Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Viewing Log / 2013 / Week Eight


18/02/2013 - 24/02/2013

 

Nouvelle Vague [Jean-Luc Godard, 1990]: To suggest that the film is both beautiful and inscrutable goes without saying.  Godard's films, in general, are the most beautiful and the most inscrutable, awash with quotations, literary references, allegories and deconstructions.  To make sense of them, it is essential to see every cut, sound and image as expressive of something else; an emotion or idea articulated, not in the conventional approach of two character speaking scripted words in a short/reverse-shot, but where the combined inference of every sound and image, together or apart, tells a story.  Nouvelle Vague - the title, as ever, a pun - is, like most of Godard's greatest films, about a couple in crisis.  There are further references to class distinction (the rich and the poor), the backdrop of industry as a metaphor for existence (actions as transactions, commitment as commodity) and the house itself as a microcosm for the world in miniature.  Here, 'the help' (gardener, maid and housekeeper) take on the role of the Greek chorus; commenting on the drama from behind the hedgerows or in the background of things, while interpreting, as an audience themselves, the meanings and double-meanings of Godard's densely-layered approach.

The symbol of the two hands, meeting to create an embrace, goes back to La chinoise (1967), once again suggesting the need for communication (or togetherness), where the individual, when acting alone, is hopeless and adrift.  The couple in the film - never formally introduced but sketched well enough for the audience to draw their own conclusions - have reached the end of things.  As ever, they're moving in different directions (expressed via Godard's mesmerising use of the tracking shot) and unable to make sense.  'He' re-invents himself for 'Her', dying a figurative death and being reborn as the man (he thinks) she wants him to be.  Later, she will do the same.  By the end, the couple are free from the shackles of language and responsibility and are therefore able to find happiness in the straightforward expression (or embrace) of their love for one another. 



Amarcord [Federico Fellini, 1973]: A nostalgic film.  Not about nostalgia, as an idea, but influenced by a nostalgia for a place and its people that probably never really existed, outside of the subjective recollections of its director.  It's a great romp, beautifully filmed and featuring several sequences that stand amongst the very best of Fellini's career; but even so, every time I return to it, I like it a little less.  In fact, despite the almost universal critical consensus, I'd argue that the design and direction of Amarcord is simply a stepping-stone to the more imaginative stylisations of the subsequent Casanova  (1976) or And the Ship Sails On (1983).  Films that didn't necessarily have the same cultural impact at the time, but today have a complexity and a weight of emotion that is often lost within the more gregarious burlesque of the film in question.  Throughout Amarcord, the tension in the film seems to be created by the ideological distance between Fellini and his co-writer Tonino Guerra, where the political subtext (the encroaching power of Fascism) or the traces of magical realism (which are recognisable from Guerra's collaborations with Antonioni, Tarkovsky and Angelopoulos) jar against the kind of frivolous inflection of flatulence and fornication, which is typical of all things "Felliniesque."

At certain points in Amarcord, we can recognise sequences and images that might have felt more comfortable in other films co-written by Guerra, such as Red Desert (1964), Landscape in the Mist (1988) or Nostalghia (1983).  The latter film is an interesting comparison because it is a film 'about' nostalgia; about the loneliness of a character unable to return home and as such haunted by its memory.  Fellini's film has no such greater pull.  It is a reflection, exaggerated for comic effect, mixed with some genuine pathos and a lot of heart, but ultimately too narrow in its historical presentation to work as anything more than a postcard pastiche.  The "clowning" approach is certainly infectious, but maybe too personal to really mean anything to those of us too young to infer any real feeling from such an exceedingly idiosyncratic or eccentric recollection of events.


 

Flash Gordon [Mike Hodges, 1980]: Similar to what I said in regards to Batman & Robin (1997), the campiness, the artificiality and the stupidity of the film's hero, all seem intrinsically intentional to the design of the film, which is more a parody of the original comic strip than a genuine adaptation.  The acting wavers between the flat, wooden performances of the male and female leads and the deafening, theatrical bombast of the supporting cast, while the script, with its unanswered questions and infuriating 'deus ex machina', is weak and underdeveloped.  For most, this will be enough to condemn the film as an unmitigated failure, but for me the cinema is more than just a narrative art.  It goes beyond the influences of literature (adaptation) and theatre (performance) to embrace other forms, such as music, art, design, photography, costume, montage, architecture, sound and choreography.  When attempting to evaluate the subjective worth of a film, these elements should be seen as equal to the plotting and characterisation, because it is within this ability to present action and reaction through the juxtaposition of moving images, the change of light and the literal slowing down and stopping of time (by cutting from one scene to the next) that we find the true definition of cinema; the thing that establishes it, as an art-form, in its own right.  I'm not claiming that we should necessarily overlook a weak script or a performance that is out of key with the rest of the film, I'm just suggesting that the way audiences approach movies as nothing more than an illustrated text (where the filmmaking form is only there to serve the script, the characters and our own ability to suspend disbelief), is inherently wrong!

As a work of cinematography, art-direction, costume design and pure visual spectacle, Flash Gordon is a near masterpiece.  It is also more interesting, sub-textually, than something like Stars Wars (1977), which for me exists only as a superficial tribute to the same kind of genre.  Throughout Flash Gordon I wondered if I was sensing a satirical intent, and unsurprisingly, the film's director, Mike Hodges, explains during the DVD audio-commentary that his own view of the character had a lot to do with his personal take on American foreign policy, possibly post-Vietnam, but now very much as a precursor to the 'War on Terror'.  As such, there is something quite oppressive about the film's red, white and gold colour scheme, the "gung-ho" jingoism of the central character and the way Hodges contrasts this with a very Fascist-like depiction of Ming the Merciless; where the staging of scenes set within the vast, ornate fortress of the antagonist is somewhat reminiscent, in its iconography, of Leni Riefenstahl's disquieting propaganda piece, Triumph of the Will (1934). 



Kotoko [Shin'ya Tsukamoto, 2011]: "Confounding" doesn't even begin cover it.  This is Tsukamoto's most provocative and unsettling work since Vital (2004); a psychological drama that assaults the senses of the audience for a punishing 90 minutes until we're as uncertain of the reality of the situation as the characters on-screen.  The lead performance from J-Pop singer-songwriter 'Cocco' is a revelation.  She infuses both the film and her portrayal of this character with an intrepid abandon; brining to mind the similarly intense and similarly physical performances of Isabelle Adjani in Possession (1981) and Björk in Dancer in the Dark (2000).  The movement of her body, free, but at the same time, constricted, psychologically, is breathtaking, as the calm swaying of her limbs or the defiant stance of her body is turned into a rebellious act of physical expression by Tsukamoto's numbing, hyperkinetic approach.  Here, the shake of the camera or the blur its images (a body, silhouetted against a backdrop of distorted waves) becomes an outpouring of the pain and suffering that words alone can't convey.

Although emotionally gruelling and punctuated by a devastating violence that is at times reminiscent of the earlier Tokyo Fist (1995), Kotoko is actually Tsukamoto's warmest and most colourful film; the clarity of its HD images standing in stark contrast to the dark, grainy, colourless look of prior classics, such as Tetsuo the Iron Man (1989), Bullet Ballet (1998) and A Snake of June (2002).  It is also his most "feminine" film, with the appearance of 'Cocco' enforcing a greater sensitivity than any of his previous work, including the wounded Vital; where the maternal aspect of the character and the fragility of her body (in contrast with the strength of her emotions) overpowers Tsukamoto's usually more masculine emphasis on the brutal physicality of the human body - its strengths and weaknesses - against the symbol of Tokyo as an unmovable, metaphysical force.


 

Homecoming [Joe Dante, 2005]: I remember seeing this on the television at the time when the original series of Masters of Horror first premiered in the UK and finding it almost entirely worthless.  There was a kind of "how dare they..." reaction against the politics of the thing; the bluntness of the commentary, combined with the almost infuriating lack of scares, caused a personal backlash of deep resentment.  This was "Masters of Horror", not Masters of Political Satire!  Subsequently, my opinion of Dante, as a filmmaker, has changed.  There is a sly, sardonic, near-anarchic streak that runs throughout his work, where references to Chuck Jones and Frank Tashlin mesh with the spirit of Roger Corman and the atmosphere of Mario Bava.  As I've said before, I think what Dante does is similar to what Tarantino does with a film like Inglourious Basterds (2009), where a myriad of genre references are all chopped up and refracted to create something that uses the idea of homage or appropriation, not as a shallow "tribute", but to create additional levels of commentary and critique.  As a satire, Homecoming is truly inspired.

Set against the backdrop of a presidential election, the bodies of American soldiers murdered in Iraq return to cast a vote against the Republican party that sold them a lie, and consigned a generation to disability and death.  It's profoundly intelligent and incredibly witty, but it's also exceedingly moving, with the use of this very 'Romero-like' horde of sympathetic zombies becoming an onscreen representation of the sad legacy of war, in all of its misery and disgrace.  A returning army, wounded and maimed, unable to communicate; stepped over by society as an unpleasant reminder of the brutality of war, the betrayal of it.  In showing the society's refusal to acknowledge these fallen young men (and women), Dante and screenwriter Sam Hamm are able to create a greater commentary on the apathy and complacency of those of us, safe on the sidelines; promoting or condemning the business of war, without experiencing it firsthand. 



The Grey [Joe Carnahan, 2011]: I respect the intentions of the filmmakers.  At the centre of The Grey, there is a seriousness that is lacking from most mainstream dramas that deal with similar themes.  An approach to death that is sombre and un-ironic; gratuitous in the almost pornographic nature of the close-ups that reduce dead bodies to objects of continual curiosity, to be looked at, or leered at, by characters and audiences alike.  This is all tied into the film's survival aspect, which takes a character on the brink of suicide and eases him, through the struggle of the film, into making his final decision, between life and death.  I only wish I liked the film more, or even at all.  The filmmaking is generic.  The earlier scenes, which establish the pain and grief of the central character, have the feel of a really pretentious television commercial.  The kind that has little to do with selling an actual product, but instead, employs obvious cinematic techniques to equate smoking cigarettes with a struggle against the elements, or driving a particular sports car as akin to some near-promethean pursuit.

To give you an example of what I mean, check out Surfer (1999) by Jonathan Glazer or One Man, One Land (2002) by Tony Scott.  One is a promo for Guinness, the other for Marlboro cigarettes, but both of these commercials posit a representation of their respective 'brands' as something of an intensely physical, even somewhat herculean effort to stand against the elements, to tame the untameable.  This is what this film reminded me of.  A really long commercial for some anonymous brand.  Why?  I'm not even sure.  It's just something about the artificial sheen of the film.  The way everything is reduced to significant moments, captured in close-up.  The use of the voice-over, which exploits the natural gravitas of Neeson as a performer, feels hollow.  People don't think like this.  It's more an effort to define a character without developing the character first, reducing everything to series of easy signifiers - the entire story expressed as an extended montage of significant moments; the "salient points" - again, like in a TV commercial.