Sunday, 8 December 2013

A Nation's Pride

Thoughts on a film: Black Rain (1989) [Mild SPOILERS]

Interior/night.  A heavily guarded compound somewhere in suburban Osaka.  Against the windows, the rain falls hard in staccato rhythms, streaking down, across the surface.  It creates impressions, like the bars of a prison cell, to suggest the idea of characters meeting outside the law; hidden, furtive; a clandestine tête-à-tête.  By firelight, two men, flanked by armed enforcers, sit stoically across from one another.  On the right, the American, on the left, the Japanese.  The Japanese man - his hair greying; eyes hidden behind a veil of cigar smoke - opens his mouth to speak, and the words form louder than bombs.

"I was ten when the B-29 came..." he remembers.  "My family lived underground for three days.  When we came up, the city was gone!  Then the heat brought rain.  Black rain.  You made the rain black, and you shoved your values down our throats.  We forgot who we were.  You created Sato and thousands like him.  Now I'm paying you back."

The dialogue in this scene is spoken by the aging Yakuza crime boss Sugai during his third-act confrontation with the film's protagonist; disgraced NYPD detective Nick Conklin.  It's a fascinating monologue, not just because it's well written (IMO) and well delivered by the actor Tomisaburô Wakayama, but because it encapsulates the main themes of the film; the implied "plague" of American post-war imperialism as it filters down through the generations, breeding corruption, loss of tradition and the debasement of cultural identity.

It adds a balance to the commentary - which might otherwise be perceived as exceedingly xenophobic (if not actually racist) - by giving the Japanese characters a chance to justify their own attitude of antagonism and hesitancy regarding this American "influence", while at the same time acknowledging the still-visible scars of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and how the reality of such atrocities changed the social and economic landscape of the country, irreparably.

Black Rain [Ridley Scott, 1989]:
Crime boss Sugai muses on the loss of respect and tradition in the younger generation more influenced by the west.

Black Rain [Ridley Scott, 1989]:
Rising lieutenant Sato mocks tradition, flaunting his attitude of disrespect and superiority.

This subtext - where the central conflict between American cop and Japanese criminal gestures towards the horrors of the Second World War - is interesting, but also problematic.  Through the development of the narrative - in which the aforementioned Conklin and his partner, Charlie Vincent, are required to transport a low-level lieutenant of the Yakuza (the abovementioned Sato) back to the authorities in Japan - the film presents a kind of ethical conflict between the meek, officious, bureaucratic nature of the Japanese (personified here by Inspector Matsumoto) and the brash, reckless, ultimately heroic attitude of Conklin...

Black Rain [Ridley Scott, 1989]:
Contrasts between the stoicism of Matsumoto and the irresponsibility of Conklin; who will prevail?

In his partnership with Matsumoto, the unfurling drama becomes more about the unashamedly corrupt Conklin bringing the Japanese characters down to his level of hostility and moral ambiguity.  Smirking behind aviator sunglasses, while lighting a cigarette with a (counterfeit) hundred-dollar bill, Conklin embodies the very worst traits of the post-Lethal Weapon (1987) "maverick cop with an attitude" cliché, as the American will soon coerce the previously 'whiter-than-white' Matsumoto to break his suspension before leading an illegal raid on a secret gang meeting, where both men brandish their firearms with an almost phallic reverence.

This degradation of Matsumoto - where the character is forced to "think American" in order to catch the bad guy and to restore order to a system that already worked (after all, it was the failings of the American characters that created these difficulties in the first place) - suggests a rather uncomfortable message, wherein an otherwise right (or righteous) character must become more corrupt and more underhanded than the people he's trying to defeat.  The true innocents, like Charlie, suffer because they attempt to see the good in people, while Conklin, with his prejudice, greed and lack of respect, becomes the hero, despite being a mirror to the more intentionally villainous enforcer, Sato.

Black Rain [Ridley Scott, 1989]:
Theme: America (as symbol) against the world.

Black Rain [Ridley Scott, 1989]:
Theme: Capitalism (dirty money) and corruption.

The idea that Conklin, in a way, is metaphorically re-staging the conflict of the Second World War - as he attempts to reclaim American pride and American dominance over "the nips" (as the character puts it) - is most evident in the final face-off between the detective and his Japanese aggressor.  Shot on U.S. soil but masquerading as rural Osaka, Scott and his production designer go to great lengths to evoke the landscapes of Iwo Jima.  The black soil, mud slides and ghostly mist recall the Kurosawa of films like Throne of Blood (1957), Yojimbo (1961) and Ran (1985), as if the spirit of Kurosawa's art and its own debt to the Hollywood films of John Ford is somehow being filtered through the slick, glossy, highly commercialised gaze of Scott's earlier features, such as the landmark Blade Runner (1982), as well as the arguably more commercial films of his younger brother; for instance The Hunger (1983) and Beverly Hills Cop II (1987).

Sweeping Inland, Iwo Jima [Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections, 1945]:
Scott turns Northern California into a miniature Iwo Jima, as once again Japan and America face-off.

Throne of Blood [Akira Kurosawa, 1957]:
The characteristic "charred" landscapes of Kurosawa, 
where two exhausted warriors find a moment of contemplation.

Black Rain [Ridley Scott, 1989]:
Scott's filmmaking at its roughest and most disorganised; 
violence and hatred expressed in the anarchy of the frame.

The stylisation becomes an audacious though possibly poorly judged expression of pure jingoism, as American masculinity wins out against Japanese nobility.  However, it also suggests something ultimately more edifying about the '80s American psyche as it relates to the Conklin archetype.  Like the character played by Lee Marvin in the John Boorman film Hell in the Pacific (1968), Conklin is the American soldier who still thinks the war is raging.  His lack of awareness, subtlety and cultural sensitivity makes it impossible for him to enter into this world and to view it as anything less than a score that needs to be settled.  Scott and his screenwriters (Craig Bolotin and Warren Lewis) are each on the side of Conklin; viewing his "man of action" exterior as genuinely heroic, but also making his final act of revenge and his campaign to restore respect in the eyes of his forebears justified (or justifiable) by showing Sato (and his gang) to be almost two-dimensionally sadistic.

When Sato takes his revenge on one of the film's more likable supporting characters, this fuels Conklin's desire to get even; to once again destroy the Japanese aggressor (symbolically) before restoring American supremacy against the country's greatest economic rival.  However, it also gives the audience reason to identify with Conklin and to support his more underhanded methods.  Where the Japanese are shown to be condescending, cold and generally only sympathetic if they've been taught how to be "human" by their American guests, Conklin is impulsive, emotional and entirely clear.

Black Rain [Ridley Scott, 1989]:
Charlie will pay the price for attempting to understand the culture - to become a part of it, to work within
the parameters of this world - while Conklin remains on the outside, looking in.

In this respect, the actual storyline - the attempt by Conklin to redeem himself (and his honour) by bringing Sato to justice - is coloured by the murky treatment of race and the previously noted WWII subtext.  However, in Sugai's lament and the corruption of Matsumoto by Conklin, the implications of the film seem to relate very clearly to the role that American history played in Japan's ultimate rise to power.  By levelling parts of the country with atomic bombs, the American's obliterated the Japanese spirit.  The immediate occupation of the country by the Allied powers saw the inevitable rise of democracy and the end of Japan as a legitimate Imperial Empire, while the subsequent "economic miracle" made the country one of the most powerful manufacturers and creators of consumer technology in the entire world.

This socio-political power struggle is explored in the film on a rhetorical level.  America - personified by Conklin - created this scourge that now threatens to usurp capitalist control from the previously prevailing North American states, while the Japanese are left to reconcile the loss of identity (and the ideals that once defined them, culturally) with the growing wealth and privilege that this economic boom made real.  As such, Conklin's attempts to re-assert dominance over the characters speaks to this necessity for the protagonist - again, as a personification - to regain power; to reinforce (for the mainstream Hollywood audience) a sense of moral superiority at a time when Japanese product was flooding the American market, leaving countless native manufactures closed or out of business.

Along with the above-quoted dialogue from Sugai, the inference of this subtext - the way that it "reads", in context - redeems the film, wrestling it away from the Hollywood machismo and clichés of generic '80s action cinema, and instead creating a provocative and perhaps even intelligent counter-point to the film's somewhat contentious point of view.  It suggests a link between the shared histories of the two nations; the hypothesis, that the fallout from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War became the black rain of capitalism; that really, what the film is about, is cultural imperialism, as personified by the Conklin character, as a genuine force.

The film and how it presents Conklin (as somehow educating the supposedly ineffectual Japanese in the ways of the west) seems, in spirit at least, to be an attempt at mainstream propaganda on the same level as Joe Rosenthal's iconic image, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima (1945), where the filmmakers reinforce the idea of U.S. authority and control in the context of something as accessible as a Hollywood thriller.  By the end of the film, Conklin (like the posed soldiers in Rosenthal's work) will have proven, physically, if not psychologically, how much more effective American force can be in comparison to Japanese bureaucracy; effectively claiming (or reclaiming) pride and power on a national scale.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Lumière and Company #1

Film by Film [Hypothesis]

Lumière and Company is a 1995 omnibus film devised by Philippe Poulet and assembled by the director Sarah Moon.  It features contributions from forty different international filmmakers, including Zhang Yimou, David Lynch, Abbas Kiarostami, Peter Greenaway and Jacques Rivette (to name a few).  The intention of the film was to celebrate the first hundred years of cinema by having each director shoot a short film (one lasting no more than 52 seconds in duration) using the actual cameras and equipment employed by the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière; the early film pioneers, who - in collaboration - defined the spectacle of the modern cinema, and as such, created the invisible thread of influence that now blind the serialized psychodramas of Louis Feuillade to the modern blockbusters of Steven Spielberg, and beyond.

In this occasional series, I'll be sharing my notes on each of the individual short films (some great, some not so great) in a vaguely alphabetised manner, and hopefully working my way through the entire project, a few films at a time.

Lumière and Company [Gabriel Axel, 1995]:

In a single fluid tracking shot, the lineage of creative expression is revealed.  At first we see a man in contemporary attire creating a small clay sculpture of a Shakespearian icon.  Next, we see an actor dressed as Hamlet, posing for the sculptor, but at the same time becoming a figurative representation of the great idol of contemporary theatre and the art of performance itself.  Next, two musicians - a cellist and violinist - provide an onscreen link to the music that accompanies the scene.  Next, a painter, posed by his easel, creates a picture that we never see.  Next, a pair of dancers, their movements as elegant and graceful as the tracking shot that records their display.  Finally, the filmmaker, turning the hand-crank on his camera as he records a scene of two men about to face one another in combat (the romantic fatalism of pistols at dawn).  The two men that preside over the duel look suspiciously like Auguste and Louis Lumière, the motion-picture pioneers to whom this series of films is dedicated.

Axel's short seems to communicate the notion that film is the ultimate art - the natural conclusion of all great cultural endeavour - because it is, in essence, a continuation of all the arts; an evolution.  Cinema is dance, performance, literature, painting, music, sculpture, photography and theatre, transformed into spectacle; a collaboration.  To cite the eternal Sam Fuller: [the cinema is] "love, hate, action, violence, death... in one word: emotion"; just like Axel's short film.

Lumière and Company [Vicente Aranda, 1995]:

I don't know the background of Aranda's film.  On the surface, it seems fairly similar to the later segment directed by John Boorman, but on the whole, is less impressive in its contrast between the archaic form of the brothers' cinematograph and the perspective of a modern-day setting.  Like the Boorman film, Aranda's segment takes place on a movie set; the Lumière camera, like the eye of God, watching over the development of its own heritage.  Unlike the Boorman film, I have no idea what movie is being made, and therefore it's possible that the significance of the setting was lost.  I can only assume it was shot during the production of Aranda's next feature, Libertarias (1996), which IMDb informs me takes place during the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.  Again, as with Boorman's work, we have the spirit of revolution; an uprising.  Aranda is showing us this image of some past insurrection, re-staged as a counterpoint to the revolution of the cinema, one-hundred years before.  The political and the cinematic - or the art in general - forever entwined.

Lumière and Company [Merzak Allouache, 1995]:

In a wide-shot, two characters - a man and woman in period dress - walk briskly towards the camera.  The woman is carrying a suitcase.  The man - dapper in a flat cap - twirls his cigarette in an outlandish fashion.  The first thing noticeable is the incongruous use of sound; footsteps crunching beneath the gravel path; the wind rustling through the leaves; the whir of the camera as it records the scene.  The couple pass by; footsteps continuing unseen into the middle distance as impressions on the soundtrack.  Suddenly the woman reappears, her head dipping into the frame, attention diverted by the sight of the watchful apparatus.  She peers into the lens, childlike and captivated by this new device and its endless possibilities.  A moment later, the man reappears.  Regarding the woman's fascination with this strange and inexplicable new object, he forcibly pushes her out of the frame, positioning himself as the main subject of interest.  Mystery and wonder replaced by vanity, as vice.

Allouache's film is one of many in this compendium that has the actors break the fourth wall; acknowledging the presence of the camera and turning the audience (the "gaze" of viewer) into the subject-matter.  One could argue that the film, on a deeper level, also exists as a figurative commentary on the marginalisation of women in film or the subjugation of women in popular culture.  The camera that so fascinates this woman on a clearly emotional level is soon taken away from her - censored, made forbidden - reclaimed by the man as a means of documenting his own narcissism; the male "self-image" that still dominates to this day.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Key Films #28

La notte [Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961]:

In an early scene, the audience is introduced to the protagonists - the married couple Lidia and Giovanni Pontano - as they tend the hospital bedside of a dying friend.  The significance of this scene is immediately clear, and the level of detail and information that Antonioni and his co-writers place within these seemingly perfunctory conversations and the awkward small talk establish a dynamic between characters that will be explored and examined as the narrative unfolds.  This sequence - as with the opening sequence of the subsequent L'eclisse (1962) - is also essential to understanding the tone of the film; the emptiness of the hospital, the distance between the protagonists (both physical and emotional) and the occurrence of a surreal and disarming sequence in which Giovanni is confronted by a disturbed and uninhibited young woman who attempts to seduce him, create a stark, clinical and at times often distinctly morose feeling that seems to place the viewer within the same emotional and psychological mindset as the characters on-screen.  It also suggests a blatant (if generic) interpretation, in which the notions of sex and death become figuratively entwined.  This creates a somewhat interesting psychological parallel to the protagonist in Antonioni's later film, The Red Desert (1964), where the character Guiliana's own time in a psychiatric hospital led to a no less humiliating seduction and extramarital affair.

Giovanni's own revelation, that he was tempted by the sick woman's advances, will eventually act as a similar catalyst for the subsequent events.  Again, like Guiliana, the psychological and sociological implications of the confession throw Lidia's once-comfortable existence into a spiral of self-doubt, jealousy and sexual-anxiety that leads this character on an expedition into the ruins of the past.  Approaching the film, in this sense, as a kind of journey into "the self", or as an episodic, sexually motivated act of psychoanalysis, the similarities to Eyes Wide Shut (1999) by Stanley Kubrick become immediately clear.  La notte could almost be described as a kind of spiritual precursor to the Kubrick film, albeit, with the roles reversed.  In Eyes Wide Shut, it was the husband Bill who was plunged into a freefall of confusion and sexual jealousy after his wife Alice confessed to an infatuation with a fantasy male archetype.  In Antonioni's film, the emphasis is on Lidia, who instead of finding liberation through separation, or a sense of closure in the exploration of these places significant to her youth, is almost haunted by Giovanni, unable to escape his influence or even his control.  In the presence of her husband, she is simply "the wife", or more specifically "Giovanni's wife", confined to the shadow of her spouse as the dependable shoulder of support.  As such, she sees herself - even in absence - as not exciting enough nor attractive enough to break out of the conventional and subservient role that the culture expects her to play.

The style of the film, with its black and white cinematography and its emphasis on the dehumanising presence of cold, concrete architecture - which dwarfs and suffocates the characters in almost every frame - confronts the viewer with a world seemingly devoid of life.  Like the final moments of L'eclisse, the overall tone of the film following the wife's crisis of faith is one marked by an icy claustrophobia, uncertainty and an almost fragrant sent of apocalyptic dread.  As Lidia wanders a disintegrating landscape of old buildings, empty streets and dilapidated relics desperately in search of the past, she finds only unfathomable ciphers engaging in either violence or triviality as a last gasp attempt to reclaim a certain joy from the natural languor of everyday living.  Unlike the gang of men brutally cheering on a fist fight, or the crowd of gawping onlookers who observe a toy rocket launched from a desolate field, Lidia is again distant and disconnected, unable to comprehend or even glean any sense of the most simple pleasure from these moments, moving and still.  Throughout the film, Antonioni typically has his characters framed through empty windows, their reflections trapped or isolated by the shot composition and its relation to the overall design.  This continues the theme of examination, as the audience is compelled to see the characters not just as specimens, but as an illustration of our own emptiness, banality and emotional discontent.

Sisters [Brian De Palma, 1973]:

Without question, a transitional work; a film that closes the (rear) window to one facet of De Palma's career, while at the same time leaving the shade open for something new.  The film exists on the fault line between the director's earlier, more experimental, counter-culture efforts of the late 1960s - in which his continual interest in voyeurism and the manipulation of the moving image was combined with socio-political discussions on race, sexual politics and the war in Vietnam - and the ensuing supernatural and psychological thrillers that the filmmaker would intermittently devote himself to during the subsequent years.  On paper, the central narrative of Sisters - at least as it develops through the combination of murder mystery and psychosexual horror - gestures towards the baroque modern melodrama of consecutive works, such as Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Carrie and Obsession (both 1976), where the tortured psychology of characters forces the drama to fracture into a series of exhilarating, edge of the seat set-pieces that become, through the course of the narrative, like a projection of the protagonist's own fragile emotional state.  However, the sub-text of the film and the presentation of its central characters is still rooted in the post-1960s, pop-art mindset of radical politics, genre deconstruction and ironic, self-reflexive lampoon.

While many will no doubt see the film and take from it the obvious lifts from Hitchcock - especially in the way the murder is staged against a fittingly 'retro' Bernard Herrmann score - the undertones are far more sensitive to the cultural concerns of the time.  Through the film's first act of violence, De Palma is referencing the still topical murder of Kitty Genovese (in the way the initial crime is ignored and brushed aside as a lover's quarrel, despite the presence of an actual witness) while the eventual police response to the disappearance of the victim (a young black male) suggests a notable thread of institutional racism ("these people..." the detective slurs).  Likewise, De Palma's heroine, played here by Jennifer Salt, is introduced as both a leftwing feminist and possibly bi-sexual (her lifestyle and lack of a steady boyfriend is a cause for concern for her conservative-leaning mother, who in turn becomes the butt of the joke).  These personal idiosyncrasies are there to enrich the more generic Hitchcockian elements of the narrative, through which the story of medical malpractice seems intended to tap into a genuine fear on behalf of the culture of unstable doctor's playing God, and where the director's signature use of the split-screen effect is intended to visualise, cinematically, the fragmented personality of his central character(s); the film itself becoming the expression of a divided mind.

Notorious [Alfred Hitchcock, 1946]:

"This is a very strange love affair" purrs the vulnerable Ingrid Bergman to the roguish Cary Grant, and in many ways she's right, it is!  It's also a very strange film, even within the context of Hitchcock's remarkable and often provocative career, where the sense of unreality and the almost abstract stylisations of the staging and the cinematography evoke the later, more explicitly "conceptual" trilogy of psychological dramas, Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960) and Marnie (1964).  Throughout Notorious - its title a reference to the less than perfect reputation of the Bergman character; the gadabout daughter of a convicted Nazi spy - Hitchcock and his collaborators chip away at the respectable gloss of the standard '40s melodrama, infusing the film instead with a sensation of intense, almost dreamlike ambiguity; an air of slightly off-kilter "strangeness" that borders on the overwhelming.  The illusory atmosphere - in which the entire narrative feels as if it is being dreamt-up by the central character as a sort of fevered reverie - is suggested, in part, by the director's less conventional stylisations (which frequently attempt to place the audience, subjectively, into the psychology of the central character) but also through the stilted, unnatural dialogue, the perverse character developments and the frequent sense of unnerving suspicion; as the susceptible protagonist is thrown into the deep-end of a dangerous and tortured affair.

Lurching, staggering even, from seduction to betrayal, from boozy late-night drives across a rear-projected backdrop of Miami, Florida, to the hotbed of intrigue and mystery found in its studio-recreated Rio de Janeiro setting, the film traverses genres; moving, drifting, from film noir to thriller, espionage to full-blown romance, and even ending on a sustained note of inescapable terror.  The narrative and the development of the protagonist is strong enough to support these deliberately artificial stylisations, as the film engages through the natural workings of its story - the intrigues and manipulations - and through the relationship(s) between the central characters.  As a clear consequence of the personal betrayals of the men in her life (first her father and eventually her conflicted lovers) Bergman's character, Alicia, finds herself cast in this role and forced to play along; to adopt a "persona" and to assimilate herself into this environment in an effort to infiltrate the allies of her since-incapacitated dad.  This presentation of the character as unwitting 'agent provocateur' becomes a kind of self-aware acknowledgement of the role of the actress in a traditional drama; where the entire demeanour of Alicia is ultimately an affected "performance"; a smokescreen intended to mask the fear and uncertainty that drives her into such peril.

Her desire to please this new lover - this mentor who becomes both a replacement for the father, dispensing wisdom and advise, and a surrogate for the director, instructing the actress how to behave, how to move through this world of darkness and danger - gives Alicia the strength to take on the impossible as her mission forces her to betray her own feelings - her own personality - by having to flirt between the sensitive heroine and the more cold-hearted femme fatale.  More daringly, Hitchcock and his writers subvert the characteristics of their respective opponents; Grant's protagonist T.R. Devlin and the film's antagonist, Alexander Sebastian, played by Claude Rains.  While Devlin clearly has feelings for Alicia, his emotions, jealousies and fragile ego cause him to inadvertently lead the object of his affection into disaster.  His attitude throughout is punctuated by conceit and arrogance, as he breaks away from the caring and considerate mentor-figure to instead become a wounded bully led by bitterness and resentment.  While the leading man is cold and occasionally unpleasant, Sebastian is, by contrast, hugely sympathetic.  He loves Alicia, and it's only through the inevitable betrayal that the character turns against her.  While Hitchcock keeps the narrative moving with his fantastical tricks, thrilling set-pieces and fragmented, almost trancelike tone, it is the richness of these characters and their complex personal emotions that makes the film so endlessly compelling.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

On-Screen / Off

A note on 'the image' as still-living testament in De Palma's The Black Dahlia (2006)

De Palma's voice, off-screen, interrogates the actress.  She stares, doe-eyed into the camera, desperate, eager.  She wants to impress the director; to make a good impression.  It's a candid moment, both captivating and uncomfortable.  It addresses the inherent voyeurism of the viewing audience; questions our potential to find entertainment and intrigue in the sadness of the screen or to disassociate ourselves from the reality of this woman, recorded, on-camera, as an actress (a living being, with thoughts and feelings, captured on film) to see instead an object, an icon, a characterisation.  The scene blurs the identifiable line between fiction and reality.  It suggests 'an actuality' - a behind the scenes interaction between the real-life director and his star, made public, as if by accident - but it also provides a necessary function in the development of this devastating tale.

The mirroring between the 'real' and the 'recorded' has been an important theme throughout De Palma's career - with the similarly intrusive and explicitly voyeuristic "Private Moment" of his earlier film Greetings (1968) setting something of a loose, thematic template - but it is perhaps this sequence, more than any other, where the deconstruction of the role between the audience and the work and the power of the moving image, as a physical 'recording', finds its most poignant (and painful) expression.

The Black Dahlia [Brian De Palma, 2006]:
Elizabeth Short, still living, post-mortem, as a recording; the ghost in the machine.

In the context of the scene itself, the actress is Mia Kirshner playing the title character; the tragic Elizabeth Short.  De Palma is playing the unseen director, guiding Short through the motions of a studio screen-test.  The footage is necessary, in the sense that it provides an on-screen reminder of Short - the film's enigmatic "Black Dahlia" - as a living being - our only evidence of her past existence beyond the mutilated cadaver found splayed in a Hollywood lot - but it also suggests a great deal about the life of this character, unknowable, as a result of death.  The knowledge of her subsequent murder (cruel and heartbreaking) gives weight to these on-camera confessionals; where the words spoken, in the context of the audition, express the sadness of a private-life.

There is a finality to this (staged) drama - enacted for the benefit of a belligerent director as surrogate for an unseen audience - as if Short herself was somehow aware of the sad fate that soon awaited her.  As such, the footage becomes a last will and testament; a moment in time, captured, forever.

These images, which beguile and transfix the audience, become an obsession for the central character, homicide detective Dwight 'Bucky' Bleichert, who examines this black & white audition footage, and, in the process, becomes progressively more moved and affected by the sadness of Short's "performance" and by the honesty of her emotional account.  This presentation establishes the voyeurism of the character - again, as surrogate - but also further reinforces De Palma's belief in the power of the image to go deeper than reality; to provide a canvas onto which the audience can project their own concerns - their obsessions and desires - or the way in which emotions are shared by our own connection to the subject matter, or to the actor on-screen.

The Black Dahlia [Brian De Palma, 2006]:
Bleichert as audience member, sitting down to watch a film.

Greetings [Brian De Palma, 1968]:
Jon Rubin, as surrogate for De Palma in Greetings; the reality, breaking the fourth wall of his own obsession.

The Black Dahlia [Brian De Palma, 2006]:
Bleichert moved by the performance of Short; her emotions more real than his own.

As the narrative develops, the obligations to the plot and the gestures towards the iconography of classic film noir keep the story moving in a sometimes awkward, often convoluted way, but it is this scene - the 'image' - that De Palma continually returns to; the presence of Short trapped, like a ghost or spirit, within the frames of a film.  The point of reference here is Vertigo (1958).  Like the protagonist in Hitchcock's classic, Bleichert falls in love with the image of Short - this dead woman - and then attempts to project the same image (a reconstruction) onto the form of someone else.

The investigation, in this sense, is less about finding 'the truth' behind the murder, but in developing the fractured psychology of the Bleichert character as it is corrupted by the violence of the (modern) world.  Again, as with the characters in Hitchcock's film, the attempts made by the protagonist to "re-create" Short in the form of the no less mysterious Madeleine Linscott suggests an element of necrophilia - as Bleichert's dalliance with Linscott becomes an effort to resurrect the dead image of Elizabeth Short - but also a kind of self-reflexive comment on the emulation of the motion picture; the way audiences are seduced by the fantasy of such images; those desires of the silver screen.

Vertigo [Alfred Hitchcock, 1958]:
Scotty in Vertigo, looking for Madeleine in a room full of images; representations.

The Black Dahlia [Brian De Palma, 2006]:
Bleichert finds his own obsession with Short in the image of another woman (here also named Madeleine).

When critics complained that Kirshner was the only highlight of De Palma's film they missed the real masterstroke of its delicate direction.  Through Kirshner, Elizabeth Short becomes more than just a tragic figure - a victim in this macabre family drama, full of betrayals and degradation - but a genuine symbol of all things human.  Unlike Short, the other characters explored in the film (Bleichert, his partner Lee Blanchard, their go-between Kay Lake, Linscott, etc) are far from victims of circumstance; they're not even sympathetic, in the conventional sense.  They might have struggled or suffered against the system, in their own particular way, but they soon gave into it.  They became more ruthless, heartless and corrupt as an effort to stay afloat.  Lacking the sensitivity of the film's poor victim, they shed their innocence and became complicit in this hideous machine that made such tragedy possible.  Their corruption and their role in this society (one that treats people as objects, to be used and disposed of, like the actors in a film) - makes them all, to some small extent, responsible for the Dahlia's fate.

The recording of Short - this final living statement; a declaration that plays as an empty echo over the eventual shots of her now-desecrated corpse - reminds us (Bleichert and the audience as well) of the once-living reality that exists behind every crime; behind every image.  In comparison with the deliberately stilted performances of the three main leads and the over-the-top scenery chewing of the supporting cast, the subtlety of Kirshner - her genuine performance within this context of a staged one (where the mask finally slips away to reveal the honest emotions beneath) - makes the pain of Short, her suffering and her plight, all the more pitiful, authentic and "real."

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Key Films #27

Greetings [Brian De Palma, 1968]:

In a key scene, Robert De Niro's budding filmmaker Jon Rubin persuades a young woman to take part in an art project that he's been developing.  He claims that it's an installation on the subject of still life.  In truth, the project consists of De Niro's character filming the young woman through an open doorway as she readies herself for bed.  As the woman undresses (and amusingly over-acts the part of the unconscious starlet, unaware of this intrusion) the camera becomes De Niro's eye and the eye of the viewing audience.  As it records, unmoving and unbroken - observing the woman as if not even there - the voice of De Niro continues on the soundtrack, directing; leading the actress through this "private moment" (as Rubin calls it), which culminates in a clear act of seduction.  In doing so, De Niro's character breaks the fourth wall of his own conception; stepping into the frame, literally, in an effort to claim the beauty that is captured, physically, within the texture and the grain.  It's an important scene in the context of the film, which throughout makes explicit references to the authenticity of the image in relation to the assassination of JFK and the general disparity between the image of youth-culture being sold as a vibrant commodity against the entirely less vibrant reality that is depicted, as well as the more conventional misuse or manipulation of images for the purpose of creating propaganda; in this instance, both for and against the war in Vietnam.

However, the scene is even more important in establishing a thread of continuity that will be further refined and developed through the evolution of De Palma's career.  The voyeurism, misogyny and exploitation that the director has frequently been criticised for is already beginning to take shape.  The "private moment", filmed here by De Niro's 'Rubin', will find a further expression in later films, such as Hi, Mom! (1970), Sisters (1973), Body Double (1984) and even Carlito's Way (1993), just as the nods to Blow-Up (1966) by Antonioni in Gerrit Graham's obsession with investigating the Zapruder footage will eventually meld with De Palma's own interest in the power of the filmmaking process to find the truth behind the lie (a concept quite evident in the director's subsequent masterpiece, Blow Out, 1981).  The film is full of relics that point to the direction of later De Palma works, from the counter-culture themes that would reoccur in the aforementioned Hi, Mom! (itself a continuation of the Rubin sub-plot) to the mock-newsreel footage of the conflict in Viet Nam, which suggests, on an obvious level, the same era and setting as the markedly more conventional Casualties of War (1989), but also the post-modern, mixed-media approach used in the no less political Redacted (2007).  In this sense, Greetings is perhaps more of a retrospective introduction to the world of De Palma than a film for the uninitiated; where the time-capsule look at '60s America ultimately says more about its director; his fears and obsessions laid bare.

Profound Desires of the Gods [Shôhei Imamura, 1968]:

The film deals with the usual Japanese concerns - loss of tradition, dishonour, the influence of the west, etc - but presents them as part of a grand tapestry; a collage of conflicting influences - including elements of melodrama, allegory and adventure story - all meshed together; the separate elements blurring, vividly, into one.  In approaching the film - this tribal study, which, in essence, seems to question the resolve of the pre-war Japanese mentality as it thrives in a forgotten enclave of the country as yet untouched by the vulgarities of the modern world - Imamura daringly combines a documentary-like emphasis on the everyday running of the community - this island where the film takes place - with a more colourful phantasmagoria; an air of fantasy, or magical realism, which, on occasion, threatens to metamorphose into genuine terror as superstition and retribution cause panic and eventual unrest.  The anticipation of violence is prominent throughout, suggested not just by the natural progression of the narrative but by the atmosphere of the setting - this island left behind by the modern world - with the filmmaking techniques creating a heightened feeling of sweltering conflict and claustrophobia; the isle itself becoming a kind of prison system; a paradise, but also a living hell.

Staggeringly, the narrative itself unfolds, not just as a conventional sequence of events, but supernaturally, from the legends of a legless minstrel, both colourful and vague.  This works against the more documentary influenced intonation of the direction, creating a parallel between the mythic story of these Gods and their downfall and the more intimate social dramas taking place within the frame.  The approach lends the film a fable-like theatricality, where the minstrel becomes a kind of orator, and where the words of his song become the story unfolding on screen.  This story - the legend of a family marked by years of hardship; their indiscretions, including sacrilege and incest, having cursed the island to an uncertain future - entwines with the eventual story of the island itself.  Throughout the film, Imamura observes the politics and daily lives of the island's inhabitants and the moral dilemmas of the "cursed" family with an unflinching intimacy, though he juxtaposes this closeness with a number of epic wide-shots of the imposing landscape, where the beach and the mountains again seem to suggest the idea of characters trapped, not just geographically, but psychologically as well.  Through this, Imamura and his co-writers are almost critiquing the way tradition can become a kind of weapon; a way to punish or persecute those who submit to their most base and animalistic urges, without acknowledging that the violent prejudice implicit in this supposedly civilizing creed is itself an affront to the way people live.

This hypocrisy is best defined by the film's third act conflict, in which the supporting characters rise up against the cursed family and descend into a fierce, tribal reckoning.  The tonal "shift", in contrast with the film's more contemplative coda, once again seems intended to present an image of the traditions of Japan as both corrupt and self-destructive.  A cultural time bomb that would inevitably make possible the country's submission to western consumerism, spiritual emptiness and capitalist greed.  If Imamura charts the decline of this culture, he's also suggesting, somewhat provocatively, that if such traditions were to be celebrated from a historical standpoint, then it is the violence, superstition and persecution that makes this culture what it is.  It is to the credit of the filmmaker that even when the film disintegrates into ancestral retribution, the audience is never forced to judge these characters, or to see them as either justified or malevolent in nature.  Instead, Imamura suggests that this story (as spun from the minstrel's tale) is as much an allegory for the present day.  By placing the main narrative in the past, as a reflection, Imamura seem to be contrasting the beliefs and prejudices of an earlier time with this image of twentieth-century modernity; making the connection between something that happened before with our own impending fate.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street [Tim Burton, 2007]:

Another Burton film with a hidden subtext; a surface of ornate stylisation that belies a more serious objective; a purpose of commentary and critique.  If Dark Shadows (2012) could be read as a thickly veiled industrial satire on the plight of the family-run business against the influence of a more powerful conglomerate, and Alice in Wonderland (2010) could be interpreted as a psychodrama exploring the horror of third world genocide and the damage left by war, then Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is about the exploitation of the working classes.  The iconography of the world, as well as the progression of its central character(s), seems, in this respect, almost explicit.  The backdrop of the film - a stylised re-creation of Victorian London - is a world of squalor and darkness.  The black cobbled streets, chimneys and smokestacks (pumping smog into the dismal air) seem to emphasize the reality of a world without hope; a world of toil, hard work and suffering, where the struggle of characters seems both incessant and unspeakably cruel.  The stylisations of the film - its musical theatricality and its own self-aware use of influences (from Hammer horror to the period of German expressionism) - don't undermine the grittiness of this subtext.  Instead, the look and style of the film exaggerates the cruelty of the reality, as it perhaps existed at the time.  Like the purpose built Wales of John Ford's How Green Was My Valley (1941), the impression of the place - the memory distorted by time - is somehow more "real", emotionally, than if it were to be experienced as a documentation, firsthand.

Creating an air of mystery, the film begins with the protagonist returning from sea, haunted by the past.  The back-story of this character is tragic; one of abuse and sorrow at the hands of a corrupt system that has everything, but still feels entitled enough to take from those with less.  Through the context of the flashback, Burton illustrates, visually, the psychological damage inflicted by the malice of these circumstances and the effect that such exploitation has had on this character's worldview.  The golden glow of the past, or the recollection of it, is now replaced by a dark, monochromatic malaise; a gloom that swallows up all sense of hope; the light of life painted over with a blackness and decay.  As the character himself laments in verse: "There's a hole in the world like a great black pit / and the vermin of the world inhabit it / and its morals aren't worth what a pig could spit..."  The sung verses express, much like the design of the film, a reality - a level of observation - but also express a psychological projection.  It presents the world as the character sees it; a world turned sour and bitter by experience; a world without light, without reward.  The darkness of the world mirrors the darkness of the character's wounded heart; the loss felt when all that he'd worked for was robbed by a fraudulent system; the Judge as personification of corruption on a wider level; the violence as a metaphor for the moral and ethical destruction that this personal exploitation begets.