs.

At a time when the vast majority of feature-films feel safe, stagnant and steeped in convention, van Hove's production of Hedda Gabler was an example of a work of theatre transcending the limitations of the medium and presenting something that was more immersive, affecting and visually inventive than anything currently playing at the local multiplex or streaming platform. The whole production was unforgettable.

Having always been a film buff exclusively I can't claim to be any kind of expert on theatre, however I did make something of an effort to broaden my experience and understanding of the medium after writing and directing my first play in 2015. Two more plays followed in quick succession, along with an additional directing assignment with a local theatre company in 2016 (which turned out to be a disaster). Nonetheless, this period of activity pushed me towards discovering plays by Federico García Lorca, Philip Ridley, Moira Buffini, Sarah Kane, Martin McDonagh, Harold Pinter, Shelagh Delaney, and other writers that I was already acquainted with but wanted to discover in greater depth; Bertolt Brecht, Samuel Becket, Brendan Behan, Eugène Ionesco, Antonin Artaud. I also became especially inspired by directors like van Hove, Peter Brook, Joan Littlewood, Katie Mitchell and Robert Wilson, who each seems to have advanced the modern theatre and the attitudes towards it to the point that it now dwarfs the comparatively meager accomplishments of the modern cinema.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Micro-Criticism


As Leonard Cohen once said: Ring the bells that still can ring! After nine years of intermittently logging my excessive film viewing habits on the boutique streaming-platform MUBI, a comment I wrote last month has actually been spotlighted as a "popular review." Huzzah and indeed hurrah! The review in question refers to Gaspar Noé's most recent work, the flawed but undoubtedly visceral dance-horror-freak-out, Climax (2018).

Make no mistake, I'm not exactly bursting with pride or self-satisfaction or anything; I know these things are generally predicted by various algorithms and not much else; but as a writer with absolutely no critical credibility, platform or following, it was still nice to see.


Lights in the Dusk at MUBI:

I started using MUBI back when it was a film-related social networking site called TheAuteurs. In those halcyon days, when message board culture was still a thing, and the kind of in-depth film analysis that found a home on the so-called "blogosphere" had yet to be replaced by Twitter critics, with their hyperbolic "hot takes" (of 280-characters or less), or YouTube videos by (mostly) bearded white male millennials, begging their audiences for Patreon dollars to deliver yet another piece of warmed-over content on the problem with the modern blockbuster, it had seemed a good place to keep track of what I was watching and to connect with a likeminded userbase for discussion and recommendations.


Lights in the Dusk at MUBI: [https://mubi.com/users/224284]

The social-networking and discussion aspects of the site collapsed a long time, with MUBI currently existing as a kind of art-house rival to Netflix; however, it's still populated by many intelligent and informative cineastes that are kind enough to share their thoughts and insights on the various films seen. Like Twitter, MUBI restricts the amount of characters per-post (a more generous 420 to be precise), which rather than pose a limitation for the writer becomes a kind of challenge; an exercise in pared-down literary minimalism in which the individual must attempt to express or distil the bare impression of a film, its failure or success. I call it "micro-criticism." They're not really reviews as such, but something else.

While the blog has gone through many long periods of extended inactivity - its pages often becoming like the empty rooms of an abandoned house, where no life lives; its posts, like dusty heirlooms, there to be sold off or discarded upon their owner's death - I've always tried to maintain a semblance of activity on MUBI, as well as other sites, such as Letterboxd, and formerly the IMDb. If you would like to read more of this "micro-criticism" please feel free to follow the link to my profile, which is included above.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Through the Looking Glass


Thoughts on a film: Petria's Wreath (1980)

PART II: WINDOWS

To see the memory of a life through a window-frame is a presentation inherently cinematic. It plays into the natural association of the window as something to be looked through; a window not just looking out into the wider world from the perspective of the inhabitant within, but a window looking in on a new world from the contrasting perspective of the attentive voyeur. A private world full of characters and stories that are different but also recognisably the same.

The most obvious example of this - one that I've returned to several times in the context of the blog - is the Alfred Hitchcock directed masterpiece Rear Window (1954). Here, the central character, bound as he is by injury, finds himself cast as the aforementioned voyeur; his window-space becoming a surrogate for the cinema screen; each adjacent room and apartment presenting a new scene, story or, apropos to television, a "channel." Actuality is transformed here by the subjective gaze into a murder-mystery of the character's own conception.


Rear Window [Alfred Hitchcock, 1954]:

However, a window, if lit correctly, can also become a mirror. It reflects the thing in front of it; giving us the image not just of the small (or great) drama occurring on the other side of the screen, but the reflected image of the observer projected upon its gleaming surface. An example of this can be found in the Fassbinder film, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), where the long-suffering character Marlene watches with a resigned desperation as the object of her affection is seduced by a love that isn't her.


The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant [Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972]:

Here the window - which both reveals and obscures the act itself (as well as further representing the idea of objectification as a symptom of romantic desire, even obsession) - is also a reflection of everything Marlene wants but is unable to achieve. Her emptiness - or position as someone outside of the conventional parameters of an equal partnership - is represented by the imprisoning blinds and the dead space that seems to overwhelm the right-hand side of the composition, creating an even greater reflection (or projection) of the character's distance and isolation.

The fact that she, in her separation, is the one literally behind the glass, shows how Marlene herself is objectified by her own submissiveness. The window, in this presentation, is less a portal to another world than an emotional or psychological barrier; something that keeps the character from connecting to the pleasures and sensations of life itself.

The same aesthetic ideology once again refers back to Hitchcock. The scene in Vertigo (1958), in which the well meaning but painfully naive character Midge - the would-be romantic foil to the film's obsessive anti-hero Scottie Ferguson - sees herself alone and dejected following an attempt to impress her disinterested protagonist, and becomes - for only a brief moment - a sad reflection in the window pane of a studio apartment.


Vertigo [Alfred Hitchcock, 1958]:

In this small moment, the character is finally confronted with the reality of how the protagonist sees her; effectively invisible, transparent and incomplete. Like an insect trapped behind a pane of glass in a museum - to be viewed by the curious as an example of something no longer living - this Midge (the name alone analogous to that of an actual bug; a "pest") is barely visible, opaque, indecipherable; a phantom lady hovering lonesome-like over the city. This backdrop itself mocks the character with a vision of life, vibrancy and adventure, which, given the particular context, seems forever out of reach.

These windows become mirrors to their respective characters conception of "the self"; reflecting a self-image that is all too painful to embrace. However, they also provide a mirror for the viewing audience, who project on to them, Rear Window-like, their own impressions of a story; one based on their own subjective point of view.  Do I, as the viewer, see the pain and frustration of these characters because that's what the filmmakers intended, or do I project such feelings onto the images because of my own experiences and beliefs. As ever, it's a bit of both.

The use of the window in Petria's Wreath represents a combination of the three points of view expressed herein. At the most immediate level, the window is a portal; a means of looking back on something that occurred many decades ago from the perspective of the present day. It's also a part of the self-reflexive aspect of the film; specifically in how the scene is framed by the appearance of a photographer, who captures the old woman's image and then, through old-fashioned editing techniques, transformers her into a younger self. In this sense the photographer could be seen as an on-screen avatar for Karanović himself, creating, through the portrait of Petria, the story we're about to see.

The composition of the earlier image - Petria posed for the photographer - is interesting in this respect. If we think of the presentation of the window as a frame within a frame, then it creates the impression of a kind of diptych. On one side a portrait of the photographer, camera on tripod, lining up a shot; on the other side, the photographer's subject; the young woman, solemn and composed. Playing around with the dimensions of the frame, this right-hand side - the portrait of Petria - suddenly becomes a prelude to the film in miniature.


Petria's Wreath [Srđan Karanović, 1980]:


Detail - "Petria's Portrait" [edited by the author]:

While the rest of the film will soon settle into a more conventional narrative, as we follow the journey of this young woman through a series of emotional hardships - such as marriage, children, war and revolution; all seen against a backdrop of significant moments in the history of Yugoslavia during the pre and post-war periods - it is this one image that seems to evoke the very essence of what the film is about. The reflection of the past as a still vivid memory; a life recalled by a character who becomes, through the presentation of this memory, like a living embodiment or personification of the country, its struggles, histories and ideals.

In presentation, it's an act of turning the character into an icon. Something that becomes much clearer during the subsequent credit sequence, in which the image of the elderly Petria, as captured by the photographer in this first scene, is made youthful; another example of Karanović using the appearance of images to suggest a passage through time. It will also act as a self-aware acknowledgement of the filmmaker's own role in the creation of this story, as the depiction of cameras and photography become an important part of documenting the story we're about to see.

Like the emphasis on the objects and mementos that defined the elderly Petria's house in the first part of this sequences, the significance of the portrait is about memory; about how certain objects, passed down through the generations, hold stories and emotions that speak to the ghosts of the past. I'd like to talk more about the portrait and its self-reflexive role in the film at a later date, but for now let's consider this moment, viewed through the kitchen window, and how it pre-establishes a lot of these ideas relating to the window as shorthand for cinema, about the objectification of a character as personification of a particular time, place or state-of-being, and what it suggests about the relationship between the viewer and the viewed.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Piotr Szulkin


In Memoriam

The Polish filmmaker Piotr Szulkin passed away last year. At the time no words were shared on the pages of this blog. When the news hit I was taking a break from criticism; busy trying to write a play, which turned into a novel, which turned into nothing. I hoped others might pick up the baton and share some condolences in the name of this singular and distinctive talent, but little, if anything, was said.

Szulkin was a filmmaker I first encountered in 2012. From a UK perspective his work is incredibly obscure. None of his films, as far as I'm aware, have been made commercially available with English subtitles. Of his six feature-length films I've seen only three; but I could recognise in each of them a unique approach to visual storytelling; an unconventional appropriation of populist genre tropes (specifically science-fiction) alongside more recognisable art-house conventions; as well as a strong political subtext, which gave the work a lasting relevance. On one level Szulkin's films were essentially post-modernist B-movies preoccupied with pulp fiction-level subject-matter, such as doppelgängers, Martian hordes, interplanetary prison-ships and post-apocalyptic survival. His imagery was steeped in the neon-futurism of his most prolific decade, the 1980s, defined as it was by the film Blade Runner (1982), and finding an obvious affinity with other works from the same period, such as The Bunker of the Last Gunshots (1981), Liquid Sky (1982), The Hunger (1983), The Last Battle (also 1983), Brazil (1985) and Diesel (also 1985); that aesthetic fetish for dramatic back-lighting, smoky interiors and saturated colour. However his films were also deeply esoteric, blackly funny and charged with an atmosphere of the grotesque.


Piotr Szulkin on the set of his final film, King Ubu (2003), photographed by Rafał Guz:

The first film of Szulkin's I ever saw was also his best; O-Bi, O-Ba: The End of Civilization (1985). At the time I wanted to include the film on my list of the year's greatest discoveries, but I couldn't find the words to express how powerful, eccentric and thought-provoking the film was without straining for the usual superlatives. I still can't. O-Bi, O-Ba is a work as strange and enigmatic as its title suggests; a stark, claustrophobic, post-apocalyptic allegory that has shades of fellow Polish filmmaker Andrzej Żuławski's similarly blue-tinted science-fiction psychodrama On the Silver Globe (1989), but with a subterranean survival narrative that predicts later efforts, such as Twelve Monkeys (1995) and The Island (2005). In many ways Terry Gilliam in particular seems a close point of reference here, with both Twelve Monkeys and the aforementioned Brazil feeling like first-cousins to Szulkin's films, with the same emphasis on characters struggling against a dystopian/Orwellian system, and the same retro-futurist aesthetic of old cars, crumbling buildings, filing cabinets and video monitors. Gilliam's more recent film, the flawed but visually interesting The Zero Theorem (2013), is especially redolent of Szulkin, with the shaven-headed Christoph Waltz bringing to mind the look of actor Marek Walczewski as he appeared in both Golem (1980) and O-Bi, O-Ba.

Following my initial viewing of O-Bi, O-Ba, I saw Szulkin's first two theatrical features, the just-mentioned Golem and The War of the Worlds: Next Century (1981). The first film uses the myth of the golem as defined by Jewish legend as a metaphor for persecution, both personal and political. The central character, Pernat, stumbles through a "Kafkaesque" nightmare of mistaken identities, police interrogations and the constant threat of suspicion. In the process, he becomes a kind of on-screen personification of individualism; struggling to maintain a sense of personal identity against an environment of conformity, suppression and assimilation. The world of the film is one of ruin and decay, poverty and desperation, where the sickly sepia-tinted photography, hypnotic tone and sleepwalking performances set a visual precedent for Lars von Trier's first theatrical feature, The Element of Crime (1984), as well as Aleksandr Sokurov's similarly allegorical The Second Circle (1990).

In his next work, Szulkin created a film that felt like a precursor to the pulp sci-fi of John Carpenter's similarly political, similarly post-modernist action movie, They Live (1988). In The War of the Worlds: Next Century, a Martian invasion occurs against an Orwellian backdrop of government control, conformity and the loss of personal freedom. The film contains a strong subtext about surveillance culture and how the television can be used as a tool for propaganda, social distraction and manipulation, which plays beautifully to the final sequences, in which the manipulation of the image, and its ability to present a false perception of events, is powerfully revealed. It's a strange and often cynical film with a message that seems to suggest that rebellion is futile; our role in life - as far as the government is able to control and distort the narrative - has already been cast.


Golem [Piotr Szulkin, 1980]


The War of the Worlds: Next Century [Piotr Szulkin, 1981]:


O-Bi, O-Ba: The End of Civilization [Piotr Szulkin, 1985]:

Screenshots courtesy of FilmGrab [https://film-grab.com/category/piotr-szulkin/]

Unfortunately I'm less familiar with the subsequent films, Ga-ga: Glory to the Heroes (1986), Femina (1991) and his final credit, King Ubu (2003). Nonetheless, on the strength and originality of the three films listed here, I think it's a shame, if not a tragedy, that the work of Piotr Szulkin isn't better known or more widely available. At a time when most films appear to have been produced by committee, modelled on a pre-existing template and manufactured to satisfy the expectations of genre classification or the USP of a respective "brand", the singularly strange and defiantly eccentric expressions of films like Golem and O-Bi, O-Ba in particular - with their stylised imagery, bizarre characters and heightened atmospherics - feel all the more remarkable.

Attempting to research more about Szulkin for the purpose of this post, I came across the following quote attributed to him on IMDb. It made me respect the filmmaker all the more. The quote states: "You can divide directors into three essential categories: Those who whisper to their actors, those who talk to them, and those who scream at them. You can tell which method a director uses from the results he gets. Those who scream should not make films, period. I'm one of those who whisper." The legacy of the Szulkin's work is just that, a whisper, but a whisper that speaks with more truth, more poetry and more personality than the loudest scream.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Sculpting in Time


Thoughts on a film: Petria's Wreath (1980)

PART I: PROLOGUE

In the first scene of the film, an elderly woman, not yet formally introduced, walks out into a small courtyard to the rear of a house and begins her daily chores. During this act, she spies the ever-present movie camera and follows it from the corner of her eye.

At first I thought this was a flaw in the acting; a non-professional, cast by the director for authenticity, and as such unable to ignore the unnatural intrusion of the camera as she enacts these small routines. However, as the woman returns to the house and makes her way through to the cluttered kitchen, her own eye once again seem to meet that of the ever-watchful apparatus; breaking the fourth wall to acknowledge the unseen audience, only this time, with deliberate intent. In the next breath, the old woman speaks and begins her story; her attitude, genial but world-weary; her audience, those of us trapped behind the unconscious partition that separates the viewer from the viewed.


Petria's Wreath [Srđan Karanović, 1980]:

The story is already here, all around her. It's in the house and its cluttered decor; it's in her face, lined with age; it's in her voice, worn but warming. As her ailing hands hover over mementos and reminders (a photograph, her husband's violin), every possession becomes a significant prop; a relic to her life's sad journey; to the characters that we're about to meet.

As the old woman steps out of the frame, the camera tilts up to the window space. In the foreground, slumbering cats snooze silently in the warm morning light. Outside, in the middle-distance, a photographer has set up his stills camera. Just as the old woman clears the frame, a young woman, seen outside through the adjacent window, steps before the photographer's camera and effectively takes her place...


Petria's Wreath [Srđan Karanović, 1980]:

In this small moment, director Srđan Karanović has traversed the limited boundaries between documentary (the observation of this elderly woman), fiction (the story about to be told) and fantasy (the memory of the woman made real); introducing the idea of the past as a story, to be reflected on, from a distance, and the more important "meta" role that the appearance of this photographer will eventually fulfil.

It's a moment that is easily missed, but one that resonates with the same profundity as the time travelling jump cut that transitioned Stanley Kubrick's immortal masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) from the dawn of man to the infinite cosmos. The subject matter and the technical presentation might be very different to that of Kubrick, but as a gesture - as a means of transporting the story from one place to the next through the use of a very practical filmmaking technique - it functions on a similar level. It's that idea of moving between different levels of time and memory; between the physical and metaphysical, the conscious or subconscious space.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Whispering Pages

#WorldBookDay2019

Something a little different to the usual film-related observations here. Given that today is World Book Day 2019, I thought I'd take the opportunity to pull together several short-ish book reviews that I'd written for previous World Book Days stretching back over the past few years. These were mostly posted across personal social media accounts for the benefit of friends and family. As such, they're not meant to provide an in-depth professional commentary, but rather a brief overview of why I liked these particular books and why I found them to be worthy of further attention. However, in the absence of any new content specific to the blog, combined with a genuine desire to update Lights in the Dusk more frequently, I'm reposting these literary-based observations below.


Fahrenheit 451 [Ray Bradbury, 1953]:

Considered one of the classic books - and very much a part of the modern canon of dystopian fiction, alongside other titles, such as "1984", "Brave New World" and "The Handmaid's Tale" - "Fahrenheit 451" had quite the reputation to live up to. Nonetheless, it didn't disappoint! Bradbury looks at the notion of time as an endless circle, where the past is doomed to repeat itself. His vision of the future is one still coloured by the atrocities of the Second World War, where the scars of fascism remain. Here, anti-intellectualism is rampant, books are banned and burned, and reading is a crime against society. People have stopped questioning the world around them (the government, the media, religion, etc.) and instead, become addicted to prescription medications and stare into the four immersive video-walls that fill their living-rooms with the chatter of artificial 'friends' and distracting entertainments. Although published in 1953, "Fahrenheit 451" remains a scarily prescient and relevant book about the loss of basic freedoms. Written in poetic prose - which is evocative, highly visual and powerful in its social commentary - it becomes a clear warning against how easily a society starved of education, divorced from culture and satiated by sensationalism can be led, unquestioningly, towards its own oblivion.


Doctor Sleep [Stephen King, 2013]:

I was initially intrigued by the premise of this, which follows the now middle-aged Danny Torrance (the little boy from "The Shining") as he battles against the same self-destructive urges that ruined the life of his father decades before. Still-haunted, Dan has nonetheless managed to clean up his act and find a purpose in life; using his 'shining' abilities to help the elderly patients at a local hospice make peace during their final moments. Given the emphasis on Dan as the recurring character, I was expecting a much more intimate book, telling the story entirely from his own perspective, as protagonist, but it's actually a much broader story that covers several different decades, locations and a large cross-section of supporting characters. It isn't quite as vast as something like "The Stand", although it is closer to it, in spirit at least, than the more interior/psychological stories, such as "Gerald's Game" and "Misery."

Despite the expectations established by its connection to "The Shining", "Doctor Sleep" isn't really a horror story, though it does deal with the supernatural, and it does contain at least one sequence that is disturbing in its suggestion of graphic violence and terror. If anything you could call it a drama with elements of the supernatural, but also traces of action. With its themes of alcoholism, child-abuse, illness and death (and with an early event framed around the terror attacks of 9/11), it's a sad book that hit me on an emotional level.

There are a lot of similarities to other works by King, not just "The Shining." The presentation of Dan as a character with a troubling gift that places him, to some extent, outside of conventional society, recalls John Smith from "The Dead Zone." The character of Abra, a teenage girl who 'shines' brighter than any character before, has echoes of the titular character from "Carrie", once again blessed (or cursed) with a supernatural ability that's both strange and terrifying. The almost surrogate father/daughter relationship between Dan and Abra is slightly reminiscent of the central relationship in "Firestarter", while there's also a mystical cat character that recalls King's fondness for animals possessing supernatural abilities (see Clovis the battle cat in the film Sleepwalkers [1992] for the most notable example).

I'm curious to see how the book will translate into film. While I enjoyed the book a great deal, I'd imagine the prospective filmmakers could cut a lot of meat from the bone; prioritising certain characters and subplots over others, without losing the heart of the story (Dan's redemption). The intended director of Doctor Sleep is a personal favourite of mine Mike Flanagan, who previously made the sensitive supernatural films Before I Wake (2016) and Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) as well as the excellent (IMO) adaptation of another of King's novels, the aforementioned Gerald's Game (2017).


The Haunting of Hill House [Shirley Jackson, 1959]:

Many will be familiar with its two film adaptations from 1963 and 1999 respectively, which both shorten the title to "The Haunting" and place the emphasis more on the ensemble of characters as opposed to the main protagonist, but I really wasn't prepared for just how great the writing is here, or how much depth and emotion the book has in terms of its exploration of the various themes. "The Haunting of Hill House" really is a masterwork.

While I was expecting to find little more than a conventional haunted house mystery, the book is much more of a character study, seeing the events unfold through the eyes of its protagonist, Eleanor Vance; a damaged young woman who has sacrificed much of her own life to caring for an abusive mother. The early scenes of the book - in which Eleanor is finally free from her mother's influence and takes off across small-town America for a week of supernatural investigation at the titular Hill House - expresses such an evocative feeling of freedom and liberation that it becomes as overwhelming for the reader as it is for the character herself.

Although Shirley Jackson always maintained that the book was explicitly about the supernatural, I tend to agree with the screenwriter of the 1963 film version who saw it as a book about mental illness; where the key themes of guilt and repression (including a fairly radical for the period acknowledgement of homosexuality in the implicit flirtations between Eleanor and the character Theodora) manifest themselves in the character's perceptions of events. Jackson's writing throughout is brilliant; suggestive, atmospheric, intelligent and emotionally charged.


Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? [Philip K. Dick, 1968]:

I decided to read "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" in preparation for seeing Blade Runner 2049 (2017) at the local cinema. In the end I never made the trip, but it didn't matter; the book turned out to be a complete masterpiece and in fact far superior, as a work of science-fiction, to even the nonetheless still-brilliant Blade Runner (1982). While Dick's writing is occasionally a bit clumsy here, his ideas are nothing less than extraordinary. The story, as its presented, is much richer than it would eventually appear in the subsequent film, dealing as it does with deeper themes of culpability, consciousness, religion, the potential extinction of all animal life, personal liberty (the human concept of free-will) and the destruction of the natural world. While the screenwriters of Blade Runner did well to distil the different concepts of the book into a clear-cut narrative arc (even improving on some of the characterisations, for instance the antagonist Roy Batty, who is far more memorable in the film) I found the book to be more emotionally compelling and engaging in its storytelling. In the book, Deckard is a far more interesting and three-dimensional protagonist, as is the character of J.R. Isadore (renamed J.F. Sebastian in the film). The female characters aren't fetishised or sexualised like they are in the film and are actually much more nuanced and intelligent; particularly Luba Luft, the opera singer (changed to an exotic dancer in the film) and Deckard's wife Iran (cut from the film completely). It's ultimately a very sad book about characters trying to find hope in a world where it no longer exist.


A Monster Calls [Patrick Ness, 2011]:

I really enjoyed this book, although it was obvious from around page six that there was no promise of a happy ending. The story of a lonely child ignored at school and adrift at home was always going to conjure up the ghosts of my own childhood, but it was Conor's closeness to his mother (and distance from his father), his fear of loss and the way the character finds a similar solace in storytelling that cut so incredibly deep. Ultimately it's a book where the monster is as much a metaphor as an actual presence; symbolising on one level the disruption and disarray that illness brings to the life of a child who is unable to make sense of such finalities, but also representing a symbol of strength and support. In the absence of a friend, the monster becomes a kind of mentor; its stories (and the role of storytelling in general) providing a way of coping with a situation by creating a necessary level of distance. By engaging with these fantastical tales, Conor is able to see himself and those closest to him removed from his own predicament; finding not only a series of valuable life lessons but an emotional release. It's a heart-breaking book where all the different elements work towards expressing the overall theme about the difficulties of letting go.


Sarah Kane Complete Plays [Sarah Kane, 2001]:

Several plays by the writer Sarah Kane, who committed suicide on February 20th 1999 when she was just 28. While her first and most famous play, "Blasted", would eventually find champions in fellow playwrights Martin Crimp and Harold Pinter, it was initially slandered by many critics as a "disgusting feast of filth" (The Daily Mail), with much criticism leveled against its depictions of rape, cannibalism, the use of racist language and a graphic recollection of war atrocity. While the text does make for disquieting reading, the most remarkable aspect of the work is Kane's experimentation with the theatrical form; the way the play begins almost naturalistically, and then, over the course of its duration, seems to splinter and fragment. The set is destroyed, language disintegrates, actions become primal. It's as if the unseen crime that occurs at the end of scene one creates such a rift between the characters that the lines of reality become blurred. All communication breaks down and a story of domestic abuse becomes interwoven with coverage of the war in Bosnia. Then it ends, quite daringly, with a series of stark ellipses and a profound act of tenderness.

However, even more remarkable is her final play, "4.48 Psychosis'" A stream of consciousness account of a mental breakdown told by one or several voices (the play doesn't assign dialog to specific characters). Reading it with the knowledge that the writer would take her own life shortly after its completion gives the play an uneasy tension, but again, it's the use of language and Kane's experimentation with the theatrical form that most impresses. If I hadn't foolishly retired from theatre directing, this is the play I'd be most keen to produce.