Thursday, 23 May 2013

Key Films #16

Angelus [Lech Majewski, 2000]:
It's difficult to adequately define the experience of the film; this work, which in many ways goes beyond the more commonly accepted conventions of genre, creating instead a loose narrative of sketches in which elements of comedy and fantasy, satirical allegory and scathing social critique are all brought together to create a statement on cultural identity, religious hysteria and the power of 'faith', in all of its various permutations, to persist; to persevere.  As much as I would like to describe, in-depth, the meaning(s) of the film and how brilliantly Majewski and his co-writers expose the tyranny and hypocrisy of these characters and the absurdity of their respective situations, too much of the greater political and social commentary - which provides a context for the film throughout - is beyond my reach.  In particular, the actual historical foundation of the film, which relates to certain specific periods of Polish heritage, from the formation of the country (or at least from the period beginning with the integration of the three former partitioning powers into a cohesive national state), through to the invasion of the country during the Second World War, the rise of communism and finally moving towards the eventual democratic rule of the current Third Polish Republic.

My reaction to the film was very much similar to my reactions to two other films that I recently saw; Wanda Gościmińska: A Textile Worker (1975) and ABC Book/The Primer (1976) both directed by Wojciech Wiszniewski.  These two films also approach both the history and cultural identity of Poland in the last half of the 20th century from a rather eccentric, somewhat sardonic perspective, and both are similarly difficult to describe, in any critical capacity, without possessing a further appreciation of the socio-political context that informs both the narrative and its critique.  However, even with some of the more specific references being lost in translation, the style of the film - the actual direction of it - is unforgettable.  There are hints of Derek Jarman in the mix of the modern and the antiquated, in the presence of art in every frame, and in the stylised 'tableau vivant' approach to composition, which frequently recalls the spectre of actual paintings and their ability to provide a commentary, through symbolism, that is consistent with the stylisation of the film itself.  The humour, which is also imperative to the film's point of view, is reminiscent of Roy Andersson, especially in the presentation of the central characters and in the almost Buñuelian lampoon of contemporary domesticity, which adds to the film's intelligent and often startling burlesque.

Larisa [Elem Klimov, 1980]:

A tribute to a woman who no longer exists, except in images, both moving and still.  The voice of this woman - conjured, phantom-like, from haunted recordings that suggest the continuation of a life when only the traces remain - speaks, in clear terms, about the difficulties faced by the individual, and of her own influences and ideological struggles, as both an artist and a woman, to remain true to her own creative ambitions and intent.  The film - in short, a kind of memorial piece, assembled by her husband as a response to his own state of tearful mourning - is a celebration of the talent of this young woman (only forty at the time of her death), and in essence becomes a declaration of love, from one artist to another.  It is a celebration as well as a lament that attempts, through the combination of sound and image, to honour the spirit of this woman, the filmmaker Larisa Shepitko, but also to present, through images edited from her own films, the sadness felt, not just by her husband - director Elem Klimov - but by her friends and associates left broken in the wake of her death.  In the gallery of sad and hopeless faces, or in the scenes of pure anguish found in Shepitko's own films - amongst them Krylya (1966) and The Ascent (1976) - Klimov is able to express, movingly, but without sentimentality, an outpouring of his own grief and admiration and the tragedy of his (and our) loss.

The presentation of the film suggests, through the use of its running commentary, both aural and visual, the strength of this woman, as expressed in her own words, but also her enthusiasm and commitment to making films with a passion and integrity that was distinct and entirely her own.  In conversation with Klimov, the voice of Shepitko outlines her conception of a "ladies' cinema", in opposition to the more dominant "male cinema", and free of its persistent influence.  As a hypothesis, this is both fascinating and inspirational, but the real power of the film is found, not in these snippets of conversation, but in the actual ability to show, through the arrangement of the images - as literal "recorded memories" - the journey of a life.  Beginning with a wordless montage of photographs of Shepitko - from birth to death, or near enough - the film progresses through the success and achievements of her professional career, beyond the last attempts to film an adaptation of Valentin Rasputin's novel Farewell to Matyora, and eventually reaching a kind of conclusion at the site of the accident that claimed her life.  The film ends with the very last piece of footage ever directed by Shepitko.  An image, described by Klimov himself as "an eternal tree, the symbol of perseverance and dignity, the symbol of faith in the endless continuation of what we call life."  A final elegy, suggestive of the lasting influence of this woman, as stoical and enduring as the tree itself.

The Niklashausen Journey [Rainer Werner Fassbinder & Michael Fengler, 1970]:

Like the earlier film, Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970), The Niklashausen Journey is co-credited to Fassbinder and his occasional producer Michael Fengler.  Some of Fassbinder's closest collaborators, amongst them the actress Hanna Schygulla, have since claimed that the true "author" of Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? was in fact Fengler, and that Fassbinder's name was only added to the production to help secure the film's release.  With this in mind, it becomes even more difficult to ascertain the true authorship of a film as extraordinary as The Niklashausen Journey, which, as a work, is thematically unlike any other film that Fassbinder is best remembered for, and yet, at the same time, is a film very much reminiscent, in both its approach and technique, of some of the director's most significant and identifiable works.  While the earlier Fassbinder/Fengler collaboration had employed a loose cinéma vérité approach of drab colours, hand-held camera and harsh (seemingly) natural light, the look and feel of The Niklashausen Journey is comparatively much closer to the style of subsequent Fassbinder films, such as Beware of a Holy Whore (1971) and Fear Eats the Soul (1974).  In those films as well as here, there is a similar use of bold primary colours, lengthy tracking shots and the rigorous composition of actors within the frame, each expressive of that early Fassbinder style as it was developing through Love is Colder Than Death (1969) to The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972).

This approach is also consistent with Fassbinder's early adoration for the work of Jean-Luc Godard, with the influence of films like Week End (1967) and One Plus One (also known as Sympathy for the Devil, 1968) conspicuous in both the film's aggressive political dissertation and in the genuinely confrontational design.  Like the Godard of the late 1960s and early 1970s, The Niklashausen Journey is a loud, seemingly rambling and chaotic film, full of didactic sermonising, agitprop sloganeering and a propensity for pure provocation.  As such, it is often disregarded from the general discussion of Fassbinder's career, which to me seems a bit of a shame.  Although less powerful than the work he would eventually direct after swapping the influence of Godard for the influence of Sirk, The Niklashausen Journey is a no less a fascinating portrait of a specific time and place.  A portrait obfuscated by allegory and a loose theatrical evocation that recalls the Straub-Huillet of the analogous Othon (1970), but still redolent of the political situation as it existed in Germany at the time the film was produced.  As such, it now seems of specific interest, not just for the confident and imaginative direction of Fassbinder & Fengler, but for the historical context that it provides.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Key Films #15

A Talking Picture [Manoel de Oliveira, 2003]:

The film is titled A Talking Picture, and as a description, or as a prelude to the thing we're about to see, it doesn't mislead.  The dialogues throughout are lengthy and invigorating, relevant to the film's main journey into the past as a reflection of the present - into this idea of communication - but also naturalistic; drawing the audience into the story of these two characters and the people they meet along the way, while also managing to make a broader, more allegorical point on the development of our shared histories in the context of the no less violent struggles - both moral and political - of our own contemporary existence.  Seen through the eyes of a mother and her daughter (who literally cross thousands of years of civilisation on a journey to reunite with their respective husband and father) the film becomes a kind of a loose travelogue, where each port of call, from Lisbon to Goa, presents an opportunity to explore the various historical sites, from the ruins of Pompeii beneath the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, to the mighty pyramids of Giza, where the interactions between these modern-day characters in the presence of these fallen civilisations, create a dramatic statement in keeping with the main emphasis on the progression of history as a shared experience; something that is already a part of history; some echo of the past reflecting on the modern age. 

The central journey from Lisbon to India recalls that of the famed Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, but the route - traversing the Mediterranean and making stops in France, Italy, Greece, Egypt and eventually Turkey - brings to mind a similar progression from Jean-Luc Godard's more recent work, Film Socialisme (2010).  Like that particular film, the presence of the ocean liner becomes a microcosm of Europe in the 21st century, where the dialogues between business woman Catherine Deneuve, model and fashion designer Stefania Sandrelli, stage actress and singer Irene Papas and the ship's captain John Malkovich, allows Oliveira to discuss the idea of nationalism (or colonialism) in the age of the European Union, as well as the struggle to retain a cultural identity in light of the growing homogenisation of western culture, as it flourishes (or did) under the rule of capitalism, in a very direct and unguarded approach.  These dinner table conversations punctuate the more charming and leisurely sequences shared by the mother and daughter, where the sense of history - of these places and their stories - is overwhelming, both emotionally and cinematically.  The end of the film, which I won't spoil, takes this idea of the past as a mirror to the present in an entirely different direction.  The logical but no less shocking conclusion that all this talk of conflict has been leading to.  An impression that civilisations every bit as cultured and enlightened as our own, rose and fell in the blink of an eye.

Gods of the Plague [Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1970]:

The film's overwhelmingly bleak, almost-existential title, Gods of the Plague, is explained in the subtitles of the film's theatrical-trailer, which when not giving away the entire plot, states, via on-screen text: "Criminals are our modern day Gods.  Capitalism our Plague."  From this, the ideological implications of the title establish, in a figurative sense, the allure of the gangster as a modern-day Robin Hood.  It also illustrates, on a more deconstructive level, the role that the film-noir, as a sub-genre, plays in its ability to offer commentary and critique on the state of the world through an exaggerated fatalism, personal detachment and occasional undercurrent of stylised melodrama.  Fassbinder, like his early idols of the French New Wave, looks at American genre cinema and sees the political context that motivates these stories of crime and misdemeanour.  As such, he dispenses with the more conventional or contrived emphasis on things like the heist, the job, the "plot", and instead focuses on the displaced characters - the "underclass" - and the various economic hardships that make the criminal transgressions of these protagonists necessary, if not actually worthwhile. 

The socio-political or socio-economic ideas aren't explored as thoroughly here as they are in later works, such as Fox and his Friends (1975) or The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971), but they do still provide some context (or perhaps even a justification) for the cruel and pitiless world that these characters find themselves drawn into.  In terms of its approach, Gods of the Plague is both a continuation and a refinement of the experiments of Love is Colder Than Death (1969), incorporating many of the same influences - specifically Hollywood noir of the '40s and '50s and the early films of Jean-Luc Godard - alongside Fassbinder's growing interest in a kind of ironic melodrama, as typified by the films of Nicholas Ray and Douglas Sirk.  While Love is Colder than Death was notable for its contemplative pace, long takes, extended pauses and a general feeling of emptiness and introspection, Gods of the Plague seems somewhat more focused in its plotting and in the development of its characters.  As such, it is perhaps the greatest of Fassbinder's early films and one that points the way towards the style and tone of the director's later, more celebrated works.

Cosmopolis [David Cronenberg, 2012]:

Beneath the slow crawl of the opening credits, an abstract, Jackson Pollock-esque image of spattered paint takes form; suggesting from the outset the influence of the conceptual, the nonfigurative, on this narrative of meetings and encounters; where the motivations of characters or the progression of certain scenes seem almost elusive; more of a series of starts and stops, like the journey itself, which play to their own natural rhythm; like jazz; the words replacing the music.  This image - this invocation of Pollock - in its appearance at least suggests the same chaos and disorder as the riots and protests that unfurl like living theatre through the cinemascope-like frame of the limousine's stretched windshield; the texture of the paint itself, spattered and streaked in lines and drops of green, black and grey on a canvas that has the shade of decaying flesh, looks to me like the mess of a city; the scrawl of a black metropolis where anarchy and remonstration flow like the veins through a body; reaching out; destroying everything from within.  If this painting - this facsimile of Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) - is a mirror to the character's own conflicted state-of-mind, then the use of Mark Rothko's work during the closing credits suggests some sense of closure or resignation.  A blank state, calm and serene; more a mood or a state of being that is eventually achieved by the central character at the end of this long passage into (self) discovery.  No longer conflicted, just free. 

It's all open to interpretation, but I took the film to be a critique of the current generation.  A generation that has profiteered from the internet, from social-networking; a generation that is affluent, upwardly mobile, secure but insular; ultimately self-involved.  It is a portrait of a generation that has achieved great wealth and privilege by doing very little and is now, collectively, bored with everything.  Life for these people has become hermetic, detached; a series of appointments, everything a transaction, everything for sale.  The limousine that cuts a path through the crowded streets is not only a garrison from the outside world (a symbol of wealth and status, as well as anonymity) but also an extension of who this character is.  The gradual deterioration of the car as it is attacked by revellers and protestors, becomes an on-screen representation of the character's own psychological deterioration, as the world outside the car - outside his own influence and control - becomes a protest against an uncertain future; one that threatens to upend the influence of capitalism, destroying the dangerous thread that creates balance; that keeps us in place.  Like many characters in Cronenberg's work, there is a sense of someone embracing their own destruction.  The form of the film, static and stilted - creating a feeling of inertia, of time standing still - communicates the boredom of a man who longs for revolution - for death! - just to create some kind of change to the stagnant social order.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Key Films #14

Excalibur [John Boorman, 1981]:

The forest - an exterior lit like an interior - becomes a character in its own right. By day, the trees and foliage shimmer in shades of emerald.  At dusk, an ochre-hued fog enshrouds the trees like slumbering giants, becoming the gatekeepers to another world.  At dawn, the violent flare of an artificial sun casts its crimson glow off the glistening armour of a pale and wounded knight.  The forest, like most of the locations used throughout the film, is a place of magic and miracle; an iridescent kingdom of shadows and light.  While the storytelling is somewhat straightforward in its reiteration of this fabled tale, Boorman's film is nonetheless successful in its grandeur and its decadence.  In its imagery - which is vivid and unforgettable in the pure spectacle of colour and movement - but also in its scale.  The Arthurian legend has been told countless times, both in film and other media, but no other filmmaker has successfully captured the magic and the wonder of these stories with the same vibrant and flamboyant approach that Boorman achieves here.  His Excalibur is, at its purest, an epic of theatrical design and Wagnerian excess. 

This spirited and poetic film captures the true power and majesty of the silent cinema, but with all the sound and fury of that post-70s indulgence. As an experience, the film strikes a continual chord whenever I see it, transporting me, to another time, another place; leaving me captivated by its plot and larger-than-life characterisations, or thrilled by its vision.  In terms of the filmmaking craft Excalibur is without a doubt a work of great passion and imagination, and a great testament to the unsung talent of John Boorman, a true visionary, and one of the cinema's most misjudged and maligned auteurs.

The Phantom Heart [Philippe Garrel, 1996]:

A scene we've seen before.  The two protagonists - a married couple - attempt reconciliation, but they know, as well as we, that the situation, for them, is hopeless.  The scene in question occurs quite early in the film and establishes something of a consistent tone; a feeling of desperation or distance; the sense of something reaching an untimely if no less inevitable end.  As ever, the dissolution of a relationship presents the end of something, but also a new beginning.  The chance to move on, to start afresh, to find similar expressions in the arms of another; to avoid the same failures and faults; to ask ourselves, without sarcasm or pity, 'where do we go from here?'  This is a question that Garrel has returned to in several of his films, from L'enfant secret (1979) and Liberté, la nuit (1983), to She Spent So Many Hours Under the Sun Lamps (1985) and The Birth of Love (1993).  In all these films, his characters are trying to reconcile the experiences of the past with the responsibilities of the present; to make sense of where their lives are heading; to learn from their mistakes. 

In The Phantom Heart, the question is once again suggested by the story of these characters - the husband and his wife - and their relationships with the various figures that drift, phantom-like, not just through the remnants of their past experiences, emotions or shared ideas, but through the traces of a dream.  The dichotomy presented here, between the tangible reality of divorce, middle-age, doubt, fragility and responsibility, and the hopes and desires reflected in the tortured affairs, the creative success and the financial security that comes with it, propels the film; gives context to that lingering feeling of emptiness and futility that punctuates every interaction, no matter how positive or genial it might seem.  Like all Garrel's films, there is something almost impossibly hermetic about its structure, its tone and the use of locations.  A personal quality that borders on the autobiographical, in which these characters, their actions and dilemmas, and the personal spaces that define them, seem to be as relevant and significant to our understanding of the material as the emotions depicted on-screen.
Love is Colder Than Death [Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1969]:

The title, Love is Colder than Death, plays beautifully to the violence of the film and also to the influence of film-noir as a facilitator for existential longing, brutality and despair.  As a piece of spoken text, it has the sound of something delivered by Robert Mitchum in Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past (1947), or by Humphrey Bogart in Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place (1950).  A five word expression that resonates with a sense of longing for unfulfilled romantic desire, full of allusions or suggestions to scenes, situations, characters and dilemmas that would occur and reoccur throughout Fassbinder's later career.  Specifically, through films such as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), Fox and His Friends (1975) and In a Year with 13 Moons (1978); stories where the general brutality of relationships or the duplicitous nature of human beings when pushed into hopeless situations, make death, by comparison, seem like a relief. 

For the characters in Fassbinder's work, love is colder than death, and in this film the attitude is expressed through a fractured, languorous study of petty gangsters struggling to exist in a word rapidly closing in on them.  The sense of fatalism explicit in the title is therefore perfectly suited to the form of the film, which draws heavily on the second-hand references to American crime pictures of the 1940s and '50s, where the overwhelming cynicism of characters or the general loveless nature of the underworld environment breeds a particular kind of person.  One that lives each moment as if it were their last; where relationships burn hard and fast; and where the sense of place - as in 'a lonely place', or in 'a place to call home' - is forever out of reach.