Thursday, 24 May 2012

One-Hundred Favourite Films - Part Nine

Ongoing response to The Dancing Image "100 (of Your) Favourite Movies" meme-that's-not-a-meme, presented here in a loosely alphabetical order. I'm posting the series in reverse formation in an attempt to maintain the original continuity, from A to Z.

Directed by Akira Kurosawa - 1985

The title in Japanese invokes the dual spirits of chaos and rebellion, establishing this as a film about power; about the endless struggle for power, the need for it, and the inevitable corruption of those who seek it. It also establishes the prevailing theme of defiance. Defiance, not simply as a component of the plot, or as shorthand for Shakespeare's text, but as a statement of intent. An early indicator that the film, like many by Kurosawa, is one that defies convention.

Though the story, with its veiled allusions to King Lear and the rich historical context of its 16th century setting, is full of intrigue, brutality, magic and suspense, it is the pure, cinematic presentation of the film that leaves the greatest impression. The blur of colours, the space, the shrieking insanity of the performances and the noiseless battle sequences that underscore the seething, operatic soundtrack of Tôru Takemitsu, rend their way into the viewer's subconscious; defining the experience as something beyond simply telling a story, but creating, in the best spirit of Angelopoulos, something that resembles a work of living theatre. Theatre on a larger scale perhaps, but existing, in a physical sense; as if this play of moments and emotions had once occurred, like a conventional theatrical recording, on a stage of real locations.

In its continual back-and-forth between scenes of static observation, discussions of politics, strategic plans and personal intrigue, and the enormous scenes of warfare, destruction, violence and devastation, Kurosawa's film is never less than a true epic, but an epic that doesn't lose sight of the small details that define the greater whole. Like the hand of the Emperor brought down in a single movement to initiate the battle, the film is a sweeping gesture, but a gesture of great intelligence, integrity and emotion.

Rear Window
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock - 1954

The strength of Rear Window is the film's enduring correlation between the 'protagonist', as a receptacle - through which the dramatic events of the film unfold - and the role of the audience as spectators; a collective witness to the on-screen events, who enliven the drama and their link to this fictional character through their own subjective interpretations. In L.B. Jeffries - the wounded action-photographer 'inventing' a personal (Hitchcockian) thriller from the suspected safety of his own living room - the filmmakers create possibly the most stable template for the endlessly fascinating 'protagonist as audience/audience as protagonist' dichotomy; offering a central character who functions, much like the audience, as a viewer, intruding, literally, into the lives of these "characters" and the stories they tell.

The tension in the film comes from the identification of Jeffries as an extension of the audience; both parties confined to a single room, searching the rectangular window-space that breaks the fourth wall for the only real source of entertainment. As viewers, we're all guilty of this intrusion, this voyeurism; investing something of ourselves in the lives of others and perversely being rewarded with scenes of comedy, drama, titillation, intrigue and finally heart-stopping suspense.

N.B. I think this attempt to explain what I like most about the film was a bit of a failure. In the interest of keeping the series going, I've included it. It's the best I can do for now. In the future, I intend to come back to this entry and write something more definitive.

Red Angel
Directed by Yasuzo Masumura - 1966

As an anti-war statement, Red Angel is a film less about the "horrors of war" than a horror film that uses war as a backdrop to a more solemn philosophical concern. Though the exact nature of the concern is open to interpretation, I like to see it - first and foremost - as a film about the perseverance of the human spirit as something pure; something imperishable. Even amid the general atrocity of the setting, the filmmakers present their protagonist as someone strong enough to endure even the worst degradation; carrying the sorrow and the pity of these fallen young men and attempting to suffer on behalf of those too damaged or broken, regardless of the personal toll that such suffering might take.

In this respect, the character is not so much a protagonist in the conventional sense as a symbol. A nurse - referred to in the English translation of the title as an "angel" - who assumes the responsibility of human suffering; becoming a force of great comfort for those no longer strong enough to weather the indignity of war, or the physical and psychological transformations that the war can inflict. Through the perspective of this central character, the filmmakers are able to present war as something entirely brutal, horrifying and utterly demoralising, but without reducing it to the usual conflicts and divides that attempt to point the finger of guilt, or elicit sympathy and support for a specific (patriotic) cause.

In Red Angel, we feel not just the humiliation of war, but the sense that war is the ultimate humiliation, with Masumura denying us the spectacle and the heroism of a conflict full of action, excitement and bravery, and instead focusing on the cruel aftermath of lost limbs, pain and desperation. In doing so, the filmmakers are able to show the true cost of war, on a human level; not as something noble or necessary, but as a grotesque machine that moves across the landscape, destroying everything in its path.

Le révélateur
Directed by Philippe Garrel - 1968

In Le révélateur, the domestic drama becomes 'psychodrama', expressing through a series of allegorical gestures the sense of disappointment felt by the director as an immediate response to the perceived failure of the Paris riots of May 1968. In this sense, the film can be looked at as a silent scream, where the inability of these characters to express in words their anger, fear and frustration is conveyed, subjectively, by a deliberate lack of sound. Robbed of any kind of context that a soundtrack might provide, these silent images are left open to interpretation, but still seem to suggest an infernal parody of 'the modern family' - as a symbol - and their uncertain place within the turbulent culture of late 1960s' France.

The emphasis on the family is a convenient through-line for Garrel's more inscrutable ideologies, managing to evoke the political through the personal, while also creating an element of trepidation - if not outright peril - as we watch the family stumble through an extended nightmare into the brutality of the unknown. As the narrative-line develops, the parents become increasingly void-like; simply going through the motions of this bizarre situation, as the child - progressively more disconnected, emotionally and physically, from his parents - becomes a witness to their self-destruction.

By the end of the film, the child - a symbol for an ideal, or a way of thinking that must be protected against the unseen forces that pursue the family across a devastated landscape of scorched earth and roads leading nowhere - becomes the first sacrifice to this hedonistic folly; to the failure of that collective ideal. Pulled screaming from the arms of his parents - who attempt to claw him back from the forces working against them - it is difficult to see the child as anything less than a representation of the hopes and beliefs of the filmmakers' generation, forever out of reach.

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock - 1948

The construction of the film, like the titular cord of death, is a continuous strand, tight and unbroken. The beginning and end - isolated elements there to be "tied up" in the sense of narrative exposition - eventually become entwined at the precise moment of Stewart's third-act revelation, creating a noose that entraps these killers in a downfall of their own creation. Rope for me is the greatest illustration of Hitchcock's 'bomb under the table' theory, where the suggestion of intrigue or suspense is created by the knowing, rather than the not knowing; where the anticipation is much greater than the thrill simply because we know that something is about to happen. In this instance, it is an extended scene of social interaction taking place in a single location where the body of a young man, murdered by his friends in the opening sequence, is hidden, just out of view.

Hitchcock's perverse, darkly comic but never less than thrilling film is not just an excellent murder mystery, it is a film that actually engages with its central themes in a way that is both intelligent and genuinely thought-provoking. In its final minutes - in which the character played by James Stuart breaks out into his impassioned condemnation of the two protagonists - Hitchcock and his co-conspirators turn the finger of judgement against the audience for condoning this ruse, this crime, with their enjoyment of it; making any real sense of gratification that comes from the viewing of the film both bitter and acidic.

The Round-Up
Directed by Miklós Jancsó - 1966

The prison camp becomes a microcosm, both historically and politically. The approach presenting a world in miniature, where a re-enactment of a very real historical incident is used to create a veiled commentary on more recent cultural events. The political view, climaxing with the dark satire of the final scene, is pessimistic, but the liberation of the camera, as a force - able to intercede on behalf of these characters; expressing that which cannot 'freely' be expressed - finds poetry in scenes of confinement, persecution and betrayal.

The juxtaposition, between the brutality of the subject matter and the graceful way in which Jancsó records it, creates a moving contrast between the reality - with its violence, discrimination and corrupt political system - and the 'cinematic' - powerful enough to transform the expression into something beautiful, aesthetically, without losing the seriousness and the tragedy of the real event - is one of the most remarkable aspects of the film. Likewise, the visual contrast between the prison itself - closed-in and claustrophobic; there to trap and ensnare - and the surrounding landscape - a wide-open panorama of fields and marshes; where the line of the horizon becomes yet another on-screen representation of incarceration - depicts these characters as minute objects dwarfed by the complexities of a situation that is beyond their understanding and control.

Jancsó's film is an extraordinary experience, and genuinely: one of the most powerful films I've ever seen.

Sans soleil
Directed by Chris Marker - 1983

Sans soleil is an experience beyond easy categorisation or critique. It is a film that moves between narrative elements almost as freely as it moves between continents, cultures, ideas and events; finding, through its montage of images, a unique approach, able to suggest layers of interpretation, both emotional and analytical. As a general cinematic experience, there is a sensory aspect to this approach, in which a bricolage of elements - from documentary images to video-footage to photomontage to clips from Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) - are all cut together to create a story across time.

The montage approach, which at first seems scattered at will, is united by the narration, which creates, on one-level, a context for these moving-pictures, but on a separate level breaks-off, invents, projects and transforms this very real documentary-style travelogue of places into something approaching a vague science-fiction parable about the nature of recorded memory.

In pointing his camera at this world, Marker finds - within its collection of objects, faces, street scenes and relics of popular culture - an intricate network of stories, dramas, sketches and vignettes, unfolding, inter-connected, like a vast system of information. Like an anthropologist from a distant planet, Marker looks at the world with its histories, connections, emotions and meanings within meanings, all resting on the surface of the mundane, and creates from this restless observation a work that at almost thirty-years old, still feels like an audio-visual communiqué from not-so-distant future.

Directed by Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub - 1999

A film that could have carried the subtitle "- A Return", illustrating that preoccupation with 'place'. The memory of a place, made distant by age, or exaggerated in the mind - as distant things often are - but still existing, as a reality, to be rediscovered by this character on his journey into the past. The sense of nostalgia is palpable from the very first frame. The silhouette of the man, a protagonist in the conventional sense, looks out across the water. The landscape in the distance is either a place that he's returning from or the place that he's returning to, but either way, there's the suggestion - even before the first interaction - that the journey is significant, if not emotionally overwhelming.

Sicilia! - which is less an adaptation of Elio Vittorini's novel 'Conversation in Sicily' than a public reading of it - is built around several "dialogues" on the subject of 'home' and the relationship that these characters have to the land of their fathers', which has fallen into despair. The journey of the protagonist across country culminates in a reunion between mother and son, where the discussion attempts to define the geographical history of the place through the personal history of these characters, as each confession, accusation and interrogation fills in the blanks left vague by the filmmakers' rigorous attention to the formalist elements of the text, and their framing of these locations via painterly, static tableaux.

The image of the countryside is turned into something almost mythical by the black & white cinematography, which on the one hand recalls the Italian 'neo-realist' films of the 1940s and 50s - with their natural cinematic beauty and the sense of post-war authenticity - but at the same time is an exaggeration of the reality, once again turning this land, as a reflection, into something that exists as a suspended recollection within the minds of these characters.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh - 2002

As a point of reference, Soderbergh's hermetic adaptation of the 1961 science-fiction novel by Stanisław Lem is closer to the work of Alain Resnais than it is to Andrei Tarkovsky. While Tarkovsky's own 1972 adaptation used the basic concepts of Lem's text to explore the filmmaker's usual concerns, Soderbergh's approach is to jettison the metaphysical aspects in favour of a more intimate deconstruction of the book's central relationship and its prevailing forces of guilt and grief. If Tarkovsky's film was "sculpting in time", Soderbergh's is sculpting in memory.

The film - which plays like an intense encounter between two people trapped in the cycle of a relationship doomed to repeat itself, endlessly, like an echo through the depths of space - brings to mind the haunted expressions of films like Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) or Muriel (1963), where its fragments of narrative, and the sense of time and space as something oppressive or tyrannical, turn the experience into a breathless reunion between the wounded and the dead. This feeling of a memory made real, turned frightful by the bitterness and isolation of these characters lost in space, is further suggested by Soderbergh's cold, formalist approach; where the framing of actors as immaterial objects against a labyrinth of buildings or planetary structures, or the play of lights, which evoke the inner emotions of characters unable to express, finds the filmmaker working at the absolute peak of his abilities; not just as director, but as writer, editor and cinematographer.

This continual focus - as voices drift over static, often blurred images of empty spaces, which emphasise the sense of loss and dislocation - creates something almost hypnotic, if not genuinely suffocating. The entire film, which moves to the ambient rhythms of its Cliff Martinez soundtrack, becomes, in the light of its characters' final sacrifice, a blue note of despair.

Still Life
Directed by Jia Zhangke - 2006

The film's opening sequence establishes a tone and an atmosphere that will develop throughout; a scene of quiet reflection on the Yangtze River, introducing us to the pensive coalminer Han Sanming on a boat bound for the Three Gorges region of the rapidly dissipating town of Fengjie. Here we begin the exploration of director Jia Zhangke's quietly compelling Still Life. An extraordinary work of enormous atmosphere and great natural beauty, about characters disconnected; in search of the past in a town in which the past is literally being levelled to make way for the future, and where the people we meet on life's lonesome journey fail to alleviate our struggle, acting only as markers; like the inanimate objects that we leave in our wake that remind people that we were here, that we existed.

Through this entrancing scenario, Zhangke is able to comment on the fleeting nature of time and existence; of the co-existence of two completely different characters arriving in this location at the same time and for similar reasons, though never once interacting. The symbol of the town and how these characters adapt to it also allows the filmmaker to form a more pointed commentary on the politics of contemporary China; in particular the sense of corruption and resulting violence that has been allowed to escalate and eventually destroy these grand historical settlements that have been inhabited, visited and documented in countless works of art and literature for many centuries past.

In this sense, it is a film of ever shifting perspectives; not simply in the emphasis on two separate characters, but in the specific way in which Zhangke is able to move so seamlessly between the poetic and the political, the abstract and the natural. In this regard, film feels like a kind of restless combination of Andrei Tarkovsky's great masterpiece Nostalghia (1983) - in which a homesick Russian poet explores an ancient Italian village that holds the secrets to a haunted past - and Michelangelo Antonioni's unsung documentary film China (1972), which recalls the notion of a film crew entering forgotten pockets of reality and creating a contemporary portrait of the world as it is (as it existed) at that point particular in time.