Thursday, 5 June 2014

Key Films #30

Carrie [Brian De Palma, 1976]:

What feels like one of De Palma's less personal films - at least in terms of how well it communicates the various interests and obsessions that most often define his work - is ultimately informed, if not elevated, by the remarkable lead performance of Sissy Spacek and by some of the most daring and elaborate stylisations of the director's career.  Perhaps because De Palma was conscious of the lack of individual investment - the influence of his own preoccupations, such as voyeurism, dual personalities and the self-reflexive relationship between the viewer and the work are all absent - the filmmaker over-compensated by indulging in all manner of audio-visual tricks.  The end result is a veritable showcase for De Palma's unparalleled ability to manipulate and stun the senses of an audience through an active experimentation with the filmmaking form.  Slow-motion is intercut with images played at twice the normal speed; split-screen effects convey contrasting perspectives; saturated colours suggest the growing emotional intensity of the title character; while the use of jump-cuts and those long, carefully choreographed sequences (which define the third act) create incomparable feelings of both terror and suspense.

Surprisingly, such cinematic extremes never distract (or detract) from the emotional context of the story, nor from the subtle nuances of Spacek's work.  If anything, De Palma's bold and often dizzying direction enhances the drama, imbuing the film with a dreamlike quality that succeeds in presenting the life of its character almost as if a fairy-tale-like fable - a Cinderella distortion complete with real-world manifestation of the evil step-mother - but in a way that makes the progression of the narrative and the treatment of its character all the more convincing.  The audience is able to share in the loneliness of Carrie - her fear and exclusion - just as easily as we can share in the pain, anger and inevitable retribution, precisely because De Palma has worked so hard to place the audience (through the use of editing, sound, design and cinematography) in the same emotional and psychological sphere.  This not only makes some of the more sudden shifts from high school melodrama to full-blown supernatural hysteria more palatable, it gives the drama a genuine heart and poignancy that allows the audience to better identify with something that is, on the surface at least, entirely paranormal.


The Girl from Monday [Hal Hartley, 2005]:

The narrative requires no greater elucidation.  The themes are explicit, established via the initial voice-over, or through the discussions between its various protagonists, providing context and clarification throughout.  The depiction of a (near) future society where consumerism has become more than just a new religion but a genuine obligation (human interaction as commoditisation; everything a product, a brand; monetary transactions; goods & services, etc), owes a clear debt to the work of writers like Aldous Huxley, Margaret Atwood and Philip K. Dick.  Likewise, the stylisations of the film and its cold, modernist metropolis - where emotional commitment and individual expression seem punishable by exile, if not death - are very much influenced by the no less unconventional dystopia of films like Alphaville (1965) by Jean-Luc Godard, World on a Wire (1973) by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Code 46 (2003) by Michael Winterbottom, to name a few.  In developing the background of the narrative, Hartley has taken the lead from such creative fictions and - in a very succinct way - appropriated their collective influence to further his own highly charged socio-political observations on the culture as it exists (or might exist) through the first part of the twenty-first century.

The presentation of this culture is exaggerated for the purpose of creative satire, but is still recognisable as a commentary on the world, circa 2005 -  the year the film was released - and on where our own society seems to be progressing, now, almost a decade later.  Issues like terrorism and insurrection - and the idea of exiled "immigrants" with poor credit ratings denied access to a more comfortable way of life - are very much keyed into that post-9/11 mindset of fear and surveillance (already mined in genre deconstructions like The  Village (2004), Land of the Dead (2005) and Southland Tales, 2006), while the very idea of a future society essentially governed and controlled by a mass-media communications company speaks to the contemporary obsession with consumer branding, fashion, technology (the Apple™ logo proudly displayed on the character's laptop), tabloid information and viral sensations.  While such themes and their appearances might possibly seem obvious, it's the unconventional (and at times brazenly naive) stylisation of Hartley's direction that perhaps requires additional justification.

Imagined on a minimal budget, Hartley envisions the film as a series of intimate close-ups.  This reinforces  the contradictory idea of a world of intense physical closeness that is devoid of any genuine emotional intimacy.  Characters are forced - by over-crowding, or over-population - to share space, but the requirements of this future-world have made bodily contact or acts of physical seduction, romance and sexual activity completely prohibited without the necessary paperwork.  It suggests a very pertinent push/pull between spatial connection and personal disconnection, which already seems a reality of life in this new digital age.  Further stylistic experiments are no less audacious and seem intended to create a sense of disorientation (even artificiality), where the visual stimulation of the world offers a kind of sensory overload.  Canted-angles combine with saturated colours - amber, grey, blue pastels and neon - stroboscopic effects, editorial ellipses, black & white sequences and a minimalist electronic soundtrack.  The result is a film that takes on an almost ambient quality; an emotional tonality that is as lulled, languorous and lyrical as the music that accompanies its strange and often abstract imagery, or the very leisurely progression of its fragmented, suitably elliptical scenes.


Ghost in the Shell [Mamoru Oshii, 1995]:

Two characters are sat on a boat in the harbour.  It's sundown.  The lights of the city shimmer iridescently, like artificial stars in the night sky.  The first half of the film has been an endless tableau of scenes of balletic action, chaos and disarray; the action unrelenting, but also used to establish the bare necessities of a convoluted plot.  We've seen a bombardment of assassination attempts, gun battles, car chases and infinite pursuits through the busy streets, but here the narrative finally settles, it slows, finds its emotional centre.  It takes a short moment to exhale and let the characters speak, and for the first time they become more than just stylish avatars intended to appeal to the adolescent ideas of machismo, or fantasised (female) sexuality, but expressive of a deeper emotion; a personality, driven by a system of thoughts, anxieties and dreams.  It's an amazing scene and one that becomes a kind of skeleton key to understanding the greater themes of the work, its title and the relationship between its central characters.  It plants the seed of an interpretation, where the struggle between our heroes to retain aspects of their own humanity (in this instance, the literal ghost in the shell) is a fight against their programmed role as mechanised objects intended for a specific task.

The revelation of this significant existential conundrum dovetails beautifully into another extraordinary sequence.  A montage of ambient moments depicting the topography of the city at night.  Street scenes, actuality or expressions of "still life" (reminiscent, in presentation, to scenes found in the Ridley Scott directed landmark, Blade Runner, 1982) that illustrate the actual life of the city, provide a more grounded or reliable contrast to the generic action sequences that have previously defined the film.  The sequence is immediately effective; it brings us down to earth; reminds us that this is still a fully functioning word; that although there is this other narrative taking place - with its conspiracies, deceptions and cyber-terrorism - there is still a very real and very tangible backdrop to this fantasy; a world filled with ordinary people, struggling to endure.  More than this, the scene also provides a further (visual) illustration of what the film is essentially about.  These images of people, coexisting, cohabitating with new technology - the technology of the new world - is like a mirror to the role of the central characters.  If these cyborgs represent this new technology, then these images of mundane, run of the mill subsistence represent a reflection of that dream of the human experience; that lost (archaic) humanity that the characters still cling to.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Key Films #29

Mad Love [Karl Freund, 1935]:

To quote Shakespeare's Hamlet, "the play's the thing."  As much as the viewer might marvel at the film's combination of macabre horror and darkly comic Gothicism - this story of a doctor and his sad descent into madness and murder - it's for me the central motif of the spectator, witnessing something on stage and becoming transfixed to the point of hysterical folly, which defines the experience of this strange and unsettling work.  Again, it's perhaps symptomatic of a peculiar fondness I seem to have for films that are self-aware; that use the nature of viewing and the subjective investment of the individual to comment on the action itself; that self-reflexivity of the narrative and the way that it seems to acknowledge the divide between the audience and the work through the development of its central character, the sinister Doctor Gogol.  Here is a man who falls in love with the figure of a woman; an actress in a play.   He loves, not the physical embodiment of this woman, living and breathing, but a representation; the "image", or the character she plays.  Unable to possess this woman in any physical sense, the mad doctor objectifies her (literally, the corporeal-form replaced by a wax mannequin) and uses this idealised surrogate to develop a narrative of his own construction.

It's a narrative in which his own heroic gesture - a medical procedure to mend the actress's husband; left maimed in a terrible smash - elevates this character to a level of saviour in the eyes those closest to him, before the inevitable reality of rejection leads to a guilt and shame that taints this act (this gesture, first noble and worthy), exposing it to be no more than a desperate and callous attempt at blackmail and manipulation.  Of course the film can still be read as a more literal narrative - a gloriously ghoulish horror story propelled by the unhinged but still sympathetic performance of Peter Lorre; this character destroyed by his own feelings of amour fou - but I prefer to see Freund's film as more of a projection of Gogol's own over-active imagination.  His sadism and lust for violence - which finds some kind of expression in his pioneering surgeries - becomes aroused by the grisly theatrical performance that begins the film.  From here the character will create his fantasy from the world around him; adapting the people and places significant to his own life and transforming them into supporting characters and locations in a perverse form of psycho-drama.  Here the suffering of the woman on stage creates the seed for his own invented fantasy; a reflection of his own tortured mind.


The Possession [Ole Bornedal, 2012]:

For me, movies based around the idea of demonic possession always fall apart once the religious aspects are introduced and taken seriously by the characters on screen.  As much as disbelief can be suspended, the attempt to present these things objectively - as actual "semi-scientific" phenomena - pushes the narrative towards scenes of nonsensical incantation, bizarre ceremonies and the most ridiculous justifications delivered with a straight face.  As a general tenet, this is also true of The Possession, which seems, sadly, unfortunate, since the earlier domestic aspects of the film are very strong.  There is a great dynamic between the disintegrating family and the way Bornedal uses the image of the unfinished house as a metaphor for familial disruption and the abandonment of traditional family values and ideals.  Equally, there is a similarly interesting but un-developed subtext of child abuse and the role of the parent as protector (or guardian) against something so unspeakably evil that it becomes impossible to comprehend.  Elements like the little girl's animosity towards the step-dad or the needlessly cruel retribution that later befalls the substitute "father figure", seem to point towards a kind of brutality, unstated, genuinely insidious, but emotionally more complex.

With further development, the relationship between the young daughter and this new "dad" (already seen by the suspicious father as a destructive influence; effectively intruding on and disrupting the sanctity of the family home) is, in fragments at least, evocative of the real-world atrocities of sexual exploitation.  It's not a pleasant idea to entertain, at least not in the context of a film primarily made for escapist pursuits, but it is one that seems to offer some explanation for the events, at least beyond the film's main emphasis on the dybbuk myth.  It also makes sense in the context of the film's narrative, or what might be read as abstract allusions to the destruction of innocence; the possession as something that destroys both body and soul.  The setting - that unfinished house - and the continual return to domestic spaces that suggest vulnerability (the bedroom) or cleanliness (the bathroom), speak to the disruption of the home, as a symbol.  Likewise, the way the possession itself (which occurs, initially, while the child is sleeping) seems to transform the character, physically as well as psychologically, in a way depicts the trauma of the situation in a symbolic or even metaphorical approach.  By rejecting this line of thought in favour of a more conventional horror film narrative (where the demon is literally the monster in the box), The Possession becomes less affecting.  Just another story of demonic invasion that riffs a little too heavily on the iconography of The Exorcist (1973) to ever really develop a true identity of its own.

Having said that, the film certainly has its merits.  The cold, Kubrickian approach of Bornedal and his crew lends the film an unsettling ambience.  Its monochromatic colour scheme - mostly shades of black, white and grey, offset by a remarkable sequence of saturated red - and the static composition of shots are a contrast to the garish, vulgar, undisciplined horror of contemporaries like Alexandre Aja and James Wan.  It seems a more classical, European style, in which the use of silence, darkness and space (and empty spaces in particular) helps to create a feeling of isolation and escalating unease that is expressive of the character's condition.  Also, the intermittent stabs of piano on the soundtrack, which signal the transition between scenes with a disquieting cut-to-black, gives the film an odd and awkward rhythm that amplifies both the tension and uncertainty; almost as if the entire film is drifting through the moments of a possessed (or dispossessed) state.  While far from perfect, The Possession seems to me a rare horror film made by someone who understands that the genre is at its best when working with silence, subtlety and characters that are emotionally appealing.  We care about the progression of the narrative only because we care about the characters - the father and his daughters - and the situation that they're in.


Zombie [Lucio Fulci, 1979]:

The first image (a gun pointing directly towards the barrel of the lens; into the "face" of the assumed audience) intercut with the second (the living dead - head shrouded by a bed sheet death mask - stirring from its eternal sleep) sets up the central conflict as it will develop through the rest of the film.  No need to establish a context or justification; the suggestion is enough to whet the appetite, already drawing us in.  In the next shot, the gun takes aim.  Cut again to the shrouded zombie, still rising from the bed.  Bang!  The head of the veiled figure - this monster - explodes in a torrent of gore.  From this, it would be easy (if not amusing) to interpret this opening action as a subliminal message from Fulci to the potential viewer.  "Don't pay this too much attention", it seems to declare; "eliminate the brainpan; exterminate all rational thought!"  However, while the resulting plot and the action of its central characters might strain credibility, forcing the audience to suspend disbelief and to see the film as little more than a violent frivolity, the actual direction of the thing - specifically the creation of a heavy atmosphere of foreboding and dread; to say nothing of the staging, or the use of space - is comparatively more sophisticated and, in all sincerity, even bold.

The audacity of Fulci's direction is immediately apparent in the subsequent scene, wherein a boat - set-up during the pre-credit dialogue - drifts into a New York city harbour (the actuality of the Manhattan skyline looming large upon the horizon) and immediately arouses the suspicions of the NYPD.  The boat seems to be unmanned, but in true horror movie fashion turns out to be carrying an unwanted cargo; thus setting in motion the gears of this strange and alarming plot.  The reality of the setting and the seemingly guerrilla filmmaking techniques used to give the film its sense of urgency (Fulci and his cinematographer Sergio Salvati shooting handheld with wide-angle lenses; the policemen apparently played by genuine off-duty cops) jars against the unreality of the action; this zombie rising from the ship's cabin with an unhealthy appetite for flesh.  Like many films by Fulci, Zombie maintains this strange feeling of something occurring both in and out of a recognisable reality; part daydream, part delusion.   Nothing makes sense, the logic is flawed, the tonal shifts are abrupt and irrational, but the atmosphere is redolent with fear and apprehension, the violence is shocking (but impossible to turn away from) and the imagery is overwhelming, provocative and surreal.