Thursday, 30 October 2014

For Halloween

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





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

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

Friday, 24 October 2014

Key Films #35

Wicked City [Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1987]:

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

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

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


Yojimbo [Akira Kurosawa, 1961]:

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

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


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

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

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

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

Monday, 20 October 2014

Key Films #34

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Monday, 6 October 2014

Top Ten: 1990

Ranking the Decades
A Year in Film List + Image Gallery

Gremlins 2: The New Batch [Joe Dante, 1990]:

Edward Scissorhands [Tim Burton, 1990]:

Trust [Hal Hartley, 1990]:

Close-Up [Abbas Kiarostami, 1990]:

Innisfree [José Luis Guerín, 1990]:

Nouvelle vague [Jean-Luc Godard, 1990]:

The Comfort of Strangers [Paul Schrader, 1990]:

No Fear, No Die [Claire Denis, 1990]:

Miller's Crossing [Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990]:

Dick Tracy [Warren Beatty, 1990]:

Above, arranged in order of preference, my personal top-ten best films of the year (from what I've seen), accurate at the time of writing.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Top Ten: 1991

Ranking the Decades
A Year in Film List + Image Gallery

Germany Year 90 Nine Zero [Jean-Luc Godard, 1991]:

The Suspended Step of the Stork [Theodoros Angelopoulos, 1991]:

Only Yesterday [Isao Takahata, 1991]:

The Fisher King [Terry Gilliam, 1991]:

Barton Fink [Joel & Ethan Coen, 1991]:

Kafka [Steven Soderbergh, 1991]:

Europa [Lars von Trier, 1991]:

JFK [Oliver Stone, 1991]:

Jacquot de Nantes [Agnès Varda, 1991]:

The Visitor (aka The Stranger) [Satyajit Ray, 1991]:

Above, arranged in order of preference, my personal top-ten best films of the year (from what I've seen), accurate at the time of writing.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Top Ten: 1992

Ranking the Decades
A Year in Film List + Image Gallery 

Céline [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 1992]:

Chasing Butterflies [Otar Iosseliani, 1992]:

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me [David Lynch, 1992]:

Antigone [Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, 1992]:

Lessons of Darkness [Werner Herzog, 1992]:

Light Sleeper [Paul Schrader, 1992]:

A Sense of History [Mike Leigh, 1992]:

Dream of Light (aka The Quince Tree Sun) [Víctor Erice, 1992]:

Candyman [Bernard Rose, 1992]:

The Crying Game [Neil Jordan, 1992]:

Above, arranged in order of preference, my personal top-ten best films of the year (from what I've seen), accurate at the time of writing.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Top Ten: 1993

Ranking the Decades
A Year in Film List + Image Gallery

Oh, Woe is Me! (Hélas pour moi) [Jean-Luc Godard, 1993]:

King of the Hill [Steven Soderbergh, 1993]:

Matinee [Joe Dante, 1993]:

Abraham's Valley [Manoel de Oliveira, 1993]:

Manhattan Murder Mystery [Woody Allen, 1993]:

Three Colours: Blue [Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1993]:

D'Est (From the East) [Chantal Akerman, 1993]:

Blue [Derek Jarman, 1993]:

Carlito's Way [Brian De Palma, 1993]:

Faraway, So Close! [Wim Wenders, 1993]:

Above, arranged in order of preference, my personal top-ten best films of the year (from what I've seen), accurate at the time of writing.