Monday, 30 September 2013

Key Films #25

Dark Shadows [Tim Burton, 2012]:

Is it a mistake to see Burton's work as nothing more than a series of empty stylistic tics; a hotchpotch of elements intended to create an atmosphere of enchanted grandeur or a context for his largely unthreatening air of unreality?  There is an element of this, perhaps - a self-conscious referencing of formative influences in an attempt to create humour through ironic juxtaposition and a sense of the impossible - but each of the films are also motivated by an actual theme.  A subtext as well as a more conventional storyline that is refracted by the allure of the visuals; the theatricality and the stylisation.  Maybe this is why Ed Wood (1994) remains his most enduring film; it's the one where the "plot" is central to our understanding of the events.  Ed Wood is, first and foremost, a film about filmmaking - the characters as "real people", dressing up to play a part - while his other movies are less direct.  However, in other films, such as Frankenweenie (1984), Batman Returns (1992) and Alice in Wonderland (2010), he deals with equally straightforward, "realist" subject matter, such a bereavement, political corruption (as a counter to the corruption of innocence) and the suffering of third-world characters under the rule of an oppressive dictator.  The look and design of the films may be ornate and highly imaginative, but the themes and ideas motivating this stylisation are ultimately very real.

With this in mind we turn to one of Burton's most recent films and one of his most derided.  On the surface, it's another camp caricature - an ironic "re-imagining" of a second-hand source with Johnny Depp playing a tortured grotesque - but is there not something more to this pastiche of the original 1960s soap opera than meets the eye?  More so than the industrial-set Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Dark Shadows is perhaps Burton's take on the conventions of the corporate satire.  A variation on the same territory of a film like Human Resources (1999) by Laurent Cantet or The Inheritance (2003) by Per Fly, in which a young man must face the responsibilities of the family business, or where a rivalry between two local companies develops through sub-plots and intermittent boardroom action.  The presentation of this is clouded by the usual 'Burtonesque' predilections - such as the influence of '30s monster movies and the 'Hammer' films studio - as well as a general subversion of American pop-cultural values; a deliberate distortion of an era made all the more alarming by having it seen from the perspective of an outsider, in this instance a man (literally) out of time.  By framing the film in such a way, Burton is better able to find humour in the situations encountered by this character.  A kind of "what if..." juxtaposition, as the protagonist attempts to make sense of something that is as preposterous to him as it is for the viewing audience.

In a way, the film finds Burton moving back towards the preoccupations of his earlier classics, such as Edward Scissorhands (1990).  A study of prejudice and the role of the outsider, in which the director once again exaggerates the perspective of the world and the appearance of his characters in an effort to present the disconnection felt by his protagonist, subjectively; the style obscuring the theme.  However, it is also about community; about people banding together in an attempt to make things work.  This, as a concept, ties into the greater idea of the corporate satire, which itself seems markedly more interesting in the context of the film's central relationship.  While the supernatural courtship between the lustful witch Angelique Bouchard and the immortal Barnabas Collins plays to a kind of farcical battle of the sexes, it can also be seen as a metaphor for the predicament of the small businessman struggling to exist within the shadow of this larger corporation.  In this sense, the presentation of the characters is a kind of personification of the two spheres of industry; with Barnabas as the 'old' (the family-run business) and Angelique as the 'new' (the conglomerate).  Their courtship is, as such, more an effort by Barnabas to "get into bed" with this corporation (literally and figuratively); that choice between selling out in an effort to make his own company a success, or retaining credibility.  As an interpretation, it seems unlikely and unconventional, but it's also somewhat true.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch [Tommy Lee Wallace, 1982]:
The titles are superimposed over a montage of computer graphics.  The shapes, at first, indistinct forms, are pixelated, as if viewed on an old-fashioned television set.  The soundtrack by Alan Howarth and John Carpenter provides both atmosphere and rhythm; setting a tone of disquieting agitation through prolonged use of the analogue synthesiser; the sound of the film's beating heart.  By the end of the sequence, the shape - a system of lines and spaces - reveals the block orange "face" of a sinister looking jack-o'-lantern facsimile; the unofficial symbol of the season itself.  It's a remarkable update of the opening credit sequence of Carpenter's original film (which itself began with the slow reveal of an ominous pumpkin visage) and already a sign that this name-only sequel will be a very different take on the burgeoning franchise.  Radically, Michael Myers is gone, laid to rest in the generic predecessor Halloween II (1981), but the idea of a pervasive fear - a fear that disrupts the flow of comfortable middle-class existence and even infiltrates the sanctity of the home - still prevails through this rather interesting narrative, in which a demented toy manufacturer will attempt to turn the children of America into little murderers; ticking time-bombs waiting to explode.
In the original Halloween (1978), Carpenter created, in the form of Myers, a personification of true evil.  However, the brilliance of the film was not in creating this evil, or even in setting it free, but in placing it within the context of middle-class suburbia.  The palpable terror the audience felt was no longer just a fantasy of the supernatural, but a feeling of identification; the sense that this same evil could arrive in their own town, on their own doorstep.  Although radically different as both an idea and as a presentation, the television commercial 'motif' - which instigates the carnage in the film in question - functions on a similar level.  It's an example of the audience inviting something seemingly benign into their own homes, unaware of its true intentions.  The implication of a television broadcast (as insinuated by the use of the video footage of the opening credits) is therefore greatly significant.  It establishes, as a prelude, the way the television-set will be exploited later in the film; the commercial itself - which works as a leitmotif; connecting the earlier "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" style carnage to the later developments of the plot - is also a comment on the dangers of subliminal advertising, or even a critique of advertising in general.  Not necessarily as satire, perhaps, but as a hypothesis; a means of creating identification and suspense.
According to the history of the film, Halloween III was initially written by Nigel Kneale as a vehicle for director Joe Dante.  Although the subsequent work of replacement director Tommy Lee Wallace is not without merit (the filmmaker showing an effortless command of those characteristic "Carpenteresque" wide-shots and an approach to cutting - especially during the hospital assassination attempt - that rivals the best of Brian De Palma) I would still argue that the themes of the film are more in keeping with the interests and concerns of Dante and Kneale; the unseen "auteurs" of the film?  The use of the runestone and its ability to release positive and negative energies is straight out of Kneale's Quatermass and the Pit (1967) and The Stone Tape (1972) respectively, while the use of the television set, or the image as something powerful enough to shape the world, is an idea that Dante has returned to in several films, such as The Hollowing (1981) (which also incorporated video footage into its opening credit sequence), Explorers (1985) and Matinee (1993).  The lack of the iconic Michael Myers character and the unwillingness of an audience to embrace the new has seen Halloween III frequently cited as one of the worst films ever made.  However, in all honesty, I found it to be a fairly intense, even intelligent supernatural thriller, with an added 'meta-filmic' edge.

Friday, 13 September 2013

'The Fury' Personified

A note on motion as emotion in Brian De Palma's film The Fury (1978) 


A father and son compete in a spirited game of one-upmanship on a beach in the Middle East.  The conversation between the two is light and vigorous; machismo and good old fashioned male bonding are the order of the day.  Out of nowhere, a suited Childress appears, immediately casting his shadow of influence over these characters, the kid and his dad.  He interrupts the shenanigans, bringing the conversation back to business; something to do with the father and son - Sandza and Robin - returning to the U.S. 

As Childress talks shop with Sandza, De Palma's camera circles the table.  Already the implication of a betrayal is here, with the movement of the apparatus giving the feeling of confinement within an otherwise wide-open space.  Sandza is trapped by the machinations of his job, his government, already closing-in on him.  As the camera continues to track, suggesting the movement of vultures encircling a corpse, or a shark moving in on its prey, Childress makes his exit.  We can feel in the pit of our hearts that something is about to happen, but Sandza seems oblivious; returning instead to his continental breakfast, while the everyday activities of the beach continue, as normal. 

Suddenly, a blaze of machine gun fire cuts a waiter in two.  Sandza is hit.  He takes cover behind an upturned table as a small army of foot-soldiers arrive in a motorised dinghy.  Childress holds the terrified kid to one side; inadvertently forcing him to watch as his father is pinned down, again, surrounded.  There's a brief gun battle; chaos and confusion in every shot.  Sandza manages to make it to the dinghy, piloting the small boat out to sea before a stray bullet hits the motor, causing the vessel to explode.  Footage from a handheld camera suggests that this moment is being filmed by someone other than De Palma.  Later, we'll discover why...

The Fury [Brian De Palma, 1978]:

As the dust settles, Childress has the heartbroken kid removed from the scene, still adopting the role of the surrogate guardian; a mix of indignation and concern.  However, in the next scene, we observe Childress retrieving footage from the cameraman and paying off the gunmen for a job well done.  But  Sandza survives.  Realising that he's been sold-out by his former associates (who require the kid for experiments in creating a living weapon with the power to bring an enemy to its knees through suggestion alone), Sandza sets off on a violent mission; an attempt to retrieve his son and to get even with Childress, the ally who betrayed him. 

This opening sequence is important.  On one level, it establishes the justification for this narrative - which combines contrasting elements of espionage with the supernatural - as Sandza uses his government training and his physical ingenuity to evade a series of would-be assailants in an effort to locate his son.  However, it also establishes the emotional commitment of the central character.  The transformative aspect of this quest to right a wrong will compel him to adapt to the brutal methods of these kidnappers - effectively demanding the physical and psychological alteration, from committed father to pitiless avenger - as he becomes a genuine force. 

It is this confrontation of violence - as Sandza is blinded by vengeance and the need for retribution - that pays-off later in the film, during Amy Irving's valiant escape from the research institute.  This is where the character has been placed in an effort to control her own psychic abilities, and where the connection between this character and Sandza's son Robin is eventually made clear.  In this scene - one of the most famous and remarkable sequences in the film - the deeper implications of the title are expressed through De Palma's extraordinary use of pure visual filmmaking techniques. 

For all of the protests levelled against De Palma, he remains one of the most naturally gifted filmmakers of his generation.  Like Spielberg, his ability to break down a sequence into a series of images that resonate with direct, unfettered emotion, is undiminished.  He takes this sequence - which, on the page, might have read as less than a paragraph in length - and transforms it into something audacious, almost operatic.  A scene of violence, terror and death, recorded with a poetic grace that forces the audience to question the toll that this vengeance has taken on the central character, as his need to protect his son, to restore that sacred bond, leads only to more loss.


The Fury [Brian De Palma, 1978]: 

The Fury of the title refers to the volatile emotions of the principal characters, who channel their rage and aggression physically; the internal made external.  In this sense, the film shares obvious similarities with De Palma's previous film, Carrie (1976), with the resentment and pent-up aggression of the central character, both here and there, finally erupting; reaching a crescendo of violence as the film nears its final act. 

While Robin and Gillian, the character played by Amy Irving, use their own supernatural abilities as an outlet for their inner struggle to persevere (as Carrie White had done in the earlier film) it is the violence of Sandza, perfectly evoked by Kirk Douglas, that gives The Fury both its title and its lasting emotional weight.  The look on Douglas's face, as he recognises the horror in Gillian's eyes when confronted by this snarling beast of vengeance, says everything.  It represents the moment in the narrative where Sandza finally realises what a monster he's become, how his pursuit of vengeance has corrupted him.  It's the one instant in the film where De Palma out "Cronenbergs" Cronenberg; the psychological transmutation of a character made physical, expressive of the shape of rage; Sandza's body reborn from fire and bloodshed, his eyes without a soul. 

For a director so often criticised for his lurid depictions of violence, the presentation of this scene - the rage of it, and the way De Palma depicts the emotional intensity - illustrates, on a moral, as well as narrative level, the true cost of this character's retribution. 

Just as Gillian's escape conveys, in a physical sense, her own fear through the movement of the body, the violence of Sandza's assault becomes a personification of the title itself.  The violence of the scene is not simply passive, or even titillating in its depiction; it's tragic and demoralising.   It transforms the character, destroying that spark of adventure and warmth so central to his personality (as we saw it in the opening scene) and replacing it with a hollow figure; an empty vessel, desensitised and detached.  Here, the action of the opening sequence - with its betrayal, machine gun fine and documented "death" - finds its inevitable realisation in this visual manifestation of Sandza's fury.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013


First scene: A group of models on a catwalk, resplendent in their gold and silver outfits, the cameras recording, following their every move.  They hold at the end of the runway, a flash goes off, cold, like an accusation, threatening to reveal the truth behind this hideous facade; the ugliness beneath the glamour and the decadence.

Giallo [Dario Argento, 2009]:

Second scene: The killer - at this point, still largely unseen - excites himself by taking photographs of a bound and tortured victim.  Another flash of the camera, this time bright enough to transform the image into an abstract impression; a body without shape or definition, just form.  Like Dollarhyde in Manhunter (1986), the act of photographing the victim reveals a hidden truth; part of the great transformation that his image of death will bring.
Giallo [Dario Argento, 2009]:

Third scene: A return to the location of the first.  Celine (Elsa Pataky) on the catwalk, shimmering in a black transparent dress, caught in the crossfire of the flashbulbs.  Already the next victim, posed and manipulated, transformed by the glare of the lights and the framing of Argento's camera into a symbol of beauty; there to counter the ugliness (both physical and psychological) of this deranged killer.

Giallo [Dario Argento, 2009]:

The connection between these sequences is immediately clear.  A group of women - with particular emphasis placed on the two victims; current and potential - violated by the camera.  The image itself, as a weapon, powerful enough to penetrate deeper than the knives that Argento's own camera lingers over in excruciating detail, disarms the viewer through its provocation.  It finds an ugliness in this scene of fashionable grandeur (exposing the artificiality of the world; the medium itself) and beauty in an act of violence.  The power of the image, or the cross-cutting between it, is evident in the presentation of this scene, which could almost be called a master-class in how to use film editing to create a story.  The seeds of a story (and its development) suggest by the associations created between shots.

We know, from the way this sequence is structured - the intercutting between the locations, the three sets of women - that Celine is our next victim.  It is this notion of the camera as the murderous eye - leering and intrusive; already watching, observing, penetrating, like the gaze of the killer, the filmmaker, or the eyes of an audience - that imposes this narrative, this suspenseful chain of events, against the presentation of the actress, the "model", already a performer, already posed and placed for the benefit of the "voyeur."  Through this, Argento is once again questioning the nature of these violent movies and his own role as the instigator - the hands and eyes of each respective killer - where the viewer becomes victim.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Key Films #24

Our Daily Bread [Mani Kaul, 1970]: 
In the opening sequence, the dutiful wife Balo, the protagonist of the film, waits patiently at a bus stop for the arrival of her husband, the impetuous Sucha Singh.  The man - a municipal bus driver - spends his weeks in the city, returning home only on the weekends, before he's off again; moving from town to town, betwixt worlds.  Each day, his bus passes the main road close to Balo's village.  The woman - his faithful wife - makes the gruelling trek to greet him.  Waiting, with a lunch pail in hand in the hope that his bus might stop to pick up a passenger, is more than an obligation.  It's a daily ritual.  A way for this woman to maintain some semblance of a relationship, or to lessen the loneliness that this life of servitude and routine has forced upon her.  To make matters worse, the chatter of the local gossip seems to imply infidelity.  Could Sucha Singh have a second wife in the city; one that he spends his weeks with?  For Balo, the possibility of this is devastating.  Kaul communicates the feeling of intense sadness by isolating the character within the frame; creating "interior" moments, where time seems to slow to a crawl; where her loneliness becomes unbearable.  Later, as if to add to the film's wounded tone, the filmmaker evokes suicide.  The body of a young woman is pulled from the river, but the fragmented narrative leaves us uncertain of victim's true identity.  If this is Balo, then how does she return to reconcile in the film's final act?
The editing of the film is both vague and indefinite.  Characters drift in and out of the narrative; scenes seem to reoccur, until we realise that it's just the repetition of days.  Jump cuts are used to disrupt time; creating the feeling of hours passing in minutes, the time slipping away.  The film breaks continuity, making the progression of the narrative difficult to follow.  In several sequences, the action seems to be presented as if a memory, or as if we're witnessing the life of one character through the eyes of another.  As with Duvidha (1973), a later work by the same director, the film seems critical of the way women are treated by the culture.  The loneliness of these women, left to tend to the running of the house and its endless list of chores while the husband goes off to work and to socialise, is central to both films.  This social commentary is beautifully realised, but it is on a level of pure filmmaking that Our Daily Bread truly transcends.  The 'Bressonian' approach of the actors, both mannered and withdrawn, is subtly affecting, while the quality of its cinematography recalls Dreyer and his masterpiece Ordet (1955).  The purity of the image, where the brightness of a summer's day obliterates all detail, suffused as it is by a holy glow, is staggering.  The scenes throughout, tranquil and pastoral in presentation, establish the loneliness of this world, the isolation of it.  The unearthly, almost ghostly aspect, which comes to define the life of its character, is captured within every static frame.
Light Sleeper [Paul Schrader, 1992]:
The territory, as defined by the film's title sequence, is immediately recognisable.  An open road, leading nowhere.  An endless stretch into the black hell of an infernal city; the city of the damned.  The fog of a film noir street scene shrouds the air like a storm cloud, obscuring everything; making the journey both formless and indistinct.  The car moves at a sombre crawl through these lonely streets, its headlights blazing, garbage lining road.  In the backseat, high-class drug dealer John LeTour is the condemned man; his face full of anguish and pity; numb to the experience.  The song on the soundtrack communicates his thoughts through verse, establishing a recurrent leitmotif, where the music becomes a way of expressing the thoughts too painful to be spoken or felt.  "And it feels..." the lyrics lament, " the world's on fire."  Through the iconography, or through the presentation of the character, this could be Taxi Driver (1976) or the later scenes of American Gigolo (1980) - that same loneliness, the late night despair - but it isn't.  Nonetheless, it's classic Schrader.  Another dark night of the soul; another God's lonely man, still searching for redemption.  The title alone establishing the restless nature of this protagonist; his purgatory-like existence as a lost spirit, hovering, in limbo, between life and death.
From the outset, LeTour is being introduced as the archetypical Schrader character.  An outsider, defined by his job, his adopted "role."  Like Travis in Taxi Driver, or Julian in American Gigolo, his life has become a series of appointments, encounters, but on a strictly professional level.  His time away from the job seems empty and meaningless; his barren apartment, where he sits, shirtless, writing his thoughts in a journal ("fill one up, throw it out, start another one" he muses) reflects the emptiness of this existence; the life without passion or memory.  It is this feeling of intense loneliness that defines the film.  The loss and longing, which finds its most moving expression in the relationship between LeTour and his former lover, Marianne.  They meet, by chance, after an absence of several years.  She's cleaned up, got herself straight.  There's a tension there.  He loves her.  She loves him too.  But she recognises that he's still a link to that world; that past life of violence and addiction.  They spend the night together, but in the morning she leaves.  The look on LeTour's face - bathed in the neon-green glow of an adjacent street sign - is devastating in its vulnerability as he is denied the only reflection of hope that made life for him worth living.
Like so many characters in Schrader's work, LeTour is seeking salvation through self-destruction.  He knows that the path he has chosen to walk is a dangerous one, but he embraces it, regardless.  Even when his better judgement tries to steer him clear, tries to wake him up to the inevitable violence that awaits him at the end of this lonesome road - this phantom ride - he's compelled to continue.  Like Taxi Driver, this is a bleak work - a film about the worst kind of loneliness; the loneliness that hits us in a room full of people when we realise that inability to connect - but with the redemption of American Gigolo; the hope for absolution.  The appearance of Dafoe as LeTour gives the film its emotion; its wailing heart.  The way Schrader uses Dafoe, making the most of those stern features - at first hard and threatening, but then punctured by a sadness, both honest and true - recalls the way Scorsese had used him in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988); finding something of the martyr in his fall from grace.  The final scene, which brings us back to American Gigolo via the Bresson of Pickpocket (1959), presents LeTour almost as a saintly figure; his supplier, Ann, becoming Mary Magdalene, as he kisses her hand for forgiveness.  It's the final perfect expression of what Schrader himself once referred to as the transcendental style.
Querelle [Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982]:
How to describe a work like Querelle?  As a 'haunted' film?  A 'violent' film?  A film submersed in the feelings of pain and self-pity?  A film where powerful emotions, like anger, bitterness, shame and regret, find expression in every facet of the film; from the use of colour, to the language, to the use of space?  The world of the film - this seedy port; this dream of Brest created on a stifling soundstage - presents a world of brutality and suffering.  A world where men and women, looking for an escape, lose themselves in squalid bars or smoky bordellos; disappearing into the mire of indulgence via the various backstreets and passageways that run through the town, like veins through the body.  The port of 'Querelle', at least in Fassbinder's mind, is like an elaborate fantasy.  A Burroughsian 'Interzone', alive with the desires and the compulsions of its shiftless characters, corrupt and uncontrolled.  The entire film, bathed as it is in a yellow-green light or the glow of an artificial sun, suggests this corruption - this sickness - on a visual level.  The moral decay of the characters, as a corporal thing - the port, with its vaginal canals and its obviously phallic lighthouses - turns the harbour itself into a living being (like a body with a broken heart), but it's also the decay of the mind, as much as the body, that overwhelms the thing.  The loneliness, the desire and the desperation of these characters, creating an illness or obsession that is manifest in every aspect of the work.
A film where the colour suggests the psychological deterioration of its characters, while the use of space seems to trap them, crushing the spirit, or ensnaring them in the pain of their own desires.  The walls, closing in, the streets leading nowhere; the fortifications, like giant erections trailing testicular mounds, remind the characters at every turn of their own physicality, or the physicality of their particular obsessions; their lust and indignation.  Through this, the entire experience of the film is like being trapped within the mind of a character suffering through his own nightmare of guilt and grief; trying to make sense of it through projection, or dramatisation.  So a 'confessional' film, perhaps?  An admission of remorse or culpability for the way these character are exploited or misused, but not necessarily from the protagonists - the titular Querelle (the violent sailor who arrives in Brest to reconcile with his brother, Robert) or Lieutenant Seblon (whose sexual repression and urge to possess Querelle gives subtext to this narrative of corruption) - but from Fassbinder himself.  One could argue that his Querelle is not simply an adaptation of Genet's novel, but perhaps an attempt by Fassbinder to reconcile his own feelings of remorse following the suicide of his abused lover Armin Meier in 1978 or the subsequent death of his former lover El Hedi ben Salem in a French prison in 1982.  In this respect, the film is a painful and wounded acknowledgement of the way obsession and desire - that need to possess - can destroy lives, or the dream of life, as it does for the characters of Querelle.