Sunday, 16 June 2019

Anna Viebrock

A Question of Aesthetics?

When the cinema has continued its slow death-march towards its future as a mostly monoform corporate entity infected by the monotonous soap-opera of television - where images are no longer designed but merely observed as part of a mundane system of illustration - or worse, suggestive of second-hand video gameplay, sans interactivity - where the imagery is just an inert mass of pixels and rendered objects that are dehumanised and depersonalised to the point of no longer expressing anything inspired or unique - what physical art-spaces will maintain the power to occupy our dreams?

Recently, when browsing the internet, I happened across a series of images attributed to the noted costume and stage designer Anna Viebrock. These images had been posted in a Facebook group created for admirers of post-dramatic theatre, which I follow occasionally, when in need of inspiration. Seeing these images set off a lightning bolt that tore through my imagination. They lit a spark of excitement that smouldered into the first giddy embers of a raging inferno, as the use of the architectural space - its depth and perspective; that geometry of intersecting lines and the placement of figures within staged 'frame' - and the play of light and colour, was immensely satisfying, both on a level of aesthetic design, but also in the composition of the accompanying photographs by Walter Mair and Tanja Dorendorf, among others.

Immediately, I felt the need to search out other examples of Viebrock's work and very quickly found the following images on her official website. Once again I was left overwhelmed by the beauty of the staging and the way the respective photographers had accentuated it to make the designs appear all the more expressive, intelligent and startling. Where the imagery of the modern cinema is so often generic, second-hand and presentational, this imagery speaks to something that is difficult to express, but which seems exciting, creative and new.

Tessa Blomstedt gibt nicht auf [Volksbühne Berlin, 15.10.2014]:

Image credit: | © Walter Mair

Universe, Incomplete [Ruhrtriennale, 17.8.2018]:

Image credit: | © Walter Mair

44 Harmonies from Apartment House 1776 [Schauspielhaus Zürich, 5.12.2018]:

Image credit: | © Tanja Dorendorf

Wunderzaichen [Staatsoper Stuttgart, 2.3.2014]:

Image credit: | © Walter Mair

Les Contes d'Hoffmann [Teatro Real Madrid, 17.5.2014]:

Image credit: | © Walter Mair

The closest the modern cinema has come to imagery like this is in Peter Greenaway's last masterpiece, Goltzius and the Pelican Company (2012), and in the late-period films of Roy Andersson, for instance the recent A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014). However, the worlds and imagery created for those films are at the same time less tangible, as they're separated by the screen. With theatre, there's the sense that you could reach out and touch the surface of these worlds - to feel the bare wood or the dried paint on each facade - or step inside the frame and walk around it; hearing your own voice projected out across an auditorium. Confined as I am to a beautiful but rural part of the country, I'm denied the privilege of modern, cosmopolitan and creative theatre like this; however, looking at the images of Viebrock's work creates an impression of how extraordinary it must be to be faced by designs of this scale and intelligence.

At a time when most cinema is so boring that its audiences barely leave the house to go and see it, the aesthetic majesty of these productions, as captured in the beautiful compositions of their photographers, makes me want to take on a second job to supplement my miniscule income. That way I could afford to board a boat or plane, and could travel to parts of the world where such theatre is possible and where such imagery still exists.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Mia Goth

Thoughts on a film: Suspiria (2018)

Unfortunately I didn't think very much of director Luca Guadagnino's remake of Suspiria (2018), which might be one of the absolute worst recent films I've seen. Since I don't like to get too negative about the things I write about at 'Lights in the Dusk' I'll try to avoid the specifics as to why I found the film such a lamentable experience. However, if anyone is especially interested in gaining an insight into my issues with this new version of the Dario Argento masterpiece, I did leave a short comment about it on my Letterboxd and MUBI profiles.

There were however a couple of things I did like about the film, which are worth clarifying. Firstly, I appreciate that Guadagnino and his collaborators didn't just turn-in a lazy imitation of the Argento film. While it shares a title and some similarities in terms of character and plot, this recent Suspiria has its own aesthetic and philosophical identity that is distinct and original. The changes don't always make for a better experience, but the effort to take the film somewhere different was greatly appreciated. Moreover, Tilda Swinton is excellent in the role of Madame Blanc; the Mary Wigman/Pina Bausch-like leader of an avant-garde dance company, as well as the witch that presides over its hidden coven. [Less successful was Swinton's superfluous casting as an aging holocaust survivor, Dr. Jozef Klemperer; a piece of stunt-casting so unnecessary and distracting that the production company had to create fake social media accounts for a bogus actor, 'Lutz Ebersdorf', before finally admitting what was plainly obvious to anyone with eyes and ears.]

I also liked the appearances from several cult cinema icons, including Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, Sylvie Testud, Renée Soutendijk and Jessica Harper (returning here from the original film), as well parts of the soundtrack by Thom Yorke [although I like the soundtrack album more than its appearance in the film itself, as I think Guadagnino misuses it.] However, the main draw of the film for me was the casting of the actor Mia Goth, who plays Sara, one of the dancers studying under Madame Blanc.

Suspiria [Luca Guadagnino, 2018]:

The film's standout sequence has Goth's character playing an Alice in Wonderland figure; lost in a maze of the building's architectural mystery, which is never fully developed. Here we have the mirror as an obvious "looking glass" through which the character must pass. Or is it something that imprisons her, suggesting the idea of reflection - self-analysis and self-actualisation - where the seeds of doubt flower into a doppelganger, or "mirror twin"; presenting a visual representation of a divided mind and divided body in a divided city like 1970s Berlin. Throughout the film hints at these ideas, but does nothing with them.

Goth is an actor I first encountered in Lars von Trier's late masterpiece Nymphomaniac: Vols. I & II (2013). Since that film, she's carved out a career working with interesting filmmakers on projects that are strange, ambitious, challenging and non-commercial. Her appearance in Suspira is bookended by appearances in Gore Verbinski's bizarre and unclassifiable A Cure for Wellness (2017) - a beautifully shot, almost dreamlike work that in its combination of psychological horror and adult fairy-story has a touch of the original Suspira (1977) about it - and Claire Denis's English-language science-fiction drama High Life (2018), where she appears alongside Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche.

In Suspira, the film comes to life in the brief scenes that focus on Goth's character and her growing suspicions that something at the dance academy isn't quite as it appears. Here, she's essentially playing this film's version of the Stefania Casini character from Argento's classic, but with a far more compelling narrative arc. However, I would argue that the qualities of Goth as an actor and her approach to the character of Sara actually make her a far more relatable presence to the aforementioned Jessica Harper; the lead in Argento's film. There is an innocence to the way Goth approaches this character that is at once childlike but at the same time fearless and undeterred. She plays the character like Alice in Wonderland, exploring the labyrinthine lower depths of the academy with a strange combination of fascination and fear. These later scenes are mesmerising and should've formed the backbone of the entire film, which is far too often weighed down by the wooden lead performance of Dakota Johnson. In fact, if we were to ever suffer the indignity of a remake of Argento's great follow-up to Suspiria, the similarly bizarre and dreamlike Inferno (1980), it would only be palatable if it featured Goth in the role played by Irene Miracle.

Based on her choice of projects so far, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Goth is a cult Euro-cinema superstar in the making; a modern-day Tina Aumont, Sylvia Kristel or Nastassja Kinski, or even someone who might further develop and mature into a future Charlotte Rampling, Catherine Deneuve, or indeed, any of the older cult actors that appeared alongside her in Suspira. Her performance here is subtle, nuanced and fascinating; at odds with much of the film's tasteless, laboured insanity.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Roundhay Garden Scene

A Mystery?

To talk about the cinema's present, one must first acknowledge its past. Roundhay Garden Scene (1888), one of the oldest surviving fragments of motion picture history, could be called, at its most dismissive, a camera test; a two-second recording that captures four individuals wandering around the gardens at Oakwood Grange in the suburb of Roundhay, Leeds, West Yorkshire. Obviously intended as an experiment in recording movement, the few seconds of surviving footage have, with the passage of time, become possessed with a feeling of mystery, if not anxiety. Scratch beneath the surface of its seemingly benign exterior and Roundhay Garden Scene becomes a precursor to the subconscious cinema of filmmakers like Fritz Lang, Jacques Rivette, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and others. Films that are charged with an air of conspiracy, or obscurity; of dream-worlds and paranoia, controlled and manipulated by an unseen system of influences.

Like the aforementioned Kubrick's final masterwork Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Roundhay Garden Scene is a film so suggestive and enigmatic that it lends itself to the kind of Rorschach-like approach to film criticism that I've indulged in here. It becomes a black mirror, so void of deeper meaning that we're compelled to project our own meanings onto it; inventing a narrative where none exists; enlivening its minimal presentation with our own thoughts, fears and concerns. Like the way the metaphorical noose tightens around the lives of the protagonists in Kubrick's last film, the observation of the participants here has an undercurrent of something more sinister. It's as if the events unfolding are being manipulated by an unseen organisation; shadowy forces again at work. It suggests something of the private made public; a kind of open doll's house or glasshouse facade that the audience is invited to peer into; becoming witness to some recreation of "normal" behaviour that's too stylised, mechanical or forced to be considered real.

Roundhay Garden Scene [Louis Le Prince, 1888]:

Much of this particular reading of the film - as something more ominous or insidious than its no doubt innocent intentions - has been undoubtedly coloured by the strange events surrounding its production. Firstly, the death of one of its on-screen participants, Sarah Whitley, ten days after the filming was complete. More significantly, the mysterious disappearance of its 'author' - the early cinema pioneer Louis Le Prince - two years later. The body of Le Prince was never discovered, and several conspiracy theories exist that attempt to explain the course of events. Lastly, Le Prince's son, Adolphe Le Prince, another participant in the film, was discovered shot dead around two years after he testified in court against Thomas Edison about his father's inventions. Such tragedies become like black clouds that hover over the legacy of this film and lead the mind to wander about its conception. While I'm no great conspiracy theorist, I do think it's interesting to speculate.

With its matter of fact title and the mysterious system of circumstances surrounding its release, Roundhay Garden Scene is a film that gives the audience room to dream and to project onto its surface their own subjective and subconscious narrative. It transcends categorisation, being at once a documentary - a recording of an actual scene that captures people long-dead and preserves them forever in this prison of celluloid - and a dramatisation; a recreation of something real turned fiction. The presentation of its participants as they move through the space becomes a dance like the planets in orbit. Like the investigation into the photograph in Michelangelo Antonioni's great masterpiece Blow-Up (1966) I feel like I need to go deeper into this film, to scrutinise the shadows in the window, the gaps between the bushes, the suggestions at the corners of the frame; to unlock the mysteries that surround the film and define its legacy. Another time perhaps.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Discreet Music

Adventures in Ambient Discovery

There's an oft-repeated quote that has been attributed to everyone from Elvis Costello to Frank Zappa that states: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." While I think the inference of the quote is meant to expose the futility of writing about something that is there to be listened to, experienced and 'felt', it always leaves me a bit perplexed as to why dancing about architecture would ever be considered an inherently bad thing? I suppose because for me it conjures up images and scenes redolent of Wim Wenders' great documentary film, Pina (2011) - inspired by the dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch - in which architecture is very literally danced about, in every sense of the world. Would it not be a pretty remarkable and no less valid means of communicating the overwhelming importance (or unpleasantness) of a particular building than putting pen to paper or opening our mouths to speak? Nonetheless, the original quotation came back to me when I thought about how best to express the greatness of the album in question, "Discreet Music" (1975), recorded and produced by Brian Eno.

"Discreet Music" was Eno's fourth solo album and the second after "Another Green World" (1975) to slowly progress towards a style of music that would later be termed 'ambient.' While I wouldn't necessarily categorise "Another Green World" as an ambient record, specifically - its robust sound, strong melodies and sporadic use of live vocals still suggest a prominent art-rock influence - it did contain several tracks that gestured towards the kind of music beginning to blossom into consciousness here. Some tracks from that earlier record, such as Becalmed, or Spirits Drifting, lay the groundwork for the LP in question, as well as subsequent albums, such as "Ambient 1: Music for Airports" (1978) and "Ambient 4: On Land" (1982).

Given the specifics of its sound and concept - the drifting otherworldliness of it - "Discreet Music" remains a difficult album to write about, precisely because, beyond the facts and practicalities surrounding its production and legacy, it's a work that lends itself to the most subjective of voice and the most hyperbolic superlatives. While it might sound achingly pretentious as an endorsement, the sounds, tones and melodies contained here go beyond music in the conventional sense, and become instead like colours dripped into a clear body of water that ripple on the surface before clouding into something more abstract and formless as they sink beneath the depths. As such, listening to "Discreet Music" is like witnessing the same colours bloom into the fullness of life and vibrancy, like flowers do. More than melodies, beats and rhythms, the sound of the music evokes emotional temperatures; feelings of warmth and coldness; contrasting moods and a sense of space.

Discreet Music [Brian Eno, 1975]:

While Eno was inspired by the composer Erik Satie's conception of "furniture music" - meaning music that is intended to blend into the ambient atmosphere of the room; or as Satie himself put it, music that could "mingle with the sound of the knives and forks at dinner" - the experience of the title track is never uninteresting or disengaging. The sound of it, as it develops across its full thirty-minute duration, is captivating, if not dramatic, as its melodies and counter melodies drift like little sound clouds across a slow reverberating landscape scene. Like certain analogous records by the pioneering German group Kraftwerk - specifically "Autobahn" (1974) and "Trans-Europe Express" (1977) - this is music that takes us on a journey. With this in mind, I turn my attention back to the original album cover, with its distorted video-image of a dramatic sky above a shadowy city, and its connotations and suggestions of reflection, the ordinary turned extraordinary, and the passage of time. As with the very best examples of album-art, the cover image provides the perfect mirror to the music itself.

As much as I love the album's title track, it's the B-side of the original record that really strikes a chord with me. Here, working with composer and musician Gavin Bryars and members of The Cockpit Ensemble, Eno offers up three different and distinct interpretations of 'Canon in D Major' by Johann Pachelbel. Already one of my absolute favourite pieces of music (and a source of continual inspiration, especially when I was writing my first plays), Eno's variations transform the composition into standalone pieces that feel new and original, but are nonetheless still haunted by faint traces of Pachelbel's original melodies. The music presented across these three tracks is beautiful, transcendent, yearning, sad, mournful and spiriting. It conjure moods, emotions, memories and reflection and gives the listener the room to dream. The impression of these compositions is once again like the passage of clouds as their shadows travel across the patchwork-green landscapes of some pastoral English Arcadia that exists only between the heart and mind. Writing seem ineffectual here as I strain to communicate something that probably exists beyond words. Maybe I should've danced about it instead?

Thursday, 30 May 2019

The Cabbage Fairy

Une naissance de cinéma?

A barely sixty second theatrical stylisation, which, by virtue of being recorded by a motion picture camera, becomes cinema. Here a woman, the "fairy" of the title, dances a magical dance among the cabbage patch. The early cinema was full of dances. Annabelle Butterfly Dance (1894) and the related Annabelle Serpentine Dance (1895) both by William Kennedy Dickson, A Serpentine Dance (1896), this time by Georges Méliès, and Au bal de flore (1900), also by Alice Guy-Blaché. Perhaps this was merely a convenience on the part of these early filmmakers desperate to find a particular subject matter that would lend itself to the specific selling points of the moving image? However, I like to think it was an effort to dramatise something of the dance of light that occurred when a strip of celluloid passed through the projector.

As the story continues, the "fairy" begins plucking newborn babies from the behind the cabbage leaves and placing them surreptitiously on the cold hard ground. Robbed of its specific context and this description sounds especially horrifying; like a kind of proto-Lynchian nightmare befitting a film like Eraserhead (1977). However, if we were to read the subject-matter on a more metaphorical and less presentational level, then it becomes difficult to see the film as anything other than a work that seeks to find a connection between the fantasy of childbirth (as depicted here) and the birth of the cinema itself a nascent innovation.

The Fairy of the Cabbages [Alice Guy-Blaché, 1896/1900]:

The Fairy of the Cabbages has frequently been called the first narrative feature. I think the term is interesting because it points to a possible origin of how the distinction between "fiction" and "reality" in regards to film classification first came to be. Why is The Fairy of the Cabbages considered a work of narrative, but a film like Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon (1895) isn't? Because the latter was an actuality and as such exists only as a historical document, while the former had theatrical effects, costumes and make-up? I don't think so. If we adhere to the notion that "every picture tells a story" then the film by the brothers Lumière is no less a narrative than the one by Guy-Blaché. Both films tell a story.

Nonetheless, the distinction between a "film" (meaning fiction) and a "documentary" (which is often approached by the arbiters of cinematic culture as somehow separate to "films"; like, as if it's fine to place Aguirre, the Wrath of God [1972] alongside Fitzcarraldo [1982], but hardly ever alongside Grizzly Man [2005]) continues to this day. However, between the influence of the Lumière's and the influence of Guy-Blaché, we can see that the ideological struggle between the cinema of social realism and the cinema of escapism is not merely reserved for contemporary considerations on the disparity between Ken Loach and the Walt Disney studios, but is something that has existed from the very origins of the medium itself. The Fairy of the Cabbages, both as a metaphorical study and as a piece of surviving history, represents a birth of cinema, but maybe not the birth of it.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

George Lucas

Architect of the Modern Blockbuster

I recently began writing two successive blog posts that were essentially extended rants about the aesthetics of the modern blockbuster. So far I haven't been able to finish them, perhaps because deep down I suspect they contribute very little to the current discussion beyond clinging to an imaginary standard that never really existed. The crux of each post is tangentially related to the look and stylisation of the Hollywood blockbuster as typified by the contemporary films of the Walt Disney studio, and by extension, its ever ubiquitous Marvel subsidiary.

My main issue with these films - beyond their derivative nature, questionable moral subtext and obvious cash-grab mentality - is that, in their over-reliance upon green-screen technology, motion-capture imagery and elaborate computer generated effects, they seek to mimic the artificial look of the modern video game, but without the interactive, immersive aspects that make video games so compelling and multi-dimensional in their storytelling capabilities.

While I will attempt to finish these posts at some point in the not too distant future, the subject matter nonetheless got me thinking about George Lucas. Lucas is someone whose work I appreciate only in fragments, but nonetheless he's a filmmaker I find myself coming to the defence of whenever he's criticised for spurious reasons. Like Fritz Lang before him, Lucas could be described as the architect of the modern blockbuster. Countless filmmakers, from Griffith to Godard, Eisenstein to Hitchcock, could be charged with having changed the course of the popular cinema, but Lucas has the rare distinction of having changed it twice.

George Lucas on the set of Star Wars, circa 1976-77 [photo-credit: Lucasfilm]:

With the release of the original Star Wars (1977), Lucas would build on the populist run of earlier 1970s blockbusters - including, most prominently, The Exorcist (1973), Jaws (1975) and Rocky (1976) - to create a film that placed the emphasis squarely on spectacle, engagement and escapism. In doing so, the success of the film and its subsequent shift in focus towards marketing and merchandise, brought to an end a short-period in American moviemaking where the watchwords were introspection, cynicism and ambiguity.

While earlier films of this period, such as Midnight Cowboy (1969), Easy Rider (1969), McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Taxi Driver (1976) to name a few, had centred on the perspective of drop-outs and anti-heroes, the theme of America's loss of innocence and the realities of male prostitution, poverty, drug abuse, the Kennedy assassination and the war in Vietnam, Star Wars would instead bring fantasy and mythmaking back to the popular cinema with a story intentionally aimed at the largest possible demographic. As such, it was devoid of anything that might prove to be too challenging, experimental or mature. While the techniques and special effects were groundbreaking for the period, extending as they did on the innovations of Stanley Kubrick's great masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the storytelling and characterisations - that theme of good against evil - were intentionally retrograde; closer in fact to a 1950s western or science-fiction serial than to a contemporary work such as The Passenger (1975), All the President's Men (1976) or 3 Women (1977).

Star Wars would prove to be a genuine cultural phenomenon. It spawned a billion dollar franchise, a host of native and international imitators, and changed the way subsequent filmmakers and studios thought about genre, merchandise and special effects. Tellingly, it's a story that is still being told to this day, with five additional "Star Wars" movies finding their way to the multiplexes during the last five years and at least another five planned for the coming decade. This longevity makes Star Wars arguably the most influential film of the twentieth century.

Star Wars [George Lucas, 1977]:

Two decades after Star Wars, Lucas would reshape the cinema once again with the release of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999). While not as fondly remembered as the first film, or even its immediate sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), directed by Irvin Kershner, and Return of the Jedi (1983), directed by Richard Marquand, I would still argue that the success of The Phantom Menace solidified the modern infatuation with the "brand" in popular cinema. Outside of the James Bond series, The Phantom Menace was a film that proved to Hollywood executives that an intellectual property with enough brand recognition could transcend the generations; that a self-contained film that already had a clearly defined beginning, middle and end could still be mined for more content, so long as such content was marketed as a genuine event.

In the same year that original works like The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense and The Matrix were establishing a cultural identity for their own era, The Phantom Menace was appealing to nostalgia. It was a throwback movie, specifically manufactured to bring in the now adult audiences that grew up with the original trilogy and the young audiences that had discovered the series more recently through repeat showings on television or re-branded "special-editions" on VHS. The Phantom Menace provided the blueprint that studio executives have followed ever since: find an old property with a built-in fan base and create a follow-up that also functions as a thinly-veiled remake. In its construction, The Phantom Menace was designed to satiate the appetite for a new Stars Wars movie, but it was also intended as a way of re-introducing the franchise to a new audience. It presented a mirror image of the original narrative - with its young hero taken under the wing of a Jedi master to learn the ways of the force, who meets a series of colourful, mostly non-human supporting characters, and then gets to grapple with the lure of the dark side - but with enough minor cosmetic changes to appear new.

In its success - $1 billion at the worldwide box office to date - The Phantom Menace inadvertently created the precedent for later franchise reboots such Batman Begins (2005), Casino Royale (2006), Alice in Wonderland (2010), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Fast Five (2015), Jurassic World (2015), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), Ghostbusters (2016), Ocean's Eight (2018), Halloween (2018), and so on. The brand became king.

If the original Star Wars had helped to change the way movies were marketed, promoted and sold to an audience, then the innovations of the Star Wars prequel trilogy also helped to define a new language that subsequent blockbusters have taken to imitate, almost as a standard. Over the course of their production, Lucas would move away from location filming, relying instead on having his actors perform scenes in front of a giant green-screen, with the backdrops added-in digitally during post-production. By the second instalment he was no longer shooting on 35mm film, but pioneering the use of high-definition digital cinematography, which is now commonplace.

To this day, the stylisation of the Star Wars prequels is a point of contention among fans. Compared to the original trilogy, The Phantom Menace seems garish and artificial. For all of its pioneering effects work, the original Star Wars was a modestly budgeted adventure film that still showed the influence of Lucas's work on his earlier, "new Hollywood" movies, THX 1138 (1971) and American Graffiti (1973); markedly more grounded, even gritty films. The special effects of Star Wars may have been a little more elaborate, but it wasn't a film without precedent. One could recognise its aesthetic in everything from the aforementioned 2001: A Space Odyssey, to films like Silent Running (1972), Logan's Run (1976) or the television show Star Trek (1966-1969). By point of contrast, who else in 1999 was making films that looked like this?

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace [George Lucas, 1999]:

Images taken from:

Flash-forward twenty years later and it's difficult to think of a mainstream blockbuster that doesn't look like this. From Sin City (2005) to 300 (2007), from The Last Airbender (2010) to A Wrinkle in Time (2018), from The Avengers (2012) to Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), from Jupiter Ascending (2015) to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017), to Black Panther (2018) and beyond, the visual language of The Phantom Menace has become ubiquitous. That it now represents the absolute aesthetic criterion for all big-budget Hollywood and international cinema makes it easy to forget that this particular style had no real visual precedent prior to Lucas's film. For all of its faults and shortcomings, The Phantom Menace was a genuine game-changer.

While analogous blockbusters, such as The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001), would employ green-screen technology and extensive CGI, the result was still somewhat closer to '90s era blockbusters like Jurassic Park (1993) and Independence Day (1995), or a then contemporary film like The Matrix (1999), where, despite the reliance on computer generated manipulation and digital world-building, there was still an actuality to the images; a sense of real actors interacting with "real" locations and comparatively more naturalistic lighting. In those films, the special effects were mostly being added into live action environments. By contrast, The Phantom Menace went all-in, creating fully realised digital worlds that its real-life actors could explore and interact with. It was taking the CGI world-building of Pixar's work, such as Toy Story (1995), and bringing that technology into the conventions of the live action cinema.

The subsequent films of Lucas's trilogy, Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002) and Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005), would only push the visual aesthetic even further. By the time the third and most visually sophisticated of the three films was eventually released, Hollywood had finally caught up. Even Peter Jackson and the Wachowski's were now following in the same direction with their subsequent efforts, King Kong (2005) and Speed Racer (2008) respectively. The language of these films was being translated; the standard was being set.

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith [George Lucas, 2005]:

Images taken from:

King Kong [Peter Jackson, 2005]:

Images taken from:

Speed Racer [Lana & Lilly Wachowski, 2008]:

Guardians of the Galaxy [James Gunn, 2014]:

While I'm no great fan of this particular style of filmmaking, one has to concede that it's now a recognisable part of the language of the modern blockbuster. Audiences are able to accept visuals of this nature as the new normal, while for me they still feel alien to my conception of cinema based on the kind of films I grew up with. However, with the subsequent release of every new modern blockbuster, from the aforementioned Black Panther, to Aquaman (2018) or Alita: Battle Angel (2019), or to the more directly related Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), the technical and aesthetic influence of Lucas and his prequel trilogy is plainly felt.

And yet, Lucas is not a reference point for modern-critics when they rhapsodise about this kind of cinema. The negative perception of the prequel trilogy means that the kind of heightened imagery and CGI stylisations that Lucas helped to normalise are not a part of the filmmaker's current narrative. For many, the prequel trilogy was unnecessary and remains a black mark in the history of the franchise. For older critics, Lucas's innovations are tired to his success and his success remain in the past; for younger audiences, the modern cinema has taken its current shape simply because the available technology has enforced a kind of designated user-model. Maybe such opinions hold truth. But the fact remains it was Lucas who made that first great leap into this kind of new-digital aesthetic, which Hollywood (and elsewhere) has eventually followed.

In the same way that a filmmaker like M. Night Shyamalan receives nothing but scorn and derision from the mainstream American film culture, even when hugely successful and acclaimed works like The Dark Knight (2008), A Quiet Place (2017), Us (2019) and the upcoming Midsommar (2019) are plainly modelled on (if not derivative of) the style and themes of his own films - specifically Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002) and The Village (2004) respectively - so too has Lucas's legacy been intentionally diminished.

I think there's an element of spite in each of these instances. Since Lucas and Shyamalan both made films that became successful enough to be considered a "cultural phenomena", their historical significance was assured. As such, it's been important for the establishment to ensure that this early success is the only thing these filmmakers are known for; even if it means sabotaging the reception and reputation of their subsequent work. To wilfully deny any filmmaker their obvious influence on more acclaimed cinema is, culturally speaking, shameful.

Saturday, 25 May 2019

Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy

Adventures in jazz discovery

On a personal note, I love how so many of the great jazz albums use modern art imagery as an influence on their sleeve designs. "Bird and Diz" (1952), "Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet" (1957), "Time Out" (1959), "Mingus Ah Um" (1959), "Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation" (1961), "Getz/Gilberto" (1963). Like those albums and others, the cover art for "Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy" is pure abstract expressionism; the imagery capturing something of the sparse, near-ambient nature of the music contained within. As an explosion of modernism - which suggests images and emotions, as opposed to outright stating them in clear or simple terms - the artwork evokes the music and vice versa; creating a statement, both aesthetically and culturally; framing jazz, the genre, as somehow existing hand-in-hand with the earlier twentieth-century innovations in modern art.

As a record, or as an experience, "Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy" could be described as like entering a darkened room with a mosquito. At first, the constant vibrations of the insect, as it buzzes, unseen, in the darkness, might evoke a particular sense of discomfort; a feeling of anxiety that suggests something bad or unpleasant is about to take place. Give it time however, and the hissing, whirring and buzzing sounds of the instrumentation as it passes from speaker to speaker, phased, as if again like an insect, dive-bombing around the head and ears of the attentive listener, becomes immersive, even hypnotic. Listen hard enough through the clamour and cacophony, and the melodies and counter melodies, the locked-in rhythms, become clear.

Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy [Sun Ra and His Myth Science Arkestra, 1967]:

The opening track, 'And Otherness', feels like a clarion call across a desolate plain. North African influences seem to swirl about its discordant horn-sounds and complex rhythms, adding little blocks of colour and atmosphere throughout. There's an air of the ceremonial about this - something regal and majestic almost; like it could be the soundtrack to the inauguration of some new God-head or future king - but it's all too fragmented, as if the event is being recalled from the depths of an out-of-body experience or a chemically induced daze. 'And Otherness' sets a tone for the rest of the album, embodying the kind of free expressionism that typifies subsequent tracks, such as 'Thither and Yon', or the epic 'Adventure-Equation.' Here things start to stray into the realm of the pre-psychedelic, with its distorted drum pattern and layers of additional percussion building slowly; so drenched in echo and reverberation that the rhythm track becomes like the heavy flutter of a billion butterfly wings. Later, the horns arrive in waves of melody, ebbing and flowing across the tribal bedrock of drowned percussion, trilling and ringing; threatening to become a song in the conventional sense before unravelling again into something less structured, more formless, more free.

Side two of the record is a thing of beauty. Moving from 'Moon Dance', with its at-first cacophonous use of percussion - which sounds like a junkyard orchestra hammering on the trashcans, or like a heavy storm rattling the pots and pans - it soon reveals a complex system of rhythms all rolling then breaking, catching a staccato grove, then fragmenting into organs and other instruments, all blowing bursts of melody, notes and noise. The lo-fi nature of the recording suggests something amateur or homemade but the talent on display is nothing of the sort. The final track, 'Voice of Space' is an almost eight minute excursion into ambient minimalism, with the same fluttering percussion and seesawing brass and woodwinds suggesting further hints of melody, before separating along paths of discordant expression. Some of the instrumentation seems to recall the influence of "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima" by Krzysztof Penderecki, where the music has an inherent tension; a kind of clenching and unclenching of the figurative fists. Stabs of organ, like an ambulance siren, throw colour through the darkness, suggest an influence for the iconic introduction to the classic 1967 Van Morrison song, T.B. Sheets.

Recorded in 1963 but not released until 1967, "Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy" is one of the many highlights of Sun Ra's prolific and pioneering career. While other albums would combine and refine his various influences - including jazz, funk, psychedelia, quote/unquote 'world music' and the foundations of what would eventually be termed Afrofuturism - "Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy" is much sparser, seemingly less structured, but no less compelling. Every Sun Ra album seems to have its own colour and texture, capturing as it does a specific mood that sustains itself throughout. "Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy" is no exception.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Let the Devil Tempt Us

Jean-Claude Brisseau
In Memoriam

According to reports from the French mainstream media, filmmaker Jean-Claude Brisseau has passed away. A controversial figure in contemporary cinema, Brisseau had a style and sensibility that was singular, provocative and often charged with the supernatural. As an early disciple of Éric Rohmer, Brisseau shared his mentor's affinity for scenes of leisurely conversation, where set-pieces would often consist of two characters sitting down in a park or public space to discuss their relationships, the world and the mysteries of the universe. Unlike Rohmer's films however, such scenes were often punctuated by moments of brutal violence, a reverence to genre and explicit sexuality.

My introduction to Brisseau's cinema came in 2014 when I saw his penultimate feature, The Girl from Nowhere (2012). I can't remember what it was that brought the film to my attention but I do remember reading a plot synopsis and finding similarities to two of my favourite films from the same period: Lady in the Water (2006) by M. Night Shyamalan and Ondine (2009) by Neil Jordan. I've always had a personal interest in films about mysterious characters coming into contact with protagonists that have given up on life, and in doing so, bestow upon them a renewed sense of purpose. Added to this a particular fondness for films that deal with myths and miracles from a semi-plausible perspective and The Girl from Nowhere seemed a sure thing.

The Girl from Nowhere [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2012]:

With its phantoms and its haunted memories, its strange encounters and premonitions, its relaxed conversations and discussions on art, the cinema, loneliness and grief, to say nothing of its thread of self-reflexivity, in which the protagonist's attempt to commit his memories to the page creates a subtle mirroring between the content of the character's text and the fantastical story unfolding on-screen, The Girl from Nowhere remains a fascinating and distinctive work. With its micro-budget aesthetic, its use of the director's own apartment as the principle location and its homemade special-effects, it also provided a template for my own work and the kind of films I wanted to make but never did. To this day, an image  from The Girl from Nowhere sits at the top of this very blog and provides a kind of shorthand for the type of cinema I find most bewitching.

Brisseau made other films that I love just as much as The Girl From Nowhere. Sound and Fury (1988) - which takes its title from a quotation from Shakespeare's Macbeth and has a similar juxtaposition between power structures, violence as a means to an end and the supernatural - finds the filmmaker following a line of influence from The 400 Blows (1959) to L'Enfance Nue (1968) with another film about a childhood on the fringes unravelling into brutality. In this film, Brisseau makes his first great leap in the aesthetic union between social-realism and poetic-realism, setting a template for the concerns and images that would come to haunt his later, more controversial features, such as Céline (1992), The Black Angel (1994), Secret Things (2002), The Exterminating Angels (2006) and À L'Aventure (2008).

Each of these films could be described as mysterious, hypnotic, classical and provoking, and would be more than worthy of a full, essay-length analysis of their respective strengths and weaknesses, and how well they deepen and enrich the political, aesthetic and metaphysical dialogues that run throughout Brisseau's work. In lieu of this kind of tribute please accept this small gallery of images taken from my favourite of Brisseau's films.

A Brutal Game [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 1983]:

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

Céline [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 1992]:

Workers for the Good Lord [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2000]:

The Exterminating Angels [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2006]:

À L'Aventure [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2008]:

The Girl from Nowhere [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2012]:

Let the Devil Tempt Us [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2018]:

Brisseau's final feature-length film, Let the Devil Tempt Us, was released last year (re-titled for English speaking audiences as the less compelling "Tempting Devils"). Understandably, sexual harassment allegations brought against Brisseau following the release of his scandalous but hugely successful late-feature, the aforementioned Secret Things, effectively ended his reputation as a respectable filmmaker of merit. Outside of France his work has drifted into obscurity. Very few (if any) English-speaking media outlets have mourned his passing, or used the occasion to open up avenues of discussion surrounding his work. While one must treat allegations of sexual misconduct with the upmost seriousness and concern, the attempts to suppress the films of Brisseau - or those by Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Šarūnas Bartas, etc, etc. - seem reactionary, if not totalitarian, and do a great disservice to the many actors, technicians and collaborators who contributed to these works, and especially to the films produced prior to such allegations being made.

When groups talk of inclusivity, they often refer to social justice issues regarding representation. More female voices, more transgender voices, more voices from a non-white, non-western background. Such ideals are laudable and worth fighting for. But true inclusivity is also acknowledging that great art can be produced by anyone. From the most virtuous saint to the lowliest sinner, each of us has a story to tell, and a way of looking at the world that is unique, distinctive and possessing of our own inherent truth. Art is a way of looking at the world through different perspectives. Whether the artist comes from a place of vice or virtue, we can still learn something from seeing the world from their particular point of view.