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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.