Thursday, 1 August 2013

Key Films #19

Emitaï [Ousmane Sembène, 1971]:
In the first scene of a pre-credit sequence that runs for almost twenty-minutes in duration, a group of 'Jola' villagers from the Casamance region of Senegal are rounded up and detained by a black militia working under orders of the French.  This is the first of many instances where the oppression of these characters is depicted by Sembène both as a reconstruction of actual events and as a more figurative commentary on the nature of Colonialism; where the flow of life is physically disrupted, or overturned.  As the action unfolds, two children hiding behind trees or in the thick rushes of the long grass become the eyes of the audience, on the outside, looking it.  In depicting the scene, Sembène uses documentary techniques to give us a sense of urgency.  Shooting unobtrusively from the sidelines, his use of the long lens flattens the depth of field, imprisoning these characters even further, cinematographically, against the backdrop of the land.  For the most part, Sembène maintains this level of distance, observing rather than intruding - capturing the action with a degree of naturalism that blurs the line between reality and dramatisation - but in later scenes chooses instead to evoke the beliefs and the superstitions of the 'Jola', who call on their own Gods in an attempt to escape this burden of oppression and regime.  In these sequences, blurred images and 'trippy' colour filters are used to suggest the presence of something strange and otherworldly.
When one of the tribe's elders performs a sacred ceremony to consult with these Gods, the Gods themselves appear as actual spirits; their words echoing those of the living as they become physical manifestations of the anger, animosity and fear felt by the 'Jola' as they struggle against the weight of this indignity and shame.  Such sequences stand out against the strict reality of the rest of the film, yet seem intended to give the narrative a cultural authenticity; presenting a level of commitment and solidarity, or even illustrating (through the conviction of these scenes) that Sembène believes in these people; takes sides with them; that his work is true to both the culture and their beliefs.  Throughout the film, as his characters reflect on the political situation and use it to question the existence of God and the nature of belief at a time when their own way of life has been disrupted beyond recognition, the director is able to put into perspective the true price of this exploitation.  As scenes of observation are intercut with attempts at revolution and moments of protest from the women of the village - who use Pacifism as opposed to violence to make their point - the characters wonder how a God can exist in the face of such torment.  A moving realisation of the hidden cost of war, where the bitter irony of the title, Emitaï, the 'God of Thunder', is only truly felt in the devastating explosion of the final scene.
Resident Evil: Retribution [Paul W.S. Anderson, 2012]:
From the thrilling reverse-motion gun battle of the opening scene to that startling moment when the walls of suburban normality are ripped apart to expose the self-reflexive manipulation of the form within, Resident Evil: Retribution marks itself out as one of the most bold and audacious mainstream American releases of the last three years.  While the use of 3D remains, for me at least, an empty gimmick, there is no arguing that Anderson's adoption of the format has focused his filmmaking in a way that allows for the creation of a more contemplative, static approach, where the clarity of his HD images gives way to a stunning, almost abstract focus on the mise-en-scène.  While the previous instalment, Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010), eventually descended into a parody of The Matrix (1999), there was a hold and intensity to the imagery that came directly from Anderson's experimentation with the 3D paraphernalia.  The handheld camera was banished; cutting became leisurely, more rhythmical.  The static framing, combined with occasional but elaborate tracking shots and dreamy, even hypnotic use of slow motion, worked well within the film's claustrophobic setting.  Retribution takes the formalist experimentation even further, adapting a bold, often minimalist approach where scenes drift and flow, where the action is balletic, but is applied to a screenplay that not only works on a narrative level, but is loaded with clever 'meta' notions that dismantle and then rebuild the very foundation of the franchise, while acknowledging the broader manipulations of the cinema in general.
Although it would be pretentious to call the film "Borgesian" - as reference to the work of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges - there is no other way to adequately describe the film's clever layering of alternate realities (as an on-going reflection of the different levels of the story) or the self-aware deconstruction of the franchise "form" (where even the central character is one of many; infinite and unending).  These levels become like 'platforms' in a video game, where the characters must face a series of obstacles and foes, picking up power points and eventually working their way to the final stage.  This in itself shows a clever understanding of the intrigues of the source material, while the cloning of the protagonist gestures to the interchangeability of the franchise ideal; the obvious repetition.  The way Anderson juggles these levels (as artificial worlds) plays into the acknowledgement of the artificiality of the cinema.  The world as a series of sets; a façade, literally constructed on a giant soundstage.  Cameras record everything.  Characters become actors, adapting; adopting different roles.  The mission is secondary to this presentation, which throughout, reminds the audience of the technicalities of film-making; the manipulation of everything.  In its structure - in which these worlds become a dazzling hall of mirrors, reflecting and refracting the splintered personality of Jovovich's invulnerable heroine - the film is able to combine the thrill and the bravado of a film by the Wachowski's, with the 'cinema as miniature world' commentary of a film like The Truman Show (1998).
History of Post-War Japan As Told by a Bar Hostess [Shôhei Imamura, 1970]:
Representations of women as personification of a particular country or state are not unique in cinema.  One only has to think back to films like Black Girl (1966) by Ousmane Sembène, Germany, Pale Mother (1980) by Helma Sanders-Brahms, the BRD Trilogy (1979-1982) by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Rosa Luxemburg (1986) by Margarethe von Trotta or the later films of Krzysztof Kieślowski, such as The Double Life of Véronique (1991) or the Three Colours: Blue (1993), to see the ideology at its clearest and most successful.  What elevates Imamura's film above these similar endeavours is the fact that the woman at the centre of his story is real.  Her words are not scripted, but are a direct reiteration of her own judgments and experiences.  This is not an allegory or a social-critique 'acted' for greater dramatic impact, but a documentary that speaks plainly and clearly to the Japanese experience as a collective narrative during the turbulence of the post-war years through the voice and the recollections of a woman who saw it with her own eyes.  Taking the form of a lengthy interview (or, more appropriately perhaps, a conversation) between the film's subject - the bar hostess of the title - and Imamura himself, the film builds on its anecdotal title; allowing the personality of the woman to bring to life these places, people and events, with only the occasional use of newsreel footage and additional commentary to provide context and clarification.
Imamura's approach to the film came as a direct result of the critical and commercial failure of his previous work, the great masterpiece The Profound Desire of the Gods (1968).  There, the filmmaker had mixed documentary-style naturalism with elements of myth and fable to tell a story about dishonour and superstition.  While the family saga aspect was pure melodrama, the sub-text of the film dealt very plainly with the loss of Japanese tradition as a result of the unending influence of western culture and consumerism.  As a contrast, History of Post-War Japan... is a more modest, more intimate film - in which the personality of its subject is central to the appeal - but the true intent remains the same.  It's no less an attempt to understand and comprehend the seismic changes taking place within the Japanese culture, as it existed at this time.  The motivation for Imamura's work is still political, but he gives the political or historical aspect a human face by allowing this woman, both garrulous and unpretentious, to speak clearly and from the heart.  Through following the life of this character, Imamura is able to map the socio-economic changes of Japan as if it were a living breathing thing, connecting the experiences of the woman, spoken, with the visual documentation of events as they play-out on screen.  From the use of this editing, the story of the woman and the development of her own life becomes a mirror to the story of Japan during the post-war years.  The early poverty, aspiration and dishonour moving into stability, both emotional and economical, to eventual prosperity; affluence but at a price.