Monday, 30 July 2012

One-Hundred Favourite Films - Part Six

Ongoing response to The Dancing Image "100 (of Your) Favourite Movies" meme-that's-not-a-meme, presented here in a loosely alphabetical order. I'm posting the series in reverse formation in an attempt to maintain the original continuity, from A to Z.

Jacquot de Nantes
Directed by Agnès Varda - 1991

The conventional coming-of-age story, which is used to foreground the more personal aspects of the film, is richly compelling. The atmosphere of these places and the interaction between characters, although vague in some respects, have a recognisable authenticity that comes from the close relationship between the director Agnès Varda and her subject Jacques Demy. In Jacquot de Nantes, the main narrative about childhood, first-love, the love of cinema and the general friction of family life, is used to create a context for this tribute to Demy, where the link between the experiences of his childhood and the later expressions of his art is created through a combination of dramatisation, documentary and personal dissertation.

What makes the film so appealing to me is not just the story, but the connection that is felt with the central character; this representation of the young Demy. Like the adolescent 'Jacquot' - the main protagonist of Varda's film - I grew up with the ritual of the cinema, with the escape of it; that dream of one day inventing stories of your own and adapting them with some friends and borrowed camera. I didn't grow-up to be Jacques Demy or anyone else of any great significance, but the passion was still the same. In the enthusiasm and the obsession of this character I recognise aspects of myself. It is this ability to identify with the central character that creates a feeling of devastating tragedy in the latter half of the film. As much as this is a story of life and exuberance, triumph and adventure, the final contrast - as we see images of the dramatised 'Jacquot' at the beginning of his journey, inter-cut with archival footage of the middle-aged Demy, already nearing the end - is absolutely brutal in what it communicates about life and death, and the role that art plays in documenting the two.

While the coming-of-age aspect of the story is as powerful as anything in films like I Was Born, But... (1932), The 400 Blows (1959) and King of the Hill (1993), it is the personal motivations of Varda that make the film unforgettable. Through her sensitive gaze, Jacquot de Nantes becomes more than just a story that unfolds for our entertainment, but an attempt by Varda to keep a part of her ailing husband alive through their art and his recollections of it. In this respect, it is difficult to imagine another film that truly captures - on a purely creative level - the love of one person for another; where the image of this man, frail and decayed, recorded without pity, speaks of life-long commitment that only the 'moving image' can convey.

Directed by Oliver Stone - 1991

The film, at its heart, is an investigation, full of arguments and conjecture, some truth and a lot of fiction. Though based loosely on fact it is important to see the film, not as a statement on how things were, but as a detective story; one that uses the basis of a real-life event and characters adapted from history to spin a work of paranoid fantasy; where the experimentation of the filmmaking 'form' creates a feeling of intense suspicion, as if every action or interaction is under close scrutiny or interrogation. As such, it is best to categorise the film as a work of "historical fiction", taking its various conspiracy theories with a grain of salt and evaluating its bold combination of genuine fact and audacious invention alongside the similar concocted 'truths' of those found in films like Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and It Happened Here (1966).

As a detective story, the film wastes no time engaging its audience in the machinations of its plot; beginning with the reactions to the event - the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, November 1963 - before following the investigation through a series of necessary complications, pointing out the major players (suspects, witnesses, truth-seekers) and eventually forming a rough outline for the argument that Stone and his co-writer Zachary Sklar are attempting to make. Naturally, one can dismiss all of this as complete speculation, if not outright invention, but Stone's fierce approach to the film and his commitment to the theories supported by his true-life protagonist Jim Garrison means that the actual dramatic development of the investigation is never less than thrilling.

However, JFK is not simply an investigation into the assassination, or even the various theories that surround it, but an investigation into how cinema works. The subject-matter necessitates this approach - Kennedy's death is forever caught within the frames of Zapruder's home movie (the camera lens and the rifle-scope forever entwined) - meaning that the power of the film is not in its courtroom speeches, nor in its political finger-pointing, but in its images and its editing; its use of sound, colour and movement. The scrutiny of the form is rigorous, closer to Brakhage or Godard in the creation of ideas, emotions, arguments and opinions via the use of associative editing, visual metaphors and repeated cross-cutting; the juxtapositions of footage, from colour to black-and-white, 8mm to 35mm, subliminal images, genre references and actual vérité, creating the feeling of a disorientating kaleidoscope of jostling interpretations.

Every shot, every cut, underlines some aspect of Stone's theory, the nature of his characters or the inherent "truth" or "untruth" of a situation, to expose the deceit of cinema - the lie, the construction, the manipulation - in order to create doubt and uncertainly; making the audience as attentive to the small details, the facts and figures, as the characters on screen. Even if we were to dismiss Stone's political ideas as pure hogwash, there is no denying the film's place as one of the most daring and technically audacious Hollywood movies of the last thirty years.

Directed by Georges Franju - 1963

As an adventure story, full of cloak and dagger mystery, rooftop wanderings and backroom conspiracies, Judex is as captivating as any recent comic-book picture or Hollywood "event." Though effectively a truncated remake of the 1916 silent serial by Louis Feuillade, this compelling reimagining of the original text is made more alluring by the imaginative direction of Georges Franju, who fills the film with the same lyrical gestures and the sense of fabled fatalism that made his earlier film Eyes Without a Face (1960) so effective and unforgettable. Like that particular film, Judex has the feel of 'poetic realism'; its striking images of masked avengers and deceptive cat-burglars attempting to outwit one another across a series of thrilling set-pieces feeling both "realistic" - in the sense of making a plausible logic within the world that is created - but also seeming in a way "dreamlike"; a subconscious adventure through the conduits of the mind.

If this sounds pretentious then I apologise. The film certainly doesn't require such affected elucidation, but the power of Franju's images is undoubtedly worthy of the strongest of superlatives. Make no mistake, the film is accessible, and functions primarily as a work of pure entertainment. Like Nuits Rouges (1974) - Franju's other great tribute to the silent serials of Feuillade - Judex is simply a great example of narrative storytelling. A proto-blockbuster that draws us into its sinister web of intrigue, murder and suspense, its conspiracies and the lives of its characters, only to confound us with images that resonate with a heavy influence of surrealism and the fantastique.

Kings of the Road
Directed by Wim Wenders - 1976

Though the title is most often presented in English as Kings of the Road - a reference to the 1964 song by Roger Miller, sung by the central characters towards the end of the film - it is the direct translation of the original German title, Im Lauf der Zeit - or In the Course of Time - that best captures the overall feeling of the film; its sense of loneliness and regret - a symptom of nostalgia - and the distance, as in memory, but also as reference to the journey that is taken. Wenders' fascination with the "road movie" sub-genre seems to be an acknowledgement of the progressive aspect of narrative cinema - which starts at the beginning and moves in a straight-line towards its inevitable conclusion - but also to the emotional journey that is shared by both the audience and the on-screen protagonists during the course of the film.

Like so many of the great masterpieces of cinema history, Kings of the Road is a film that asks the question: "how do we live?" Its characters - haunted by ghosts from the past; each attempting to escape from their own fears, failures and responsibilities - find a sense of freedom and connection in this journey that takes them through a country still marked by tragedy; from hopelessness towards something else. A new beginning maybe, where the characters, having taken this expedition and reflected on the course of their lives, are now able to put behind them the various emotional traumas that they've carried with them for so many years. Again, 'the journey', metaphorically, is both an escape and an arrival. As the characters hit the road in an attempt to evade some feeling of boredom or desperation, there is also a hope of arriving somewhere else - be it a place or a particular state of mind - that offers them the possibility of a second chance.

The themes of the film run much deeper than this meagre note might suggest. While the story of these two men at a crossroads in their lives might hint at the same existential observations of the best of Antonioni, the emphasis on place and the idea of reclaiming history is something that carries a far greater significance here. In a sense, this is a film about the tragedy of a lost generation with no fathers to look up to. This disconnection between the post-war generation and their own culture is implicit in Hanns Zischler's attempts to reconcile with his father, and to understand his intense feeling of hatred towards the man, which has worsened since childhood. Another aspect of this theme is inherent in the role of Rüdiger Vogler's cinema-projector repairman, whose part in the film hints at the sad decline of the small-town movie industry, replaced by the larger multiplexes, and the allure of the Hollywood machine.

Lady in the Water
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan - 2006

In many ways, Shyamalan's film could be seen as a remake of Steven Spielberg's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). The similarities are many. In both films a lonely misfit discovers a strange creature living in his back garden and is forced to become a kind of protector, aiding the creature in its quest. In both films the narrative hinges on an attempt to help this creature return to its own universe, before the experience of living leaves it too weak, emotionally and physically, to make the trip back home. In both films the creature dies only to be resurrected by the conviction of the central character, illustrating an act of faith analogous to that of religious belief, but more appropriately to the relationship between art and the viewer.

By changing the protagonist from a child to a middle-aged man, Shyamalan daringly takes the general narrative of Spielberg's film out of the realm of children's fantasy and places it squarely in a world that exists beyond the confines of our own imaginations. The world of the film is, on one level, a world of 'scrunts', 'narfs' and giant eagles soaring from the heavens; but it's also a world of loneliness, bereavement, sadness and regret. While the characters engage in the more recognisable fantasy element of the plot, the background of the film contains news reports on the war in Iraq, discussions of fear and suspicion, and that continual image of people locked away in apartment buildings that become like prisons; garrisons from the outside world. The function of the title character - this creature, fittingly named 'Story' - is to bring these characters out of their shared seclusion; to give them a purpose, a 'cause', something to believe in: the way stories generally do.

The supporting characters fall into two types: 'writers' and 'viewers.' The development of the plot mirrors the way stories (and by extension films) are generally constructed, developed and critiqued, culminating in an on-screen act of faith that describes, in visual terms, the role that audiences play in bringing these stories to life. It has always been my belief that a film, or any work of art, is essentially a dead object. It requires an audience to breathe life into it through the subjective act of viewing. It is this aspect of Lady in the Water that remains the most powerful. The image of the resurrection - which for me comes closer than any other film to recalling the spectacle of genuine transcendence found in Carl Theodor Dreyer's masterpiece Ordet (1955) - is possibly one of the most moving dramatisation of the relationship between 'author' and 'creation', 'viewer' and 'viewed.'

As Giamatti cradles the lifeless body of the titular character in his wounded arms, his outpouring of grief, heartache and personal regret reignites the spark of life within her. By engaging his own feelings and fears with such a painful and immodest vulnerability, he literally brings (this) 'Story' back to life. This act of faith, as much a metaphor for how fiction (literary and cinematic) is created - first by the writer's unwavering belief in his story, then by the audience's decision to invest a part of their own lives in the material - represents a moment of overwhelming optimism. An optimism that is intended to function, much like the appearance of Story within the midst of this turmoil, as a vessel, to bring hope to the hopeless.

L'amour braque
Directed by Andrzej Żuławski - 1985

Four masked-men in overalls decide to rob a bank. From the outset, chaos and confusion; men flying through the air, broken windows and clouds of coloured gas. One of the bank robbers steps forward brandishing a sub-machinegun and wearing the 'face' of Scrooge McDuck. He pulls a befuddled teller across the counter, points the gun at his head and whispers with a straight-faced intent: "quack, quack... quack, quack, quuuuack" Like almost everything in the film, this moment is both 'wacky' and disturbing, comic-like and insane. A jumble of contradictions, like the entire film, which throughout moves to the throbbing rhythms of its baroque-n-roll soundtrack, where the manic strings and grinding guitar seem to match the general volume of intensity depicted on-screen.

Like the majority of Żuławski's films, L'amour Braque is a work of shrieking physical hysteria. A tortured cry into the withering face of an audience too numb to the conventions of contemporary cinema to feel anything less than supercilious condemnation when presented with something beyond easy categorisation or critique. The intent of the film, like the intent of several other movies by Żuławski, is therefore to inhabit a particular mindset that defines the very core of the film; turning every scene, movement and frame into a subjective expression of the character's wants, needs, thoughts and desires. The unknowable connotations of the title - mad love, damaged love, a love without boundaries, destructive, consuming; a love strong enough to burn a hole through the screen - swirl around every sequence, infecting the characters who behave like dancers in a musical, intensely physical, but violent too.

Although ostensibly an adaptation of Dostoyevsky's 1869 novel The Idiot, the film - adapted by Żuławski and Etienne Roda-Gil - is more than a mere dramatisation; it is a subconscious explosion, as much an extension of the psychological atrocity of the director's debut work, The Third Part of the Night (1971), and the physical transmutations of his most famous film, Possession (1981). However, what is most fascinating about L'amour braque, beyond its audacious disregard for convention, is the relationship between the film and its audience. Throughout, characters address the screen, breaking the barrier between the viewer and the viewed as they plead with us, declare their feelings, rant, rave and eventually spit in our faces. As Chekhov's Seagull mounts the stage and the screen is turned to cinders, we're left to contemplate the significance of what we've seen.

Last Days
Directed by Gus Van Sant - 2005

The film begins with a contemplative scene of man against the elements; something primal, or primeval. In presentation, the protagonist is stripped of all modern accessories; at-one with nature. As he washes himself in the waters of the spring or fumbles through the forest, like a prehistoric figure on an endless quest for fire, the man appears strangely at ease in his surroundings, as if this excursion into a world without commitments offers the only respite from the noise and confusion of a life that has sadly lost all meaning.

It's a remarkable way to begin a film that functions, on the most obvious level, as a dramatisation of the death of Kurt Cobain, but it makes sense in establishing the state of mind of this character - which defines the very experience of the film, or our journey through it - where the solitary woodland trek presents a kind of literal escape from the trappings of the modern world, the responsibilities and the general bull-shit, towards something more innocent and pure. Throughout the film there is a sense that this character is someone bored by the experience of living; someone already dead. In Van Sant's depiction - and the intense portrayal of Michael Pitt - this is a character more like a revenant than a human being; an empty vessel drifting through the artefacts of an existence, unable to reconnect.

Though heavily criticised for its use of the Cobain mythology, Last Days is one of the finest works of subjective cinema; a film that places the audience right inside the narrative, alongside the character, making us conscious of the monotony and the emptiness of his lifestyle, or the inability to find pleasure in things. The boredom, the complete lack of awareness or connection to anyone or anything beyond marking time is communicated with such subtlety and sensitivity that the ending, when it occurs, seems less like a tragedy than a relief.

The Last of England
Directed by Derek Jarman - 1987

"Imprisoned memories prowl through the dark. No - fuck it! They scatter like rats. Dead souls, ratta-patta-patta, into the silence. Ashes drift in the back of the skull. A goblin parts the curtains with a slant-eyed chuckle - Panic! - I blink as he vanishes in the shadows. Hint of prophetic cat's eyes. The dust settles thick, so by five when I struggle to the freezing bathroom, I leave footprints for others to excavate. They say the ice age is coming. The weather's changed. The air stutters - tic, tic, tic, tic, tic - rattle of a death-watch beetle on the sad slate roof. Outside in the leaden hail, the swan of Avon dies a syncopated death..."

"A black frost grips July by the throat. We pull the curtains tight over the dawn and shiver by empty grates. The household Gods have departed. No one remembers quite when. Poppies and corn-cockle have long been forgotten here, like the boys who died in Flanders. Their names erased by a late frost, which gripped the village-cross. Spring lapped the fields in arsenic green. The oaks died this year! On every green hill the mourners stand and weep for the last of England."

It may seem like laziness to quote a large chunk of the film's narration as justification of this inclusion, but Jarman's film provides its own commentary. It is a film that demands the experience of viewing, the rush of colour, the sound and the fury. An impossible film to love in the conventional sense, but one that reminds me of the endless possibilities provided by film, as an artistic medium. The expression, like a voice - like a scream of anguish against the chill wind of indifference - is 'spoken' through the combination of sound and image; a mixed-media montage that attempts to express the state of England as a sensory hallucination, acrid and acidic; a meeting between Eisenstein and Woolf.

Lisbon Story
Directed by Wim Wenders - 1994

"We want to imitate God. This is why there are artists. Artists want to recreate the world, as if they were small Gods. They constantly re-think history, life, things that happen in the world and things that we think have happened, but only because we believe... Because, after all, we believe in memory, because everything has already passed. But who can be sure that what we think happened really did? Therefore, this world, this supposition, is an illusion. The only real thing is memory. But memory is an invention. Deep down, memory is... I mean, in the cinema, the camera can capture a moment, but that moment has already passed. What the cinema does is draw a shadow of that moment. But we're no longer sure that the moment ever existed outside the film. Or is the film proof that the moment existed? I don't know..."

Lisbon Story - the title suggesting the influence of Ozu, but also the rich heritage of Portuguese cinema; from Leitão de Barros and Manoel de Oliveira, to João César Monteiro and António da Cunha Telles - is, like most of Wenders' greatest films, about the allure of a place. The sights and sounds and the spirit of the people, which define the experience for those of us discovering a particular destination for the very first time. However, it's also a film very much concerned with the history of cinema and the potential future of it; bringing together the two great avatars of Wenders' career - Rüdiger Vogler's Phillip Winter from Alice in the Cities (1974) and Patrick Bauchau's tortured film-director Friedrich Monroe from The State of Things (1982) - and having them engage in a metaphorical discussion about the meaning of film, the necessity of it, the ability of films to draw a shadow around memories, or to give meaning to those memories beyond the 'objective', and the meaning of images at a time when viewers are no longer able to trust what they see.

In this respect, the construction of the film could be described as part-travelogue, part-character study and part-film about the nature of filmmaking; a presentation best illustrated by the title sequence, in which the protagonist travels from Frankfurt to Lisbon, observing the landscape through the car's windshield - which itself becomes a miniature cinema screen - with the radio - a mix of pop music and disk-jockey jargon - providing the soundtrack. It's an idea also reflected in the role of the protagonist - a sound-recordist - and his interactions with the local children, who swarm about him with their handheld video cameras, recording everything, while Winter creates his vast stories of Cowboys & Indians from the sounds of household items. A subtle and moving tribute to the great unsung magicians of the post-silent cinema, able to conjure images out of thin air.

The Marquise of O
Directed by Éric Rohmer - 1976

The name 'Éric Rohmer' tends to be followed by words like "talkative", "contemporary", "observational", "character-driven" and "naturalistic." Although these well-worn critical phrases do describe one facet of the director's work quite adequately - for instance his Six Moral Tales and the Comedies and Proverbs series - there is another side to Rohmer's work that is just as relevant but rarely discussed. A more ornate or theatrically-minded personality concerned with the use of form to create not only a framework but a deconstruction of the original text.

This approach is best illustrated by the grand 'artificial' facades of his two most eclectic films, Perceval le Gallois (1978) and The Lady and the Duke (2001), and in the comparatively more conventional stylisations of this film, The Marquis of O. One of Rohmer's earliest historical films, The Marquis of O is not as overly theatrical as his later entries in the genre, but compared to his more recognisable, naturalistic approach, as evident in films like Love in the Afternoon (1972) or The Aviator's Wife (1981), there is a noticeably more ornamental or perhaps even "painterly" focus on static, rigorously prearranged compositions, the placement of actors and an almost omnipotent golden hue (care of cinematographer Néstor Almendros) that saturates every scene; contrasting the surface beauty of the images with the emotional brutality of the book.

The film, which deals with the repercussions of a terrible crime that seems, in some respects, to hint at the possible occurrence of a miraculous event, benefits greatly from the mannered lead performances of Edith Clever and Bruno Ganz, who each present the various sides of characters that appear, from the outside, to be sympathetic victims caught-up in the machinations of a situation beyond their control, but at the same time creating a believable context for the more sinister psychological interpretation that suggests itself during the final act.

The approach of the film - in which the play of light, the texture of it, establishes a rich contrast between the influence of magical realism, religious belief, faith and also condemnation - makes The Marquis of O one of Rohmer's most beautiful films, cinematically speaking; but also one of his most powerful films about the human condition, and about the nature of fiction in general.