Tuesday, 28 January 2014

A Year in Film (Part Two)

A Viewing List for Twenty-Thirteen

As promised, the second part of my no doubt interminably dull but still very much obligatory "year in film" retrospective.  This time, the list in question includes films that I first saw (or returned to) between mid March and early June, 2013.  Once again, plagiarisms of my various "Key Film" comments will follow to some extent, but I'm also using the opportunity to clean them up a little bit; to correct some of the typographical errors (while no doubt adding a few new ones in the process).  It's somewhat regrettable that this update has taken so long to complete.  Initially, I'd hoped to have the whole thing done and dusted by the end of January, but it now seems more realistic to expect the third and fourth parts to be completed by early to mid February instead.  There is a genuine reason for this delay that goes beyond just regular laziness, but I'll go into this in more detail at a later date.

For the titles that I hadn't previously written about, my initial intention was to write a proper 'Key Films-style' analysis of the work(s) below.  Unfortunately, I've since lost the notebook that contained most of my original comments on the films and as a result was forced to reinvent some vague obviations, mostly from the perspective of a hindsight rapidly fading.  As such, many of these comments read as anecdotal in nature and for this perhaps say more about me as a viewer than they do about the films discussed.  Hopefully anyone reading this will find it in their heart to forgive me.


Othon [Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, 1970]:
Initial viewing, 15th of March, 2013.

'Othon' is the short-form title, taken from the 1664 text by the French author and playwright Pierre Corneille, upon which the film is based.  More important to our understanding of the film and its particular aesthetic is the unabridged title, "The eyes will not close at all times, or maybe one day Rome will let herself choose in turn."  To look at the title is to establish two significant points.  The first, the concept of seeing; of being a witness to the stories that resonate throughout history, played and replayed in various contexts, both personal and political.  Second, the filmmaker's exact and exhausting use of language as it pertains to the conception of the literary adaptation as something that uses the spectre of the past to create commentary on the present.  Both of these stylisations work to demystify the idea of the historical drama, or even the literary adaptation itself; liberating it from the fraudulent gloss of the Hollywood epic or the tedium of social realism.

Throughout the film, Corneille's text is not adapted, but spoken.  Only by communicating the words aloud can it be filmed, personified and made real; finding an expression, not through the conventional (or whatever) manipulations required to condense the plot into a series of significant set-pieces and events, but through the meticulous delivery of the actors, who perform the play by speaking the words; creating the sense of the narrative as rhetoric; the audience, not so much viewers, in the traditional sense, but spectators; observers to the scene.  This gives the film a theatrical quality, but of a living theatre; the 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 - pre-recalls the ideology of later films by Theodoros Angelopoulos, such as The Hunters (1977) and Alexander the Great (1980).  A notion of the past existing within the present - side by side - is further suggested by the filmmakers' daring approach to the mise-en-scene, in which the use of intentional anachronisms create the impression of the past and present intruding, like fiction into reality.

As the ensuing drama unfolds, these actors in period costume - posed like living statues among the rubble 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 the traffic, or the passing airplane that rumbles overhead, each remind us 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.  It presents that theoretical idea of the past as an ongoing narrative that takes place all around us, unseen, again, like an echo to prior events.  A notion that the past 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.


2 x 50 Years of French Cinema [Jean-Luc Godard & Anne-Marie Miéville, 1995]:
Initial viewing, 5th of April, 2013.

I loved this collaboration between Godard & Miéville and the actor Michel Piccoli, but at the time I couldn't quite put into worlds WHY the film had felt so relevant and so much fun.  In all honesty, I still can't.  I wrote some vague fragments with the intention of suggesting something of the playful, typically didactic quality - of Godard and Miéville flirting between Histoire(s) du cinema-style cine-essay and Soft and Hard-like domestic discourse - but I couldn't quite make it stick.  I think the real issue is that the film provides its own commentary.  There is nothing that I can surmise or add to the film that an avid spectator wouldn't automatically find in the conversations and discussions that occur on-screen.

On an old scrap of paper I'd written the following: A film of two halves.  Questions and answers.  Dialogues and investigation.  The past and present as the two separate ends of a traceable line.  A lineage, of time or influence, that runs throughout the development of this thing called film.  The titular mathematical equation, 2 x 50, equates a century, but a century in two parts.  Pre-sound, pre-colour as the past; sound and colour as the present.  How then do we celebrate this thing - this conception of cinema - which is never one thing to all people, but a multifaceted contraption?  A limitless mirror that creates images by projecting a reflection of the person looking back into its ever-changing face?  This is the question that Godard seeks to answer when he sits down to dinner with his friend and former associate Piccoli; now the participating chairman of the official "Centenary Committee" aiming to celebrate the first Hundred years of French film.

Godard questions the motivations of the organisation in his typically cryptic approach, as he goads the actor (playfully, but to the point of infuriation) into considering the true condition of cinema, and how so often it is seen by the younger generation to be a largely Hollywood-driven pursuit.  Characteristic of many of Godard's late-period films, the tone of 2 x 50 Years of French Cinema alternates between reflective and melancholic (as Godard contemplates the notion of "old movies", while music and art remain timeless) to incredibly funny; the introductory sequence, in which Piccoli becomes the unwitting straight man to Godard's Groucho Marx, rivals the TV interviews of Andy Kaufman at his most deadpan and derisive.


Cosmopolis [David Cronenberg, 2012]:
Initial viewing, 8th of April, 2013.

After the subtly more accessible terrain of his no less remarkable collaborations with Viggo Mortensen on A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007), and the comparatively more restrained, almost classical historical drama, A Dangerous Method (2011), Cosmopolis has the feel of Cronenberg getting back to the root of films like Videodrome (1983), Naked Lunch (1991), Crash (1996) and eXistenZ (1999).  It is again a film about disconnected characters seeking sensation through less conventional means.  The 'Cronenbergian' ideal of "the new flesh" being discovered in this exaggerated critique of the current generation and their preoccupation with "the self"; with a blurring of personal realities, where the ephemeral transactions of the online culture have created a new, more transient, more hermetic system of life.

With its central character becoming a "spectre haunting the world" - a vapid, narcissistic millionaire drifting in his black limousine sarcophagus through the chaos of financial collapse - the film struck me as a very prescient portrait of the post-millennium culture.  This generation that has been afforded great wealth and privilege by doing very little, are now bored with everything!  Life has become enclosed, detached; a series of appointments, encounters.  The limousine that cuts a path through the crowded streets is like an extension of who this character is; his sense of privilege and entitlement, his anonymity, the void of personality, etc.  The gradual deterioration of the car as it is attacked by revellers and protestors, becomes an on-screen representation of the character's own psychological deterioration, as the world outside the car - outside his own influence - becomes a protest against an uncertain future; one that threatens to upend the influence of capitalism, destroying the dangerous thread that creates balance; that keeps us in place.

Like many characters in Cronenberg's work, there is a sense of someone embracing their own destruction.  The form of the film, static and stilted - creating a feeling of inertia, of time standing still - communicates the boredom of a man that longs for revolution - for death! - just to create some change to the stagnant social order.  In this gesture, he becomes a character connected to the great lineage of Cronenberg protagonists - from Adrian Tripod and Max Renn, to Bill Lee and Allegra Geller - and the world of the film feels very much a part of the same future-sphere as earlier films, such as Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977).  Perhaps the world of Eric Packer - the protagonist of the film - is yet another stop on the road to the ruinous dystopia of Crimes of the Future (1970); that hellish interzone where society teeters on the brink of a regression; into a more primitive moral collapse.


A Talking Picture [Manoel de Oliveira, 2003]
Initial viewing, 17th of April, 2013.

No other film had a greater impact during the previous year.  From the leisurely travelogue of scenes that make up the first half of its duration (where daughter and mother literally traverse a thousand years of civilisation on a journey to reunite with their respective father and spouse) to the subsequent scenes aboard the cruise ship (the political discussions that lead, with unflinching precision, to one of the most heart-breaking and unforgettable final sequences from any film ever made) A Talking Picture was nothing less than captivating, provocative and wholly immersive.  Using an objective, observational approach and the natural charisma of his cast, Oliveira creates a film where both the voyage and its eventual resolution suggest an allegory for the modern-world.

The central journey from Lisbon to Goa recalls that of the famed Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, but the course - traversing the Mediterranean and making stops in France, Italy, Greece, Egypt and eventually Turkey - brings to mind a similar progression from Jean-Luc Godard's subsequent work, Film Socialisme (2010).  Like that particular film, the presence of the ocean liner becomes a microcosm of Europe in the 21st century; where the dialogues between business woman Catherine Deneuve, model and fashion designer Stefania Sandrelli, stage actress and singer Irene Papas and the ship's captain John Malkovich, allows Oliveira to discuss the idea of nationalism (or colonialism) in the age of the European Union, as well as the struggle to retain a cultural identity in light of the ever growing homogenisation of western culture, as it flourishes under the rule of capitalism, in a very direct and unguarded approach.

The dialogues here are lengthy and invigorating, relevant to the film's main journey into the past as a reflection to the present, but also inherently naturalistic.  They draw the audience into the story of these two characters and the people they meet along the way, while also managing to make a broader, more relevant point on the development of our shared histories in the context of the no less violent struggles of our own contemporary existence.  The end of the film takes this idea of the past as a mirror to the present in an entirely different direction.  The logical but no less shocking conclusion that all this talk of "conflict" has been leading to.  An impression that civilisations every bit as cultured and enlightened as our own were forged and fell in the blink of an eye.


The Three Stooges [Bobby & Peter Farrelly, 2012]:
Initial viewing, 28th of April, 2013.

I find comedy the most difficult genre to write about (or at least the most difficult to do proper justice to), since comedy, by nature, is physical.  Musicals and action movies are physical too, but there the physicality seeks to express the psychological.  If the mind is ecstatic with thoughts then a dance is danced.  If enraged, then the body strikes out, in violence.  But comedy - and the kind of intensely physical comedy found in the film in question - occurs simply for the benefit of the viewer.  It is done for no other reason than to get a response from the audience; to make us laugh and smile.  While the film has been dismissed by many as a thoroughly lowbrow attempt by the Farrelly's to renegotiate the idea of The Three Stooges for the modern world, I found the film to be both breathlessly entertaining and hysterically funny.  The kind of funny where the ribs begins to ache from laughing so hard.

The fact that The Three Stooges succeeds on the purest level would be enough to necessitate inclusion, but I think the film is more interesting (if not intelligent) than it's been credited with.  Something about the film's subtext seems compelling; a compliment to the brilliantly choreographed and directed slapstick and the impeccable performances of the three main leads.  More than anything, I think it's interesting how the "Stooges", as characters, relate to the modern society; where the real idiots have since been elevated to the level of Gods by the peculiarities of reality television; where the innocence of Larry, Curly and Moe likewise seems elevated against the corruption of the culture, the greed and the selfishness; and where the attempt by these characters to find enough money to save the orphanage where they were raised shines a light on the suffering of many marginalised individuals or cultural organisations following the still recent economic crash.

To me, this aspect of the film is incredibly faithful to the spirit of the original Stooges.  Films like Three Little Pigskins (1934), Punch Drunks (1934) and Disorder in the Court (1936), to name a few, were as much an effort to lift the flagging morale of the American public as genuine narratives to be seen and enjoyed.  They were films produced (mostly) during the time of The Great Depression, when audiences had little to smile about.  In the Farrelly's film, the same intentions remain.  The sensibility of the film - bright and colourful and zany; like a live-action cartoon - is designed to distract the audience from the tyranny of the everyday.  The film is loaded with genuine suffering, child abandonment, unemployment and an obvious satire of "reality" media (still profiteering from society's great stooges, only now with full cooperation from the culture), but all dressed in a way that allows the viewer to detach one's self from the reality; to forget ourselves and our woes.


The Train [John Frankenheimer, 1964]
Initial viewing, 30th of April, 2013.

The Train is another of those films that I struggled to write about at the time.  I couldn't put into words the feeling of the film or the experience of it, which was unforgettable.  It's the kind of film where I was so intensely invested in the narrative, the characters and the stylisation, that I became lost in the adventure of it all.  It's a film that seems to straddle the indefinable line between "old Hollywood" (as typified by the films of Hawks, Ford, Sturges, etc) and the "new Hollywood" of films that would come to define the subsequent decade.  The idea of Burt Lancaster playing an American-accented Frenchman running around a succession of small villages in an effort to evade an army of cartoon Nazi's could have been taken from any film from the mid-to-late 1940s, but the "studio-film" quaintness of the casting and the motivations of the story are well balanced by Frankenheimer's muscular direction and by the overwhelming subtext of the final scene.

While the casting ideas and the general storytelling machinations were already becoming antiquated by the mid-1960s, the actual cinematic approach (the staging, editing, cinematography and direction) has lost none of its power to captivate and enthral.  Shooting almost entirely on real locations, the black & white cinematography gives the film and its setting a gritty authenticity.  It's no more "realistic" than any other Hollywood film (where the lack of colour already evokes a certain old-fashioned quality; something separate from the reality), but nonetheless still expressive of something far more interesting about the morality of these characters and the uncertain world in which they exist.  To think of the context of the film and the era in which it takes place, the lack of colour and the no-nonsense approach to the composition, movement and editing of the film, seems to imply the brutality of the era; the lack of colour, the rigidity of the frame, the punch of the cutting, each creating the implication of a world without hope.

Although essentially a great action-adventure film (the scenes of barrelling locomotives, with their heavy wheels grinding atop endless lines of track, are nothing short of breathtaking in their pre-CGI excitement), it is the ending of the film that seems to push The Train towards something more philosophical and indelibly profound.  The subtext of the narrative - a train full of stolen French art - can't help but recall the iconography of the death camps; the Deutsche Reichsbahn that led innocent victims to their deaths at Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, etc.  In this sense, the attempt by Lancaster to "save" the train (and as such, save its cargo) becomes an effort to redeem the human race.  This interpretation seems manifest in the final scenes, in which Frankenheimer daringly cross-cuts images of the great paintings slung along the embankment with images of dead bodies lining the tracks.  Here the personification of the art as illustrative of human atrocity (broadly, "the art of dying") is permanently evoked.


The Day of the Locust [John Schlesinger, 1975]:
Return viewing, 13th of May, 2013.

I'd been impressed by Schlesinger's film when I first saw it during the winter of 2009, but mostly by the depiction of its vivid, apocalyptic ending; the scenes of mass hysteria and mob brutality across a shimmering Hollywood Boulevard, unforgettable in its intensity, illustrated a descent into genuine terror that seemed to push the film's critique of the American dream as both hopeless and dispiriting beyond anything I've ever experienced.  At the time, my sense was that the climax was so extraordinary and so charged with pure emotion that it overwhelmed the rest of the film, which felt inert and laborious by comparison.

Returning to the film four years later, I now realise how important the first half of the film is in giving weight to those final scenes.  Much more than establishing a context for it, or the sense of a calm before the story, it presents a loaded atmosphere in which the emotions of characters slowly simmer and stew before reaching boiling point in the most hysterical and disturbing way.  It underlines the theme of the film (and the theme of the novel by Nathanael West upon which the film is based); the idea of Hollywood as a giant machine into which these innocent but desperate enough characters are fed (willingly) through the meat grinder, all in the hope of achieving great fame and even greater fortune.

It's that vision of Hollywood as an inferno, the studio contract as Faustian pact, and how these characters, having become soulless as a result of the moral malaise of the era, find themselves robbed of all personality.  So much of the film takes place on the outskirts of the town.  The suburbs, up in the hills, or on the fringes.  It's a world blistering and sun scared.  A world populated by those who've tasted the sweet highs of the Hollywood dream but have since fallen on hard times.  Through the interwoven narrative of its central characters, Schlesinger's film picks apart the open wound of the movie industry and turns it into a psychodrama; a grotesque pageant on man's inhumanity to man.


Throne of Blood [Akira Kurosawa, 1957]:
Return viewing, 20th of May, 2013.

In the absence of anything more tangible to state, I'd like to share a little back-story.  I first saw this film as a sullen teenager, circa the late 1990s, and sad to say, I didn't really "get it."  I didn't have the depth of experience or the patience or the understanding of the original text to comprehend what Kurosawa and his collaborators were doing with this highly unorthodox and atmospheric play on Shakespeare's immortal Macbeth.  At the time, I was still discovering movies as more than just a passive pursuit, and this obsession was leading me towards films produced outside of my own culture; my own era of existence.  In short, I was unprepared for what I saw.

Without context to anchor me, the of-the-time "old-fashionedness" of the film, with its obvious interior sets, theatrical performance style and jarring use of the transitional wipe, seemed primitive to a snarky teenager already arrogant enough to assume expertise because he'd seen a few Stanley Kubrick movies.  I still see this attitude a lot on sites like IMDb and I like to think that all aspiring young movie buffs go through this period of moronic artistic rejection as a kind of rite of passage.  A process that involves dismissing the celebrated cultural artefacts that came before in an effort to build-up our own conception of cinema (based on our own individual tastes), but still safe in the knowledge that the more movies we see and experience, the greater the ability to perceive the importance of those rejected masterworks when we eventually return to them, older and wiser.

I re-discovered Kurosawa again about six years ago and have been very slowly (but surely) working my way through his filmography since.  In 2013 I saw three movies by the director.  I Live in Fear (1955) and The Hidden Fortress (1958) were both first time viewings, but it was the return viewing of the film in question that impressed me the most.  I still can't put into words exactly why the film was so exhilarating, but a lot of it had to do with the visual sensation of it.  The rolling fog, the intensity of the imagery, the sound, the performances.  The design, direction and overall atmosphere of the film is conceptually fascinating and intense - more like a horror film than a more conventional samurai epic - and my reaction, in this sense, was entirely emotional.


Larisa [Elem Klimov, 1980]:
Initial viewing, 22nd of May, 2013.

I once saw a collection of still frames from this film on another blog-site and was immediately intrigued.  I knew of Klimov only from his landmark anti-war effort, Come and See (1985), which is one of my favourite films, so I was already quite eager to see more of the director's work.  The film, in its combination of documentary, photo-montage, personal reflection and confessional, effectively functions as a tribute to a woman who no longer exists, except in images, moving and still.  The voice of the woman - conjured, phantom-like, from haunted recordings that suggest the continuation of a life beyond death - speaks, in clear terms, about the difficulties faced by the individual, and of her own influences and ideological struggles as both an artist and a woman to remain true to her own creative ambitions and intent.

The film, a kind of memorial piece assembled by the subject's husband as a response to his own state of tearful mourning, becomes a celebration of the talent of this woman; the filmmaker Larisa Shepitko.  A celebration as well as a lament, which attempts, through the combination of sound and image, to honour the spirit of this woman, but also to present, through images edited from her own films, the sadness felt by those left bruised and broken in the wake of her death.  In the gallery of lost and hopeless faces, or in the scenes of pure anguish found in Shepitko's own films - amongst them Krylya (1966) and The Ascent (1976) - Klimov is able to express, movingly, but without sentimentality, an outpouring of his own grief and admiration and the tragedy of his (and our) loss.

Beginning with a wordless montage of photographs of Shepitko showing her progression from wide-eyed infant to a glamorous and successful woman on the cusp of middle-age, the film progresses through the success and achievements of her own professional career, beyond the last attempts to film an adaptation of Valentin Rasputin's novel Farewell to Matyora, and eventually reaching a kind of conclusion at the site of the accident that claimed her life.  The film ends with the very last piece of footage ever directed by Shepitko.  An image, described by Klimov himself as "an eternal tree, the symbol of perseverance and dignity, the symbol of faith in the endless continuation of what we call life."  A final elegy, suggestive of the lasting influence of this woman, as stoical and enduring as the tree itself.


The Hitcher [Robert Harmon, 1986]:
Return viewing, 1st of June, 2013.

I'd undoubtedly seen this film before.  I remembered the plot - the set-up of the young kid picking up a hitchhiker who turns out to be a merciless killer - and I remembered the opening sequence; the rain, the headlights cutting a path through the darkness, the claustrophobia of the car itself.  I remembered the scene with Jennifer Jason Leigh and how my dad had already given away what was about to happen in the usual way that he likes to consciously spoil movies as an effort to show off his knowledge of something that others are yet to have seen.  I remember enjoying the film as a work of entertainment, but also finding it somewhat generic and disposable.  A kind of standard slasher movie "riff" that was only given a greater degree of credibility through the menacing and disarmingly charismatic performance of Rutger Hauer as the title character.

Returning to the film for the first time in what must have been a decade (if not more), I was surprised at how much I remembered from that first encounter, but even more surprised at how far the film had surpassed my earlier impressions of it.  At the time, it hadn't even registered how strange the film was.  Not just the storyline - which doesn't even strive for naturalism or plausibility, instead taking a provocative "what if..." concept and spinning it off into a genuine descent into hell - but the atmosphere of the film; the imagery and the way the unanswered questions leave room for the audience to project their own interpretations against it.  There are images that seem ripped from the most vivid of dreams or from the darkest of darkening nightmares.

Eerie scenes of deserted police stations, lost highways, suicide attempts (filmed like symbolic rituals glimpsed through a blistering lens flare), or the continual allusions to death (as representation, apropos The Seventh Seal, by Bergman), the ferryman (think Charon of Hades) and a kind of blatantly homoerotic variant on psychosexual threat.  I'd argue that there's something of The Terminator (1984) in this story of the vulnerable couple pursued by a seemingly unstoppable killing machine, with the entire narrative becoming a prolonged nightmare in which protagonists are in a sense made passive, forced to watch helplessly as events spiral so astonishingly out of control.  For me, Harmon's film is every bit as great as Cameron's tech-noir masterpiece.  It stands alongside the director's first film, the brilliant short feature, China Lake (1983), as one of the great unsung masterworks of '80s cinema.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

A Year in Film (Part One)

A Viewing List for Twenty-Thirteen

A continuation of the same theme as last year's list, "A Year in Film", subtitled "Twelve in Twenty-Twelve."  This year I'm hoping to take the list in a slightly different direction, breaking it down into four parts and covering all the significant titles that I watched, or re-watched, during the course of the preceding months.  Last year, I narrowed my final list down to only twelve titles, consisting of the ten greatest films I saw for the first time, one film that came close to actual greatness and one film that most benefited from a 2012 reappraisal.  Originally, I'd intended to do a follow up list, including an additional twenty titles (Twenty in Twenty-Twelve, etc), but by the time 2013 had edged into the summer months and the project was still nowhere near to completion, it became increasingly clear that the intended "sequel" was never going to occur.  To safeguard against this same failure for the current year, I've been directing all my efforts to completing the list in its entirety.  All other posts have been added to the backlog to create additional time to focus my attentions here.

As a result of the "Key Films" project, I've already written at length about several of the titles contained in this compendium.  As such, some of the reasons and justifications posted below will regrettably be re-written modifications of these original posts.  However, as the list progresses through the later installments, I'll be making a concentrated effort to include several additional titles that are otherwise new to the blog.  The "Key Films" series unfortunately lost momentum towards the end of the year.  This was largely the result of a technical issue (owing mostly to a broken internet connection) and the heavy burden of work.  There was also a desire to get back to the kind of film criticism that I find to be the most satisfying and rewarding.  The posts where I take specific images from films and create an analysis; pushing my own unashamedly subjective and often foolish interpretation as far as it can go.  This particular effort to study the frames and the film itself currently holds a much greater appeal, at least more-so than writing conventional reviews or just translating an opinion into text.

As with last year's list, this current installment of "A Year in Film" is not intended to be a catalogue of films released in 2013 (I still need to see at least seventy more titles before embarking on such a thing), but a list of films seen in 2013.  A kind of scrapbook of experiences, not necessarily intended to function as "proper reviews" or anything more definitive, but just an attempt to capture something of the experience and why these films, more than any others, have remained a constant, throughout.  This particular part of the list includes film seen between the very end of December 2012 and the beginning of March 2013 and will hopefully be followed by 'Part Two' sometime before the close of the subsequent week.


Come and Go [João César Monteiro, 2003]:
Initial viewing, 30th of December, 2012.  Return viewing, 28th of December, 2013.

This one's a bit of a cheat, since the film wasn't initially a 2013 discovery.  However, its position as a first time viewing unfortunately fell between the completion of last year's list, Twelve in Twenty-Twelve (in which I acknowledged the presence of Monteiro's 1999 film, The Spousals of God, as a personal favourite), and the beginning of the 'viewing log' project (in which I discussed, in brief, the same director's 1989 feature, Recollections of the Yellow House).  This, as an omission, was especially infuriating, since Come and Go was perhaps the finest film I saw during the entire course of 2012.  Just to make it legitimate, I re-watched the film this past December (almost exactly a year later) and found the second experience to be even more affecting, amusing and immersive than the first.

As the title suggests, Come and Go is a film of encounters, stops and journeys.  The central character, the intellectual but irrepressible João Vuvu (a protagonist not entirely dissimilar to Monteiro's notorious alter ego, João de Deus), rides the bus across Lisbon on his way to meet a succession of old friends and acquaintances.  The daily rituals here establish a particular structure; one in which the journey by bus seems intended to link the lonely but decadent home life of the central character (as defined by his often hilarious efforts to find and eventually seduce a replacement for his malingerer maid) to the social engagements that punctuate his passage through the rest of the film.  Here, the character and his various companions indulge in lengthy conversations about life and their experiences, as if already anticipating the finality of their own individual days.

Characteristic of late Monteiro, Come and Go is a work both contemplative and episodic in presentation.  An observational film, where the use of those long-held, static compositions, seem designed to transform the interactions, conversations, arguments and events into moments of living theatre.  However, it is in the film's final scene (staged beneath a giant cedar tree in the Principe Real Garden), that Monteiro performs his greatest miracle.  Here, the tree itself - age'd and alone, but with deep roots that connect it to this place; this park that first appeared in the director's second film, He Who Awaits Dead Men's Shoes Dies Barefoot (1970) - becomes symbolic of the character's own place within the infinite.  A fitting backdrop to this final dance of light, as reflected in a ghostly eye.


On the Beat [Robert Asher, 1962]:
Initial viewing, 25th of January, 2013.

I'm not entirely sure how well-known Norman Wisdom is outside the UK, but his early films - in particular those in which he played a variation on his sympathetic and proudly proletariat 'Pitkin' persona - made the comedian a national treasure.  I watched several of his early films during the summer of 2012 and enjoyed them to the greatest extent; so much so that I eventually bought a budget-priced Norman Wisdom box-set containing twelve films that would effectively see me through into the following year.  While most of the films contained in this set were very good - especially Trouble in Store (1953), One Good Turn (1954), Man of the Moment (1955) and the satirical The Square Peg (1958) - it is the film in question that seems to me to endure as the definitive Wisdom benchmark.

The best of Wisdom's work most often played to the social limitations of the performer.  Characteristically, his Pitkin protagonist - the weedy, well-meaning and defiantly working class naïf - finds himself the butt of the joke when removed from the comfort of his own social stratum and placed within an environment that necessitates a certain level of order, privilege and efficiency.  This juxtaposition between the character's own unashamedly unaffected demeanour against the more "hoity-toity" attitude of his new surroundings, provides the film with its comic set-up.  As the initial narrative draws cheap laughs from the havoc and disruption caused by Pitkin's well-intentioned buffoonery, it is the over-the-top reactions of indignation of the supporting characters that ultimately turns the joke against these oppressors.  The film exposes, through the mistreatment of Pitkin, the often cruel and discriminatory exploitation of the layperson by any close-minded establishment, be it government, industry or military.

The physical comedy, which throughout the film makes full use of Wisdom's near-acrobatic ability to run, jump and hurl himself recklessly through moments of pantomime-like silliness, is genuinely unsurpassed in its invention, but really, it's the personal context of the film that gives the slapstick a greater emotional weight.  In On the Beat, the hope and longing of the central character to become a celebrated policeman like his father before him, propels the narrative, but also gives purpose to these extended set-pieces, the madcap plot and the "Walter Mitty-like" fantasy sequences that establish the character as a hopeless dreamer.  It infuses the comedy with a delicate sadness that only adds to the other elements of romance and whimsy, which in turn, categorise and define the typical Wisdom approach.


Roselyne and the Lions [Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1989]:
Initial viewing, 29th of January, 2013.

In 2012, I was finally able to tick-off one of those obscure "Holy Grail" titles that had long since eluded me.  The film was Moon in the Gutter (1982) by Jean-Jacques Beineix.  This year (2013), I repeated the same feat by experiencing another of those longed-for titles that had otherwise remained unseen.  The same director's forgotten masterpiece, Roselyne and the Lions.  While I enjoyed Moon in the Gutter as both an oddity and an expression of what Godard once called "pure cinema", the film was ultimately too alienating (by design) to have any greater impact beyond the surface of its ornate and often dazzling production design and impeccable cinematography.  With "Roselyne" however, there was no such issue with commitment.  The allure of the work was instantaneous!

Throughout the film, Beineix uses the exhibition of lion taming as a metaphor for the often destructive impulses that drive the modern relationship.  This is a courtship 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 wild beasts that stalk and prowl the barred perimeter of the cage - works as a visual representation of the characters' love for one another.  A mad love, or impetuous love, that is all-powerful and all-consuming.  A dangerous and destructive love that seems volatile enough to spill out into violence or to blossom, flower-like, into something more rich and beautiful.  A display of chaste emotion, which, in its graceful theatricality, becomes art.

Viewed in its complete, 180 minute director's cut, the experience of Beineix's film and the work of the actors when face-to-face with these ferocious lions that respond and perform to their every command, is breathtaking in its authenticity.  The combination of this reckless, dazzling demonstration of technique, in contrast with the more intimate, character-driven story, moves as much as it enthrals.  In a year defined by the CGI excess of films like The Desolation of Smaug, Gravity and Pacific Rim, it seems increasingly more difficult for an audience to actually believe in what they've seen.  The thrill of "Roselyne" is as such in its legitimacy.  Like the best work of Werner Herzog, this is a film that exists as an effort to film the un-filmable.  To capture something real and miraculous on-screen.


Nouvelle vague [Jean-Luc Godard, 1990]:
Return viewing, 18th of February, 2013.

This was something I've returned to recently.  I first saw it a long time ago - 2006, maybe - when I was still at university.  I remember borrowing it from the campus library on a badly damaged video recording and finding it almost impossible to make sense of the subtitles through the worn-out tracking of the VHS.  As far as the memory goes, I recall more than anything being transfixed by Godard's framing and camera movements and by the beauty of Domiziana Giordano - who I recognised as the actress from Tarkovsky's masterpiece Nostalghia (1983) and from Neil Jordan's blockbuster Anne Rice adaptation Interview with the Vampire (1994) - even if many of the more subtle or intellectual nuances of the film itself were eventually lost in translation.

I still enjoyed the film a great deal.  I'd already become a fan of Godard in 2002 when I saw A Woman is A Woman (1961), Le Mépris (1963) and Éloge de l'amour (2001) almost back to back during the course of the school holidays.  I wouldn't become a true Godard "fanatic" until early 2008, but this was undoubtedly the start of the journey.  Returning to the film now, with a greater comprehension of its author's work, I understood the intentions of the film a little clearer and could see through the more inscrutable or elusive aspects to the themes and emotions beneath.  On the surface, Nouvelle vague seems suitably impenetrable; awash as it is with quotations, references and attempts to dismantle the narrative or the connection between the audience and the work through disruptive and experimental filmmaking techniques.  This is the snare of Godard's iconoclastic methodology that tends to turn the more casual viewer away.  However, the elliptical and poetic nature of the work is worth persevering with, if only to savour the hypnotic grandeur of its sounds and images, or the expressions of its actors and its text.

In persisting with the film and approaching it on a level where every cut, sound and image is expressive of something greater, the sentiments and ideas of the film become clear.  Though there are further allusions to class and the economy, and the presentation of the house itself, with its various layers and hierarchical structures as a microcosm for society in general, it is the story of the couple in crisis that really gives the film its reason for being.  As is characteristic of Godard, the couple is symbolic - their inability to meet, literally and metaphorically, speaks to a greater inability that goes beyond the narrative intrigues of the film - but this aspect exists without diminishing the pain, passion and confusion that makes their relationship so affecting and true.


The Howling [Joe Dante, 1981]:
Initial viewing, 19th of February, 2013.

In last year's equivalent of the end of year list, I incorrectly dated the re-watch of Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) as the 11th of March, 2012.  It was actually the 11th of December.  The date is significant, because it was in seeing Gremlins 2 for the first time since childhood that I was able to perceive Dante's work in a richer, more enlightened context.  It set me off on a journey of rediscovery that has continued throughout the subsequent year.  This reclaiming of Dante's work reached something of an apex back in February, when I watched and then re-watched three of the director's greatest films: Matinee (1993), Homecoming (2005) and the work in question.  These three films, when seen in the context of Gremlins 2, confirmed Dante's reputation as one of the great subversive pop-artists of the last four decades.

While The Howling functions primarily as a homage to the werewolf genre - its quotations from The Wolf Man (1941) and The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) for instance establishing a certain self-awareness of tone that predates the analogous genre deconstructions of Quentin Tarantino by more than a decade - there is still so much more to the film than a simple play of references.  In establishing their narrative, Dante and his screenwriter John Sayles use the idea of lycanthropy to effectively explore the concept of "the beast within"; creating a context for the film in which the initial attacks are perceived by the media to be the work of a vicious sex-killer, and where the film's primary setting, "the colony" - a riff on the then-cultural trend for health spas and communal 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 to the often transgressive nature of the horror film in general.

However, it is in the film's last minute descent into full-blown Looney Tunes satire that The Howling reaches a level of genuine transcendence.  As the werewolf begins its graphic and harrowing transformation during the broadcast of a live TV news bulletin, Dante cuts to the reactions of a stunned audience watching the scene from the safety of their respective living rooms.  The full range of responses are intended to mirror the reactions of the movie audience when faced with the same scene (some are shocked, others laugh at the absurdity, while others can't believe their eyes).  In this penultimate moment, the filmmaker seeks to question the authenticity of the recorded image.  The idea that seeing is no longer believing for an audience worn down by the exploitations of the global media age.


The Oak [Laila Pakalniņa, 1997]:
Initial viewing, 24th of February, 2013.

The first image of the film introduces the idea of the oak as "protagonist"; a central figure, observing; connected to everything.  A short on-screen caption then informs us that the tree in this village (in the Seja region of Latvia, where the film takes place) is seven-hundred years old.  As would occur in Pakalniņa's later film, Teodors (2006), a living symbol of age and wisdom is being presented as the silent witness to the daily struggles and encounters of a small village almost forgotten by the modern world.  In Teodors, the witness was the film's title character; an elderly man who watched the various comings and goings of his small village from a bench outside the local bus stop; the visible scars of age and experience marked as the wrinkled crevices upon his face.

The presence of Teodors - his existence as a relic, out of step, out of time - worked to connect the past to the present; his own continuing subsistence as a reminder to these people of the things that came before.  In The Oak, the tree - this still "living" thing, which has existed for centuries, ever present - fulfils the same social and narrative function as the age'd man.  It has weathered the march of time.  It perseveres - remains standing, stoical - out-lasting the lives of others.  It is a genuine part of this community and as such effected by the same hardships and sorrows faced by its citizens, albeit, in a less tangible way.

In creating the film, the intention of Pakalniņa is essentially to document the daily lives and experiences of these characters who struggle to survive in a place where work is limited and even a warm cup of coffee or a hot bath have become a luxury that few can afford.  In having these people introduce themselves - establishing the context of life in the village, their stories and experiences - Pakalniņa is connecting the setting to its inhabitants.  However, she's also presenting the tree as the eternal symbol of resolution and continued existence in order to create a point.  Times may be hard for these people (here documented by Pakalniņa's attentive, sympathetic camera, which transforms moments of actuality into frames of vivid still life), but the preservation of this tree - as an emblem of personal endurance - provides hope.


How I Won the War [Richard Lester, 1967]:
Initial viewing, 26th of February, 2013.

It took me several months to clarify what I wanted to say about Lester's film.  Not necessarily because it's a challenging or even difficult film to make sense of (although certainly it "flouts" narrative convention), but because so much of its ability to provoke a response from the audience results from the often difficult to define juxtaposition of horrific, real-life stock-footage of second world war atrocity with scenes of ironic pastiche, comic parody and a filmmaking approach that is intended to break the fourth wall at every conceivable opportunity.  To put it into a more understandable context, think of it like this...  What if the Monty Python team were to update Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) to a WWII setting and used the film to offset their own characteristically surreal sense of humour with a solemn anger and serious bitterness that sought to express a genuine sense of outrage at the way the war had been exploited by institutions looking to turn the suffering and sacrifice of soldiers into sensationalism and profit.

The image posted above sort of gets to the point of what Lester's work is suggesting; depicting, on the one hand, a very real and very disturbing tragedy of a soldier maimed in combat, but presenting it in a way that is almost absurdly matter-of-fact.  Throughout the film, the violence (both factual and fictional) is depicted in a way that is no less shocking than any other motion-picture on the same subject and theme, but instead of adorning such sequences with a melodramatic bombast or hand-wringing sentimentality equivalent to that of the films of Oliver Stone or Steven Spielberg, the scenes are frequently treated by characters as nothing more than a mild inconvenience.  Soldiers even return from the dead and continue fighting as colour-coded revenants; their entire bodies painted garish colours as if to suggest that death is the only way to break free of the conformity of the uniform, but also giving these characters the same appearance as one of those miniature plastic toy soldiers made famous as supporting characters in the John Lasseter film, Toy Story (1995).

It could be said that Lester's film exaggerates the absurdity of war in order to create a political commentary, but this is only partly true.  What the film does, more specifically, is exaggerate the absurdity of the war film, or anti-war film, as both a genre and approach.  In using humour to cut through the solemnity of the subject matter and to create a sense of over-the-top, almost 'cartoonish' insanity, Lester and his screenwriter Charles Wood are taking apart the clichés of the war movie that they find to be the most appalling and disingenuous.  This is why Lester often referred to the film as an "anti anti-war movie"; the distinction making explicit the idea that the film was not intended to make fun of war, or to diminish or devalue the struggles and sacrifices of those that fought it, but instead attempting to reveal the insincerity and the hypocrisy of the way war is often depicted through the media, and in the cinema especially.


The Territory [Raúl Ruiz, 1981]:
Initial viewing, 4th of March, 2013.

The Territory is a work that I'd been eager to see ever since I first heard about it in relation to Wim Wenders' The State of Things (1982).  The story goes that the Ruiz film ran out of money.  Wenders was visiting some friends who were working for Ruiz and in order to keep the crew from leaving decided to make a film of his own.  Using the cast and crew assembled by Ruiz, Wenders made a film that commented directly on the situation - in which a group of actors and technicians are left stranded at a resort in Portugal after their producer makes off with the cash - while also adding a more personal subtext that sought to express his own frustrations with producer Francis Ford Coppola during the making of the ill-fated Hammett (1982).

As my knowledge of Ruiz and his work began to grow, my obsession with seeing this phantom film became even greater.  In finally seeing the film this past March, I was happy to confirm that the experience was exactly what I'd hoped it would be.  The Territory is as mysterious, maddening and magical as one might expect from the director responsible for films like Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1978), City of Pirates (1983) and The Nucingen House (2008), with the same elaborate style, hypnotic atmosphere and puzzle-box narrative used to enliven what initially seems to be no more than a standard exploitation movie.

At its most direct, the narrative of Ruiz's film involves a group of young professionals on a camping holiday who become lost and disoriented in a forest that eventually takes on an almost supernatural quality (leading to a psychological deterioration that is intended to function on a level of social satire).  One can draw obvious parallels with a more mainstream film, such as Deliverance (1972), or even the overt-horror iconography of Friday the 13th (1980), however the real subtext of Ruiz's work is essentially much closer to that of Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend (1967), where the descent of its characters into savage cannibalistic aggressors becomes expressive of both the decline of western civilisation and the madness of the modern-age.


I Confess [Alfred Hitchcock, 1953]:
Initial viewing, 10th of March, 2013.

At the time I first saw Hitchcock's perhaps most underrated masterpiece, the mordantly titled I Confess, the 'Viewing Log' series was already reaching an end and was about to merge with the 'Key Films' project, and in the madness of all that nonsense the intention of writing about the film was seemingly lost.  I tried to come back to it again in October, but by this time the impetus had gone.  The best I could do was a veiled reference in the title of another post...  It was unfortunate, since I Confess both moved and enthralled me more so than any other film directed by Hitchcock, including his iconic masterworks, such as Rear Window (1954) and The Birds (1963).  The film has all the trademarks of the director's greatest work - the peerless filmmaking, the tension, the ambiguity - but with a solemnity and an austerity that made the theatrical and largely sombre development of the drama feel like a departure.

Though some will no doubt balk at the suggestion, the film for me evoked the spirit of Hitchcock by way of Robert Bresson.  It wasn't just the religious aspect of the narrative or the questions raised on the notions of piety, conviction and guilt that seemed to circle back to a film like Diary of a Country Priest (1951) or even the subsequent Pickpocket (1959), but the tone of the film.  The comparatively more restrained and static approach, which at first seems to work against the immediate expectations of what a Hitchcock film "is" or should achieve, but eventually allows the director to better engage the audience, not least in the characteristic scenes of anxiety and suspense, but in the emotional life of his protagonist and in the moral dilemmas that occur as a result of his plight.

In approaching the film as a work of suspense, it is the blamelessness of the character (and his numbing sense of conviction) that becomes the literal "bomb under the table."  The audience is aware of his innocence from the very first scene, but the characters that populate this world are unconvinced.  They read and misread past experiences and statements made with the intention to protect until they became like the ever tightening noose around the neck of this man whose faith binds his words in silence.  As the viewer becomes further invested in the life and sacrifices of this character and in his unwavering belief (in the face of such hideous lies and accusations), we yearn, with all honesty, for a last minute reprieve; a confession, from anyone still willing to do the right thing; to intercede in the absence of God, on behalf of the innocent.


Wanda Gosciminska, a Textile Worker [Wojciech Wiszniewski, 1975]:
Initial viewing, 12th of March, 2013.

This was the first of two films by Wojciech Wiszniewski that I saw during the course of the last twelve months.  The other, ABC Book/The Primer (1976), was also a work of extraordinary vision and originality and could have easily made the list were it not for the more significant experience of the film in question.  What elevated Wanda Gosciminska, a Textile Worker above the other Wiszniewski film was ultimately the clarity of its ideas (at least in relation to its strange and often provocative imagery) as well as the more personal or emotive feeling that its subject enthused.  Unlike the subsequent film - which often felt like a series of disconnected sketches, which, when viewed in totality, evoke a specific point - the work in question has a markedly more graspable and definable narrative as communicated by its central character.

The film chronicles the life-story of its protagonist - this determined worker, who, through the course of her reminiscence, becomes the prevailing symbol of not just socialism, but a personification of the industrial revolution - however, it does so in a highly imaginative and unconventional way.  As such, defining the work of Wiszniewski, as a filmmaker, is difficult.  His films purport to be documentaries, but are presented in a highly stylised and cryptic approach, using intense stylisations.  The places, people, statistics and ideas put forth in these films are factual and true, but are embellished and exaggerated through the process of filmmaking in an effort to create a greater level of social commentary.  While conventionally such stylisations would deny the film its authenticity, the direction actually makes Wiszniewski's point more clear and precise.

By reducing Wanda's life and her experiences to a series of representations, the filmmaker creates a form of narrative criticism that functions on the same level as the illustrations in a children's book.  It's not merely a case of providing a diagram to the memory of the film's events, but instead interpreting these events and creating a visual adaption that is larger than life and as such expressive of something even greater than the reality.  Through this particular stylisation, Wanda Gosciminska becomes a film where the images "speak"; communicating through the surface of the thing (which is surreal, captivating and symbolic in presentation) a particular dilemma; a condition, both moral and socio-political.  Through exaggeration, the film is able to find the satirical subtext of the presentation, without turning the efforts of its protagonist, real or fictitious, into a joke.