Saturday, 16 August 2014

Key Films #33

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre [Tobe Hooper, 1974]:

The film is bookended by two extraordinary if very different representations of light.  At the beginning, darkness is pierced by staccato bursts of flashbulb photography; revealing, in small fractures of illumination, the grisly aftermath of a terrible crime.  Later, at the very end of the film, we find the unforgettable image of the demented antagonist, Leatherface, wielding his chainsaw in a macabre dance against the amber sundowing of a rural plane.  The first scene is significant in as much as it initiates the audience into the story - teasing us with those blink or we'll miss them flashes of violence and gore as an appeal to the viewer's natural sense of morbid curiosity - while the second image is one that seems to exist outside the realms of reality, instead, becoming symbolic; a physical manifestation of the violence that stalks and sears the American landscape.  While the first scene is a prelude to the carnage that will follow - the glimpses of degradation becoming a promise of things to come - the later scene is a culmination; the madness and murder of the preceding seventy-some minutes finding an expression in this strange and unsettling image of a fury, uncontrolled.

Both of these scenes - these moments - are inherently cinematic.  By "cinematic", one means, more specifically, an image (or images) where the physical expression of a particular emotion or psychological state is expressed through movement and motion, light and sound.  A moment that could not be written, or even spoken (a short one-line description would rob the image of its significance, or its power to provoke), but only filmed.  Throughout The Texas Chain Saw Massacre it is images like these that define the experience.  Images that can only work on the screen; they need a particular actor, the correct light, the right setting and the natural atmosphere that comes from these locations; the house with its startled chickens trapped in undersized cages, its metal doors, its skull and bone ornaments.  The power of the film is as such entirely visceral; it comes from the impression of different places, the sense of the heat and dirt, the interactions between characters and the accumulation of moments and images that get under the skin; strange images, but ones that are presented with a matter of fact practicality, as if simply documenting a scene of everyday life.

For me, this is the essence of cinema; the use of images to evoke and influence a particular emotional or psychological response.  Not something that is written (literature) or even performed (theatre), but something much more sensory; the experience of entering into a pitch-black space with only the flicker of the screen providing a relief from the darkness.  In the gloom of the cinema, the play of light and shadow (which in turns creates the illusion of movement, bringing images to life) and the horrendous din of the buzz saw cutting through a disharmony of shrieking screams will play on the nerves of its audience, putting us on edge.  Just as those staccato flashbulbs at the beginning of the film work to dazzle and disarm us - the brief sight of the rotting corpse unsettling us, but also drawing us in - the later scenes, like the encounter with the menacing hitchhiker, the family dinner or the killer's dance of death, work - like the most iconic and powerful cinematic moments - to translate complex thoughts and feelings into images that are indelible and entirely direct.  These images seek to translate the horrors of the modern world into something primal; giving "form" to them; visualising, in tangible terms, our deepest and darkest fears.


New Rose Hotel [Abel Ferrara, 1998]:

What begins as surveillance will end in a memory.  The "reality" (this story of warring corporations, business deals, industrial espionage, role-playing, seduction and manipulation) is just pretence for the existential dilemma that dominates the final act.  A kind of context; a reason or justification that motivates this character; that compels him on a journey towards an endless oblivion in a box at the "New Rose Hotel."  The location of the title - a derelict capsule hotel somewhere in a multicultural future-space indebted to the iconography of the modern Japan - is more than just a setting; it becomes an on-screen illustration of the character's psyche; a cell, or void-like sarcophagus, where memories play like the scenes from a film.  These memories are in fact repetitions from the film in question; scenes previously shown as part of the conventional narrative arc, now linger, phantom-like, as echoes through an empty space.  However, in repeating these scenes in the context of what we've seen since, Ferrara, his co-writer Christ Zois and his editors Jim Mol and Anthony Redman, find subtle variations in the dialogue (the re-emphasis of certain words, the discrepancy of information, inconsistencies, etc), demonstrating how easily a smile, a glance, a frown or a gesture can change its meaning when viewed in retrospect, or in the context of something new.

While many have dismissed this final montage as lazy filmmaking or joked that its inclusion resulted from an obvious lack of funds, I found the presentation of this almost "psychological reiteration" of events to be profound, shocking, even moving.  What this third act does is push the subjectivity of the film to breaking point.  While the earlier scenes - the more conventional three-act structure; where characters are introduced and the narrative established through exposition - have a more observational, even recorded objectivity (though one occasionally broken by the inter-cutting of different film formats, such video and super 8), the feeling of the third act is essentially that of being trapped in the mindset of a particular character as he sifts through his past recollections; through events that at the time seemed relatively mundane - just business as usual - but which now seem loaded with the intrigues of a greater conspiracy.  Is it truth or paranoia?  The character, having lived by the sword of this world of corruption, surveillance and betrayal, now feels the walls closing in on him; the practicalities of the job - his lifestyle - being used as a weapon against him.  Like the tormented Harry Caul in Coppola's The Conversation (1974), the protagonist of Ferrara's film knows the realities of this world from his own involvement in its illicit practices; his suspicions fuelling a kind of emotional fallout that is profoundly devastating and all too real.


Whispering Pages [Aleksandr Sokurov, 1994]:

I've gone back and forth on this one, trying to clarify my opinion.  At first, I was stunned by the cinematography - the sense of "world building" - but found the narrative disengaging and hard to read; the characters never becoming more than just vessels for poetic expression, or direct quotation.  These characters - the man and woman - might exist on the pages they've been ripped from (primarily, the work of Dostoevsky) but unfortunately appear lifeless on the screen.  Their lives of squalor and desperation are not felt - in the emotional sense - just ornamental; an affectation on the part of the filmmaker to give a social and political weight to the material; an air of significance, dignity or intellectual prestige.  I didn't believe for a second that Sokurov had any feeling for these characters and their situation, but was simply using them to make possible an exploration of this world that is rich, both in design and physical direction.  Through the development of the film this location becomes a legitimate character.  It "lives", suggests a particular psychology, an atmosphere; it intercedes on behalf of these characters that have neither light in their eyes nor life in their voices.

It was only in hindsight, as I thought about the film a few days later, that this particular detail struck me as significant.  Maybe this was the point?  The characters don't define the world; the world defines its characters.  This man and woman, speaking, without emotion or engagement, the dead words of a departed author, do nothing to comment on the human condition.  Instead, it is the world of the film, stylised and exaggerated, that gives a context to the various themes.  The full course of the relationship between these characters, wracked, as they are, with suffering and betrayal, says, in its entire eighty-minute duration, less about the struggles of the underclass than a film like The Immigrant (1917) by Charles Chaplin conveyed in a single shot.  However, the presentation of the world, which traps its characters, feels like an attempt to adapt, dramatise or personify (as an immaterial space) the emotions and subtext of these works of Russian literature.  An adaptation, not in the conventional sense of providing an illustrated text, but approaching the work as if it were an architectural narrative, apropos The Library of Babel (1941) by Jorge Luis Borges; a physical space that becomes a materialization of the emotions and psychologies of characters torn from the whispering pages of Dostoevsky and those of his assorted contemporaries.

This world, eerily lit by cinematographer Aleksandr Burov in a sickly, soft-focus monochrome (the aspect ratio often distorted as if to suggest the presentation of a fever dream; its characters, drifting like sleepwalkers through a laboured trance) is used to tell this story that the characters themselves are unable to put into words.  If their loneliness, fear, anger and destitution cannot be spoken, then it is there in the cavernous walls of the city, in the stagnant reflections of its waterways, in the black fog that obscures the frame, in the dust and debris that covers objects (and the characters as objects) as if the world no longer has use for them.  The rhythms and rituals, attitudes and routines of the setting and its inhabitants and the way Sokurov films them, tells the story.  This mix of Caligari (1920) and Tarkovsky, which seeks to express the life of the mind, to make the internal "external" and as such plain to see, becomes a projection of who these characters are and what these stories are essentially about.  And if an image of beautifully lit doves, glowing, iridescently, as they glide off the surface of a murky canal might push the symbolism to levels of cliché, it's only as a brief respite from the drudgeries of a world that drives its inhabitants towards madness.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Key Films #32

Stage Fright [Alfred Hitchcock, 1950]:

The curtain goes up.  Not on a stage or theatrical setting, but on a London vista; a genuine street scene documentation (no studio interiors, for now, at least) that is alive with action and adventure. As a visual sleight of hand, it establishes, upfront, the intentions of the film and the way Hitchcock works to subvert the implications of the title, which, without the benefit of a plot-synopsis, might suggest something more predictable; the story of a young ingénue, perhaps terrorised by a masked avenger; one who stalks the theatre - Phantom of the Opera-like - killing anyone who stands in their way. Of course, this isn't what the film is about - although it does come somewhat close to such expectations in the final third (by which point the audience is well up on the joke) - but another example of Hitchcock taking something that could have been very generic and mundane and elevating it through his usual games of theatricality, deconstruction and narrative misdirection.

With this opening shot, Hitchcock is effectively taking his movie out of the theatre and into the streets; into the soon to be studio-recreated reality of life and the everyday. What this does is the opposite of what we might expect.  Rather than give the film a gritty authenticity – the pretence becoming a reality as the fourth wall is broken; allowing "the play" to spill out into the aisles and seats – the machinations of Hitchcock are instead intended to give the film a self-aware, self-reflexive quality; where "real life" becomes as shadowy, exciting and intriguing as a work of living theatre. Like the viewing audience sitting down to watch the film, these characters, at first spectators, are eventually co-opted by the filmmaker (and his various creative deceptions) and coerced into becoming amateur sleuths; investigating the details of a story and in the process solving the crime.  Once these characters have become caught-up in the intrigues of the situation - the murder and the innocent accused - they find themselves having to take on and embody the additional roles that they've been chosen to play (from detective, to seductress, to blackmailer, respectively). This again seems intended to further evoke the very "Hitchcockian" idea of life as an intricate and self-aware system of performances, facades and representations (c.f. Alicia in Notorious, 1946, or Norman in Psycho, 1960).

Although a lighter film in comparison to many of Hitchcock's more acclaimed works, such as Rebecca (1940), Shadow of a Doubt (1943) or Vertigo (1958), the ensuing narrative (with its emphasis on role-playing and the presentation of the world itself as a vast and limitless stage) is tailored to the filmmaker's fondness for self-reflection; where the story, or the journey of its central character - an actress, studying at RADA - becomes almost something of a conceptual prelude to the director's later film; the more intelligent and fully formed "meta"-themed deliberation, Rear Window (1954). Stage Fright doesn't quite succeed on the same level as that particular film - too often sidetracked by comical interludes, bizarre contrivances and bare-faced manipulations - but what it does achieve (and achieve well) is an illustration of what Hitchcock's conception of cinema might have been; his interest in the artificialities of the motion picture, and how this process of manipulation (or illusion) can be reflected, self-consciously or not, in the dramatic elements of the film.

When the protagonist (played here by a young Jane Wyman) attempts to infiltrate the household of a wealthy widow, her methodology is not that of a concerned citizen but of an actress preparing for a role. She adopts a character, a voice, a look, and tries to fool those closest to her as a form of elaborate rehearsal. That her own mother sees through the ruse almost immediately says a lot about Hitchcock's need to revel in the obvious way filmmakers engage in these games of deception. The audience, like the mother, can see through the facade of these shenanigans, but we accept them, nonetheless, because they facilitate drama, mystery, action, humour and suspense. This, as an ideology, is something that continues right the way through the film; from the flashback that follows the raising of the curtain, to the stage-bound finale, which concludes, fittingly enough, with the same curtain falling, like a guillotine (the idea of death as the ultimate climax). Hitchcock knows that his audience will accept these absurdities because we're looking for that rush of excitement, the thrill of the chase and the anticipation of great spectacle; as such, the presentation, as ever with the filmmaker, becomes a playful punishment for the intrinsic voyeurism of both the audience and the characters on screen.


The Second Circle [Aleksandr Sokurov, 1990]:

There was a struggle with this one. In fact it would be a cheat to even consider this a key film were it not for at least two significant elements that elevate it above the immediate level of refined tedium.  Firstly, the stylisation of the film is clever and compelling. The juxtaposition, between supposed "art house" tropes - as defined by a filmmaker like Tarkovsky; for instance, mechanical tracking shots, long takes, an emphasis on the elements (harsh landscapes, dripping water, howling winds, etc) - and the less conventional influence of the silent cinema - trick shots, miniatures; an inter-cutting between black & white and saturated colour - created, in my mind, a rather strange and at times almost abstract reading of what initially seems to be a fairly straightforward series of events.  This approach forces the audience to think more intensely about the drama being depicted and the possible reason as to why Sokurov might have approached this story in such a way as to deliberately call attention to the artificiality of the filmmaking form.

This divide, between the content (which is social-realist in nature) and the form (which is more affected and theatrical), seems intended to act as a barrier between the audience and the work itself. While the majority of directors will actively invite the audience into the experience of the film by having the viewer identify with the central character(s) and the minutiae of the plot - creating a sense of connection, through close-ups, the use of music, or the emotions suggested by the actors on-screen - Sokurov instead seems almost intent to push his audience away. His compositions are not conventionally beautiful, but are often cluttered, incoherent and defiantly careless. Wide angle lenses distort the natural perspective of rooms, making those in the foreground look like giants, while those in the background shrink into the vanishing point. Muddied filters obscure parts of the frame, giving us only the impression of characters and their actions.  Bodies and furniture are placed haphazardly; a hanging light bulb, the corner of a table or a character's bare foot each seem to cut aggressively into the edges of the frame.

The second point of interest is the film's central metaphor (at least as far as I understood it); the relationship between the son and his deceased father, and how this - in its self - refers back to film's political subtext; specifically, a kind of commentary on the once contemporary position of the Soviet Union. Made directly before the state's dissolution in 1991, Sokurov's film uses the father as a surrogate for everything the Soviet Union represents; his death - in both the literal and symbolic sense - signals the end of a particular tradition.  It brings forth a sign of great change and possibility; a chance to adapt and progress.  Through this, the son becomes an obvious stand-in for the next generation. He is left to clean up, to pick up the pieces, but also to fend for himself. How is this possible when one's life and identity have been so rigorously defined and fashioned by all that came before? This is the question that Sokurov poses and one that seems manifest in many of the film's longest and most laborious scenes.

By adopting a visual style that creates distance and artificiality, Sokurov seems to be making a concentrated effort to take the film out of the recognisable reality; to say "this is not the truth", but something else. As with the director's later film, Whispering Pages (1994), it is this emphasis on stylisation - the obvious artifice of the film-world - that intercedes on behalf of these characters, unable to express. The film's distorted framing, the slow drifting between colour and black & white (where the colour will literally bleed into an image, mid-scene, as if to suggest life slowly returning to the flesh of a pallid corpse) and the aerial views of the village, which present it as a miniature facade, all seem - on one level - to be entirely "Brechtian"; alienation techniques intended to take the audience out of the reality of the film, reminding us throughout that what we are seeing is a motion picture. However, such stylisations are also necessary to depict, visually, the subconscious perspective of the central character. His loneliness, the disorder of his own mind, both reflected in the murky chaos of Sokurov's frame.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Key Films #31

Ghost in the Shell: Innocence [Mamoru Oshii, 2004]:

If the original Ghost in the Shell (1995) used the practicalities of a generic cyberpunk conspiracy to question the moralities of mortality, free-will and the complexities of human identity, this follow-up feature - less a direct sequel, in the conventional sense, than a philosophical reimagining - re-examines the same considerations from an entirely different point of view.  Rejecting the hard-line science-fiction influences and references to Hollywood action cinema that propelled its cult predecessor, writer/director Mamoru Oshii and his collaborators have instead taken the character Batou - a significant if peripheral figure from the previous film - and created around him an obscure but revelatory murder mystery that unfolds like a suspended riff on the tech-noir investigations of the Ridley Scott directed Blade Runner (1982), with the deeper shades of existentialism found in a story like Death and the Compass (1942) by Jorge Luis Borges.  As with that particular narrative, the full course of the inquiry, as it develops through a series of echoes, repetitions and the mysteries of viral-infected dreams, is less about tying up the various loose ends of the investigation, or arriving at a suitable third-act "point", than an example of the character being led on a journey of self-discovery, from refutation to self-awareness and the acceptance of his fate.

Like the character of Deckard from Blade Runner, Batou takes on the role of the detective, here investigating a cycle of violent serial-murders involving a system of malfunctioning "gynoids" (essentially: mechanical sex toys, used for illicit means).  Through the development of this macguffin, Oshii is able to introduce not just the dramatic requirements of his narrative (the investigation and Batou's quest), but the various themes and ideas that will come to define the experience of the film and give a weight to its theoretical hypothesis on the nature of individualism and freewill.  The contrasting issues of sex and death, the role of artificial-intelligence and the perseverance of a pretence of human emotion in a world now entirely dominated by robotic technology, are each brought up and explored by the characters in the context of this fictional narrative, but are also deeply entrenched in the design of this character and in the dark and lonesome word that the filmmakers create.  While the first film had Batou as a kind of paternal mentor-figure - offering support, guidance and advice to the conflicted heroine, Major Motoko Kusanagi - the version of the character presented here has been left resentful (possibly even jaded) by his experiences during the previous film, but also by his own sense of alienation and disconnection from the world, as it exists.

The progression of Batou though the different levels of the film is really the progression of a character who exists between worlds; no longer a human, in the conventional, biological sense of the word, but at the same time, not quite a "robot", either.  The underlying philosophy of this takes the film back to the same ideological anxieties littered throughout Oshii's original Ghost in the Shell; where the discussions on humanity itself as being the literal "ghost in the machine" - lost or in danger of being replaced - provided a subtext to the more conventional scenes of action and suspense.  In comparison, this follow-up film - subtitled "Innocence", for reasons that we'll soon return to - is a slow, sombre and emotionally inhibited work that strives to present a vision of the future that is less a modern-metropolis than a dank, decaying environment, closer in its rain-soaked misery and late night desperation to the territory of the American film noir.  In its presentation, the film once again brings to mind the world of Scott's "replicant" themed masterpiece, but at the same time is also intended to evoke (more significantly) the considerations of Jean-Luc Godard, and in particular the filmmaker's own science-fiction landmark, Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution (1965); itself, one of the great influences on Oshii's work.

The world of "Innocence" is a world of contrasts.  The idea of different technologies co-existing, of eras - of design, or human endeavour - reflected within a single space (a shot, or idea), are each indicative of the desire to transcend, to correct, to adapt or make easy the course of our own human experience; even if such attempts to use the technology to "make better" the perceived flaws of the natural world or the wrongs of civilisation invariably lead us ever closer to the loss of our own identity.  Here, the sight of old cars, baroque architecture and the Godardian influence of having characters speak almost entirely in literary quotations is an acknowledgement of the objectification of the past, as "fetish", against this cold, ultra-robotic world, where love and human expression no longer exist.  They're a part of the pretence of Batou's character, to convince himself that he is "normal"; that the car he drives, the apartment he owns, the words he speaks, are all, in some small way, like reminders of a lost humanity.  It is here where the subtleties of the subtitle become clear.  The journey of the character - like that previously taken by the protagonist of the Borges tale - becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.  An investigation that has no conventional outcome, but is intended instead to facilitate the unconscious acceptance of Batou's role.  His "innocence" - the attempt to feign humanity - is an affectation.  He is just a "ghost", still clinging; unable to embrace the emptiness of a digital world.


Akira [Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988]:

As a kid, it was the mix of violent dystopia, sci-fi action and grotesque, almost "Cronenbergian" scenes of pure body-horror that defined the experience of the film.  The transmutation of the central character, Tetsuo - both fascinating and repulsive in its outrageous grandeur - was more a sufficient coda to its preceding scenes of gang violence, motorcycle rallies, police shootouts and government enforcements than anything more metaphysical, or philosophical, in intent.  On reflection, now approaching the film as an adult, aware of its cultural context and more significant historical perspective, it is this socio-political facet of Akira - its attempts to reconcile the history of the country with the then-present-day realities of advanced computer systems, economic uncertainty and the perceived loss of tradition, or cultural identity - that seems the most satisfying interpretation of the work.  That the film begins with an image of Tokyo, annihilated by the white haloed blast of a nuclear bomb, now seems less like a promise of action and spectacle, as it once did, than a calculated effort on the part of the filmmakers to evoke the symbol of destruction that not only brought about the conclusion of the Second World War, but in a sense changed the course of the modern Japan, as it exists today.

The attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain shocking moments in twentieth century history; not just for the severity of their destruction, but for the way these events would shape the Japanese psychology during the fall of the 20th century.  It was the bomb that crippled the Japanese economy; ending the country's reign as a legitimate Imperial Empire, and bringing with it the rise of democracy, and a new form of western consumerism that would in fact make possible the economic miracle that saw prosperity during the post-war years.  In Akira, the concerns of the present "past" become the concerns of a potential, if as yet unrealised future; this imaginary future that seems, in its design and direction, to be dangerously close to our own.  Here, the bomb that begins the film becomes a catalyst for the slow death of this future society; a society where the clashes between student radicals and armoured police suggest a political disharmony that is matched by the spiritual disharmony as supported by the ranting-mad prophet and his all-too-eager cult.  These political struggles are placed against the more personal disharmonies reflected by its gangs of disaffected kids causing havoc on the roads and motorways; their rituals and initiations suggestive of ancient knights, or samurai - both jousting and battling for honour and supremacy; like The Warriors (1979) or Mad Max 2 (1981) - but also representing a kind of corrupted fatalism; where life, as these characters now see it, no longer holds meaning.

It is one of these kids - the weakling, Tetsuo - that will become a symbol for all the various concerns and calamities that the filmmakers see as pivotal to the way the country has been shaped by the realities of nuclear annihilation; the course of life, more transient, reckless and unstable; its children, born in the shadow of a mushroom cloud, now lost to the world of technology, images, sensations.  The transmutation of this character, as referenced earlier, now has less to do with the facilitation of shock and gore (as I once perceived) than an effort to visualise the debasement of the culture in an attempt to understand.  The physical transformation as an outer expression of the psychological transformation occurring within is presented as a sort of figurative re-birth; the body transcending the limitations of flesh and blood and instead connecting itself to the new technologies that now define our way of life.  Tetsuo, in his metamorphosis and subsequent retribution, becomes the personification of the country's own post-nuclear identity turned against itself, flesh against flesh, steel against steel, etc.   A powerful image that seems related, in hindsight, to the concerns of the filmmaker Shin'ya Tsukamoto, and to his own "Tetsuo"; there subtitled The Iron Man (1989).

The world of the film is as beautiful in its design as it is brutal in its conception.  Brought to life in a way that is vibrant, vivid and entirely immersive - a modern-day Mecca of consumerism, black market racketeering and synthetic sensations - the reference-points seem blatantly obvious, but no less immense.  The literal "neon-jungle", with its large outdoor video monitors broadcasting 24/7 news bulletins, soap operas and commercial breaks, recalls the retro-futurist metropolis of the Ridley Scott directed Blade Runner (1982) - the eternal benchmark for this kind of cyberpunk tale - while the subculture of gangs and gang violence, and their own world of graffiti-covered classrooms and derelict buildings, is closer to the "brutalist" future of Stanley Kubrick's similarly violent and prophetic A Clockwork Orange (1971).  However, it is the emotional and psychological struggle of Tetsuo (and those closest to him) that for me defines the experience of the film; elevating the action and violence above a level of adolescent excess, and instead connecting it to a more genuine concern about the relationship between youth, technology and the state of the modern-world.  The film is as such loaded with the tragedy of a generation unable to put down roots; to live a life with a sense of stability, or certainty; a generation that expects death to come quickly and without warning, as it did, so many times before.