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.

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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.

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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.