Thursday, 18 April 2013

Key Films #13

For Ever Mozart [Jean-Luc Godard, 1996]:
In one scene, the bodies of two young dissidents killed earlier in the film by a band of militant guerrillas still sensitive to the conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, are placed in period costumes and "revived" before the whir of an archaic camera, which incorporates them into the making of a film.  In the presentation of this, the underlining "idea", Godard seems to be communicating, as a rhetorical gesture, the common practice of taking the stories of the dead - their histories and their experiences - and turning them into fodder for the motion picture; exploiting the very real, very physical pain and suffering endured by these people - often while ignoring the greater moral causes that led to their untimely demise - for the benefits of creative fiction.  In a sense, this, as an illustration, is a precursor to the later argument regarding the relationship between Hollywood invention and the histories of actual persons, as outlined in the masterpiece Éloge de l'amour (2001).  There, an elderly couple (once part of the Resistance during the Nazi occupation of France) sell their stories to 'Steven Spielberg and Associates' for the basis of a Hollywood picture, only to discover, to the outrage of their eldest granddaughter, that the true facts of their experiences are being distorted to make the events more sensationalist and, as such, more "commercial." 

As with the supposition of that later film, the philosophical subtext of For Ever Mozart finds Godard questioning his own responsibility as an artist, not just through the appropriation of a symbolic young woman, and the use of her death and subsequent resurrection to give weight to the film's comment on the unending exploitation of war, but through the presence of the protagonist, Mr. Vicky; an ailing filmmaker coerced into accompanying some young relatives on a trip to Sarajevo, with the hope of perhaps staging a performance of Musset's 1834 play, 'No Trifling with Love', as both a protest and a declaration of support.  Two of these relatives - headstrong Camille and her young cousin Rosette - are literally adapted from Musset's play, making the back and forth connection between fiction and reality all the more direct.  In later abandoning these young characters for the sake of his film, Godard is effectively challenging, through the actions of Mr. Vicky, his own motivations as a filmmaker; his commitment to his subject in contrast with that more fearful retreat into the personal; into the solitude of his craft.  That Vicky's film is subsequently rejected by its audience again seems like an acknowledgement by Godard of the futility of such gestures; where the art - which attempts, in this instance, to intercede on behalf of human indignity; to respect the voice(s) of the dead - falls, inevitably, on deaf ears.

Night of the Demon [Jacques Tourneur, 1957]:

The opening sequence suggests a journey between worlds.  On one side, the world of the rational, defined, as it is, by the logic, reason and genuine parapsychology put forth by the soon to be introduced central character - the American, Dr. John Holden - and on the other, the irrational, defined, in this instance, by the forces of magic, superstition and the bizarre.  The journey itself is pivotal to the progression of the narrative, in as much as it introduces the first victim, Professor Harrington, and establishes, in a subtle but no less menacing way, the film's primary antagonist, Dr. Julian Karswell; a man supposedly possessed with the ability to conjure a great demon from the outer reaches of hell.  However, in introducing these characters and their 'worlds' in such a way - showing Harrington's literal journey from the safety of his own reality into the world of Karswell; this man of science encroaching on a world of the unexplained - the film outlines the central hypothesis that defines much of the action; the power of fear, either as a tangible manifestation of the unreal - in this instance, the appearance of a genuine demon - or as a symptom of superstition; a psychological sleight of hand. 

The director, Jacques Tourneur, had already proven himself to be a master of terror and suspense with his earlier Val Lewton produced supernatural thrillers, Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Leopard Man (1943).  There, as well as here, every action, no matter how strange and fantastical in nature, has both a supernatural and psychological interpretation, creating a sense of restless ambiguity.  As such, the audience throughout is never quite certain of Karswell's true motivations; if his control over the development of these events derives from a genuine "mystical" influence, or if that otherworldly perspective of his is simply a smokescreen; a way of implanting a seed of suggestion into the subconscious minds of the central characters in an effort to create an atmosphere of uncertainty; fuel for an overactive imagination.  Even the appearance of the demon itself - rendered on-screen as an elaborate special effect - is justified by the dreamlike atmosphere created by the director and his crew; the significance of Holden's introduction, for example - half-asleep on an airplane somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean - once again establishes a character caught between two worlds; a sleepwalker trapped, forever in his own nightmare, both vivid and surreal.

My Case [Manoel de Oliveira, 1986]:

It begins with three versions of a single scene; three repetitions.  In each version, the basic action remains the same.  A man, played with great integrity and conviction by Luís Miguel Cintra, invades the stage of a small theatre company in an effort to plead his case to an unseen, impassive audience, suggested only by the off-screen presence of Oliveira and his crew.  As the man gestures and pontificates with a crazed abandon, thwarted in his continual attempts to put forward his own tormented appeal against the protestations of 'others', we're instead made witness to the testimonies of the various supporting characters; amongst them the star of the play currently being rehearsed, its beleaguered director, a harried stagehand and a lone member of the audience who appears, as if from nowhere, as if indicative of the audience of this film - the cinematograph - as opposed to the play within.  After the three initial repetitions, the film cuts to a stylised, post-apocalyptic landscape, against which a dramatisation of The Book of Job - where each of the main characters once again appear, but this time in a different guise - provides a late riposte to the first scene (and its three iterations), while also allowing the central figure, still portrayed by Cintra, to finally plead the solemnity of his case. 

Although the action of each reiteration is effectively the same - at least in terms of its development and the choreography of events - the three scenes are still presented via a different, highly contrasting cinematic approach.  The appropriation of different styles - from the more conventional 'filmed play', to a silent cinema pastiche, to something eventually more avant-garde - seems intended to draw our attention to the artificiality of the medium and our own perspective as the audience of a film.  The self-awareness of the form also creates a context for that remarkable moment during the third repetition, in which a man, interrupting the interruption of Cintra, sets-up a movie projector and screen in the centre of the stage, and uses it to project images of actual atrocity and despair.  In this one moment, Oliveira seems to question the complacency of his characters (and us, the 'unseen' audience), making it clear that Cintra's "case" - or at least one interpretation of it - is partly related to the inability of man to mediate on behalf of the great sorrows of the modern world.  This interpretation is perhaps more in keeping with that unforgettable final image of da Vinci's the Mona Lisa, where the art - as ever, in its capacity to transform complex themes into simple gestures - is able to provide a 'case' for humanity (a reason or justification for our existence), which this man, in his very personal, very self-righteous indignation, could not.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Key Films #12

Othon [Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, 1970]:
To give the film its full title, 'The eyes will not close at all times, or maybe one day Rome will let herself choose in turn; after 'Othon', by Pierre Corneille.'  The title establishes the filmmakers' rigorous attention to language - the use of language as 'form', its textures and its rhythms - and the significance of the text; the 1664 tragedy by the French playwright and poet, Pierre Corneille.  The text - set during the short reign of Emperor Galba, 68 to 69 BC, and concerning both matters of the heart and matters of the state - is not filmed, it is spoken.  Only by communicating the words aloud can it be filmed, personified, made real; finding its expression, not through the conventional "cinematic" manipulations required to condense the plot into a series of significant set-pieces, or 'events', but through the meticulous delivery of the actors, who adapt the play through speaking the words; creating the sense of narrative as rhetoric, the audience, not so much the 'viewers', in the traditional sense, but spectators; observers to the scene.  This gives the film a theatrical quality, but a living theatre; a theatre of life.  The approach, where once again old words are placed into a contemporary setting - suggesting the idea of the past, as an echo, running parallel with the present - recalls the ideology of later films by Angelopoulos, such as The Hunters (1977), or Alexander the Great (1980). 

The notion of the past existing within the present, side by side - like a revenant, or as a reverberation through time - is further suggested by the filmmakers' daring approach to staging; wherein the use of anachronism - of locations that are significant to the actual historical events, used, irrespective of their current, contemporary position - deconstructs the reality of the film; reminding us throughout of the artificiality of a scene; the subconscious truth that these characters are merely actors, reciting words as they're written on the page.  However, it also suggests the theoretical idea of the past as an ongoing spectacle that takes place all around us, unseen, again, like an echo to prior events.  The notion that the past (or pasts) is always amongst us - that any place we visit, any place where we stand, is a part of history - a part of our own history, and a part of someone else's.  As the drama unfolds, these actors in period costume, posed like living statues among the ruins of Mont Palatin or within the grounds of the Villa Doria Pamphili, recite their lines against the noise and confusion of busy streets; the sights and sounds of cars and traffic, or the passing aeroplane that rumbles overhead, all remind us of the flow of the present; of time still moving forwards, oblivious to these old ghosts, which still exist; living and re-living their personal dramas and dilemmas, from one century into the next.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon [Michael Bay, 2011]:

Let's take it for what it is: Godzilla meets Gamera, updated for the modern age.  A 'kaiju' movie with a multi-million dollar budget and a screenplay that consists of thirty-minutes worth of exposition followed by over a hundred minutes worth of explosions and debris.  And yet, buried somewhere deep beneath the standard Baysian miasma of product placement, vulgar nonsense and rock 'em sock 'em robot carnage, there is the sketch of a more interesting movie; one that gestures towards the state of America - the state of the world - both politically and socio-economically.  In essence: a film about a young couple, struggling through the current financial crisis.  'He', realising that his university degrees aren't worth the paper they're printed on, has to suffer through the indignity of the job interview process, corporate career politics and watching ineffectually as his girlfriend is slowly wooed by a billionaire playboy with powerful industrial connections.  'She', having to take responsibility for the couple's desperate monetary situation, is forced to endure the leering advances of an arrogant boss, objectified by his sordid gaze (and by the gaze of the director) so as not to jeopardise the financial security of the couple, still learning, as young couples do, how to make things work. 

There is a lot of truth to this aspect of the film; a lot of things that I recognise from my own experience or the experiences of friends.  Of course, it's just one facet of the film - one facet that exists in the shadow of the more necessary sci-fi extravaganza  - but one that nonetheless dominates the entire first act, and feels, almost - in its construction, or in the development of its scenes - like a self-contained 'miniature-movie' that was somehow just dropped into the narrative.  Granted, there is still much of Dark of the Moon that is repellent (the racial stereotypes, the crass sexism, the homophobia, etc), but nonetheless, I still found myself floored by the honesty of these early scenes; the way the situation of the characters is tied intrinsically into the destruction of the world (almost as metaphor), as well as the more sensory aspects of Bay's approach; the impression of the film, or that experience of a film reduced to an endless blur of images, colours, sounds and movement.  The noisy chaos and disorganisation that the director is often scolded for works perfectly in the context of the story, where the sense of urgency is reflected in the urgency of the run-and-gun aesthetic, or where the reminders of 9/11 as acknowledgement of the true contemporary context of any current disaster movie, suggests a sense of heightened reality, giving this fantasy an edge of very real, very physical danger.

Phantom [F.W. Murnau, 1922]:

The necessity of the framing device is unclear until the very end.  Only then do we finally grasp the meaning of the character's initial unhappiness; his despondent disposition, which seems improbable given his obvious accomplishments; the nice house, the pretty wife, the sheltered existence, etc.  As the protagonist sits down to write out the story of his past-life, the justification of this wayward gloom becomes apparent.  That age old story of ambition, corruption and greed.  The protagonist of Murnau's film, Lorenz - a bookish clerk who works for the local government and has hopes of one day becoming a successful poet - is presented from the outset as an idle dreamer; a man sensitive to the dire circumstances of his family life - the domestic hardships of his ailing mother, the scandals of his younger sister - but is, to some extent, weak to their suffering; much preferring to lose himself in books and fiction than to face such harsh realities head-on.  It is this inability to engage with reality that ultimately leads Lorenz into peril; his blinkered view of life - not quite selfish, but still seeing the world from his own limited position - blinds him to the deceitful nature of those around him.  It is only during the course of the film - or his own retelling of it - that Lorenz is confronted by the duplicitous nature of the world; his own lack of perspective or emotional maturity leading him astray; corrupting him, like so many characters before (and since). 

In this respect, the narrative of the film is not so remarkable; just a standard melodrama with a crime and punishment edge.  However, it's the adaptation of the film that makes it work.  That initial framing device - the extended flashback - allows Murnau and his writer Thea von Harbou to imbue the film with an aspect of meta-fiction; an acknowledgement of the story's inherent fabrication.  As such, the film becomes a sort of confessional, informed by the central character's own recollections of events and therefore marked by a more personal and somewhat 'subjective' sensibility.  By recognising the voice of the protagonist - as 'narrator' - Murnau is able to be more creative with his depiction of the character's eventual descent.  In one sequence, the feeling of isolation felt by the tortured Lorenz (his sense of paranoia; of the world closing in on him) is depicted literally, with the buildings collapsing, three-dimensionally - like in a children's 'pop-up' book - suffocating the character and recalling a similar, more famous image from the recent blockbuster Inception (2010).  It is this haunted, dreamlike aspect to the subjective stylisation of the film that for me separates (or elevates) Phantom from the many other silent melodramas that deal with similar concerns.