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.