Sunday, 21 December 2014

Francis Ford Coppola - Part Three

A personal ranking of his greatest films

11. Dementia 13 [1963]

Image: A family facing death.  The unity of "the family" (pre-Mafia) and the spectre of death that comes between them.

For directors that don't find an audience until two or three features in their career (sometimes more than that), the critical reaction is often to reduce those early films to the level of vague curiosities; strange artefacts denied the right to ever be approached as legitimate films without comparison to the work that eventually followed.  How often is Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967) acknowledged as the first Scorsese?  The Delinquents (1957) as the first Altman?  Loving Memory (1971) as the first Tony Scott?  Hardly ever, if even at all.  The positive attributes of these movies - ignored at the time as the work of any other anonymous first-time "auteur" unworthy of attention or acclaim - are dwarfed by the success of later films, such as Mean Streets (1973), MASH (1970) and Top Gun (1986), where the cultural identity of the individual director was now apparent and fully formed.  The tragedy of this is that most first-features provide a skeleton key to unlocking the various secrets of a filmmaker's subsequent work; contextualising not just those films that were able to break through the barriers of popular culture and the vagaries of public taste, but also the perceived failures; the films that flew too close to the sun and as such were denigrated and defamed by critics for an assortment of subjective rationale.

To use a more recent example, the current ideological approach to the films of M. Night Shyamalan is to view each new film as a kind of competitive sequel to The Sixth Sense (1999).  Audiences go into these films looking for something that plays to the conventions of a recognisable genre (there, the supernatural mystery) when it would be far more beneficial to see the work as a continuation of the same semi-autobiographical thread that was forged in his very first feature, Praying with Anger (1992); a naive "confessional" in which the young filmmaker exposed his deepest passions and fears, while at the same time creating a drama that was rich in sensitivity, pathos and wit.  A film where the influence of the supernatural was both cultural and spiritual, and not just there to placate classifications of genre.  The same is true of a film like Dementia 13; a beautifully shot gothic horror story that works to the influences of Clouzot's Les diaboliques (1955) and Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), while also introducing several themes (such as the thread of familial dysfunction, as well as the line between passion and insanity) that would continue throughout the director's subsequent work.  For instance, here the struggle of three brothers against the experiences and expectations of a woman from the outside initiated into this strange domestic unit provides a blueprint for the filmmaker's era-defining landmark The Godfather (1972), while the generally macabre atmosphere and the film's fevered stylisations would in turn infiltrate the subject-matter and approach of both Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) and Twixt (2011) respectively.

While frequently dismissed as little more than cheap schlock - especially in light of Coppola's later acclaim - Dementia 13 is no less a "complete" film and an entirely compelling one.  The gothic ambiance is stylish and otherworldly, the story is interesting and genuinely engaging, while the psychology of the mysterious killer is well developed and fascinating in its inevitable revelation.  More so, the film is significant (in my view, at least) as a precursor to the sub-genre of Italian murder mysteries known internationally as the "giallo" (or "gialli", as plural).  For many critics, the first acknowledged giallo was Mario Bava's excellent Hitchcockian thriller, The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963).  However, with its flashbacks to a tragic event as expressive of the killer's tortured psyche, as well as the more conventional presentation of women in peril and characters who seem compelled to become amateur sleuths in an effort to solve the crime, so much of Dementia 13 seems to set a template for the later films of Dario Argento, such as Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), and his masterworks Deep Red (1975) and Tenebrae (1982).  While less refined or as technically grandstanding as Argento's classics, Dementia 13 is no less a remarkable achievement from the very young Coppola; a film that succeeds as a visually captivating and often chilling murder mystery, but also provides a much needed element of psychological depth.


12. The Rain People [1969]

Image: The characters divided; unable, physically and metaphorically, to connect.

Coppola's return to low-budget independent filmmaking following his Hollywood excursion with the flawed and forgettable Finian's Rainbow (1968) is a stripped back, minimalist character study that seems to anticipate a certain kind of movie that would become more popular during the ensuing decade.  Shades of everything from Five Easy Pieces (1970) to Bleak Moments (1971) to The Sugarland Express (1974) to Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) to Blue Collar (1978) can be found in the film's unflinching observation of tortured, inarticulate characters at war with themselves and those closest to them.  It's that same spirit of disenchantment that propelled a film like Easy Rider (1969) to investigate the broken heart of the American dream from the perspective of those most burned by the disappointment of its empty promises.  But while Easy Rider was a film looking out at a country lost and delirious, Coppola's characters are trapped by their own circumstances; bound by their bodies and their limitations and their relationships; the personal and private struggle(s) becoming less of a commentary on the state of the country in the final throes of the turbulent '60s than a personification of it.

It's a film I haven't seen in many years - first discovering it at around the age of fourteen and being surprised because (in those pre-IMDb days) I'd mistakenly assumed The Godfather (1972) was Coppola's debut - but the sense of bitterness, the conflict and the discontent that eats away at these characters and pushes the drama towards an accumulative air of hopeless desperation has stayed with me, even if many of the broader or more central elements of the plot have long since faded from view.  I remember my initial disappointment that the film wasn't shot in that hallucinatory, illusory Coppola style (made familiar through his subsequent work on Apocalypse Now, Rumble Fish and Dracula; all personal favourites at the time), but on reflection I came to see its fragile, withdrawn, subtle and naturalistic approach as a precursor to that of the filmmaker's later masterpiece, The Conversation (1974).  There as well as here, Coppola evokes a feeling of characters too brittle and self-conscious to survive in a world so harsh and impersonal; the sense of drama resulting less from their natural human instinct to connect than their inability to reach out, to find a happiness in the embrace of someone else.

In re-watching short clips of the film in preparation for this post, I was reminded of so many things that impressed me when seeing the film at a younger age.  The vulnerability of the central character - her proto-"feminist" search for identity; to find a place of her own - is hugely compelling, in part because of Coppola's unsung talent as a dramatist, capable of translating complex thoughts and emotions into images and scenes, but also because the character is brought to life so vividly and sympathetically by the actress Shirley Knight that her journey - emotional as well as geographical - connects to whatever feelings of disappointment or frustration that might be carried by the viewing audience.  Here, the experience of the film and the perspective of its central characters is beautifully defined by its poetic and evocative title.  The Rain People (as opposed to "the sunshine people") because these are characters battered beneath a black cloud, forever grey and dismal; but also in the sense that these are characters, like the rain, somewhat intangible or elusive; there one minute, gone the next.  As characters, they become like the drips and puddles left behind in the wake of a torrential storm; the only physical reminders of an all too brief yet tumultuous existence.


13. Peggy Sue Got Married [1986]

Image: Peggy Sue Through the Looking-Glass.  A vision, trapped between dream and memory.

Besides the contentious Jack (1996) - a film that even I dislike! - the wistful and innocent fantasy of Peggy Sue Got Married seems perhaps the most vehemently dismissed and debated of all Coppola's films from that difficult period, roughly 1984 to 1997, wherein the filmmaker worked simply to pay off his debts.  While subsequent efforts like Gardens of Stone (1987) and Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) are largely ignored or passed over - with the no less controversial The Godfather: Part III (1990) and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) appealing mostly to their respective cults - the film in question is too often seen as a vague triviality; a trifle unworthy of Coppola's greater stature.  I think this is unfair, since the film is genuinely entertaining and enlivened by Coppola's always interesting stylistic experiments and his very genuine engagement with the predicament of the central character.  While it would have been very easy for Coppola to play the film as tongue in cheek - presenting its nostalgic view of the 1960s as an "aww shucks!" time capsule, where everything is fine and dandy - the screenwriters, Jerry Leichtling and Arlene Sarner, instead make the character of Peggy Sue self-aware enough that she is able to recognise (with the hindsight of an adult-life) the real concerns and calamities that - in our formative years - dictate the type of person we eventually become.

In contrast to a more successful film, like Back to the Future (1985) by Robert Zemeckis, where the reconstruction of the 1950s seemed like a pastiche of an old TV sitcom (with only a few jarring incongruities used to provide ironic laughs), the façade of late '50s/early '60s Americana is here transformed by the central character's ability to see through the lies and promises that her teenage-self once blindly accepted to be the foundations for a successful, well adjusted life.  As a result, there are genuine pangs of both sadness and regret that weave their way through the romantic comic-fantasy; where the anxieties, disillusionment and disappointment of the middle-aged Peggy Sue is projected onto her surroundings, exposing the youthful idyll for what it really is.  In this regard, the film is operating on two separate levels.  On one, it presents itself as a conventional fantasy, in which the character is genuinely transported back through time in order to glean some greater understanding that will work to alter the course of her more fruitless existence in the present-day (creating a modern parallel to both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz), while on the other level presenting an appropriation of the past as an extended psychodrama; where everything that happens on screen is essentially confined to the parameters of the character's own unconscious mind.

The audience is free to create their own interpretation, however, for me, it's the opening shot of the film that makes obvious the intentions of the filmmaker and his immense love for the illusory aspect of cinema, and in particular its ability to transport the viewer, emotionally, geographically, or in this instance, through time!  Rather than depict the central character gazing into a mirror as one might conventionally approach it, Coppola looks back to the pure artifice of his earlier One from the Heart (1982) and composes a very obvious trick shot, in which the actress, Kathleen Turner as the titular Peggy Sue, faces the camera in a cut-out mirror façade, while a body-double with a similarly coiffed wig sits with their back to the camera, mimicking the actions of the star.  The effect is immediately obvious as the actions do not synch up, but this seems intentional, as Coppola draws the attention of the audience to the idea of pretence and imitation; where the presentation of a "magic mirror", able to depict not a reflection but a projection, becomes a shorthand for the cinema itself.  This self-reflexivity gives the film an added dimension, as its later scenes of the middle-aged Turner playing her own teenage counterpart becomes an obvious "performance", in the theatrical sense, albeit one that carries the same sensitivity and weight of actual feminist sentiment as Coppola's own fragile and reflective drama, The Rain People (1969).


14. You're a Big Boy Now [1966]

Image: The woman objectified, displayed.  More a symbol than a character.  A personification of the movement itself.

The first scene - the first image, in fact - takes place in a cavernous study hall.  The austerity of the setting, the lack of colour, already communicates the obvious; this is a place of routines, conformity; the inertia of academia, writ large!  As the camera pushes in - moving with a rigid Kubrickian determination along a central corridor created by endless rows of desks - the audience is compelled to observe a student body incapacitated behind text books; the occasional cough and restless shuffling of bodies becoming their only conceivable protest against the stifling silence of the space.  Regardless, the camera continues its journey.  When it reaches the double doors at the far end of the room it stops, and in time with the first reverberating guitar chord of 'Girl, Beautiful Girl' by The Lovin' Spoonful, the doors erupt with a burst of colour, sexuality and astonishing rock n' roll energy.  Here, a gorgeous young waif in a bright yellow mini-dress struts confidently down the allies between tables, as the sound of swingin' pop invades the soundtrack.  This woman - this vision, radiant, resplendent - looks like she's stepped off the pages of a high-end fashion magazine, as chic, modern and fashionable as the image itself.  It's a total counterpoint to the asceticism of the location; to these kids with their faces buried in books.  In a single moment, Coppola has shaken the very foundations of the establishment.

The visual metaphor - this symbol of conservative middle-America; the university as bastion of the new status quo electrified into consciousness by a new (European) sensibility - is also a prelude to the plot in miniature; the seduction of the audience as precursor to the seduction of the central character.  In addition, the sequence is also a commentary on the state of American cinema, as a kind of self-aware critique.  In the image of this study hall - which, in presentation, is more like a museum; a place where dead objects are laid out as a reminder of a life no longer lived - Coppola is personifying the contemporary America cinema as a place numbed into a sedate oblivion.  The woman, with her confident attitude, high style and air of exotic inaccessibility, is like the invading cinema of Antonioni, Fellini, Bertolucci, Godard, etc.  In pursuit of this character, the protagonist becomes a mirror to Coppola himself, whose early passion for American theatre was energised by his discovery of these comparatively more daring, exciting and provocative filmmakers emerging from France, Italy and Japan.

In attempting to meld the conventions of the traditional all-American love story with the foundations of the then-contemporary European "art-cinema" movement, Coppola is once again showing himself to be an innovator.  While Dementia 13 (1963) can be seen as a prototype of the Italian "giallo" - its blondes in peril, amateur sleuths, sympathetic killer and flashbacks to a tragic event informing everything from Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970) to Deep Red (1975) - and The Rain People (1969) created the foundation for a decade's worth of penetrating, intimate or observational character dramas, like Five Easy Pieces (1970), Two-Lane Black Top (1971) and Scarecrow (1973), the film in question finds Coppola uniting an American tale of boy meets girl with a cool and stylish European surface a full year before the greater success of landmark "new Hollywood" movies Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Graduate (also '67).  However, what defines the work more than its unsung position as precursor to the counter-culture renaissance of American film, is its sense of vivacity and colour.  The film is a tremendous joy throughout, capturing in its simple tale the escapism and creative freedom that one associates with both the spirit of youth and the pop cinema of the 1960s, but with a biting undercurrent implicit in the filmmaker's questioning of the tangibility of these impossible dreams against the all too reassuring (and achievable) reality.


15. Dracula [1992]

Image: The Count returning from battle; already haunted by his lost Elisabeta.

On the surface, this is a problematic film.  Problematic in the sense that its tonality is inconsistent.  The performances range from the wooden to the histrionic.  The dialogue is frequently clumsy, the delivery even worse; a combination of stilted English affectation and garbled Eastern European hilarity.  The pacing is rushed; scenes blurring into one another, stumbling between moments, fighting for attention.  The entire thing becomes more like a confused reverie than something that takes its time to breathe, to settle; to allow the audience to savour the atmosphere that Coppola so vividly creates, the imagery that he so meticulously evokes.  And yet it's a film that remains entirely fascinating, thrilling and often quite affecting.  This is the reckless and hallucinatory Coppola of films like Apocalypse Now (1979), One from the Heart (1982) and Rumble Fish (1983) let loose on a story that is rich in imagination, magical realism and an air of the fantastique.  A story that allows its author to unleash an arsenal of filmmaking techniques, trick shots and expressive stylisations, to create a feeling of the supernatural unleashing its influence across every aspect of the film.

To find an emotional centre to anchor this explosion of theatrical decadence and flamboyant mise-en-scène, Coppola and his collaborators approach the film, not as a more conventional horror movie (although the lashings of violence and the hideous creature effects play well to the requirements of the genre), but as a romantic melodrama.  Here, the intensity of the imagery and the violence of its sexuality are each intended to express the psychological wounds of the central character, destroyed and turned monstrous by the loss of his greatest love.  In this conception, the obsessive courtship between the mysterious Count Dracula and the English belle Mina Murray becomes an attempt by the antagonist to reclaim, in part (from the image of Mina), the memory of his lost Elisabeta.  From this, the film is something of a precursor to the director's later work, Youth Without You (2007), in which another aging European cheats death by becoming young again, and finds in his courtship with an enigmatic woman of inexplicable origin a reminder of a long lost love.  In Dracula, it is this loss that drives the film, defined as it is by an amazing prologue, in which the Count, returning from battle to find the aftermath of Elisabeta's betrayal as pitiless suicide, rejects Christ and turns to darker, more elemental forces, which consign him to a living death (his ensuing pursuit of Mina, as such, becoming more a chance at redemption than another insidious or supernatural possession).

Ultimately the film is more successful as a meditation on obsessive or undying love - or the idea of lovers finding a reflection of one another through the ages; see also Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) - than as a faithful adaptation of the Bram Stoker text; but there are additional ideas here that are equally compelling, and in a large way recompense some of the film's more glaring weaknesses.  For instance, one of the more interesting innovations of the film (and one not often brought up in discussion) is the way Coppola equates the arrival of Dracula with the various advances in late nineteenth century technology; the cinema included.  Through this, Coppola and his screenwriter James V. Hart posit the idea of Dracula as somehow representative of these greater changes (which would - in the course of time - usher in new and exciting ways of looking at medicine, psychology, travel, art, religion, anthropology, sexuality, etc).  If the influence of these greater changes would impact on the development of the twentieth century then the depravity and carnality of the Dracula character likewise work to infect and eventually destroy the puritanical, deeply superstitious Victorian society of the film's setting, thus making possible the more progressive attitudes of the subsequent age.

Monday, 15 December 2014

The Directors Series

An Introduction To...

A long, long time ago (I can still remember) a blog I really liked - which is no longer active, much like 90% of the blogs I once followed, unfortunately - did a series of ranked lists based around a greater ranking of their thirty favourite filmmakers.  The blog was called Goodfella's Movie Blog, and you can check out the link here.

Because I recently relocated to a different part of the country and no longer have a large archive of DVDs and no Blu-Ray player (only a small, portable DVD player, with a screen not much bigger than that of a standard smart phone) I'm unable to create frame captures, or to watch as many new films as I once did.  Also, if the Google stats are indeed correct, no one is actually reading the 'Key Films' series anymore (the last once, posted two months ago, hasn't even crossed 30 views; a year ago they were getting close to 300) and I'm so far behind with subsequent titles that I feel like I'm drowning.  If blogging becomes too much like hard work, it's time to cut your losses and get out, or simply cast aside the prior commitments and make a break with something else.

For now, I've decided to do something that I'll enjoy and that I've been kicking around on other sites - most frequently, IMDb - and that relates very much to the original idea initiated on the Goodfella's blog.  Essentially, an on-going list-based appraisal of the work of my favourite filmmakers; in short, a personal ranking of films seen.

I can't promise thirty directors, but I'm hoping to do something a bit more in-depth than just another illustrated list (equivalent to my recent 'Ranking the Decades' series, which will continue in the new year).  The project will commence in the next few days with the first part of a three part ranking of one of my absolute favourite filmmakers, none other than...

Francis Ford Coppola

For me, the greatest American filmmaker since Orson Welles and, like Welles, one of the most creative, independent and personally inspirational.  The man who throughout his career has risked a part of himself with every great film he's ever made.  A man who brought himself close to ruin on several occasions pursuing personal projects with a passion and recklessness that made him easy to mock, but with an authority and a dedication that made him too dangerous to be taken lightly.  A man who risked bankruptcy, ridicule, his heath and even his sanity in the pursuit of images - such as those found in Apocalypse Now (1979), pictured above - greater than anyone had ever seen.

A man who has been at the forefront of several major developments in late twentieth century cinema, from the European influenced American new wave of You're a Big Boy Now (1966), to the prototype "new Hollywood" drama of The Rain People (1969), to his landmark blockbuster The Godfather (1972) and beyond, through a host of intensely personal, eccentric, highly creative films that best illustrate the 1957 maxim of François Truffaut that "The films of the future will be more personal than autobiography, like a confession, or a diary.  Young filmmakers will speak in the first person in order to tell what happened to them: their first love, a political awakening, a trip, an illness, and so on.  Tomorrow’s film will be an act of love."

For all his passion, innovation and sincerity, for the ongoing popularity of the four masterworks he released during the 1970s, Coppola is a filmmaker still underestimated and misrepresented by critics and audiences who have bought in to a cruel and unfair approach to film appreciation that only celebrates an artist's work when it draws acclaim and prestige from the mainstream culture, and not for how well the full body of work might communicate the artist's specific or individual point of view.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

For Halloween

A scene from the film, Messiah of Evil (1973)
Directed by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz





I first saw Messiah of Evil over a year ago, but it slipped my grasp.  As with William Peter Blatty's similarly surreal and brilliant The Ninth Configuration (1980), also viewed in 2013, I was simply unable to write anything substantial about it, at the time.  This scene - which significantly presents a murder in a cinema (very self-referential) and riffs on a more famous sequence from Hitchcock's colossal The Birds (1963) - really does deserve to be thought of as one of the greatest of horror set-pieces.

The film, a precursor in its ornate and often fantastical look to the Technicolor terrors of Dario Argento movies, such as Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), as well as the nocturnal suburban nightmares of David Lynch, post Dune (1984), is, for me, one of the strangest and most compelling America horror movies of the "grindhouse" era.  That it isn't ranked alongside films by Romero, Carpenter, Corman and Craven remains a mystery of epic proportions.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Key Films #35

Wicked City [Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1987]:

The representation of women in this film is contentious, to say the least.  As with certain other films directed by Kawajiri, such as the analogous Demon City Shinjuku (1988), and perhaps his best known work, the violent and vivid samurai fantasy Ninja Scroll (1993), the female characters here tend to fall into two distinct types.  Although strong-minded and independent enough in their own way, they exist, either as pawns to be placed in perilous situations that arise for no other reason than to facilitate an act of heroism from the archetypal male lead, or they become helpless victims that are subjected to lengthy and gratuitous scenes of sexual sadism and violent abuse.  While the practicalities of this particular example might seem tame when compared to a more notorious title, like the infamous Urotsukidōji series (1987-1989), or even a live-action feature, such as the Takashi Miike directed Ichi the Killer (2001) - both of which seem to objectify sexual violence and degradation to a pornographic degree - the air of sexism still detracts from the other areas of the film, which - in their design and initial direction - attempt to reach beyond the obvious levels of adolescent titillation to instead explore a rich and deeply layered mythology that is fascinating throughout.

That Wicked City begins with a scene of male/female seduction that very quickly descends into a physical nightmare of psychosexual dread (as the central character finds himself terrorised by a literal "black widow"; a spider-woman with a snapping vagina that opens up like a ferocious Venus Flytrap) will do little to curb the previously discussed issues regarding the representation of women (and female sexuality) as viewed through the male gaze.  However, in this instance the sequence is somewhat necessary (even justifiable) in establishing the conception of the film, and the basic idea of something "otherworldly", or extraordinary, lurking within the realms of the mundane.  To illustrate, Kawajiri begins the scene as if it were just another routine romantic liaison between two attractive office workers meeting for drinks at the close of an exhausting day.  However, the subsequent revelation of a lifeless hand protruding from one of the washroom cubicles as the woman seductively applies makeup, tips the audience off to a potential threat.  As the couple make their way back to her place - passions enflamed, as if the author is bringing to life a storyboard from an imaginary Adrian Lyne directed soft-core thriller - Kawajiri lets the tension and anticipation simmer and swell.  The seduction and love-making seem too easy, almost staged; the effortlessness of the endeavour at odds with the film's mutating colour palettes, or the growing pulse of an ominous synthesizer on the soundtrack.

When the revelation finally occurs the effect is as disarming, frightening and bewildering for the audience as it is for the central character.  Our expectation or anticipation for violence - for the female to reveal her true intentions, as a charlatan, or worse - is far exceeded by the transformation from attractive young woman into monstrous beast.  This moment, at first juvenile and misogynistic in sub-text, represents the sensibility of the film in miniature.  It's an example of Kawajiri dismantling the walls of reality; confronting his audience with the existence of a "Black World" that exists hidden within the walls of our own cities - in the spaces between spaces - like a twisted mirror to our own seemingly polite and cosmopolitan milieu.  From here, Kawajiri will use such images to occasionally punctuate the progression of a supernatural police procedural that predates both The X-Files (1993-2002) and Men in Black (1997), using just enough violence, titillation and surrealism to create a lasting feeling of terror and uncertainty.  It would be easy enough to dismiss the film for the treatment of its female characters - a personal concern in many Japanese films of this period - but to do so would be to overlook the film's finer points, from Kawajiri's always impeccable direction, to the rich, mythological world that his writers create.


Yojimbo [Akira Kurosawa, 1961]:

The amalgamation of intense political drama, stunning samurai set-pieces and explosions of physical slapstick, creates - through the progression of scenes - the feeling of a film at war with its own ambitions; the drama, too often interrupted by a fight or skirmish; a scene of conflict, too often cut short by an expulsion of boisterous humour; the punch-line, too often lost amid the political intrigues that define the life in this rural setting.  Draped in the influences of the Hollywood western (and the work of John Ford in particular), the film seems characterised by an overall crisis of identity; an unevenness, as if Kurosawa and his collaborators were in a way "pitting" the various genres against one another; allying themselves, initially, with the iconography of the European art film (black & white cinematography, tracking shots, cinemascope compositions, long silences; a general feeling of emotional detachment, or alienation) only to then sell out or betray their new associate by joining forces with the rough physicality of a traditionally "blue-collar" American genre (with its bumbling old drunks, clownish villains and cowards fleeing battles like children throwing fits).

Of course this, as a creative proposal, is also an extension of the main character's own role in the ensuing narrative; this story of a wandering rōnin, Sanjuro Kuwabatake, who flits between the two rival gangs that have occupied the fringes of a village; displacing its citizens and generally disrupting the flow of life.  While Sanjuro moves between the two sides in an effort to set both factions off against each other, the filmmakers likewise cross back and forth between serious scenes, driven by strong political power struggles and elements of actual history, with sillier or more exaggerated sequences of coarse violence and over-the-top physical comedy.  This creates a war, not just between the characters on-screen, but between the expectations of the audience left with no alternative but to embrace the film and its often staggering emotional shifts.  Nonetheless, there are images here that manage to transcend this tonal divide and that capture the eccentricity of the film and its often peculiar or incongruous concoction of influences and ideas.  For instance, the near-iconic image of the dog, retreating from the aftermath of battle with a human hand in its mouth is, in a single gesture, able to convey the insanity of war in all of its stark, satirical absurdities, while also providing a more serious comment on the harsh realities of life during the time of the film's period setting.


Wes Craven's New Nightmare [Wes Craven, 1994]:

Anyone kind enough to have browsed the pages of this blog for more than thirty seconds will already have noticed a particular theme or interest that permeates a great many of my notes and observations.  It's a fondness for works that are self-aware; that acknowledge the relationship between the audience, the material and those that create it, and that use this particular approach to inform a basic level of commentary, if not critique.  I have no idea where this interest comes from, or how it began, but it's something that I've become much more self-conscious about since the beginning of the "key films" series, as I tend to return to this same (limited) critical theory so often now that I can only imagine it inspires much eye-rolling from the unknown reader, and perhaps even some occasional jeers.  I've tried to escape from it, even choosing not to write about a particular film - Nicolas Winding Refn's Fear X (2003) - because there was no other way to adequately approach the subject matter beyond the film's clear emphasis on voyeurism and the role of the central character as a surrogate for the viewing audience investigating the images on-screen.

Once again, I'm faced with a film that is so intrinsically self-aware and preoccupied with dismantling the line between fiction and reality that such critical insights become unavoidable, if not genuinely necessary.  The practicalities of Wes Craven's New Nightmare - the name of the director in the title establishing, upfront, a sense of authorship and intent, is already an obvious sign of self-awareness, or self-reflection - relate very clearly to the notion of the "fourth wall" and in taking a representation of evil that exists on the page (and eventually, on the screen) and bringing that evil out, into the "real world" - or into some fabricated Hollywood facsimile - in order to question the role of the horror movie in depicting this evil, and indeed the responsibilities of those that create it.  In the original A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the badly disfigured form of a murdered child killer, Fred (later Feddy) Krueger, was confined to the world of dreams; haunting the thoughts and fears of a generation of suburban youngsters directly related to the unsavoury circumstances of his initial demise.  This, as a concept to base a movie on, was pure genius, with Craven understanding that what movies are, traditionally speaking, is a representation of a kind of dream-state; an unconscious space where the viewer remains passive, witnessing images both pleasant and disturbing, with no real physical recourse to alter or interfere with the narrative, as presented.

In later instalments, Freddy became something else.  He transformed from a figure intended to represent the unspoken evil that haunts children and young adolescents (the traditional "bogeyman" archetype) into everything from a symbol of homosexual panic, to the fear of the adult world (with its adult responsibilities), before eventually become a genuine post-modern media personality, too recognisable to be truly terrifying, too self-aware, as a legitimate pop-cultural icon, to instil fear.  With this New Nightmare, Craven is essentially bringing his evil back down to earth; reinforcing it by illustrating the power of Krueger as something no longer bound by the perimeter of the silver screen but able to transcend the boundaries of a constructed fiction.  In one sequence, his outstretched hand adorned with razorblade fingers reaches out, almost three-dimensionally, over the Los Angeles skyline, visualising the idea of Freddy not just as meta-textual but metaphysical.  If movies are able to enter our subconscious - their images, scenes, stories and characters staying with us long after the film has ended - what better way for the evil of Freddy Kruger to retain his grasp on the unconscious minds of his teenage victims?  It's a chilling thought...

Monday, 20 October 2014

Key Films #34

The Man Who Lies [Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1968]:

Like the preceding Trans-Europ-Express (1966), the fittingly titled The Man Who Lies is essentially an exercise in cinematic deconstruction.  Specifically, a deconstruction of the conventional devices used in narrative storytelling, and - even more specifically - of the role of the protagonist (or narrator) to provide a greater context, understanding and clarification for the events, as they unfold.  What Robbe-Grillet does to achieve this hypothesis is to dismantle the notion of accepted (or, more "tangible") reality - which conventionally propels the standard cinematic arc - and, in doing so, places the narrator in a greater position of power over that of the viewing audience.  When the narrator (and, by extension, the central character) is gunned down by an armed militia in the film's first scene - only to be brought back to life moments later as if nothing had ever occurred - Robbe-Grillet is communicating the inherent intangibility of narrative form; collapsing the various elements - from reality to fantasy, dramatisation to allegory - in order to remind the audience, in a single gesture, that this is a fiction devised, embellished and told by the central character, and as such at the mercy of his own individual whims.

From this point on, the author will continue to obfuscate the significance of the character's identity, his role and his specific intentions or goals, all of which are intended, in a more conventional film, to make us connect with a character, or to identify or even sympathise with their particular plight.  By making the narrator unreliable (and upfront, the particularities of the title already express a sense of duplicity couched in this character's attitude and approach) Robbe-Grillet makes it difficult for the viewer to become embroiled in the minutia of the film's story, its setting, its allusions to actual historical events, or even in the emotional progression of the characters on screen.  Instead, he focuses our attention on the more elusive and often maddening games being played with the malleability of film editing and of narrative in general.  To achieve this, the filmmaker frequently shows us two very different sides of the same scene, action or conversation - in such a way as to provide intentionally contradictory information - however, with no clear or concise delineation as to which of these conflicting perspectives represents an accurate or emotional truth.

Shot in the former Czechoslovakia, the visual style of the film is noticeably much closer to the sensibilities of certain other films released during the period of the Czech New Wave - such as The Fifth Horseman is Fear (1964), Diamonds of the Night (also 1964) and A Report on the Party and the Guests (1966) - than those of Robbe-Grillet's contemporaries, such as Resnais, Godard or Malle.  The style, defined by its high-contrast lighting, intense close-ups, wide-angle lenses and a majority of decayed, rural settings, heightens the emotional uncertainty of the film; creating something like a fairy-tale, or perhaps even closer to that of an incessant dream.  While the final scenes of the film eventually hint towards a more psychological (if not supernatural) rationalisation of the story being conveyed, the real motivation of Robbe-Grillet's film is - like the vast majority of the author's works for cinema - closer to that of an intricate parlour game played between himself and his audience.  A self-aware, self-reflexive adventure through the conventions of film narrative, and how such conventions (and their rules) can be used, or even misused by a filmmaker, to further engage the audience in something other than the banalities of characterisation and plot.


Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl [Manoel de Oliveira, 2009]:

It begins on a train.  An interesting choice of setting, since the figurative history of cinema is trains and bridges.  Here, the train itself becomes a bridge, where - during the course of a journey - a young man will recount his sad tale to a female passenger; telling her a story of doomed love and economic hardship that works to connect the personal to the political, the present to the past.  At this early point in the story the audience is uncertain of where this man (and his fiction) is headed.  Is he in retreat from a secret shame - forced to leave a place of residence in search of somewhere new - or is he making a return, back home, or someplace else?  For now, the destination of the character is unimportant.  The journey is a narrative one, as opposed to geographical; the development and progression of the train along the tracks becoming a visual representation of the machinations of narrative fiction, à la The General (1926) by Buster Keaton, or Trans-Europ-Express (1966) by Robbe-Grillet.

On the surface the story is straight-forward and confessional.  A young accountant working for his uncle spies an attractive young woman, whose family dwelling is adjacent to his place of work.  Already, de Oliveira is evoking the cinematic representation of "the viewer and the viewed."  If the train becomes a narrative journey, then this visual motif - evocative here of Hitchcock and his famous Rear Window (1954) - supplants the author as voyeur and a surrogate for the viewing audience, who sees, within a rectangular frame, a woman of great and enigmatic beauty, and, like the tragic Sarrasine in Balzac's sorrowful tale, is immediately and catastrophically bewitched.   Through this, de Oliveira creates in this woman, at first, not a character, but a representation; an image.  The viewer, in love with the image of this woman (as opposed to the woman herself), works hard to break the fourth-wall of his own existence and to initiate a kind of courtship.  When his uncle disapproves of the young man's plans to marry this mysterious woman, his life is thrown into chaos.  While the "meta" narrative of this character as both protagonist and storyteller is central and compelling, Oliveira nonetheless uses the confessional of this man, not just as a means of discussing the role of the author, the objectification of the male gaze or the representation of the image itself, but as something far more political.

Throughout the film, the director will emphasise the cultural backdrop of the story; placing this modest reflection of love - its fantasy and reality - within spaces that are redolent with artistic, political and cultural significance, most often related to expressions, or representations, of wealth.  The office where the protagonist works, the gentleman's club and extravagant soirées where gambling goes on in the background of poetic recitations, to the jeweller's shop where de Oliveira reveals his orator's final "sting", all reinforce a perception of the world as one that revolves around wealth, status, privilege and the pursuit of the above.  That all of these various elements are contained within a film that was shot and released during the immediate aftermath of the global financial crisis gives a greater context to the parallel the filmmaker is creating between the past fictions of the film's author, Eça de Queirós, and the no less confused and unstable realities of our own present day.