Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Reflection

In The Brave One (2007), Neil Jordan uses reflections to suggest a character trapped by circumstances.

From the very first image of Erica Bain (Jodie Foster) as a translucent spectral projection against the glass walls of the recording booth where she delivers her morning show, to the later instances of painful self-reflection - as the same character is forced to question whether the severity of her actions is justified by the sense of overwhelming loss felt in the wake of her fiancé's murder - the visual design of the film repeatedly reinforces the idea of a person struggling to break free.


The Brave One directed by Neil Jordan, 2007:

The sense of isolation and claustrophobia that develops during the weeks and months that follow the initial attack is intensified through the framing of shots; the camera exaggerating Erica's emotional detachment by presenting her as a ghost, literally just drifting, unloved and unseen, through the relics of a previous existence. These images, like the character, obscured and fragmented, flatten the sense of perspective. There is no clear sense of morality for Erica, as Jordan's overpowering depth of field reduces the character to an out of focus blemish against the harsh hyper-reality of the city that overwhelms her; just a growing sense of impotence yielding to desperation.

The presentation of Erica as a woman numbed by the world that she inhabits brings to mind the character of Simone (Cathy Tyson) from Jordan's earlier film Mona Lisa (1986). Both women are placed like insects beneath the glass, studied by sympathetic male characters that, in general, are oblivious to their true nature as hostages to emotional bitterness.

Jordan makes the connection explicit as Erica, like Simone in the earlier film, is caught in the reflection of a car's rear-view mirror. Unlike other shots in which Erica is acknowledging her own psychological metamorphosis from liberal-minded media personality to skulking night-time avenger, this moment - as with the moment in Mona Lisa - provides the audience with enough room to consider the effect that this world with its cruelty, apathy and sense of moral decay has had on these characters; allowing us to question, personally and individually, whether the end really justifies the means.

The way the image is presented, with the character literally and physically confined to a frame within a frame - with the world, this backdrop of squalor and human suffering surrounding her, out of focus, but still dominating the screen - deliberately establishes this character as a prisoner; not just to the world and this situation that she's created, but to a particular state of mind.


Mona Lisa directed by Neil Jordan, 1986:


The Brave One directed by Neil Jordan, 2007:

Throughout the film, every action poses a question for the character, which Jordan emphasises with these moments of literal reflection. Trapped, psychologically as well as physically in a cycle of violence - slowly fading into the background of the city she once celebrated in mawkish prose that now seems even more deceitful when repeated against this milieu of violence and retribution - Erica is forced to look long and hard to find the person she was when faced with the person she is.

During the course of the film's journey, every violent act removes this character even further from the world of the living; killing the spirit of life and leaving only the faint outline a body without a soul. As she studies her own face reflected against the artefacts of this world to make sense of who she is there is only the traces of violence, the loveless eyes and the ghost of who she was, caught, forever, in this labyrinth of despair, desperate to find a way out.


The Brave One directed by Neil Jordan, 2007:

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Planets

Three spheres, planet, star and satellite, drift in orbit. Each sphere is an avatar for these characters that collide during the course of the film; pre-establishing the eventual relationships between men, linked, physically as well as spatially, by the consequences of a single event.


The Man from London by Ágnes Hranitzky & Béla Tarr, 2007:

Respectively, the three men are the chief protagonist, antagonist and force of moral conscience in the plot of a standard film-noir. Though the machinations of noir are continually dismantled or disrupted by Tarr's languid, observational techniques - which, during the course of the film, reduce moments of potential Hitchcockian suspense and the possibility for Hollywood intrigue to a series of looks, rituals and objects of personal significance - the film nonetheless engages, actively and enthusiastically, with the recognisable tropes of the genre.

Specifically, the motivating factor of greed, and the general fatalistic belief that every action, no matter how seemingly insignificant, carries a greater responsibility.


The scene in which these characters eventually share the screen is significant for the particular way Tarr and Hranitzky emphasise these spherical objects (three in each instance, corresponding with the number of characters on screen) and how this can be seen as relative to the opening sequence of the director's previous film, Werckmeister Harmonies (2000). There, the young misfit János Valuska (Lars Rudolph) enacts a piece of live theatre, in which village drunkards are used as representations of the sun, the moon and the earth in a dramatisation of a solar eclipse.


Werckmeister Harmonies by László Krasznahorkai, Ágnes Hranitzky & Béla Tarr, 2000:

In the earlier film, the demonstration establishes the idea of unexplained natural phenomena. The image of choreographed bodies within a space (defining space) is a prelude to the general descent into chaos and mass-hysteria that follows the arrival of the circus trailer, and the mysterious character called 'The Prince.' Here, the sense of disorder is less cosmic. Instead, the narrative emphasis on the personal downfall of characters stumbling into a situation not entirely beyond their control is more indebted to the necessary conventions of film noir.

It also carries greater philosophical notions pertaining to actions and their consequences. This can be seen in relation to Newton's basic Laws of Motion; "An object that is in motion will not change its velocity unless an unbalanced force acts upon it." Or, more appropriately, "To every action, there is always an equal and opposite reaction."

The event - the murder of the mysterious man and the retrieval of the money - represents the unbalanced force, the thing that sends these characters into their gravitational spiral; a fatal collision course that is continually alluded to by the film's production design and the precise way the camera encircles, blocks, traps and reveals these characters, like objects, drifting without recourse, into the chasm of a black hole.

Three spheres, three men...


The Man from London by Ágnes Hranitzky & Béla Tarr, 2007:

The hanging lights, like the objects careening into one another on the snooker table at the beginning of the scene, correspond with the three characters and their place, both within the frame and within the general orbit of existence. Maloin (Miroslav Krobot), the hapless railway pointsman who witnesses the murder and absconds with the cash; Brown (János Derzsi), the possible murderer now left with the impossible task of retrieving the money at all costs; and Morrison (István Lénárt), who claims to be a police inspector from London, pulling the strings for a shadowy conspiracy of forces that exist beyond the periphery of the narrative.

The camera reveals these characters one by one during the course of a conversation; a single fluid movement that establishes Morrison as the centre of this circulatory system of images, pulling the characters of Maloin and Brown ever deeper into the depths of his investigation.

Tarr's blocking of this almost nine-minute sequence is as remarkable as one might expect given the presentation of his previous work. Throughout the conversation, Maloin remains in the background of things. As the camera traverses the trajectory around Brown and Morrison engaging in this moment of narrative exposition, Maloin is clearly visible; an observer on the edges of the frame, sentinel in the sense of being the one person who actually knows where the money is, as well as becoming a substitute for the viewing audience. After all, it is Maloin who witnesses the original murder, thus establishing himself (along with the audience) as the only person really capable of carrying the full weight of responsibility when this sad burlesque reaches its inevitable close.

Tarr and Hranitzky acknowledge this burden in the final shot of Maloin, in close-up, his face pregnant with the anticipation of things to come, a single sphere of light above his head.


The Man from London by Ágnes Hranitzky & Béla Tarr, 2007:

The presentation of this sequence is reminiscent of a similar planetary revelation that occurs towards the end of Fassbinder's fittingly titled In a Year of 13 Moons (1978). In that particular film, Sister Gudrun (Lilo Pempeit) observes the aftermath of a character's death; drifting, unseen, like the camera in Tarr's film, through the wreckage of their extinction. There as well as here the characters drift in orbit; solitary planets incapable of reaching out to anyone for anything; just lost souls that yield to desperation.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Ocean Song

I am sat by the water; scribbling these words in a notebook to be transcribed at a later date. The light is growing dim; a soft blue light, like the kind found in old European-horror movies - something like The Devil's Nightmare (1971) or Requiem for a Vampire (1973) - where the filmmakers would try to give the impression of night in a scene originally (and quite obviously) shot during the day. This technique is called Day-for-night, and as a look, it's often incredibly beautiful...

There is music playing. Not just one song, but several, all overlapping in an aural collage of voices and notes. The sound, attractive as it is discordant, pours from the open doors of various bars and restaurants; catching the breeze and travelling down, along the bay to where I sit, slumped and content in a kind of coastal loneliness; a seaside melancholy usually reserved for the greatest films of Neil Jordan.

Outstanding films like Mona Lisa (1986), The Miracle (1991), The Butcher Boy (1997) and The End of the Affair (1999); each one contains a key scene in which a central character attempts to escape from some great abuse by retreating to the coast. Perhaps it's the sense of being on the edge of the world that appeals to these characters; the past is behind them, only the water and the endless possibilities that exist beyond the horizon lay in front.

Perhaps it's a purifying thing too; the water not only offers the possibility for reflection, it washes everything clean.

The Jordan film that stands out the most in my mind is the beautiful Ondine (2009). Every scent, sight and sensation felt on the edge of this water brings the memory of the film closer to my heart. Specific images repeat and spill over my own thoughts and personal recollections until the film becomes more than just a passive experience, but something that needs to be lived. It's a remarkable film; one that I've seen four times this year, and I keep promising myself that I'll write about it, and maybe one day I will... but for now the impression of it, here, with the sea before me, and that same blue light, is entirely overwhelming.

Transparent almost, this blue, like the most beautiful eyes you've ever seen; a soft watercolour light, like a wash of seawater has splashed back, across the promenade, with its seafront bars, hotels and nightclubs, and stained the whole thing in a beautiful shade of sadness.


Image of Douglas by Night, photographed by Lights in the Dusk:

The thing that keeps Ondine in my heart more than any other Neil Jordan film (and really, I love them all, to varying degrees; he's an outstanding filmmaker) is the use of the song All Alright by Sigur Rós. Finding an almost perfect unity between sound and image, All Alright is a strange, ethereal ballad; a love song from an alien planet, where the emotion expressed is universal, because the presentation is so vague. Occasionally we might catch something that seems to make sense; a particular word or phrase that creates an immediate image in the mind of the listener... but then it's lost again.

Each new change or movement within the structure suggests a new emotional landscape. It's impressionism of sound to compliment Jordan's impressionism of storytelling; where each development of the plot - each new twist and turn, sometimes light, sometimes dark - suggests the impression of a story being invented for the benefit of a sick child.


Ondine directed by Neil Jordan, 2009:

Really, it's the song that keeps reminding me of this place. Perhaps the real reason why I love Ondine more than say The Butcher Boy or Breakfast on Pluto (2005) or The Good Thief (2002) (all incredible films) is because of this song. And maybe I only love this song because it reminds me of her...

When I peer into the dark mirror of the sea, it's not my own face staring back, but hers. Somewhere, the same bright stars, reflected here, on the still of the water, watch over her as they watch over me. I'm reminded of Woolf's epitaph; or more appropriately, the quotation of it by Godard in his short film, Dans le noir du temps (2002): And in me too the wave rises. It swells, it arches its back. I am aware once more of a new desire; something rising beneath me; like the proud horse who's rider first whispers and then pulls him back. Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished, and unyielding...

If the sea is a mirror, then perhaps Jordan's characters are so attracted to it because it offers them a chance to really look at themselves, away from the suffocation of home, or the depravity of a criminal underworld, or the responsibilities of having to hide painful emotions in order to protect the husband of the woman you love, so as to finally see, beneath the bravado and the veneer, the yearning of the heart within. Against this infinite void, where the blue of the sky meets the blue of the ocean, these characters can see, for possibly the very first time, who they really are.