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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.