Monday, 25 March 2013

Prisoners of Love

I meant to post this a month ago, on St. Valentine's Day to be exact, but I was held up with other things.  It's effectively a list of my favourite "romantic" films, loosely assembled; just general comments on a handful of movies that centre on the emotion of love, in all of its various guises.  As ever, the following notes aren't in any conceivable way 'reviews'; they're just observations on a theme, intended to give a very vague justification for the inclusion of a particular title and why I found it so compelling.  No doubt the selection of each title and my own analysis of it says more about me as a viewer than it does about any of the films in question, but again, the list is not definitive; just a selection of films that came to mind when I first thought about the subject.  Unfortunately, several key films are probably missing from this selection, but I may make an effort to write about them at a later date.

Also: I regret that I now post a lot of these list related things, but I'm not really up to doing the longer essays anymore.  Ideally, that is what I'd like to do, but it's hard work and never really feels worth the effort.  Hopefully any potential blog-visitor won't mind these trite diversions.  Boring content is better than no content, right?

L'Atalante [Jean Vigo, 1934]:

The concerns and insecurities of a newly married couple are expressed in poetic-realist style in Vigo's final film.  Thematically, the story on paper is pure melodrama; the struggle of this couple against the harsh realities of a situation, full of hardship and adversity, has been done and done again.  However, it is the direction of the film that sets it apart from many other works of the same period.  The stylisation of Vigo's approach, which throughout combines the gritty actuality of 1930s Paris - perfectly evoking the atmosphere of its cluttered streets and foggy canals - with a stylised lyricism that turns the entire film into an external expression of the character's innermost thoughts and fears.  Small moments, like Juliette's dance on the deck, seem expressive of her own restless need to articulate the beauty and the freedom of youth, as her new life on this barge becomes both suffocating and unbearable in its solitude and routine. 

The dance suggests the dissatisfaction that this character must feel within the cold embrace of her husband.  A young woman, who in her provincial way, only wants to experience the thrill of the city and the excitement of its classy stores and vibrant culture, but in her heart and mind is still drawn to this simple man, who can only love her with trepidation.  As ever with these films, the man must eventually prove his love to the women; plunging himself into the cold waters of the canal to be stirred by the image of her love and to be reborn as the man she wants him to be.  The final scene, which hints towards a potential future - unwritten, full of sadness and joy - is perhaps the most beautiful reconciliation in all of cinema.

Les amants du Pont-Neuf [Leos Carax, 1991]:

The film builds on the foundation of a scene in Carax's earlier feature, the excellent Mauvais Sang (1986), in which the protagonist, Alex, unable to express in words his love for the beautiful Anna, does so through physical expression; erupting into a mad, acrobatic dance through the late night streets of a quiet Parisian suburb to the sounds of Modern Love.  For a brief moment, the entire film seems charged, as if by some unseen electrical current, through the passion of this central character.  The editing, cinematography and soundtrack all intervene on behalf of the protagonist to help communicate the transformative effect that his unfulfilled romantic desire has had.  In Les amants du Pont-Neuf, the entire film has this same feel of an outward, physical expression.  When these characters are no longer able to communicate in words or even gestures, the film intercedes, disrupting the natural flow of the narrative, a scene or even a shot, to express a thought or feeling, aurally and/or visually. 

For instance, the above image of Michèle's printed face as it withers within the flames might serve a greater purpose to the development of the film and its plot, but it also suggests, on a purely figurative level, the volatile powers of jealousy and obsession.  The flames of passion, literally, destroying the individual identity, to be replaced by the shared indentify of this couple, this symbol of the new French cinema.  The entire film is like an ode to the madness of love, elusive and allegorical, where the vast spectacle of the Bastille Day celebration becomes a cinematic representation of the burst of emotion, excitement, violence and confusion that we associate with the feeling of love.

Buffalo '66 [Vincent Gallo, 1998]:

The only American romantic comedy, post-Annie Hall (1977), that might actually be worth a damn?  Gallo's obnoxious protagonist kidnaps Christina Ricci's placid teenage tap-dancer and has her play-act the role of his new wife in a harebrained attempt to impress his equally obnoxious parents, who couldn't give a shit either way.  In doing so, Gallo skewers the artist/muse relationship that dominates most western art, in which the sensitive 'artiste' projects his own desires onto the blank canvas of a woman, validating her existence with the Midas-like stroke of his genius.  Like Pygmalion in reverse, Gallo's character attempts to transform Ricci into the woman he wants her to be, coercing (if not actively bullying) a performance out of her in an on-screen deconstruction of the relationship between actress and director, but in the end, the force of her personality is too strong. 

Ultimately, it is Ricci herself that ends up transforming Gallo, validating his existence by countering the bitterness of his confrontational despair with a calming sympathy and an attempt to understand, without judgement or critique, the sadness of his life.  As deplorable as Gallo's character is, the mentality of Billy Brown is that of a person that has never experienced "real love", and as such cannot decipher how to react when finally embraced by a character capable of loving him, unconditionally, in return.  As with the director's next film, the modern masterpiece The Brown Bunny (2003), the vulnerability of this character, in his honest and unguarded disgrace, is both candid and overwhelming.

Faithful Heart [Jean Epstein, 1923]:

Two lone misfits find love in a loveless place, only to be pulled apart by the manipulations of a cruel and heartless society, more concerned with unburdening responsibility than with the happiness of the individual.  As with L'Atalante (1931), the story, on paper, is nothing unusual.  It is the direction of the film and the intensity of its performances that elevates it above the majority of other more conventional melodramas of the silent-age.  Epstein's direction of the film recalls Vertov in its street-level observations, its energy and its atmosphere.  The noise and the grime and the chaos of the streets and tenements is palpable.  The waterside, where the characters steal moments in the arms of each another becomes an oasis, where the image of the city across the waves is like the promise of a bright future. 

The park, with its fairground attractions, feels almost abstract, as if we're looking at reality as a reflection in a funhouse mirror; a cinematic expression of the disorientation of the characters' emotions when challenged by the endless hardships of a perilous misfortune.  Throughout the film, the sense of drama comes from the endured suffering of these characters, who only wish to be together, but are denied any semblance of happiness by a world that resents both the purity of their spirit and their dedication to one another, which must struggle, against all odds.

In the Mood for Love [Wong Kar Wai, 2000]:

Like Brief Encounter (1947) or The End of the Affair (1999) - both possible contenders for a list of this nature - In the Mood for Love is a film burning with repressed emotion.  The initial inability of the couple to commit or to express their love as anything more than a subtle glance or a tentative caress, makes every interaction fraught with a devastating conflict; an inner sadness that destroys the characters from the inside out.  There is a loneliness to the film; a sense of repetition that jars against the short moments of intimacy and freedom that these characters eventually find in their own brief encounters; their attempts to steal away moments of time shared and spent.  The filmmaking approach communicates this feeling visually, presenting the narrative in fragments; significant moments that emphasise the emotions of the characters, their desires but also those feelings of guilt and shame. 

The inter-cutting of slow-motion shots suggest the slowing down of time - the way time stands still when this couple are in the presence of one another, making the most of every hour, minute, second - while the distance of the camera, the way it imprisons these characters behind various objects, framing them through doorways or windows, not only shows the figurative imprisonment of these protagonists by the social conventions of the time but also suggests the presence of the audience, as observer; as much an intrusion into the lives of these characters as their own friends and neighbours.  All of this repressed emotion and solitude leads towards the beautiful expression of the final scene, with its ruined temple and its whispered declaration.  A secret ode, from one character to the other, that stands as possibly the most moving depiction of unrequited love ever committed to film.

A Matter of Life and Death [Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1946]:

Most films present the idea of love as a thing worth dying for.  In A Matter of Life and Death, it's presented as a reason to live.  Perhaps the only reason; reason enough to snatch life from the jaws of death; to argue a case for existence in the celestial court when all other explanations have failed.  If The Village (2004) by M. Night Shyamalan suggested the hypothesis, "the world moves for love; it kneels before it in awe", then Powell and Pressburger's film could be seen to suggest that even in the afterlife such emotions, such commitments, are worthy of a similar acclaim.  Of course, much of the film's fantasy can be read as metaphorical, as the wounded protagonist finds himself teetering on the brink of death, his mind inventing an imagined reverie, as if willing himself back to life.  However, such practicalities do not rob the film of its feeling of pure romanticism, nor the honesty of its emotions. 

To die for love might be fine for the existentialists, but in the cruelty of war and its endless devastation, there is no greater cause than survival.  Without fully anticipating the hollow 'hippy' mantra of an aphorism like "make love, not war", the film, in its vision of the afterlife as an officious, black and white bureaucracy, against the vibrant Technicolor of the everyday, seems to be championing a commitment to the beauty of existence or the feeling of love - its spirit of emotion - as reason enough to endure, to persevere.

Ondine [Neil Jordan, 2009]:

The pairing of the characters represents a collision between fantasy and reality, which, as usual for Jordan, is one of the main themes of the film.  The central character, an alcoholic fisherman with a disabled daughter, casts his net into the deepest blue sea and pulls from it a beautiful young woman, desperate and afraid.  The woman is thought to be a Selkie (a mermaid like creature popular in Nordic myth), but darker secrets lurk beneath the sadness of her eyes.  As ever with Jordan, myths and meta-fiction entwine with the faint traces of film-noir, as the love story develops into a sinister mystery that imbues the more leisurely or lighter sequences of adventure, or family bonding, with the threat of a very real, very brutal violence and retribution.  Despite this pervasive darkness, or the jarring ruptures of the narrative - intended to suggest the 'voice' of each narrator, inventing the story as it unfolds - the film, as a work, as a story of love, is entirely moving. 

The soundtrack by Kjartan Sveinsson, which incorporates both the piano melody and the vocal refrain of the song All Alright by Sigur Rós - which throughout the film becomes a siren's call to the fisherman, alone and in pain - blends beautifully with the sunken and submerged look of Christopher Doyle's shadowy cinematography, which turns the naturally rugged and verdant vistas of the Irish coast into a mythical kingdom, both dangerous and enchanting.  Though the love affair is intended to dramatise, in an abstract sense, the personification of the two forms (social-realism and bedtime fable), the weight of feeling created by the film - its sense of lyricism and the grand, passionate gestures of its characters and scenes - is illustrative of a writer/director attuned to a particular kind of romantic sensibility; one poetic and unashamed.

Prénom Carmen [Jean-Luc Godard, 1983]:

They meet, these characters, against a whirlwind of violence.  'He', a guard at a Swiss bank, 'she' a bank robber, and member of a terrorist group.  The violence of the heist - choreographed like a musical number, or like a scene from a film by Jerry Lewis - mirrors the violence of their emotions, intense, confusing; the chaos of the scene reflecting that inner chaos of the heart; the mayhem, the irrationality of two people suddenly in love.  The film, from the outset, is a story of love, but is also a story about the madness of love; the magic venom that transforms the soul.  Like the earlier, no less remarkable masterpiece Pierrot le Fou (1965), Godard once again places the audience in the presence of a young man willing to follow a beautiful nuisance to the end of the earth, even if his passion, jealousy and obsession for this woman will inevitably lead to destruction.  While 'Pierrot' was undoubtedly striking, the full force of its emotional tragedy was guarded by post-modern abstraction.  This later work more readily (and more recklessly) embraces its central theme of beauty as the beginning of an endurable terror; indulging the emotions of its characters; presenting them through a jarring contrast of slapstick comedy and an anxious, mournful spirit that infuses every expression, every scene, with a wanton desperation. 

In very loosely adapting the narrative of Bizet's opera, Godard turns the character of Carmen into a Circe type figure; a seductress, effortlessly bewitching the various men of the film and transforming them into swine.  A figurative acknowledgement of their own willingness to debase themselves and their beliefs for the love of this ferocious woman.  While such an adaptation of the character might have pushed misogyny, it is ultimately the emotional weakness of the men - the protagonist in particular - that leads these characters into peril.  While Carmen is undoubtedly unbound by social conventions, existing almost as a force of nature - as wild and as spirited as the crashing waves that Godard uses to invoke Woolf and to suggest the tempestuous nature of the relationship - it is the male necessity to possess - the need to control - that ultimately spells disaster.  In Godard's film, the madness of love is effectively a madman's 'story' of love; a confession, from the depths of his despair.

Roselyne and the Lions [Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1989]:

Throughout the film, Beineix uses the spectacle of lion taming as a metaphor for the often destructive impulses that drive the majority of relationships, where anger, jealousy, passion and pain threaten to obliterate the bond that exists between two people, driven close to insanity by their obsessions and insecurities.  The spectacle of the film, where the 'tamer' and 'trainer' attempt to control these monsters that stalk and prowl the barred perimeter of the cage, works as a visual representation of their love for one another; all-powerful and all-consuming; dangerous and destructive; volatile enough to spill out into violence or blossom, flower-like, into something beautiful; a display of pure emotion, which, in its graceful theatricality, becomes art.  The art of living or the art of ardour. 

By countering the often volatile relationship of these characters with the visceral scenes of lion taming, Beineix could have risked sexism (if not genuine misogyny); turning the woman into nothing more than a "wild beast" there to be tamed by the lash and command of the domineering male.  Instead, he presents the character of Roselyne as both strong and independent.  It is her power and her passion for the lions that ultimately tames the jealousy of the headstrong Thierry, making it clear that their relationship, like all relationships, is a collaboration, full of compromise and accord.

Solaris [Steven Soderbergh, 2002]:

The planet throbs like a beating heart.  Dual strands of energy pulsate across the face of its lilac globe, mimicking the same gesture of the protagonists when their hands first met, momentarily, during an earlier embrace.  The film - which plays like a powerful encounter between two people trapped in the cycle of a relationship doomed to repeat itself, endlessly, like an echo through the depths of space - brings to mind the haunted expressions of a film like Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) or Muriel (1963), where its fragments of narrative, and the sense of time and space as something oppressive or tyrannical, turn the experience into a breathless reunion between the wounded and the dead.  This feeling of a memory made real, turned frightful by the bitterness and isolation of these characters lost in space, is further suggested by Soderbergh's cold, formalist approach; where the framing of actors as immaterial objects against a labyrinth of buildings or planetary structures, or the play of lights, which evoke the inner emotions of characters unable to express, is more suggestive of a feeling of sadness and regret than any conventional line of dialogue. 

In the metaphysical manifestations of this planet, 'Solaris', the astronaut Chris Kelvin is able to relive the lost love that haunts the very fabric of his being, but only if he's also willing to relive every moment of pain and self-hatred that led to her untimely demise.  The entire film, in this acknowledgement of the often selfishness of grief and the pain of letting go, becomes, like the planet itself, a mirror to the characters' despair.

Trouble Every Day [Claire Denis, 2001]:

The title song by Tindersticks captures the wounded tone.  A feeling of late night loneliness, passion and obsession, reflected in the combination of staccato drum, mournful piano, shimmering strings and the voice of Stuart A. Staples, anguished and in pain.  Each sound, in collaboration with the other, fills the empty spaces of Denis' film; the lonely streets and the soulless roads that evoke the loss of life, or the black cloak of the river, which communicates the idea of separation; the two sides of each relationship, unable to reunite.  In Trouble Every Day, the primal, "animalistic" nature of relationships - the desires and the insecurities, the commitment and its demands - is dramatised in such a way that it becomes akin to a horror movie, both violent and intuitive.  It is a film about love, in the sense that it focuses on two couples, both in-love, but at the same time the victims of love - caught in destructive situations that are devastating, emotionally as well as physically - but it's also a film about responsibility, about the other side of these relationships, the lengths that two people will go to protect their partners from the influence of the outside world. 

The intensity of the film, its performances and the invasive, observational focus of the direction, is overwhelming.  The characters, in their crazed states, become like vampires; stalking the lonesome highways or the endless corridors of a hotel looking for a partner, a victim, a mate...  Their desire becoming more like an addiction as they're effectively consumed by love, insatiable in their appetite for sexual gratification, pleasure and release.

The Village [M. Night Shyamalan, 2004]:

Though more powerful as a political allegory (this film about deception, which deceives the audience, but only to make a point), Shyamalan's multi-layered masterpiece is also a beautiful love story.  A vivid declaration of love, not just in the longed-for courtship of its central characters, Ivy Walker and Lucius Hunt, but in the unrequited relationship of their respective parents, Edward and Alice, forced to sacrifice any possibility of love as a consequence of their strict, archaic beliefs.  It is Shyamalan's sensitivity to his characters that makes him a master; the way he evokes the relationships between people - and the pain of these relationships - through subtle gestures, body language and the space between words.   The influence of the Brontë sisters is palpable, not just in the air of mystery, or in the "mad woman in the attic" reveal, but in the atmosphere of the film, its colour and its mood. 

The nocturnal encounters between characters, cloaked in the light of a nearby lantern, or enshrouded within the thin veil of encroaching fog, suggests the clandestine nature of their relationship (a secret within a secret), before a dramatic turn of events forces at least one of these young lovers to risk life and limb; to atone for the sins of the village.  These characters are prisoners of love in the literal sense, and their relationship, no matter how pure and true, is there to be exploited, as a symbol, as a possibility, by the governors of this community.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Key Films #11

The Territory [Raúl Ruiz, 1981]:

I return to that unforgettable illustration; a map within a map, like a skull within a skull.  Similar folds and echoes reoccur throughout as these characters try to navigate this terrain, this territory; hopelessly adrift in a subconscious expression of events, like a narrative within a narrative, or a dream within a dream.  The 'territory' of the title is both the location of the forest, as a physical space, where these characters vacation in an effort to get away from the chaos of the modern world, as well as the psychological topography of the situation, as they inevitably - through isolation and the gradual erosion of their accepted roles and responsibilities - succumb to a kind of shared delusion, or psychosis.  The allegorical journey as descent into madness motif is further obfuscated by the meta-deconstructions of the narrative.  Like so many films by Ruiz, there is the disquieting implication that the gothic reverie that we've just been witness to is in fact a fabrication; part fiction, part truth.  A clever work of deception, told by an unreliable narrator, and further abstracted by the director's vivid approach to staging and composition.  The distortions of the frame, the bizarre perspectives and the saturated colours - all characteristic of Ruiz's work - blur the recognisable line between fiction and reality. 

The feel of the film - mysterious, hypnotic, enigmatic - becomes, through the layering of the various perspectives (the different levels of insanity), like a startling hall of mirrors.  A cracked reflection of the original event - the disappearance - refracted as an endless repetition; each recurrence, each reverberation, more distorted than the last.  Again, we go back to that image of the map - the country within the skull - and the metaphorical implications of the title; 'the territory', and what it represents.  Although the iconography of the film might evoke the tropes and conventions of certain exploitation movies popular during the late 1970s - with the ghostly woods, the unseen threat, the party of missing travellers and the use of cannibalism as a metaphor for the decline of western civilisation recalling everything from The Hills Have Eyes (1977) to Cannibal Holocaust (1980) - the ultimate intention of Ruiz's film is perhaps closer to Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend (1967), where the descent into tribal violence carried a socio-political significance, or to Peter Weir's masterpiece The Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), where the disappearance of a party of young school children suggests the supernatural presence of the location as a state of meta/physical awakening.
Holy Motors [Léos Carax, 2012]:

A series of sketches.  Fragmented, loosely connected.  At first, the whole thing - every scene, every vignette - seems randomly put together.  A collision of different influences, quoted, cited, but nonetheless dropped, as if by accident, into the framework of the finished film.  No real rhyme or reason, just indulging, for the sake of it; for the beauty of the act.  There is an inner truth to the presentation of these scenes, to the progression of its central character(s), but also a feeling of wilful eccentricity; a kind of dress-up David Lynch, albeit without the context of Lynch's continual obsessions or his specifically 'American' way of seeing.  And yet, in spite of this haphazard approach, the film still came together, in retrospect.  In the jumble of thoughts, the initial disappointment; in the imagination of certain scenes, I understood.  Yes, the film is about 'performance' and the nature of performance - in life as well as art - but it's also a hymn to the death of cinema - to the end of film as it once existed for the generation of its director - and yet a hymn that also celebrates the endless possibilities that the cinema can still possess. 

The "holy motors" of the title refer to the film camera, the cinema projector, the moviola; these artefacts, which for well over a hundred years defined and made possible the process of making films, have been replaced, by digital technology.  Machines that now replicate the same process, but without the heart and soul of a living person to operate them.  If the film works at all (and it does), it is in mourning this loss of tradition, while simultaneously demonstrating that the thrill of cinema is not necessarily found in the technique, but in the expression.  The escapades of the film are therefore allegorical and not so much exclusively limited to the idea of 'performance', or the end of cinema as the beginning of something new, but an extension of the mindset of Carax; his ambivalence to what the cinema has become, and his frustration for what it could still, potentially, be.  His own appearance in the film suggests a thread of auto-biography; beginning with the self-exiled author himself as 'the dreamer', asleep in the wilderness.  He finds his way back to the movies, to a subconscious space, but to an audience now bored by the magic and the mystery of the silver screen.

JLG/JLG - Self-Portrait in December [Jean-Luc Godard, 1995]:

It begins with the image of an image.  Godard as child; a portrait, in black and white.  An image of youth, expressive of all the potential and possibility that we associate with youth; with that period between childhood and adolescence; the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end.  A shadow falls silently across this image, creating a darkness that is suggestive of both the dark winter nights of December - that gloom of the winter months - or the dark mood of its protagonist as he evokes, in agonising voice, the cruelty of age.  The silhouette of Godard as a middle-aged man - present but not present - is like a spectre.  A revenant, existing as a shadow of the former self; a reflection; a body, incomplete.  Like the silhouetted form that haunts the near-silent images of the masterpiece I... Dreaming (1988) by Stan Brakhage, the presence of this shape, the dark void of the soul, suggests the loneliness of the man as he reflects on the image of the child he once was, on the promise he once held.  The image (of the image) once again defining, in the visual sense, the notion of the self-portrait.  The past self as witness to the present; the present self as living evidence of the past. 

Like Anne-Marie Miéville's revelatory The Book of Mary (1984), much of JLG/JLG is focused on the domestic spaces that define a life.  For Godard, the remnants of his own existence can be found in the contrast between the interior and exterior spaces that characterise the two facets of his personality.  The introvert 'thinker', alone in his study, marking time with his books and his films, and the public figure, the maker of films, still roaming the wilderness in search of stories; an exile of his own volition.  The disparities between the two - the house, dark and cavernous; littered with books and filmmaking paraphernalia - and the landscape - frozen, crystal clear; tranquil but possessing a natural drama suggested by the crashing waves and ominous clouds - create a mirror to this character; this 'Godard' by Godard.  The contrast between the two spaces once again evokes a tender loneliness.  Godard, who once helped to re-define the cinema, is now outside of the culture; forgotten, ignored.  Although there is a great sense of  humour to the film, the overall mood of JLG/JLG is reminiscent of the mournful, wounded expression of a work like Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991); another film in which Godard, indirectly, questioned his own mortality; his relevance as a relic in the winter of his years.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Key Films #10

The Howling [Joe Dante, 1981]:

Functions, primarily, as a homage to werewolf movies.  The use of on-screen quotations from The Wolf Man (1941) for instance not only provide narrative exposition but also establishes the world of the film as being self-aware and conscious of the depictions of 'lycanthropy' in popular culture.  The iconography of the film is therefore coloured by these references, where allusions to the myths and legends propagated by Universal or the Hammer Films studio - as well as in-jokes and suggestions of certain scenes - create an ironic, almost satirical inflection, typical of Dante's post-Godard/pre-Tarantino approach to genre deconstruction.  Although set predominantly in northern California, the encroaching mists and the eerie light of the forest seem to evoke the European setting of films like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), The Curse of the Werewolf (1960) and the Paul Naschy starring Mark of the Wolfman (1968).  Likewise, the development of the characters, their gradual metamorphosis into the specific types - hero and heroine, villain and victim, etc - is consistent with the film's greater acknowledgement of the history of its genre; the rules of the game. 

However, there is much more to the film than a simple play of references.  The script, adapted by John Sayles, uses the requirements of the genre - the isolated location, the psychology of the beast within - to create a sly satire on the cult of psychoanalysis.  The film's setting, the "colony" - a riff on the mid-to-late '70s phenomenon of bourgeois health clubs or self-help organisations that could function almost as spiritual new age 'retreats' - is used to lampoon the very conservative idea of repression, both emotional and psychological, as it pertains not only to the subversion of the werewolf mythology, but also to the often transgressive spirit of horror films in general.   There is another element to The Howling that is possibly even more remarkable, in which the nature of images, or the manipulation of images, is suggested by the continual use of distorted newsreel footage, television broadcasts or video display monitors.  This emphasis on the image - or the integrity of it - sets up the film's final act; a disorienting set-piece intended to question - with a great deal of humour - the audience's ability to discern between fantasy and reality.  The idea that seeing is no longer believing for an audience numbed by the fictions of Hollywood, or the violence of the mass-media.

A History of Violence [David Cronenberg, 2005]:

Cronenberg continues to expand and develop the themes of his oeuvre.  Still as focused on the fragilities and the limitations of the human body, as in films like Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979) and The Fly (1986), but now pushing away from science-fiction, into reality, or a heightened reality, through the influence of Dead Ringers (1988), Naked Lunch (1991) and Crash (1996).  Films in which the damage inflicted by these characters creates a wound that is both emotional as well as physical; where the recognisable 'body horror' transmutations of those earlier works continue to progress; moving away from the external, the purely physical, to the internal, the psychological.  Although not initially an assignment for Cronenberg, this adaptation of a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, scripted by Josh Olson, covers much of the same territory as the more recognisable "Cronenbergian" projects, such as those aforementioned.  Specifically, the idea of identity; the way experiences shape a character's personality; that distinction between the inner and outer self. 

More than anything, the film is a supposition on the transformative nature of violence, both from the perspective of those who inflict it - either knowingly, or in self-defence - or those who are a witness to it.  The effect that this violence has - both on the central character and on those closest to him - is devastating; representing a psychological mutation that is as harrowing and perplexing in its nature as the potentially physical mutations of the character Max Renn in the masterpiece Videodrome (1983).  In this sense, the film, like most by Cronenberg, is an update of the Jekyll and Hyde mythology, where the metamorphosis of the central character goes back to 'the shape of rage' as defined by Oliver Reed's antagonist Dr. Hal Raglan in The Brood; that idea of the mind manipulating the body, turning it against itself, creating something that exists between the physical, between the psychological.  The final scene, which has the family reunited, but still torn, is offset by the disquieting implication that the man returning to this house, to this domestic scene, is not the same man that originally left.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Figures in a Frame

Thoughts on a film: Every Revolution is a Throw of the Dice (1977)

Nine bodies, dressed ordinarily enough in the unassuming fashions of the time, place this discussion of old words into a deliberately contemporary setting.  These nine bodies of limbs, joints, hearts and minds are credited to Danièle Huillet, Marilù Parolini, Dominique Villain, Andrea Spingler, Helmut Färber, Michel Delahaye, Manfred Blank, Georges Goldfayn and Aksar Khaled, who are each posed, cross-legged in a semi-circle, in the gardens of Père Lachaise.  The setting, as with the conflict between the image and text, suggests the very literal idea of bringing the dead back to life. 

In this instance, it is the Dead of the Commune, 21st to the 28th of May, 1871, as noted in the film's opening subtitle.  However, it's also an attempt to revive the dead forms of Stéphane Mallarmé's 1897 poem, A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance (in French, Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard), which is spoken between the various characters, throughout.

Every Revolution is a Throw of the Dice [Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, 1977]:

Watching this incredibly faded and badly damaged copy of the film, I was stuck by a strange coincidence.  If the deterioration of the image here suggested something that has, in a sense, been forgotten, then likewise the deterioration of its burnt-in subtitles - soft and difficult to make out against the unnaturally faded images of the film - reinforced the concept of communication and the difficulties of expressing thoughts and ideas, either in the individuals sense, or as part of a collective.  This was an interesting concurrence (albeit, unplanned) since the film is one where the nature of (and the need for) communication is being deconstructed; where the various lines of Mallarmé's work are rationed out between these nine figures in an attempt to effectively underline the ideology of 'the group', political or otherwise, converging in an attempt to forge collective intent. 

The idea of individualism vs. collectivism is a thread that runs throughout the film, introduced primarily through the positioning of these figures within the frame, and the particular way in which they are each subsequently re-framed, compositionally, as they deliver this quoted call and response. The group shot, positioning them in this setting, the famous Parisian cemetery and resting place of everyone from Molière to Jean-François Lyotard, to the heart of Jacques-Louis David - who documented, in exquisite detail, the death of Jean-Paul Marat; one of the most iconic images of the earlier French Revolution - once again suggests an image of the living dead.  Not living in the sense of George A. Romero and his shuffling bodies as commentary on human indifference, but in the sense of channelling the voices of the dead; bringing their ideas (and ideals) back to life. 

Though the style of the film initially seems rather restricted - limited as it is to a few point-and-shoot dialogue exchanges and establishing-shots - the actual cinematic-form (and more importantly, how it is used) is nonetheless essential in illustrating the disparities between the group, as a collective, in comparison to their eventual single-shot interchanges that occur towards the end of the film.  If the group shot expresses the idea of the commune - of nine bodies with a single voice - then the cutting into these moments to highlight the significance of each speaker seems to reinforce the conception that each "collective" is, in essence, a collaboration between individuals attempting to establish a common ground. 

The positioning of these actors - these speakers - both together and apart, is intended to suggest the very specific "symbolist" typeface of Mallarmé's original work, with the actors staggered on-screen like the words of the poem are staggered on the page.  By positioning the actors in such a way, the filmmakers are literally adapting Mallarmé's work into images, suggesting, through the literal personification of these words, that the nature of the collective is like a sentence, when written on the page.  A collection of words, individual, which together, in collaboration, form a single meaning; an argument or message; to express thoughts, feelings and ideas.

Every Revolution is a Throw of the Dice [Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, 1977]:
A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance [Stéphane Mallarmé, 1897]:

Monday, 11 March 2013

I Confess...

In short: the 'Viewing Log' will henceforth be referred to as 'Key Films'

To quote the title of a Hitchcock classic: I confess!  I'm struggling to maintain pace with this whole 'viewing log' idea.  I watch too many films and often have nothing interesting to say about them.  I step over the fallen few, casually enough, hoping that no one will ever notice, but ultimately I know, in my heart at least, that the failure to acknowledge these stray titles represents an incredible betrayal of intent.  Initially, the idea was to offer a short commentary on everything viewed, including television programmes, as a kind of personal record of the year, as it unfolds.  Since I was unable to surmise my initial reaction to a January episode of American Horror Story: Asylum (the episode in question was Spilt Milk), I made the inevitable decision to focus solely on films.  This was the first betrayal. 

Next, there was the sequel to 30 Days of Night (2007), subtitled Dark Days (2010), which I intentionally passed over because I didn't like the film at all.  I couldn't find anything positive to say about it, so I ditched it.  Maybe this wasn't so important, in theory; after all, it's a film that few people will ever seek out and even fewer will ever enjoy, but to me, it represented the second betrayal.  Next, I saw the first two films by João César Monteiro; Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen (1969) and He Who Awaits Dead Men's Shoes Dies Barefoot (1970).  I couldn't do justice to either, so deliberately left them off the list with the personal promise that I would eventually return to them, in a month or so (...I'm still holding myself to this pledge).  This was the third betrayal and really a sign of the indolence to come.

Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen [João César Monteiro, 1969]:

Since the end of February, I failed to comment on several films - Playback (2012), The Prophesy (1995), Safe (2012), The Beast Within (1982) and There's Something About Mary (1998) - essentially because I didn't like them.  I'm not a film critic and I'm not really that interested in "trashing" films.  My opinion is not that important and I would rather use my limited capacity to express in words an honest conviction to promote the films that I think are worthy of promotion, as opposed to denigrating movies that are perfectly well-made, simply because I didn't find them agreeable.  This is yet another reason why the 'viewing log' idea seems misguided.  I've never wanted to be a "film reviewer", but in discussing these films in such a casual, almost conversational approach, I'm edging dangerously close to that kind of terrain, and the realisation sickens me.  This is the ultimate betrayal. 

Last week's viewing log was especially difficult to complete.  I suspect it's because I was writing about a small handful of films that I didn't really love (in any meaningful way) and as such got the impression that I was making excuses (to myself more than anyone else).  I also think there was a general failure to get to the point I was trying to make.  For example, the film I mentioned by Hal Hartley - Meanwhile (2011) - is a minor masterpiece, but I don't think my writing conveyed that sentiment at all.  I'm generally well aware of how terrible my writing is (just glancing at the blog on an average day makes me cringe with embarrassment) but the last post in particular is possibly the worst thing I've ever published, maybe rivalled only by my awful attempt to write about Żuławski's debut, The Third Part of The Night (1971). 

Since I don't wish to abandon the blog completely, I feel it is necessary to reassess the parameters a little; to define what it is that I hope to achieve with this series, on-going or otherwise.  From this point on, the 'Viewing Log' will be re-titled 'Key Films' and will function primarily as a place to offer my thoughts and feelings on particular titles that I saw during the previous week, but only the films that are truly worthy of such consideration.  This might mean fewer titles per-week, but at least I'll have more time to focus my thoughts and maybe post a few additional things besides.  It is unfortunate, as the idea of "logging" everything seen during course of a twelve month period greatly appeals to me, but if I'm going to contrive or engineer the list - dropping particular titles whenever I have nothing constructive to say - then it seems important to restate my intentions.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Viewing Log / 2013 / Week Nine

25/02/2013 - 03/03/2013


Meanwhile [Hal Hartley, 2011]: The title is an in-joke; a reference to one of those occasional on-screen punctuations that Hartley has used in prior films to link scenes, usually for comedic effect; think 'A MONTH MAYBE TWO MONTHS LATER' from The Unbelievable Truth (1988), for example.  However, it seems particularly well-suited to this film and its central character; this man who moves purposely (though without purpose) from one scene to the next, from one appointment to another.  As the film progresses, we learn that the man also lurches from job to job, woman to woman, trying to make things work.  The irony being that his ability to fix inanimate objects, or to offer some kind of moral or philosophical guidance to the people encountered along the way, in no way correlates to his own ability to do well, or to make successful his own slow and seemingly uncomplicated progression through life.  In this sense, the title alludes to both the transient nature of the central character and the transitory nature of the plot; a picaresque series of short vignettes, structured episodically, in which our "hero" stumbles into the lives of various characters during the course of 48 hours and assists them, either physically, or through providing some practical words of wisdom that help them to find their own peace against the clamour of existence.

Throughout its slim, sixty-minute duration, the film - which strikes me as one of Hartley's best and most original works - returns to several of the director's major themes, including the presentation of a character out-of-step with the modern world, but in such a way that his own unique perspective gives way to an almost heightened critical perception.  Whereas most filmmakers would use such a character to exaggerate a particular socio-political dilemma (though the financial crisis is alluded to) - making his eccentricity or Holy Fool like simplicity a flaw or a disadvantage - Hartley's protagonist seems closer, in motivation at least, to the alien anthropologist of the cult Walter Tevis novel The Man Who Fell to Earth.  He - like the central character of the film in question - is an observer, in a sense out of time, but still able to see beyond the limitations of a situation; to solve problems, even if the character - this protagonist - doesn't necessarily understand those problems himself.

Me, Myself & Irene [Peter & Bobby Farrelly, 2000]: The style of humour wasn't for me.  I'm not really into the whole "gross-out" thing, unless it's done with some finesse.  A filmmaker like Peter Greenaway for example can use provocation for something greater than adolescent shock-value; eliciting laughs from his audience while at the same time making us question our own implicit role in the exploitation of his characters, or in the abusive attitudes of the world in which they exist.  See a film like The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) for instance.  It's not that I think the Farrelly brothers' are worthless.  On the contrary, I did enjoy their earlier films, Dumb and Dumber (1994) and Kingpin (1996), while Stuck on You (2003) strikes me as their most mature film (or at least "mature" without abandoning their particular sensibility) as well as a fairly sharp satire on Hollywood exploitation and the role of celebrity (or the "cult" of celebrity) in the age of reality-television.

However, while the more gratuitous aspects, such as Carrey sucking milk from a new mother's breast or a close-up of a defecating dog, might recall the spirit of transgression found in the work of John Waters, it also bring to mind the cheap attention-seeking of a film like Freddy Got Fingered (2001).  It's unfortunate too, because the film is directed with some intelligence, with the use of locations throughout suggesting the split personality of the central character; his divided mind expressed via the punctuation of scenes in which he rides his motorcycle 'cross country, traversing a landscape divided by roads, rivers, train tracks and bridges.  That the final confrontation takes place on a bridge is also significant; the symbol of the bridge, which links two separate states - two territories - allows the character to reconcile the two sides of his personality as they meet, literally, in the middle.  This approach to the staging of scenes or the mise en scène is far more interesting than many would suspect given the requirements of the genre or the talent involved.  I only wish I could've connected more with the humour of the film, to appreciate it, as intended. 


Prometheus [Ridley Scott, 2012]: The film is certainly flawed.  The script and the casting seem to be the biggest problems.  Large parts of the plot are nonsensical.  It's almost as if important sequences were removed from the final cut in order to maintain pace.  I would also suggest that the film suffers from its attempts to relate the action back to the original Alien (1979), creating hollow echoes of scenes already over-familiar or unnecessary to the more organic or authentic intentions of the film.  Prometheus could have survived well enough without this continual need to pre-establish the events of the earlier film; focusing instead on the more relevant story of these characters questioning the nature of their existence or our place within the infinite complexities of the universe.  It is this aspect of Prometheus - the pursuit of answers - that seems to me to be the most successful and the most rewarding.  The mythical quotations, such as the greater associations of the title, which suggest the creation of life, the quest for knowledge and a reminder of the philosophical suppositions of the English author Mary Shelley, whose landmark 1818 novel, Frankenstein, carried the pertinent subtitle: 'The Modern Prometheus'.  There, as well as here, the question is effectively about creation; the origin of the species.

Like the tragic monster in Shelley's book, the scientists in Prometheus come face to face with the engineers of our existence.  However, instead of receiving answers to their initial enquiries, they discover only a vengeful 'God' disappointed with the failure of his creations.  Stripped of its awkward narrative connections to Scott's earlier work, Prometheus is really a film about characters in search of the truth; a hypothesis on the ideological concept of "belief", both in the theoretical and scientific sense of the word, too often lost within this mess of narrative overindulgence.  However, beneath the plot-holes and the innumerable inconsistencies, Prometheus is also a film centred on the subject of children and their parents.  More specifically perhaps, about fathers and daughters; something that is evident in the psychology of the characters played by Rapace and Theron; two daughters haunted by the insecurities and ambitious of their own respective fathers.  If the film is to be looked at as a precursor to the original Alien, then it is in this particular use of themes to provide subtext, rather than in its more conventional and arguably less successful storytelling approach.

Saw: The Final Chapter [Kevin Greutert, 2010]: I found the film to be mostly without merit.  An empty reiteration of the same stock-characters, twists and narrative conventions already well established in the six prior instalments.  The traps aren't clever anymore, just cruel, and with no real chance of survival for any of these characters, the franchise edges ever closer to the contentious "torture porn" tag, which suggests, through the connotations of the term, that the film has no real value beyond providing the audience with a titillating exhibition of gore and degradation.  The first two films, although badly made and gratuitous in their brutality, at least tried to be inventive.  There was an initial modicum of consistency in the justification of this "Jigsaw" killer; his reasons for targeting potential victims and a point being made on the value of life, which questioned the mentality of an audience more attuned to the spectacle of human suffering than to the more affirmative joy(s) of living.  By this point, the filmmakers seem to be making things up as they go along; producing films simply to validate the continuation of the franchise; no longer interested in maintaining the same spirit of the character or even a sense of permanence between the "chapters."

Having said that, one scene is intelligent and almost justifies the existence of the film, as a whole.  It is a scene close to the beginning of the story.  Three young people connected to a hideous torture device and encased within a glass booth in the centre of a public space.  As they jostle and struggle against the machine and attempt to navigate the physical and psychological torment ahead, a crowd begins to amass.  This is the audience; submissive, mindless and voyeuristic.  The action continues behind the surface of the pane, like a projection on a cinema screen.  The audience, thrilled and disgusted, are compelled to capture the event on their camera phones, as if unable to take in such brutality unless seeing it play out as a miniature motion-picture; the natural refraction of this screen within a screen, creating distance, makes the spectacle less real.  In doing so, they become accomplices to the crime itself; condoning it through the act of viewing and becoming further complicit in the suffering of these characters by perpetuating the very worst indignities of the modern-age as nothing more than a talking point for the banalities of social media.  In this one fleeting instance, the filmmakers deconstruct what it is that makes these films a success; the bored curiosity and inherent bloodlust of their intended audience!  It's the moment when the 'Saw' franchise finally goes "meta", which is a great; although the result is arguably more Freddy's Dead (1991) than Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994).


Pitfall [Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1962]: From the near-silent opening sequence - in which the late-night escape of an unnamed coalminer and his young son is captured with all the brooding intensity of a classic Hollywood noir - to the cold uncertainty of its final images - those mountains of coal  against the stark white sky, the dogs that watch with quiet hesitation, the face of the young boy at the crossroads of uncertainty, etcetera, etcetera - Hiroshi Teshigahara's first feature, Pitfall, remains one of the most challenging and unforgettable films of its period.  Like the director's subsequent film, the similarly stark and atmospheric Woman in the Dunes (1964), Pitfall is a work defined by its use of the landscape - the contours, the space, the texture of things - where the struggle between characters and their attempts to survive (in whichever sense of the word) the harshness of their environment or a hopeless situation, is exaggerated; made "existential" almost by their position within the world itself.

The village where the film takes place is a genuine ghost town; a place where things have died or stopped working, imbuing the land itself, the spirit of it, with an eerie ambience that makes the more radical shifts into the supernatural seem practically plausible.  Had the film taken place in a more cosmopolitan environment, then the audience may have questioned the initial appearance of these ghosts or the very idea of this village as a kind of 'living' purgatory, existing, somehow outside of the realms of reality, or suspended in time.  With its bold combination of different techniques and storytelling devices, combined with Teshigahara's extraordinary way of seeing the world as if seeing it for the very first time, Pitfall is a bleak and unforgettable experience that follows closely in the same tradition of filmmakers like Alain Resnais and Michelangelo Antonioni, specifically the films Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and L'Avventura (1960). 

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre [Marcus Nispel, 2003]: In the original film, the implied motivation of the narrative - the facilitation of it - carried some subtle echoes to the war in Vietnam.  There was a sense of an occupied territory; a divided country (politically or ideologically) in the image of America at war with itself, and in the presence of these liberal-minded suburban youngsters lost in the wilderness, inescapably brought face to face with the very worst kind of brutality - this savagery - and completely oblivious to their own position as unwanted intruders.  For the antagonists at least, these victims - no matter how innocent or sympathetic to the audience - were the real trespassers; a genuine opposing force.  In this particular interpretation, the original film by Tobe Hooper could be seen as an attempt to confront a motion-picture audience seeking only mindless entertainment with the true visceral horror of the war itself, albeit, in an oblique, allegorical approach, similar to what Wes Craven had attempted in his earlier shocker The Last House on the Left (1972).  This remake, which replaces the low-budget 'grindhouse' aesthetic of the original with a slick, commercial sheen, retains the 1970s setting; however, from the perspective of the present day, the political subtext of the narrative is now more visibly redolent to our own collective recollections of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The visual tone of the film is suitably arid - lots of dusty browns and rusted ochre; the colours of the desert - while the sight of the film's main setting - the Hewitt residence - looks almost like a military bunker; an imposing block of concrete surrounded by decaying pasture.  Similarly, the film's pre-Saw/pre-Hostel emphasis on prolonged human suffering (torture, both physical and psychological), seems to capture something of the period; the presentation of this abuse carrying the same emotional weight as the still shocking images of atrocity later seen at Abu Ghraib or even Guantanamo Bay.  As ever, the role of the exploitation movie is essentially to hold a mirror to society, reminding me of a great quote I once saw attributed to Joe Dante: "if you want to see where we are as a culture at any given time, just look at any horror movie produced during the same period."   As a remake, the film probably lacks the authenticity of the original, but it was still fascinating, in its own way.