Viewing Log / 2013 / Week Two
07/01/2013 - 13/01/2013
Man With a Movie Camera [Dziga Vertov, 1929]: I finally got around to seeing the version with the Michael Nyman soundtrack. A real joy, since I love Nyman's work, perhaps more so than any other contemporary composer (film or otherwise). I suppose one could argue that his recognisable sound is too closely associated with the work of Greenaway to do justice to Vertov's kaleidoscopic montage, and I admit, some of the selections here are positively 'jaunty' in contrast to the black and white images of 1920s Odessa and the blur of urban life. That said, there is something more or less delightfully mechanical about Nyman's rhythms (in a good way), which complement the natural rhythms of Vertov's film. The nature of the cutting is, to me, inherently mechanized, almost industrial-like; where the images evoke the rattle and clatter of the busy streets, the percussion of trains on tracks, or the whir of engines or other film-related apparatus. The movement of the images (or the subject matter depicted) suggest the sound of Nyman's music - those honking horns, chaotic strings and frantic piano chords - just as the music itself - slowing for contemplation or played at a faster pace to match the quickening speed of the film - invokes the chaos and congestion of the world as depicted by the cinematograph. Seeing the film with Nyman's music was a great pleasure, but I've always enjoyed Vertov's work, regardless of its particular soundtrack. It's attempt to redefine the language of cinema (the "kinography" as Vertov called it) without the influence of theatre and literature (which still dominates the medium) is endlessly fascinating, not just as an essential work of film theory, but as an actual historical document. A window into this world - this point and place, now lost, forever in time - and into the process of a filmmaker looking to progress the art of cinema beyond the simple creation of an illustrated text.
30 Days of Night [David Slade, 2007]: The plot is fantastic. A horde of murderous vampires descend on a small Alaskan town where the sun sets annually for thirty days, leaving the populace in total darkness. There's a nice atmosphere to the earlier scenes as the sky begins to dim and the bulk of the townsfolk prepare to depart, leaving only our plucky protagonists to stay behind to weather the season. The slow build-up is effective, calling to mind the low-key ambience of the best of John Carpenter - think Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) or The Fog (1980), though the snowy vistas are far more redolent of his masterpiece The Thing (1982) - but unfortunately the storytelling becomes progressively more haphazard as it lumbers towards its inevitable, explosion-filled finale. Here, there was a real opportunity to create a serious, contemplative vampire movie that focused on the nightmare of a never-ending threat and the cabin-fever-like paranoia brought on by the solitude and go-nowhere seclusion of the wintery setting. Even taken on its own terms, as a gory vampire-themed action movie, 30 Days of Night lacks the comic-book style charm of Blade (1998) and Blade II (2002), or the revisionist genre play of classics like Near Dark (1987) or Interview With the Vampire (1994). This is largely because of the inconsistency of tone (the first half suggesting so much in terms of slow-burning terror, before its third act descent into action and pyrotechnics), but also because the characters are so underdeveloped that it becomes impossible to care anything about their survival. I don't really want to be too negative here, because, the way I see it, every film is loved by someone (and loved for reasons that are right for them) and it would be disrespectful of me to denigrate the film simply because it didn't conform to my expectations. So let's just be courteous about it and say this: 30 Days of Night was not the film for me.
Last Man Standing [Walter Hill, 1996]: At the time of its initial release, Last Man Standing seems to have been attacked by the critics, not for what it is, but for what it isn't. Roger Ebert's one-star review of the film seems especially outrageous and is possibly even the most ridiculous thing the critic has ever written. Ebert literally tears the film to pieces for not being "fun" or "entertaining" (no one said it was supposed to be) and for having a dark and ominous atmosphere, bordering on the unpleasant. I'm unsure of what reviewers like Ebert were looking for exactly, but the grim tone of the film seems entirely deliberate and is one of the aspects of Hill's work that really stands out (especially when viewed within the context of that ironic, self-referential approach, so popular in American genre cinema circa 1996). There's an almost exaggerated unreality to the film, suggested by the sepia-tinted imagery, comic book style violence and the sombre mood, which I found, personally, very appealing. To me, Hill's film should be looked at, not as a gangster film or even as a western pastiche, but as a horror movie, with the Bruce Willis character becoming a kind of supernatural avenger. A force of nature, corrupting the corruptors. The visual style of the film seems to reinforce this reading, with its obscured images of figures either disappearing into the dusty smog or framed through bevelled glass; suggesting this prevailing notion of characters barely existing in a world cut loose from society. A kind of lawless, purgatory-like existence, or perhaps even an outward, 'microcosmic' expression, of the character's tormented state of mind.
The Changeling [Peter Medak, 1980] : A superlative supernatural mystery with a political subtext that suggests a still relevant commentary on the greed and duplicity of established government officials and the potential lies and misdeeds that our oldest and most valued institutions are built upon. Like Pupi Avati's earlier masterwork The House With Laughing Windows (1976) or Antonio Bido's less successful Argento rip-off Watch Me When I Kill (1977), the real horror of The Changeling comes from the implied corruption that exists beneath the surface of a seemingly opulent or affluent veneer. The disturbing supposition (or realisation) that the terrible sins committed for the sake of power and prestige were protected by the machinations of a crooked establishment that saw the opportunity to profit from tragedy and cold-blooded murder. It is this subtext of The Changeling that gives the film it's emotional weight. The manifestation of the ghost is terrifying, but it is the ultimate comprehension of this betrayal (or deceit) that is truly horrendous. Here, the central character, haunted by ghosts of his own, sees through the eyes of the apparition the sad demise of an innocent, killed for monetary gain. In its straightforward plotting and its lingering emphasis on slow-burning ambience and suspense, we can see the influence of the film on everything from Hideo Nakata's landmark horror masterpiece Ring (1998) to the haunted house mysteries of The Others (2001), The Orphanage (2007) and The Woman in Black (2012). Like those particular films, the horror of The Changeling creeps up on its audience, suggested, not so much by an accumulation of jump scares or scenes of endless gore, but by the use of sound and shadow, or by a slow, suggestive movement of the camera, as it prowls through the corridors of the house.