Tuesday, 18 November 2008

The Third Part of The Night

Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937:

Like Guernica, Picasso's extraordinary painting, Andrzej Żuławski's The Third Part of The Night (Trzecia część nocy, 1971) expresses, in a very immediate but also rather thought-provoking way, the concept of genocide. Here, the idea is developed through an incredibly frightening evocation of the period of German occupation in Poland during the Second World War, in which the general background of conflict and persecution is used, as in Guernica, not simply to establish a particular historical context, or to grant the audience a greater sense of perspective, but as a symbolic expression of the central character's own tortured descent into the depths of memory, identity, mortality and despair.

In this sense, the thematic design of the film is in some ways reminiscent of Russian filmmaker Elem Klimov's similar World War II allegory, Come and See (Idi i smotri, 1985), in which the more broadly recognisable conventions of wartime iconography - the conflict and the struggle - are used to express the disintegrating emotional perspective of its young central character within that almost apocalyptic vision of destruction and devastation that the Second World War would come to represent, both historically and creatively.

However, if Come and See was as much about the madness of war in the literal, ideological sense, then Żuławski's film goes beyond even that; offering what one character in the film refers to as a "complicated vortex", in which the madness of war can be seen as an extension of the devastating events that transpire during the film's shattering opening sequence. Here, grief and guilt circle around these characters, leading them to explore what the late British filmmaker Derek Jarman once referred to as 'an investigation of the past by way of the present', while simultaneously placing them within the recognisable dramatic context of what another character knowingly describes as "a medieval darkness."

As this dialogue might indicate, the film offers a strange and often hallucinatory narrative effectively about a character spiralling out of control; with the actual look and the texture of the film conveying this feeling of freefall by switching, almost at random, from elements of over-the-top surrealism to something almost resembling a conventional genre film. However, these half-formed, never fully developed tonal shifts serve a purpose in contextualising the uncertainly of the life and death theme that can be taken as the most obvious reading of the film's literally apocalyptic climax. As the events of the opening scenes create, not only a circular effect that ties both ends of the narrative together, but a kind of ripple effect that is followed all the way through the narrative, leading to the curious chronological structure, the exaggerated performances and the jarring shifts from violence to almost religious transcendence.

In keeping with this, the dialogue seems littered with clues that continually push us towards a more psychological or even allegorical reading of the text. For example, the early scenes between Marta (Małgorzata Braunek) and Michal (Leszek Teleszyński) - both doubles for other characters, both doppelgangers attempting to find the familiar in different beings - where the dialog is seemingly designed to express the issues of memory and identity that hang over the story, as these two characters attempt to identify one another; "one is a reflection" says Marta, "and you yourself are the mirror."

The Third Part of The Night directed by Andrzej Żuławski, 1971:

As Marta dresses Michal's wounds after their initial meeting, he opines "I've been finding you again". "Yes", she replies, "in other people who aren't us". The dialog is continually changing our interpretation of what we are experiencing; are we witnessing the last few seconds of life from a young man cut down in the film's opening massacre, or a psychological metamorphosis, supposedly illustrating how war can change a man, both mentally and physiologically? As the character Marta herself explains, somewhat self-reflexively, "such things often happens in the midst of war - amongst the lice and the blood and the muck", as the characters are forced to become detached from their surroundings and their situation, looking in on themselves as if observing the lives of others, while simultaneously "sinking into a world where all things have become alike". It is the expression of war, not just as the machine that turns the cogs that eventually lays waste to the human spirit, but as a veritable hall of mirrors, revealing and then distorting a series of revelations that not only leave the audience perplexed, but the characters as well.

As a result, it is a film that exists on the fringes of reality, blurring the lines between dream and certainty, memory and fiction; as holocaust imagery is placed alongside the use of deliberate religious symbolism to create an even more horrific atmosphere of dread and despair. Meanwhile, the development of a complex and emotionally fragile chronology of events, punctuated throughout by moments of intense violence and surreal abstraction, finds our character plunged headlong into a central mystery that blends elements of actual historical fact with more abstract ideas that seem to push the film further into the bizarre and often existentialist realms of writers like Kafka, Sartre or Borges.

All of this is apparent from the film's memorable opening sequences; in which a reading from the Book of Revelations is juxtaposed against a disquieting montage of early morning landscapes and stark, unforgettable violence. The series of shots that introduce the film also work towards establishing something of a tone, both visually and atmospherically, that will intensify throughout; with the dark, menacing shots of the Polish countryside - a veritable black mosaic of backlit tree branches reflected on murky, autumnal lakes that foreground a no doubt once opulent country manner house, where the characters have taken refuge from the continuing conflict and persecution - giving us the central location where the story will both begin and end with that scene of devastation played out from two very different perspectives.

The Third Part of The Night directed by Andrzej Żuławski, 1971:

The quality of the images presented in this sequence are contrasted perfectly by the reading of the text; as the themes of dread and destruction and the tone of the voice suggest a sense of fear and uncertainty. From here, Żuławski confronts us with the film's first and most penetrating depiction of violence; as the interior of the house is suddenly invaded by soldiers on horseback, who strike Helena (again played by Małgorzata Braunek) with the butt of their rifles, as Michal and his young son watch with horror from the neighbouring trees. Though again, captured in a very matter of fact approach, with the camera work of Witold Sobociński making great use of the handheld, pre-Steadicam style to exaggerate the drama and confusion, the scene has an undercurrent of abstract dream-logic. The simple image of a horse and guard charging into this quiet country manor house, combined with the look of sheer horror on the face of Helena, seems to exist somewhere between the fantastical realms of a Terry Gilliam film (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, 1988 perhaps) and the devastating horror of a Pier Paolo Pasolini (cf. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, 1975).

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975:

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen directed by Terry Gilliam, 1988:

The Third Part of The Night directed by Andrzej Żuławski, 1971:

According to an interview that accompanies the recent region 0 DVD, the initial genesis of The Third Part of The Night came from Żuławski's conversations with his father Mirosław about his own experiences during the Nazi occupation of Lwow, and in particular, his time with The Rudolf Weigl Institute, where Mirosław was one of the many Polish intellectuals - alongside figures like the mathematician Stefan Banach and the musician and conductor Stanislaw Skorwaczewski - who found protection in the institution as carriers for an experimental Typhus vaccine. Like Mirosław, the character of Michal uses the institute to hide out from the threat of oppression, as those closest to him are murdered, hounded or rounded up into the backs of trucks and trailers, never to be seen again.

Here he enters into what film critic Michael Brooke describes as an "inverted value system that assigns the highest social status to human guinea-pigs offering themselves as a food supply for laboratory bred lice". It is in these sequences that Żuławski's documentarian approach to detail is the most jarringly apparent. And yet, even as the camera lingers on the smallest of authentic details, the sheer absurdity and nightmarish undercurrent of this situation can't help creating a more surreal and ultimately distressing Kafkaesque nightmare; as Michal and his comrades become (essentially) no better than corpses - food for the insects - living an almost purgatory like existence as ghosts, neither alive nor dead.

The Third Part of The Night directed by Andrzej Żuławski, 1971:

This central concept of the void between life and death and the further blurring of perceptions and, more importantly, identities, is a key theme of The Third Part of The Night; with the vague shifting between time and memory - as if moving through the various layers of a dream - propelling the narrative towards its confounding and enigmatic final. Here, our protagonist must stare into the hollowed face of death to find only the bleak abyss staring back at him; illustrating that Żuławski wasn't simply prefiguring the ideas articulated in Klimov's great work, but those that would later be expressed in director David Lynch's trilogy of psychological metamorphosis - as represented by the films Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Dr. (2001) and Inland Empire (2006).

Like those films, The Third Part of The Night presents layers of both reality and reflection, in which a frenzied mystery is shaped by the contrast between the two strands of what we see and what we believe. A film where a character on the very edge of sanity, puts back the pieces of a tragic event that changed the course of his young life, and instead of finding a clear image, is presented with a fragmented patchwork of terror and uncertainty.

In this respect, it is a film is a work of layered interpretations; where images of doorways and staircases that represents the movement from one shifting reality to another, takes dominance over the mise-en-scene. The sense, of moving between words, memories and realities abstracts the drama even further, creating a bleak kaleidoscope of images and ideas similar in execution to the climax of Takashi Miike's masterpiece Audition (Ôdishon, 1999). As the film progresses, the tenuous hold that Michal has on reality becomes strained, and he is drawn, almost supernaturally, through layers of reflection. As the atmosphere of the third act becomes much more intense, the character is led into a literally hellish underworld; a Dante's Inferno, where a series of grisly discoveries in a literal hospital of horrors - filled with what author Daniel Bird refers to as "a Grosz-like gallery of the grotesque" and a series of "Francis Bacon-like bodies covered in lice cages in an otherwise darkened cell" - conspire to push the character further into the bowels of the institution, where the secrets of his fate will be revealed.

Triptych, May–June 1973 by Francis Bacon, 1973:

The Third Part of The Night directed by Andrzej Żuławski, 1971:

However, the answer to the film's most pertinent question evades both the character and the audience, obscured as it is by conflicting narrative perspectives; reducing the plight of this character to the level of a Rorschach construct, in which the answer to the most significant question of all can be found only as a reflection on the face of death itself. As a result, it will be a difficult film for many viewers, not simply in regards to the atmosphere and the imagery that is created, but in the film's often confusing disregard for logic and convention; where the whole film, for the most part, seems beyond the realms of easy categorisation, or even critique.

More than anything, it reflects the notion of a cinema of dreams (or nightmares); with the often ugly, ecstatic nature of Żuławski's direction and the heightened, almost exaggerated performances of his cast creating a tone that lingers long in the imagination. Where the characters ripple and convulse in irregular, epileptic spasms, while those unforgiving, wide-angle lenses are continually pushed right into the faces of the actors in order to capture every uncomfortable moment of pain and despair.

The Revelation of St John: 4. The Four Riders of the Apocalypse by Albrecht Dürer, 1498:

The Third Part of The Night directed by Andrzej Żuławski, 1971:

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Body Snatchers

Body Snatchers (1993) is not the first feature-length adaptation of Jack Finney's pulp sci-fi novel The Body Snatchers (serialised in 1954, published in 1955), but it is the first to examine its themes of conformity, paranoia and assimilation within a mostly domestic setting. Previous adaptations by Don Siegel and Philip Kaufman used the general sub-text of the book to give a satirical weight to its B-movie premise; suggesting the air of 1950s McCarthyism in Siegel's film, or the growing right-wing conservative bias of the 1970s in Kaufman's great remake.

In Ferrara's film, the idea of an alien race cloning the species with the intention of world domination carries no greater political commentary, but is instead used as a backdrop to a particularly convincing evocation of teenage alienation. The notion makes perfect sense given the familiar adolescent belief that the world, and in particular the grown-up world of parents, teachers and authority-figures in general, is somehow conspiring against us. "It's like my parents are from another planet..." the kids say, exaggerating the recognisable generation gap while simultaneously reinforcing the one-sided belief that the old-folks just don't get it.

The lead protagonist of this Body Snatchers 3.0 is appropriately enough a teenage girl. Her natural sense of disconnection and displacement is further exaggerated by the film's setting; a military base where her father has been sent to monitor possible levels of contamination following recent government experiments. Right away, the location not only emphasises the feeling of confinement felt by this character - as she is trapped, physically within the walled community of the base and watched at all times by the armed military personnel that "defend" it - but the necessary requirements of the genre to create uncertainty and unease.

Body Snatchers directed by Abel Ferrara, 1993:

Further separation can be found in the presentation of the family. The opening voice over, delivered by the protagonist from the perspective of having survived these events - thus deliberately reducing the natural suspense that one might expect when engaging with a film of this nature - establishes the sense of domestic dysfunction. As the character herself deadpans during the long road trip that begins the film, "It's not easy being stuck in a car with a six-year old and the woman who replaced your mom..."

Here the dialogue establishes the great theme of Finney's novel - the assimilation of the species - but does so in a rather knowing, almost tongue-in-cheek approach. It's also perfectly in keeping with the irreverent, somewhat belligerent qualities of the central character; wanting to break free from the influence of her father and step-mother to find her own personality and direction through life. This struggle for independence - to be seen as a genuine adult with relevant opinions and emotions that should've been taken into consideration before the decision was made to move - plays into the larger metaphor of Finney's source material; the nature of conformity.

In Ferrara's film, conformity is not only suggested by the central B-movie variation on 'pod-people' replacing the human race, but by the emphasis on his adolescent protagonist. As a teenager, the great struggle in life is about finding your own identity; kicking against the trends and the fashions and the peer pressure to reclaim a sense of self.

Even the location breeds conformity. In popular media, the 1960s counter-culture would jokingly refer to the military as a "conformity factory"; a place where people are conditioned into thinking a certain way. These soldiers aren't individuals; they're an instrument with one mind. If this alien organism was going to successfully gestate in a single environment, then the military base offers the perfect cover; a place where emotions are kept hidden; where the rank and the uniform become the only identification.

Body Snatchers directed by Abel Ferrara, 1993:

For most of the film, Ferrara uses the horror elements, not as props to increase or embellish the necessary requirements of the genre (for the most part these things are created naturally, through shots and movement) but to give a sense of real, tangible tragedy to the teen soap opera of Marti's life. Think about the situation not as something literally taking place, but as a metaphorical amplification of a particular feeling or a state of mind. This is a character feeling cut-off from her own generation; lost and alone with a family she can no longer relate to...

Rather than developing an immediate atmosphere of terror or even the broader science-fiction elements of the plot, the earlier scenes of the film emphasise the loneliness of this character; moments where she ponders the emptiness of her new life in this cold and loveless environment. Where the windows of her bedroom (unfurnished and therefore without personality) separate her from the other children heard playing in the gardens below; suggesting the image of a prisoner behind bars.

Body Snatchers directed by Abel Ferrara, 1993:

Whenever possible, Ferrara presents the threat as a natural occurrence. These aren't monsters terrorising the characters; they're something familiar, ordinary even, and difficult to define. The terror comes from the realisation that these things, which look human, can almost pass for human, are here, watching and waiting. Shadows, shapes, silhouettes; appearances that emphasise the idea of formless bodies without character, identity or personality are used by the director to suggest the possible threat.

Likewise, simple shots of characters observing the events taking place are given a greater feeling of agitation and disquiet by the general implication that something terrible is going on beneath the surface of this community.

Body Snatchers directed by Abel Ferrara, 1993:

It's a daring move by Ferrara and his collaborators to approach the film, for the most part at least, from the perspective of a coming of age story. Unfortunately, when the film does delve deeper into the more overt conventions of the horror movie it tends to fall apart. The final act in particular seems rushed and unfocused. In fact, it almost feels as if Ferrara is fulfilling a contract with his producers; explosions and disintegrating corpses replacing the intense minimalism, pace and formal control exhibited during the first two acts.

However, despite these last-minute flaws, the film is still a fascinating work. Given the largest budget of his career, Ferrara has complete control over the look and design of the film and presents the viewer with one of the most visually creative projects of his career. As an example, the widescreen cinematography is remarkable throughout, with every inch of the screen used artistically, making great use of the edges of the frame to introduce potential danger or clues to the actual reality of the situation. Also, the way the camera moves, often in long languorous tracking shots or via subtle use of the Louma crane, gives the impression of the various unseen forces that motivate these events.

These creative experiments are nothing short of thrilling, but the most audacious move is still the decision to create a multi-million dollar domestic drama that only occasionally reminds its audience that we're watching a crossover between the markedly more mainstream conventions of horror and sci-fi cinema.