Sunday, 25 August 2013

Key Films #23

Karayuki-san, the Making of a Prostitute [Shôhei Imamura, 1975]:
 
The voice of the director establishes context.  The film we're about to see is a documentary.  The subject matter, the story of Japanese women forced into prostitution during the first half of the twentieth century, is told by the women themselves.  Imamura's camera records the still life of the Malaysian waterfront as the voice of a woman - our guide to this eventual narrative of recollection - introduces herself, and in the process, sets the scene.  The age and deterioration of the voice is mirrored by the dereliction of the boats and houses that we pass by on our voyage.  People stop and wave to the camera, acknowledging the presence of Imamura and his crew, as well as the actuality of the film itself; the authenticity of it.  These images, in contrast with the interviews that follow, are intended to establish the world of the film (as it existed in 1975) against the nostalgic recollections of the women, and how the physical appearance of these places bring back the memory of certain events.  With Imamura as mediator, walking in step with this woman - microphone in hand - the film becomes a journey into the past; into places that are both real and significant to the story of this woman, and to all these women, kidnapped and forced into prostitution, and told that they were "serving" their country, only to be shunned by it following the end of the First World War.
 
Again, Imamura is using his film - his cinema - to give a voice to these people; to intervene on behalf of those on the margins of a society and as such denied the opportunity to make clear their own chain of events.  Like the director's earlier film, the anecdotal History of Post-War Japan As Told by a Bar Hostess (1971), the presentation of this world gives perspective to the recollections of its subject.  It creates personification.  These places - which hold so many kept secrets - are in a sense a reflection of this woman; an extension of her own story (as historical document), as tangible and 'concrete' as the buildings themselves.  In allowing these women to tell their stories, Imamura is shining a light on one facet of Japanese history.  Documenting, through the experiences of the women, the exploitation that the modern Japan - the now thriving, industrious nation that we know today - was built upon.  However, he's also suggesting the importance of these women, as a celebration.  Acknowledging that their ability to deal with the cruel reality of the circumstances they'd been forced to endure may have actually benefited the economy back home; making possible the great success of Japan in that period between the first and the second world wars.  As ever, the compassion and the sensitivity that Imamura shows to these characters in committing their stories to film (without judgement or denigration), is entirely overwhelming.
 
 
The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) [Tom Six, 2011]:
 
The film we are watching is already at an end.  A survivor - bound, ass to mouth and mouth to ass, between the bodies of her fellow victims - pleads, wet-eyed and muted, for the sympathy of a viewing audience.  A pool of blood seeps out onto the carpet, like a shadow; a Rorschach test that mocks the need to make sense; to presume the "why?" when some things are beyond reasonable explanation.  Better to rationalise; to put into context.  It's only a movie... and it is.  The closing shot begins.  We're outside the house, looking in at this macabre scene through the shattered glass of the bedroom window.  Already we're being placed, literally, on the outside of the drama, as viewer, or voyeur.  Again, we think of Hitchcock.  The camera begins its slow craning motion, moving upwards, over the slate roof of the house with its innocuous skylight, into the reality of the everyday.  The treetops of the black forest against the grey of the morning sky seems more like an image from a Lav Diaz movie than the kinetic torture of a film like Hostel (2005) or Saw (2004).  We've experienced the real horror - the experiment and it's sickening consequences - but in this small movement of the camera between heaven and earth, we find... transcendence?  A moment, quiet and contemplative.  Then the credits roll.
 
The film we are seeing is The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009).  It unfolds, first as flashback - as a self-contained dramatisation - before switching perspectives.  As the director's credit appears, we move from the scene itself to a recording; the same image as a transmission on a flat screen monitor.  If this original film could be accused of being provocative for the sake of provocation - its grotesque scenario used as a contentious talking point and little else - then what follows is truly remarkable.  Rather than simply rehashing the plot of the first film (as sequels generally do), director Six uses this character - the 'voyeur' - to investigate the impact of his original film, while also making a far more interesting, even intelligent point, on the use of the cinema as a projection of our own fears, anxieties and concerns.  The central character - this strange little man who watches the everyday life of people unfold on security monitors as part of his daily work - has suffered a lifetime of sexual abuse.  His existence is as such without colour and without hope.  He finds in the violence of The Human Centipede not only an outlet for his own pain and frustration, but ultimately a way to feel connected; to be closer to people; to be a part of something even greater than himself.  The final twist makes this connection explicit.  It is after all "just a movie", but Six makes us question the necessity of these movies (and movies in general) and how the idea of voyeurism and projection on the part of the audience (of our own fears 'satiating' the subject matter, bringing it to life) gives the film its "influence."
 
Martin's fantasy - to purge himself of the violence that he's been a victim of since birth - is also his only way of connecting to those around him.  His experiment - his hope of continuing where the fictional madman Dr. Heiter left off - is really an effort to insert himself (literally, if not figuratively) into this living chain of human suffering, and to dominate it.  In doing so, his psychological pain will be matched by the physical pain of his tortured victims; allowing him to become 'one' with it.  Many of these sequences are beyond 'poor taste', as the film refuses to shy away from presenting the most gratuitous and sensationalistic violence.  However, the depth of the character and the intelligence of the way the director uses the influences of meta-fiction to deconstruct the 'need' for these films, is really quite astounding.  For all of its gore and degradation, it's the psychological aspect of the drama that cuts the deepest.  For instance, the use of the baby to suggest the destruction of Martin's innocence - with the cries of the baby heard during scenes of murder to make clear the effect that Martin's abuse has had on his own potential to exist - and how so much of this fantasy seems centred on the idea of destroying the society (or institutions) that made possible such abuse, hints at a deeper, less salacious relevance that works perfectly alongside the film's visual references to works like Repulsion (1965), Eraserhead (1977) and A Snake of June (2002).
 
 
From One Second to the Next [Werner Herzog, 2013]:
 
I'm not sure how much I have to say about this one.  The outline is fairly straightforward.  Herzog and his crew interview several people whose lives have been changed irrevocably as a result of road accidents.  Their accounts are moving and absorbing and often misdirect the viewer; manipulating our emotions, but only to make a point.  These recollections are structured episodically.  In the first story, a mother and her daughter recall fond memories of their respective son and brother, Xavier; the "X-Man."  They talk about him in the past tense - things he liked to do, things he was going to do, etc - which makes the viewer automatically assume that the child is dead.  However, he isn't.  The car that collided with him left the child severely disabled and as such no longer able to do the things that he'd dreamed about or enjoyed.  Herzog has the sister revisit the place where the accident occurred and she stands, completely motionless, as if spellbound - like the stunned characters in the director's earlier Heart of Glass (1976) - as she talks about the terrifying sensation of feeling the hand of her brother slip from her own grasp as the young child crossed the street.  The car came out of nowhere, and in an instant... he was gone.  Through the power of this memory as re-enactment, the audience is experiencing the accident through the emotional recollections of the daughter, making it possible for the viewer to identify and to relate.
 
In the second interview, a young man talks about his accident in vague terms, as if the memory itself has become fragmented and distant, like a terrifying dream.  We assume he's another survivor, recalling a series of specific 'haunting' details from his own accident; his ordeal.  Then it hits us.  His reckless driving killed a family of four.  The structure of the film continues like this, with Herzog developing the details of these stories naturalistically; revealing statistics through conversation and always keeping the emphasis on the stories themselves; these people and their shattered lives.  While it would be easy to demonise those who caused such accidents - turning them into villains or monsters to be hated by the viewer for their recklessness, or lack of attention - Herzog presents their experiences with the same sensitivity and distance as those on the other side of the wheel.  Recognising that these people have also been damaged by their accidents, psychologically if not physically, Herzog seems to be making the broader point that any one of us could kill or be killed; not through malice or spite, but through irresponsibility or a lack of alertness.  The movie plays to the director's strengths as a filmmaker interested in people and in their stories of survival; a theme consistent with films like Echoes from a Sombre Empire (1990), Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) and Wings of Hope (2000).

Monday, 19 August 2013

Key Films #22

 
The Pornographers: An Introduction to Anthropology [Shôhei Imamura, 1966]:

In titling his film 'The Pornographers', Imamura is not only introducing the clandestine profession of his central character - the hapless but well-meaning entrepreneur Mr. Ogata - as an important part of the plot, but is also implying a more balanced commentary on the themes of abuse and degradation as shorthand for the general brutality of the way people live.  If pornography, as both an industry and a human need, exists to satisfy our own basic curiosity regarding the most private and personal of human relations, then it also seeks to exploit this necessity; turning the act itself into a spectacle and the participants into willing performers; commodities for our viewing pleasure.  It also forces the audience to confront their own role as the spectator.  The collective witness, intruding upon these private scenes made public for our amusement and in a way becoming complicit in their creation; 'compelling them' into existence through the simple act of viewing.  The connotations of this title are many, not only drawing a parallel to the act of filmmaking itself - where Imamura skewers the usual 'film-about-filmmaking' conventions of a beleaguered director struggling against the tribulations of his art - but also of his own role as a more respectable kind of "pornographer"; one exploiting the foibles and follies of his central characters for the entertainment of a cinema audience.
 
However, the real inference of the title - and how it corresponds to the subject matter and the development of the characters on screen - seems to suggest a more pertinent examination of the contemporary Japanese society of the mid-1960s.  It is not simply Mr. Ogata and his small group of collaborators who are the 'pornographers' of this narrative, but the pernicious culture that observes the tragedies of people with a gleeful inquisitiveness and a barely disguised contempt.  This, as an idea, is explicit in the film's rarely used subtitle, 'An Introduction to Anthropology', in which the presentation of these characters, both comic and tragic, becomes a kind of ironic study on the burlesque of human endeavour.  Imamura exaggerates this perspective further by shooting the majority of scenes through open doorways - framing his characters in cramped, interior spaces - or through windows (usually barred), which again, suggests the imprisonment of his characters by the social conventions of the time.  Through this exacting approach, Imamura is extending his commentary, suggesting that we are all pornographers - exploiting or being exploited, consciously or not - and that it is the cinema itself, whether pornographic in nature or seemingly more respectable, which forces the audience to confront their own voyeuristic tendencies, as if the 'reality' of life becomes exhibition.
 
While the film's critique might initially suggest a more scathing attack equivalent to the political films of Jean-Luc Godard, R.W. Fassbinder or Imamura's close contemporary Nagisa Ôshima, the tone of The Pornographers is instead unpredictable and emotionally complex.  In profiling the life of this character and those closest to him, Imamura's film cuts between scenes of domestic drama, slapstick comedy, social satire and psychological horror.  For instance, while the earlier scenes are amusing and observational, the later scenes seem to channel the Bergman of The Silence (1963) or Persona (1966); where the broken vow of the widowed Haru Matsuda - Mr. Ogata's landlady turned common-law wife - will eventually lead to both psychosis and the personification of guilt in the form of a talking carp.  As dark and abrasive as the satire of the film is - challenging not only social conventions but also the superstitions of a culture that seems intent to punish the happiness of people - Imamura's sensitivity to his characters is nothing less than remarkable.  He doesn't look down on these marginal figures or view them with a snobbery or contempt, but instead treats them fairly, with compassion and admiration.  As Mr. Ogata himself remarks quite early in the film, "my work may be immoral, but I treat everyone honestly, dammit!"  A statement that might also be said of Imamura and his films.
 
 
Sebastiane [Paul Humfress & Derek Jarman, 1976]:

As with many films by Derek Jarman, history is being used to comment on the contemporary.  In taking the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian as a starting point, the director is able to examine the dynamic of one particular facet of homosexual desire; creating a historical framework through the transposition of these scenes (and what we now know of human behaviour, desire and persecution) to provide a kind of context, or justification, through the perspective of the present day.  Whether or not the real Saint Sebastian as depicted through the centuries even was a homosexual is irrelevant to Jarman's hypothesis; it is really the legacy and the reputation of the martyr, as an icon, that is of interest; his death and revivification as a figurative expression.  In subsequent films, like Caravaggio (1986) and Edward II (1991), Jarman would again use the iconography of a particular historical or mythical figure to create a political statement.  In this instance, he's equating, through the story of Saint Sebastian, the persecution of the Christians under the reign of Diocletian with the persecution of homosexuals during the last half of the twentieth century.  This, as a concept, is provocative to the point of being profane, but it also gets to the truth of understanding the machinations of prejudice and also the way Saint Sebastian, in a sense, embraces his fate.
 
The opening sequence, which depicts a vivid jamboree for the Emperor and his guests, culminating in the lead dancer being enveloped by a troupe of men wearing oversized rubber phalluses and subjected to a kind of staged scene of 'Bukkake', is also a prelude to what Jarman sees as Sebastian's willing subjugation; his surrender to his master and eventual martyrdom by his peers.  This scene, as representation, correlates to the power dynamic of many relationships, where the battle is fought between the dominant and the submissive, and how this is further related to the affiliation between Sebastian and his vicious captain Severus.  Through this interpretation, Jarman is giving an emotional context to the martyrdom (and eventual murder) of the character, where his rejection of Severus is effectively the real "rationalization" for his demise.  In doing so, the subtext of the film ceases to be simply polemical and becomes something personal; the film, from the perspective of Severus, is really a love story (albeit, an unrequited one), where the corruption and persecution of the lover, in itself, speaks to a kind of heightened emotional state.  The music by Brian Eno emphasises this feeling of yearning, or strained emotion, with the synthesiser becoming like an ambient drone - akin to the beat of a broken heart or the pulse, suspended, in excitement or anticipation - or like a restless whimper that gives certain images a more dreamlike inflection.
 
To create balance, the direction of the film is mostly naturalistic.  Shots are composed with a great simplicity, showing the action as a straightforward expression - sometimes static, sometimes handheld - but mostly conveying the physicality of the actors (as characters) and how their bodies - sculpted and posed like the great statues of Michelangelo or Rodin - suggest the desire of the male gaze.  As the camera records these masculine figures - mostly nude as they lounge beneath the glare of a hot sun - Jarman finds poetry in their struggle against the landscape as a kind of outward expression of the beauty of emptiness or desolation.  As such, he creates an impression of the body as a "prison", a cage or battalion for a wounded heart.  This, as an idea, is consistent with the film's central metaphor; the 'dance of the sun on the water' as symbolic of the inability of these characters to express love or to find acceptance within a culture, as it exists.  In their attempts to show a recreation of history as if the camera had actually been there to record it, firsthand, Jarman and his co-director Paul Humfress evoke the influence of Pasolini and his film The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964); mining that same juxtaposition between religious transcendence and earnest homoeroticism, as well as a genuine feeling of heightened authenticity.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Boorman on-hold

 
Exorcist II: The Heretic [John Boorman, 1977]: 

A few months ago, I promised a series of notes on the films of John Boorman, using quotes from the man himself.  My thoughts on Catch Us If You Can (1965) went up almost immediately and were supposed to be followed, a week or two later, by a similar post on Leo the Last (1970).  Although I do intend to complete this series eventually, I'm just not the mood to continue with it at the present time.  When I started the project back in June, I felt as if I'd hit a wall with my own writing, which I'd never been very happy with in the first place.  As an alternative, I decided to transcribe the Boorman reflections and to translate the French article on M. Night Shyamalan, just to keep the blog active.  Over the last two months, I've gotten back into the habit of writing for myself.  I've seen a lot of great films in the last few months, and I really want to commit my considerations on these films to the blog, while I still can.  I know this intensity will soon pass (as it always does) and I'll be left with nothing to say, so I'm really pushing myself to complete these shorter capsule reviews, irrespective of how potentially interesting (or uninteresting) they might appear to anyone visiting the site. 

The Boorman films that I'd planned to write about, the aforementioned Leo the Last, Zardoz (1974), Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) and Excalibur (1981), are easily amongst my favourite films, and are really the key works of Boorman's career alongside Catch Us If You Can, Point Blank (1967), Hell in the Pacific (1968), Deliverance (1972), The Emerald Forest (1985), Hope and Glory (1987), The General (1998) and The Tiger's Tail (2006).  It's still my intent to write about these films in the near future, but for now, the time needed to go through the chapters of Boorman's book and to retype the passages as written just takes too much effort, and is a time that I could be using to continue with my own critical studies.  Unlike my aborted 'One-Hundred Favourite Films' series, which I started last year (2012), but abandoned when I realised how awful the writing had become, I still have every intention of returning to Boorman, if only to use the project as an excuse to explain why Exorcist II: The Heretic is not only a misunderstood film, but a rather brilliant one.

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.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Key Films #20

 The 'Burbs [Joe Dante, 1989]:
 
The film Rear Window (1954), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, has always been something of a key text in my approach to understanding the nature of film criticism and the relationship between the audience and the work.  While on the surface a taut, gripping thriller, Hitchcock's film is one that also deals, theoretically, with the voyeurism of the cinema audience.  In particular, the way the audience, as a kind of collective witness - safe behind the screen - observes the various clues to understanding the development of events, while also allowing themselves to be led - emotionally at least - by their own subjective thoughts, fears and prejudices, which colour their investigation; creating a misunderstanding (or miscommunication) that can be exploited by the filmmakers to create tension and suspense.  Although played as more of a screwball comedy than a genuine mystery, The 'Burbs could (and really should) be seen as a continuation of the same hypothesis; a film where the idea of the protagonist as voyeur - as "viewer" - is explored in relation to the film's commentary on the madness of small town suburbia; the way the suspicions and insecurities of the central characters are fuelled by that outer-conflict between the reality - the tangible 'everyday' life that exists beyond their living room windows - against their own "inner", subjective, somewhat limited perception of events.  Therefore, the real pleasure of Dante's film is in seeing the appropriation of this concept as refracted through the director's own highly sophisticated, even 'post-modernist' sensibility; where the line between the audience and the work - the 'window' itself - has already been removed.
 
If Hitchcock's protagonist L.B. Jefferies looked through the eye of the camera - through the makeshift cinema screen of his own 'rear window' - and found his neighbourhood street-scenes becoming a "Hitchcockian" thriller of his own invention, then the characters in The 'Burbs filter their own perception of events through the standard 'Dantean' influences of exploitation cinema, Mario Bava style Gothicism and old Abbott & Costello movies.  With the arrival of the Klopek family - Eastern European stereotypes who live in a state of dereliction - the lure of these influence help to arouse the suspicions of a conservative community that sees individualism (or eccentricity) as a personal affront.  As a concept, this would work great as a social satire, exploring the reactions of the film's protagonists as they deal with the "otherness" of the Klopek family (taking suburban xenophobia to its logical conclusion).  However, the real intention of the film is again to show the influence of 'influences'; the way the iconography of certain horror movies - like The Exorcist (1973) or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) (both seen in the film) - can get under the skin of an audience; transforming the way we look at the world, psychologically.  Through this, Dante uses the suburban commentary of the film to illustrate the blurring of the line between real life and that which appears on screen.  Not just as a projection of an overactive imagination, or as symptomatic of some psychological disarray (fear and obsession, etc), but as a genuine breaking of the fourth wall.  A movement, as if the world of the film itself is physically encroaching or intruding on our own reality; our fears made real.
 
 
Hot Knife [Paul Thomas Anderson, 2013]:
 
Cinephiles, cineastes, movie buffs or whatever you wanna call 'em, fall over themselves in rapturous droves to acclaim the latest piece of shit commercial, or promotional video, when directed by the likes of Wes Anderson, David Fincher or Wong Kar-wai.  The name alone makes it significant, regardless of whether or not such works actually strive to differentiate themselves from any other generic (corporate) product deigned to sell 'content' and little else.  I've railed against this practice in the past (not so much on the blog, but through other outlets, like message boards and such) so excuse me if this consideration makes me seem somewhat hypocritical; but the appearance of this latest collaboration between singer-songwriter Fiona Apple and filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson seems genuinely worthy of such acclaim.  What elevates Hot Knife above many other recent music videos (those directed by well established filmmakers as well as those by unknowns) is the quality of the central performance.  Though obfuscated by Anderson's formalist tendencies - such as associative transitions between colour and black & white and the split-screen effect, which seems to reflect the multiplication of the voice on the soundtrack - this is essentially a performance video; it is led by the appearance of the singer and by the emotion that she invests in these words.
 
Apple may be filmed almost entirely in mid-shot (head and shoulders, like a portrait) or in ECU (her mouth like an open wound, as redolent with association as the protagonist's mouth in Beckett's unsettling Not I...), but the weight of feeling conveyed through the delivery of the text, the facial expressions, body language, etc, is powerful enough to present the different shades of a character; capturing the complexity, not just of the actual subtext (or even of the natural conflict and rebellion that we associate with the Apple 'persona') but as a reflection of the complexity of the song's harmonic structure.  The movement of her body ripples and undulates in time with the rhythm, while her face becomes an open book: conveying fear, excitement, anxiety, passion, naivety, vulnerability, innocence, bitterness, violence and beauty simultaneously; all genuine and conflicting.  Apple (and her sister Maude, in profile, to the left of screen) dismantle the meaning of these words through the phrasing, taking their function as conventional lyrics and twisting them through the delivery and repetition, turning them into a dialogue; something that is spoken and felt.  The further attempts to deconstruct the emotional subtext of the song though transitions of light and colour, and through the layering of the voice itself, is as intricate as anything I've ever seen.
 
 
Still Life [Sohrab Shahid Saless, 1974]:
 
In long shot, an elderly man - crippled by toil - turns the wheel to raise the level crossing that acts as a barrier between worlds.  This is his job - his responsibility - and a reason for living.  Throughout the film his movements are slow and precise.  His speech direct, unhurried.  This slowness - the lack of urgency - is in time with the pacing of the film.  The lingering shots, the static frame, seem intended to match the slowness of life in this village, forcing the audience into an almost pensive state, quiet and reflective.  Looking at each scene as we might look at a painting in a gallery; not simply following the action, but projecting our own thoughts, feelings and concerns upon the lives of these characters as they work and sleep and eat.  The result is studied and exact, capturing a feeling of time and time passing, of the stillness of life, the chores and the routines.  This is a life without hope, excitement or colour, and the filmmaking communicates this, numbing the viewer through the repetition of scenes, the stillness of the frame.  In the house, the colours are washed out, faded.  Chalk blues turning grey with time; rusted browns and nothing through the windows.  Outside on the track, beige shades and the harsh black of the tree trunks against a cold metallic sky.  Only the vague hint of green from the grass that lines the embankment on either side of the track suggests something bucolic; a hymn to nature, stifled and barely felt.
 
Through the emphasis on this character, his wife, and their struggle to survive, Saless evokes the struggle of a community left behind by the modern-world.  This character - the signalman - is a relic of this world but also the living embodiment of it.  The development of the country was built on the hard work and physical contributions of characters like this; their employers grown fat (and rich) off the sweat of their labour.  While the first half of the film could be called a character study - a precursor to the kind of observational cinema of a director like Pedro Costa in his films In Vanda's Room (2000) and Colossal Youth (2006) - the second half is more political, with Saless depicting the decline of this character as an indictment of the cruelty of a burgeoning world that cares little for its own history or the struggle of those that made this progress possible, now forced to see their own environments shut out and ignored.  Decades later, the Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke would release a work with the same English-language title.  There, as well as here, social interactions - a shared cigarette and a cup of tea becoming little rituals or customs to pass the time - suggest the struggle of a community in an ever changing world.  A world, in a sense, out of place and out of time; decaying, disappearing, left behind in that mad rush of progress, as the present becomes past .  This place and these characters survive, still living - still "life" - as relics, both beautiful and chaste.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Key Films #19

Emitaï [Ousmane Sembène, 1971]:
 
In the first scene of a pre-credit sequence that runs for almost twenty-minutes in duration, a group of 'Jola' villagers from the Casamance region of Senegal are rounded up and detained by a black militia working under orders of the French.  This is the first of many instances where the oppression of these characters is depicted by Sembène both as a reconstruction of actual events and as a more figurative commentary on the nature of Colonialism; where the flow of life is physically disrupted, or overturned.  As the action unfolds, two children hiding behind trees or in the thick rushes of the long grass become the eyes of the audience, on the outside, looking it.  In depicting the scene, Sembène uses documentary techniques to give us a sense of urgency.  Shooting unobtrusively from the sidelines, his use of the long lens flattens the depth of field, imprisoning these characters even further, cinematographically, against the backdrop of the land.  For the most part, Sembène maintains this level of distance, observing rather than intruding - capturing the action with a degree of naturalism that blurs the line between reality and dramatisation - but in later scenes chooses instead to evoke the beliefs and the superstitions of the 'Jola', who call on their own Gods in an attempt to escape this burden of oppression and regime.  In these sequences, blurred images and 'trippy' colour filters are used to suggest the presence of something strange and otherworldly.
 
When one of the tribe's elders performs a sacred ceremony to consult with these Gods, the Gods themselves appear as actual spirits; their words echoing those of the living as they become physical manifestations of the anger, animosity and fear felt by the 'Jola' as they struggle against the weight of this indignity and shame.  Such sequences stand out against the strict reality of the rest of the film, yet seem intended to give the narrative a cultural authenticity; presenting a level of commitment and solidarity, or even illustrating (through the conviction of these scenes) that Sembène believes in these people; takes sides with them; that his work is true to both the culture and their beliefs.  Throughout the film, as his characters reflect on the political situation and use it to question the existence of God and the nature of belief at a time when their own way of life has been disrupted beyond recognition, the director is able to put into perspective the true price of this exploitation.  As scenes of observation are intercut with attempts at revolution and moments of protest from the women of the village - who use Pacifism as opposed to violence to make their point - the characters wonder how a God can exist in the face of such torment.  A moving realisation of the hidden cost of war, where the bitter irony of the title, Emitaï, the 'God of Thunder', is only truly felt in the devastating explosion of the final scene.
 
 
Resident Evil: Retribution [Paul W.S. Anderson, 2012]:
 
From the thrilling reverse-motion gun battle of the opening scene to that startling moment when the walls of suburban normality are ripped apart to expose the self-reflexive manipulation of the form within, Resident Evil: Retribution marks itself out as one of the most bold and audacious mainstream American releases of the last three years.  While the use of 3D remains, for me at least, an empty gimmick, there is no arguing that Anderson's adoption of the format has focused his filmmaking in a way that allows for the creation of a more contemplative, static approach, where the clarity of his HD images gives way to a stunning, almost abstract focus on the mise-en-scène.  While the previous instalment, Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010), eventually descended into a parody of The Matrix (1999), there was a hold and intensity to the imagery that came directly from Anderson's experimentation with the 3D paraphernalia.  The handheld camera was banished; cutting became leisurely, more rhythmical.  The static framing, combined with occasional but elaborate tracking shots and dreamy, even hypnotic use of slow motion, worked well within the film's claustrophobic setting.  Retribution takes the formalist experimentation even further, adapting a bold, often minimalist approach where scenes drift and flow, where the action is balletic, but is applied to a screenplay that not only works on a narrative level, but is loaded with clever 'meta' notions that dismantle and then rebuild the very foundation of the franchise, while acknowledging the broader manipulations of the cinema in general.
 
Although it would be pretentious to call the film "Borgesian" - as reference to the work of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges - there is no other way to adequately describe the film's clever layering of alternate realities (as an on-going reflection of the different levels of the story) or the self-aware deconstruction of the franchise "form" (where even the central character is one of many; infinite and unending).  These levels become like 'platforms' in a video game, where the characters must face a series of obstacles and foes, picking up power points and eventually working their way to the final stage.  This in itself shows a clever understanding of the intrigues of the source material, while the cloning of the protagonist gestures to the interchangeability of the franchise ideal; the obvious repetition.  The way Anderson juggles these levels (as artificial worlds) plays into the acknowledgement of the artificiality of the cinema.  The world as a series of sets; a façade, literally constructed on a giant soundstage.  Cameras record everything.  Characters become actors, adapting; adopting different roles.  The mission is secondary to this presentation, which throughout, reminds the audience of the technicalities of film-making; the manipulation of everything.  In its structure - in which these worlds become a dazzling hall of mirrors, reflecting and refracting the splintered personality of Jovovich's invulnerable heroine - the film is able to combine the thrill and the bravado of a film by the Wachowski's, with the 'cinema as miniature world' commentary of a film like The Truman Show (1998).
 
 
History of Post-War Japan As Told by a Bar Hostess [Shôhei Imamura, 1970]:
 
Representations of women as personification of a particular country or state are not unique in cinema.  One only has to think back to films like Black Girl (1966) by Ousmane Sembène, Germany, Pale Mother (1980) by Helma Sanders-Brahms, the BRD Trilogy (1979-1982) by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Rosa Luxemburg (1986) by Margarethe von Trotta or the later films of Krzysztof Kieślowski, such as The Double Life of Véronique (1991) or the Three Colours: Blue (1993), to see the ideology at its clearest and most successful.  What elevates Imamura's film above these similar endeavours is the fact that the woman at the centre of his story is real.  Her words are not scripted, but are a direct reiteration of her own judgments and experiences.  This is not an allegory or a social-critique 'acted' for greater dramatic impact, but a documentary that speaks plainly and clearly to the Japanese experience as a collective narrative during the turbulence of the post-war years through the voice and the recollections of a woman who saw it with her own eyes.  Taking the form of a lengthy interview (or, more appropriately perhaps, a conversation) between the film's subject - the bar hostess of the title - and Imamura himself, the film builds on its anecdotal title; allowing the personality of the woman to bring to life these places, people and events, with only the occasional use of newsreel footage and additional commentary to provide context and clarification.
 
Imamura's approach to the film came as a direct result of the critical and commercial failure of his previous work, the great masterpiece The Profound Desire of the Gods (1968).  There, the filmmaker had mixed documentary-style naturalism with elements of myth and fable to tell a story about dishonour and superstition.  While the family saga aspect was pure melodrama, the sub-text of the film dealt very plainly with the loss of Japanese tradition as a result of the unending influence of western culture and consumerism.  As a contrast, History of Post-War Japan... is a more modest, more intimate film - in which the personality of its subject is central to the appeal - but the true intent remains the same.  It's no less an attempt to understand and comprehend the seismic changes taking place within the Japanese culture, as it existed at this time.  The motivation for Imamura's work is still political, but he gives the political or historical aspect a human face by allowing this woman, both garrulous and unpretentious, to speak clearly and from the heart.  Through following the life of this character, Imamura is able to map the socio-economic changes of Japan as if it were a living breathing thing, connecting the experiences of the woman, spoken, with the visual documentation of events as they play-out on screen.  From the use of this editing, the story of the woman and the development of her own life becomes a mirror to the story of Japan during the post-war years.  The early poverty, aspiration and dishonour moving into stability, both emotional and economical, to eventual prosperity; affluence but at a price.