Monday, 24 December 2012

A Year in Film

Twelve in Twenty-Twelve

This is not a list of films released in 2012, but more of a scrapbook of my experiences as a viewer during the course of the last twelve months.  It's an idea that I've wanted to try out for every year of the blog's existence, but for whatever reason, never committed to put pen to paper. 

In all honesty, 2012 has been a truly terrible year for me and I'll be glad to see the back of it.  For related reasons, it's also been the year that I watched more films than any other.  30 to 40 films a month was the average, including re-watches of old favourites or just films that I hadn't seen for several years.  As a result, a full breakdown of everything seen would be impossible, so instead, I'd like to use this space to recommend to you the twelve films that made life during the last twelve months just a little bit more bearable. 

The twelve films will be broken down into three categories.  The bulk of this post will focus on 'Ten Masterpieces of the Supreme Kind', in which I list the ten films first watched in 2012 that should stand, shoulder-to-shoulder, with the likes of Battleship Potemkin (1925), L'Atalante (1934), Ordet (1955), The Mother and the Whore (1973) and Notre Musique (2004) ; in other words, the greatest films ever made!  In the second category, 'Faraway, So Close', I write a short note on just one film I saw in 2012 that came close to the absolute genius of the previous ten, but for some reason known only to myself, fell slightly short of such greatness.  Finally, 'The Resurrected', in which I talk about a film that has most benefited from a recent re-watch and subsequent re-appraisal. 

Really, I would have liked to have extended this list to a full top-twenty.  However, since the writing of the text eventually needed a full week to compose, I've decided to leave it as it is.  I may return to the other eight titles in a future post, possibly titled: more from the year that was.  But for now, and without further ado...

Ten Masterpieces of the Supreme Kind

As Bodas de Deus [João César Monteiro, 1999]:

I watched this film on the 28th of November, 2012.  I first discovered the work of João César Monteiro while browsing YouTube videos, circa 2010.  There I found full-length versions of his films Veredas (1978) and Silvestre (1982).  The two films were unlike anything else I'd ever seen, though one could perhaps perceive the influence of Rohmer's atypical (for him) historical features, The Marquise of O... (1976) and Perceval le Gallois (1978), with just a touch of the artifice and folklore of the fellow Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira.  I was immediately hooked on Monteiro's approach, his imagination and his character, but it was only in the last year or so that I was finally able to experience the full magnitude of his work. 

Monteiro is, without question, one of the great unsung masters of twentieth century cinema.  His films, especially the later ones, in which he adopts the provocative on-screen persona João de Deus (John of God) - a mixture of Woody Allen's intellectual self-deprecation, Godard's wounded poet and the tortured sexuality of Nabokov's Humbert Humbert - remain among the most powerful and singular works in contemporary cinema.  The best example of this is As Bodas de Deus - also known as God's Wedding or The Spousals of God - which brings to a close a loose trilogy of films that began with Recollections of the Yellow House (1989) and continued with the controversial God's Comedy (1995). 

Arguably one of the last great masterworks of the twentieth century, the hysterically funny and ultimately quite poignant As Bodas de Deus, is another contender for the title of 'the greatest film ever made.'  A sly, graceful, sardonic burlesque, a witty satire and a moving lament, full of anger and frustration, As Bodas de Deus, as ever with Monteiro, combines the poetic with the provocative, the profound with the profane, the reverent with the irreverent and again, those ever conflicting influences of tragedy and farce.  It's also perhaps the ultimate demonstration of the pure artistry and integrity of Monteiro, one of the finest filmmakers who ever lived.

Bad Day at Black Rock [John Sturges, 1955]:

I watched this film on the 27th of July, 2012.  It's a film that I've heard referred to as "a classic" for as long as I can remember.  Described as a contemporary-set western, or a film-noir in western clothing, Bad Day at Black Rock is not only a fine piece of narrative cinema, but a film that delves headfirst into the dark-heart of the American psyche, finding the unspoken pain and insecurities that had festered there since the country's first involvement in the Second World War.  The war, as a shared event, brought out the best in people, but also the worst, as the desire for conservation and self-preservation gave in to chauvinism and genuine persecution. 

The character played by Spencer Tracy represents the country's lost morality.  Initially meek and humble in nature, he becomes the target of the town's bullying influence as he attempts to get to the truth of the situation that led, directly or indirectly, to the disappearance of his friend, Komoko.  As the plot unravels and the seemingly docile nature of the central character begins to erode when faced with the violence and the bigotry of the town en masse, it becomes clear that the script by Don McGuire and Millard Kaufman is suggestive of the actual mistreatment of real Japanese-American citizens following the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent initiation of mandatory internment. 

As the town begins to go into retreat, the tension that Sturges creates becomes almost suffocating.  The glare of the hot sun, ever-present, is blinding (both literally and metaphorically), but at the same time leaves these characters exposed to their own  atrocity.  In the harsh light of day, these thugs and bullies are unmasked to the moral outrage of Tracy's one-armed crusader, unable to retreat.  The use of the cinemascope frame creates a palpable feeling of isolation, with Sturges using the aspect ratio to illustrate the segregation of the central character from the rest of the town, while also allowing the director to group his antagonists together in a single shot, to draw attention to the solidarity of the lynch-mob, but also to further emphasise their eventual disintegration as the true facts of the disappearance begin to emerge. 

However, it's the emotional weight of the film that most impresses, as the conviction of Tracy's protagonist, and his sense of indignation in the face of the arrogance and the injustice of the town, allows these people to finally connect with their own sense of shame and the ethical sacrifices that the war had compelled.

The Curse of the Cat People [Gunther Von Fritsch & Robert Wise, 1944]:

I watched this film on the 27th of February, 2012.  Originally recorded during the Val Lewton season that played on BBC2 at the end of 2011, The Curse of the Cat People is a film that I'd initially put-off watching for close to two months because I'd heard, from various online "sources", that it was a largely abortive sequel to the Jacques Tourneur directed original.  Well, as usual, the 'sources' were wrong!  The Curse of the Cat People is only a sequel to Tourneur's film in the loosest possible sense, in that it continues the story of Oliver Reed and Alice Moore - the now-married protagonists of the 1942 original - who are forced to confront the ghosts of the past when their own six year old daughter Amy begins communicating with the unearthly and still potentially dangerous spectre of Irena, the antagonist of Tourneur's film. 

The stage is set for a kind of supernatural retribution, but the tone of the film throughout is ethereal and poetic; more like a fairy tale.  Instead of focusing on the spirit of Irena picking up where she left off, terrorising Oliver and Alice for whatever perceived indiscretion they may have committed, the script (by original Cat People writer DeWitt Bodeen) focuses almost exclusively on the loneliness of Amy and her perspective as an outsider.  Though Amy is of no relation to Irena, the two share a bond in their sense of familial isolation from Oliver; the once unsupportive husband, now an equally unsupportive father.

In Tourneur's film, there was the vague suggestion that Irena's problems were the result of mental illness; that her affliction was psychological and not supernatural.  In The Curse of the Cat People, it is once again suggested that Irena's presence in the film is simply an emotional trigger, as she is literally "imagined" by this child as an acknowledgement of their shared isolation and of the apparent influence that Irena, as a memory, still has over her otherwise oblivious dad.  In this sense, the film becomes a precursor to the likes of The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), Paperhouse (1988) and I'm Not Scared (2003), where a childhood adventure, rich in poetic-realism, becomes a metaphor for the separation of the child from the family, and the child's own inability to transition into the world, with its rules and responsibilities.

Freedom [Sharunas Bartas, 2000]:

I watched this film on the 19th of August, 2012.  This was the second Bartas film I saw and I loved it even more than the first; the suffocating near-masterpiece Seven Invisible Men (2005).  As with that subsequent film, Freedom is a work defined by its rigorous observation of characters struggling against a harsh and callous landscape.  A film with barely any dialogue or even interaction between its characters beyond the most base and animalistic urges, the allure of Freedom, as an experience, can be found, not in its plot or characterisation, but in the integrity of its performances, the clarity of its images and the studied, precise intensity of the director's exacting approach. 

With Bartas, I always come back to that word: "desolate."  Throughout the film, his camera lingers on these barren plains, the jagged rocks, the sagging dunes and the ruined buildings, and places them, in contrast, against the ragged and bitter faces of his life-scarred central characters.  The physiognomy, as always, becoming a reflection of where these people are, emotionally as well as physically.  The despair of a situation marked as an expression on the countenance of characters; their eyes wide open, optimistic, but without hope.  These are characters in search of place, or in search of direction.  Three strangers, attempting to cross the border into a more prosperous and welcoming country, but instead, finding themselves stranded on an endless beach that becomes, through the course of the film, an onscreen depiction of their own sense of displaced seclusion. 

And yet, within this work of austere observation, there remains one moment of true, overwhelming beauty.  A scene that stands above the anguish of the rest, giving context to those scenes of despair and alienation, and to the title itself.  As the young female protagonist wakes by the side of her loveless companion, Bartas cuts to an image of cranes moving slowly into frame.  The shot is held for what feels like an eternity.  The music swells as a low, ambient murmur.  One by one the cranes take flight.  As they leave the frame, Bartas cuts back to the girl, her eyes now moist with feeling, her spirit momentarily lifted.  The scene, as a representation of the film as a whole, becomes an expression of the perseverance of this character, and a reflection of the human condition at its most fragile and remote.

Hands Up! [Jerzy Skolimowski, 1981]:

I watched this film on the 3rd of October, 2012.  Skolimowski is, in my opinion, one of the great filmmakers to emerge from the Polish film industry of the 1960s, and like his fellow countrymen, Roman Polanski and Andrzej Żuławski, is a director with a unique and uncompromising voice.  While Polanski is of course acclaimed as one of the greatest filmmakers in the world, and Żuławski continues to develop a passionate and knowing cult, the legacy of Skolimowski seems less certain, perhaps because so many of his greatest films remain unseen.  His films from the 1960s are equal to any of the great masterworks of the period, including the peerless Barrier (1966) and the equally mesmeric Identification Marks: None (1964), as well as his amusing and highly imaginative riposte to the French New Wave, Le départ (1967). 

Hands Up!, one of Skolimowski's strangest and most mysterious films, is a relic of this period, though one not actually completed until 1981.  Like Żuławski's similarly harrowing On the Silver Globe (1988), Hands Up! exists as an attempt to salvage elements of an earlier film, censored by the Polish authorities, while also creating a more relevant political commentary on the period depicted in the film and the ramifications of certain events subsequent to its removal from circulation, for instance, Skolimowski's professional exile.  As such, the film is really four fragments of a movie in one, where the assemblage of ideas, thought and recollections eventually creates an impression of the director's own perspective as an artist unable to return to his country, and in a sense, disconnected from the past. 

The four fragments of the film include a science-fiction drama dealing with an intended Orwellian conspiracy against a backdrop of a potential civil war, a documentary on worker's rights for Polish immigrants in late 1970s Britain, and an on-set diary of Skolimowski's own experience as an actor in the Volker Schlöndorff directed Circle of Deceit (1981).  However, the bulk of Hands Up! is dedicated to the remnants of Skolimowski's censored film; a figurative, allegorical satire, shot in a sepia-tinted monochrome in Poland in 1966, and featuring several disquieting references to the occupation of Poland and the terror of the Holocaust.  The four fragments create a single whole; a film about suppression, censorship and the role of the artist.  Even in its  fragmented form, the film is a pure, 'sensory' experience, haunting and hypnotic, and another masterpiece by the ineffable Skolimowski.

Landscape in the Mist [Theodoros Angelopoulos, 1988]:

I watched this film on the 21st of February, 2012.  By this point I was already two months into the year and I was yet to see a film that really moved me beyond the level of just pure entertainment.  Without wishing to sound too pretentious, I was looking for something unforgettable; something profound.  I'd already watched several really good films - even some great films! - but I was still looking for that 'total' experience.  Landscape in the Mist would be my third Angelopoulos and the first to really evoke the same personal sensation felt in the great works of Antonioni, Dreyer, Tarkovsky, Godard, Ozu, etc.  It's hard to put this feeling into words, but let's just say it's the sensation of having seen something that enriches, both emotionally as well as intellectually; that makes the world feel somehow smaller, or larger, depending on the type of film. 

After my first viewing of Antonioni's L'eclisse (1962) in 2008, I went outside for some fresh air and suddenly felt as if all other human life had passed without a whimper.  The silence of the garden was deafening.  The spaces between the trees had become vast and immeasurable.  The experience of the film had been so personal and so intense that time itself (or the notion of it) had slowed to a crawl.  I had a similar feeling when watching the film in question.  The feeling of my own natural rhythms - the beat of my heart, the inhalation of breath - slowing to meet the pace of the film.  Perhaps it's significant that both L'eclisse and Landscape in the Mist were co-written by Tonino Guerra, but I think more than ever it's the mood of these films - the sombre, suspended feeling of scenes drifting into scenes, like in a dream - that drew me in; that captivated me with every slow movement of the camera and every impeccably composed frame. 

What I loved about Landscape in the Mist was the journey of the central characters; these two kids, brother and sister, trying to make their way to Germany, to find their absent father.  As ever with Angelopoulos, I didn't understand every nuances of this allegory, which surely has some political basis, but I understood the motivation and the idea of the pursuit of this mythical setting that exists, as a goal, or as something to reach for.  That this ideal place is captured on an old strip of film carried by the central character seems significant (because for me, everything is cinema).  It's impossible not to read elements of the film as a comment on the role of the fictional character, having been made real by the reflections of an audience, now trying to make their way back, or alternatively, these characters trying to pass into the world of fiction, as an escape, or as an acknowledgement of their own end. 

I can't quite do justice to the film in such a short space.  I'm too terrible a writer!  My words lack depth and intelligence, and the experience of the film is beyond my grasp.  However, the sensation of seeing how the narrative transforms, how these protagonists engage with the various characters they meet (including a nod to the most famous figures from Angelopoulos's work, The Travelling Players) and how the sequences are developed through those long, beautifully choreographed shots, will stay with me for the rest of my days.

Millennium Actress [Satoshi Kon, 2001]:

I watched this film on the 25th of October, 2012.  The first film I ever saw by the late Satoshi Kon was Paprika (2006); a bold and imaginative work that came close to actual genius, but lost it for me in its repetitive third-act conflict and in the largely unnecessary scene of sexual violence, which pushed the overall tone of the film towards genuine misogyny.  Even so, the thing I liked best about Paprika was not the action, but the emphasis on meta-fiction; the way 'cinephilia' was directly woven into the narrative, defining its character and as such, defining his dreams.  This presentation created a pertinent metaphor for the cinema itself; where the space between consciousness and unconsciousness became the amphitheatre of dreams. 

Satoshi's earlier film, Millennium Actress, follows a similar thread, where the role between fiction and actuality is explored in relation to memory.  The film tells the story of a television reporter researching the closure of a famous film studio and the legend of one of its most prominent stars.   Using a vague facsimile of the real-life actress Setsuko Hara, Satoshi crafts an endlessly complex and sophisticated film about the nature of memory and the capability of film, as a recording, to draw a shadow around moments; to capture recollections of places and people forever, in time.  Throughout the film, the continual interaction between the various elements of actuality and fiction, memories of the past and the tangibility of the present, creates a drifting narrative, where the protagonist Chiyoko Fujiwara - this actress in seclusion - becomes the storyteller, and where the reporter and his cameraman sidekick, become a surrogate for the viewing audience. 

What is most staggering about the film is the way Satoshi incorporates this "audience" into the story.  They're not just passive observers there to hear the words of a fading star, but travelling companions, with the reporter, Genya, physically interacting with the memories of Chiyoko (which play like a montage of scenes from her films), while the cameraman, Kyoji Ida, continues to document these recollections with his handheld video camera.  As a presentation of the line between reality and fiction, memories and dreams, the film is as complicated as anything directed by Angelopoulos or Tarkovsky, with that movement between layers and the central idea of characters becoming active observers to their own past, reminding me of a lighter, more romantic take on the presentation of a film like The Hunters (1977) or Nostalghia (1983).

Noroît (une vengeance) [Jacques Rivette, 1976]:

I watched this film on the 22nd of October, 2012, as a double-bill with the loosely-related Duelle (une quarantaine) (1976).  For five years, Gang of Four (1988) has been my favourite film by Rivette, and one of my favourite films of all time.  Noroît has finally replaced it.  The most magical and mysterious of Rivette's work, Noroît blends elements of Treasure Island, The Tempest and The Revenger's Tragedy into a baroque chamber film, where the usual performances, rites and rituals that we expect from Rivette play out against a backdrop of mythical mountains, crashing waves and a large medieval castle, where the bulk of the story takes place. 

Noroît is a film full of symbols, mysteries and conspiracies, some leading towards a great epiphany, but some just there for the fun of it, for the sense of adventure.  It is a film that builds on the same air of alchemic fascination that drifted through Rivette's previous film, Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974), only with the lightness of that particular film and its more playful commentary on the relationship between the audience and the work replaced by a dark despair and an escalating intensity suggested by the character's restless pursuit of revenge.  To me, it recalls some elements of the pure 'fantastique' of the work of Jean Rollin, with the atmosphere of the film, the colours and the coastal setting, reminding me perhaps of the more abstract sequences of the enigmatic La Vampire Nue (1969) or even Rollin's masterpiece La Rose de Fer (1972). 

Rivette's film might lack the exploitation trappings of Rollin's work, but it's no less powerful in its strange visions, lingering ambience and captivating images.  The feeling of the film is claustrophobic and nocturnal, as these characters move through the castle, like somnambulists, or entranced assassins, engaging in an elaborate performance (within a performance) rich in mystery and suspense.  However, the dreamlike nature of the film is anchored throughout by the powerful lead performances of Geraldine Chaplin and Bernadette Lafont, who carry this wandering narrative towards a sort of elemental battle, much like that of Bulle Ogier and Juliet Berto in the equally hypnotic but for me slightly less captivating Duelle.

Trust [Hal Hartley, 1990]: 

I watched this film on the 12th of November, 2012.  Hartley's most accessible work is also the best example of his brave and often idiosyncratic approach.  I've liked every Hartley film I've seen, to some extent, but in Trust he manages to secure his sometimes distancing formalist tendencies to characters that engage their audience on a personal and emotional level, becoming more than just mouthpieces that speak in clever aphorisms, or wander with an ironic detachment, engaging in sarcasm or succumbing to that familiar expression of nihilism as a response to some unfulfilled sense of hopeful longing.  The existentialism of The Unbelievable Truth (1989) no longer feels shop-bought or second-hand, but is a genuine expression of the character's dreams and desires, or a result of their own acknowledgement of their collective failures and disappointments. 

The film is an excellent showcase for Hartley's two greatest actors, Martin Donovan and Adrienne Shelly, who take characters that are full of fears and insecurities, but somehow manage to present them as likeable, even loveable, in their role as joint perpetual outsiders.  Their inability to make sense of the world is never presented as the failure of these characters, but is simply the failure of the world to provide adequate space for those unable or unwilling to fall in line with the status-quo.  Instead, they find a kind of acceptance in the arms of each other, where this man without a mother and this woman without a father can find a place of their own, until real-life inevitably intervenes.  Shelly's presence in particular gives the film much of its appeal.  She finds a sympathy for this character; a sadness, not just for herself - as she progresses from materialistic teen floozy into a sensible but no less uncertain young woman - but also a kind-hearted compassion for those in situations more desperate than her own. 

The image of Shelly is of course greatly missed.  On a personal level, she looks so much like a girl I once loved (no, still do) that seeing her on-screen, hearing her voice and observing her mannerisms, is beyond heartbreaking for me, because to see one is to see the other, and to be moved by the endless possibilities and the things that could've been.  The film now exists as both a masterpiece of American cinema and as a testament to Shelly's underrated ability as a performer, working against the constraints of Hartley's form, but still managing to express the thoughts and feelings of a character that exists as more than just a representation of a particular idea.  If the image of Anna Karina in Godard's Vivre Sa Vie (1962) endures as the unofficial symbol of the French New Wave, then the image of Shelly, beautiful and bespectacled in Trust, must, in some small way, represent the confidence, intelligence and naiveté that once typified the American independent cinema, at its peak.

The Wishing Tree [Tengiz Abuladze, 1976]: 

I watched this film on the 10th of September, 2012.  I went into it "blind", knowing almost nothing about it.  The only frame of reference I had was the title and the vague allusion to it in Neil Jordan's directorial debut, Angel (1982).  There, the on-screen quotation of the title is used to suggest the loss of innocence, or the destruction of it; the main themes of Abuladze's film.  In approaching, little did I suspect I was about to see one of the greatest works in the history of all cinema, but The Wishing Tree really is a film to place alongside L'Atalante (1934), Ordet (1955), L'eclisse (1962), The Mirror (1975), etc, etc, as one of those staggering works of art; powerful enough to alter the perspective of those who see it; rich enough to transform the soul (whatever that means) of the individual, if only for the duration of the film. 

The images of Abuladze's work are nothing less than striking and will remain with me, in the heart and mind, for as long as I can believe.  Certain moments, like the dying horse in the poppy field - the film's first acknowledgement of the ruthless cruelty of nature and a prelude to the horrors of the final act - resound like echoes in my subconscious, or like scenes from an all-too vivid dream.  The characters, larger-than-life and yet possessing a spirit and integrity that is recognisably human, are captivating, even when presented at their most fierce.  The beautiful princess; the lusty priest and his buxom mistress; the painted grotesque, in mourning for the greatest of lost loves; the anarchist with his pronouncements, listening with an ear to the ground for a story in the soil...  These characters are endlessly fascinating; full of personality, but also expressive of a genuine feeling, of life, tragedy, uncertainty.  They create a depth, a texture, so that the cruel movement of the final act is not one-sided, but a reflection of the restlessness of nature when faced with the inevitability of change. 

Here, the accumulative weight of the film, the beauty of it - and the rich tapestry of stories that suggest a spirit of grand adventure, or a compassion for all of life's creatures, the hum of nature and the beauty of the landscape - transforms what could have been a fairly bleak and bludgeoning attack - similar to von Trier's Breaking the Waves (1996) - into a profoundly moving, profoundly inspirational moral parable.  Though the film is about the destruction of beauty, the loss of tradition and in many ways the loss of innocence, the sensitivity of the film and the compassion the filmmakers have for these characters, no matter how flawed or misguided they might be, means that the simple fact that the film exists - as a work, or as an object - becomes, in its own way, an affirmation of the true beauty of existence.

Faraway, So Close

Mister Lonely [Harmony Korine, 2007]: 

I watched this film on the 11th of November, 2012.  As a filmmaker, Korine strikes me as a genius, but a tricky  genius.  A genius willing to go to the extremes; to tap into the same madness and intensity of a Jarman, Carax or Herzog, but then throw it all away at the last minute with a stoner's smile and a scornful snigger.  There are ideas in this film that are far beyond anything I've ever seen.  Images that are pure and unaffected.  If only the presentation of these ideas and images didn't feel like a series of "wouldn't it be funny if..." set-pieces, then the heart and soul of the thing might have really shone through.  This could have been a film to rank alongside the warped poetry of The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), Jubilee (1977) or Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991), but the end result, for some strange reason, doesn't quite connect. 

What holds the film back for me is the occasional feeling that everything we've seen is an elaborate stunt; a put-on, intended to "troll" the sensitivity of the audience.  Throughout the film, Korine asks the viewer to make a leap of faith, to invest our own hopes and dreams in the film and in the lives of his strange and exotic characters, but he himself never really embraces them as anything more than a sideshow distraction.  Too often it seems as if he's smirking at the struggle of these characters or finding humour at their expense.  As a result, even the most seemingly moving or sincere of scenes has the feel of a practical joke.  In some sense, I would compare the experience to Shyamalan's Lady in the Water (2006); another unconventional work of genius that asks the audience to make a leap of faith, to buy into its strange, fantastical, possibly even ridiculous concept, in the hope of being rewarded with an expression of pure cinema and an emotional epiphany that plays on the idea of faith as a means of engaging with narrative fiction.

With Lady in the Water, Shyamalan "meant it", and while his belief in the material may have destroyed his reputation, our leap of faith was respected and embraced.  With Mister Lonely, there's a cruel cynicism to the latter half of the film (which is brilliant, in its own way) that detracts from the purity of the images and the weight of genuine feeling that his characters create.  As such, I can admit that the film floored me with its imagination.  I can also say that it thrilled me with its spectacle (by the end, I felt as if I'd witnessed a miraculous occurrence; something that was genuinely profound).  Even so, I can't shake the feeling that Korine, for all his genius, is laughing at me.  Laughing at any one of us who takes his work and its message as anything more than a stunt or a skit or an empty provocation.  As ever, we embrace the film at our peril...

The Resurrected

Gremlins 2: The New Batch [Joe Dante, 1990]: 

I re-watched this film on the 11th of March, 2012.  I saw this as a child on video. Over the years the film had faded from memory.  In my mind, I perhaps considered it no more than a fun but forgettable relic.  A decent sequel and nothing else.  Re-watching the film for the first time in over two decades proved something of a minor revelation.  The film is rich in a way that my childhood self would never have appreciated.  The 'mogwai' is still cute, and the film still has that feel of a comic-strip brought to life, but what really surprised me about the film, twenty years later, was the sophistication of the humour, the play of references and the effortless corporate satire that Dante and his screenwriter Charlie Haas weave into the narrative. 

Here, the deconstruction of the genre is as sophisticated as Tarantino's in a film like Inglourious Basterds (2009), where every element of the plot, the casting, the music, the look and the thematic approach, is measured with a specific intent.  Not just as "homage", but actually using these references (in a self-aware, self-deprecating acknowledgement of the film's limitations) as an attempt to satirise certain elements of the plot.  Employing a barrage of quotations (from Chuck Jones and Frank Tashlin, to Roger Corman and Richard Lester), Dante and his collaborators create a pin-sharp lampoon of Hollywood "razzle-dazzle", merchandising, big business and cable television, as well as ripping into the conventional role of the sequel and even the more overt "Spielbergian" influences of Dante's original film. 

As a director, Dante is perhaps one of the forgotten mavericks of 80s American cinema and his approach, a subversive take on Spielberg's the wonder of childhood/suburbia, filtered through a shameless love of B-movie innocence, Hammer Horror excess and pure exploitation, is perfectly suited to this, his most audacious and experimental film.  Visually, Gremlins 2 is a dazzling tour-de-force of fourth-wall breaking sight-gags, genre references and pure Looney Tunes insanity, all captured with a comic-book style onslaught of canted angles, expressionist shadows and bold, almost psychedelic, 'Bava' like colours.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Head Against the Wall

Thoughts on the final scene(s) from Philippe Garrel's 
She Spent So Many Hours Under the Sun Lamps (1985)

The final moment.  The image of a window.  Or more specifically, the image of a building, viewed through a window.  The room surrounding this frame (within a frame) is in total darkness.  The building on the other side of the street, no doubt lit by an adjacent streetlight, appears like a theatrical projection; like an image directed onto this imaginary screen, created by the darkened silhouetted of the room.  In the film, as in life, everything is cinema.

This image is literally the final frame; a moment, empty and secluded.  A dead end?

The image that precedes it is similar, but not identical.  Another window, again, looking out onto the side of a residential building - a familiar backdrop to many French drama films where the 'action' is localised to a single setting (usually a spacious but sparsely furnished apartment building) - only here, the window is open.  A subtle variation perhaps, but one that suggests something entirely different if we look at the two images together, as a progression.  The two 'shots' - these moments that bring the film to its necessary conclusion - seem to evoke something that is true to the emotional development of the characters and of the filmmaker himself; what was once open is now firmly closed.

She Spent So Many Hours Under the Sun Lamps [Philippe Garrel, 1985]:

For now, I don't want to dwell too much on these images.  As I mentioned earlier, they're simply moments, redolent of a particular emptiness or a feeling of "ennui."  They imply tone, a sensation; a mood more consistent with the rest of the film, where these characters shuffle through cold rooms and vacant streets, meeting and departing, colliding (momentarily), before slowly drifting apart.  They evoke the spirit of something lost, an ideal or even a person, though more truthfully, an ideology; something that haunts the very bones of these characters and provides a better understanding  as to why the film, as a work, as an object, feels so fragmented, if not genuinely incomplete...

These images provide closure, but closure to what?  To answer this question we need to look back at the film in more detail; to study Garrel's continual blurring of fiction and reality, performance and actuality, and the various semi-autobiographical (or even fully autobiographical) threads that run throughout his films, from the earliest, more avant-garde works, like Le révélateur (1968) and Le lit de la vierge (1969), to the personal (to the point of invoking privacy) confessionals of Les hautes solitudes (1974) and L'enfant secret (1979).  In looking at Garrel's work as an on-going narrative, we can better understand the context of this film, which on the surface is both vague and emotionally disjointed, but beneath the surface speaks very candidly about the great episodes of Garrel's life; from the turbulence of the Paris riots of May 1968 and his tortured relationship with Nico, through to the stability of marriage and the birth of his son.

These events shape the film as much as they shape the perspective of the filmmaker, who appears on-screen, both physically - as himself, as the author of this work - and as a character played by the actor Jacques Bonnaffé.  Bonnaffé isn't so much acting out the part of Garrel the man, as playing 'himself' playing 'Garrel' as avatar; a continuation of that relentless blurring of the line between the film, as a reflection of reality, and the reality itself.  It's an idea also found  in the presentation of the narrative, where we continually see the making of a film (this film?) in contrast with scenes that are perhaps the result of that particular production, but with no clear identification between the two.

Regardless, the entire film feels wounded by fear and self-loathing, as these characters - looking for a way to move forwards without losing the need to look back - exist in the twilight.

As the film reaches its suffering finale - not so much tying things up as just ending, abruptly, on a moment of absolute horror and distress - it is not the memory of things or an ideology or even a sense of failure that haunts the film, but the emotional uncertainty of its director.  This, as an idea, finds its most startling and disturbing expression in a moment towards the end of the film, which, in its mood and presentation, seems to exist outside of the recognisable boundaries of the previous narrative, instead offering a fascinating (if somewhat troubling) glimpse into the tortured psyche of the film's 'auteur.'

This short sequence of shots follows the final image of Bonnaffé - again, playing himself as actor, playing a facsimile of Garrel the director, smoking a cigarette in the half-light - and is a prelude to those windows, which again, seem to suggest a representation of the makeshift cinema of the everyday through which life itself can be viewed as spectacle, or as scene from a silent movie.  As these fragments of a scene unfold, Garrel, as himself, stalks the frame; appearing, first from off-camera, as a silhouette - like the phantom menace of Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) - then as a figure, awkward and alone.  He stands pensively by the window, looking out into the bright illumination that projects radiance onto the wall behind him; passing through him, as if the man himself is already a spectre, trapped between two worlds.

During this sequence, Garrel smokes his cigarette, opens the window, puts on his coat and occasionally throws a discomfited, self-conscious glance towards the camera, as if acknowledging - with some contempt - that he is the subject of this film; this self-portrait.  When he pulls open the window we fear the worst.  The suicide scenes of several of Garrel greatest films are recalled and create a feeling of trepidation.  So too does the character's earlier references to the legendary filmmaker Jean Eustache; author of the colossal masterpiece The Mother and the Whore (1973) and a close friend of Garrel's, who took his own life in 1981.

What follows  is startling.

As the scene continues, Garrel - a crumpled mess of nervous energy - pounds his head against the wall in resignation, before a jump-cut removes him from the frame.  He returns, repeating the same action in a different variation, as if several takes of a scene have been edited together to draw attention to the repetition of the form.  As the shot continues, Garrel - still physically shaken by something - begins clutching his stomach in distress.  A look of confusion enters his face as he doubles over in what we assume is genuine agony.  His body hardens, shrinking into itself.  He gestures towards the camera with his hands as if urging the film to stop.  The camera goes on recording - without sound, without pity - until the moment of the cut.

She Spent So Many Hours Under the Sun Lamps [Philippe Garrel, 1985]:

This final scene, in its entirety, is both sad and unsettling.  Alarming for its unguarded vulnerability, the honesty of its emotion and the statement that it creates.  The performance - or the act itself - seems to encapsulate that feeling of frustration or personal disappointment that hangs above every facet of the film; creating an overwhelming sense of desolation or an air of despondency that chips away at every fragmented interaction, unfinished movement or sketch of a scene.

It's an ending perfectly suited to this film, this work of personal reflection.  A film, like most by Garrel, which risks alienating a potential audience so as not to compromise the integrity of its emotions or the sincerity of its approach.

When we look back at Garrel's scene, we think back to those windows, first open, then closed, and what these images might suggest within the context of the work.  Do we view these images as an unsettling suicide fantasy - the director's own potential death, figurative or not, imagined on film - or do see it as being suggestive of a new beginning; the past and the pain now behind us, excluded and locked-out?

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Pause for Thought

Imprecise observations on the film Benny's Video (1992)
As these notations are intended for people who have seen the film, some SPOILERS will follow.


A crime is committed.  A murder; cold and cruel.  As an audience, we're inherently coerced into becoming a collective witness to this act, but at a distance, unable to interject.  The murder happens off-screen, but the screen is what we see.  The video monitor - a recurring image in Haneke's work - displays a recording of what could perhaps be described, physically, as 'the scene' of the crime, or even literally, as 'the crime scene.'

The implications are clear.  We're watching this murder as we would watch a conventional film.  Only in this instance, the fiction is presented as a reality.

Art, imitating life,  imitating art.

Benny's Video [Michael Haneke, 1992]:

Though the film is called Benny's Video (singular), there are in fact several videos featured in the film that the title could refer to.  The protagonist - a disaffected teenage boy - spends much of the film watching videos or making them.  When he eventually takes the tentative step into cold-blooded murder, his obsession with recording plays a central role in the facilitation of the crime and also of his understanding of it.

He is, like the audience, something of a voyeur.  For Benny (Arno Frisch) , real life is not real unless it is viewed through a screen.  In his bedroom the curtains remain closed, even during the day.  A small video camera records the scene outside his window, which is displayed back to him, on a video monitor.  The television is therefore not just a means of entertainment, but a window into another world.

Here, one could perhaps connect Haneke's presentation back to a particular device used in Jean-Luc Godard's eccentric "thriller", Detective (1985), in which three amateur sleuths hide out in a room at the Hôtel Concorde, keeping a constant watch on the exterior of the foyer via the aid of a portable video camera and an in-room television set.  Although effectively a caper, Godard's film is also an extended thesis on the nature of recording and the role that an audience plays when engaging with the conventions of a genre; inventing and projecting, or even creating their own conclusions from the accumulation of "clues", whatever the case may be.

Detective [Jean-Luc Godard, 1985]:

For Haneke and - to a larger extent - Godard, the television becomes a window and the camera becomes the all-seeing eye.  The characters in both these films are "protagonists" in the conventional sense, but they're also surrogates for a viewing audience.  They watch, they plot, they invent.  When these characters cross the line, eventually taking control of the narrative and dictating the direction the film will take, they are - in a sense - breaking the forth wall, but also inviting the audience to do the same.  The act of viewing makes them spectators by definition, but by refusing to remain passive, by taking an active role in understanding these images and scenes, they become protagonists (legitimately) through the act of viewing.

In this particular instance, the idea of an initial character as a voyeur transcending his own role as a submissive observer to become a genuine protagonist (or active participant) in the development of the plot, the film channels the influence of Hitchcock's great masterpiece Rear Window (1954), giving its themes of voyeurism and the influence of the television as yet another window into the soul a more contemporary relevance in the age of the video rental.

Rear Window [Alfred Hitchcock, 1954]:

Unlike the conventional blink-or-you'll-miss-it mass spectacle of the cinema - which keeps its audience at a reserve - the video format (plainly ,"the home cinema") makes it possible for us to scrutinise the image from a much closer, more intimate perspective.  We can watch, re-watch, pause and re-live moments in a way that was impossible just over a decade before Haneke's film was released.

In the presentation of his central character and the 'video' of the title, Haneke is questioning the motivations of the audience, while also providing a not so subtle critique of the generation of this character, enthralled by the lure of 'the image', but at the same time detached from it; unable to see beyond the representation to the reality beneath.  This is similar to Hitchcock's more subtle critique of his own  protagonist, the disabled correspondence photographer L.B. Jefferies.  A man of action reduced to an inert observer, Jefferies becomes a surrogate for an audience who find entertainment in the lives of others and invent stories from the close scrutiny of the most arbitrary of details.

If Hitchcock's film was also something of an acknowledgement of the filmmakers own position as "ringleader" - the cunning instigator colluding with the antagonist and creating the film, as bait, in an attempt to exploit the most callous and judgemental facets of human behaviour - then for Haneke, the lead-up to the murder, the murder itself and the prolonged and provocative aftermath becomes almost like a macabre parody of the conventional moviemaking process (pre-production/production/post- etc), thus turning the entire nature of filmmaking, as a history, into something almost alarmingly sinister.

The scenes of Benny gazing with Kubrickian detachment at video-camera footage of a pig being slaughtered suggests the idea of "influence" (however contentiously) - that people are, in some small way, influenced by the power of images, for better or worse - but it also chillingly establishes the character's own (near) inhuman objectivity when he looks back at his own footage from the death.  These sequences are the first to suggest the idea of "responsibility" - one of the key points in the film - as Benny (the character and audience, by proxy) becomes, in the cinematic sense, the "auteur" of his crime.

Benny's Video [Michael Haneke, 1992]:

As the character goes back and forth through the tape, studying the frame, mixing in sounds and other footage to create a ghoulish montage of ideas, the methodology again becomes a kind of commentary on the process of filmmaking, where the "shots" and "cuts" take on an entirely different and markedly more disturbing definition.  In this respect, the film - or these specific scenes - offer an almost acknowledgement on Haneke's part of his own role in this shameful display, his own culpability as a maker of violent images, and the responsibility of the artist to present ideas, even as critique, without having them turn into an example of the very same exploitation that the film was supposedly against.


·          With the central idea of Benny's Video, is Haneke explicitly creating a link between the viewing of violent images and the character's subsequent descent into cold-hearted violence?  If so, do you agree with his opinion?

·          If not, what do you think causes Benny's sudden break in personality?

·          Is Haneke implicating the viewer in this murder by framing it for our "entertainment", or is he implicating himself, as the creator of this scenario?

·          How do you interpret the ending?   Do you think Benny is turning himself in - his guarded apology to his parents an acknowledgement of their attempts to save him from a criminal prosecution - or do you think he has instead shifted the blame entirely onto them, thus proving that his character is now a genuine sociopath?

·          What is your take on the continual new stories that form the background of the film?   There are several explicit references to the Balkans conflict.   Is this simply Haneke providing a cultural and historical context for his film, or is there something more significant going being suggested, perhaps, once again, in relation to the influence of violent media, sensationalism, and social-conditioning?


For me, Benny's Video is very much about the nature of viewing; about how audiences are conditioned to accept and/or reject certain modes of viewing, and how the notion of desensitisation will one day rob these images of their ability to move, amuse, shock or repel, turning them into objects with no real meaning beyond anything presented on the surface.

It's also a film about video and about the process of taking films out of their natural environment - the cinema, where they are watched as part of a collective; as a social exhibition - and placing them in the home where audiences are free to use or misuse the film in a way that goes against the explicit intentions of the filmmaker; a thread that would be further explored in Haneke's subsequent films, Funny Games (1997) and Caché (2005).

Caché [Michael Haneke, 2005]:

Whether or not we accept this particular argument or instead accuse Haneke of hypocrisy - as he compels the audience to engage with the film, only to eventually turn our own engagement against us - will be decided by the individual.  However it's worth spending a moment or two to reflect on the experiences of the film, its contrasts - between the cold, static scenes of Benny's family-life, and the vibrant, exotic travelogue of images as the characters escape to Egypt - as well as the implications of the ending, which possibly posit the titular character as a legitimate sociopath, far closer to the antagonist (also played by Frisch) in the abovementioned Funny Games.

Ultimately, the film for me comes back to the idea of culpability; about the responsibility that audiences and filmmakers share when approaching any fiction that use violence, either to titillate or to provoke.  With the staging of the murder, Haneke seems to be saying that we, as an audience, are a witness to everything we see; that we have a responsibility as viewers to dismiss these films, as a moral judgement (and not simply as an "aesthetic" preference or on the level of personal enjoyment, as is often the case) and to question the intentions of filmmakers who use such measures to provoke a response.

We could argue in this instance that the end of the film is suggesting, figuratively at least, that the responsibility ultimately rests with the parents.  However, I also think Hanake is casting himself in that position; with the didactic, sometimes heavily moralising tone of his films occasionally creating the feeling of a stern lecture or even an academic dissertation on a theme.  Haneke is, in some respects, talking down to his audience, but nonetheless accepts the responsibility, therefore allowing the audience the opportunity to see the film, to reflect on it, but ultimately absolving us from our own implicit culpability - on this occasion at least - on the condition that we take something meaningful from the experience.