Thursday, 12 January 2012

The Cage

The naked figure runs towards the gate. The surface of it fills the frame, becoming a barrier; an ornate wall - itself a relic to another time - which reduces the body of this man to something small and insignificant. We watch as his futile fists pound on the heavy exterior, both desperately and aggressive; trying without any great success to rend the gate open in a fruitless effort to break through to the other side. Excluding the music there is no sound, but we can imagine what is said: "let me out!" or possibly "let me in!"

From the images and the English translation of the title we can infer meaning. Time as a cage; a prison.

The Cage directed by Shûji Terayama, 1964:

The images are strange and enigmatic, but seem to suggest the various themes that explain what the film is potentially about. The above image can possibly be read as representation of birth. The figure - anxious, naked, desperate to escape this netherworld, to embrace life, or something like it - becomes like a child; his stature reduced to that of an infant in contrast to the overwhelming scale of the barred exterior, which looms before him in stoical reception.

Such a reading might seem too literal. The film certainly doesn't require such elucidation - the mood of the thing is enough to entrance us or provoke a response; the images suggesting stories or interpretations, but really just catching our eye with their disarming compositional approach - but it does make the experience of viewing more intriguing.

The images tell the story, or suggest one. An eye squints through the bars, like the eye of the viewer - the bars, as ever, a representation of the one-way relationship between the audience and the film - watching these images unfold. Some of the images conjure immediate associations, such as the old woman carrying the clock, carrying time, as a figurative gesture. Each of us are a prisoner of time, conscious of it. Perhaps not every second or every minute, but certainly the months, years and decades.

Other images seem vague or beyond easy interpretation. Two men exercise in unison, like prisoners in the yard. A hooded figure stands in the centre of a clock face, his silhouette - a body without a soul - becomes the hour hand, marking time.

These images add to the atmosphere of the film. That heavy sense of foreboding, which is only intensified by the tortured soundtrack; the thump of a drum, counting the seconds, or the howl of an anguished cry. Terayama's short is haunting, mesmerising, like much of the director's work (though some of his films are admittedly too contentious for my tastes), becoming, in effect, a series of bold gestures that suggest different meanings, different ideas, that play on the subjective gaze of the audience, like all art does.

Other viwers might disagree with these suggestions, but for me the film is a great figurative essay on time. A slow march towards the inevitable... like death or something else?

Monday, 2 January 2012


Confusion; the iconic images of the May '68 riots as captured by a handheld black and white news camera; reminding us of Godard's own work in Un film comme les autres (1968), in which a similar presentation of these events was used to punctuate a lengthy discussion between a group of highly revolutionary-minded students and factory workers in a field on the outskirts of Paris. Over this footage, a voiceover discusses the general scenes of violence and disorder that would erupt at the premier of Godard's latest film, One Plus One: a film better known today by the more culturally-significant title, Sympathy for the Devil (1968). Here we learn of Godard's disgust at the creative tampering of his producer Iain Quarrier and of the eventual scuffle between the two men, leading to Godard's outburst of violence and insistence that the audience demand a refund from the cinema organisers at the National Film Theatre that could be given instead to the Eldridge Cleaver/Black Panther Party foundation, triggering an understandable series of disgruntled jeers and catcalls from an audience dumbfounded by the filmmaker's intentions, both politically and creatively.

Directed by Richard Mordaunt, this forty-minute documentary helps to establish the context of Godard's film through the combination of on-set footage, news reports and interview sequences to give us a brief overview of the political climate of 1960s Europe, the rise of the Black Panther Party and the continual artistic evolution of Godard's work following the creative year-zero of his controversial film, Week End (1967). To the casual viewer, Voices (1968) will offer little more than a window into the creative spirit of the late 1960s, with the continual discourse of politics and expression discussed by the filmmaker no doubt leaving the majority of viewers dazed and ultimately confused.

However, for those who are interested in Godard's work and in the practice of filmmaking in general, Mordaunt's film benefits greatly from the on-set footage of the production and from the contributions of Godard himself, with the contrast between the location footage and the interview segments giving us a hint of the filmmaker's particular way of working, the development of his films from the initial idea through to the finished production and his often strained relationship with both actors and crew. It also helps to contextualise the creative intentions of One Plus One, a film that is now best remembered for featuring The Rolling Stones at the height of their own creative prowess, with the appearance of the late Brian Jones in particular acting as a sad reminder of the turbulent times ahead.

One Plus One directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1968:

Voices directed by Richard Mordaunt, 1968:

It is the appearance of The Stones that is to this day used as a unique selling point for the film, despite the fact that the broader aspects of the production have more to do with the spirit of revolution and reaction - as Godard quotes from the likes of Malcolm X, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Adolf Hitler to give a substance to his images - while the combination of socio-political polemic and the formal experiments between sound and vision act more as a precursor to Godard's subsequent work with Jean-Pierre Gorin under the banner of the Dziga Vertov Group. In keeping with this, the film (both Godard's own and Mordaunt's examination) is closer to the tone of projects like British Sounds (1969), Le Vent d'est (1970) and Vladimir et Rosa (1971), showing a similar creation of an almost cinematic rhetoric developed through the combination of sound and image that goes beyond the more conventional likes of Gimme Shelter (1970) or Cocksucker Blues (1972), which are two of the more conventional presentations of The Stones as musicians, as opposed to a collective cultural metaphor. In a way, it is indicative of the decade in which the figure of the director became the superstar of the film set, and certainly we can see elements of this here as Godard is followed by reporters and female groupies and forced to engage in the kind of stilted 'call and response-type' interview sequences that are reminiscent of those between the filmmakers and the character of Eve Democracy found in the film itself.

The documentary - which to some extent apes the style and presentation of Godard's own work, with the use of on-screen text and the continual cross-cutting between the action and the dialog to give us a sense of the atmosphere and the energy of a Godard production - creates a potent sketch of the period that once again shows the evolution of the filmmaker's work from the cinema-literate genre-deconstruction of a film like Alphaville (1965) or Bande á part (1964), to the more progressive, revolutionary work that would immediately follow. As a result, it remains an intriguing curio for anyone with an active interest in Godard's career at this, his most radical stage of creative productivity; capturing the filmmaker during the full flow of production on one of his most aggressive and harshly satirical features, while simultaneously documenting the last gasp of that brief moment in time when the auteur (and in particular the European auteur - in the grand spirit of Fellini, Bergman, Antonioni, Polanski, etc) was still considered a celebrity worthy enough of serious, mass-media attention.