Thursday, 30 January 2014

A Year in Film (Part Three)

A Viewing List for Twenty-Thirteen

Third part of my on-going "Year in Film" retrospective.  It's taken much longer to complete than anticipated, largely because most of the films collected here had already been written about in various "Key Film" comments posted at different intervals between July and October of the previous year.  As such, the real difficulty was in editing these earlier comments into something more approachable and coherent without losing the original context of what I was trying to say.  There was also the general cynicism attached to re-posting comments that already existed and how this, in itself, seemed a pointless waste of time for anyone willing to spend even a few short moments browsing through the pages of the blog.  However, in the end I couldn't think of any other way to acknowledge these particular films as part of the same chronological structure without regurgitating these past observations and remarks.  This is perhaps the greatest drawback of the capsule review.  Had I written these comments as "proper reviews", full-length and individual, I could have just linked back to the original post.  Instead, I've ended up with something like this...

In truth, I'm not really very happy with the writing here.  It could be better.  I've gone over it and over it for the last two weeks (trying to make it "work"), but I almost feel as if I'm now just wasting time that could be better spent on finishing the fourth and final part of the series, which is currently more important to me.  It's important because it covers a number of films from the last few months of 2013 that I was unable to write about at the time.  It's important because I want to bring to a sufficient close this viewing log/key films project - which regrettably lost some momentum towards the end of the year (a result of technical difficulties and my work) - and I can't adequately sign-off on this until I've included some reference to these absent films.  If nothing else, it'll be an opportunity to finally add some new content to the blog (not just cannibalising the things I've written about before).  With a bit of luck, it might also segue into getting Lights in the Dusk back on target with the completion of several different bits and pieces still unfinished (mostly visual: studying the frame, etc) and maybe even a return to the "Key Films" project, if I can find the time.


Perfect World [Tom Elling, 1990]:
Initial viewing, 6th of June, 2013.

The film as mysterious object.  A waking dream unfolding like the fevered reverie of some ailing somnambulist as it moves between the layers of consciousness and unconsciousness; between age and memory, suspended, eternal, like a snapshot of an isolated incident; an event distorted by the blistered pangs of reality or by the wailings of lost time.  The entire film - in its progression through moments that appear like a projection of images displayed on a black & white television monitor, reflected back again (against the rippled waters of a mucky lake) - seems unknowable and elusive.  A stream of consciousness, all flowing, like images, through sleep.  Like the lapping waters of the actual stream seen early in the film, which carries upon its writhing back a suitcase from the past into the present, connecting this recollection of a childhood idyll to the reality of two sisters lost within a post-apocalyptic landscape of jagged industrial structures; a rolling tableau of cavernous spaces made dank with decay.

The written observations here may read like exaggerated nonsense - a run of purple prose that says literally nothing of real relevance about the experience of the work or what the story is actually "about" - but Elling's experiment is the kind of strange and transfixing film that seems to lend itself to this type of critical assessment.  It passes over the heads of a collective audience (or it did for this particular viewer) like a wave of feeling; the images, in collaboration with the text, evoking something ominous, oppressive, sensitive but still loaded with the anticipation of a cataclysmic concern.  It states very little, in concrete terms, allowing the audience to instead project meaning upon its vague and symbolic imagery as we read between the lines of a lyrical evocation spoken by the characters throughout.  It is a film defined by an almost drifting ambience; a feeling of weightlessness, the images telling a story but in a very cold, fragmented way; where what we see on screen - when interpreted against the words on the soundtrack - suggests intention, but remains almost impossible to define.

I can only speculate on what it all means, but it's a fascinating experience.  A poetic elegy in which the two central characters lament the fall of civilisation as the world once again prepares itself for a global catastrophe; the experience of these characters as children during the second world war becoming the tortured spectre still haunting their adult lives.  References, veiled or direct, are made to the Gulf War, the onset of AIDS, feminism, mental illness and the scars of the Holocaust, but it's that haunting, dreamlike sense of characters wandering through the charred bones of a lost civilisation that seems to instil the film with a genuine weight.  The directorial debut of Tom Elling, the talented cinematographer responsible for the early films of Lars von Trier - specifically Image of Relief (1982) and The Element of Crime (1984) - Perfect World shares with von Trier's work a dense and elaborate audio-visual approach defined by the influences of Andrei Tarkovsky, Orson Welles and Carl Theodor Dreyer.  Like their films, it presents an atmospheric and hypnotic reflection of a world in decline.


Hi, Mom! [Brian De Palma, 1970]:
Initial viewing, 18th of June, 2013.

The 'self-reflexivity' of the title, Hi, Mom! - a verbal expression used by someone when appearing on-camera to acknowledge the presence of the unseen observer; the audience, typically hidden behind the screen - is central to the film's aesthetic and theoretical approach.  It establishes the concept of the "viewer" and "viewed" as it has developed throughout subsequent De Palma films - such as Body Double (1984), Snake Eyes (1998) and The Black Dahlia (2006) - but with the emphasis on radical politics and social satire giving the tonality of the film a much darker, more abrasive edge.  By acknowledging the existence of the viewer (the title, "Hi, Mom!", again seems an obvious gesture), De Palma is essentially looking to shame the audiences into realisation; accusing us - collectively speaking - of using our position as viewers to hide from the harsh realities of life; to see the film as a work of fiction, without questioning the more important themes and ideas that give these images their subtext and intent.

As viewers, the vast majority of us sit safely in the cinema, observing a recording of life projected back to us on the silver screen.  Rather than interact with it, we detach ourselves from the experience; reminding ourselves that the events are a façade or fabrication; tragedy and turmoil as just another form of passive entertainment.  In this respect, the title holds up a mirror to the audience, forcing us to recognise our own submissiveness; turning the film (and its particular line of attack) against the viewer, in protest.  As a result, the presentation of the central character, Jon Rubin - the amateur moviemaker, anarchist, voyeur and now Vietnam veteran last seen in De Palma's earlier feature, Greetings (1968) - becomes the obvious surrogate for the spectator.  This man who watches the world through a bedroom-window - the interior scenes of domestic living in the adjacent building becoming like the channels on a television-set; each one presenting a different narrative, a different theme - and records it with the aid of an 8mm film camera.  Through the act of recording, De Palma is also introducing an element of self criticism, as Rubin becomes more than just a manifestation of the viewer but of the filmmaker himself.  His own voyeurism and obsession with turning moments into spectacles of pure cinematic expression through the process of recording seems to underline the conception that real life is somehow only significant when it's viewed through a screen.

As the film progresses, the obvious ode to Hitchcock and his masterpiece Rear Window (1954) is interwoven with the influence of Jean-Luc Godard; specifically his more political films of the early-to-mid 1960s.  From Godard, De Palma takes the idea of the image as a representation.  Not a reflection of reality, but what Godard called "the reality of the reflection."  This self-aware, meta-textural concurrence, between the more internal psychology of Hitchcock (the voyeurism, the obsession, etc) and the external didacticism of a film like Le Petit Soldat (1963) or La Chinoise (1967), creates an outer "cinematic" conflict that becomes expressive of the inner psychological conflict of the central character.  Here, the severity of the final act and the emotional complexity of De Palma's approach (that continual divergence between flippancy and sincerity), forces the audience to question whether the character of Rubin is truly "mad" (or as mad as he appears) or if his actions and intentions are merely symptomatic of the madness of the modern world.


Duvidha (The Dilemma) [Mani Kaul, 1973]:
Initial viewing, 21st of July, 2013.

The story of Duvidha is at first simple.  A just-married couple travel by caravan through the northern deserts on their way to start a new life.  The editing throughout is jarring and disruptive.  A series of fragments, close-ups intercut with freeze-frames, and the use of alternating film-stock to present a discontinuous point of view.  On the soundtrack, male and female voices speak hidden thoughts, feelings and fears in a way that draws our attention to the idea of the story as 'fable', but also to the idea of looking back on something that has already taken place.  While Kaul's direction suggests psychology, the voice-over talks of the supernatural; it introduces us to the pivotal "ghost in the Banyan tree", dazzled by the unveiled face of the film's delicate heroine.  Later, this ghost will take on the physical appearance of the absent husband; fooling his wealthy parents and even seducing the lonesome wife.

As a parable, this suggests similarities to the Greek myth of Alcmene's seduction by Zeus in the guise of her lover, Amphitryon; an illicit tryst that would inevitably lead to the conception of Heracles.  The development of the story here is similar but not identical...  While Zeus concealed his identity from Alcmene, at least initially, the ghost of Kaul's film is sincere in his intentions.  The wife is well aware that this "form" is not her husband, but in the absence of the man, this spirit becomes her only true relief.  That the woman eventually falls in love with the ghost says a lot about the idea of identity - what it means to be human, to be an individual - and of our own capacity to give and to receive love.  Kaul uses this idea to create a further commentary on the role of women in this society and the loneliness of women in general.

The director breathes deeper life into the story by mixing together allegory with neo-realism; finding an approach that combines the naturalism of early Rossellini with a more "Bressonian" emphasis on alienation (creating an authenticity through the removal of surplus adornments) and as such transforming it into something that is both politically and ethically more complex.   Rather than treat the female protagonist as a commodity, as the culture dictates, the spirit instead respects the woman and instils in her this feeling of genuine love.  However, in a society as rigid and as structured as this, such blasphemy (this obvious stand-in for adultery, as metaphor), can only lead to great despair.  The time of suspended tranquillity, happiness and contentment in the presence of the ghost is over, though their encounter, as documented by Kaul's film, remains forever in the memory, or on the lips of an inscrutable smile.


Teodors [Laila Pakalniņa, 2006]:
Initial viewing, 25th of July, 2013.

Using direct sound and a static camera, Pakalniņa reinvents the conventions of neo-realism, the documentary and the character study; capturing without criticism a series of interactions and encounters that become, in totality, like moments of still life.  The cutting of scenes distils time; reducing it to a series of moments that exist without clarification, but are suggestive of something historic and personally affecting.  This approach forces the audience into a state of contemplation, so that we think more deeply about this man and about his life between the moments on screen.  Those private moments that would give us an even greater context to the solitude and the distance of Teodors against those scenes of village life, but also of that contentment; the sense of satisfaction and place.

Although leisurely in its observation, there is an intensity to this focus, where the intercutting between long-shots illustrate the life surrounding the character, while close-ups tell a story of time and existence.  This man, as both a presence and personality, has become through age and wisdom a living reminder of the struggles of a generation; its triumphs and its follies.  The examination of the man - both as a figure in the landscape or as a face in close-up, marked by old-age - brings the history of this place into the present; reminding us of his struggle, but also of the struggle of every age'd body, as a testament to their life's greatest work.  This particular interpretation is communicated by the way the filmmaker watches, objectively.  Never forcing our emotions or our commitment to the material through the manipulation of the filmmaking form, but just letting things drift...

It's only in the final shot that Pakalniņa breaks from this routine, ending our encounter with this man (of humble origins) with a slow, lingering crane shot; perhaps one of the most striking ascensions in all of cinema.  The movement of the camera - from a discarded bottle cap half embedded in the soil, to the empty bench where Teodors once sat and watched the world with hooded eyes, to the woodcutter chopping down branches from a tree (to make a coffin perhaps), and beyond, into the clouds and over the village - neither confirms nor clarifies the fate of this character, but suggests something more profound.  A sense of loss; an absence even, as delicate and moving as the film itself.


Emitaï (God of Thunder) [Ousmane Sembene, 1971]:
Initial viewing, 26th of July, 2013.

In the first scene of a pre-credit sequence that runs for almost twenty-minutes in duration, a group of 'Jola' villagers from the Casamance region of Senegal are rounded up and detained by a black militia working under orders of the French.  This is the first of many instances where the oppression of these characters is depicted by Sembène both as a reconstruction of actual events and as a figurative commentary on the nature of Colonialism; where the flow of life is physically disrupted, or overturned.  As the action unfolds, two children, hiding behind trees or in the thick rushes of the long grass, become the eyes of the audience, on the outside, looking it; creating a natural surrogate for our own perspective as strangers, witnessing this atrocity as if a seeing it with the untainted innocence of a child.

In depicting the scene, Sembène uses documentary techniques to give us a sense of urgency.  Shooting unobtrusively from the sidelines; his use of the long lens flattens the depth of field, imprisoning these characters even further, cinematographically, against the backdrop of the land.  For the most part, Sembène maintains this level of distance, observing rather than intruding - capturing the action with a degree of naturalism that blurs the line between reality and dramatisation - but in later scenes chooses instead to evoke the beliefs and superstitions of the 'Jola', who call upon their own Gods in an attempt to escape this burden of oppression and regime.  In these sequences, blurred images and "psychedelic" colour filters are used to suggest the presence of something strange and otherworldly.

Such sequences stand out against the strict reality of the rest of the film, yet seem intended to give the narrative a cultural authenticity; presenting a level of commitment and solidarity, or even illustrating that Sembène believes in these people; takes sides with them; that his work is true to both the culture and their beliefs.  Throughout the film, as these characters reflect on the political situation and use it to question the existence of God and the nature of belief at a time when their own way of life has been disrupted beyond recognition, the director is able to put into perspective the true price of this exploitation; the condemnation of cultural imperialism at its most powerful and profound.


The Corridor [Sharunas Bartas, 1995]:
Initial viewing, 29th of July, 2013.

The corridor of the title is located in a rundown tenement building somewhere in Northern Europe.  It exists in a state of dilapidation; the ruin seemingly an outward embodiment of both the physical and psychological decline of its central characters.  Likewise, the solitude of these spaces, the cramped interiors, the moments of silence, the looks without smiles, suggests a loneliness; a reminder that these characters have, in a sense, been forgotten by the rest of the world; left to live out their days of survival amongst the rust, the rubble and decay.  Characters haunt the rooms of this building, barely living, never speaking.  Sad-eyed characters, hopeful but wounded, rendered in a black & white that seems to make real the subjective appearance of a world without colour; without wish.

Throughout the director's career, there has been a continual emphasis on makeshift communities; people on the outskirts of a society brought together through extreme circumstances.  In his greatest film, Freedom (2000), a trio of refugees looking to seek asylum are instead washed up on a desolate beach that becomes a mirror to their own desperation.  There, it was the physical expanse of the land and the limitless stretch of the horizon that seemed to suggest the bitter ironies of the title; that dream of independence and escape against a landscape of emptiness and despair.  In The Corridor, it is the building itself that takes the place of this beach, imprisoning its characters; holding them hostage to poverty, unemployment, anger and ill-health; making the observation of its central characters (and even the geographical context of the rooms leading into rooms as personification of a particular, individual 'state') entirely political.

Again, as with the sombre and occasionally hallucinatory Freedom, as well as the filmmaker's subsequent work, the earthy and raw Seven Invisible Men (2005), Bartas refuses to condemn his characters.  Though their actions are sometimes shocking - their demeanour one of bitterness and coarse abandon - there is also a sympathy to the way he observes these men and women; framing them like icons of the great painters, full of heft and dignity.  Never resorting to trivial sentimentality, the direction of the film finds an honesty through observation, through the seemingly natural, almost unrehearsed quality of the performances on screen.  For those already familiar with the recent work of Pedro Costa - Bones (1997), In Vanda's Room (2000) and Colossal Youth (2006), etc - the seeds of that particular approach will be obvious in the design and direction of Bartas's devastating film.


Explorers [Joe Dante, 1985]:
Initial viewing, 31st of July, 2013.

That the film was never officially completed - the version currently available is effectively a rough-cut prepared by Dante with a few post-production alterations made by the studio to bring it to a sufficient close - gives the movie a rather strange, almost surreal quality, as if the intention had been to break as many rules as possible; subverting the genre, the film and even the expectations of the viewer at every conceivable turn.  This, as an idea, is itself consistent with several of Dante's other, more cohesive films, such as The Howling (1981), Innerspace (1987), Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) and Matinee (1993), where the director transcends the boundaries of genre (or genre iconography); breaking the fourth-wall and inviting the process of filmmaking (or film-watching) into the narrative as an effort to reveal the manipulations of the cinema - as a medium - and the power of the recorded image to influence our perception of dreams.

Though less obvious in this current release version, the concept of dreams and dreaming was intended to be a central element to the narrative progression of Explorers, which, tellingly enough, begins with a scene of its own main protagonist, young teenager Ben Crandall, asleep in bed.  This, as an introduction, is often an unconscious clue that the story we're about to see takes place in a world of dreams.  In true 'Dantean' fashion, the slumbering child basks in the glow of a bedroom television-set-broadcast of a scene from The War of the Worlds (1953).  The flickering stock-footage interruption acknowledges the genre being utilised (science-fiction) in a self-aware gesture to the rules of the game, but also introduces the more significant idea of recorded images (or recorded memory) as a projection of our own insentient thoughts.  This, as a creative hypothesis, will become more significant during the film's final act, where the encounter between these adolescent explorers and the alien life-forms that have called to them from the depths of space becomes a commentary on the desensitisation of society as a shorthand for human apathy and the loss of innocence.

Here the film crosses the threshold into a more abstract, anarchic reality; a reality informed by the influence of '50s B-cinema, Loony Tunes slapstick and meta-themed 'Godardian' deconstruction.  The design of the aliens and their labyrinthine spaceship-lair (part 'cubist' wonderland, part M.C. Escher) is visually astounding, but it's the film's satirical critique, suggested by this third act encounter, that elevates Dante's work to a level that is truly remarkable.  The image of these aliens, drunk off a montage of footage of every significant event of the 20th century - both cultural and pop-cultural - as it is projected onto a series of giant cinema-like screens, suggests that all human endeavour has become a cosmic cinematic farce.  In Explorers - or the fragments of it - it is our own humanity that has become "alien"; an alienation from our own culture, our own history; a contentment to watch our own evolution unfold as an endless rerun; a transmission for some satellite heart.


Our Daily Bread [Mani Kaul, 1970]:
Initial viewing, 8th of August, 2013.

This is the second Mani Kaul film to make the list, and while the first, Duvidha (1973), was mysterious, strange and enigmatic, the film in question fits right into the context of those great and iconic films produced throughout the 1960s by filmmakers in France, Italy, Japan, Poland and the U.S.  Although the films of Satyajit Ray are still a part of the standard westernised "canon", they seem to be discussed a lot less than the films of Ozu, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Fellini and Kurosawa, to say nothing of the 60s-era films of Godard and Truffaut.  If anything, I think it's fair to say that Indian cinema, much like African cinema, has been marginalised as far as discussion and celebration is concerned; that a film like Our Daily Bread is not spoken of alongside La Strada (1954), The Seventh Seal (1957), The 400 Blows (1959), Breathless (1960), L'Avventura (1960) and Yojimbo (1961) seems almost absurd.

As with Duvidha (The Dilemma), Our Daily Bread is a film that seems critical of the way women are treated by the dominant male 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; however, 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.

The opening sequence finds a tonality and approach that is consistent throughout.  The dutiful wife, Balo, the protagonist of the film, waits patiently at a bus stop for the arrival of her husband.  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, between 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.  The eventual outcome of the film is vague and enigmatic - a dark mystery that requires interpretation, in retrospect - but is very much in-keeping with the film's wounded and vulnerable tone.


American Gigolo [Paul Schrader, 1980]:
Initial viewing, 11th of August, 2013.

Trying to describe the film at the time, I threw together a sentence that seemed to capture the creative spirit.  I wrote: "Bressonian transcendence meets New Hollywood excess, made possible by Bertoluccian 'baroque' stylisations."  I still think, as statements go, it gets to the core of Schrader's film, even more so than the Key Films comment I wrote about it a few months later.  In the interim, I'd returned to the film again, made copious notes and still maintain a hope of one day posting a much larger, more in-depth analysis of the film, or at the very least a proper consideration of its extraordinary final scene.  This moment, which gestures explicitly to the ending of Bresson's eternal Pickpocket (1959) - but in a way that never feels like an imitation - presents a final acknowledgement of human frailty when faced with an expression of actual "goodness"; one that seems especially overwhelming in the context of the film's earlier, more decadent or highly stylised mise-en-scène.

I was quite unprepared for just how remarkable Schrader's film actually is.  I knew of it through references and spoofs in other things, most prominently in the crass Rob Schneider comedy, Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo (1999), but my expectation of an 'at best' entertaining character study was far exceeded by this mesmerising psychological approach.  It is a film that seems to exist in the same tortured and nocturnal Los Angeles seen in Nick Ray's masterpiece In a Lonely Place (1950) - another film where the discovery of a dead body leaves a question mark hanging above the head of its central character - and with a visual approach that seeks to express the emotional and psychological perspective of its central character, brilliantly portrayed by Richard Gere.  It's perhaps worth mentioning that I'm writing this note after having just watched Terrence Malick's much-celebrated Days of Heaven (1978) and I'm starting to see Gere as an immensely underrated performer.  In 'Gigolo', Schrader uses Gere the way Bresson used his models in films like Une femme douce (1969), Lancelot du Lac (1975) and The Devil, Probably (1977).  He strips away the layers of expression; the emotions of the character expressed not by the actor but by the production design and the cinematography.  He becomes an object, both literally in the sense of his profession, but also figuratively, as a prop to be used.

However, as the film progresses and his grip on reality begins to slip, we see through the cracks of his carefully tailored facade; his surface of suave sophistication and effortless cool.  The cracks reveal a frustration that points towards something darker; the ghost of the same primal, animalistic character as seen previously in Malick's astounding film.  There is a danger to this persona; a very real and very palpable sense of someone capable of genuine brutality when pushed to the extreme.  As the character begins his descent into psychological turmoil - that long dark journey into light - the full fury of the 'Gigolo' is unleashed.  Here the audience is forced to reconsider their opinion of the character; left to question: is he really innocent?  Schrader never provides the answer, instead ending his film with that moment of pure transcendence that frames the character as a kind neo-religious icon; a martyr more befitting the role of Pasolini's St. Matthew than just another high-class con.


Sebastiane [Paul Humfress & Derek Jarman, 1976]:
Initial viewing, 13th of August, 2013.

I'd always assumed (wrongly) that Jarman didn't achieve significance as a filmmaker until Caravaggio (1986).  I'd based this particular fallacy on seeing clips from Sebastiane in a documentary on Jarman's life and on an early viewing of the director's controversial "punk-rock musical", Jubilee (1977).  Jubilee turned me away from Jarman for several years.  Its toadying to the punk movement (even as a critique) seemed two-dimensional and inauthentic, while the level of basic filmmaking was dull and unadventurous.  It wasn't until a few years ago that I rediscovered Caravaggio (and several subsequent Jarman masterworks on DVD) and I decided to return to those earlier films.  I saw the imaginative and at times almost 'Ruizian' adaptation of Shakespeare's final play The Tempest (1979) and the poetic and sensory lamentation of The Angelic Conversation (1985) and was floored by both.  As such, rediscovering Sebastiane in this context was a revelation.

While its filmmaking might seem more primitive in comparison to the complex compositions and sense of artistic grandeur found in a film like Caravaggio - to say nothing of Jarman's other great works, such as War Requiem (1989), The Garden (1990) and Edward II (1991) - it's also perfectly evocative of the influence of early Pasolini and of his film The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) in particular.  Like Pasolini's film, Sebastiane mines a similar juxtaposition between religious transcendence and earnest homoeroticism, as well as a genuine feeling of emotional authenticity.  To create balance, the direction of the film is mostly naturalistic.  Shots are composed with a great simplicity, showing the action as a straightforward expression - sometimes static, sometimes handheld - but mostly conveying the physicality of the actors (as characters) and how their bodies - sculpted and posed like the great statues of Michelangelo or Rodin - suggest the desire of the male gaze.

As the camera records these masculine figures - mostly nude as they lounge beneath the glare of a hot summer sun - Jarman finds poetry in their struggle against the landscape as a kind of outward expression of the beauty of unrequited love.  As such, he creates an impression of the body as a "prison", a cage, a battalion for a wounded heart.  As with many other works by Jarman, the history depicted in the film is being used to create a commentary on the contemporary.  In taking the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian as a starting point, the director is able to examine the dynamic of one particular facet of homosexual desire; creating a historical framework through the transposition of these scenes (and what we now know of human behaviour, desire and persecution) to provide a kind of context, or political justification, through the perspective of the present day.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

A Year in Film (Part Two)

A Viewing List for Twenty-Thirteen

As promised, the second part of my no doubt interminably dull but still very much obligatory "year in film" retrospective.  This time, the list in question includes films that I first saw (or returned to) between mid March and early June, 2013.  Once again, plagiarisms of my various "Key Film" comments will follow to some extent, but I'm also using the opportunity to clean them up a little bit; to correct some of the typographical errors (while no doubt adding a few new ones in the process).  It's somewhat regrettable that this update has taken so long to complete.  Initially, I'd hoped to have the whole thing done and dusted by the end of January, but it now seems more realistic to expect the third and fourth parts to be completed by early to mid February instead.  There is a genuine reason for this delay that goes beyond just regular laziness, but I'll go into this in more detail at a later date.

For the titles that I hadn't previously written about, my initial intention was to write a proper 'Key Films-style' analysis of the work(s) below.  Unfortunately, I've since lost the notebook that contained most of my original comments on the films and as a result was forced to reinvent some vague obviations, mostly from the perspective of a hindsight rapidly fading.  As such, many of these comments read as anecdotal in nature and for this perhaps say more about me as a viewer than they do about the films discussed.  Hopefully anyone reading this will find it in their heart to forgive me.


Othon [Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, 1970]:
Initial viewing, 15th of March, 2013.

'Othon' is the short-form title, taken from the 1664 text by the French author and playwright Pierre Corneille, upon which the film is based.  More important to our understanding of the film and its particular aesthetic is the unabridged title, "The eyes will not close at all times, or maybe one day Rome will let herself choose in turn."  To look at the title is to establish two significant points.  The first, the concept of seeing; of being a witness to the stories that resonate throughout history, played and replayed in various contexts, both personal and political.  Second, the filmmaker's exact and exhausting use of language as it pertains to the conception of the literary adaptation as something that uses the spectre of the past to create commentary on the present.  Both of these stylisations work to demystify the idea of the historical drama, or even the literary adaptation itself; liberating it from the fraudulent gloss of the Hollywood epic or the tedium of social realism.

Throughout the film, Corneille's text is not adapted, but spoken.  Only by communicating the words aloud can it be filmed, personified and made real; finding an expression, not through the conventional (or whatever) manipulations required to condense the plot into a series of significant set-pieces and events, but through the meticulous delivery of the actors, who perform the play by speaking the words; creating the sense of the narrative as rhetoric; the audience, not so much viewers, in the traditional sense, but spectators; observers to the scene.  This gives the film a theatrical quality, but of a living theatre; the theatre of life.  The approach, where once again old words are placed into a contemporary setting - suggesting the idea of the past as an echo, running parallel with the present - pre-recalls the ideology of later films by Theodoros Angelopoulos, such as The Hunters (1977) and Alexander the Great (1980).  A notion of the past existing within the present - side by side - is further suggested by the filmmakers' daring approach to the mise-en-scene, in which the use of intentional anachronisms create the impression of the past and present intruding, like fiction into reality.

As the ensuing drama unfolds, these actors in period costume - posed like living statues among the rubble of Mont Palatin or within the grounds of the Villa Doria Pamphili - recite their lines against the noise and confusion of busy streets; the sights and sounds of the traffic, or the passing airplane that rumbles overhead, each remind us of the present; of time still moving forwards, oblivious to these old ghosts, which still exist; living and re-living their personal dramas and dilemmas, from one century into the next.  It presents that theoretical idea of the past as an ongoing narrative that takes place all around us, unseen, again, like an echo to prior events.  A notion that the past is always amongst us; that any place we visit, any place where we stand, is a part of history; a part of our own history, and a part of someone else's.


2 x 50 Years of French Cinema [Jean-Luc Godard & Anne-Marie Miéville, 1995]:
Initial viewing, 5th of April, 2013.

I loved this collaboration between Godard & Miéville and the actor Michel Piccoli, but at the time I couldn't quite put into worlds WHY the film had felt so relevant and so much fun.  In all honesty, I still can't.  I wrote some vague fragments with the intention of suggesting something of the playful, typically didactic quality - of Godard and Miéville flirting between Histoire(s) du cinema-style cine-essay and Soft and Hard-like domestic discourse - but I couldn't quite make it stick.  I think the real issue is that the film provides its own commentary.  There is nothing that I can surmise or add to the film that an avid spectator wouldn't automatically find in the conversations and discussions that occur on-screen.

On an old scrap of paper I'd written the following: A film of two halves.  Questions and answers.  Dialogues and investigation.  The past and present as the two separate ends of a traceable line.  A lineage, of time or influence, that runs throughout the development of this thing called film.  The titular mathematical equation, 2 x 50, equates a century, but a century in two parts.  Pre-sound, pre-colour as the past; sound and colour as the present.  How then do we celebrate this thing - this conception of cinema - which is never one thing to all people, but a multifaceted contraption?  A limitless mirror that creates images by projecting a reflection of the person looking back into its ever-changing face?  This is the question that Godard seeks to answer when he sits down to dinner with his friend and former associate Piccoli; now the participating chairman of the official "Centenary Committee" aiming to celebrate the first Hundred years of French film.

Godard questions the motivations of the organisation in his typically cryptic approach, as he goads the actor (playfully, but to the point of infuriation) into considering the true condition of cinema, and how so often it is seen by the younger generation to be a largely Hollywood-driven pursuit.  Characteristic of many of Godard's late-period films, the tone of 2 x 50 Years of French Cinema alternates between reflective and melancholic (as Godard contemplates the notion of "old movies", while music and art remain timeless) to incredibly funny; the introductory sequence, in which Piccoli becomes the unwitting straight man to Godard's Groucho Marx, rivals the TV interviews of Andy Kaufman at his most deadpan and derisive.


Cosmopolis [David Cronenberg, 2012]:
Initial viewing, 8th of April, 2013.

After the subtly more accessible terrain of his no less remarkable collaborations with Viggo Mortensen on A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007), and the comparatively more restrained, almost classical historical drama, A Dangerous Method (2011), Cosmopolis has the feel of Cronenberg getting back to the root of films like Videodrome (1983), Naked Lunch (1991), Crash (1996) and eXistenZ (1999).  It is again a film about disconnected characters seeking sensation through less conventional means.  The 'Cronenbergian' ideal of "the new flesh" being discovered in this exaggerated critique of the current generation and their preoccupation with "the self"; with a blurring of personal realities, where the ephemeral transactions of the online culture have created a new, more transient, more hermetic system of life.

With its central character becoming a "spectre haunting the world" - a vapid, narcissistic millionaire drifting in his black limousine sarcophagus through the chaos of financial collapse - the film struck me as a very prescient portrait of the post-millennium culture.  This generation that has been afforded great wealth and privilege by doing very little, are now bored with everything!  Life has become enclosed, detached; a series of appointments, encounters.  The limousine that cuts a path through the crowded streets is like an extension of who this character is; his sense of privilege and entitlement, his anonymity, the void of personality, etc.  The gradual deterioration of the car as it is attacked by revellers and protestors, becomes an on-screen representation of the character's own psychological deterioration, as the world outside the car - outside his own influence - becomes a protest against an uncertain future; one that threatens to upend the influence of capitalism, destroying the dangerous thread that creates balance; that keeps us in place.

Like many characters in Cronenberg's work, there is a sense of someone embracing their own destruction.  The form of the film, static and stilted - creating a feeling of inertia, of time standing still - communicates the boredom of a man that longs for revolution - for death! - just to create some change to the stagnant social order.  In this gesture, he becomes a character connected to the great lineage of Cronenberg protagonists - from Adrian Tripod and Max Renn, to Bill Lee and Allegra Geller - and the world of the film feels very much a part of the same future-sphere as earlier films, such as Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977).  Perhaps the world of Eric Packer - the protagonist of the film - is yet another stop on the road to the ruinous dystopia of Crimes of the Future (1970); that hellish interzone where society teeters on the brink of a regression; into a more primitive moral collapse.


A Talking Picture [Manoel de Oliveira, 2003]
Initial viewing, 17th of April, 2013.

No other film had a greater impact during the previous year.  From the leisurely travelogue of scenes that make up the first half of its duration (where daughter and mother literally traverse a thousand years of civilisation on a journey to reunite with their respective father and spouse) to the subsequent scenes aboard the cruise ship (the political discussions that lead, with unflinching precision, to one of the most heart-breaking and unforgettable final sequences from any film ever made) A Talking Picture was nothing less than captivating, provocative and wholly immersive.  Using an objective, observational approach and the natural charisma of his cast, Oliveira creates a film where both the voyage and its eventual resolution suggest an allegory for the modern-world.

The central journey from Lisbon to Goa recalls that of the famed Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, but the course - traversing the Mediterranean and making stops in France, Italy, Greece, Egypt and eventually Turkey - brings to mind a similar progression from Jean-Luc Godard's subsequent work, Film Socialisme (2010).  Like that particular film, the presence of the ocean liner becomes a microcosm of Europe in the 21st century; where the dialogues between business woman Catherine Deneuve, model and fashion designer Stefania Sandrelli, stage actress and singer Irene Papas and the ship's captain John Malkovich, allows Oliveira to discuss the idea of nationalism (or colonialism) in the age of the European Union, as well as the struggle to retain a cultural identity in light of the ever growing homogenisation of western culture, as it flourishes under the rule of capitalism, in a very direct and unguarded approach.

The dialogues here are lengthy and invigorating, relevant to the film's main journey into the past as a reflection to the present, but also inherently naturalistic.  They draw the audience into the story of these two characters and the people they meet along the way, while also managing to make a broader, more relevant point on the development of our shared histories in the context of the no less violent struggles of our own contemporary existence.  The end of the film takes this idea of the past as a mirror to the present in an entirely different direction.  The logical but no less shocking conclusion that all this talk of "conflict" has been leading to.  An impression that civilisations every bit as cultured and enlightened as our own were forged and fell in the blink of an eye.


The Three Stooges [Bobby & Peter Farrelly, 2012]:
Initial viewing, 28th of April, 2013.

I find comedy the most difficult genre to write about (or at least the most difficult to do proper justice to), since comedy, by nature, is physical.  Musicals and action movies are physical too, but there the physicality seeks to express the psychological.  If the mind is ecstatic with thoughts then a dance is danced.  If enraged, then the body strikes out, in violence.  But comedy - and the kind of intensely physical comedy found in the film in question - occurs simply for the benefit of the viewer.  It is done for no other reason than to get a response from the audience; to make us laugh and smile.  While the film has been dismissed by many as a thoroughly lowbrow attempt by the Farrelly's to renegotiate the idea of The Three Stooges for the modern world, I found the film to be both breathlessly entertaining and hysterically funny.  The kind of funny where the ribs begins to ache from laughing so hard.

The fact that The Three Stooges succeeds on the purest level would be enough to necessitate inclusion, but I think the film is more interesting (if not intelligent) than it's been credited with.  Something about the film's subtext seems compelling; a compliment to the brilliantly choreographed and directed slapstick and the impeccable performances of the three main leads.  More than anything, I think it's interesting how the "Stooges", as characters, relate to the modern society; where the real idiots have since been elevated to the level of Gods by the peculiarities of reality television; where the innocence of Larry, Curly and Moe likewise seems elevated against the corruption of the culture, the greed and the selfishness; and where the attempt by these characters to find enough money to save the orphanage where they were raised shines a light on the suffering of many marginalised individuals or cultural organisations following the still recent economic crash.

To me, this aspect of the film is incredibly faithful to the spirit of the original Stooges.  Films like Three Little Pigskins (1934), Punch Drunks (1934) and Disorder in the Court (1936), to name a few, were as much an effort to lift the flagging morale of the American public as genuine narratives to be seen and enjoyed.  They were films produced (mostly) during the time of The Great Depression, when audiences had little to smile about.  In the Farrelly's film, the same intentions remain.  The sensibility of the film - bright and colourful and zany; like a live-action cartoon - is designed to distract the audience from the tyranny of the everyday.  The film is loaded with genuine suffering, child abandonment, unemployment and an obvious satire of "reality" media (still profiteering from society's great stooges, only now with full cooperation from the culture), but all dressed in a way that allows the viewer to detach one's self from the reality; to forget ourselves and our woes.


The Train [John Frankenheimer, 1964]
Initial viewing, 30th of April, 2013.

The Train is another of those films that I struggled to write about at the time.  I couldn't put into words the feeling of the film or the experience of it, which was unforgettable.  It's the kind of film where I was so intensely invested in the narrative, the characters and the stylisation, that I became lost in the adventure of it all.  It's a film that seems to straddle the indefinable line between "old Hollywood" (as typified by the films of Hawks, Ford, Sturges, etc) and the "new Hollywood" of films that would come to define the subsequent decade.  The idea of Burt Lancaster playing an American-accented Frenchman running around a succession of small villages in an effort to evade an army of cartoon Nazi's could have been taken from any film from the mid-to-late 1940s, but the "studio-film" quaintness of the casting and the motivations of the story are well balanced by Frankenheimer's muscular direction and by the overwhelming subtext of the final scene.

While the casting ideas and the general storytelling machinations were already becoming antiquated by the mid-1960s, the actual cinematic approach (the staging, editing, cinematography and direction) has lost none of its power to captivate and enthral.  Shooting almost entirely on real locations, the black & white cinematography gives the film and its setting a gritty authenticity.  It's no more "realistic" than any other Hollywood film (where the lack of colour already evokes a certain old-fashioned quality; something separate from the reality), but nonetheless still expressive of something far more interesting about the morality of these characters and the uncertain world in which they exist.  To think of the context of the film and the era in which it takes place, the lack of colour and the no-nonsense approach to the composition, movement and editing of the film, seems to imply the brutality of the era; the lack of colour, the rigidity of the frame, the punch of the cutting, each creating the implication of a world without hope.

Although essentially a great action-adventure film (the scenes of barrelling locomotives, with their heavy wheels grinding atop endless lines of track, are nothing short of breathtaking in their pre-CGI excitement), it is the ending of the film that seems to push The Train towards something more philosophical and indelibly profound.  The subtext of the narrative - a train full of stolen French art - can't help but recall the iconography of the death camps; the Deutsche Reichsbahn that led innocent victims to their deaths at Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, etc.  In this sense, the attempt by Lancaster to "save" the train (and as such, save its cargo) becomes an effort to redeem the human race.  This interpretation seems manifest in the final scenes, in which Frankenheimer daringly cross-cuts images of the great paintings slung along the embankment with images of dead bodies lining the tracks.  Here the personification of the art as illustrative of human atrocity (broadly, "the art of dying") is permanently evoked.


The Day of the Locust [John Schlesinger, 1975]:
Return viewing, 13th of May, 2013.

I'd been impressed by Schlesinger's film when I first saw it during the winter of 2009, but mostly by the depiction of its vivid, apocalyptic ending; the scenes of mass hysteria and mob brutality across a shimmering Hollywood Boulevard, unforgettable in its intensity, illustrated a descent into genuine terror that seemed to push the film's critique of the American dream as both hopeless and dispiriting beyond anything I've ever experienced.  At the time, my sense was that the climax was so extraordinary and so charged with pure emotion that it overwhelmed the rest of the film, which felt inert and laborious by comparison.

Returning to the film four years later, I now realise how important the first half of the film is in giving weight to those final scenes.  Much more than establishing a context for it, or the sense of a calm before the story, it presents a loaded atmosphere in which the emotions of characters slowly simmer and stew before reaching boiling point in the most hysterical and disturbing way.  It underlines the theme of the film (and the theme of the novel by Nathanael West upon which the film is based); the idea of Hollywood as a giant machine into which these innocent but desperate enough characters are fed (willingly) through the meat grinder, all in the hope of achieving great fame and even greater fortune.

It's that vision of Hollywood as an inferno, the studio contract as Faustian pact, and how these characters, having become soulless as a result of the moral malaise of the era, find themselves robbed of all personality.  So much of the film takes place on the outskirts of the town.  The suburbs, up in the hills, or on the fringes.  It's a world blistering and sun scared.  A world populated by those who've tasted the sweet highs of the Hollywood dream but have since fallen on hard times.  Through the interwoven narrative of its central characters, Schlesinger's film picks apart the open wound of the movie industry and turns it into a psychodrama; a grotesque pageant on man's inhumanity to man.


Throne of Blood [Akira Kurosawa, 1957]:
Return viewing, 20th of May, 2013.

In the absence of anything more tangible to state, I'd like to share a little back-story.  I first saw this film as a sullen teenager, circa the mid-00s, and sad to say, I didn't really "get it."  I didn't have the depth of experience or the patience or the understanding of the original text to comprehend what Kurosawa and his collaborators were doing with this highly unorthodox and atmospheric play on Shakespeare's immortal Macbeth.  At the time, I was still discovering movies as more than just a passive pursuit, and this obsession was leading me towards films produced outside of my own culture; my own era of existence.  In short, I was unprepared for what I saw.

Without context to anchor me, the of-the-time "old-fashionedness" of the film, with its obvious interior sets, theatrical performance style and jarring use of the transitional wipe, seemed primitive to a snarky teenager already arrogant enough to assume expertise because he'd seen a few Stanley Kubrick movies.  I still see this attitude a lot on sites like IMDb and I like to think that all aspiring young movie buffs go through this period of moronic artistic rejection as a kind of rite of passage.  A process that involves dismissing the celebrated cultural artefacts that came before in an effort to build-up our own conception of cinema (based on our own individual tastes), but still safe in the knowledge that the more movies we see and experience, the greater the ability to perceive the importance of those rejected masterworks when we eventually return to them, older and wiser.

I re-discovered Kurosawa again a few years ago and have been very slowly (but surely) working my way through his filmography since.  In 2013 I saw three movies by the director.  I Live in Fear (1955) and The Hidden Fortress (1958) were both first time viewings, but it was the return viewing of the film in question that impressed me the most.  I still can't put into words exactly why the film was so exhilarating, but a lot of it had to do with the visual sensation of it.  The rolling fog, the intensity of the imagery, the sound, the performances.  The design, direction and overall atmosphere of the film is conceptually fascinating and intense - more like a horror film than a more conventional samurai epic - and my reaction, in this sense, was entirely emotional.


Larisa [Elem Klimov, 1980]:
Initial viewing, 22nd of May, 2013.

I once saw a collection of still frames from this film on another blog-site and was immediately intrigued.  I knew of Klimov only from his landmark anti-war effort, Come and See (1985), which is one of my favourite films, so I was already quite eager to see more of the director's work.  The film, in its combination of documentary, photo-montage, personal reflection and confessional, effectively functions as a tribute to a woman who no longer exists, except in images, moving and still.  The voice of the woman - conjured, phantom-like, from haunted recordings that suggest the continuation of a life beyond death - speaks, in clear terms, about the difficulties faced by the individual, and of her own influences and ideological struggles as both an artist and a woman to remain true to her own creative ambitions and intent.

The film, a kind of memorial piece assembled by the subject's husband as a response to his own state of tearful mourning, becomes a celebration of the talent of this woman; the filmmaker Larisa Shepitko.  A celebration as well as a lament, which attempts, through the combination of sound and image, to honour the spirit of this woman, but also to present, through images edited from her own films, the sadness felt by those left bruised and broken in the wake of her death.  In the gallery of lost and hopeless faces, or in the scenes of pure anguish found in Shepitko's own films - amongst them Krylya (1966) and The Ascent (1976) - Klimov is able to express, movingly, but without sentimentality, an outpouring of his own grief and admiration and the tragedy of his (and our) loss.

Beginning with a wordless montage of photographs of Shepitko showing her progression from wide-eyed infant to a glamorous and successful woman on the cusp of middle-age, the film progresses through the success and achievements of her own professional career, beyond the last attempts to film an adaptation of Valentin Rasputin's novel Farewell to Matyora, and eventually reaching a kind of conclusion at the site of the accident that claimed her life.  The film ends with the very last piece of footage ever directed by Shepitko.  An image, described by Klimov himself as "an eternal tree, the symbol of perseverance and dignity, the symbol of faith in the endless continuation of what we call life."  A final elegy, suggestive of the lasting influence of this woman, as stoical and enduring as the tree itself.


The Hitcher [Robert Harmon, 1986]:
Return viewing, 1st of June, 2013.

I'd undoubtedly seen this film before.  I remembered the plot - the set-up of the young kid picking up a hitchhiker who turns out to be a merciless killer - and I remembered the opening sequence; the rain, the headlights cutting a path through the darkness, the claustrophobia of the car itself.  I remembered the scene with Jennifer Jason Leigh and how my dad had already given away what was about to happen in the usual way that he likes to consciously spoil movies as an effort to show off his knowledge of something that others are yet to have seen.  I remember enjoying the film as a work of entertainment, but also finding it somewhat generic and disposable.  A kind of standard slasher movie "riff" that was only given a greater degree of credibility through the menacing and disarmingly charismatic performance of Rutger Hauer as the title character.

Returning to the film for the first time in what must have been a decade (if not more), I was surprised at how much I remembered from that first encounter, but even more surprised at how far the film had surpassed my earlier impressions of it.  At the time, it hadn't even registered how strange the film was.  Not just the storyline - which doesn't even strive for naturalism or plausibility, instead taking a provocative "what if..." concept and spinning it off into a genuine descent into hell - but the atmosphere of the film; the imagery and the way the unanswered questions leave room for the audience to project their own interpretations against it.  There are images that seem ripped from the most vivid of dreams or from the darkest of darkening nightmares.

Eerie scenes of deserted police stations, lost highways, suicide attempts (filmed like symbolic rituals glimpsed through a blistering lens flare), or the continual allusions to death (as representation, apropos The Seventh Seal, by Bergman), the ferryman (think Charon of Hades) and a kind of blatantly homoerotic variant on psychosexual threat.  I'd argue that there's something of The Terminator (1984) in this story of the vulnerable couple pursued by a seemingly unstoppable killing machine, with the entire narrative becoming a prolonged nightmare in which protagonists are in a sense made passive, forced to watch helplessly as events spiral so astonishingly out of control.  For me, Harmon's film is every bit as great as Cameron's tech-noir masterpiece.  It stands alongside the director's first film, the brilliant short feature, China Lake (1983), as one of the great unsung masterworks of '80s cinema.