Sunday, 29 March 2009

8 ½ Women

As with Greenaway's earlier film, A Zed and Two Noughts (1985), 8 ½ Women (1999) develops around the notion of grief (and of overcoming grief), which is here expressed in the filmmaker's typically ornate and clinical approach, in which his characters are rendered as artefacts, placed beneath the microscope for the viewer's consideration. As an experiment, it is less successful than the earlier film, which was able to combine elements of obvious provocation and theoretical deconstruction with an interesting narrative and characters that registered beyond the form of mere ideological constructs there to voice ideas in a kind of back-and-forth dialogue between the filmmaker and his audience.

Although far from conventional, the characters in A Zed and Two Noughts were at least recognisably human; with the greater themes at work within the narrative, and the sense of devastation and loss that reverberates throughout, managing to overcome the self-conscious performances of the two lead actors, or the mannered approach of Greenaway and his crew, to at least present something that captures the imagination and creates drama rather than dissertation. In comparison, 8 ½ Women feels inflated and unfocused; as if Greenaway is attempting to express a series of personal issues - or at least, issues more personal than many of his other films of this period, such as Prospero's Books (1991) or The Baby of Mâcon (1993) - but still retaining that dry, theatrical, deconstructive approach that those particular films had employed to great effect.

Suffice to say, the combination simply doesn't work. Greenaway is a filmmaker at his best when playing games with his audience and revelling in the spectacle of expression. There are elements of that still present in 8 ½ Women, but mostly we have an attempt to express the themes of the film, not through the presentation of the production itself, but through the appearance (and theoretical notions) of character. It is perfectly fine to attempt such experiments when adapting Shakespeare or playing with the meta-fictional notions of viewing and storytelling (as in the two films aforementioned), but the idea that this is somehow a character driven film - and that the experiments of the filmmaker are entirely reliant on these characters - is the major flaw at the centre of the movie.

Whereas A Zed and Two Noughts unfolded around the clever idea of twin zoologists each questioning the nature of evolution and the fragility of the human body (in a de-compositional sense) following the death of their respective wives in the same tragic car-accident, 8 ½ Women focuses on the bereavement felt by a wealthy investment banker and his grown-up son - the characters Philip and Storey Emmenthal - after the sudden passing of the family's beloved matriarch. Inspired by Federico Fellini's film 8 ½ (1963), the father and son decide to open their own private harem at their mansion in Geneva, populated by (literally) 8 ½ Women (itself a perverse joke), including the actresses Polly Walker, Amanda Plummer, Toni Collette, Vivian Wu and Kirina Mano.

If we think about many of Greenaway's previous films, such as The Draughtsman's Contract (1982), Drowning By Numbers (1988), The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) and The Pillow Book (1996), the characters served a purpose within the narrative; offering a number of multi-layered interpretations of various themes and archetypes that were a continuation of the highly stylised world in which the films unfolded. You can see a similar notion here in the presentation of the 8 ½ women of the title; with each one becoming a model that represents something far greater than the narrative itself. However, where the film really does fall flat is in the creation of the two central characters, the father and son played by John Standing and Mathew Delamere, who are used to express the more "human" ideas at work within the drama, as well as the perhaps more important idea of the male gaze (especially in how it pertains to the viewing and creation of art).

When placed front and centre, the limitations of these characters in the traditional, narrative sense, is overwhelmed by the flat, austere and highly formal presentation of the imagery. We're supposed to warm to these people, or at least take some kind of interest in their actions, but the coldness of the performances, the knowing, self-absorption of the dialog and Greenaway's stylistic techniques put us at a distance. It's unfortunate, but the characters simply aren't as interesting as the rest of the film; dwarfed by the ironic presentation of the images and the overwhelming technicality of Greenaway's approach to cinema. In this respect, we could probably argue that there is simply far too much going on - both within the frame and within the lives of these two characters - for the film to work on either level. As a result, the film is unable to affect us on a personal level, leaving the central notion of the film (grief and overcoming it) floundering amidst the more interesting depictions of the women and how they are used and subverted by the film itself.

Of course, there are all kinds of interpretations that we can find here, including the idea of archetypes and stereotypes and the presentation of women as depicted in classical art (with the conventional, if controversial notions of the mother, the whore, the angel, the cripple, the dominatrix and the submissive, etc), as well as the various ideas of masculinity (presented here as a combination of near-incestuous homoeroticism, narcissism and self infatuation), dependence and the always prevalent reflections on life and death. Into this, there is also a commentary on the nature of cinema; in viewing images, finding inspiration, taking a model (physical) and attempting to create a model (living) around it.

Despite the criticisms from those at odds with Greenaway's work - i.e. the kind of viewers who throw around the "p-word" and take offence with his fairly far-out ideas about what cinema is and what cinema should aspire to - the filmmaker has adequately demonstrated in the past that he is just as capable of conveying human emotion and moments of great drama as well as the more obvious intellectual/academic experiments that he is perhaps more famous for. His best films all manage to convey such elements of human nature and human emotion alongside the experiments with the form and presentation; offering the viewer something that not only has the ability to make us think, but to also make us feel. In many of his films this is conveyed in the expression itself; in which a world is created and sustained and ideas are developed that become as engaging (if not more engaging) as any laboured plot twist, narrative development or deus ex machina.

This element seems to be missing from 8 ½ Women, which is perhaps Greenaway's most character-oriented work and, we assume, his most personal. It seems to express many of his own thoughts and feelings about life (he had recently divorced and moved to the Netherlands) and perhaps cinema (the continual references to Fellini and his great triumph, the aforementioned 8 ½), with a number of deeper interpretations that are still there, if perhaps not quite as fully formed. It also lacks the filmmaker's marvellous sense of humour, which was perfectly realised in his most famous film, the pitch-black parable The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, in which Greenaway once again illustrated his ability to create memorable characters with complex emotions alongside a fully realised visual approach, in which continuity, staging and CinemaScope photography (in opulent colours that referenced Hitchcock's Vertigo, 1958) were each used to help create a world that complimented his characters and their internal or external space.

On its initial premier at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1999, the film was greeted with some of the worst reviews of Greenaway's already highly contentious career. Since then, the filmmaker has remained decidedly low-key. His multi-part, multi-media project The Tulse Luper Suitcases (2003) suffered from poor distribution and seemed to be at least five or six years ahead of its time, leaving many audiences lost and confused. Similarly, his most recent narrative film, the satirical art-mystery Nightwatching (2007) (a portrait of the artist Rembrandt and his enigmatic work The Night Watch, 1642) seems to have vanished without a trace.

However, none of this changes the fact that 8 ½ Women is essentially a failure, if, perhaps, an interesting one, worthy of some thought and consideration. As critic Geoff Andrew wrote in Time Out, "The film has the usual collage of lists, perverse conceits, strange images, arcane illusions and nudity; but far more lazily assembled than previously. The writing is without wit, the pacing clumsy, the 'surrealism' forced and the whole, pretty pointless." I don't particularly think it is "pointless", as Andrew would suggest, although it certainly seems more lazily assembled than previously. Instead, I'd be more inclined to agree with the sentiments of Roger Ebert, who wrote, "It is not possible to 'like' this film, although one admires it, and is intrigued."

Friday, 20 March 2009

British Sounds

"Photography is not the reflection of reality... it is the reality of the reflection."

Quoted above is one of the many confrontational ideologies at the political and philosophical centre of British Sounds (1970) - the Dziga Vertov Group's lengthy polemic on socialism, feminism, equality and the class struggle, post May 1968 - in which the creative emphasis is placed on a continual conflict between the content and the presentation, illustrated in this instance by the further conflict between the film and the viewer. A film where the particular struggle is created by a continually warring juxtaposition between sound and image; with the drab, straightforward formalism of the filmmaker's sub-documentary style arrangement of the images conflicting with the often avant-garde approach to the soundtrack, which here combines lengthy snippets of dialogue and discussions on the various topical subjects listed above, amidst a continual background cacophony of nondescript sounds, musical tones and electronic textures.

The contrast is most apparent in the first half of the film, in which the filmmakers illustrate the central struggle within the narrative by a lengthy tracking-shot through the MG assembly line at the British Motor Car Company in Cowley, Oxford, wherein a barrage of contradictory sounds seem determined in their attempt to make the experience of viewing the film as dissonant and jarring as possible. However, as the film progresses, the idea of contrast - as one idea discussed on the soundtrack is placed against another idea presented on screen - will eventually reveal itself to be one of the central creative concerns of the film. As one would no doubt expect from such a presentation, British Sounds abandons any obvious notion of character and narrative in the conventional sense, with the film instead structured around six major sequences each presented in a similar approach, in which an uncomplicated visual tableau is set against a complicated soundtrack of ideas and expressions to illustrate and eventually educate the audience on the cultural issues of the day.

In a somewhat similar scenario to Godard's earlier film, Le gai savoir (The Joy of Learning, 1969), British Sounds was originally created for television - in this instance the UK's London Weekend Television (or LWT) - though was never officially broadcast as a result of the unconventional approach of its production and the challenging nature of its ideas. This fact is immediately recognisable from the opening sequences, in which Godard and his collaborator Jean Henri Roger confront us with a prolonged ten-minute track through the process of industrial manufacture, over which we hear various recorded arguments on worker's rights and ethics, a back and forth dialog between an adult and a child (further expressing the idea of education) and excerpts from the Communist manifesto being recited on the soundtrack.

Amidst this confusion the screen is occasionally disrupted by examples of agitprop sloganeering to punctuate the monotony of the images, with call and response statements like "what is work?" and "work is struggle" crudely hand-written in black marker pen to draw the obvious parallels with the student protestors and their home-made placards featured later in the film.

British Sounds directed by the Dziga Vertov Group, 1970:

Le gai savoir directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1969:

This opening sequence is an important one and as a result remains perhaps the most iconic moment in the film. It illustrates the political subtext of the project and the central idea of socialism in action: as the workers toil in the factories, producing cars that they'll never afford, for customers that will never appreciate the work or the craftsmanship that goes into their creation. It also plays on the symbol of the MG itself, of old England, of a certain kind of person and lifestyle that we never see depicted herein, but an idea that is contrasted perfectly by the later sequence in which we witness the workers engaging in a lengthy discussion about their rights in a capitalist society, and how the bourgeoisie, in opposition to a socialist regime, have harvested the power and wealth away from the working class proletarians in order to greater benefit for themselves. The argument presented in this scene, and the conviction and emotion of these people arguing a case for a structure that they believe in, is entirely compelling and no doubt convincing enough to inspire a serious desire on the part of the audience to read more into socialist politics and the subjects at hand.

The opening scene also works on a different level; in illustrating the creative act at its most honest and unpretentious. Like the writing of Sympathy for the Devil in the earlier Godard-directed One Plus One (1968), the tracking shot illustrates the spirit of creation and collaboration as the ultimate metaphor for the politics of the filmmakers and for the dynamics of the film itself; as the images are literally manufactured before our very eyes, documenting the creative process through its various stages until we end on a shot of the final, finished product. It allows us to contemplate the level of work, the creation of this everyday object - the motorcar, something that we so often take for granted - and see the process of work and deliberation that goes into its completion. On a personal level, it also brings to mind the infamous tracking shot in Godard's own masterpiece Week End (1967), establishing the rather perverse idea of where these cars are going, the congestion and confusion, and the image of the MG driven by the lover of Juliet Berto crushed under the weight of an industrial tractor.

British Sounds directed by the Dziga Vertov Group, 1970:

Week End directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1967:

Along with the opening scene in the car factory and the discussion between the proletarians that will eventually follow, the other key sequence here is the discussion between the student protestors who, once again, in a show of the creative cycle as presented on film, attempt to rewrite a contemporary pop song in a way that better represents the turbulent social and political climate of the day. As they strum guitars and stencil out placards and banners, we're immediately back in the realms of La Chinoise (1967); with Godard and Roger taking these kids with big ideas and good intentions and exposing the ultimate emptiness of their actions and the smug, pretentious, romanticised view of the working classes by these upper-middle class students, slumming it in an attempt to gain self-gratification from their "comrades" and peers. For all their desire for change and their belief in a socialist system, they are a world away from the hard-working proletarians; separated by class and circumstance, sat writing their trivial songs and making ironic slogans while the real working-classes are toiling in the factories and in the fields. No time for protest; they work because they have to, to make a living for themselves and for their families

British Sounds directed by the Dziga Vertov Group, 1970:

In the later sequences, we have an even more obvious attempt to deconstruct the film, with staged news bulletins offering the anti-socialist sentiment of the bourgeois classes, with the bile and vitriol expressed in these sequences tying into the ideologies of someone like Enoch Powell and his infamous "rivers of blood" speech of April 1968; as well as prefiguring the rise of the conservative party, the reign of Margaret Thatcher, the arrival of New Labour and the empty promise that "things can only get better." Such sequences are obvious perhaps, taking the film into the realms of pure agitprop and sitting uncomfortably alongside the other sequences described above, not to mention the lengthy sequence of post-feminist deconstruction presented in the second half of the film. Here, the filmmakers take the image of the naked female form and attempts to desexualise it through a continual soundtrack of sexual politics, equality and discussions about the objectification of women, voiced by a female student in a flat, upper-middle class accent, again showing the slant of the so-called educated thinker as the bourgeoisie.

As it stands, British Sounds, like much of the work of the Dziga Vertov Group, remains a fascinating if inconsistent look into the social climate and political situations of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Its appeal will therefore be limited; with the constant reliance on the voiceover to explain the situations, the presentation will no doubt turn many potential viewers away from the film, with many perhaps becoming bored by the endless representations of socialism, communism and Marxist-Leninist concepts (the alternative title for the film is "See You at Mao!") that are expressed throughout. Nonetheless, it is an oddly absorbing film, filled with ideas and images that have the power to inspire everything from thought to criticism, dismissal and debate, as the overriding notion of a cinema of life as it appears is articulated in Godard's typical style of direct and indirect expression.