Thursday, 20 February 2014

Lumière and Company #2


Film by Film [Hypothesis Cont'd]


Lumière and Company [John Boorman, 1995]:

 Soldiers on parade.  An image from the past - the actuality as documentary - as if some unknown cameraman had just happened to be on-hand to record footage of the Easter Rising of 1916.  Suddenly a man in contemporary clothing walks through the perimeter of the frame.  He carries film equipment; lights and cables.  The illusion of the past is suddenly shattered.  This is not the reality, but a re-enactment.  Not a moment of actual historical interest, but a gesture, to the past from the present.  Just as these modern-day actors and extras are playing the part of historical figures, Boorman, the contemporary filmmaker, is playing the part of the pioneer.  His film, in its very construction, is likewise a gesture to the past from the present.  Like the film by Vicente Aranda, Boorman's short is an observation of a working film-set; in this instance, Neil Jordan's production of Michael Collins (1996).  Again, one thinks of the spirit of revolution (or insurrection) as a shorthand for the artistic and cultural revolution of the cinema itself.

Like the films by Allouache, Angelopoulos, Costa-Gavras, etc, Boorman has his actors (or specifically Jordan's actors) break the fourth wall - acknowledging the presence of the camera (and with it the perspective of the audience) - because it is the device itself, the film camera as an artefact, or antique, that holds such fascination and makes it possible for the audience to enter these olds worlds, to traverse time and space, or to explore this terrain, both geographical and psychological in nature.


Lumière and Company [Theodoros Angelopoulos, 1995]:

There is a quote that states, "The image, alone capable of denying nothingness, is also the gaze of nothingness on us."  Ulysses' gaze - the title of another film by Angelopoulos, depicted, literally, herein - is the gaze of our own restless curiosity; our fascination with this device that makes possible the manipulation of time and our own ability to document "the self"; the memory of our own recorded myths and legends, forever real, because we've seen it, on-screen.  The question is, does the film depict the "history" (our history, or that of Angelopoulos) acknowledging the perspective of cinema, or is history becoming cinema as the cinema becomes past?  I don't know!  But the stare of the actor is intense.  More intense than any actor in a film by Stanley Kubrick; the camera more focused, more intent, than in the films of Robert Bresson.  The combination of the two forces burn a hole through the screen; transforming and transfixing, terrifying and provoking, making this particular viewer shift, uncomfortably, as the gaze of the character becomes more like an accusation than a questioning glance.

Again, like in the previous segments by Boorman and Allouache (and several other segments to be discussed at a later date), the notion of the subject itself turning the attention away from its own natural spectacle to the action off-screen is, in some small way, an acknowledgment that it is the camera (or those of us on the other side of the lens) that remains the real point of interest.  While the name 'Ulysses' brings to mind Odysseus and Homer's epic tales, I was reminded more of the poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and that image of Ulysses as an old man, having seen his greatest exploits now behind him, becoming weary with the modern world.  This Ulysses, like the figure on screen, is restless to once again look beyond the horizon, to explore, to uncover new mysteries and adventures.  Therefore the face of this man becomes the personification of the art itself; once an infant (as below), now stunned or destroyed by the hundred-years of horror, wonder and amazement that its gaze has been a witness to.


Lumière and Company [Juan José Bigas Luna, 1995]:

A simple, static observation.  A woman sits in a field, nursing her baby.  Immediately, it conjures the image of the Madonna and child.  This kind of earthy sexuality is often at the centre of Bigas Luna's work, but there is nothing leering or perverse about this display.  It's provocative - without question - but never erotic, nor sensationalist.  If we can infer anything from this film at all it is the natural act - the nurturing of the child by the mother against this backdrop of a freshly ploughed earth - and the idea that this subject - impressionist in nature - is worthy of historical documentation.  It's taking the medium, by now more accustomed to large-scale spectacle, action and adventure, and bringing it back to the most quiet and intimate of everyday scenes.  If we look at Bigas Luna's film on a more symbolic level, then there might even be a more significant meaning to what is being depicted.

Is the director acknowledging that the cinema of the Lumière's - as re-created here - was a moment of birth, now nurtured, a hundred years later - as if to suggest that the history of film is still in its infancy - or perhaps that the cinema itself has given birth to something new; the prospect of the digital cinema, soon to be fully realised with the liberations of Festen (1998) and The Idiots (also 1998).  This baby (now eighteen-years old at the time of writing), as once a representation of the new cinema of the burgeoning twenty-first century, is still growing; still unsure of what it wants to be.

Monday, 17 February 2014

A Year in Film (Part Three)


A Viewing List for Twenty-Thirteen


Third part of my on-going "Year in Film" retrospective.  It's taken much longer to complete than anticipated, largely because most of the films collected here had already been written about in various "Key Film" comments posted at different intervals between July and October of the previous year.  As such, the real difficulty was in editing these earlier comments into something more approachable and coherent without losing the original context of what I was trying to say.  There was also the general cynicism attached to re-posting comments that already existed and how this, in itself, seemed a pointless waste of time for anyone willing to spend even a few short moments browsing through the pages of the blog.  However, in the end I couldn't think of any other way to acknowledge these particular films as part of the same chronological structure without regurgitating these past observations and remarks.  This is perhaps the greatest drawback of the capsule review.  Had I written these comments as "proper reviews", full-length and individual, I could have just linked back to the original post.  Instead, I've ended up with something like this...

In truth, I'm not really very happy with the writing here.  It could be better.  I've gone over it and over it for the last two weeks (trying to make it "work"), but I almost feel as if I'm now just wasting time that could be better spent on finishing the fourth and final part of the series, which is currently more important to me.  It's important because it covers a number of films from the last few months of 2013 that I was unable to write about at the time.  It's important because I want to bring to a sufficient close this viewing log/key films project - which regrettably lost some momentum towards the end of the year (a result of technical difficulties and my work) - and I can't adequately sign-off on this until I've included some reference to these absent films.  If nothing else, it'll be an opportunity to finally add some new content to the blog (not just cannibalising the things I've written about before).  With a bit of luck, it might also segue into getting Lights in the Dusk back on target with the completion of several different bits and pieces still unfinished (mostly visual: studying the frame, etc) and maybe even a return to the "Key Films" project, if I can find the time.

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Perfect World [Tom Elling, 1990]:
Initial viewing, 6th of June, 2013.

The film as mysterious object.  A waking dream unfolding like the fevered reverie of some ailing somnambulist as it moves between the layers of consciousness and unconsciousness; between age and memory, suspended, eternal, like a snapshot of an isolated incident; an event distorted by the blistered pangs of reality or by the wailings of lost time.  The entire film - in its progression through moments that appear like a projection of images displayed on a black & white television monitor, reflected back again (against the rippled waters of a mucky lake) - seems unknowable and elusive.  A stream of consciousness, all flowing, like images, through sleep.  Like the lapping waters of the actual stream seen early in the film, which carries upon its writhing back a suitcase from the past into the present, connecting this recollection of a childhood idyll to the reality of two sisters lost within a post-apocalyptic landscape of jagged industrial structures; a rolling tableau of cavernous spaces made dank with decay.

The written observations here may read like exaggerated nonsense - a run of purple prose that says literally nothing of real relevance about the experience of the work or what the story is actually "about" - but Elling's experiment is the kind of strange and transfixing film that seems to lend itself to this type of critical assessment.  It passes over the heads of a collective audience (or it did for this particular viewer) like a wave of feeling; the images, in collaboration with the text, evoking something ominous, oppressive, sensitive but still loaded with the anticipation of a cataclysmic concern.  It states very little, in concrete terms, allowing the audience to instead project meaning upon its vague and symbolic imagery as we read between the lines of a lyrical evocation spoken by the characters throughout.  It is a film defined by an almost drifting ambience; a feeling of weightlessness, the images telling a story but in a very cold, fragmented way; where what we see on screen - when interpreted against the words on the soundtrack - suggests intention, but remains almost impossible to define.

I can only speculate on what it all means, but it's a fascinating experience.  A poetic elegy in which the two central characters lament the fall of civilisation as the world once again prepares itself for a global catastrophe; the experience of these characters as children during the second world war becoming the tortured spectre still haunting their adult lives.  References, veiled or direct, are made to the Gulf War, the onset of AIDS, feminism, mental illness and the scars of the Holocaust, but it's that haunting, dreamlike sense of characters wandering through the charred bones of a lost civilisation that seems to instil the film with a genuine weight.  The directorial debut of Tom Elling, the talented cinematographer responsible for the early films of Lars von Trier - specifically Image of Relief (1982) and The Element of Crime (1984) - Perfect World shares with von Trier's work a dense and elaborate audio-visual approach defined by the influences of Andrei Tarkovsky, Orson Welles and Carl Theodor Dreyer.  Like their films, it presents an atmospheric and hypnotic reflection of a world in decline.

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Hi, Mom! [Brian De Palma, 1970]:
Initial viewing, 18th of June, 2013.

The 'self-reflexivity' of the title, Hi, Mom! - a verbal expression used by someone when appearing on-camera to acknowledge the presence of the unseen observer; the audience, typically hidden behind the screen - is central to the film's aesthetic and theoretical approach.  It establishes the concept of the "viewer" and "viewed" as it has developed throughout subsequent De Palma films - such as Body Double (1984), Snake Eyes (1998) and The Black Dahlia (2006) - but with the emphasis on radical politics and social satire giving the tonality of the film a much darker, more abrasive edge.  By acknowledging the existence of the viewer (the title, "Hi, Mom!", again seems an obvious gesture), De Palma is essentially looking to shame the audiences into realisation; accusing us - collectively speaking - of using our position as viewers to hide from the harsh realities of life; to see the film as a work of fiction, without questioning the more important themes and ideas that give these images their subtext and intent.

As viewers, the vast majority of us sit safely in the cinema, observing a recording of life projected back to us on the silver screen.  Rather than interact with it, we detach ourselves from the experience; reminding ourselves that the events are a façade or fabrication; tragedy and turmoil as just another form of passive entertainment.  In this respect, the title holds up a mirror to the audience, forcing us to recognise our own submissiveness; turning the film (and its particular line of attack) against the viewer, in protest.  As a result, the presentation of the central character, Jon Rubin - the amateur moviemaker, anarchist, voyeur and now Vietnam veteran last seen in De Palma's earlier feature, Greetings (1968) - becomes the obvious surrogate for the spectator.  This man who watches the world through a bedroom-window - the interior scenes of domestic living in the adjacent building becoming like the channels on a television-set; each one presenting a different narrative, a different theme - and records it with the aid of an 8mm film camera.  Through the act of recording, De Palma is also introducing an element of self criticism, as Rubin becomes more than just a manifestation of the viewer but of the filmmaker himself.  His own voyeurism and obsession with turning moments into spectacles of pure cinematic expression through the process of recording seems to underline the conception that real life is somehow only significant when it's viewed through a screen.

As the film progresses, the obvious ode to Hitchcock and his masterpiece Rear Window (1954) is interwoven with the influence of Jean-Luc Godard; specifically his more political films of the early-to-mid 1960s.  From Godard, De Palma takes the idea of the image as a representation.  Not a reflection of reality, but what Godard called "the reality of the reflection."  This self-aware, meta-textural concurrence, between the more internal psychology of Hitchcock (the voyeurism, the obsession, etc) and the external didacticism of a film like Le Petit Soldat (1963) or La Chinoise (1967), creates an outer "cinematic" conflict that becomes expressive of the inner psychological conflict of the central character.  Here, the severity of the final act and the emotional complexity of De Palma's approach (that continual divergence between flippancy and sincerity), forces the audience to question whether the character of Rubin is truly "mad" (or as mad as he appears) or if his actions and intentions are merely symptomatic of the madness of the modern world.

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Duvidha (The Dilemma) [Mani Kaul, 1973]:
Initial viewing, 21st of July, 2013.

The story of Duvidha is at first simple.  A just-married couple travel by caravan through the northern deserts on their way to start a new life.  The editing throughout is jarring and disruptive.  A series of fragments, close-ups intercut with freeze-frames, and the use of alternating film-stock to present a discontinuous point of view.  On the soundtrack, male and female voices speak hidden thoughts, feelings and fears in a way that draws our attention to the idea of the story as 'fable', but also to the idea of looking back on something that has already taken place.  While Kaul's direction suggests psychology, the voice-over talks of the supernatural; it introduces us to the pivotal "ghost in the Banyan tree", dazzled by the unveiled face of the film's delicate heroine.  Later, this ghost will take on the physical appearance of the absent husband; fooling his wealthy parents and even seducing the lonesome wife.

As a parable, this suggests similarities to the Greek myth of Alcmene's seduction by Zeus in the guise of her lover, Amphitryon; an illicit tryst that would inevitably lead to the conception of Heracles.  The development of the story here is similar but not identical...  While Zeus concealed his identity from Alcmene, at least initially, the ghost of Kaul's film is sincere in his intentions.  The wife is well aware that this "form" is not her husband, but in the absence of the man, this spirit becomes her only true relief.  That the woman eventually falls in love with the ghost says a lot about the idea of identity - what it means to be human, to be an individual - and of our own capacity to give and to receive love.  Kaul uses this idea to create a further commentary on the role of women in this society and the loneliness of women in general.

The director breathes deeper life into the story by mixing together allegory with neo-realism; finding an approach that combines the naturalism of early Rossellini with a more "Bressonian" emphasis on alienation (creating an authenticity through the removal of surplus adornments) and as such transforming it into something that is both politically and ethically more complex.   Rather than treat the female protagonist as a commodity, as the culture dictates, the spirit instead respects the woman and instils in her this feeling of genuine love.  However, in a society as rigid and as structured as this, such blasphemy (this obvious stand-in for adultery, as metaphor), can only lead to great despair.  The time of suspended tranquillity, happiness and contentment in the presence of the ghost is over, though their encounter, as documented by Kaul's film, remains forever in the memory, or on the lips of an inscrutable smile.

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Teodors [Laila Pakalniņa, 2006]:
Initial viewing, 25th of July, 2013.

Using direct sound and a static camera, Pakalniņa reinvents the conventions of neo-realism, the documentary and the character study; capturing without criticism a series of interactions and encounters that become, in totality, like moments of still life.  The cutting of scenes distils time; reducing it to a series of moments that exist without clarification, but are suggestive of something historic and personally affecting.  This approach forces the audience into a state of contemplation, so that we think more deeply about this man and about his life between the moments on screen.  Those private moments that would give us an even greater context to the solitude and the distance of Teodors against those scenes of village life, but also of that contentment; the sense of satisfaction and place.

Although leisurely in its observation, there is an intensity to this focus, where the intercutting between long-shots illustrate the life surrounding the character, while close-ups tell a story of time and existence.  This man, as both a presence and personality, has become through age and wisdom a living reminder of the struggles of a generation; its triumphs and its follies.  The examination of the man - both as a figure in the landscape or as a face in close-up, marked by old-age - brings the history of this place into the present; reminding us of his struggle, but also of the struggle of every age'd body, as a testament to their life's greatest work.  This particular interpretation is communicated by the way the filmmaker watches, objectively.  Never forcing our emotions or our commitment to the material through the manipulation of the filmmaking form, but just letting things drift...

It's only in the final shot that Pakalniņa breaks from this routine, ending our encounter with this man (of humble origins) with a slow, lingering crane shot; perhaps one of the most striking ascensions in all of cinema.  The movement of the camera - from a discarded bottle cap half embedded in the soil, to the empty bench where Teodors once sat and watched the world with hooded eyes, to the woodcutter chopping down branches from a tree (to make a coffin perhaps), and beyond, into the clouds and over the village - neither confirms nor clarifies the fate of this character, but suggests something more profound.  A sense of loss; an absence even, as delicate and moving as the film itself.

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Emitaï (God of Thunder) [Ousmane Sembene, 1971]:
Initial viewing, 26th of July, 2013.

In the first scene of a pre-credit sequence that runs for almost twenty-minutes in duration, a group of 'Jola' villagers from the Casamance region of Senegal are rounded up and detained by a black militia working under orders of the French.  This is the first of many instances where the oppression of these characters is depicted by Sembène both as a reconstruction of actual events and as a figurative commentary on the nature of Colonialism; where the flow of life is physically disrupted, or overturned.  As the action unfolds, two children, hiding behind trees or in the thick rushes of the long grass, become the eyes of the audience, on the outside, looking it; creating a natural surrogate for our own perspective as strangers, witnessing this atrocity as if a seeing it with the untainted innocence of a child.

In depicting the scene, Sembène uses documentary techniques to give us a sense of urgency.  Shooting unobtrusively from the sidelines; his use of the long lens flattens the depth of field, imprisoning these characters even further, cinematographically, against the backdrop of the land.  For the most part, Sembène maintains this level of distance, observing rather than intruding - capturing the action with a degree of naturalism that blurs the line between reality and dramatisation - but in later scenes chooses instead to evoke the beliefs and superstitions of the 'Jola', who call upon their own Gods in an attempt to escape this burden of oppression and regime.  In these sequences, blurred images and "psychedelic" colour filters are used to suggest the presence of something strange and otherworldly.

Such sequences stand out against the strict reality of the rest of the film, yet seem intended to give the narrative a cultural authenticity; presenting a level of commitment and solidarity, or even illustrating that Sembène believes in these people; takes sides with them; that his work is true to both the culture and their beliefs.  Throughout the film, as these characters reflect on the political situation and use it to question the existence of God and the nature of belief at a time when their own way of life has been disrupted beyond recognition, the director is able to put into perspective the true price of this exploitation; the condemnation of cultural imperialism at its most powerful and profound.

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The Corridor [Sharunas Bartas, 1995]:
Initial viewing, 29th of July, 2013.

The corridor of the title is located in a rundown tenement building somewhere in Northern Europe.  It exists in a state of dilapidation; the ruin seemingly an outward embodiment of both the physical and psychological decline of its central characters.  Likewise, the solitude of these spaces, the cramped interiors, the moments of silence, the looks without smiles, suggests a loneliness; a reminder that these characters have, in a sense, been forgotten by the rest of the world; left to live out their days of survival amongst the rust, the rubble and decay.  Characters haunt the rooms of this building, barely living, never speaking.  Sad-eyed characters, hopeful but wounded, rendered in a black & white that seems to make real the subjective appearance of a world without colour; without wish.

Throughout the director's career, there has been a continual emphasis on makeshift communities; people on the outskirts of a society brought together through extreme circumstances.  In his greatest film, Freedom (2000), a trio of refugees looking to seek asylum are instead washed up on a desolate beach that becomes a mirror to their own desperation.  There, it was the physical expanse of the land and the limitless stretch of the horizon that seemed to suggest the bitter ironies of the title; that dream of independence and escape against a landscape of emptiness and despair.  In The Corridor, it is the building itself that takes the place of this beach, imprisoning its characters; holding them hostage to poverty, unemployment, anger and ill-health; making the observation of its central characters (and even the geographical context of the rooms leading into rooms as personification of a particular, individual 'state') entirely political.

Again, as with the sombre and occasionally hallucinatory Freedom, as well as the filmmaker's subsequent work, the earthy and raw Seven Invisible Men (2005), Bartas refuses to condemn his characters.  Though their actions are sometimes shocking - their demeanour one of bitterness and coarse abandon - there is also a sympathy to the way he observes these men and women; framing them like icons of the great painters, full of heft and dignity.  Never resorting to trivial sentimentality, the direction of the film finds an honesty through observation, through the seemingly natural, almost unrehearsed quality of the performances on screen.  For those already familiar with the recent work of Pedro Costa - Bones (1997), In Vanda's Room (2000) and Colossal Youth (2006), etc - the seeds of that particular approach will be obvious in the design and direction of Bartas's devastating film.

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Explorers [Joe Dante, 1985]:
Initial viewing, 31st of July, 2013.

That the film was never officially completed - the version currently available is effectively a rough-cut prepared by Dante with a few post-production alterations made by the studio to bring it to a sufficient close - gives the movie a rather strange, almost surreal quality, as if the intention had been to break as many rules as possible; subverting the genre, the film and even the expectations of the viewer at every conceivable turn.  This, as an idea, is itself consistent with several of Dante's other, more cohesive films, such as The Howling (1981), Innerspace (1987), Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) and Matinee (1993), where the director transcends the boundaries of genre (or genre iconography); breaking the fourth-wall and inviting the process of filmmaking (or film-watching) into the narrative as an effort to reveal the manipulations of the cinema - as a medium - and the power of the recorded image to influence our perception of dreams.

Though less obvious in this current release version, the concept of dreams and dreaming was intended to be a central element to the narrative progression of Explorers, which, tellingly enough, begins with a scene of its own main protagonist, young teenager Ben Crandall, asleep in bed.  This, as an introduction, is often an unconscious clue that the story we're about to see takes place in a world of dreams.  In true 'Dantean' fashion, the slumbering child basks in the glow of a bedroom television-set-broadcast of a scene from The War of the Worlds (1953).  The flickering stock-footage interruption acknowledges the genre being utilised (science-fiction) in a self-aware gesture to the rules of the game, but also introduces the more significant idea of recorded images (or recorded memory) as a projection of our own insentient thoughts.  This, as a creative hypothesis, will become more significant during the film's final act, where the encounter between these adolescent explorers and the alien life-forms that have called to them from the depths of space becomes a commentary on the desensitisation of society as a shorthand for human apathy and the loss of innocence.

Here the film crosses the threshold into a more abstract, anarchic reality; a reality informed by the influence of '50s B-cinema, Loony Tunes slapstick and meta-themed 'Godardian' deconstruction.  The design of the aliens and their labyrinthine spaceship-lair (part 'cubist' wonderland, part M.C. Escher) is visually astounding, but it's the film's satirical critique, suggested by this third act encounter, that elevates Dante's work to a level that is truly remarkable.  The image of these aliens, drunk off a montage of footage of every significant event of the 20th century - both cultural and pop-cultural - as it is projected onto a series of giant cinema-like screens, suggests that all human endeavour has become a cosmic cinematic farce.  In Explorers - or the fragments of it - it is our own humanity that has become "alien"; an alienation from our own culture, our own history; a contentment to watch our own evolution unfold as an endless rerun; a transmission for some satellite heart.

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Our Daily Bread [Mani Kaul, 1970]:
Initial viewing, 8th of August, 2013.

This is the second Mani Kaul film to make the list, and while the first, Duvidha (1973), was mysterious, strange and enigmatic, the film in question fits right into the context of those great and iconic films produced throughout the 1960s by filmmakers in France, Italy, Japan, Poland and the U.S.  Although the films of Satyajit Ray are still a part of the standard westernised "canon", they seem to be discussed a lot less than the films of Ozu, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Fellini and Kurosawa, to say nothing of the 60s-era films of Godard and Truffaut.  If anything, I think it's fair to say that Indian cinema, much like African cinema, has been marginalised as far as discussion and celebration is concerned; that a film like Our Daily Bread is not spoken of alongside La Strada (1954), The Seventh Seal (1957), The 400 Blows (1959), Breathless (1960), L'Avventura (1960) and Yojimbo (1961) seems almost absurd.

As with Duvidha (The Dilemma), Our Daily Bread is a film that seems critical of the way women are treated by the dominant male culture.  The loneliness of these women, left to tend to the running of the house and its endless list of chores while the husband goes off to work and to socialise, is central to both films.  This social commentary is beautifully realised; however, it is on a level of pure filmmaking that Our Daily Bread truly transcends.  The 'Bressonian' approach of the actors, both mannered and withdrawn, is subtly affecting, while the quality of its cinematography recalls Dreyer and his masterpiece Ordet (1955).  The purity of the image - where the brightness of a summer's day obliterates all detail, suffused as it is by a holy glow - is staggering.  The scenes throughout, tranquil and pastoral in presentation, establish the loneliness of this world, the isolation of it.  The unearthly, almost ghostly aspect, which comes to define the life of its character, is captured within every static frame.

The opening sequence finds a tonality and approach that is consistent throughout.  The dutiful wife, Balo, the protagonist of the film, waits patiently at a bus stop for the arrival of her husband.  The man - a municipal bus driver - spends his weeks in the city, returning home only on the weekends before he's off again; moving from town to town, between worlds.  Each day, his bus passes the main road close to Balo's village.  The woman - his faithful wife - makes the gruelling trek to greet him.  Waiting, with a lunch pail in hand in the hope that his bus might stop to pick up a passenger, is more than an obligation.  It's a daily ritual.  A way for this woman to maintain some semblance of a relationship, or to lessen the loneliness that this life of servitude and routine has forced upon her.  The eventual outcome of the film is vague and enigmatic - a dark mystery that requires interpretation, in retrospect - but is very much in-keeping with the film's wounded and vulnerable tone.

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American Gigolo [Paul Schrader, 1980]:
Initial viewing, 11th of August, 2013.

Trying to describe the film at the time, I threw together a sentence that seemed to capture the creative spirit.  I wrote: "Bressonian transcendence meets New Hollywood excess, made possible by Bertoluccian 'baroque' stylisations."  I still think, as statements go, it gets to the core of Schrader's film, even more so than the Key Films comment I wrote about it a few months later.  In the interim, I'd returned to the film again, made copious notes and still maintain a hope of one day posting a much larger, more in-depth analysis of the film, or at the very least a proper consideration of its extraordinary final scene.  This moment, which gestures explicitly to the ending of Bresson's eternal Pickpocket (1959) - but in a way that never feels like an imitation - presents a final acknowledgement of human frailty when faced with an expression of actual "goodness"; one that seems especially overwhelming in the context of the film's earlier, more decadent or highly stylised mise-en-scène.

I was quite unprepared for just how remarkable Schrader's film actually is.  I knew of it through references and spoofs in other things, most prominently in the crass Rob Schneider comedy, Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo (1999), but my expectation of an 'at best' entertaining character study was far exceeded by this mesmerising psychological approach.  It is a film that seems to exist in the same tortured and nocturnal Los Angeles seen in Nick Ray's masterpiece In a Lonely Place (1950) - another film where the discovery of a dead body leaves a question mark hanging above the head of its central character - and with a visual approach that seeks to express the emotional and psychological perspective of its central character, brilliantly portrayed by Richard Gere.  It's perhaps worth mentioning that I'm writing this note after having just watched Terrence Malick's much-celebrated Days of Heaven (1978) and I'm starting to see Gere as an immensely underrated performer.  In 'Gigolo', Schrader uses Gere the way Bresson used his models in films like Une femme douce (1969), Lancelot du Lac (1975) and The Devil, Probably (1977).  He strips away the layers of expression; the emotions of the character expressed not by the actor but by the production design and the cinematography.  He becomes an object, both literally in the sense of his profession, but also figuratively, as a prop to be used.

However, as the film progresses and his grip on reality begins to slip, we see through the cracks of his carefully tailored facade; his surface of suave sophistication and effortless cool.  The cracks reveal a frustration that points towards something darker; the ghost of the same primal, animalistic character as seen previously in Malick's astounding film.  There is a danger to this persona; a very real and very palpable sense of someone capable of genuine brutality when pushed to the extreme.  As the character begins his descent into psychological turmoil - that long dark journey into light - the full fury of the 'Gigolo' is unleashed.  Here the audience is forced to reconsider their opinion of the character; left to question: is he really innocent?  Schrader never provides the answer, instead ending his film with that moment of pure transcendence that frames the character as a kind neo-religious icon; a martyr more befitting the role of Pasolini's St. Matthew than just another high-class con.

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Sebastiane [Paul Humfress & Derek Jarman, 1976]:
Initial viewing, 13th of August, 2013.

I'd always assumed (wrongly) that Jarman didn't achieve significance as a filmmaker until Caravaggio (1986).  I'd based this particular fallacy on seeing clips from Sebastiane in a documentary on Jarman's life and on an early viewing of the director's controversial "punk-rock musical", Jubilee (1977).  Jubilee turned me away from Jarman for several years.  Its toadying to the punk movement (even as a critique) seemed two-dimensional and inauthentic, while the level of basic filmmaking was dull and unadventurous.  It wasn't until a few years ago that I rediscovered Caravaggio (and several subsequent Jarman masterworks on DVD) and I decided to return to those earlier films.  I saw the imaginative and at times almost 'Ruizian' adaptation of Shakespeare's final play The Tempest (1979) and the poetic and sensory lamentation of The Angelic Conversation (1985) and was floored by both.  As such, rediscovering Sebastiane in this context was a revelation.

While its filmmaking might seem more primitive in comparison to the complex compositions and sense of artistic grandeur found in a film like Caravaggio - to say nothing of Jarman's other great works, such as War Requiem (1989), The Garden (1990) and Edward II (1991) - it's also perfectly evocative of the influence of early Pasolini and of his film The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) in particular.  Like Pasolini's film, Sebastiane mines a similar juxtaposition between religious transcendence and earnest homoeroticism, as well as a genuine feeling of emotional authenticity.  To create balance, the direction of the film is mostly naturalistic.  Shots are composed with a great simplicity, showing the action as a straightforward expression - sometimes static, sometimes handheld - but mostly conveying the physicality of the actors (as characters) and how their bodies - sculpted and posed like the great statues of Michelangelo or Rodin - suggest the desire of the male gaze.

As the camera records these masculine figures - mostly nude as they lounge beneath the glare of a hot summer sun - Jarman finds poetry in their struggle against the landscape as a kind of outward expression of the beauty of unrequited love.  As such, he creates an impression of the body as a "prison", a cage, a battalion for a wounded heart.  As with many other works by Jarman, the history depicted in the film is being used to create a commentary on the contemporary.  In taking the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian as a starting point, the director is able to examine the dynamic of one particular facet of homosexual desire; creating a historical framework through the transposition of these scenes (and what we now know of human behaviour, desire and persecution) to provide a kind of context, or political justification, through the perspective of the present day.