Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Key Films #21

 
Teodors [Laila Pakalniņa, 2006]:
 
An elderly man rides his bicycle through the countryside.  He stops off in a village.  He drinks beer, chats with some friends and passersby, and watches the world turn.  Later, he collects some books from the local library and cycles home.  This is essentially the entire narrative of Pakalniņa's film - an observation of a man (never formally introduced) just going about his day - but the effect is riveting.  Eventually the seasons change, but the actions remain the same.  The ground may be white with snow, but this life continues, ever onwards.  The daily routines - rituals even - providing respite from the loneliness and the tyranny of old age.  The result is both epic and intimate.  Using direct sound and a static camera framed mostly from a distance, Pakalniņa effectively reinvents neorealism, the documentary and the character study; capturing without criticism a series of interactions and encounters that become like moments of still life.  The cutting of scenes distils time; reducing it to a series of moments that exist without context, but are suggestive of something historic and personally affecting.  This approach forces the audience into a state of contemplation, so that we think more deeply about this man - this "character" - and about his life between the moments on screen.  Those private moments that would give us an even greater context to the solitude and the distance of Teodors against those scenes of village life, but also of that contentment; the sense of satisfaction and peace.
 
Although leisurely in its observation, there is an intensity to this focus, where the intercutting between long-shots illustrate the life surrounding the character, while close-ups tell a story of time and existence.  This man, as both a presence (on screen) and a personality, has become - through age and wisdom - a living reminder of the struggles of a generation; its triumphs and its follies.  The examination of the man - both as a figure in the landscape or as a face in close-up, scarred by old-age - brings the history of this place into the present; reminding us of his struggle, but also of the struggle of every aged body, as testament to life's greatest work.  This particular interpretation is communicated by the way the filmmaker watches, objectively.  Never forcing our emotions or our commitment to the material through the manipulation of the filmmaking form, but letting things drift.  It's only in the final shot that Pakalniņa breaks from this routine, ending our encounter with this man (of humble origins) with a slow, lingering crane shot; one of the most striking in all of cinema.  The movement of the camera - from a discarded bottle cap half embedded in the sod, to the empty bench where Teodors once sat and watched the world with hooded eyes, to the woodcutter chopping down branches from a tree, and beyond, into the clouds and over the village - neither confirms nor clarifies the fate of our character, but suggests something more profound.  A sense of loss; an absence even, delicate and moving, like the film itself.
 
 
The Corridor [Sharunas Bartas, 1994]:
 
Throughout the director's career, there has been a continual emphasis on makeshift communities; people on the outskirts of a society brought together through the unfortunate obligation of extreme circumstances.  In his greatest film, Freedom (2000), a trio of refugees looking to seek asylum are instead washed up on a desolate beach that becomes a mirror to their own desperation.  There, it was the physical expanse of the land and the limitless stretch of the horizon that seemed to suggest the bitter ironies of the title; that dream of independence and escape against a landscape of emptiness and despair.  In the film in question, it is the building itself that takes the place of this beach, imprisoning its characters; holding them hostage to poverty, unemployment, anger and ill-health; making the observation of its central characters (and even the geographical context of the rooms leading into rooms as personification of a particular, individual 'state') entirely political.  When we think about the implications of the title - the word itself, "corridor" - we're reminded of something that makes possible a journey between rooms; a way of progressing, from one 'space' into another.  Taken literally, it becomes a "passageway", but a passageway leading where?
 
In this instance, the 'corridor' of the title is located in a rundown tenement building somewhere in Northern Europe.  It exists in a state of dilapidation; the ruin seemingly an outward embodiment of both the physical and psychological decline of its central characters.  Likewise, the solitude of these spaces, the cramped interiors, the moments of silence, the looks without smiles, suggests a loneliness; a reminder that these characters have, in a sense, been forgotten by the rest of the world; left to live out their days of survival amongst the rust, the rubble and decay.  Characters haunt the rooms of this building, barely living, never speaking.  Sad-eyed characters, hopeful but wounded, rendered in a black & white that seems to make real the subjective appearance of a world without colour; one that exists outside of any recognisable context of time or place.  Again, Bartas refuses to condemn these characters.  Though their actions are sometimes shocking - their demeanour one of bitterness and coarse abandon - there is also a sympathy to the way he observes these men and women; framing them like icons of the great painters, full of weight and dignity.  Never resorting to trivial sentimentality, the direction of the film finds an honesty through observation, through the seemingly natural, almost unrehearsed quality of the performances on screen.
 
As is often the case with films that are set in and around communal living spaces - whether it's The Lower Depths (1957) and Dodes'ka-den (1970), both by Kurosawa, or films as diverse as Rear Window (1954), The Decalogue (1989) and The Man Without a Past (2002) (to name a few) - the location seems to double as a sort of individual microcosm for the world itself.  Through this, the character 'types' and their interactions - as well as the situations they find themselves in - are able to communicate something more significant about the human condition; the way these characters cling to one another, or go into retreat, or view the world outside the safety of this perimeter with a fear and suspicion, offers a reflection not just of their own personal mindset, but of the political climate of the time.  Likewise, the general quality of living - as seen in these films - can be used to exaggerate a particular socio-economic concern; from affluence to poverty, and everything in between.  It is this aspect of The Corridor that is the most compelling; the personification of a space consistent with the filmmaker's later work - The House (1997) - where once again we're in the presence of people occupying a space that doubles as representation of one particular strata of a society.
 
 
The Human Centipede (First Sequence) [Tom Six, 2009]:
 
The opening sequence establishes the film's villain, the mad doctor Josef Heiter, as a modern-day bogeyman.  A restless, anxious figure; lanky, as if stretched.  His movements, slow and methodical; bird-like even as he picks out his prey and studies them with those slant, menacing eyes.  As he approaches, his face is like a shark's fin (as painted by Egon Schiele); a form of jagged edges all twisted into a rictus grin.  His uniform raincoat - a seedy beige flasher-mack concealing hunting rifle - is pulled close as he stalks the lay-bys of a familiar looking European roadway; already placing this modern monster in a very modern setting.  As he raises the gun - taking aim at a defecating truck driver marked out as his first victim - the sun from behind us flares-out, blinding us, obscuring our view.  It sets-up the visual grammar of the film to follow; that distinction between the subject-matter, which is both perverse and somewhat grotesque, and the approach, which shows restraint.  In establishing the character in such a way, director Six is already creating a certain tension within the narrative.  We know that this character will appear again, but when, and in what guise?  Later, when our hapless heroines take shelter at his woodland compound (their car having broken down in true horror movie fashion) the threat of this character will already be distinct in the minds of the audience.  The girls may see the doctor as a saviour (initially, at least), but the viewer knows the truth.
 
By taking this approach, Six is rejecting the cheap narrative manipulations of "torture-porn" hucksters like James Wan and Eli Roth and instead invoking Hitchcock.  Our pre-established awareness of the killer's true intentions and motivation becomes the literal 'bomb under the table'; a threat, unseen by these characters but known to the general audience, generating tension and suspense.  What follows is shocking (some might say irresponsible) as the doctor goes about nurturing his 'creation', but there is something buried within the subtext of the film that resonates on an immediate, almost primal level.  The situation is horrifying, but it's the cold and calculated direction (the glacial pace and the modernist compositions) that gives these proceedings an air of dramatic credibility.  We think of the pointless atrocities of the 'Angel of Death', Josef Mengele (deliberately evoked by the Heiter characterisation) and of the secret dungeons of the other Josef, the sadistic Fritzl, and how these real-life influences work against the more cinematic allusions to Audition (1999) by Takashi Mikke or the clinical body-horror of Dead Ringers (1988) by David Cronenberg.  While the film attempts to subvert the "torture-porn" sub-genre, while simultaneously lampooning the transgressive cinema of Michael Haneke (often with a semi-comedic, semi-serious intent), Six is still able to provoke the audience into questioning the amorality of his central character, the force of human endurance, and what it means to play God.