Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Ways of Seeing

Thoughts on the subjectivity of film viewership:
Using, as examples, a discussion of the films Porco Rosso (1992)
and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2016)


This past weekend, I attended a screening of the Hayao Miyazaki film Porco Rosso (1992). It's a work that I've seen several times before, with the initial viewings stretching as far back as my late childhood/early adolescence. It's also a film that I carry a great deal of affection for, despite its somewhat lesser status among aficionados of Miyazaki's work. This time however, seeing the film with an audience of friends and discussing the experience with them immediately after viewing, I was struck by a moment of self-realisation that made me question my own response to the film, and even my approach to film-viewing in general.

It was a question of perception, really: how much of a film exists on-screen - as a readable, definable subject that is understood through the interaction between the characters and the plot - and how much of it exists in the heart and mind of the individual viewer, who interprets the scenario and its iconography, creating for themselves their own meanings and significances, which, over time, defines for us what the film is effectively about?

I've spoken in the past about the subjective nature of film (and film criticism); how films are essentially dead objects that an audience gives life to by enlivening the characters and situations with their own personal thoughts, feelings and recollections. However, this past year, I've become increasingly cognisant that my own interpretation of films is not only personal to the point of impenetrability, but often invisible to anybody looking at the film from a different point of view.

To preface this, I wanted to share a short note I wrote last year about the Tim Burton/Jane Goldman adaptation of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2016). Writing on MUBI, I surmised the film as follows: "The subtext is incredibly sad. A wounded boy disappears into a story told by his grandfather; a child of the Holocaust who saw men become monsters. In this story, dead children killed by war remain frozen in time. The narrative then becomes an attempt by the child to reconcile with his grandfather's own experiences through an interaction with the old man's memories and his own encounters with death..."

While I acknowledge that Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is a flawed work, far below the standard of Burton's greatest efforts – such as Ed Wood (1994), Big Fish (2003), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) and the animated Frankenweenie (2012) – it was the themes and subtext of the film that struck me as so profoundly moving that I was willing to overlook any discrepancies in its creative delivery. However, other people that I've spoken to about the film not only failed to respond to it on this same kind of a personal level, they didn't even recognise such elements as being present in the actual work.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children [Tim Burton, 2016]:

Porco Rosso [Hayao Miyazaki, 1992]:

The experience of discussing Porco Rosso with friends brought me back to this same relationship between 'text' and 'subtext'; what Jean-Luc Godard, in A Letter to Freddy Buache (1982), further clarified as the distinction between 'a film on' and 'a film about.' So the question is this; do we see a film first and foremost as a kind of passive illustration – a story of characters attempting, through action, to achieve a specific goal – or do we see it as a means of exploring, through the relationship between those characters and the world the filmmakers create, issues of politics, history, sociology, identity, etc? In short, "narrative" or "theme"? Does a  film necessarily have to succeed on both levels in order to be considered of great merit, or can we choose to elevate a film with a thrilling or provocative subtext, even if the basic storytelling is perhaps flawed or weak?

Unlike the example of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, I would never call the storytelling of Miyazaki's film flawed or weak; quite the opposite in fact. The film is engaging, amusing and enlivened throughout by a combination of breathless action and adventure, broad slapstick comedy and scenes of a genuine pathos. Nonetheless, the film certainly plays fast and loose with its own fantastical mythology; it leaves space for the audience to question and interpret the predicament of its central character (and their relationship to the plot) by effectively refusing to provide closure or clarification.

For the uninitiated, Porco Rosso tells the story of a former WWI fighter pilot, Marco Pagot, carving out a post-war career as defence against rampaging 'sky pirates' in the Adriatic. The twist here is that the pilot has been afflicted by a magical curse that has left him with the head of a pig. Friends seeing the film for the first time were left frustrated by the film's lack of answers about how the curse worked; the background of it, the particular context, the resolution, etc. While the curse is mentioned in the dialog, it's never really explained. There are playful fairy-tale like allusions throughout about the curse being broken by a kiss, but unlike the presentation of the similar porcine-related curse cast upon the young Chihiro's parents in the subsequent Miyazaki-directed masterwork Spirited Away (2000), the film in question doesn't really concern itself with the finer points of the who, what, why or how.

Porco Rosso [Hayao Miyazaki, 1992]:

Spirited Away [Hayao Miyazaki, 2000]:

From my own perspective, there's never been any mystery regarding the true nature of the pig's curse, or the inference at the end of the film that it may have been broken by the character's own actions following the course of the narrative. For me, Marco's appearance was always directly related to his loss of humanity; a literal loss of face. Even as a child I took it as granted that the curse - as presented by the filmmaker- was in part a metaphorical gesture; one that felt explicitly connected to the film's anti-war/anti-fascist commentary, and the character's own betrayal of his innate sense of human decency following his experiences in battle.

Attempting to explain how I came to such a conclusion I pointed to a specific scene. Midway through the film, when asked how he became a pig, Marco retells an otherwise unrelated story to his young companion - the budding mechanic and aeronautics engineer Fio - about an experience he had during the war. Following an especially vicious mid-air dog fight, Marco found himself the last remaining pilot. His plane, lost within a skyscape of desolate cloud, just drifting into the white void. Here the film stops for the first time; the breathless action and colourful adventure replaced by a moment of odd but transcendent serenity. Now Marco, like the audience, is compelled to watch as the other pilots, both friends and enemies, float away into some celestial cosmic procession of an afterlife transfiguration; or is it a less literal expression of the true cost of war personified by this trail of dead souls?

Porco Rosso [Hayao Miyazaki, 1992]:

It's by far the film's most beautiful moment. An eerie, ethereal encounter with a world or phenomena both greater than our own conception; rendered with the same sense of awe and wonderment that Miyazaki brought to his better known fantasy films - such Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) or Howl's Moving Castle (2004) - which works to both deepen and enrich the overall experience of the film and its carefully interwoven commentary on loss, responsibility and regret.

While the seeming significance of this scene and the connection between the idea of war, as a genuine tragedy, and humanity as something easily lost or corrupted (like innocence, or the sense of self) had always been central to my own enjoyment and understanding of Porco Rosso, the friends I watched it with didn't see it quite the same way. For them there was nothing in the film to make this connection explicit, or to even suggest it as a possible explanation of events. I began to question how I might have arrived at this particular interpretation; what had led me to blindly accept that this character had been cursed with the physical form of a pig because of his own self-hatred following the perception of his actions during the war; or that breaking the curse was a way of reconciling those experiences, regaining his sense of self and in a way being able to recognise that for all the shame and guilt, there was still an inherent humanity present in his actions? Had I read something that pushed me in this direction? An old article or review from some long-since forgotten publication of my youth? Had the director himself suggested it in an interview once? Was it something I'd read online? The answer to this question is: I don't know.

Am I guilty of projecting ideas onto the film that were never really there to begin with? Have I become like the kid in M. Night Shyamalan's brilliant and perpetually underrated Lady in the Water (2006); reading signs on cereal boxes? Finding patterns in things that don't really exist? Again, I couldn't say. My response to the film still feels authentic to me, but the prevailing emotions of the film, which had always been so strong and profound, now seemed somewhat muted. Seeing the film with friends and experiencing it, to a small extent, through their own uninitiated perspective, did make me wonder how much of the film's emotional and philosophical weight, or my long-held interpretation of the text, had been a figment of my own invention; something that no one else is able to see.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

I Get Overwhelmed

Notes on a film: A Ghost Story (2017)

That feeling when you see a film and it hits you in such a way that you need to run through the streets in the middle of the night so you can tell all your friends about it. Then you remember you don't have any friends, so your blog has to suffice...

I've wanted to watch A Ghost Story (2017) since I saw the earliest publicity images for it over a year ago. At first I was a bit alienated by it. I'd heard it described as a film about death - about grief  specifically - but I found the earlier scenes fatally underdeveloped. The stilted, drawn-out, almost 'pornographic' depiction of mourning felt unnecessarily laboured. Without a strong connection developed between its two initial protagonists during the short scenes before Casey Affleck's character dies in a car accident, it was difficult to feign interest in the story, and the subsequent scenes of Rooney Mara's extended grief spiral seemed unearned.

Then Mara's character reaches a kind of catharsis and  leaves, but the film doesn't end with it. Affleck's ghost remains in the house, and witnesses years of life and solitude, birth and decay unfold all around him. Scene after scene, the film kept unfolding, revealing new depths, new secrets, like a succession of Chinese boxes; each new sequence broadening and enriching the story and the themes of loss, death, time, meaning, purpose, commitment, etc. Moving between moments of past, present and future, as civilisations fall and are rebuilt; as dead stars go out, only to be replaced by new ones that burn just as bright, and just as briefly.

A Ghost Story [David Lowery, 2017]:

Then the film eventually comes full circle; returning to scenes from the earlier domestic life between Mara and Affleck, showing shades and variations of their relationship that tell a different, no less tragic story; one not necessarily about grief and death, but nonetheless centred on loss and the inability to move-on. The connection to all of these various events, the futility, the hope for something greater, the desire to move the stars so as to carve our own names (and others) in the night sky, or to say "I was here; I existed!", was so beautifully realised that I actually cried.

I loved that the house became a metaphor and that the ghost became a witness to the human condition. I loved that it uses the old Academy film ratio (1.37:1), even if certain shots were a bit kitsch, and others too closely resembled "Instagram chic." I love that Will Oldham's in it, and appears just at the precise moment when the film makes its leap from 'interesting curio' to 'genuine masterwork.'

Friday, 6 July 2018

Robby Müller

In Memoriam

In general, I tend not to make too many "R.I.P." posts. Other blogs that are more active than mine make such tributes a regular feature of their postings, but given that I'm not a very prolific writer here at Lights in the Dusk, I could imagine such posts becoming overwhelming given the general lack of other content. The sad fact is that too many great artists come and go and if I were to acknowledge each of them this blog would turn into an obituary.

However, Robby Müller, the great Dutch cinematographer famed for his collaborations with Wim Wenders, among other filmmakers, passed away this week, and it seems necessary to break from this tradition and share a few words (and images) about his extraordinary career.

To Live and Die in L.A. [William Friedkin, 1985]:

Müller was one of my absolute favourite cinematographers and was someone who seemed to gravitate towards projects and filmmakers that speak to me on a profoundly personal level.

It's difficult to choose a favourite film photographed by Müller. Throughout his career he brought a style, atmosphere and inventiveness that always seemed right for the specific project. In other words, he served the material. Whether he was working in 16mm black and white, as in Alice in the Cities (1974), 35mm colour, as in Barfly (1987), or pioneering the use of digital video, as in Dancer in the Dark (2000), My Brother Tom (2001) and 24 Hour Party People (2002), respectively, Müller was able to create lasting images that were bold, iconographic and always attuned to matters of light, space, character and location.

Whether collaborating with mainstream Hollywood directors, such as William Friedkin, John Schlesinger and Peter Bogdanovich, or more idiosyncratic, independent talents, such as Alex Cox, Jim Jarmusch and Raúl Ruiz, Müller always seemed to bring a level of craftsmanship that was even more remarkable given the limitations that he chose to embrace.

It's not an overstatement to suggest that Müller could have had the same career as Roger Deakins, Robert Richardson, or more recently Hoyte Van Hoytema; working exclusively on big budget Hollywood pictures for so-called "prestige" filmmakers. Instead, Müller chose to work with filmmakers that were unconventional, controversial and often at the start of their careers. In doing so, he nonetheless succeeded in creating a lifetime's worth of astounding images on small budgets, short schedules and against incredibly difficult filming conditions.

Robby Müller filming Kings of the Road [photo attributed to Wim Wenders]:

Just focusing on his early collaborations with Wenders already illustrates Müller's amazing versatility. Moving from the stylised and Hitchcokian The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972) to the almost documentary like travelogue of Alice in the Cities, we can appreciate both his mastery of different mediums and his ability to switch between works of unforced naturalism and painterly stylisation.

The subsequent films that Wenders and Müller made together would only broaden their creative pallet, as the emphasis on landscape, or 'place', became a central concern in a film like Kings of the Road (1976) or the early scenes of Paris, Texas (1984), while the use of colour would become increasingly more daring and expressive, as in the Edward Hopper influenced Patricia Highsmith adaptation The American Friend (1977).

The lasting legacy of Müller is perhaps best surmised by Wenders himself, who in a tribute to his former collaborator, states: "Like no other, you were able to seize moods and to describe situations in your imagery that revealed more about the characters than long dialogues or dramaturgical structures ever could. You knew how to create a distinctive atmosphere for each and every film, in which the respective actors were, in the truest sense of the phrase, "in good hands." For a handful of filmmakers, among whom I was one, you were their most important companion, like Hans W., Jim, Lars, Steve. And you were a role model for a whole generation of young directors of photography."

Below are some images taken from my absolute favourite films photographed by Robby Müller, which I hope illustrate many of the qualities discussed here, as well as providing a chronological record of his stylistic progression, trademarks, characteristics and key works.

Alice in the Cities [Wim Wenders, 1974]:

Kings of the Road [Wim Wenders, 1976]:

The Left-Handed Woman [Peter Handke, 1978]:

The American Friend [Wim Wenders, 1977]:

They All Laughed [Peter Bogdanovich, 1981]:

Repo Man [Alex Cox, 1984]:

Paris, Texas [Wim Wenders, 1984]:

To Live and Die in L.A. [William Friedkin, 1985]:

Down by Law [Jim Jarmusch, 1986]:

Mystery Train [Jim Jarmusch, 1989]:

Korczak [Andrzej Wajda, 1990]:

Until the End of the World [Wim Wenders, 1991]:

Dead Man [Jim Jarmusch, 1995]:

Breaking the Waves [Lars von Trier, 1996]:

The Tango Lesson [Sally Potter, 1997]:

Dancer in the Dark [Lars von Trier, 2000]:

Ashes [Steve McQueen, 2014]:

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Hovering Over the Earth

Notes on a film: Calamari Union (1985)

Following on from the sombre, contemporary-set Dostoevsky adaptation, Crime and Punishment (1983), this second feature-length effort from Aki Kaurismäki already illustrates the filmmaker's eclectic range and singular ambition, as he graduates from the deadpan, 'Bressonian' hyper-realism of the previous film to embrace a looser, semi-improvised narrative, captured in a stark black and white.

Between the very different approaches of these first two films we begin to see a sort of pattern or template emerging for the films that would eventually follow. An indicator that Kaurismäki's subsequent career would alternate the low-key realism of films like Shadows in Paradise (1986), Ariel (1988) and The Match Factory Girl (1990), with more stylised, absurdist or even eccentric films, such as Hamlet Goes Business (1987), Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989) and La Vie de Bohème (1992).

Calamari Union definitely falls into the latter category, as its absurd, picaresque narrative follows the misadventures of fifteen men - fourteen of them named Frank, and an idiot man-child named Pekka - who one day decide to leave behind the hopeless working class backdrop of Eira and instead quest to the near-fabled district of Kallio (creating in the process a bizarre passage that turns the suburban boroughs of Helsinki into an almost mythological terrain).

Calamari Union [Aki Kaurismäki, 1985]:

It's not necessarily a film to be taken seriously, as Kaurismäki follows his characters on this meandering journey - finding strange scenes, slapstick humour and at least one rock & roll performance - but it's not to say that the film can't be looked at or appreciated on a deeper, more personal level.

For me, there's a definite air of Buñuel here - both in terms of the plot and in some of the more satirical elements (as the characters become a warped prism through which the filmmaker can exaggerate the various foibles of man) - as well as something reminiscent of Bertrand Blier's fantastic film, Buffet froid (1979). Like Calamari Union, Buffet froid - or Cold Cuts - spins an episodic tale of listless, damaged men caught up in a strange and often benignly surreal adventure, with deeper shades of bleak existentialism punctuating the surface farce.

Both films have the same nocturnal quality, making great use of locations that seem empty, or devoid of life. The sense of the city sleeping becoming like a stage or even a playground in which these characters can enact their various narratives, both comic and tragic.

Buffet froid [Bertrand Blier, 1979]: 

Calamari Union [Aki Kaurismäki, 1985]:

Beginning with a quotation, "Dedicated to those ghosts of Baudelaire, Michaux and Prevert, who still hover over this Earth...", Calamari Union immediately finds a tone that's somewhere between parody and sincerity. It's also between the crushing realities of the 1980s - with its bleak prospects and lack of employment - and that typically French romanticism of men in long coats meeting in bars and cafes; attempting, in their own listless and world-weary way, to express the poetry of a different kind of despair.

The black and white cinematography of Timo Salminen plays into this same kind of language and iconography. It feels especially reminiscent of the films of the French New Wave, in its observational visual aesthetic, as well as in the presentation of the characters, their self-awareness and the non-specific subject matter (see also: Kaurismäki's production company at the time was called Villealfa; a nod to Jean-Luc Godard's post-modernist new wave classic, Alphaville, 1965).

Calamari Union [Aki Kaurismäki, 1985]:

More-so than any of his later films, it's difficult to really assume what Kaurismäki's intentions were with this strange Calamari Union. Was he simply trying to produce something that presented a surreal and sardonic experience that could be enjoyed without having to bring to it the same level of consideration needed for a film like Crime and Punishment, or is there a hidden depth to the film just waiting to be rediscovered and interpreted? While some audiences may see the film as a frivolous or even silly work - especially in light of the filmmaker's later, more humanist projects, such as his recent films Le Havre (2011) and The Other Side of Hope (2017) - I still find it somewhat fascinating, compelling and often bleakly funny.

If you wanted to bring a literal interpretation to the film, then Calamari Union could be seen as a representation of the cycle of life. The characters emerge from the womb - or, in this instance, their local pub - and travel by train through an underground tunnel into the wider world. Here they begin this strange journey into life (breaking away from the group - this surrogate family - meeting new people, forming relationships, making decisions, then eventually dropping dead).

You could also see the film as a treatise on the notion of individuality, with the earlier scenes showing the group to be very much a part of this single "union" - both anonymous to themselves and to the viewing audience - and each with the same shared goals and ambitions. Eventually, as they continue their odyssey of self-discovery, they find their own individual interests and directions through life, free of influence, and now able to form their own unique and distinctive personalities.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Art Cinema

Thoughts on a film: Shirley: Visions of Reality (2013)

Martin Scorsese once said: "Cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out." It's a statement that I returned to several times within the context of the film in question, and also in relation to another quote, similarly attributed to a legendary filmmaker: "Everything is cinema."

The Scorsese quote is interesting, and speaks to the responsibilities of the filmmaker when approaching the necessities of 'coverage' - i.e. determining where to put the camera, what to emphasise within a given scene, where the point of interest is - as well as considering things such as context, ideology and intention. However, it's a statement that isn't exclusive to the practicalities of filmmaking, and there's the rub. What's in the frame, and what's out, could just as easily be applied to the practice of painting, or photography. It could even be said about the theatre; or at least the conventional theatre, restricted as it often is by the parameters of the stage.

In Shirley: Visions of Reality, the filmmaker Gustav Deutsch applies Scorsese's maxim to the rigorous recreation of several paintings by the artist Edward Hopper; using the notion of "what's in the frame" as a pretext to spin-off a series of interpretations and phantom narratives inspired by what Deutsch sees within the paintings themselves (the representations, the settings, the "protagonists", etc), but also what might be seen outside of them (the historical context, the politics of the age, the fundamentals of Hopper's own life). In doing so, my mind wanders back to that second hypothesis, "everything is cinema" - normally credited to one Jean-Luc Godard - and finds within it a kind of justification for this film and its central experiment.

Throughout the film, Deutsch and his collaborators painstakingly recreate thirteen of Hopper's most iconic paintings as a series of theatrical tableaux. Through further use of voice-over and physical performances, the filmmakers attempt to convey a consistent narrative that runs through each of the paintings in an effort to better explore the nuances and ambiguities of Hoppers own work against the possible historical and social-political contexts that surrounded them.

Shirley: Visions of Reality [Gustav Deutsch, 2013]:

I have to admit, as an experiment, and as a work of cinema in its own right, the film left me somewhat conflicted. On the one hand, I don't think the narrative that Deutsch attaches to Hopper's paintings is as interesting as the stories that are already conveyed or suggested by the art itself. Yes, the idea of linking the individual female subjects from several of Hopper's most important works (in order to create a kind of subconscious stand-in for the various themes the filmmaker has extrapolated from his own personal interpretations of the artist's iconography) is a clever one - creating a kind of symbolic representation of either the notion of womanhood in the mid-twentieth century, the 'voice' of the American theatre during its most turbulent and transformative period, or the personification of the country itself from the year 1931 through to 1963 (encapsulating both the pre and post-war periods) - it's never entirely compelling, as a dramatic device, or comprehendible, as a political statement.

Hopper's work already has a long association with the cinema. Several high-profile filmmakers - going back to Alfred Hitchcock's work of the 1940s and 50s; or more specifically, the whole legacy of directors, production designers and cinematographers associated with the development of the 'film noir' (think The Killers (1946) by Robert Siodmak for instance) - have tried to emulate Hopper's distinctive depiction of urban Americana and managed to capture something of that same nocturnal, melancholic air.

Nighthawks [Edward Hopper, 1942]:

The Killers [Robert Siodmak, 1946]:

Deep Red [Dario Argento, 1975]:

The End of Violence [Wim Wenders, 1997]:

When we think of the name Edward Hopper, there's a certain narrative of expectation that presents itself. It's a narrative of loneliness, alienation, longing and disappointment. Hopper's figures are often haunted, alone, disconnected from the society that surrounds them. They exist within settings that are often communal in nature - cafés, bars, cinemas, trains, office-spaces - but his figures are devoid of companionship; frozen almost, in time. They become like ghosts, haunting the landscape of an American Gothic, or like prisoners, trapped by circumstances and routines.

The filmmakers that have best translated Hopper's images to the screen have found a certain affinity for such characteristics and situations, or for that feeling of quiet desperation; the aching loneliness associated with being adrift in the big city. The silence of Hopper's paintings doesn't require a context or elucidation for us to possess a greater understanding or insight into these narratives of still life; it's all there in the expression; the ambience and the sensitivity, which is felt.

Automat [Edward Hopper, 1927]:

Shadows in Paradise [Aki Kaurismäk, 1986]:

While 'Shirley' does succeed in presenting a sense of the sadness, longing and disconnection associated with Hopper's paintings, there are whole sections of the narrative that are devoted to discussions of the American theatre, Communism, the House Un-American Activities Committee, the betrayals of Elia Kazan, the inferiority of the Hollywood system, the works of Emily Dickinson, the contradiction of the phrase "photography as truth", contemporary journalism, and a vague back-and-forth story about a couple unable to connect.

None of the themes or storylines that are here assigned to Hopper's work feel necessary to our own understanding of the images themselves. Instead, they present a kind of highbrow academic variation on the notion of fan-fiction; connecting the various dots, not because they feel explicit to the conception of Hopper's paintings, but because they're of interest to the filmmaker. This, in and of itself, is not an issue. However, the lines of interpretation that Deutsch attaches to Hopper's works aren't significantly well developed; instead feeling like vague traces or suggestions of something that never quite collates into a consistent narrative.

These fragments of a story play out against the further use of actual news bulletins that cover a whole stratum of American history (taking us from the tail end of the depression, to the outbreak of the Second World War; through the rise of feminism, the civil rights movement and the imminent assassination of president John F. Kennedy). It's difficult to understand what any of these cultural milestones have to do with Hopper's paintings or how we, as an audience, interpret them, but they seem significant to Deutsch's projection of the work and his own perception of this tumultuous period in the country's evolution.

Perhaps this is what the film's subtitle, 'Visions of Reality', is really getting at. The idea that the art, while depicting a simple, still life observation, becomes, in itself, a representation of the period in which it was created. These paintings, as cultural artefacts, do present, in the very literal sense, visions of reality; not just in their emphasis on small, seemingly inconsequential details that define one facet of the human condition, but as a recorded documentation of the attitudes, politics, fashion, styles, expressions and routines depicted in the work; as well as in the social, racial and economic backdrops that existed during their conception.

Shirley: Visions of Reality [Gustav Deutsch, 2013]:

Western Motel [Edward Hopper, 1957]:

While I'm left to question why Deutsch decided to interpret the woman in these paintings as an actress involved in radical left-wing theatre, or what her journeys through Hopper's landscapes are supposed to represent, or how these fragments of a story are supposed to tie the personal to the political, I did find the film strangely beguiling and always beautiful; even if the intellectual context of the work seemed elusive and largely impenetrable.

As a work of cinema, 'Shirley' is undoubtedly a masterpiece of form and stylisation. The use of light and shadow, the colour and texture, the compositions and general mise-en-scene, are all exquisite, both in their mimicry of Hopper's hugely recognisable aesthetic and as an example of pure cinematic craftsmanship. The detail and authenticity with which Deutsch and his cinematographer Jerzy Palacz have brought to life Hopper's work makes the supposedly grand stylisations of Wes Anderson - as typified by films such as The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) - look like an action-figure's diorama.

The sound-design is also worth highlighting. The ambient sounds of passing trains, street life, seagulls and crashing waves help to give a realistic depth to these abstractions of artificiality; bringing the world of the paintings to life, but still capturing something that is somewhat surreal, even dreamlike. I was less keen on some of the music selections - including, somewhat incongruously, the songs of David Sylvian - which despite capturing the same yearning loneliness inherent in the imagery, felt too modern in this particular context. Nonetheless, the film throughout has an almost hypnotic quality, intensified by the static compositions, slow zooms and languid cutting, as well as through the voice-over evocations of the actress Stephanie Cumming (who brings a captivating and enigmatic presence as the film's central figure).

Shirley: Visions of Reality [Gustav Deutsch, 2013]:

While I'll no doubt wrestle with the intellectual or political merits of this film for some time - with the same unanswered questions and peculiarities going back and forth through my own interpretation of Deutsch's work - there's a part of me that would relish the opportunity to see this again. Whether or not we reject the film as a work of imitation, or as a gimmick, or as something that is more art installation than conventional motion picture, there's no denying that this is a thought-provoking film of precise moments; some perplexing, others astounding.

One scene in particular stood out to me as something so beautiful that it elevated the entire experience of the film as a whole. It's a recreation of Hopper's 1963 painting, Intermission, in which this figure of Shirley finds herself alone in a cinema. As the unseen film begins to play, Shirley realises that the rest of the audience hasn't returned from the intermission. She's sat there - eager to share this experience with her fellow human beings - but she's all alone. In this brief moment, divorced from Deutsch's projected narrative, the combination of the beautiful cinematography, the impeccable production design, the music, the voice and subtleties of Cumming's performance, each work together to create a moment that is fragile, intimate, reflective, heartfelt, biting and perceptive. In a word: unforgettable.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Out of the Past

Thoughts on a film: How Green Was My Valley (1940)

Beginning with the title: How Green Was My Valley. No question mark is necessary; this is a statement as opposed to a enquiry. In any case, we'll never know how green the valley actually was, since the black and white photography denies us such privilege. However, in the heart and mind of this central character, looking back, as the characters in Ford's films often do, the memory of this place and the picture that is captured, photograph-like, in the memory and imagination, is powerful enough to make the significance of the phrasing an important device in communicating what the film is essentially about.  Not just important to the character's own attempts to recall something that no longer exists, in any actual, physical reality, but to the viewing audience and their attempts to find interest and identification in this most personal of personal tales.

This is a title that establishes, up-front and before the film has even begun, a connection between the 'author' - as in, the character bringing these people to life - and the audience. On paper, this is a title that reads like a grandfather handing down old tales to a child; or perhaps even words of wisdom between a father and his son; something similar to the relationship between the young Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowall) and his own father, Mr. Gwillym Morgan (Donald Crisp), as seen in the film itself. A kind of, "How green was my valley? Well son, let me tell you..." sort of thing.

How Green Was My Valley [John Ford, 1941]:

The specific on-screen phrasing of this title seems to emphasise the notion of the personal through the possessive; where the sense of an autobiographical story (or a fictionalised-autobiographical story, as would eventually be revealed) is suggested by the nuances of how the title reads, or indeed, could be spoken. A perfect example of this statement as opposed to enquiry approach can be found in the film's opening monologue, which introduces not only the theme of personal reflection - as the character looks back to a story that is recreated for our benefit - but the usual Fordian interest in the power of memory to transform moments of the mundane, or the everyday, into images of unforgettable spectacle.


"I am leaving behind me fifty years of memory. Memory? Who shall say what is real and what is not?  Can I believe my friends all gone when their voices are a glory in my ears? No. And I will stand to say no and no again, for they remain a living truth within my mind. There is no fence nor hedge around time that is gone. You can go back and have what you like of it, if you can remember. So I can close my eyes on my valley as it is today, and it is gone, and I see it as it was when I was a boy. Green it was, and possessed of the plenty of the Earth. In all Wales, there was none so beautiful. Everything I ever learned as a small boy came from my father and I never found anything he ever told me to be wrong or worthless. The simple lessons he taught me are as sharp and clear in my mind as if I had heard them only yesterday. In those days, the black slag, the waste of the coal pits, had only begun to cover the sides of our hill. Not yet enough to mar the countryside, nor blacken the beauty of our village, for the colliery had only begun to poke its skinny black fingers through the green."


The images that Ford uses to accompany this narration - which reads like poetry on the page but is near-transcendent when spoken in the film by an unseen Irving Pichel - capture what might have been the reality for these people; but a reality, like everything in the film, defined by the memories of an old man looking back to the days of his youth. The fact that this dialogue, spoken in an attempt to bring dead objects back to life, is narrated by a man perhaps close to death himself, gives these bold, near-defiant images of ordinary people turned into icons of human endurance by the incredible way in which Ford frames them, an even greater emotional weight. Just as the images, in turn, make the dialogue resonate on a far deeper and emotional level by foregrounding it through the associations and juxtapositions of image and text.

The relationship here, between the opening text and the opening images, suggest a greater depth by deliberately playing on the audience's own recollections of what 'home', as something that we return to, subconsciously, throughout our adult lives, actually means. We can grasp, immediately, the significance of this place, exaggerated in the mind as well as on the screen, by the way in which Ford, and his cinematographer Arthur C. Miller, present it to us. These rich, painterly compositions that recall impressionist landscapes of charcoal on paper nonetheless have a touch of the documentary about them. There is a direct, iconographic truth to these images that goes beyond the edges of the frame or the limitations of the Hollywood soundstage; they capture something incredibly real, emotionally at least, that plays into the thoughts and feelings of a viewing audience who can see the enormous power of this place and its people, not as any real location or a work of actuality, but as a universal symbol for something that will one day disappear, or be replaced, but can exist long in the hearts and minds of those who once embraced it.

The notion of a dying world, or a world that no longer exists in any actual, tangible form, is suggested in this opening montage by two shots of elderly ladies. One in full-face close-up, showing the great lines of age and wisdom marked upon her skin; the other, bent-backed and shrivelled, standing frail and small in the shadow of a doorway. These women, like the world of the film, have struggled and endured, but have reached the end of something. Eventually, they too will one day cease to exist, but will live on in the thoughts and feelings of those who once loved and cared for them. As figures in the frame they are as-important as the landscapes that Ford takes great care in presenting as something beyond words. They are assimilated into the frame, as part of this rich, imaginary kingdom, to the point where one could not exist without the other.

How Green Was My Valley [John Ford, 1941]:

Such images suggest the notions of time and the passing-down of traditions, customs, social norms and stories between the generations. These shots of frail old women immediately suggest, on a subconscious level, the potential future manifestations of the once young and beautiful sisters-in-law Angharad (Maureen O'Hara) and Bronwyn (Anna Lee). Two characters inevitably worn down by toil and heartache; still waiting in the front doorway for their men, denied them, either through death or circumstance. This old woman might even be the same woman who once stood, aghast, back-to-the-door, with the same stunned rigidity of Ford's film-camera, when the mine exploded; never moving; still looking out onto the chaos and confusion as if trying to make sense of it all.

How Green Was My Valley [John Ford, 1941]: 

However we choose to see these figures - either as icons or actual fictional characters - it is clear that Ford is introducing these old-faces in an attempt to reinforce the personification of the valley itself. As Pichel, channelling the voice of a now aged Huw Morgan, discusses the desecration of the land's natural beauty by the industrial progression of time, Ford cuts to these two figures in order to contrast the physiognomy of the human face with the physiognomy of the landscape. An audience may not necessarily appreciate the true overwhelming power that the memory of this valley has to the central character, or how significant its destruction is to his own personal identity, but an aged face, marked and transformed by the ravages of time, is immediately relatable. As we watch our own parents, friends, partners and eventually ourselves grow old, we recognise this brutality of age and deterioration, and recognise how each single moment of a life is fleeting.

The presentation of this world is central to what makes the film so remarkable, with Ford going to great lengths to document the social rituals and practices that define this world, its people, and the story taking place.

How Green Was My Valley [John Ford, 1941]:

Without question, How Green Was My Valley remains one of the supreme films, and one that I wish I could dedicate another thousand words to, having barely scratched the surface of what makes the film so remarkable, so moving, so endlessly relevant, in the half-finished thoughts above. It's of course a film about communities; about people, their relationships, their lives and loves. A film full of life, with its various joys and sorrows, and one that manages to celebrate life; or more specifically, the humble, everyday lives that contributed to these communities - to our histories! - though are rarely documented or immortalised in works of stone, paint or ink.

Whether or not Ford was using the Wales of this story as a surrogate for his beloved Ireland is probably debatable, but what the filmmaker achieves here is something more beautiful, more nuanced and more authentic in its emotion than even his own later and more specifically Irish work, The Quiet Man (1952). While that film works to present the minutiae of the Irish experience, or a reflection of it, in such broad detail that it often slips into pure caricature, the presentation of the characters and place of How Green Was My Valley has a more sensitive yearning to it. A solemnity that evokes the feeling of what it is to be connected to a place (even in memory), but unable to go back. It's a humanist film that takes Ford away from the macho westerns and cavalry films, for which many associate him with, and places him within the same tradition and lineage of Jean Renoir, Roberto Rossellini, Terence Davies, Naomi Kawase, Laila Pakalniņa, Pedro Costa and Hong Sang-soo (among others).

While much of its reputation today rests on the trivial fact that How Green Was My Valley beat Citizen Kane (1941) to that year's Academy Award, I have to admit, I find Ford's film every bit the equal to Kane, if not actually greater. It's a film that ranks alongside Ford's other great masterpieces, such as the similarly humanist and strikingly poetic The Informer (1937), Young Mr Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Long Voyage Home (also 1940), My Darling Clementine (1946), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Searchers (1956), The Horse Soldiers (1959) and Sergeant Rutledge (1960), and remains, for me at least, among the very greatest works of twentieth century cinema.