Thursday, 12 July 2012

One-Hundred Favourite Films - Part Seven

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.

Mauvais sang
Directed by Leos Carax - 1986

With some films, the experience cannot be explained, only felt. As much as I try to put into words some semblance of what these films are about, how they work and why I love them as much as I do, there is always that struggle to do justice to the true experience, which is personal, and difficult to define. With Mauvais sang, I could talk about its ambition and imagination; the gestures towards the poetic realism of filmmakers like Epstein, Vigo and Grémillon; the combination of B-movie noir and impressionist science-fiction (which recalls the Godard of Alphaville (1965) in its presentation of love in a world where the physical act of love has been made unattainable); or the feeling of it: the progression between scenes that are either funny, astounding, romantic or moving.

However, to describe the film in such a way would not do justice to the real feeling that is experienced. The recollections of a relationship, however vague, inform every scene, every word and every movement. The film as a work - as a physical object - reminds me of my own amour fou - mon "Petite Lise" - who loved its bursts of movement, its folly and its declarations, almost as much as I; who saw in it something that brought to mind our own sadness and embraced it, like the characters on-screen. To see the film now is to re-experience that affection in every expression of these characters, their actions and reactions, and in the film's sweeping gestures, which capture a feeling of what it is to love and to be loved.

Directed by Fritz Lang - 1927

In its construction, the city presents the two ideological perspectives established by the film's socialist-leaning epigram, which reads: 'Head' and 'Hands' need a mediator. The mediator between 'Head' and 'Hands' must be 'the Heart.' The city of the film is, in its design, a manmade barrier between these two spheres of society, ensuring that 'Head' and 'Hands' are forever separated, physically, by the structure of the thing; those divides of class, gender and generation made explicit in the very foundation of the world. Through the inadvertent actions of its two protagonists - Freder, son of Fredersen, and the enigmatic Maria - a link between the two words is finally forged, turning the city itself into the beating heart that drives both factions of this so-called Metropolis; this labyrinth of the mind.

However, the vision of the city is not only a mediator for its inhabitants, but inevitably becomes a kind of mediator for its own creators; a link between the politics of Thea von Harbou and the spectacle of Fritz Lang. If writer von Harbou saw the drudgery of the workers as something deplorable, director Lang transforms it into something truly terrifying. A vision of hell, where the workers feed a machine that becomes, in the eyes of the protagonist, like a monster, devastating in its ferocity. While the political aspects of the film are still relevant, it is the pure storytelling of Metropolis that leaves the greatest impression; the manifestation of this world that Lang and his technicians so vividly create is still, after almost a century, a genuine sight to behold.

Mother Küsters' Trip to Heaven
Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder - 1975

We contemplate the question: Why does Herr Küsters run amok? As a quotation, it sounds like the start of an appalling joke (and in many respects it is!) though one necessary to draw a line of influence from this film to an earlier one, also associated with Fassbinder, which ended with an explosion of fury and devastation that seemed to anticipate the unseen act of violence that begins the film in question. What is most cruel about the construction of the film is the way Fassbinder has his characters - this small family of aged mother, doting son and imperious daughter-in-law - just going about their usual domestic activities, oblivious to the terrible tragedy taking place on the other side of town.

The film reinforces Fassbinder's reputation as one of the great 'exploitation' directors. Not so much in his technique - which has little in common with filmmakers like Joe D'Amato or Larry Cohen - but in his continual interest in the manipulation of characters too vulnerable or trusting to recognise when the forces of a system far beyond their comprehension is conspiring against them. In Mother Küsters' Trip to Heaven, Fassbinder uses the story of this elderly woman's bleak descent into loneliness, resentment and eventual criminality to condemn the German culture of the 1970s; taking aim at the ineffectual left-wing intelligentsia, armchair terrorists, tabloid press and his own generation's ignorance and greed in contrast with the quiet stoicism and questionable loyalty of the martyred matriarch of the title.

It is easy to see the crime of Herr Küsters and the reactions to it as a comment on how the Germany of Fassbinder's generation had distanced itself from the sins of the father(land); refusing to acknowledge the atrocity of the holocaust on a human level, ignoring it, and therefore allowing the opportunity for history to repeat itself; a fear implicit in the violent conflicts taking place between left and right-wing political groups throughout the 1970s. In the absence of the "father", Mother Küsters becomes the real culprit, the only link to a man that can no longer be held accountable, and as such - a scapegoat? - shunned and ignored, denied any sympathy; guilty by association. Her downfall, chronicled throughout, is shattering to see.

Mulholland Drive
Directed by David Lynch - 2001

For Lynch, there is the surface, the thing that is presented as 'truth', and then there is the world beneath the surface, the dark despair that exists at the wounded heart of everything. In the opening sequence of his earlier film Blue Velvet (1986), Lynch illustrated this idea with a vivid montage of small-town suburban life - a world of fixed-grins, picket fences and saccharine '50s pop - cut-short by the sight of an elderly man falling to the ground in the throes of a violent seizure, and a slow malignant tracking shot through the undergrowth, revealing the writhing worms, festering maggots, and a severed human ear.

In some ways, the narrative of the film in question could be seen as a continuation of this earlier sequence, where Lynch establishes a surface projection of how things appear, or need to appear, and then the reality beneath. The two 'realms' offer two sides of a single story, where failure and disappointment are transformed in the mind of a central character into a waif's dream of Hollywood stardom, full of mystery and adventure. In this sense, the film is an obvious continuation of the same territory explored in Lynch's other great films, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) and Lost Highway (1997), where a significant event in the lives of his characters causes a literal psychological metamorphosis; turning the story into a series of figurative gestures that hide the clues to an unfortunate chain of events. While the two preceding films are undoubtedly great works, there is a noticeable process of refinement in the development of Mulholland Drive, where the games played with the narrative and the usual interjections of horror, slapstick and soft-core erotica are not used to obfuscate or to confuse the audience, but to reveal hidden depths.

On the surface, the film is of course a captivating mystery; a genuine modern-day noir built around its two unlikely heroines who traverse this frequently sun-dappled Hollywood playground in search of the clues to an arcane conspiracy, and finding instead the hollow bones of a terrifying affair. And yet beneath the surface, the film is a heartbreaking psychological study; one that exposes emotions and ideas that never merely adorn the more characteristic moments of surrealism, but transcend them; turning what could've been a cheaply provocative and transparent experiment in self-reference into a genuine work of art.

Directed by Alain Resnais - 1963

Subtitled 'The Time of a Return', Muriel is a film about memory, or more appropriately, about the past as something pervasive, like a shadow walking in-step with each character; something that we're unable to escape. Though other aspects of the work are just as intriguing, it is the film's continual emphasis on time and recollection - and how these concerns can be related through the power of the moving image to capture and record - that Resnais and his scriptwriter Jean Cayrol return to; creating a film where the formalist experiments - the editing and the placement of the camera - attempt to disarm the viewer; showing the capacity for the medium to manipulate and mislead, but also to suggest hidden truths.

The 'Muriel' of the title is not the lead character, as we might expect, but a name that haunts the character's stepson Bernard; a young man still traumatised by his experiences during the conflict in Algeria. In this sense, the scars of war - the lingering traces of it - becomes another great theme of the film; explicit in the battle-marked ruins of Boulogne-sur-Mer where the story takes place and implicit in several interactions between characters, who throughout the film seem to hide behind a facade of middle-class contentment, as if trying to maintain a sense of pre-war normality; almost as if life before the war had continued, uninterrupted.

When Cayrol and Resnais eventually reveal the true story of 'Muriel' - this character that seems to embody, in memory, the very spirit of the film and its restless observations on the themes aforementioned - the effect is truly devastating. The film itself - in its necessary contrast between sound (Bernard's painful confession) and image (a montage of 8mm footage of soldiers languishing between battle) - becomes a eulogy to this young woman, but also a means of expressing the great suffering of those made mute by the ravages inflicted by this stonewalled deceit. This is a film that offers a profound comment on the nature of atrocity, how we live with it, and how the attempt to ignore it, or to put it to one side, is the greatest indignity of all.

My Darling Clementine
Directed by John Ford - 1946

In the broadest terms, the story of Wyatt Earp and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral doesn't interest me, and yet this is what the film appears to be about. However, beneath the surface of this historical fiction, there is a film about loss; about the loss of a brother. As an only child I've often envied those with close ties to their siblings and that sadness felt by Wyatt Earp after the death of his brother during the first act of the film is something that I can almost relate to. The feeling of wanting something but never having it is sometimes equal to having something and then losing it. The film, in its mood and sense of momentum, is haunted by this loss - the loss of a brother but also the loss of innocence, or an ideal - turning even the burgeoning love story between Earp and the character of Clementine Carter into something charged with the anticipation of a tragedy.

This same feeling of grief is inherent in Ford's direction, with the staging of scenes and the framing of shots, compositionally, emphasising a certain abstract stillness; where interactions between characters are turned into ghostly encounters, intrusions and stolen moments, caught like images from a phantom documentary, "of the period" (though no such documentary could exist). It is the authenticity of these images, the dirt and the grime and the sense of lives being lived, that creates this feeling of something credible, emotionally and cinematically, even if the story is pure fabrication.

Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky - 1983

Any discussion of the themes behind the film should really begin with the title, which establishes upfront the overwhelming feeling of loss and the personal displacement that hangs above the lives of these characters, suspended, like the sword of Damocles waiting to drop. However, this is not a film about 'nostalgia' in the sense of being a 'nostalgic work' - like for example Amarcord (1973) or Radio Days (1987), where specific memories of places and people are exaggerated on screen as they are in the mind - but rather an attempt to understand the feelings behind this nostalgia. The loneliness, disruption and dissatisfaction that compels these characters to take shelter in a crumbling Italian village, where each relic of a past existence uncovers deep reminders of their own tragic despair.

The character in Tarkovsky's film is, like the filmmaker himself, in exile. Unable to return home, this character finds himself haunted by past recollections; memories of figures framed within a desolate landscape, an old house and a shroud of fog, like the fog of memory, obscuring everything. These images suggest some possible clue to deciphering the true feelings of this character, which, as ever with Tarkovsky, seem impossible to define. For this is a poet's impression of his own great sorrow, suggested throughout by the solitude of the village, the dust and decay, and his own dealings with characters similarly haunted; consigned to their fate, like the defiant 'mad man' Domenico, or like Eugenia, desperate for an escape.

The tone of the film throughout is sombre and pensive. At times, the imagery suggests a continuation of the oppressive, post-apocalyptic misery of the director's previous film Stalker (1979) - or even a precursor to the genuine fear of atomic annihilation featured in his final work, The Sacrifice (1986) - but it's always the feeling of the film, the emotions of it, that draw us in. The emphasis on long takes - where the camera moves about these characters, observing them, presenting each shift between reality and fantasy, past and present, as a genuine movement between worlds - turns the experience of the film into a waking dream. A dream of home shared by each protagonist (and by the audience as well) that is impossible to define and even more difficult to reclaim.

Notre musique
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard - 2004

A film composed of three movements, like a symphony; the association reflecting the greater connotations of the title: the voice, a means of expression and communication: "our music?" Each movement of the film is a representation of a different argument on the nature of war, presented by means of a specific cinematic approach. The three movements - montage, dramatisation and allegory - act as interpretations of the three kingdoms of Dante's the Divine Comedy - Hell, Purgatory and Paradise - creating a single narrative. One that develops like a series of unconscious thoughts, moving, like characters through the rubble of places or the ruin of existence; never acting, but reacting as everyday people might when faced with the reality of war; the injustice of it.

In its rolling montage of violence and devastation - and with the burnt ruins of Sarajevo still standing as a solitary witness to the last great horror of the 20th century - Godard asks the question: "how can we live?" The audience responds: "with our fingers in our ears and our eyes tightly closed." The inquisitive nature of the film is never aggressive or didactic, like the Godard of the 1960s, but gently probing. The aim is to evoke emotions and ideas through sounds and images, creating something that moves between moments of poetic abstraction, wicked satire and affecting psychological study; presenting the atrocity of war and the folly of terrorism without condescension, but also gesturing lightly towards something hopeful; a vision of paradise, tranquil but exclusive, pastoral but closed-in...

The final movement, which acts as a kind of free adaptation the final act of Godard's earlier Week End (1967) - turning that film's depiction of violence and immorality in the Garden of Eden into an Eden of autocratic efficiency - uses this beautiful bucolic setting to create a contrast between something natural and pure and something corrupt; a system built on control and segregation, like the world itself. Although stunning in its presentation, this coda, both satirically and sympathetically, shows us the paradise that awaits these martyrs, and in its own subtle way shows us where the folly of terrorism ultimately leads. A dream of heaven as a place where nothing ever happens.

One from the Heart
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola - 1982

I suppose it makes sense that a film about romantic folly has itself become known as the great romantic folly of its director's career. While Coppola's film may have yet to shed its reputation as the wildly ambitious extravagance that tarnished his reputation and almost destroyed his career, it remains, for me at least, one of the director's greatest films.

On the surface, One from the Heart is as pure a work of cinematic imagination as one could ever hope to see. A vivid extravaganza, full of expressive colours, dazzling sets, theatrical transitions, musical numbers, circus routines and a poet's portrayal of love that finds even the most personal or intimate of feelings transformed into a spectacle of old-Hollywood-style decadence or Cocteau-like verse . However, beneath the surface of this display of magic mirrors, high-wire acts and allusions to MGM musicals there is a story about failure and disappointment, about spent-time and lost chances. A film about the difficulty faced by this couple in their attempts to understand one another; to look into the eyes of the other and see the reason why they first fell in love, and not just a sad reminder of their own disillusionment staring back at them.

Through this contrast between the stylisation of the form and the coarseness of the protagonists, Coppola's film becomes more than just a frivolous fantasy, but a moving and intelligent deconstruction of a relationship; where the carnival spirit and decadent glamour of the world created only reinforces the emptiness shared by these characters, the lack of excitement and adventure. In this respect, Coppola's film is ultimately about the pursuit of love as a physical space. In the arms of another we can accept our situation, or at least find beauty in the world around us, as opposed to dreaming of impossible things.

Directed by Kaneto Shindô - 1964

What I'm always left with is the impression of scenes; the heat, the closeness, the sense of space. Although the story is certainly engaging, it is the feeling of the film - the energy of it - that for me makes the experience so extraordinary and difficult to describe. The atmosphere of the location, barren and claustrophobic, is defined by the imprisoning blur of the marshland, with its tall reeds, which - when presented across the full-width of Kiyomi Kuroda's mesmerising 'scope frame - become like a wall that exists, literally or figuratively, between two realms. A wall that divides these characters, closing in on them, trapping them emotionally, physically and psychologically between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

Everything that happens in the film unfolds as if these characters are in-limbo; each moment held or suspended, like a scream of agony, or one of ecstasy? Although terrifying in its ferocity, the film is also surprisingly sensual. That heat and the closeness of the bodies within the frame, half-naked and wet with sweat, creates the feeling of something primal, even erotic! A heightened emotional state that turns the film into a prolonged nightmare, suggesting an interpretation of lust and jealousy that is almost supernatural.