Friday, 16 December 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.