Sunday, 9 October 2011

Quelqu'un m'a dit

The voice of the man cannot travel between these two spaces; these inner worlds where lost souls attempt to express the feeling of longing through individual pursuits; plucked chords or the dance of light, illustrating the bittersweet embrace of a love that is unrequited. He's attracted to her, in the physical sense, but he cannot hear the sad words that she sings. His light burns brightly, but perhaps not bright enough. The inability to communicate is here in this single movement of the camera. It exaggerates the emotional distance between them by making explicit the physical closeness. Open your window and scream it, at the top at your lungs. I love you... but?

No. He breathes a sigh, lets out a silent declaration, but is content to chase the shadows. He carries a torch, but he can't hold a candle. She doesn't see him (won't ever see him); she's seduced by the muse. The siren, with her song, no longer calling the sailors to their deaths, but attracting, like moths to a flame, the hopeful and the hopeless. What was it Julie Harris said at the end of East of Eden; "it's awful not to be loved. It's the worst thing in the world" The man is plunged, back again, into the darkness, all hope gone; snuffed out, like the candle. Then someone told me...

This is the Caraxian fascination with obsessive love (dangerous love; a love that destroys) as a counter to Bruni's coyly poetic lyrics. Like Denis Lavant in Les amants du Pont-Neuf (1991), the man, Aurélien Recoing, shirtless, breathing fire, wants nothing more than to be in the presence of this woman - whose light burns bright enough to illuminate the darkness of his own existence - but he can never possess her. He cannot hold this light for fear of destroying it, corrupting it's beauty with his own cruelty; like Alex with Mireille in Boy Meets Girl (1984), or Pierre with Lucie in Pola X (1999). "Look away" says Nick; "look away... and never more think of me"

Quelqu'un m'a dit directed by Leos Carax, 2003:

Saturday, 10 September 2011


For the first few moments of its short duration, this early piece of genuine cinema history is no more adventurous or remarkable than the early experiments of the French-born pioneer Louis Le Prince. What we are seeing, in all actuality, is a basic one-take tableau vivant observation of a single scene, devised as a work of fiction, but no less indebted to the presentational - or, what would eventually be termed 'cinematic' - approach established by Le Prince in the films Roundhay Garden Scene (1888) and Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge (1888).

In wide-shot, a little girl feeds her ailing kitty cat some medicine from a spoon. As an action, this is adorable, but alone, the presentation suggests only the intention to record, on film, for commercial purposes, an action to melt the heart's of the kindest old ladies. So far so-so... Then something extraordinary happens. A connection is created between two images. A jump, literally, from far-away to close-up.

The Sick Kitten directed by G.A. Smith, 1903:

The English filmmaker George Albert Smith had pioneered the use of the close-up shot in his previous films, As Seen Through a Telescope (1900) and Grandma's Reading Glass (1900). There the technique was more of a novelty; a way of presenting a new perspective: one of exaggeration. However, in this film, it is practicality that dictates the use of this new technique. The director wants to emphasise a moment that would have been missed had the camera remained at a distance. The kitten's face as it gladly laps up the medicine can now be seen by the audience, allowing us to follow the action more directly.

At this precise moment, cinema finally breaks free from the influence of the stage and establishes something that is unique to the language of film. From this point on, the camera would be able to offer the audience new perspectives; emphasising details and showing the emotion of actors in a way that would have been unfeasible without the benefit of this new innovation. It was now possible for the audience to go from this... this...

...without having to physically bring ourselves closer to the work. A revolutionary moment in the development of the medium and one that indirectly makes possible the extraordinary montages in the films of Sergei Eisenstein, or the expressive, detailed shots of eyes, mouths, hands and iconography in the films of Sergio Leone. This single moment would change the way future film were produced; opening up a new world of creative possibilities, as well as bringing with it the potential for a more intimate form of cinema. Less broad, less theatrical; a cinema of small gestures.

Friday, 9 September 2011

The Phantom Ride

The camera shunts along the tracks, headlong into darkness, into the unknown. This is innovation, the movement of the camera giving the audience the feeling of a journey. As an event in the development of cinema's history, this film is as important as Auguste and Louis Lumière's The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat, 1895), which suggested, through a single moment, the possibility of cinema as spectacle. In George Albert Smith's The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899), the opening and closing shots represent the reverse-angle to the Lumière's remarkable film. Now the audience could experience not only the arrival, but the journey as well.

All of a sudden the cinema was no longer a medium for static observations, but something that could move between worlds.

The Kiss in the Tunnel directed by G.A. Smith, 1899:

The kiss that occurs in-between represents the embrace of the new, this kingdom of shadows called cinema. An artistic medium somewhere beyond the influence of literature, theatre or still photography; instead, a magic act of movement and emotion, where the light at the end of the tunnel becomes a premonition to the light from a film projector as it burns against the darkness of the screen. As the camera continues along the track, out of the darkness, into the bright future of this new world of artistic expression, the movement, eloquently described by Mark Cousins as a "phantom ride", suggests the possibility for future films to transport the audience, both figuratively and literally, into the unfamiliar territories of the heart and mind.

Friday, 26 August 2011

The Ghost Story

Though it is the final shot with its wonderfully surreal depiction of scattered pages being blown though a dusky London street that has become the standard 'iconic' signature moment from Roman Polanski's eighteenth feature-length film The Ghost Writer (2010), there is a quieter, much less provocative image earlier in the film that for me is far more suggestive. The shot depicts an abandoned car on a ferry as it arrives at the port of some fictional New England peninsula. The car's apparent vulnerability as a lone object, exposed within the otherwise vacant, cavernous interior of the ship, already insinuates the sadness and the loneliness of the dead body that will soon be discovered.

This image - which, unlike the closing shot, doesn't manipulate or mislead the viewer - suggests an immediate air of uncertainty. Already we suspect, simply through a static single-shot observation of the scene, that there is something more to this discarded vehicle. We begin to sense the influence of something sinister at work beneath the surface of the thing. A feeling of dread that recalls the familiar psychological terrain of Polanski's most famous films; where an unseen system of forces (usually supernatural, though not so here) is later found to be manipulating events from the outset.

The Ghost Writer directed by Roman Polanski, 2010:

Our fears are eventually confirmed in what I feel are two of the most extraordinary images in Polanski's oeuvre. In the first, the car - still abandoned, still vulnerable - is inspected by a security team suspicious of a potential terrorist threat. We can see the ship departing in the background of the shot, as the muted sirens and the flashlights of the security team illuminate the centre of the frame. These actions - the drifting of the ship, the abandonment of the car and the general inspection of the vehicle - already suggests the impending fate of our lead protagonist; a character soon to introduced and immediately cut-off; hopeless in his situation, with no real chance of escape; effectively hung out to dry.

Polanski then cuts abruptly to the second image, as the body is discovered; washed-up as a sad and lonely relic on some anonymous grey shore.

The Ghost Writer directed by Roman Polanski, 2010:

If this opening sequence, with its presentation of ordinary if not mundane proceedings leading us towards a shocking discovery, finds the director playing to the influence of Hitchcock (as he does several times throughout the film), it is the prophetic aspects of these images that really defines this sequence as something astonishing and something unique to Polanski's work. The shot of the lone car - like the two images that immediately follow - creates a disturbing premonition of things to come. These images, which seem to present the story of what happened to the first 'ghost' - the writer we never meet, but who nonetheless haunts the very fabric of the film, leading his eventual replacement on the same journey, to the same end - also suggest the possibility of what might happen, thereabouts, or in some plausible variation of events.

These images are brought to mind later in the film when the unnamed writer (played by Ewan McGregor) - having taken over the job of amending the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister - believes he may have stumbled across the conspiracy that led, directly or indirectly, to his predecessor's death. Making his way back from the mainland following an excursion to track down a potential lead, the writer spots an ominous black car trailing in his rear-view mirror. He abandons his own vehicle on the ferry and makes a run for it, jumping from the vessel and managing to elude his pursuers, once again leaving the car (the same car) deserted on the ship.

The Ghost Writer directed by Roman Polanski, 2010:

All of a sudden we think back to that opening sequence; the car abandoned on the ferry, the body being washed up on the shore. For a split second we create a link between the two scenes and assume, for only a moment (before the film continues with its relatively disappointing final act), that we may be seeing the events leading up to that initial discovery. A brief belief that the entire film has been an intricate series of flashbacks; that the beginning is really the end (or is it... the beginning of the end?) and that all the potential avenues of interpretation can only lead us back to that cold and dismal beach.

It's a remarkable moment that illustrates Polanski's real talent for engaging his audience, not through clever tricks or ironic twists of fate, but through the subtle and extraordinary power of his images to imply or insinuate a story in retrospect. In the psychological juxtaposition that occurs between these sequences we're effectively seeing two different stories folded into one; the story of the 'writer', the main thread of the film, and the story of the 'ghost', the spectre that hangs above the narrative from the very first scene, holding the thing together. The title of the film refers to both.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Water for Maya

How do you describe the indescribable? Narrow your eyes for long enough and the images start to look like the flutter of a billion butterfly wings. Other times, it is a gallery of faces - some haunted, some disturbed - looking out for just a split-second, then gone again; lost in this kaleidoscopic burst of colours, daubed, physically, onto the celluloid. These 'phantom faces' make us question our own role as a prospective audience. Are we the "viewer", passively observing the work presented to us and attempting to glean something meaningful, either a thought or a feeling from the experience; or are we the "viewed", the real objects of significance.

I wonder how many different audiences or viewers a film might see during the course of its lifetime. How different their relationship is to us than ours is to them. An audience may see only a handful of films a year, but the film itself will see literally thousands of these objects of curious interest presented to it during an average day. A very different gallery of faces than the ones imagined here, between the spaces of the frame. Instead, a gallery of faces more like the ones found in Abbas Kiarostami's extraordinary Shirin (2008), in which the spectator becomes the spectacle.

If film was more than just a dead-object brought to life by the gaze of the observer, who enlivens it through personal reflection and subjective opinion, would it be possible for the film, or these faces, to judge us, as a collective work, as we judge it?

Water For Maya by Stan Brakhage, 2000:

Shirin directed by Abbas Kiarostami, 2008:

As the blur of colours and textures explode and disperse, a second layer of images reveals itself, gradually, over the course of the film. A ghost story - non-narrative, but a story all the same - moving beneath the surface. This spectral play of shadows, where the glimpsed faces become almost explicit, is where the real power of the film rests. Not simply as a tribute to the American filmmaker Maya Derren, as hinted at by the film's title, but as a truly sensory cinematic experience.

In this remarkable montage, every frame has the power of a Pollock or a Kandinsky. On screen for less than the normal time that it might take for our eyes to register its form, but still vivid, vital; a series of images open to interpretation. The accumulative effect of these images when viewed against one another in a quick succession, creates something that is difficult to define, and even more difficult to express in words. It is something that can only be felt through the process of viewing.

Water For Maya by Stan Brakhage, 2000:

Monday, 15 August 2011

Commingled Containers

At first sight, it's like a hail of rain, falling from the heavens. Our eyes have to adjust to it. It takes a moment or two before we realise we're looking down at an embankment of waves. The soft spots of light dappled on the surface of the water blur with the movement of the camera, creating the impression of a flowing haze of drizzle as it downpours against a backdrop of Picasso-blue clouds. There's something almost kaleidoscopic about the way this image plays on the screen. The motion of the light as it bends and distorts with the movement of the apparatus suggests the static of an outdated television set; a transmission from somewhere beyond the reality of the here and now, or perhaps even a split-second blur of blue frost that recalls, in the nicest possible way, an 'old-Hollywood' depiction of an acid flashback.

Nonetheless, the effect is profound. The impressions of the light and the water as they wash-over and distort the lens creates a sense of mystery; an underwater adventure, sans Cousteau, looking for Atlantis, but finding only the natural wonder of the planet that surrounds us. There is a new world beneath these waves; little cloud-shapes catching the form of something backlit; giving the feeling of figures moving within a mist or emerging from the shrouded darkness of the soft seabed. Or illuminations, catching the speckles of water behind the lens, refracted in close-up, like the wings of insects swarming around the face of a dying light.

Eventually we realise that the explorations of these depths carry a greater significance. As with Brakhage's earlier film, 'I... Dreaming' (1988), there is a deeper meaning to this montage of images, the impressionist blurs and the impenetrable forms that the viewer transforms, through imagination and association, into something almost rational. There's a story here, a feeling; an attempt to find something to make sense of the order of the universe in a very vague but also very resonant way, but also an attempt to understand the certainty of death, the fragility of the human body; a presentation of nature, like death itself, at its most dramatic and mysterious.

There is something introspective about these images too; a man, looking to the water to find inspiration, but seeing only a reflection of his own mortality staring back. The shots of the water, violent or still, or the effect of the camera when submerged beneath the creek, create not only a sense of life in movement, but a suggestion of the general flow of existence, from birth to death.

The general experiments seem to be damaging both the camera and the film, but in a way that creates something beautiful. The light that spills into the frame during the closing shot, before it plunges, forever into darkness, is evocative of what survivors describe as a vision of the afterlife. Not in any sentimental or overly romantic way, but as a very real experience; a reaction, within the mind and the eyes, to the body draining of life. At the very end, the film dissolves into nothing, as the waves break and part; drifting out towards the oceans, or towards the coast, or as part of the general ebb and flow of a rushing river, out to meet its king, the sea.

Commingled Containers by Stan Brakhage, 1997:

Saturday, 6 August 2011

I.... Dreaming

Sweet spirit, see the dark void; the psychology of a space, this house in your absence, with its clutter and its mess; or the lonesome silhouette and the cramped interiors that feel enormous without your body there to claim them. Here, in the blurred images of an abandoned old man, and I... dreaming of you.

Immediately these images speak to a feeling of great loneliness suggested by the framing of shots. The emphasis on certain spaces within the frame that recall the everyday intimacy of domestic-living - the bedroom or the kitchen - creates a sense of devastating anxiety or discomfort when placed in contrast against the quieter moments of solitary reflection, insinuating the loss.

Even without the benefit of context or biography, the feeling of emptiness is here, in these rooms, with their small pools of light that drip from loft windows, drawing our attention to the devastating darkness of the rest of the frame. The house, as a home, with its usual connotations and associations, seems bereft, as if the actual building itself has fallen into a ceaseless state of mourning.

I... Dreaming by Stan Brakhage, 1988:

Here, the agitation of the form, with its jump cuts, its restless time-lapse of moments where the grandchildren play in the sitting room, suggests the inability of this man to feel at ease in these surroundings. The home, once familiar, once a place of comfort and relaxation, is now a place that traps the body in a limbo, between solitude and desperation.

The man, reduced to nothing more than shadows and shapes, a reflection in a window pane, or a blurred and obscured mass in the extreme close-up of the camera's eye, is himself an empty frame, haunted by the ghost of his subject.

Monday, 1 August 2011

A Drowning Man

A rush of images at the moment of death - comforting, confusing - creating a story where the arc of redemption offers the possibility to 'make right' some terrible wrong.

Cleveland Heap (Paul Giamatti), middle-aged maintenance man and general on-site manager of The Cove apartment building, leaves his bungalow in the middle of the night to investigate a disturbance. His flashlight cuts a path through the darkness, leading him down to the edges of the large, womb-shaped swimming pool at the centre of the courtyard. He expects to find some everyday scene of disobedience; perhaps teenagers taking a clandestine dip after dark, or a stray animal that has fallen into the water and can't get out.

After wading through the pool and finding nothing, at least out of the ordinary, he climbs out and begins his trek back to the bungalow, to continue this none-existence of work and sleep; the televised news coverage of the war in Iraq offering the only reminder of the world outside The Cove.

Suddenly, his feet slip out from under him. His body, awkward and heavy, hits the deck then rolls, lifelessly, into the water with a punch. The hard splash sends millions of tiny little air-bubbles circling around him, like a chorus of tears, or the blown seeds from a Taraxacum head. The last gasps of breath, for help or forgiveness, exhale, before the blackness of the water consumes him.

Lady in the Water directed by M. Night Shyamalan, 2006:

Everything that follows can be seen as fiction within a fiction. This man, who has nothing but his memories and his feelings of guilt, grief and despair, imagines, at the precise moment of death, a fantasy of how things could have been.

A story of redemption, where everyone, no matter how spent or helpless, holds a spark of something within them, capable of bringing the dead back to life. A story where the success of this ideal rests on the completion of a good deed; a good deed - no matter how unreal or informed by fantasy and fiction it might be - that allows this character to come to terms with the greatest tragedy; the murder of his family.

As his body drains of air and he sinks beneath the surface of the pool, this fantasy existence - where mythical creatures with outlandish names and water nymph's in need of protection - suggests the possibility for something good to come from a world no longer capable of acts of charitable kindness. In imagining this story in which the persistence, perseverance and pure good faith of his character is used to save the life an innocent being - a symbol for the loved ones he lost, when, on a night like this, he left his home to attend to a professional matter, and returned to a lifetime of devastation - Cleveland is now relieved of his burden of existence.

Drawing his final breath, this character, reflected on the water, but also from the same perspective, beneath the water, finds forgiveness in the closing shot of the film.

Lady in the Water directed by M. Night Shyamalan, 2006:

In previous films by Shyamalan, water plays an important part in deciding the fate of his characters; either leaving them weak or unable to achieve their full potential, like in Unbreakable (2000), or presenting something that can be used to overcome a particular obstacle or foe, like in Signs (2002). In Lady in the Water, the significance of the water is generally more straightforward, having something to do with the obvious spiritual notions of purification. The 'story' of the film literally emerges from the water as something good and pure; something we can believe in.

In this single interpretation of the film (one of several readings of a work that demands an audience with the patience to play nice with its heart on sleeve idealism and occasional shifts into sentimentality to appreciate the greater risks being taken, both with narrative and form) the water has the ability to wash away our mistakes, to cleanse and to clean; like tears of happiness or regret.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011


In The Brave One (2007), Neil Jordan uses reflections to suggest a character trapped by circumstances.

From the very first image of Erica Bain (Jodie Foster) as a translucent spectral projection against the glass walls of the recording booth where she delivers her morning show, to the later instances of painful self-reflection - as the same character is forced to question whether the severity of her actions is justified by the sense of overwhelming loss felt in the wake of her fiancé's murder - the visual design of the film repeatedly reinforces the idea of a person struggling to break free.

The Brave One directed by Neil Jordan, 2007:

The sense of isolation and claustrophobia that develops during the weeks and months that follow the initial attack is intensified through the framing of shots; the camera exaggerating Erica's emotional detachment by presenting her as a ghost, literally just drifting, unloved and unseen, through the relics of a previous existence. These images, like the character, obscured and fragmented, flatten the sense of perspective. There is no clear sense of morality for Erica, as Jordan's overpowering depth of field reduces the character to an out of focus blemish against the harsh hyper-reality of the city that overwhelms her; just a growing sense of impotence yielding to desperation.

The presentation of Erica as a woman numbed by the world that she inhabits brings to mind the character of Simone (Cathy Tyson) from Jordan's earlier film Mona Lisa (1986). Both women are placed like insects beneath the glass, studied by sympathetic male characters that, in general, are oblivious to their true nature as hostages to emotional bitterness.

Jordan makes the connection explicit as Erica, like Simone in the earlier film, is caught in the reflection of a car's rear-view mirror. Unlike other shots in which Erica is acknowledging her own psychological metamorphosis from liberal-minded media personality to skulking night-time avenger, this moment - as with the moment in Mona Lisa - provides the audience with enough room to consider the effect that this world with its cruelty, apathy and sense of moral decay has had on these characters; allowing us to question, personally and individually, whether the end really justifies the means.

The way the image is presented, with the character literally and physically confined to a frame within a frame - with the world, this backdrop of squalor and human suffering surrounding her, out of focus, but still dominating the screen - deliberately establishes this character as a prisoner; not just to the world and this situation that she's created, but to a particular state of mind.

Mona Lisa directed by Neil Jordan, 1986:

The Brave One directed by Neil Jordan, 2007:

Throughout the film, every action poses a question for the character, which Jordan emphasises with these moments of literal reflection. Trapped, psychologically as well as physically in a cycle of violence - slowly fading into the background of the city she once celebrated in mawkish prose that now seems even more deceitful when repeated against this milieu of violence and retribution - Erica is forced to look long and hard to find the person she was when faced with the person she is.

During the course of the film's journey, every violent act removes this character even further from the world of the living; killing the spirit of life and leaving only the faint outline a body without a soul. As she studies her own face reflected against the artefacts of this world to make sense of who she is there is only the traces of violence, the loveless eyes and the ghost of who she was, caught, forever, in this labyrinth of despair, desperate to find a way out.

The Brave One directed by Neil Jordan, 2007:

Saturday, 9 July 2011


Three spheres, planet, star and satellite, drift in orbit. Each sphere is an avatar for these characters that collide during the course of the film; pre-establishing the eventual relationships between men, linked, physically as well as spatially, by the consequences of a single event.

The Man from London by Ágnes Hranitzky & Béla Tarr, 2007:

Respectively, the three men are the chief protagonist, antagonist and force of moral conscience in the plot of a standard film-noir. Though the machinations of noir are continually dismantled or disrupted by Tarr's languid, observational techniques - which, during the course of the film, reduce moments of potential Hitchcockian suspense and the possibility for Hollywood intrigue to a series of looks, rituals and objects of personal significance - the film nonetheless engages, actively and enthusiastically, with the recognisable tropes of the genre.

Specifically, the motivating factor of greed, and the general fatalistic belief that every action, no matter how seemingly insignificant, carries a greater responsibility.

The scene in which these characters eventually share the screen is significant for the particular way Tarr and Hranitzky emphasise these spherical objects (three in each instance, corresponding with the number of characters on screen) and how this can be seen as relative to the opening sequence of the director's previous film, Werckmeister Harmonies (2000). There, the young misfit János Valuska (Lars Rudolph) enacts a piece of live theatre, in which village drunkards are used as representations of the sun, the moon and the earth in a dramatisation of a solar eclipse.

Werckmeister Harmonies by László Krasznahorkai, Ágnes Hranitzky & Béla Tarr, 2000:

In the earlier film, the demonstration establishes the idea of unexplained natural phenomena. The image of choreographed bodies within a space (defining space) is a prelude to the general descent into chaos and mass-hysteria that follows the arrival of the circus trailer, and the mysterious character called 'The Prince.' Here, the sense of disorder is less cosmic. Instead, the narrative emphasis on the personal downfall of characters stumbling into a situation not entirely beyond their control is more indebted to the necessary conventions of film noir.

It also carries greater philosophical notions pertaining to actions and their consequences. This can be seen in relation to Newton's basic Laws of Motion; "An object that is in motion will not change its velocity unless an unbalanced force acts upon it." Or, more appropriately, "To every action, there is always an equal and opposite reaction."

The event - the murder of the mysterious man and the retrieval of the money - represents the unbalanced force, the thing that sends these characters into their gravitational spiral; a fatal collision course that is continually alluded to by the film's production design and the precise way the camera encircles, blocks, traps and reveals these characters, like objects, drifting without recourse, into the chasm of a black hole.

Three spheres, three men...

The Man from London by Ágnes Hranitzky & Béla Tarr, 2007:

The hanging lights, like the objects careening into one another on the snooker table at the beginning of the scene, correspond with the three characters and their place, both within the frame and within the general orbit of existence. Maloin (Miroslav Krobot), the hapless railway pointsman who witnesses the murder and absconds with the cash; Brown (János Derzsi), the possible murderer now left with the impossible task of retrieving the money at all costs; and Morrison (István Lénárt), who claims to be a police inspector from London, pulling the strings for a shadowy conspiracy of forces that exist beyond the periphery of the narrative.

The camera reveals these characters one by one during the course of a conversation; a single fluid movement that establishes Morrison as the centre of this circulatory system of images, pulling the characters of Maloin and Brown ever deeper into the depths of his investigation.

Tarr's blocking of this almost nine-minute sequence is as remarkable as one might expect given the presentation of his previous work. Throughout the conversation, Maloin remains in the background of things. As the camera traverses the trajectory around Brown and Morrison engaging in this moment of narrative exposition, Maloin is clearly visible; an observer on the edges of the frame, sentinel in the sense of being the one person who actually knows where the money is, as well as becoming a substitute for the viewing audience. After all, it is Maloin who witnesses the original murder, thus establishing himself (along with the audience) as the only person really capable of carrying the full weight of responsibility when this sad burlesque reaches its inevitable close.

Tarr and Hranitzky acknowledge this burden in the final shot of Maloin, in close-up, his face pregnant with the anticipation of things to come, a single sphere of light above his head.

The Man from London by Ágnes Hranitzky & Béla Tarr, 2007:

The presentation of this sequence is reminiscent of a similar planetary revelation that occurs towards the end of Fassbinder's fittingly titled In a Year of 13 Moons (1978). In that particular film, Sister Gudrun (Lilo Pempeit) observes the aftermath of a character's death; drifting, unseen, like the camera in Tarr's film, through the wreckage of their extinction. There as well as here the characters drift in orbit; solitary planets incapable of reaching out to anyone for anything; just lost souls that yield to desperation.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Ocean Song

I am sat by the water; scribbling these words in a notebook to be transcribed at a later date. The light is growing dim; a soft blue light, like the kind found in old European-horror movies - something like The Devil's Nightmare (1971) or Requiem for a Vampire (1973) - where the filmmakers would try to give the impression of night in a scene originally (and quite obviously) shot during the day. This technique is called Day-for-night, and as a look, it's often incredibly beautiful...

There is music playing. Not just one song, but several, all overlapping in an aural collage of voices and notes. The sound, attractive as it is discordant, pours from the open doors of various bars and restaurants; catching the breeze and travelling down, along the bay to where I sit, slumped and content in a kind of coastal loneliness; a seaside melancholy usually reserved for the greatest films of Neil Jordan.

Outstanding films like Mona Lisa (1986), The Miracle (1991), The Butcher Boy (1997) and The End of the Affair (1999); each one contains a key scene in which a central character attempts to escape from some great abuse by retreating to the coast. Perhaps it's the sense of being on the edge of the world that appeals to these characters; the past is behind them, only the water and the endless possibilities that exist beyond the horizon lay in front.

Perhaps it's a purifying thing too; the water not only offers the possibility for reflection, it washes everything clean.

The Jordan film that stands out the most in my mind is the beautiful Ondine (2009). Every scent, sight and sensation felt on the edge of this water brings the memory of the film closer to my heart. Specific images repeat and spill over my own thoughts and personal recollections until the film becomes more than just a passive experience, but something that needs to be lived. It's a remarkable film; one that I've seen four times this year, and I keep promising myself that I'll write about it, and maybe one day I will... but for now the impression of it, here, with the sea before me, and that same blue light, is entirely overwhelming.

Transparent almost, this blue, like the most beautiful eyes you've ever seen; a soft watercolour light, like a wash of seawater has splashed back, across the promenade, with its seafront bars, hotels and nightclubs, and stained the whole thing in a beautiful shade of sadness.

Image of Douglas by Night, photographed by Lights in the Dusk:

The thing that keeps Ondine in my heart more than any other Neil Jordan film (and really, I love them all, to varying degrees; he's an outstanding filmmaker) is the use of the song All Alright by Sigur Rós. Finding an almost perfect unity between sound and image, All Alright is a strange, ethereal ballad; a love song from an alien planet, where the emotion expressed is universal, because the presentation is so vague. Occasionally we might catch something that seems to make sense; a particular word or phrase that creates an immediate image in the mind of the listener... but then it's lost again.

Each new change or movement within the structure suggests a new emotional landscape. It's impressionism of sound to compliment Jordan's impressionism of storytelling; where each development of the plot - each new twist and turn, sometimes light, sometimes dark - suggests the impression of a story being invented for the benefit of a sick child.

Ondine directed by Neil Jordan, 2009:

Really, it's the song that keeps reminding me of this place. Perhaps the real reason why I love Ondine more than say The Butcher Boy or Breakfast on Pluto (2005) or The Good Thief (2002) (all incredible films) is because of this song. And maybe I only love this song because it reminds me of her...

When I peer into the dark mirror of the sea, it's not my own face staring back, but hers. Somewhere, the same bright stars, reflected here, on the still of the water, watch over her as they watch over me. I'm reminded of Woolf's epitaph; or more appropriately, the quotation of it by Godard in his short film, Dans le noir du temps (2002): And in me too the wave rises. It swells, it arches its back. I am aware once more of a new desire; something rising beneath me; like the proud horse who's rider first whispers and then pulls him back. Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished, and unyielding...

If the sea is a mirror, then perhaps Jordan's characters are so attracted to it because it offers them a chance to really look at themselves, away from the suffocation of home, or the depravity of a criminal underworld, or the responsibilities of having to hide painful emotions in order to protect the husband of the woman you love, so as to finally see, beneath the bravado and the veneer, the yearning of the heart within. Against this infinite void, where the blue of the sky meets the blue of the ocean, these characters can see, for possibly the very first time, who they really are.

Sunday, 20 March 2011


I wanted to share a few thoughts and images from a film I'd been working on, tentatively titled 'A World Between Worlds', but also at various points called 'Artefacts' or 'Transmissions from The End of the World' It's a project I initially began when I was at college, though very quickly had to abandon, as it proved too ambitious and possibly even too dangerous to complete in the appropriate time given. Eventually I made a different film instead...

Nonetheless, I continued working on 'A World Between Worlds' after completing my university degree; shooting hours of landscape footage around England, Ireland and the Isle of Man, all the while attempting to make sense of the story I was developing across several different notebooks. In one, "a story of existence…" was written in black biro. In another, "O, revoir..." (a terrible pun) was written in felt-tip pen.

I started thinking about Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and the image of Thomas Jerome Newton; wandering the earth like a ghost of a stick-figure still haunted by a childhood trauma. I started thinking about specific images; an image of the earth that looked like a distant planet; faces, almost human, reflected in pools of murky water; an image of some archaic artefact to the days of global communication, pre-Internet.

A World Between Worlds, 2006-2010:

The radio tower suggested, by association of name only, the idea of radioactivity, and the sense that the film should take place at least 78 years after the end of civilisation.

As the film begins, an alien anthropologist named Rector wanders the charred remains of an unidentified European country. The images are black and white; like charcoal drawings, or promises written in water. The anthropologist thumbs through scattered remnants of lives, finding old toys, food cartons and fragments of old newspapers. Creating a home for himself in an abandoned communications centre, Rector begins to piece together these fragments, creating a timeline that points, ever forward, to the moment of our demise.

In the first glimpse of this event, a four-minute panning shot shows the morning fog roll back, off the waves, like the fog of memory retreating. Transmissions from the final days of earth, glimpsed, like dreams, Prince of Darkness (1987) style, as Rector wanders derelict buildings and decayed promenades. As the mist recedes further, revealing more and more of the surrounding mountains, a flash of light flares on the horizon.

A World Between Worlds, 2006-2010:

This is the beginning of the event; the first stage. It's not the job of the anthropologist to find out what happened to civilisation, but simply to find out enough information regarding the species; how we lived, our strengths and weaknesses. But in poring over the relics of our existence, Rector becomes mournful. He wonders how a species capable of creating such extraordinary works of art, music, design and engineering (images of which flicker to life on the banks of television monitors configured to record and playback these transmissions from the earth's final days) could also be capable of such violence and brutality.

This part of the film is essentially very close to The Man Who Fell to Earth; Rector trying to make sense of the 21st century culture while growing ever more disconnected from his own. I tried to convey loneliness through images of old buildings - thinking about that song by Tom Waits, House Where Nobody Lives, as a metaphor - while also wanting to capturing the same feeling of melancholy present in my favourite films; Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger (1975) and Wim Wenders' Kings of the Road (1976). Films where a general disparity between characters is conveyed through a restless observation of the landscape (which, in both films, is as alien as anything in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968).

A World Between Worlds, 2006-2010:

For the scenes of the unexplained event and the moments leading up to it, I knew I wanted a specific look. Colour images as an obvious contrast, but not like reality. I started thinking about my own impressions of the past. As Francis Coppola noted during the making of his recent masterwork Tetro (2009), our ideas of the past are often coloured by the nostalgia of home movies. That sickly, over-saturated, not-quite accurate to life look of Polaroid cameras or Super 8 film.

This is the look I eventually settled on; however, a few years later and with the benefit of hindsight, it now seems almost entirely too aggressive. It should have been more natural; raw DV stock with no manipulation. The home movies of the future will not be shot on Super 8, but captured on Hi-Def video phones. This is the stuff of the 1970s...

A World Between Worlds, 2006-2010:

It's only during the last six or seven months that I decided to finally terminate this project for good... already my second great failure as a filmmaker! Ultimately, the film was too derivative of greater films, like La jetée (1962) by Chris Marker, Anti-Clock (1979) by Jane Arden & Jack Bond, The Falls (1980) by Peter Greenaway, Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991) by Jean-Luc Godard and The Happening (2008) by M. Night Shyamalan. It didn't have a voice of its own, and as a result, the creative ambitions felt pretentious.

Added to this realisation, there's the unavoidable downside of spending too much time on a project. During the last five years, my sensibilities have changed drastically, and unfortunately this is no longer the kind of film I want to make.

I still have the original ending; never filmed, but there amongst a box of old notebooks on a recent visit to my grandmother's house in Port St. Mary. I still have the storyboards too. The ending of the film was always intended to be something grand; something beyond words. While the first part of the film was about loneliness, and the second part was about destruction, the final part would've been about love as a physical act of forgiveness.

In discovering this old footage (and accompanying notes, storyboards and, most surprisingly, even some original soundtrack recordings), I found a more interesting idea for my next project; something that will no doubt be indebted to the great lineage of films that play with self-conscious references to Antonioni's masterpiece Blowup (1966), but with a greater emphasis on the nature of photography in the 21st century.