Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Journey of a Life

Thoughts on a film: Alice in Wonderland (2010)

The iconography is significant from the outset.  A young woman, approaching adulthood; her attitude defiant, even insolent.  She refuses to conform to social conventions; questions the 'status quo'; longs to dream and to be moved by dreams as an alternative to the dreary life, with its loneliness and routines.  The loss of her father hangs heavy.  His influence, as a dreamer (like herself), is in part responsible for her refusal to placate her mother's wishes and to play the part of the elegant young belle.  These characters - both mother and daughter - are on their way to a marvellous party, itself a signifier of a celebration of some personal milestone (birthdays, anniversaries, etc), though at this stage the young Alice is still oblivious to her mother's true intentions.

As the carriage makes its way down the woodland road, the journey of the vehicle becomes almost momentous.  Though she doesn't yet know it, this Alice is on the way to meet her potential future husband; the son of a neighbouring Lord.  Therefore the journey, as often in such films, becomes a literal passage between worlds.  The world of class and privilege - a better life, a more secure life - and her own world of comfortable-enough middle-class affluence; an existence, but one with uncertain possibilities.  It's also, more importantly, the journey between the worlds of childhood - or late adolescence - and her own burgeoning adult life.

Alice in Wonderland [Tim Burton, 2010]:

The deconstruction of the iconography continues from this point on.  Alice, still seeing things with the matter-of-fact practicality of a child, is shocked by the compromise and the sobriety of this adult world.  Her would-be suitor sees her as a commodity and little else; her brother-in-law is caught cavorting with another woman while her sister defends his honour; her spinster aunt becomes a chilling warning against her own capricious ways and of where this life of celibacy might lead her in a society fuelled as it is by barriers of gender and a barely disguised misogyny and chauvinistic contempt.  Overwhelmed by these betrayals and demands, she falls through a hole in the narrative, into a dream that acts as an imaginary psychodrama; a means of making sense.  Here she must drink a potion that will make her small, so as to enter into the memory that holds the key to a possible future...

Alice in Wonderland [Tim Burton, 2010]:

Again, the symbolism of this is palpable.  Before she can become a "grown-up", she must deem to be little; to be a child again.  She leaves through a doorway into a landscape, both vivid and surreal.  A land beyond reality, or at least beyond the reality we know.  The character has been here before, she's told, though she doesn't remember it; but there is something at the back of her mind that suggests the contrary.  An inkling, or the recollection of a dream?

From this point on, the story - for the most part - continues in a fairly perfunctory manner.  Foes are introduced; characters speak in terms of exposition; the action draws us in.  However, there is something else, more remarkable around the corner.  A revelation towards the end of the second act - a "twist" perhaps - in which a flashback deconstructs the unreality of the film, showing it to be a façade; a delusion.  The entire memory - this dream of "Underland" as "Wonderland" fantasia - has been built upon a misinterpretation.  This is the reason why Alice has repressed the memory of her earlier encounters, convincing herself that it was all a dream; even a nightmare.  As ever, the reality is at odds with the fantasy, at least as far as the individual can recall it.

The child Alice saw this world from her own perspective as both vast and wondrous.  The people, strange and colourful; the activities fun and enchanting.  It was all so different to her own world - the reality, with its strict schooling, family and commitments, bereavement and disillusion - where only the bedtime stories and the dreams that they inspired could provide an escape.  But the reality of this place is essentially that of a world marked by tragedy and unrest; a world of violence and civil war.  The people are impoverished, enslaved, driven mad by their own suffering and persecution.  Their activities, though engaging and wonderful to the child, were sad and dehumanising; enforced labour; painting the flowers red to announce the reign of an evil queen.

Alice in Wonderland [Tim Burton, 2010]:

This is how the child survives; by transforming the atrocity through the power of imagination, convincing herself that it's all a dream, a fantasy.  The power of Burton's film is therefore in this idea that the action and excitement of the narrative - as it is presented via the typical 'Burtonequse' stylisations - is really a mask to hide the more painful reality.  This chimera - this abstract reimagining of life itself - is how a child in Nazi Germany might have perceived the Night of Broken Glass, or how the children of Northern Ireland, who lived through the turbulence of The Troubles, might have interpreted the destruction that was left as piles of rubble on the roadside.

Here, as in life, the gaze of the child succeeds in turning the horror and the violence into something beyond reality.  Atrocity as a scene of children playing soldiers; bombs becoming fireworks; the war itself personified as a black-winged creature; a monster, literally breathing fire.  All these things are attempts to rationalise through the power of imagination, if only as a way to survive.

Untitled image of 'The Troubles' [Source BBC/Getty Images]:

Alice in Wonderland [Tim Burton, 2010]:

As ever with Burton, the film presents a variety of conflicting layers.  There is the standard surface of ornate stylisation, decadence, fairy tale whimsy and comic imagination full of references to other things.  However, beneath this surface there is a story with a very real and very relevant subtext.  Strip away the multi-coloured veneer and we're left with a film closer to the work of the Dardenne brothers or Ken Loach.  A subject matter with more in common with a film like Land and Freedom (1995) or The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) than the colourful phantasmagoria of Disney's earlier adaptation of the same text.

Alice in Wonderland [Geronimi, Jackson & Luske, 1951]:

Land and Freedom [Ken Loach, 1995]:

Alice in Wonderland [Tim Burton, 2010]:

Although initially as beautiful and pastoral in presentation as that earlier animated version, Burton's own impression of this Wonderland environment is eventually revealed to be one both physically and emotionally transformed by the ravages of war.  Its characters are as such broken and embittered, unable to fight back.  This subverts the intention of the earlier, animated film - which is almost presented as a flashback, rather than a prequel - by showing it to be nothing more than an illusion; a child's misconception of the real.

In this respect, the film is less an adaptation of Carroll than a deconstruction of the idea of childhood wonder, in which this Alice - the one on the cusp of emotional maturity - must face the reality of a place in an effort to confront the responsibilities of her own adult life.  Through this, Burton and his screenwriter Linda Woolverton are able to create a fairly remarkable treatise on the idea of accepting the often cruel practicalities of life - which are here exposed to the eyes of the growing adult, no longer shielded by childhood escapism - but also of refusing to be worn down by them.

However, the darkly subversive implication of the final scenes - following the inevitable liberation of this Underland/Wonderland as third world 'red zone' - goes even further than that.  At the end of the film, the Alice of Burton's vision is independent enough to take charge of her own existence, rejecting the conventions of an outdated society as more than just an adult rebellion, but daring to express herself; to stand out.  As a denunciation of the standard "Disney princess" monomyth - wherein the character shockingly discards the conventional love and commitment in the arms of the dashing and wealthy prince in order to find her own way in life, independently - the outcome of the drama is almost audacious.

The character doesn't so much develop through the course of this narrative as find a way to exist.  She doesn't need the charming prince - here stripped of all positive attributes - but instead becomes her own woman; entirely in control of her destiny.  Burton illustrates this transformation visually, ending his narrative with another close-up of the young Alice, no longer the innocent child with the golden ringlets seen earlier in the film (again looking off into the middle-distance, into the face of an uncertain future), but visibly hardened, even scarred, by the experiences of war.

Alice in Wonderland [Tim Burton, 2010]:

Earlier in his career, Burton was in many ways the natural heir to the throne of Joe Dante.  He made Hollywood movies that were imbued with a B-movie sensibility and which revelled in the deconstruction of genre conventions, conservative politics and even good taste.  His work was 'termite art' on the most profound and imaginative level - darkly satirical, sometimes even disturbing - but along the way this anarchic personality seemed to stray.

However, with this particular riposte to Carroll and the characters of his enduring masterwork, Burton has once again created one of his most radical and rebellious films.  The implications of the ending - which, without wishing to soil the character's progression, finds Alice becoming a kind of "colonialist entrepreneur"; setting sail for China in the hope of exploiting affordable labour against a backdrop of the infamous Opium Wars - seems to suggest that her own Wonderland adventure has seen her influenced more by the exploitation of The Red Queen (and her own terrible dictatorship) than the well meaning revolution of the markedly more positive Mirana of Marmoreal.

That Burton suggests this ending in a work primarily aimed at children is an example of the same anarchic spirit once found in films as varied as Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985), Beetlejuice (1988) and the masterpiece Batman Returns (1992).  Films in which the director was able to work within the confines of the Hollywood system, but still created personal portraits of sympathetic monsters, the malice of contemporary society and the suffering of the tortured grotesque (usually while rejecting the conventional narrative structure in favour of a more loose and disorganised approach).

The ending of 'Alice' is consistent with this same ideology, but also with the subtext of civil war and the corruption of innocence, as well as the subtle implications of that aforementioned final shot.  The weight of this image illustrates the effect that this battle has had on the still young protagonist.  Like the citizens of Wonderland, Alice herself has been transformed by the atrocity of war and the abuse of The Red Queen.  Her defiance and independence (so obvious in those opening scenes) may have found a usable outlet to free her from a potential future of domestic servitude as Ascot's trophy wife, but it has also left her both cruel and cold.  The journey, in this sense, is not only one of accepting the brutal reality of the world for what it is, but a story of tragedy and of innocence lost.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Key Films #26

American Gigolo [Paul Schrader, 1980]:

The first images of the film establish a world of surfaces; reflections.  The car, the clothes, the storefronts and houses, each suggest a particular mentality.  Excess, or the aspiration to excess, as symptomatic of this elite world of wealth and privilege.  It's less a part of the lifestyle than a requirement to conform; a uniform, not just physical but psychological, that is adopted to gain access to this private playground of hotels, nightclubs and restaurants.  A hidden world, off-limits and unattainable to someone lacking the proper connections.  The character Julian - the 'gigolo' of the title - moves through this world with confidence and ease.  It doesn't matter that he's selling sex or companionship to bored housewives and ailing widows, he looks the part; he fits into this backdrop of style and surface; just another object - a commodity, like the cars and fancy furnishings - defining space.  But Julian doesn't belong to this world.  His persona is a facade; a constructed exterior with nothing beneath the plane.  Through Schrader's depiction of Julian, the character becomes more like an actor than a fully functioning personality.  A prop, there to be used by those around him.  A poor player, cast in this dual role of both killer and victim, in a scenario beyond his control.

Through this, Schrader introduces the notion of the gigolo as 'performer'; an actor playing a part.  This deconstructs the very foundation of the narrative, reinforcing the idea of Julian as an object - a commodity - as the filmmaker transforms his star, Richard Gere, into a kind of Bressonian 'model', to be manipulated by the director and by the characters on-screen.  The gigolo styles his personality to suit the needs of his respective clients, acting suave and sophisticated with one woman, then boyish and naive with the next.  We never know the real Julian - the genuine persona behind the expensive clothes, the hairstyle; this image of designer man - only the image of what the gigolo wants us to see.  Later in the film, when the character has become embroiled in a murder investigation (the victim, one of his former clients) it is this same uncertainty - the inability of the audience to perceive the 'real' from the pretend - that provides the dramatic conflict.  As a viewer, we want to believe the character's protestations of innocence, to side with those closest to him, but our inability to understand Julian, or to see through this stylised self-image, makes it impossible.  Throughout the film he remains distant, vacant, still acting, still playing a part.  As the film develops, the violence of the gigolo becomes more obsessive and pronounced.  As an audience, we're again unsure of the cause of this violence, the justification of it.  Is it the strain and the stress of the investigation and the rising paranoia that leads Julian to express himself through anger and frustration, or is this violence an inherent part of the character's identity and as such a clue to solving the crime?  Again, we're never entirely certain.

However, Schrader isn't especially interested in the murder mystery, or in the identity of his killer.  The machinations of the narrative are there to force the character to examine where this life of excess - this "performance" - has taken him.  It becomes a test, both spiritual and psychological, that is intended to strip away the surface layers of the gigolo, exposing the dark heart beneath.  Although presented as a combination of baroque modern noir and sweltering character study - the spirit of Bressonian transcendence colliding with New Hollywood excess, made possible by a Bertoluccian stylisation care of the film's visual consultant, Ferdinando Scarfiotti - the film, in truth, is a morality tale; the story of a man lost in a world of decadence, unable to escape.  In the presentation of this, as an idea, the similarities to an earlier film - one also written by Schrader, but directed by Martin Scorsese - become self-evident.  Like Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), Schrader's own masterpiece is again about a young man trapped by his chosen profession.  An outsider by nature, Julian - like Travis before him - is overwhelmed by the dirt and decay that he encounters on a daily basis; the corruption of the modern-world again leading to the corruption of innocence and redemption through a violent act.

Elephant [Alan Clarke, 1989]:

After watching the film, Clarke's contemporary David Leland wrote: "I remember lying in bed, watching it, thinking, 'Stop, Alan, you can't keep doing this.'  And the cumulative effect is that you say, 'It's got to stop.  The killing has got to stop.'  Instinctively, without an intellectual process, it becomes a gut reaction."  This particular comment from Leland explains the impact of the film and its intentions completely.  By concentrating on the same repetition of scenes, actions and events, Clarke is suggesting that the cycle of violence is unending.  That it will continue - on and on - beyond the running time, long after the credits have rolled and the audience have switched off or gone to bed.  The same anonymous streets, the same angry, misguided young men, the same violence and reaction will continue to play out, over and over again, until someone, somewhere, has the logic to say "enough!"  Beyond this, we don't need to know the context of Northern Ireland or to know who these characters are for the murders to make any more sense.  Although this is very much a film about the conflict in Northern Ireland - 'The Troubles' - and about the campaign of brutal assassinations that escalated in response to the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement, Clarke's deliberately unspecified presentation of events seems to suggest that these scenes of violence could just have easily been taken from any place where political allegiances are strained.

The repetition of anonymous retribution so central to Clarke's critique of 'The Troubles' and of the violence in Northern Ireland, could easily enough be in response to the night of broken glass, Berlin 1938; the Tet Offensive, Saigon 1968; the German Autumn of 1977; Sarajevo '92 to '95; the invasion of Iraq, 2003; or indeed, as director Gus Van Sant suggested in his own film inspired by the one in question; an everyday high school in Colorado, North America, 1999.  By following these people at length and in long, unbroken takes that exaggerate the natural course of time and seem to linger on the dead and lifeless bodies as if to emphasise the nature of this violence, we're left to question, incessantly, the thoughts and feelings running through the minds' of these characters, as they murder (or are murdered) for reasons beyond belief.  If Clarke had chosen to flesh out these vignettes with political history, personal background and character development, then the film would have become manipulative and prejudicial.  We would have been free to take sides; to choose the 'good guys' from the 'bad guys' and to justify each murder on the basis of who was killed and for whatever reason.  This clearly wasn't the intention.  So, the visual associations to previous atrocities remind us that the struggle goes on, and will continue to go on, for as long as the world is spinning.

How I Won the War [Richard Lester, 1967]:

Through the presentation of the film - its sense of anarchy, its outrage and its ideological stance - the director Richard Lester and his screenwriter Charles Wood are able to cut through the hypocrisy and the moral pretence of the "anti-war movie", as both a sub-genre and approach.  Those films that attempt, through credible scenes of dramatisation, to show the true cost of war - the violence and destruction - while simultaneously turning such horror into entertainment for the viewing audience, seem to reduce war - as a concept - to something very trivial, while disingenuously maintaining an attitude of serious reverence and handwringing sincerity.  These are films that exaggerate spectacle in an effort to thrill an audience through scenes of action and adventure; the violence as empty sensation, where the inherent 'truth' of what these conflicts represent is distorted; manipulated so that every war has its heroes and villains, and where every defeat becomes a moral victory; a triumph for "our side."  Films that strive to denounce war - to show it as something rotten, insidious, fraught with danger and death - but at the same time present it as something both visceral and highly sensory.  The atrocity of war as something that manipulates our emotions; providing stimulation and emotional release.

In this respect, Lester's film rejects such convention and condemns it, as an idea.  There is no glory to this battle; no battle at all, in fact.  The depiction of war, as it is seen in the film in question, is one of boredom leading to insanity; the endless waiting, the marching into the abyss, the anticipation of violence and death are all more terrifying - more unnerving even - than the shadow of death itself.  As his characters make their way across a hostile desert landscape and through into an almost post-apocalyptic setting that seems to herald the scorched vistas of the director's later film, the equally cynical and no less brilliant The Bed Sitting Room (1969), the backdrop of conflict is frequently seen as something of a bizarre lampoon.  The "madness of war" cliché taken to its literal, Pythonesque conclusion, wherein the director has his actors break the fourth wall to provide a wry commentary; acknowledging the artificiality of the film, their performances and even the manipulation of the form, as well as creating several set-pieces that expose not only the inherent absurdity of war (the tragedy of these young people forced to become tyrannical in an attempt to fulfil some perceived duty to the place of their birth) but the absurdity of the war film, as both a critique and an illustration.

When we do see the conflict - the more conventional "action" of soldiers shooting guns and explosions decimating the landscape - it is intercut with genuine WWII stock-footage that becomes a recorded memory of the things at stake.  Here, the documentary camera (its black & white footage tinted a variety of garish colours to heighten the sense of surrealism) lingers, voyeuristically, over the corpses of these young men killed in battle; left alone to die in the trenches and fields.  This is the reality of war.   Unforgiving and unsentimental.  The documentation of a very real atrocity to give weight to the film's blistering burlesque of war and those that wage.  While the film is very much intended to be seen as an anti "anti-war film" - the implication being that the humour is derived from the seriousness and also the pretentiousness of 'war films', as a genre, and not from the sacrifice of war itself - the later scenes nonetheless feature a more scathing denunciation of the British government, with the filmmakers questioning the mentality of the exclusively upper-class English generals as being no better than that of their Nazi opponents; where both sides cynically exploit the position of the working classes as little more than cannon fodder in an effort to control the world.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013


A note on Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars (2000) and the spectacle of the real:

A scene.  A setpiece of around four-minutes in duration.  Music and movement expressing the personal; the poetic.  Space, like emotional distance between people.  Re-connecting.  Colliding like particles.  Like planets in orbit.  A human story within the wider context of this science-fiction.  Moving towards a similar connection - reaching out into the infinite, the unknown - but on a much larger scale.

Mission to Mars [Brian De Palma, 2000]:

When Godard questioned the definition of the term "pure cinema" and its necessity as a means of expressing the inexpressible power of the moving image, this is what I subconsciously refer back to.  De Palma's films are "pure cinema" in as much as they are defined by the filmmaking process; by the images on screen and their ability to communicate not just the surface of the drama, but the things left unsaid.  Every emotion, reaction, thought and feeling is presented as a setpiece; a moment, deconstructed by shots - by the movement of the camera - then reconstructed through montage; the juxtaposition of forms.  Like his hero, Alfred Hitchcock, De Palma looks at the world, observes it, and translates it back into something that can only be described as 'cinematic' in presentation.

While looking at the trailer for Alfonso Cuarón's critically acclaimed new film, Gravity (2013), I couldn't help but be reminded of De Palma's own much ridiculed and critically derided film and of this sequence in particular.  The images from Cuarón film are suitably stirring, but they lack any real sense of character or depth.  I've seen these images before in countless other science-fiction movies released during the last five years.  I know how these images are created and this makes the impact, at least on first appearances, less startling and less unique.

Gravity [Alfonso Cuarón, 2013]:

There is a coldness to this particular look; the high-contrast, monochromatic sheen of digital cinematography, devoid of imperfection, but also of colour and character.  Every Hollywood science-fiction film features this same imagery, creating a uniform that is both conservative and safe.  Combined with the now perfunctory use of CGI - where the majority of the film is constructed by shooting individual elements in front of a green screen - the viewer is left with something that looks closer to virtual-reality; in other words, inherently fake.  Of course it looks fake because it is.  There's nothing fundamentally wrong with that - old fashioned film techniques such as rear-screen projection, miniatures and the use of men in rubber costumes also looked fake, again, because they were - but it's also less tangible and less believable as a result.  Even with the old-fashioned, pre-digital "movie magic", we were still seeing something that existed before the camera.  Whether it was a small-scale replica of downtown Tokyo or a man dressed as Godzilla, it was still something real.

The modern approach of a film like Gravity is cinema created not in front of a camera but in front of a monitor; not filmed but rendered; a collaboration between man and machine.  Again, this isn't necessarily a criticism or even a mark against these films, which are ultimately more animation than live-action, but it is the difference between a hand drawn sketch and something created using Adobe Photoshop.  There is something physical about the former.  The feeling of a genuine moment captured on the page, in the lines and impressions of the pencil, the age of the paper, etc.  I think the same is true of this more physical form of cinema, which now seems archaic.  This scene - this dance of bodies in motion - occurred, and the camera was there to record it.  It transcends narrative function.  It's an interlude, though one filled with feeling; a small moment that reminds us of the poetry of the moving image; again, that notion of "pure cinema", whatever that means.

Unlike the images from Gravity, I don't know how the effect of De Palma's film was created.  I suspect with the use of a revolving set - similar to the one Stanley Kubrick used in his masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - but the logistics of it, the use of the physical space, boggles the mind.  Seeing this sequence is as thrilling as seeing the spectacle of the Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin (1925), the collapse of the bridge in The General (1926), the fall through the magical mirror in The Blood of a Poet (1932) and more recently in the Bastille Day celebrations of Les amants du Pont-Neuf (1991).  It's not just some CGI extravaganza, but something physical, even 'human.'

That De Palma's effort to put on screen this amazing act of motion as emotion was rejected by critics and mocked by the culture while Cuarón's C.G. imitation of such wonder is being lauded as revolutionary - a real-achievement - is another example of the hypocrisy of film reviewers, who seem to decide, months before a film has even been released, the extent to which they'll hype it as either a success or failure, while never looking beneath the surface, at the ideas of the film, the emotions, or celebrating such an achievement for what it really is.