Monday, 7 January 2013

Viewing Log / 2013 / Week One

31/12/2012 - 06/01/2013

Recollections of the Yellow House [João César Monteiro, 1989]:  The first appearance of Monteiro's provocative alter-ego, 'João de Deus', a sarcastic and highly acerbic middle-aged intellectual (slash "deviant"), who stalks the winding streets of Lisbon like Nosferatu in Murnau's famous film.  If 'Recollections...' feels like the least of Monteiro's three narratives on the life of this 'John of God', it's only because the follow-up films, God's Comedy (1995) and The Spousals of God (1999), are amongst the finest works of cinema ever produced.  Looked at as a work in its own right, 'Recollections...' is still a film that crackles and pulsates with an intelligence and imagination that few other films can equate.  A deceptive, highly amusing and sometimes shocking character study - presenting the minutiae of the character's daily rituals and existence as a succession of effortless, observational vignettes - 'Recollections...' is eventually transformed through tragedy and misadventure into something more abstract or metaphysical.  An expression, as if the film itself has become a mirror to the psychological deterioration of its central character - this madman or misfit - as he is forced to become the monster that he's perceived to be as a reaction against the profane corruption of the modern world.  Like most of Monteiro's greatest films, 'Recollections...'  is an accumulation of moments of pure cinematic invention; the most memorable of which is found towards the end of the film, where Monteiro, through sheer act of will, turns the circular walls of an insane asylum into a living nickelodeon.  Life as cinema, cinema as life, forever as one. 

Level Five [Chris Marker, 1997]:  The perfect note to end the year on.  Level Five, a film as enigmatic and inscrutable as its title, is effectively about 'the end' of things.  The end of life as a catalyst for the end of a relationship, leading a character, bereft by this end, to question the nature of memory in the age of the internet; the end of language and the end of communication.  Though as ever, this "end" is simply the start of something different.  A new beginning?  Through a consideration of the cinematic qualities of video games and the internet, Marker's narrative becomes an interrogation of the image; of the power of images, not simply to capture a moment in time, presenting a subjective truth - a truth defined by the viewer - but to mislead, betray, provoke and confound.  It seems to me to be one of the very first films to really acknowledge the role of memory in the mass media age, where the miscellany of our existence can live forever in the memory of these machines.  When I first saw the film back in September 2012, I wrote the following: "[the film is] an extended essay on the power of recorded memory, which is given a greater emotional weight by the heartbreaking performance of Catherine Belkhodja as this woman attempting to come to terms with the loss of her husband, and in doing so, finding the remnants of his being in the codes and script of a video game that he was developing shortly before his death.  This, as an event - as a memory - is enough to lead Marker back to Japan, to Okinawa, to contemplate the notions of atrocity and recollection."  My opinion of the film is even greater now than it was then.

The Adventures of Tintin [Steven Spielberg, 2011]:  In truth, I should really hate this adaptation for the liberties the screenwriters take with Hergé's most famous work; picking out the greatness of the book(s) and replacing the witty satire and the foregrounding of actual historical context with a never ending flow of enormous spectacle; reducing the wry humour to a series of pratfalls and slapstick; pillaging several individual storylines to create one single, condensed, heavily bowdlerised narrative arc.  But this is Spielberg doing what Spielberg does best, and his action has never been more immersive (or more fun).  His vision of 'Tintin' is part Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), part Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001), as the young reporter finds himself embroiled in a great mystery, full of adventure and suspense.  The plotting is so-so, but it's the direction of the film that really stands out.  The extended chase through the streets of Bagghar in particular is superior filmmaking, in no way lessened or diminished by the dependence on the mo-cap technology.  Free of the shackles of conventional moviemaking apparatus, Spielberg's camera is free to roam; capturing sequences in single, fluid movements; blocking and revealing action in a way that is exhilarating, precisely because it brings the audience into the film, transporting us, not just through the sights, sounds, colours and textures of this digitally rendered world, but through the clever manipulation of the filmmaking form.  Like the similarly flawed War of the Worlds (2005), the film is not perfect, but there are several astonishing sequences positioned between the nonsense and the exposition that rival anything from the greatest of Spielberg's masterpieces, be it Jaws (1975), Empire of the Sun (1987) or A.I. (2001).

Vanishing Point [Richard C. Sarafian, 1971]:  I first saw the film back in 2008, initially influenced by the endless references to it in Tarantino's still largely enjoyable 'Grindhouse' effort, Death Proof (2007).  At the time, the experience left me cold.  The action seemed more like a precursor to the highway hi-jinks of Smokey and the Bandit (1977) than a counter-culture counterpart to Easy Rider (1969), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) or The Sugarland Express (1974).  Maybe I've matured with age or perhaps I've just grown more disillusioned with the way of the world, but this second viewing was far more successful, if not genuinely revelatory!  In fact, I wouldn't hesitate to call Vanishing Point a minor masterpiece; a great character study, carried along by a sense of disenchantment (or by the sadness of a country left wounded by the failure of war, protest and political betrayal) and by the haunted central performance of Barry Newman as the enigmatic protagonist Kowalski.  Astride his white Charger, Kowalski becomes an almost mythical figure.  A Don Quixote driven (literally) mad by the unreachable ideals that his country was supposed to represent; a living embodiment of the new revolutionary spirit, ready smash into (and through) the barriers of the old and the staid.  As he carves his own path across the harsh landscapes that recall the desperation and despair of the America of Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1940), he transcends the need for 'society' or 'place', becoming more like an embodiment of the spirit of freedom, unshackled and unbound.