Saturday, 12 May 2012

One-Hundred Favourite Films - Part Ten

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.

Stop Making Sense
Directed by Jonathan Demme - 1984

Let's drop the 'concert' tag from the term 'concert film' and appreciate this for what it is. Demme's film - a live recording of a Talking Heads performance; shot over three nights at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles, 1983 - is one of the greatest American motion-pictures of the 1980s, 'concert' or otherwise! A film that goes beyond merely showing the band play live for the benefit of a paying audience and instead manages to explore the very idea of performance, and our perception of what music is. Music, not as a commodity, or as showbiz 'event', but as an expression; as a communal experience.

By stripping away the usual extraneous baggage, like pyrotechnics, enormous sets and dazzling costumes that are so often associated with films of this nature, Demme & Co. are able to place the music - and this shared experience of it - at the very centre of the thing; creating something that has the feeling of a great spectacle - like a grand revival or a back-lot musical number - but a spectacle of small gestures; with vulnerability, celebrations and moments of great intimacy.

The approach, which begins with lead singer David Byrne walking out onto the empty stage with his acoustic guitar and a now defunct cassette player, only to be joined, one by one, by the rest of the band and supporting musicians as the set-list develops, gives the film its sense of narrative. A feeling of story - full of drama and emotion and individual characters - that unfolds, like interconnected vignettes, through each of the sixteen songs.

The Suspended Step of the Stork
Directed by Theodoros Angelopoulos - 1991

Anyone who has seen this typically mesmeric Angelopoulos meditation on 'borders' (political, geographical, generational, psychological) speaks of the pure spectacle of the wedding across the river, which in perfect cinematic terms suggests the absurdity of nationalism - of claiming place - as an affront to the natural human instinct to create links between people. It is, in its presentation, one of the boldest of Angelopoulos's great set-pieces, and one of the defining moments of this, his greatest film.

Using a framing device similar to the one found in his earlier film Voyage to Cythera (1984), Angelopoulos sends a filmmaker - in this instance a producer of "human interest" documentaries for television - into a refugee camp somewhere along the Greek border. Increasingly fascinated by the image of a dishevelled man of low standing but great dignity, the filmmaker - as vessel for Angelopoulos - begins to 'invent' a story around him. The story of a noted politician, who having become disillusioned with the system, simply disappeared.

The character of the filmmaker, in many ways a surrogate for Angelopoulos - the restless observer who enters this place in order to find a story - is also a representation of the audience. His presence suggesting the role of the viewer as an intruder within the lives of these characters, and how this intrusion relates to possibly the greatest "border" an audience will ever face: the one that exists between reality and fiction.

The Tango Lesson
Directed by Sally Potter - 1997

This is a film about dance - about the Argentine Tango to be precise - but it's also a film about cinema as a creative force. Cinema, as a spectacle, is a kind of dance; an expression of movement and emotion. The bodies within the frame play out this intricate choreography, which suggests, in its motions, stances, attitudes and positions, a variety of stories (of love and anger, sorrow and betrayal); but the dancers are matched at every step by the chorography of the camera, the intonations of the editing and the rhythms of the music. When placed together in collaboration these elements create a story; the story of a man and a woman.

Potter's intensely personal, near-autobiographical film, uses the liberation of dance as a way of dealing with the often cumbersome process of making a film (from the meddlesome producers, to the weight of expectation, to writer's block and sheer vulnerability...). However, in doing so, she's able to illustrate the natural ability of filmmaking, when it works, to transcend these various pitfalls and create something that is, as a creative act, as passionate, moving and wordlessly-expressive as the dance itself.

Three Crowns of the Sailor
Directed by Raúl Ruiz - 1983

How to express in words the magic of this film, or any Ruiz film for that matter? Its narrative, like a tall tale dusted off and handed down by the narrator to its curious listener, is full of strange tangents, jarring twists and a variety of intangible loose ends. There are stories within stories - a kaleidoscope of images, refracted, like a cracked mirror-ball manifestation - which traipse backwards and forwards between mystery, fantasy, thriller, melodrama and farce, as if the whole thing is being invented for our amusement (before the rug is pulled out from under us by yet another narrative left-turn!)

The combination of dazzling (formalist) experimentation, nested flashbacks, outrageous compositions (which boggle the mind as well as the eye) and a continual inter-cutting between black & white and saturated colour creates the feeling of an unreliable narrator patching together a tapestry of elaborate fabrication, and goes further than any other film (that I can think of) in capturing the atmosphere and tonality of the great short stories of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who seems to have been an influence.

Tokyo Story
Directed by Yasujirô Ozu - 1953

It seems impossible to define the extraordinary power of this film, which on paper reads as a typically unassuming post-war melodrama about the usual concerns: family, responsibility, bereavement, and the ever widening gap that exists between the generations. Ozu had already covered much of the same territory in earlier films, most notably The Only Son (1936) and Late Spring (1947), but rather than feel like a reiteration of such themes, there's a certain process of refinement in the approach to Tokyo Story, which once again explores the same concerns, but does so with such assurance and simplicity that the continual shifts, from comedy to drama, jollity to pathos, seem effortlessly placed.

If the experience can be reduced to anything at all, it's the feeling of authenticity. An emotional authenticity, with these moments and interactions displaying a rich understanding of human behaviour - a warmth and compassion that makes the occasional critique seem all the more pointed, or keenly observed - and an overwhelming sense of time and place, of life, continually moving, crashing, then caressing, like waves against the rocks. Most films provide entertainment; some even inspire great thoughts and feeling; it's a select few that are powerful enough to teach us how to live.

Tropical Malady
Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul - 2004

Moments that stir the soul: The gold noon sun of the opening sequence; the body and the music; the camera brushing through the tall green grass as if presenting the perspective of another; the shape shifter that intrudes upon the scene and watches, silently, from the periphery; the figure that wanders naked into the empty frame; the song and the cinema; the moped ride that brings to mind the vacant drifting into night of Catherine Deneuve's 'Marie' in Pola X (1999); the underground shrine; the stories within stories; the questions of love, with its mysteries and conspiracies; the spirit of the animal returning to the forest; the lights in the trees; the eyes of the beast burning brightly through the dark.

These waning moments that bewitch us like that "strange creature" on the spirit's path, who beguiles us with its otherworldly presence; plays games with us, forces us to pursue it through the darkened forest until we're lost, like the trapper in the clearing, where the branches hang down like the talons of an out-stretched claw.

That Tropical Malady is defined by these moments is in no way a criticism. Its bare plot, which spins two seemingly separate stories with much room for individual interpretation, feels at times like a blank canvas. We project ourselves onto it by bringing our own interests and emotional perspectives; seeing a creation of love or revulsion, devotion or obsession, depending on our own individual personalities. As a result, the film remains vague, elusive even; challenging the audience to think themselves through the film, to ponder its great mysteries and construct the plot in hindsight from the similarities that are formed by both parts of the narrative.

The Village
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan - 2004

Like Miklós Jancsó's The Round-Up (1966), a recognisable 'historical' setting is used to explore a series of contemporary concerns. 'The village' of the title becomes a metaphor for America in the shadow of 9/11; fearful and hermetic; fuelled by scaremongering and propaganda tactics that impose order, conformity and control. The 'monsters' that breach the periphery of this prison-as-village manifestation are representations of a society so blinded by pious self-righteousness that they fail to recognise violence and resentment as inherently human traits. In doing so, these characters effectively initiate their own downfall, but refuse to acknowledge it as anything less than a personal utopia.

Regardless of how well we perceive this social commentary, Shyamalan's film is undeniably beautiful; every frame, evocatively lit and composed with an artist's eye, could be mistaken for an impressionist painting. The play of light and colour is incredible, but it's the depth of the film that most impresses, with Shyamalan producing an atmospheric "monster movie" that not only works as a wider commentary on society, isolation, violence and bereavement, but remains perhaps the most successfully realised treatise on the director's favourite theme: the sacrifice.

For all its slow, unsettling ambience, its high-concept approach and its typically controversial mystery-box reveal, The Village is really, at its best, a wounded cry of anguish, a declaration of love and a solemn, beautifully crafted and incredibly moving film about the perseverance of the human spirit, as personified by Ivy Walker; the blind leading the blind.

The Ward
Directed by John Carpenter - 2010

'The ward', as a setting, as a physical space, is a representation of the character's psyche. Its winding corridors, like the corridors of the mind, become a labyrinth, leading everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. The evil that lurks within this maze of emotions - the literal 'monster in the box' that stalks and picks-off, one by one, these vulnerable young women - represents a great trauma; but the same can be said of the characters as well. Where The Ward succeeds is in creating this dichotomy between what is felt by the central character and what is presented on-screen; where the uncontrollable bursts of emotion (cf. Run Baby Run) are not only a respite from the solitude of confinement, physical and psychological, but an outward expression of the character's inner thoughts and fears.

Here, persecution and self-loathing find an outlet through a generic supernatural mystery and its knife-through-the-heart twist.

Werckmeister Harmonies
Directed by Béla Tarr & Ágnes Hranitzky - 2000

From its opening dramatisation of planets in orbit (creating a living enactment of a solar eclipse) to the eventual exhausted feeling of numbed dislocation - which characterises the overall experience - the effect of the film on me, as a viewer, was comparable to the effect that the giant whale carcass has on its own protagonist, János Valuska. As a result, I've come to see the film as a similar 'mysterious object'; one powerful enough to transform the very character of an audience willing to look at the film - to be moved and enthralled by its atmosphere, imagery and remarkable intensity - without necessarily subjecting it to any great scrutiny; just let the film speak.

As such, I find it impossible to define, clearly at least, just how captivating the film is, how breathlessly its story develops through each vivid tableau, and how much the use of the camera - blocking and revealing objects like the orbiting planets of the opening scene - creates a feeling of dizzying insanity, as tangible for the audience as the plague of madness that descends upon its characters. This is something that cannot be explained, only experienced.

Directed by Kevin Brownlow & Andrew Mollo - 1975

The film's authenticity is overwhelming. The sense of time and place, visible in every costume and location, in the rust, the mud and decay, or on the faces of these non-professional actors who speak the words with an untrained innocence that makes us believe every second of their interactions, their politics and ideals, is alive in every frame. There are no 'stars' here, just faces. Honest faces, plain faces, ugly faces; faced caked in dirt and debris but still looking at the shadows on the hillside, at the ploughed fields and the sense of accomplishment, with a wet-eyed optimism that is touching in its integrity.

Some familiarity with the actual historical context might be necessary to really understand the relationships between characters, or the greater political shifts that occur across the edges of the film, but really this is Brownlow's attempt at a John Ford western - think Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) perhaps - by way of the rigorous , precise, historical documentary-dramas of Peter Watkins or Straub-Huillet.