Sunday, 23 August 2009

Le vent d'est

Two voices. One French, one American. A political tract concerning the issues of Communism in the workplace and ideals of freedom and equality, post-May, 1968, is recited back and forth over an obscured image of bodies slumbering in what appears to be a garden. The image is pastoral and idyllic in presentation, suggesting an almost abstract quality devoid of time and place. After a series of static images that simply observe these scenarios - largely with no real movement within the frame - we see a small group of actors preparing themselves for a film. As we continue, these actors, who speak Italian and are dressed in period costume, wander through this idyllic location as the narration goes on to discuss a cinema of revolution and the history of politics in cinema dating as far back as Sergei Eisenstein. Through this, the filmmakers are able to reflect on the notions of politics and history in both a cultural and cinematic sense; creating in the process a film that collapses elements of genuine historical fact, and superimposes them over the struggles and issues of the present day.

Two voices. Both French. The film here is one of a handful of collaborative efforts between the filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, who under the creative banner of The Group Dziga Vertov, would produce a number of essay-based films that looked specifically at contemporary political issues from a Marxist/Leninist perspective. Unlike Godard's more socially aware films, pre-1967, The Dziga Vertov Group would reject conventional filmmaking practices altogether; focusing instead on a deconstructive approach that relied heavily upon the use found sounds and images that were cut together with the appropriate use of voice over and ironic screen-titles that not only offer some kind of background to the events unfolding, but also worked against the audience, distracting and disarming the viewer from what was happening on screen. This makes the viewing process even more difficult, with the already weighty bombardment of spoken information and the miscommunication of the two voices already alienating those of us unfamiliar with Communist manifestos or the working conditions in Europe in 1969.

Despite the general ideology of the Dziga Vertov Group, which was to reject the claim of authorship that Godard and his generation of critics had previously helped to define, the images of Le vent d'est (The East Wind/The Wind from the East, 1970) are typical of the man who gave us La chinoise (1967), and later Le gai savoir (The Joy of Learning, 1969), with the pastoral settings suggesting elements of the final act of Week End (1967), while the continual punctuation of high-rise apartment buildings and the wheels of industry that feature in the second half of the film call to mind a similar devise used in the earlier 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle, 1967). However, whereas those films had used clever visual metaphors and deconstructive film techniques to tell stories as a means of conveying socio-political satire, they did so with a vague semblance of narrative.

Here, the film is mostly a continual stream of thought over some beautifully composed images. Naturally, there are numerous other devises used that are typical of Godard's work, both before and after his period with the Group, such as the use of repeated images (or motifs), looped dialog (so that the same words or phrases are repeated a number of times throughout), inter-titles (here, illegibly scrawled in marker pen), the presentation of the camera as part of the proceedings (the "general assembly", as Godard puts it) and the natural facade of cinema as presented by print damage, spliced frames and deliberate mistakes (the deconstructive notion of cinema as truth).


Le vent d'est directed by the Dziga Vertov Group, 1970:

Without question, the images of the film are simply astounding, and are easily amongst the most beautiful and provocative scenarios that Godard has ever created; with the single image of these ancient, anachronistic figures, Bergman-like in their presentation of white gowns against green hills, wandering through these glorious fields being a particularly astounding sight, eventually giving way to the more aggressive, deconstructive images of mass graves, construction and the general process of film production itself, pushing us back towards the direction of Week End. However, despite the brilliance of Godard's filmmaking and the range of his ideas, Le vent d'est - like many of these Dziga Vertov Group films - is incredibly difficult to recommend to a potential audience, despite the obvious quality of its production. The continual bombardment of voice-over narration - delivered in a flat, rapid fire Parisian (American?) accent from an unaccredited voice actress - reminds us that this is a visual essay, presented in the form of a radical, experimental film. As a result, most viewers will find the film a complete chore; more so than any other Godard film, all of which require a certain level of cooperation from the audience, but tend to reward our efforts with an element of human concern.

Even when presented in such a way as to be completely obvious to the point of almost agitprop sloganeering, Le vent d'est nonetheless retains some level of ambiguity; drawing parallels between the two winds - the east and the west - and the voices on the soundtrack, with Godard and Gorin again using the film to investigate the present day struggle by way of the past (a past as represented by the cinema itself). The film isn't to be approached in the conventional sense, but rather digested in two or three single sittings, with any real attempt to interpret the film, or pick up on every single topical reference, really requiring a lot more energy and perception as illustrated in this post. Arguable, the film is dated in the political sense - having now become a period piece that looks at a specific era in twentieth-century existence - however, it is also a truly uncompromising work from a collective of filmmakers attempting to communicate something radical through the medium of film. Even if you disregard the experience, you have to marvel at the presentation of Godard's images, and the conviction of his ideals.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Pravda

Essentially a travelogue of images of the Soviet Union, coupled with a voice-over narration explaining the current political climate of Eastern Europe, delivered by an unaccredited North American voice actor who presents his findings in a formal, matter-of-fact approach that suggests the dictation of a letter. Again, this is a filmed essay; an investigatory piece looking into the whys and wherefores of certain socialist issues of class and employment, and how such factors contribute to a recognisable way of life. This involves everything from cars, jobs, homes and industry; all presented as a rolling collage of images that repeat themselves throughout the course of the film, as the discourse on the soundtrack continues.

Although it has some merit as a period piece, this is probably one of the least interesting films from The Dziga Vertov Group; the outlet for filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin to analyse certain Marxist-Leninist concepts within the cinematic medium, resulting in a collection of films that are either mildly interesting or completely forgettable, depending on the tastes of the particular viewer.

Pravda (1971), the title being the same as the leading Soviet / Russian newspaper, previously referred to in Godard's own pop-art science fiction film Alphaville (1965), in which the translation, "The Truth", is used as an ironic comment on the part of the filmmakers to the images and ideas on screen, works towards an often slyly amusing contrast between the pictures we see and the voice we hear underlining the intentions of the filmmakers in their quest for understanding. It is presented as a collection of seemingly found images, conspicuous in their typically bold, Godardian use of colour and composition, combined with the use of still photography, archive footage, TV clips and jarring bursts of music. The filmmaking devises are all emblematic of Godard's work, both before and after his time with the Dziga Vertov group, and show the definite stamp of authorship that belies the group manifesto and their rejection of the auteur-based cinema that Godard helped to define.


Pravda directed by The Dziga Vertov Group, 1971:

Unlike other films produced by Godard and Gorin during this highly productive period, Pravda simply doesn't hold up to repeated viewings. Projects like Un Film comme les autres (A Film Like Any Other, 1968), Vladimir and Rosa (1970), Tout va bien (Everything is Going Well, 1972) and Ici et ailleurs (Here and Elsewhere, 1976) (the latter produced from the remnants of an aborted Dziga Vertov project that conspires to pick apart the failings of these particular films) managed to overcome the limitations of their political ideologies and the complete disregard for the recognisable conventions of film-making to show the evolution of Godard from a too-clever-for-his-own-good cinephile into some kind of continually probing film poet; mixing words and images to create deeply felt investigations into love, war, death, religion and the complexities of the human condition. Pravda, on the other hand, is simply an information piece. Unless you're incredibly interested in 1960's politics or montage-film-making then there's very little here to keep us interested; with the continual collection of images and constant reliance on voice-over narration to supply information and opinion eventually becoming tiring, even from the perspective of a dedicated admirer of Godard's work, such as myself.

Although films like Vladimir and Rosa, Tout va bien and Ici et ailleurs are incredibly exhausting experiences, filled with dense thought, expressions, and rejections of conventional film-making, they nonetheless reward the viewer with a style and conviction that is unlike anything else presented in contemporary cinema. Later, Godard would reject many of these Dziga Vertov films as a naive attempt to make sense of things, while the filmmaking techniques would be refined through the creation of the films made in collaboration with Anne-Marie Miéville, such as Numéro deux (1975), Comment ça va? (1976) and the twelve part television series France/Tour/Detour/Deux/Enfants (1978) - some of the most probing, challenging and fascinating works of Godard's career.

Pravda is the Dziga Vertov group at their most obvious; there's none of the bold film-making experiments of Vladimir and Rosa or the daring aggression of the flawed Wind from the East (Le vent d'est, 1969), with the whole thing instead becoming a largely quaint collection of sounds and images. As a result, it will probably be of incredibly limited interest to the majority of viewers, Godard appreciators included.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Blue

A film born out of the artist's own invalidity, as the onset of AIDS robbed him of his most valuable and necessary commodity essential to his craft - chiefly, the gift of sight - and enthused by a sense that the end is drawing near; that time is passing like the memory of the great waves, or those half forgotten encounters, which ultimately remain more meaningful than any legacy that may or may not exist. That Blue (1993) describes for the benefit of the audience the filmmaker's own individual response and reaction to this particularly tragic situation, recited over a saturated blue image that never changes or relents, will possibly pose a problem for those seeking more conventional drama, or indeed more conventional cinema.

Although one can trace a line from Blue to many of the earlier films of its director Derek Jarman, simply by listening to the soundtrack and the ideas that are expressed therein, the decision to place these particular discussions against a single image of nocturnal blue seems like an incredibly audacious move, even by the standards set by Jarman's previous experimental features, such as The Garden (1990) or The Last of England (1987).

However, what initially seems like a novelty when discussed without the boundaries of context or clarification, eventually reveals itself to be a quite deliberate and remarkable stylisation used to evoke the perspective of the filmmaker and the deterioration of his sight; as the painful lesions on his retinas leave only a vague impression of light's soft illumination pulsating through the gaze of eyelids, too sore to open. The use of the colour blue, both as an artistic choice and as a concept that lends itself to certain creative associations, like as blue as the sea reflecting the sky, or blue like the heart that wails in mourning, work as a kind of shorthand to explain the sensation of sightlessness, or the feeling of the human body in the late stages of disease. The sensation of staring at this empty space filled only by colour, not blue like the moon, but blue like Picasso, becomes a sensory experience. Our eyes, transfixed on an endless image of cool blue, calming blue - the blue of winter or the blue sleep - as the voices on the soundtrack recount this story, suggesting the images that the ailing filmmaker was unable to create.

Although often fragmented by poetic expression, wordplay, quotations and personal reflection, the dialogue of Blue offers the most honest and straight-forward narrative of any of Jarman's work, relating specifically to the difficulties faced by the individual living with AIDS, the loss of his friends and loved ones, the loss of his sight and the realisation that life will soon be lost, like petals to the breeze. In this respect, the film is an important document, expressing Jarman's thoughts on and experiences with the disease at a time when the hostility surrounding the so-called "gay plague" was at its most frenzied, and combined with an already fierce criticism of the British political structure and its views on homosexuality, which found an outlet in previous films such as The Garden or Edward II (1991).


The Garden directed by Derek Jarman, 1990:


Edward II directed by Derek Jarman, 1991:

What ultimately reinforces Blue as a relevant work is its detailed description of the illness from the perspective of someone attempting to survive it. The lengthy dialog about hospital visits and medication, as memories, fading like the sight, are suggested by the subtle use of sound and music; or the continual asides and interjections of the actors John Quentin, Nigel Terry and Tilda Swinton, who offer their voices alongside Jarman's own to flesh out this dialogue, or to further establish this implied world as it exists in the dark of our imagination.

The prose throughout is beautiful; rich in detail, honest but self-deprecating. It's tragic, without descending into mawkish sentimentality, and remorseful without succumbing to wanton self-pity. In discussing his illness, Jarman pulls no punches as he talks about a virus that "rages fierce." Later, he talks about the toll this illness has taken on his body and the side-effect of being one of the many statistics, slowly dying, watching others die, but unable to do anything about it. He says - "I have no friends now who are not dead or dying. Like a blue frost it caught them. At work, at the cinema - on marches and on beaches. In churches on their knees, running, flying, silent or shouting protest." The particular suggestion of death as the blue frost - everything blue, for better or worse, like the images on screen - is the central theme that runs throughout, as the coming to terms with death is contrasted with life's rich memories, finding expression, perhaps for the final time.

In the closing verse, after the horror stories of hospitals and deterioration - the continuing high-wire act between life and death - peace is found in a half-remembered sexual encounter, which, for one brief moment, offers a reprieve from the suffering; as sweet memories - personal (we assume) to the author, but nonetheless recognisable to the viewer, despite the specifics of sexuality - calm the fires of outrage and ennui.

It is one of Jarman's most remarkable evocations as a filmmaker, made all the more astounding given only the suggestion of the image; as soft music combines with the lapping of waves and the caw of seagulls, as pebbles crush underfoot. The sex is passionate and intense, though Jarman speaks of it as a voyeur, looking back at a specific time and place; a blissful moment, un moment de bonheur, drifting through the memory like a cloud. The notions of time and time passing are reinforced in the final word, which moves us, precisely because of its simplicity, being the perfect counterpoint to the complicated soundscape of thoughts and fears, or the beauty and richness of Jarman's text as it unfolds on the screen.


Pearl fishers in azure seas
Deep waters washing the isle of the dead
In coral harbours amphora spill gold across the still seabed
We lie there
Fanned by the billowing sails of forgotten ships
Tossed by the mournful winds of the deep
Lost Boys, sleep forever
In a dear embrace - salt lips touching
In submarine gardens, cool marble fingers touch an antique smile
Shell sounds whisper, deep love
Drifting on the tide forever
The smell of him
Dead good looking
In beauty's summer
His blue jeans around his ankles
Bliss, in my ghostly eye
Kiss me on the lips
On the eyes
Our name will be forgotten
In time
No one will remember our work
Our life will pass like the traces of a cloud
And be scattered like mist that is chased by the rays of the sun
For our time is the passing of a shadow
And our lives will run like sparks through the stubble.

I place a delphinium, Blue, upon your grave



Blue directed by Derek Jarman, 1993:

Naturally, there will be viewers who balk at the idea of watching a plain blue screen for close to eighty minutes. Needless to say, there is already enough criticism about Jarman's supposed audacity to "release a radio play with visual accompaniment" on various sites around the net: but such reactions are to be expected when a film or filmmaker strays so far from convention, even if such experiments are made out of necessity, rather than choice. But the use of blue, essential in creating a mood that we can associate with the feelings of sadness and regret, is beautiful, and far more rewarding than any of the cluttered, conventional mise-en-scene currently on display at any local multiplex. It doesn't deserve to be denigrated simply because it refuses to compete with the figures in a frame, shot/reverse-shot, close up to wide shot conventions that we've come to accept as the requirements of the moving picture. If one, as a filmmaker, is encouraged to express their ideas visually, or to offer a visual experience for the viewer that is unique to the medium, then Blue is as valid as any other work in which the visual design is intended to stir emotion or response.

Like much of Jarman's work it is a film worth returning to; where the impact of the drama is intensely personal, but in no way private. It is open to the projections of an audience, who can read into the filmmaker's own thoughts and meditations and try to take something away from the experience. Whether it is the plight of the dying man, reduced to painting in broad-strokes, away from the complexity of his previous work, rich in visual splendour; or the simple fact that life and love hang in the balance – the dream, where everything dies. That life must pass "like the traces of a cloud", or that in the face of death, it is the combination of the mundane, new shoes in a shop window, and the memory, a life that runs "like sparks through the stubble", that we cling to. Where the chiming clock-like sounds and sustained notes, meshing with a continuation of seaside reminisce, lingers during the closing credits, suggesting... an elegy.


Éloge de l'amour directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 2001:

"The measure of love is to love without measure"


If ever I dreamed of my dead name
High in the heart of London, unsurpassed
By Time for ever, and the Fugitive, Fame
There seeking a long sanctuary at last

I better that; and recollect with shame
How once I longed to hide it from life's heats
Under those holy cypresses, the same
That shade, always, the quiet place of Keats

Now rather thank I God there is no risk
Of gravers scoring it with florid screed
But let my death be memoried on this disc
Wear it, sweet friend. Inscribe no date nor deed
But may thy heart-beat kiss it night and day
Until the name grow vague and wear away.

- Wilfred Owen, With An Identity Disc


Blue Monochrome by Yves Klein, 1961:

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Rabbit Heart

This is a gift / it comes with a price / Who is the lamb and who is the knife? / Midas is king and he holds me so tight / And turns me to gold in the sunlight...

By far the best music video I've seen this year, Rabbit Heart (Raise it Up by Florence and the Machine sidesteps the current video trend of 1980s style minimalism as filtered through a post-millennium sense of misplaced nostalgia, and instead goes for the more immediate figures in a frame style explosion of artistic revelry that plays like a miniature narrative. Instead of the emphasis on the conceptual element, of lines, shapes, colours and contrasts that we've seen in recent videos by Calvin Harris, Hot Chip, Ladyhawke, The Ting Tings and La Roux (the majority of which have started to look like photo shoots for PIG or i-D magazine), Rabbit Heart is a magic hour happening that transforms itself midway through into a funeral dirge; expressing the lyrical references to sacrificial offerings (Raise it Up) and the bravery of the lion-hearted girl who, willing to make the final step (rushing towards the skyline), throws herself at the rushing waters that run from blue to red.

Such emotive lyrical concerns, sung so convincingly that one almost forgets that this is a major label release, are expressed through the glowing, pastoral imagery - of a river lit by candles, or a banquet that recalls the forest gathering of Jan Němec's The Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostec, 1966) by way of the frolicking, celebratory scenes that feature towards the end of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divů, 1970) or The Wicker Man (1973) - in which the seesawing between ecstasy and agony transforms the murder into a celebration of death.

Of course, I'd generally be sold on any video in which a gorgeous redhead, kissed by the evening sun and dressed in a billowing gown, parades herself amongst a vibrant commune of decadent revellers while recasting some of the magic found in Édouard Manet's classic scene of riverbank self-indulgence Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (The Lunch on the Grass, 1862-1863), but even so, this video is impressive; and in three minutes and thirty-eight seconds manages to make us forget that these things are more often promotional tools created for no other reason than to shift units, instead showing us something that transcends time, trends, and everything in-between.


Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up) directed by Tom Beard & Tabitha Denholm, 2009:


The Luncheon on the Grass by Édouard Manet, 1863: