Sunday, 2 September 2012

One-Hundred Favourite Films - Part Five

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.

Heart of Glass
Directed by Werner Herzog - 1976

Like a dream, the image more powerful than the meaning. This is not to say that Herzog's film is without meaning, just that any potential meaning gleaned from the experience is beyond my elucidation. This is... a reverie? A film where hypnotised figures sleepwalk through a series of ancient landscapes; part of a story (in the sense that there is a narrative at work), but also removed from it, like shadows without form. Heart of Glass is a film - like many by Herzog - where the atmosphere of the place, the faces of people and the feelings evoked by a particular situation, creates the greatest impression. Scenes, moments, images - these are the things that capture the imagination; the things that inspire and provoke.

As a narrative, Heart of Glass is like a fable or a fairy story, though this suggests an innocence not always apparent in Herzog's work. As ethereal and dreamlike as the atmosphere of the setting might be this is still a film that deals primarily with the nature of insanity. Impossible dreams leading, as always, to a state of mass hysteria. This is true of all Herzog's work, where men on the fringes of a society are driven mad by an unfeasible pursuit that makes little sense to a viewing audience until we see it, expressed, on-screen. It is a theme that has dominated Herzog's work for almost half a century, but it finds its most beautiful realisation in this strange and inscrutable film, where the story - a means for allegory or supposition - enchants, enthrals and disturbs.

Hélas pour moi
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard - 1993

The existential conundrum. A lonely artist looks out from across the rocks and decides to paint a picture of a boat on the sea. Once finished, the artist steps back from his work and asks himself, meditatively: "What is missing?" After a short pause the artist realises: "I am missing!" So the artist creates a new picture; one of an artist creating a picture of a boat on the sea. Again, the artist steps back from the canvas, studies it and exclaims: "What is missing?" The artist now takes a new canvas and this time creates a picture of an artist, creating a picture of an artist, creating a picture of a boat on the sea. Stepping back from the finished work the artist looks at it and sighs: "What is missing?"

Godard's film - one of his most beautiful, if not the most beautiful - is on one level a dramatisation of the Greek myth of Alcmene's seduction by Zeus in the form of her lover Amphitryon, which is used, much like The Odyssey in Le mépeis (1963), to form the basis of a film about the disparity that exists between men and women, and the great difficulty faced in maintaining an equal relationship in light of their innate dissimilarities. However, it is also a film about the nature of legend; about the artistic pursuit of "truth"; about the relationship between fiction and reality. These themes and others are explored by Godard through a clever framing device that turns a straightforward narrative about a marriage in crisis into a multilayered detective story, full of a conspiracies, interrogations and loose-ends.

With the character of Abraham Klimt - the writer sent to investigate this story of a woman who claims to have been visited by God in the form of her husband - Godard places himself inside the narrative, as an observer, as someone capable of sorting through the truths or half-truths of the situation to find the reality within. However, the function of this character is also an acknowledgement of the audience and our own role as a collective witness to these proceedings, as we attempt to navigate the director's endless abyss of poetic quotations, references, allusions and associations, where every image, sound, quote or scene offers a new way of interpreting the presentation of events.

Like most of Godard's work, there is a lingering sadness that exists at the heart of the film. A sadness that informs the relationship between characters - this husband and wife, no longer able to make sense of one another; falling out of love but still struggling to find something worth clinging to in the chaos of existence - and which finds its expression in the current English translation of the title, Oh Woe is Me. One could argue that a more fitting translation might've been the idiom It's All Greek to Me, suggesting the film's foundation in classical Greek myth, but also its often confusing and elliptical structure; where the conflict between different forms - myth and reality, man and woman, sound and image - is used to abstract a more conventional story of human frailty and belief.

Directed by Bruno Dumont - 1999

The two concurrent images that introduce Dumont's film present different but equally disarming challenges for the viewer. The first image, a close-up shot of a murdered child - the violent rend of the wound registering on-screen for just a moment before we eventually realise what it is that we're being forced to see - creates a natural sense of revulsion. The second image, a long-shot panorama of the verdant countryside - where the small silhouette of a character dots a frantic line across the screen - contrasts this revulsion with a more conventional appeal to suspense.

In its construction, this opening sequence seems designed to illicit a feeling of great conflict in the viewer's emotional and intellectual response to the work. On the one hand, the nature of the shots provoke the audience to look away, to avoid the horror being presented. At the same time, we're being invited to lean in, to study the frame and to take a more active role in understanding the intentions of the director and the machinations of his plot. This strange and unsettling narrative, where - on the surface - a village idiot assumes the role of a reincarnated Christ in an effort to carry the burden of humanity's suffering, but where - beneath the surface - there is something more academic at work.

Similar contrasts are apparent in every facet of Dumont's direction of the film, where the disparity between the content and the form creates a necessary feeling of divergence. In his approach, Dumont takes what is conventionally a very accessible and exhilarating genre (the police procedural) and observes it from a distance; avoiding the usual clichés that we've come to expect from films like The French Connection (1971), Vengeance is Mine (1979) or The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and instead, turns the investigation into a contemplative study, not of the crime itself, but of the reactions to it, the things that surround it.

The Hunters
Directed by Theodoros Angelopoulos - 1977

In one of the film's most haunting sequences, a procession of small boats drift slowly across the waters of a still, winter lake. These vessels - like apparitions conjured, literally from the past - are vestiges of a long-forgotten world; a world of promises and idealism, amendments and revolution. As the boats pass, the red of the sails suggests the political, but also the violence that these characters - spectators to the scene - have profiteered from. A mute reminder that each of them, no matter how successful or seemingly comfortable "in their place", has blood on their hands.

The characters belong to the film's present but are nonetheless needed to bear witness to this spectacle that is pulled from the memory, like so many scenes from the film. As ever with Angelopoulos, the characters coast through these memories as a rolling tableau, where the interaction between past and present is triggered by the great metaphor that rests at the heart of the film; the literal image of the once-buried past, unearthed and revaluated, here to speak out against the injustices of time in a metaphorical court, one that in some respects brings to mind the absurd and subversive satires of Godard or Buñuel.

The 'living theatre' approach that Angelopoulos perfected in his previous film The Travelling Players (1975) - where the camera records complicated sequences in single, fluid motions that block and reveal information as the scene unfolds - finds its most startling expression in this claustrophobic lampoon, where the filmmaker examines the implicit guilt of his own generation and the state of his country in a broadly allegorical sense. The style throughout is hypnotic; the slow movement of the camera as it follows, circles and tracks each character, seems to ensnare them, physically and metaphorically, in a web of their own deceit.

Directed by Lindsay Anderson - 1968

A class war. A conflict between the continual divide - the "haves" and the "have-nots" - but also in the sense of the classroom as a battleground; a place for revolution. The school, as a symbol, is an obvious microcosm of late 1960s Britain or a metaphor for the social structure of a country at a time when the once recognisable divisions between "upper", "middle" and "lower" were slowly beginning to erode. It represents all the false notions of order, privilege, entitlement, stoicism and respectability that had supposedly defined the country - "the empire" - for the past hundred years, which becomes, in the eyes of the central characters (and to the filmmakers themselves), an institution that ultimately destroys the capacity for free-thinking and free-expression.

The school with its supercilious teachers, its prefects and its bullies creates order out of forced consensus and intimidation. The central characters are an extension of a persecuted underclass of young people, whose only real act of rebellion is in striving to live life and to experience what it is to be young; to make mistakes and to learn. There is no worth in having the experience of life dictated by those too afraid to embrace it. These schools - the system, the conformity factories of the status quo - attempt to quash this spirit of youth, and in doing so, quash the idealism, the innocence and the passion, which leads men and women to embrace new ideas and new ways of living.

Anderson's later masterpiece O' Lucky Man! (1973) may have labelled revolution as "the opium of the intellectuals" but If.... is no less a film about revolution, about the need for change. In its construction, the film embodies a revolutionary spirit that is conveyed through the dazzling filmmaking approach. The allusions to Jean Vigo and his masterful short Zero for Conduct (1933) infuse the film with an air of poetic-realism; where the recognisable "kitchen-sink realism" that was popular in British cinema throughout the 1960s is continually contrasted against moments of broad surrealism; like the cuts, from black and white to colour, the old replaced by the new. The images, as ever, intoxicating; disarming, possessing a life and vitality that is revolutionary in its own presentation, in the expression of its ideas and ideals.

The Illusionist
Directed by Sylvain Chomet - 2010

The card at the end says "magicians don't exist." But what is cinema if not a magic act; an attempt to conjure great spectacle and with it genuine emotion? Chomet's film - an effort to bring to life through animation an unrealised script by the immortal Jacques Tati - is a poignant work about the passing of time - from childhood to old age, from innocence to cynicism - and a reminder that every artist, no matter how passionate or committed to the craft, will one day suffer a defeat at the hands of an indifferent culture, which crushes the spirit no matter how pure the original intention might have been.

Though Chomet will never admit it, the scenes of furtive bonding between his central characters - this lanky avatar for Tati and the young travelling companion who follows him on a journey through the cabarets and nightclubs of a dying world - gestures towards an on-screen representation of the longed-for relationship between the real Jacques Tati and his eldest daughter Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel, who the filmmaker had abandoned at birth.

The tragedy of this relationship haunts the film, giving it a genuine sorrow that cuts through the slapstick and the caricature that we might expect from the author of The Triplets of Belleville (2003), turning that final declaration into a bittersweet lament for the role of the illusionist, this showman, in a world of harsh reality, obligation and responsibility. Although often amusing, the subtle sadness that exists at the edges of the film is entirely overwhelming. By the end of it, I felt crushed, my heart broken. With no alternative, I went outside into the garden, and cried a solitary tear.

I'm the Angel of Death: Pusher III
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn - 2005

The influence of Alan Clarke is palpable. The handheld camera that follows closely behind these characters - placing the audience shoulder to shoulder, as part of the action - recalls the stylistic approach of Clarke's greatest films, Made in Britain (1982), Christine (1987), The Road (1987) and the still highly influential short-feature, Elephant (1988). This method, which on one level could be described as "documentary-like" - where the closeness of the camera and the objectivity of it turns the scene into a matter-of-fact observation, sans (obvious) stylisation - is at the same time a means a placing the audience within the same subjective mindset of its central character.

In each of the three films of Refn's trilogy there is a descent into hell. Although each film is to some extent open-ended - closing on a suspended sense of its protagonist destroyed, morally, emotionally and physically, by a life of criminality - there is still a feeling of the inevitable; of characters cut-off from society, hunted and despised, alone to face the threat of a violent retribution that their actions have brought upon them. In this sense, the three films could be seen as loosely representative of the legend of Faust; where a deal with the devil is suggested by the promise of a great reward. What makes Pusher III the most remarkable translation of this theme is in its focus on the character of Milo, the Serbian drug lord who cast a sinister shadow over the first two instalments, now reduced to a stumbling victim as he suffers his fall from grace over the course of a punishing 24 hours.

After the post-Tarantino high jinks of the original Pusher (1996) and the 'Loachian' character study of the almost equally great With Blood on My Hands: Pusher II (2004), it makes sense that the final instalment should descend into a full-on horror movie; again, reinforcing that idea of a literal plunge into hell. The themes carried throughout the trilogy are perfectly brought together in the closing scene, with Milo staring at the empty swimming pool, his gesture encapsulating the sense of futility that the lifestyle represents. The power of these films is therefore in their ability to trap the audience in the experiences of their main protagonist; placing us - as the spectator - on the inside of the narrative, sharing the sense of fear, sadness and paranoia.

In a Lonely Place
Directed by Nicholas Ray - 1950

Implications of the title - my favourite of any film ever made - suggests the general tenor of the thing; the feeling of it. It's the kind of title that reads like an expression; something the characters might say, like an admission of defeat, or resignation. A title that describes in poetic terms the mood of the central character - this writer, boozing and brawling his way across a late night Hollywood chimera that dazzles and disgusts in equal measure - but also suggests a darkness that exists at the very core of the film, or at the root of each character.

Bogart's protagonist finds himself 'in a lonely place' - emotionally and psychologically - but no lonelier than the poor murdered girl whose death throws these characters together, and eventually tears them apart. Her lonely place is a physical one; her body dumped at the bottom of a ravine. The murder, like the title, colours the way we perceive the film - its conflicts and interactions - exaggerating the phantom-like feeling of characters in love but incapable of expressing such love; their jealousies and dark desires getting in the way of it, distorting it, transforming it, making ugly something that could have been pure.

The character later laments, "I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me." The expression, beautiful as it is, describes the feeling of intense longing that permeates every scene of the film. An emptiness - psychological more than physical; a familiar feeling that seems to circle the characters of these shadowy Hollywood thrillers of the 1940s and 50s - which turns every interaction into something near-fatal, or perhaps fraught with the anticipation of darkness and betrayal.

Irma Vep
Directed by Olivier Assayas - 1996

It's impossible for me not to view the character played by Jean-Pierre Léaud as a loose facsimile of the eternal Jean-Luc Godard. The similarities are few but significant. A once famous filmmaker - relic of the French 'new wave' - now seen as worthless, washed-up; "a mad man." The supporting characters all think he's finished, critically and commercially; that his ideas no longer make sense; that his approach is obsessive and unprofessional. But when these characters finally see the rushes of his latest film - a vague remake of Louis Feuillade's famous silent serial Les Vampires (1915-1916) - its experiments with sound and image, the passion of it and also the fury, are far beyond the reach of mere mortals. His is a cinema, not defined by the business or the culture - or any of the external forces that we've previously witnessed in the background of the film - but as a direct expression; as a personal art.

Of course Godard is just a convenient projection (it could just as easily be Garrel), but Assayas' film is nonetheless about the process of filmmaking at a time when one "wave" was slowly receding, when the recognisable structure of French cinema was changing, and when the stereotypical image of what a "French film" actually looked like was gradually being replaced. The markedly more mainstream sensibilities of directors like Luc Besson, Mathieu Kassovitz, Pierre Salvadori and Jean-Pierre Jeunet was becoming a substitute for the 'auteur cinema' of the previous generations. The culture - looking to Hollywood, to narrative, to box-office - was rejecting the films that came before in favour of a new kind of slick, accessible, commercial product; the type of which still dominates the multiplexes today.

It is a film about filmmaking. That much is evident. But Assayas' film goes beyond the usual 'director in crisis' farce or backdrop to significant character study approach that we've seen a million times before in films like 8½ (1963) or La Nuit Américaine (1973) to deal with the entire process of filmmaking; from celebrity, to ego, to the interpersonal "communal" aspect of the production, to the way films are eventually received, critically and commercially. However, what makes Irma Vep significant to me is in the way Assayas uses the template of Feuillade's famous work and the symbol of its enigmatic anti-heroine (as portrayed by Musidora) to riff on the heritage of his national cinema, but also to comment on the way cinema, in its development, is effectively about theft.

The film is titled Irma Vep, like the great thief, presented here as Maggie Cheung playing Maggie Cheung playing Irma Vep; stalking the hotel in her rubber outfit, walking the rooftops in the rain; a phantom lady over Paris. Cinema is, in a way, like the character; sleek, beautiful, enigmatic. The theft is elaborately choreographed (needlessly) to the point that we, as viewers, become so distracted by the spectacle of it that we're oblivious to any theft taking place. In this sense, the film acknowledges that all films are indebted to the history of cinema, to the influence and the lineage of everything that came before, but that originality can be still be achieved by filtering these influences through the personal interests, passions and obsessions of a director and their crew.

I Was Born, But...
Directed by Yasujirô Ozu - 1932

I Was Born, But... but what? The English-language title reads like an anecdotal aside, and in many ways that's exactly what the film is; a great yarn, a tale told with the same exuberance and wit that is explicit in the interactions of the central characters; these kids, struggling to make sense of how the adult world, with its responsibilities and its expectations, actually works. I've already referred to it (in passing) as one of the great coming-of-age stories, but as with all the Ozu directed films that I've seen so far, I Was Born, But... is not simply a film about these children, but about the entire social and domestic milieu; a film where the sense of place, the location - the present, now past - is tangible throughout.

Often with Ozu we get the sense of poetry, the pathos, some humour to diffuse the lingering traces of sentimentality; but we also get a sense of life being lived. There is a compassion for these characters, which makes what could've been a fairly innocent narrative dilemma resonate with the same physical and emotional urgency as something perched on the precipice between life and death. Ozu's film is as funny and as charming as we might expect from the period, but is also, at its best, an observational study on life and the way we choose to live it.