Thursday, 14 January 2016

A Year in Film (Part Three)


A Viewing List for Twenty-Fifteen


The Red Spectacles [Mamoru Oshii, 1987]:



Oshii manages to corral the influences of '60s Godard (post-modernism) and '80s Godard (poetic ennui) alongside elements of Seijun Suzuki and Jerry Lewis; finding a middle-ground between the pop-art sci-fi reportage of Alphaville (1965) and the comical-philosophical patchwork of Keep Your Right Up (1987) or King Lear (1987). For those that find the director's later (and for me no less essential) films to be largely humourless, self-serious ruminations on tired cyber punk concerns, The Red Spectacles is a work of genuine comic brilliance, both deadpan and slapstick; albeit, with a mystical, vaguely metaphorical climax that questions the nature of reality, existence, perception, etc. It also works as a fairly successful if academic experiment in cinematic stylisation analogous to what von Trier would attempt in films such as The Element of Crime (1984), Epidemic (1988) and Europa (1991); in short, a gnomic synthesis between genre deconstruction, social commentary and self-referential critique.


Song of the Sea [Tomm Moore, 2014]:



A poetic, intensely lyrical family drama, which, like the greatest works of Studio Ghibli, has been sold as a conventional children's adventure story, but in reality seems a far more penetrating examination of deeply human concerns - such as bereavement, grief, abandonment and the end of childhood innocence - which will only be truly felt by an older, more sensitive audience. The imagery throughout is rich and magical, beautifully designed and animated with great imagination, but always relevant to the central story of the two children and their familiar disconnection. From the old woman transformed by the fearful children into the image of a great owl, to the lonely giant turned into a mountain by his sorceress mother so as to stop him from drowning the world in an ocean of tears, the flights of fancy only deepen the metaphorical interpretations of the work.


The Canterbury Tales [Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1972]:



Pasolini as the figure of Geoffrey Chaucer gives the film a more tangible through-line than his earlier, similarly picaresque but looser exploration of Boccaccio's The Decameron (1971). Here, the same medley of stories - which run the gamut from satirical swipes at politics and religion to bawdy "sexcapades" and Chaplin pastiche - are tied together by the presence of Chaucer as self-reflexive surrogate for Pasolini; casting his critical eye not just over a medieval burlesque but its reflection on the modern world. The films' third act depiction of Hell as a surreal Hieronymus Bosch-like fantasia elevates the work above the level of the "merely great" to the realms of absolute genius! One of the most bizarre and inventive sequences Pasolini ever filmed. Lyrical, funny and disturbing in equal measure.


3 Women [Robert Altman, 1977]:



Altman's strangest film. A pre-Lynch take on Lynchian themes of dissociation, identity, alienation, the blurring of perspectives. Nods to Persona (1966) escape the curse of empty "Bergmanesque" imitation by being delivered in Altman's unique and characteristic approach; the camera drifting nomadically across complex scenes; picking out startling shots, strange objects, moments that seems inconsequential but make sense on reflection. A haunting and hypnotic work that rivals the director's earlier psychological study, Images (1972).


Nymphomaniac: Vol. I & II (Director's Cut) [Lars von Trier, 2013]:



1. Joe fashions a story from the ephemera of Seligman's room. Why? Is she telling her own story or something else? The framing device gives credence to the more preposterous moments; creates a context for Joe to indulge in fantasy but also for Seligman to interject; to deconstruct the material. In this sense the film is not just a thesis on the themes herein, but a self-reflexive study on von Trier's own methodology. 2. Joe's story about the paedophile suggests hidden implications at the end. Why is she telling these stories to Seligman? What response is she looking for and does she get it? Is the film a chronicle of one woman's self-destruction/transfiguration through sexual experience or a cruel game of deception and entrapment? I would say both. The subtleties of the ending introduce a profound degree of potential reinterpretations. 3. A pornographic variant on The Princess Bride (1987) with all of the same self-reflexive dialogues about the relationship between 'author' (Joe as surrogate for von Trier) and 'spectator' (Seligman as surrogate for the audience). However, the film is also the clearest, most penetrating iteration of the filmmaker's recent themes; depression, self-destruction, gender identity, the cruelties of nature, etc. A revelatory masterwork for von Trier.


Mr. Holmes [Bill Condon, 2015]:



While the concept of a logical Holmes encountering the one thing beyond his understanding (actual human emotion) could have been played for cheap sentimentality, Condon's film hits somewhat harder. As an investigation into memory as an effort to understand what it is to be hurt by something beyond rational comprehension, the film ably touches on issues of war, genocide, failure and grief in a profound and hugely compelling way; deconstructing the notion of the procedural (or, more plainly, the detective story) until it becomes a penetrating and insightful rumination on age, memory, experience, repentance and the inability to let go.


Welcome to New York [Abel Ferrara, 2014]:



A fearless political commentary disguised as psychological examination. Ferrara uses his Strauss-Kahn facsimile as personification of both the financial crisis and the attitude of those in positions of power; here protected by laws that leave them free to use and abuse the lowest rung of society. The character, like the condition itself, becomes a wild animal; pawing and groping his way through the culture made flesh; consuming everything. The resulting arrest and trial is like an indictment against the city itself; that inbuilt corruption of money as something above the safeguarding of actual human experience that allows all other levels of corruption to be maintained. Anchored by Depardieu's grotesque, violent performance, and a series of penetrating dialogues that hint at the true circumstances at play, Welcome to New York is arguably Ferrara's most powerful and necessary work.


Phantom of the Paradise [Brian De Palma, 1974]:



De Palma buries a personal commentary on creative freedom and the exploitation of the artist beneath a post-modern blend of Goethe and Leroux, camp B-movie horror and exaggerated glam rock. Peppered with additional nods to silent comedy, Hitchcock (naturally) and Welles - to say nothing of a frenzied, faux-reportage climax that deconstructs the line between fiction and reality, and reminds the viewer of the counter-culture experimentation of the filmmaker's earlier, much underrated Dionysus in '69 (1970) - the film works both as a vicious music business satire and as a dazzling phantasmagoria, full of heightened emotions, bold imagery and clever storytelling. The intelligent, self-reflexive soundtrack by Paul Williams is without question one of the films greatest assets.


The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne [Walerian Borowczyk, 1981]:



Here, lurid exploitation meets art-house exploration, blending slasher movie tropes and soft-core/soft-focus sexuality with deeper philosophical questions regarding social identity, transgression and the 'beast within.' The atmosphere is evocative of the adult fairy tales of Rolin and Argento, such as The Iron Rose (1973) and Suspiria (1977) to name just two, but taken to a level of frenzied sexuality and heightened violence that only compliments the films' rich psychological themes. The combination of the baroque and the brutal is no less beautiful and atmospheric than in a film like Neil Jordan's later masterpiece of 80s meta-horror, The Company of Wolves (1984); another mesmerising and unsettling work of dreamlike psychosexual surrealism.


L'argent [Robert Bresson, 1983]:




A film less about 'money' or its power to corrupt or debase, than a film about actions and their consequences. A good man is very gradually turned into a criminal by the dishonesty and villainy of the world around him. As such, the man is less an individual than a reflection of his own society. Bresson's characteristically austere approach is perfectly suited to this story of dehumanisation; where even a third act atrocity is presented without sensationalism or melodramatic excess. As political commentary, the film very subtly communicates the ironies of criminality; that those who initiated the chain of events receive little to no punishment, while those on the bottom rung of society are forced to suffer a genuine humiliation, speaks volumes. More than anything, Bresson's masterpiece embodies the philosophy of Godard's 'Uncle Jeannot' character from his First Name, Carmen (1983); "when shit's worth money, the poor won't have assholes." A work of art.

Monday, 11 January 2016

A Year in Film (Part Four)


A Viewing List for Twenty-Fifteen


The Visit [M. Night Shyamalan, 2015]:



1. A scatological lampoon of dysfunctional domesticity; the gross-out depiction of a rural Americana as seen through the demented eyes of Nana and Pop-Pop recalling the uncomfortable suburban nightmares of Todd Solondz and (occasionally) David Lynch. 2. A mock-documentary fairy story that deconstructs its own conventions through the interaction between characters, further draped in the guise of a Joe Dante style children's survival drama, where serious things are stated without the need to become serious. 3. A semi-autobiographical 'film about filmmaking', in which the director splits his auteurist "id" between his two adolescent characters; the quiet and sensitive Becca, who sees poetry in the landscape and aims to make a film that will heal parental wounds, and the brash and narcissistic Tyler, who only hopes to see his name trending through social media. 5. A film about forgiveness of the "self" and Shyamalan's first masterpiece in (nearly) a decade.


Far from the Madding Crowd [John Schlesinger, 1967]:



Much of what makes the film astounding is not its translation of Hardy's text into cinematic narrative, but the depiction of a rural lifestyle that throbs with a pastoral, primal beauty. Scenes on the farm and the interactions between characters - either eating, drinking or enjoying the simple pleasures of life, the daily grind - anticipates something along the lines of Pasolini and his bucolic trilogy of life; more specifically, his masterpiece The Canterbury Tales (1972). Far greater than any conventional literary melodrama adapted from a similar source, Schlesinger's film becomes a hymn to the splendour of nature, colour and the drama of the changing light.


The Steel Helmet [Samuel Fuller, 1951]:



Few films on the subject of war are so brazen in their condemnation of the futility of conflict and all of its inherent prejudices, while still managing to pay tribute to the heroism of those that take part. Fuller's film might not compete with the spectacle of more recent efforts, like Saving Private Ryan (1998), nor the subversive satirical bite of a masterpiece like the Vietnam-eta Full Metal Jacket (1987), but the depth of its ideas and the sensitivity of its intentions are well beyond the level of contemporary example.


Cover Girl [Charles Vidor, 1944]:



A film about objectification, desire, ambition, regret, jealousy, the thrill of performance; about doing something for the love of it and not just for the fame. On-stage drama spills out behind the scenes; a sense of joie de vivre envelopes both audience and protagonists, finding hope in the hopelessness, beauty in tragedy; traces of Cocteau (as Kelly breaks the mirrored illusion of the surrogate screen to free himself of the "id") and pure romanticism lead to a visual spectacle far greater than anything in today's computer generated blockbusters. If nothing else, Cover Girl illustrates the lost art of "performance" as its own special effect.


The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Part 1: The Moab Story [Peter Greenaway, 2003]:



Every sound and image is presented as a series of layered reflections; depicting the surface (the conventional narrative, which is enthralling throughout) but also the subtext, and a deconstruction of the form. Actual history is interwoven with fact and fiction, fantasy and autobiography, as well as Greenaway's continual obsession with the various ephemera of lists and numerical miscellanea, all adding up to a vast but never alienating compendium of sights, sounds and cinematic textures all working in service of a funny and fascinating tale. The film, even without the benefit of its concluding chapters, Vaux to the Sea (2004) and From Sark to the Finish (2004), is nothing less than a total reinvention of the language of cinema.


Hard to Be a God [Aleksey German, 2013]:



Falling somewhere between the immersive, mystical meditations of filmmakers like Tarkovsky and Tarr and the surreal, allegorical weirdness of Boorman's similarly satirical Zardoz (1974), German's long in production passion project is a film effectively about the nature of existence. More specifically, about the propensity of the species to find new and ever more cruel ways of decimating itself throughout the course history, only to then reassemble itself and repeat the same mistakes. Unsurprisingly, this is a unique, one of a kind film. At once frustrating, disorienting, profound, silly, revolting, even sublime! As director, German denies the audience everything one might find necessary to understanding his drama or identifying with his central characters; forgoing even the most basic of exposition and even allowing important narrative developments occur off-screen. Conventional ratings seem irrelevant here; love it or hate it, this is a truly immersive and original work; once seen, never forgotten.


Walker [Alex Cox, 1987]:



Anchored by a powerful performance from Ed Harris in the title role, director Cox's anarchic and imaginative political commentary on U.S. imperialism in Nicaragua has lost none of its satirical significance or relevance in the era directly following the Iraq war. Much of the film's blending of slow-mo Peckinpah inspired carnage and in-depth social discourse could be seen as precursor to a film like Tarantino's Django Unchained (2012), where post-modern lifts from cult genre cinema are used to create a self-reflexive parallel between the past and the present/fiction and reality/etc, but all delivered with a far greater level of intelligence, integrity and scope.


Grizzly Man [Werner Herzog, 2005]:



In the tragic tale of Timothy Treadwell, Herzog finds his archetypical "hero"; a man like Aguirre, Woyzeck or Kaspar Hauser driven mad by the modern world; losing himself a fabled landscape that seems as if disconnected from time; his insanity propelling him on a fated journey towards self-destruction. Herzog's innate respect for Treadwell and his refusal to condemn the man's actions or the course of events ensure that the film works more as a found-footage variant on the filmmaker's usual themes of man's place in the wilderness, survival and the nature of the "outsider" within society (as illustrated in the titles above) and less as conventional documentary intended to educate, critique or surmise. A fascinating and frequently heart-breaking look into the fragility of the human psyche and the mysteries of the natural world.


Pistol Opera [Seijun Suzuki, 2001]:



Suzuki is one of the cinema's preeminent formalists; a filmmaker capable of elevating even the most hackneyed of B-movie narratives to a level of audio-visual art. Here he turns in a psychedelic Rorschach test that could have been described as "modern Godard remaking '60s Godard" (to establish a prevailing if limiting cinematic shorthand), if only for the fact that the film itself is pure Suzuki; in short, a loose remake of the filmmaker's own new wave masterpiece Branded to Kill (1967). However, like late-period Godard, Pistol Opera is a work of genuine modern art; a movie where light, colour, sound, editing, design and composition are as essential to the expression as its baffling and labyrinthine plot.


Unforgiven [Clint Eastwood, 1992]:




The final statement of Eastwood as orator of the American west. His character here is like a cross-section of all his past protagonists, creating a sense of the concluding chapter of a career-long journey, from innocence into the abyss. From Rowdy Yates to "the man with no name", from Josey Wales to the Pale Rider, this is a man who has committed the worst violence and atrocity and found himself transformed by it; a man striving to find peace but gradually being pulled back into the brutality and the blood-shed. At its core, the film is a meditation on violence and revenge; the morality of murder as a cold-blooded act committed by cold-blooded people, regardless of how valiantly one might attempt to justify it as an act of vengeance. The morality of trying to maintain a semblance of "life" in the face of a death, and violence that leaves scars, both physical and mental. A monumental film.