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.