Monday, 29 July 2013

Key Films #18

Dionysus in '69 [Brian De Palma & Richard Schechner, 1970]:

A highlight of De Palma's early, counter-culture period, of which the furious and very Godard-like Hi, Mom! (1970) remains a brilliant pinnacle.  Many of the sequences here recall the infamous "Be Black, Baby" segment from that later film, with the improvisation, black and white cinematography and the influence of cinéma vérité combining both the hedonism and the tension implicit not just in this theatrical production, but in the era itself.  Through capturing this performance, De Palma obliterates the dividing line between theatre and film, drama and documentary, performance and actuality; engaging the audience not just through the action on-screen, but through the disorientation of the split-screen effect.  This technique forces the audience to connect with the drama - this filmed adaptation of a play by Euripides ('The Bacchae') as performed by these actors - as well as the no less significant appropriation of the filmmaking form.  The contrast between the two 'screens' not only presents the same action from a different perspective - obscuring the idea of "authorship" in its acknowledgment of the two different viewpoints of Schechner (the theatre director) and De Palma (the film director) - it also creates a series of visual associations that enrich our perception of the action; adding a dramatic context or emotional subtext to something that is initially difficult to read.

The stylisation of the film also deconstructs our reaction to the event itself.  Much like the on-screen appearance of the audience, both as viewers and participants, the editing of the film and the structure of these images remind us of the great deception that the filmmakers employ to impose emotion and perspective; the way time and space are structured and then re-structured through the management and manipulation of the shots and cuts.  In later films, De Palma would continue his experiments with the split-screen format - most notably in the flawed but still brilliant Snake Eyes (1998) - but here the intention isn't so much to generate intrigue or suspense, but to confront the way audiences view narrative cinema (or cinema in general) in the same tradition as a film like the masterpiece Chelsea Girls (1966) by Paul Morrissey & Andy Warhol, or Timecode (2000) by Mike Figgis.  If the Schechner play is itself a provocation intended to challenge the conventions of theatre, performance and the way an audience might participate in both, then De Palma's filmed 'adaptation' is similarly provocative and intended to challenge the way audiences approach the moving image.  Not as something passive or safe, but as a descent into madness and obsession; a "happening", or a sensory event.

Duvidha [Mani Kaul, 1973]:

Those first images.  A flickering flame to suggest celebration or a state of mourning.  A slow dissolve from the face of the actress; from mid-shot to close.  During the transition, her enigmatic facade is like the smile of the Mona Lisa, evoking the spirit of awareness - of omniscience - as if she and she alone is somehow privy to the sad ironies of the story about to unfold.  To further amplify this feeling of foresight, Kaul subtlety intercuts moments from later in the film against the text of the opening credits.  A daring idea that only becomes apparent on reflection, but which is essential to understanding the progression of this central character and her accepted role as a prisoner within the confines of this culture (where women are subservient, even when alone).  Decades later, Tony Scott would adapt the same idea for his Man on Fire (2003), taking a series of shots from the final sequence and intercutting them into the introduction of his protagonist; implying in the process that the journey of this man was in some way pre-destined.  An inescapable fate, part flashback, part premonition.  In both these films, the use of the editing - creating associations through hindsight - is intended to establish the idea of a higher power - fate or something more supernatural - but also to instil the story with a sadness and a finality in order to give those rare moments of happiness and contentment an even greater weight of feeling.

The story of Duvidha is at first simple.  Kaul breathes deeper life into it by mixing together allegory with neo-realism; finding an approach that combines the naturalism of early Rossellini with a more "Bressonian" emphasis on alienation - creating authenticity through the removal of superfluous adornments - and as such transforming it into something that is both politically and ethically more complex.  As the film begins, a newly married couple are making their way home through the desert.  Kaul's editing is jarring and fragmented; a series of close-ups, intercut with freeze-frames and the use of alternating film stock to present a differing point of view.  On the soundtrack, male and female voices speak hidden thoughts, feelings and fears in a way that draws our attention to the idea of the story as 'fable', but also to the idea of looking back on something that has already taken place.  While Kaul's direction suggestions a naturalism, the voice-over talks of the paranormal: introducing us to the pivotal "ghost in the Banyan tree", dazzled by the unveiled face of this protagonist.  Later, the ghost will take on the physical appearance of the absent husband; fooling his wealthy parents and even seducing the lonesome wife.  As a parable, this suggests similarities to the Greek myth of Alcmene's seduction by Zeus in the guise of her lover, Amphitryon; an illicit tryst that would inevitably lead to the conception of the mighty Heracles.

The development of the story here is similar but not identical.  While Zues concealed his identity from Alcmene, at least initially, the ghost of Duvidha is sincere in his intentions.  The wife is well aware that this form is not her husband, but in the absence of the man, this ghost becomes her only comfort.  That the woman eventually falls in love with the ghost says a lot about the issue of identity - what it means to be human, to be an individual - and our own capacity to give and to receive love.  Kaul uses this idea to create a further commentary on the role of women in this society and the loneliness of women in general.  The spirit, who doesn't deceive the woman, but respects her enough to make his intentions known, provides her with a half-decade of love and satisfaction while the husband is away on business.  Rather than treat her as a commodity, the spirit respects her and she loves him in return.  However, in a society as rigid and as ordered as this, such blasphemy (this obvious stand-in for adultery), can only lead to a greater tragedy.  So, the subsequent banishment of this spirit on the husband's immediate return consigns the wife to a hollow existence of loneliness and domestic servitude.  The time of suspended tranquillity, happiness and contentment in the presence of the ghost is surely over, though remains forever in the memory, or on the lips of that inscrutable smile.

Bubble [Steven Soderbergh, 2005]:

The title fills the frame; confounding and enigmatic, mysterious but also a little banal.  As a slogan, as 'brand', it suggests the hermetic existence of these characters, who live to a routine of work and domestic duty; who find little cheer in their lunchtime conversations or the Sunday morning gospel, and who wish desperately to escape; to flee the confines of the job, the house, this town - which crushes the spirit, slowly but surely - and even the life itself.  Beneath the imprisoning appearance of the full-frame text that already evokes something closed-off and suffocating - the microcosm of a world in miniature - we see the image of a suburban cemetery in the early hours of the day.  If we squint at it, we can make out an action taking place in the distance.  An industrial digger unearths the soil to create a grave.  Initially, this seems fairly innocuous, perhaps even trivial.  The first of several dull observations that Soderbergh's direction picks out.  It's only at the end of the film that we finally realise the foreshadowing of this action; the balance between life and death; the life of the dead and the living death of its central character.  The connection is further reinforced by the transition between shots.  A slow dissolve from this place of death and resting into the first image of the film's protagonist, awake and still in bed.  Soderbergh's editing is already presenting this character as someone haunted by death; by the promise of death.

In the brief twilight of this dissolve, she is literally trapped between the world of the living and the world of the dead; hovering, spectral-like, in a state of trance.  It's a moment that already suggests from the very first scene the outcome of this character.  This woman, Martha - who tends to the every need of her ailing father; who spends her days sculpting and painting the features of plastic dolls in a dreary factory; who finds her only respite from this tedium in her lunchtime conversations with the twenty-something Kyle (her only "friend") - is crushed by circumstances; by failure and the fear of being alone.  Throughout the film, Soderbergh offers evidence for the deterioration of this character, with clocks and watches signifying both lost time and the idea of the inescapable fate, while imagery from the factory itself is like a macabre reminder of the absence of life in the life of these people.  These plastic babies - dead and lifeless forms - evoke both abortion, as a prelude to murder, as well as the character's own failure to become a mother; time, like the biological clock, no longer ticking.  Although the film is continually framed at a distance, keeping the audience outside of the narrative - making the process of viewing one of deliberate observation if not alienation - the progression of this character, combined with the director's refusal to stand in judgement over her actions, but to present them simply, as a truth, manages to offer a stark and ultimately moving commentary on loneliness and frustration, failure and mental collapse.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Key Films #17

Femme Fatale [Brian De Palma, 2002]:
The film plays with the recognisable conventions of a thriller - the suspense, the intrigue, the encounters and deception - but beneath the hectic surface, it's a morality tale; a film about actions and their consequences.  This may prove problematic for viewers expecting a straight riff on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, as the narrative throughout swerves off into unpredictable, often dreamlike sequences that show the psychological (as opposed to the physical) journey of its central character as she questions the personal and professional choices that have led to her current state.  Throughout, De Palma acknowledges the influence of images, making them central to the way the characters identify themselves.  The images used, both as a means of recording (in the conventional cinematic sense) and as a form of projection; where the characters see themselves (and others), not as how they really are, but as how they want things to be.  The emulation of the image is also a part of De Palma's ongoing deconstruction of the line between reality and fiction as it exists in the cinema.  The ability to manipulate and mislead, to allude and misdirect.  Although a story of "the self" - of a woman watching as her life unravels into chaos following a terrible betrayal - De Palma is still able to use this focus on images, and the influence of images, to enliven his set-pieces; to present a sense of a character looking at the reality and embellishing it, as if perceiving her own life as a scene from a film. 

From the machinations of the film noir - the influence of which is further defined by the evocation of the title as an acknowledgement of the character's self-aware consideration of her own persona; of the "role" that she's been chosen to play - to the presence of the media, surveillance and the notion of life itself as a drama, or spectacle, Femme Fatale is as much a dissertation on viewing and the relationship that each of us have with the cinema as about this character's own efforts to recognise the truth.  The opening sequence - a long pull-back shot from a fuzzy blued image of Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) on the screen of a hotel room television-set, as it eventually reveals the naked form of the film's protagonist as a ghostly reflection (already a character lost in a world of images) - establishes the themes of projection and self-analysis.  In the next scene, this character will take part in a daring heist.  The heist itself unfolds against the backdrop of the Cannes film festival, in which the reactions of an audience viewing a film are intercut with the concurrent action of De Palma's own movie; further supporting this relationship between the audience and the work.  However, it is through the realisation of the central character that the film finds its heart.  This character, effectively a good person - a criminal, but also a professional - makes a poor decision and, in doing so, finds her life thrown out of balance.  To find stability and to take stock, she imagines where this life will lead her, and through engaging with this dramaturgy as psychodrama, finds a direction, objectively, as if distanced enough from her own life, again, like a character in a film. 

The Masque of the Red Death [Roger Corman, 1964]:

In all honesty, I can't intellectualise the impact of Corman's film.  Although the narrative deals with intelligent themes, such as the corruption of innocence, or the perseverance of the human spirit at a time of great moral panic and unrest, the impression that I'm left with - the thing that seems the most remarkable and exciting, on reflection - is the presentation.  The look, the feel, the atmosphere of the film, is exquisite.  Often when approaching the work of a writer like Poe, the first instinct is to play up the darkness, the shadows, the gothic ambience that the bleak romanticism of the text might suggest.  Think of a film like The Black Cat (1934) by Edgar G. Ulmer or the recent Poe-affiliated work of speculative fiction, The Raven (2012), where the emphasis is on the darkness and decay.  With The Masque of the Red Death, Corman builds on the significance of colour expressive in the title, creating a lush, vivid, perhaps even "psychedelic" phantasmagoria of vibrant yellows, autumnal greens, cool blues and dripping deep reds.  Combined with the film's production design, which turns the castle-setting of the film's antagonist, the evil but charismatic Prospero, into an elaborate puzzle box - where the main hall is like a living chess board, and where the rooms blur into a series of dizzying corridors, like the cells of a mythical labyrinth - the actual filmmaking is nothing less than startling.

Some might argue that this is an appraisal of style over substance, but I would disagree.  The film has plenty of substance.  The setting of the castle itself functions as a microcosm of the upper-classes, where the decadence and debauchery stand in stark contrast to the poverty and sickness of the lower classes; those left outside of the safety of the castle's protective walls.  The contrast between the two worlds suggests the relationship between the "haves" and the "have-nots"; where the exploitation of the proletariat by Prospero and his men is indicative of the exploitation of the working (and sometimes even the middle) classes, as seen in our own contemporary societies.  The film is also about madness and about the corruption of the soul; where Prospero is inevitably brought down by his own greed and lust for power, and where the regime of an organisation, fuelled by a religion (albeit, a pagan one) that stands in judgement over those deemed 'unworthy', are brought down by a good-hearted young woman whose dedication to the ones she loves make her impervious to this debasing influence of evil.  All of these ideas are brilliantly evoked by Corman - an intelligent filmmaker and one with something to say - but it's the theatrical grandeur of the film that leaves the greatest impression.  Its images of death and its scenes of insanity, sacrifice and moral degradation are as powerful as anything in Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), with the added benefit of that ornate, almost "Bavaesque" approach to lighting and design.

Primer [Shane Carruth, 2004]:

A cold film - emotionally and intellectually - where the emphasis is on ideas.  As a presentation, the approach is detached and distant.  The camera barely moves and when it does the effect is constricting as opposed to liberating, as if the actual form of the film is closing in on the lives of these characters, fragmenting them; pushing them even further towards the margins, towards the edges of the scene.  The approach seems like an acknowledgement of the moral and ethical lines being crossed by these characters as their efforts to construct this machine - this mysterious object with the potential to bend time - gradually progresses from a simple hobby into a genuine obsession.  Although never clearly stated, the implication that the line between reality and fiction is being blurred is one possible interpretation; as the two characters begin to see things that are in no way scientifically plausible, but are given an added weight of believability by the film's low-budget aesthetic and through its focus on minimalist examination.  Another implication is that we're seeing the fragments of a story recounted by an unreliable narrator.  The occasional voice-over - introduced via an unspecified telephone conversation that incriminates the viewer - as "confidant" (or as co-conspirator) - clarifies certain facts, but also creates a feeling of uncertainty regarding the true nature of these events. 

It's a fascinating if sometimes frustrating experience, not just for the blending of the cerebral and the metaphysical with a kind of DIY sensibility that mirrors the creation of the object on screen, but in the subtle way the film forces its audience to go back and to reconsider the development of scenes, or the chronology of certain events.  It's a disorienting approach, where scenes occur and characters change in a manner that at first seems inconsistent; where one scene contradicts the scene that came before, compelling the audience almost to reinterpret the order in which these events play out.  We can only begin to make sense of things following the eventual revelation of what these characters have been attempting, meaning that the film works best in hindsight, like an echo of its own existence.  Ultimately, what I liked best about Carruth's film - more than its ambition or its independent spirit - was the self-reflexivity.  Throughout the film, the director himself appears as a character creating an object in his own garage, with the assistance of friends.  This object, which has the appearance of a primitive camera, makes possible the manipulation of time.  What is a film if not a means of sculpting in time; suspending it, collapsing days, weeks, months or even years into a handful of hours and minutes.  Much like the device that is created by the characters herein, it allows us to move through time and space, to see the subjective world of a character, through their eyes and our own.