Tuesday, 16 February 2016

A Year in Film (Part One)


A Viewing List for Twenty-Fifteen

Goodbye to Language [Jean-Luc Godard, 2014]: 


The title is non-judgmental.  "Goodbye" in the sense that technology is changing the way we live, but "goodbye" also to the thing that has failed to define us.  The shackles of language that keep us tethered to ideas, forms, thoughts and feelings; a liberation from expectation or the need to understand.  3D shots and the fragmentation of the image (from one into two) again relate to the typically 'Godardian' theme of disparity.  The disparity of ideas, politics, love, etc.  The inability of couples to co-exist.  The filmmaker remarks: we can film a landscape and an empty room, but not the landscape at the back of an empty room.  Yet here he achieves just that, and beautifully so.  At various points throughout, Godard frames his dog with the same zealous heroism of John Wayne, circa Stagecoach (1939), the same quiet stoicism of a van Gogh self-portrait and the same wounded dignity of Falconetti's St. Joan. The dog is at once a surrogate for the viewer, on the outside looking in, attempting to make sense, to understand, but also a surrogate for Godard, the eyes and ears at the centre of things.  Remarkable.


Kagemusha [Akira Kurosawa, 1980]: 


The political implications of the scenario are enthralling.  Throughout the film, themes of power, corruption, leadership and the suppression of the 'self' (in the purely psychological sense of the term), are each carefully woven into the fabric of the film.  However, so much of the subtext can be seen as an extension on the idea of performance; the character compelled to put on a costume, to adopt a persona, to play a part.  As such, it's not only Kurosawa's definitive political statement, but also his most self-reflexive/self-referential commentary on the psychology of the "warrior as performer", and vice versa.  The film is a testament to the talent of Kurosawa and his lead actor, Tatsuya Nakadai, however it is the delirious, near-psychedelic 'nightmare sequence' occurring midway through the film that not only draws a line of influence from the similarly personal Dodes'ka-den (1970) to the richly-autobiographical Dreams (1990) but remains one of the most dazzling, imaginative and purely cinematic moments of Kurosawa's entire career.


Los Angeles Plays Itself [Thom Andersen, 2003]: 


The story of a city on film, both literally and figuratively.  Like many of the films on this particular portion of the list, too much time has passed for me to give an accurate clarification of the film's "objective" merits, but the memory of the work still lingers.  Los Angeles Plays Itself is at once and simultaneously an astounding documentary, a travelogue of a city, a narrative history of that same city on film and above all else a defining work of actual film criticism that offers a quantum leap in the evolution of the genre.  Watching Andersen's visual interpretation of his own text - less a compilation of "clips" than a genuine adaptation, where each image or scene, each cut or juxtaposition, presents a theoretical, geographical, historical or emotional association - can only seem to shame all other forms of contemporary film criticism.


Sound and Fury [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 1988]: 


Arguably the great masterpiece of Brisseau's career and a film to file alongside Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959) and Pialat's The Naked Childhood (1968) as one of the most brutal and affecting works on the subject of adolescent alienation in French cinema.  Refining and re-establishing what would eventually become his trademark style through later and no less controversial features, such as Céline (1992), The Exterminating Angels (2006) and The Girl from Nowhere (2012), Brisseau incorporates a milieu of gritty social-drama against a more alarming series of scenes and images that seem to extend from an un-tethered perspective of magical realism.  The result is a film in which discussions on socialism, unemployment and educational-reform are punctuated by scenes of uncompromising violence, brutality and an atmosphere of near-dreamlike surrealism that features revenants, spirits and phantoms conjured from the past.  An astounding and unforgettable work.


They All Laughed [Peter Bogdanovich, 1981]: 


Too much time has passed since my initial viewing of the film back in February 2015 to offer any kind of definitive statement; an unfortunately consequence of my inability to put down in words any initial thoughts and feelings that circulated at the time.  However, my prevailing impression of the film is one of complete enjoyment!  Though the narrative of Bogdanovich's career is that of the talented "wunderkind" who created back-to-back masterworks with his first four features, Targets (1968), The Last Picture Show (1971), What's Up Doc (1972) and Paper Moon (1973), only to burn out and lose it following the hostile reception of the films Daisy Miller (1974), At Long Last Love (1975) and Nickelodeon (1976), the existence of a film like They All Laughed seems to contradict the critical consensus and shows a filmmaker creating what might possibly be  the greatest work of his career.  Working with Wim Wenders' then cinematographer of choice Robby Müller, Bogdanovich is able to do for New York what Jacques Rivette often did for his beloved Paris; turning the city into a fully fledged character, part melancholy labyrinth, part eternal playground, where characters left on the fringes of society can come together to share in their anxieties, eccentricities, passions and woes.


Talking Head [Mamoru Oshii, 1992]: 


Many directors of the post new-wave era of personal "auteurist" expression have tackled at least one semi-autobiographical work on the perils of filmmaking.  From Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mépris (1963) and Passion (1982) respectively, to Fassbinder's Beware of a Holy Whore (1971) Wenders' The State of Things (1982) and Antonioni's Identification of a Woman (1982), through to a vast gamut of eclectic works, including (but not limited to) Day For Night (1973) by François Truffaut, Ed Wood (1994) by Tim Burton, A Moment of Innocence (1996) by Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Art History (2011) by Joe Swanberg, the very subject of filmmaking has itself proven to be a fascinating resource for writers and directors to explore what the cinema means to them.  However, for all the variety and individuality found the films aforementioned, no other filmmaker to the best of my knowledge has explored the subject with the same gonzo eccentricity and abandon as Mamoru Oshii, who envisions his film-about-filmmaking™ as a bizarre psychodrama cum murder mystery with elements of almost Three Stooges inspired slapstick comedy, intentionally "bad" B-movie special effects, Godardian inter-titles and poetic rumination (reminiscent of something like Soigne ta droite, 1987), fourth-wall breaking and a heavy influence of Brecht.  The result is one of the great works of auteur cinema; as playful, baffling and self-deprecating as von Trier's less abstract but no less "meta" deconstruction of the role of the filmmaker, The Boss of it All (2006).


Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid [Sam Peckinpah, 1973]: 


The usual superlatives hold true; this is Peckinpah's final statement on the end of the "west", on violence, masculinity and the passing of tradition.  When supposed lawman Pay Garrett shoots out his own reflection following his pitiless assassination of 'the Kid', the act itself communicates so much about the character's own loss of identity; the self-hated and the disillusionment felt not just by the lawman corrupted by a need to save face but by any and all who saw their own country slip away from them as one generation gave in to the next.  Throughout the film the landscape becomes symbolic, the journey into history expressing something about the need for heroes, myths and legends against the often brutal and unflinching reality, as the mournful, world-weary soundtrack of Bob Dylan becomes a disembodied chorus reflecting on the sense of inevitable destruction, as idealism, trust, hope and even goodness are very gradually corrupted by the bitterness of time.


For Your Eyes Only [John Glen, 1981]: 


The standard nonsensical Bond conventions are here elevated by a sense of genuine spectacle.  From the helicopter hi-jack of the pre-title sequence to later scenes, such as the Olympic pursuit, underwater exploration and literal mountain top cliff-hanger, the film doesn't just provide the usual action and suspense that one expects from the genre, it's a genuinely jaw-dropping affair!  Maybe this sentiment is simply an expression of nostalgia for a type of pre-CGI extravagance, but some of the images here are genuinely astounding; where the thrill of "actuality" - real cars, real locations, real jumps and hits - becomes as much a selling point as the narrative and its wider commitment to the requirements of the Bond "brand."  Kudos then to director John Glen, whose muscular action sequences and injection of gritty violence, often at odds with the lighter tone of this particular era, would find their truest expression several years later in the most brutal Bond film, The Living Daylights (1987).


Dodes'ka-den [Akira Kurosawa, 1970]: 


The onomatopoeic title, which suggests an imitation of the sound a tram-car would make as it moves along a track, plays into the film's notion of artifice, of a reflection of life that's not quite the real thing but an abstraction of it, while also suggesting the idea of the journey, of characters moving towards a definite (emotional or psychological) destination.  In terms of style, it is a film that feels almost like a collaboration between Walt Disney and Samuel Beckett, but with an undeniable streak of social commentary that ties it to the filmmaker's earlier movie, The Lower Depths (1957).  In its structure, it lurches from moments of burlesque humour, its scenes presenting a pantomime of larger than life characterisations amid flights of fantasy and child-like sentiment, to moments that show the brutal reality of the world suggested with a blunt, emotional honesty.  The effect can be odd and disengaging but is nonetheless unique.  An explosion of colour and stylisation; the approach offering a staggering counterpoint to the squalor and misery of the characters lives and this reflection of the modern world (circa 1970) re-imagined as a junkyard microcosm.  The only thing more dazzling than Kurosawa's experiments with colour, light and composition is the sensitivity he shows to his central characters.


Magic in the Moonlight [Woody Allen, 2014]: 




Relaxed and conversational in the best possible way, with the sun-kissed locations, lovingly photographed, and pristine period detail only adding to the charm.  It is a film full of rich and illustrative discussions on issues of nature and the cosmos; a mediation on the universe analogous to a film by Jean-Claude Brisseau - such as À L'Aventure (2008), only minus the soft-core lesbian erotica - wherein the relationship between two people becomes the fore-grounded focal point to a grander philosophical or theoretical discussion on the foundation of life itself.  Overflowing with incredible subtext, the film's smaller crisis of faith, love and loyalty becomes a reflection on greater themes, such as the nature of illusion, performance and identity; of characters as impostors, posing as something they're not; of cinema as the grand illusion, a sleight of hand; of love as the ultimate magic act, conquering cynicism; weaving its way through the elements of frothy romantic farce and bitter atheistic lament like a leitmotif.  Though many found it flawed, the film for me was a little masterpiece and one of Allen's greatest works.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

A Year in Film (Part Two)


A Viewing List for Twenty-Fifteen


Marie Antoinette [Sofia Coppola, 2006]:



Coppola transposes her own story - that of a spoiled little rich girl thrust into a position of public notoriety that she cannot comprehend - to that of the title character. In doing so, she exaggerates the naiveté of the real-life historical figure; creating in the process a more piercing feminist commentary on the way young women are often made to suffer for the sins of the husband/father/brother/patriarch; picked on and destroyed (in the case of Marie), not for her own inherently adolescent "decadence", but for the poor decisions of her husband and the generally restricting environment that she's forced to endure. In the title role, Dunst gives one of the great performances of the last decade; maybe even the current century. Unlike so many of the thankless roles she's chosen to play, Marie Antoinette sees her as both natural and radiant; her interpretation of the character arc both subtle and multifaceted; the implications of her final scenes - including the dreamlike moment in which she offers herself up to the braying mob - are haunting and emotionally distressing. Likewise, Coppola's filmmaking is sensitive, full of passion and energy; less a Merchant-Ivory chocolate box piece than a film infused with the influences of Derek Jarman and Sally Potter; specifically films like Edward II (1991) and Orlando (1992). An anarchic, post-modern, but also romantic and painterly approach that like Pasolini finds the past through a reflection of the present (and vice-versa) in order to humanise the central character and to create a political connection to the modern world.


Pigsty [Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969]:



Pasolini's most impenetrable film is also his most beguiling. The work of a true visionary, Pigsty is a film that blends hallucinatory scenes of prehistoric violence with the extended monologues of the bourgeoisie; creating a juxtaposition that suggests parallels between the past and the present, where the relationship between the two posit the idea of history - and more specifically, persecution, exploitation and corruption, essentially referring to issues of class and entitlement - repeating itself endlessly until oblivion. While difficult to know the true intentions of the filmmaker, the suggestion "a story about pigs to tell a story about Jews" - combined with the overlapping of the two conflicting stories and their different presentations of violence and brutality (physical vs. psychological) - hints at the same anti-fascist polemic of the author's later, more infamous provocation piece, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975).


Force Majeure [Ruben Östlund, 2014]:



Östlund direction of the film suggests a genial, less hectoring Michael Haneke; the approach falling somewhere between The Seventh Continent (1989) and Caché (2005) by way of a European sitcom. Like Haneke, the filmmaking style is studied and controlled; rigid, but not inflexible. Colour, composition, editing and sound are impeccable, establishing a feeling of antiseptic middle-class anxiety; an empty "going-through-the-motions" depiction of modern life comparable to a film like Archipelago (2010) by Joanna Hogg. Here, the popular and often contentious "comedy of embarrassment" trope beloved by European filmmakers - from Bertrand Blier to Mike Leigh, etc - merges with the spirit of Buñuel; eviscerating the bumbling immaturity of its characters and their self-created problems of first-world malaise, without becoming too nasty or nihilistic.


The Tale of the Princess Kaguya [Isao Takahata, 2013]:

  

For the first time since Michael Mann's derided but exhilarating Public Enemies (2009), the experience of a film and its filmmaking suggested an almost reinvention of the very language of cinema. Hyperbole? Perhaps, but the purely sensory experience of seeing these images explode within the rich cavernous blackness of the cinema space was like moving towards something almost elemental; the imagery seemingly transforming itself from frame to frame, at once ancient and yet entirely modern. It is a style that falls somewhere between an image of a primitive cave painting brought to life by the light of a flickering flame, the 'late' formalist works of Pablo Picasso that embraced unfinished naiveté and the most current and sophisticated style of contemporary animation, which is beyond anything I've ever seen. Although the fantasy plotline is nothing remarkable (and nitpickers might note that the ending is an almost shot-for-shot copy of the final scene from Shyamalan's despised Lady in the Water, repeated here to great acclaim), the actual presentation of the image is beyond words! The moments where the film seemingly breaks free from reality, becomes entwined with the emotions of its central character and seems to soar or disintegrate before our very eyes, is both astounding and unique.


Ex Machina [Alex Garland, 2015]:



1. Part throwback to "mad-scientist" monster movies; with James Whale's classic 1931 variation on the Frankenstein story providing an obvious template. 2. Part 'Bergmanesque' psychodrama; where the intense scenes of two characters enacting a private crisis of existentialism on a secluded island could bring to mind everything from the Hour of the Wolf (1968) to The Passion (1969). Part 'Soderberghian' meditation on style and mood; the cold and clinical design, modernist spacing, intimacy of its performances and minimalist composition of actors and objects within a 2.35:1 frame is as much reminiscent in its filmmaking as the underrated Solaris (2002) as anything by the more frequently associated Stanley Kubrick. As contemplation of the line between man and machine, between consciousness and unconsciousness, Garland's film is up there with the best of Mamoru Oshii, such as Avalon (2001) and Ghost in the Shell: Innocence (2004), as well as standards of the genre, such as Blade Runner (1982) and A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). A work connected to the concerns of the modern world, but propelled by themes that are timeless and emotionally germane.


Accattone [Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1961]:



At the time I couldn't find the words for this one; I'm not sure I can find them now! Suffice to say that a whole sphere of world cinema begins (and ends) with the film in question; more so perhaps than the supposed year zero of Godard's endlessly lauded new wave defining À bout de souffle (1960) (though JLG is still eternal). So many of the scenes, images, aesthetics, preoccupations and concerns presented in Pasolini's film can be found in the work of cinema's great modern masters; everyone from Coppola to Scorsese, Fassbinder to Jarman, Monteiro to Denis, Farrara to Haynes, etc have borrowed from Accattone and its singular approach to character, theme and setting As a first-time filmmaker, Pasolini emerged full formed; his whole notion of cinema as a means of reflecting the past by way of the present (and vice versa) finds an expression in the way he depicts the central character as both lout and loser, but at the same time imbuing him with the kind of spiritual conviction, sympathy and vainglorious nobility of a martyred saint. As such, the methodology of Pasolini, which so often is defined, misleadingly, as "neo-realism", places the author far closer to the spirit of a man like Caravaggio than any of his cinematic peers; an artist who found in the bodies and faces of his local thugs, destitute crones and harlots the most sacred of religious (and later historical) icons.


The Lone Ranger [Gore Verbinski, 2013]:



Pitched somewhere between the pure cinematic spectacle of The General (1926) and the political 'kill your heroes' cynicism of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Verbinski's film wrestle with complex themes, from genocide and corruption, to betrayal and unrequited love, all the while fashioning a big-budget action adventure extravaganza that far eclipses the simple pleasures of his earlier, more successful Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003). Placing his scenes of wily escapism within a context of inglorious American history (brought to life for a child who knows only of its "heroes" while the reality is something far more cruel) the results are both thrilling and affecting. A rare but perfect example of a Hollywood blockbuster committed to taking risks.


Clouds of Sils Maria [Olivier Assayas, 2014]:



Throughout the film, several layers of interpretation become intertwined. First, a deconstruction of the psychosexual politics of Fassbinder's early masterpiece The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972); second, a Persona (1966)-like meta-drama about the difficult relationship between women (a stricken actress and her aide); third, a reiteration of Irma Vep (1996) and its playful "anti-Hollywood" rhetoric (replete with faux comic book style blockbuster-sequence occurring during the second act); fourth, a film about the "old wave" being replaced by the new (and through this a personal commentary on Assayas's own cinema); fifth, a film about filmmaking (with several personifications of the director); and finally, a documentation of a natural phenomenon (in this instance 'the maloja snake') that becomes an onscreen miracle analogous to the flickering flame of Tarkovsky's Nostalgia (1983) or the final sequence of Eric Rohmer's The Green Ray (1986). A masterpiece.


Goltzius and the Pelican Company [Peter Greenaway, 2012]:



This dizzying mix of multi-media phantasmagoria - à la Prospero's Books (1991) - and Brechtian dissertation on the nature of voyeurism - recalling remnants of The Baby of Mâcon (1993) - is also Greenaway's clearest and perhaps most personal statement on the nature of cinema and its roots in both picture-making and performance. With this in mind, the character of Hendrik Goltzius, the German-born Dutch painter, printmaker and engraver at the heart of this tale of intrigue and expression, becomes a prototypical-filmmaker, in much the same way that Rembrandt did in the earlier and no less fascinating Nightwatching (2007). He's also a potential surrogate for Greenaway himself, reinforcing the film's personal, crypto-autobiographical elements, wherein the character is presented as an artist struggling against financiers, critics and the scourge of censorship to achieve a vision every bit as daring, creative and revelatory as the film itself.


Medea [Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969]:




In the title role, Maria Callas becomes a full force gale; her performance ably demonstrating a level of passion and pain that seems beyond conviction. As she stands rebellious in the flames of her wounded love, she defies the deceitful Jason (and by extension, the apathy of the viewing audience): "it's useless; nothing is possible now!" As a final epitaph, it captures both the sadness of a woman broken and betrayed by circumstances beyond her own control, as well as the overwhelming disappointment of the filmmaker when confronted by the corruption of a modern world closed off to the magic of myth and legend. As ever, Pasolini's depiction of pre-history is never about ornamentation or simply providing a backdrop to a dramatisation; his presentation of the past is more a reflection of the present. The vibrancy, the atmosphere, the jarring culture shock, each evoke a feeling of authenticity; it's as if Pasolini and his crew had actually ventured back in time to a particular period to record it with their handheld camera. However, this feeling of immersion is to ignore the intentional discrepancies, anachronisms and stylisations, all of which are intended to bring the story of Medea out of the world of Greek myth and into the Europe of the 1960s and beyond. The sad tale of Medea's exploitation and destruction by love, jealousy, political deceit and the cruel patriarchy (either as a character, or as a surrogate for something else), is one that continues to reverberate throughout history and in countless different guises. A powerful experience.