Thursday, 26 September 2019

Luc Besson

An introduction?

It might seem preposterous to consider today, but there was once a time when Luc Besson was regarded by some factions of the cineaste mainstream as one of the coolest and most exciting filmmakers of his generation. For kids like me discovering movies at the end of the 1990s, Besson's name was a shorthand for a particular type of haute couture action cinema, which became a brand unto itself. A younger, more energetic cinema: lionised at the time by the generation of critics that came before us, who responded to what they perceived as Besson's subversion of the kind of mannered, bourgeois, domestic movies that typified the supposedly staid French cinema of the period.

The narrative surrounding Besson during this stage of his career was that his work cut through what many English-speaking critics saw as the pretentious or elitist nature of his native cinema, and opened it up to a new audience looking for style, action and emotional intensity. Besson's biggest hits from this period, Subway (1985), The Big Blue (1988), La Femme Nikita (1990) and his supposed pinnacle, Léon (or The Professional, 1994), delivered mainstream excess, action and violence, but with a creative eye for the kind of fashionable stylisation often found on the margins of the European art-house.

The films were fast-moving, erupting onto the screen with a burst of kinetic action and physicality - shoot-outs and car-chases taken shot-for-shot from either Hollywood or Hong Kong genre cinema: here supplanted into the suburbs of surrounding Paris, an alien's view of New York city, or some far off intergalactic setting - but they also contained an emphasis on oddball characters, moments of comedic eccentricity, and a romantic tone at odds with the scenes of violence and brutality. In short: Besson's films apparently made audiences feel as if they were watching something with a highbrow or artistic sensibility, while at the same time satiating them with a surface level sensationalism, simple plotting and characters devoid of agency or depth.

Reading Susan Hayward's eponymous 1998 study on Besson and his films (published as part of the series 'French Film Directors', which includes similar volumes on everyone from Jean Epstein and Georges Melies, to Catherine Breillat and Leos Carax), is currently doing for me what great criticism should: making me think about the work from a different perspective; opening it up to broader, more critical readings; placing the films into wider, political, social and aesthetic frameworks; providing context and justification.

Luc Besson [Susan Hayward/Manchester University Press, 1998]:

Hayward's book was published at the exact moment when Besson was at the pinnacle of his early career. The time at which infant millennials with a burgeoning interest in all things film, like myself, were being told by the still young critics of Generation X that this Besson guy was the real deal. A year later Besson would release his first outright critical and commercial failure, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999), and from here would descend further along a path that has led to terrible films like Arthur and the Invisibles (2006), Lucy (2014) and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017), among others.

Given this late career shift, which has seen Besson progress from being someone known primarily as a writer and director of acclaimed cult cinema to a writer and producer of successful B-movies, such as Taxi (1998), The Transporter (2002), Taken (2008) and their resulting franchises, all of which were box-office hits despite often terrible reviews, it would be interesting to see a revised and updated version of Hayward's book that includes the filmmaker's subsequent efforts, as well as an examination of some of the more contentious elements of his work - specifically his depiction of women - against the sexual assault allegations that have since been levelled against him.

Today, Besson isn't considered very "cool" by the mainstream film community, and with good reason. Of his work over the past twenty-two years I've only found merit in two of his features: Angel-A (2005) and The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010). Even some of his earlier films that impressed me as an adolescent have since been re-evaluated and have fallen significantly in my estimation. However, a combination of nostalgia and the persuasive writing of Hayward is nonetheless making me curious to go back and look at these films in an attempt to discuss how they tie into the narrative of Besson's career, and his often problematic and contradictory worldview.

In the spirit of this, I've written some thoughts on Besson's films, beginning with his first, the wordless post-apocalyptic fantasy The Last Battle (1983) and its links to the director's later science-fiction efforts, specifically The Fifth Element (1997) and the aforementioned "Valerian." However, I'm still struggling to find a point to this that might be worth making: a reason for committing to the article, as both a project and a theme, given my absence of any genuine passion for the subject matter. In a world where so many films that are great and meaningful to me are ignored and denigrated by the popular culture, is it really worth my time to be analysing Besson's work from a perspective of cynicism? I don't know. Hopefully as I delve deeper into Hayward's discourse, which is so-far fascinating, some points and counter points will become clear.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

The Last Man to Leave

Thoughts on the album "Merrie Land" by The Good The Bad and The Queen
Originally written in December 2018

Although unlikely to garner much attention during next year's award season, one of my absolute favourite on-screen performances this year is Damon Albarn's beguiling turn as the ventriloquist dummy that appears in all ten promotional videos released in support of Merrie Land (2018): the second and very much long-awaited new album from Albarn's non-Blur, non-Gorrilaz side-project, The Good The Bad and The Queen.

As a more-than-worthy follow-up to the band's brilliant, self-titled 2007 debut, this second release continues the same approach of exploring the vague notions of "British identity" against a diverse musical soundscape, while at the same time presenting a wry but evocative commentary on the modern cultural landscape, its politics and the general mood of the day.

If the first album took as its focus the growing surveillance state of New Labour's "broken" Britain - still caught within the grip of post-7/7 terrorism, the illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the climate of economic excess that would inevitably lead to the financial collapse of the following year - then Merrie Land finds its obvious target in the disastrous Brexit situation.

By focusing specifically on the fallout from Brexit - with every element of the album, from its music and lyrics, to its song-titles and packaging managing to evoke the current zeitgeist of confusion, fear and cultural disagreement - Albarn and company have succeeded in producing not just a 'complete work', in the artistic sense, but a genuine statement.

The Truce of Twilight (Performance Video) [Paul Simonon, 2019]:

Beginning with the first track, a short piece of dialog sampled from the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger masterpiece A Canterbury Tale (1944), the album establishes a context of old English parochialism: that "martyr's dream" of an Arcadian idyll, all stiff-upper lipped determination, quaint village greens and cathedrals heralding the glories of God. From this point on, the subsequent ten songs offer a clear thread of wry observational commentary backed by engaging instrumentation, as the ensuing album traverses the outer reaches of the British landscape; from the cities and their surrounding suburbs, to the quiet villages and once-thriving coastal towns.

The ten videos produced to accompany the majority of songs taken from the album find Albarn buried beneath layers of intricate prosthetics to become the ventriloquist dummy. In each of the videos he sits in front of  an intentionally flat, two-dimensional green-screen backdrop, which changes from one song to the next in order to better present a specific mood, character or emotion.

Each persona, while uniform and unchanging, captures a different facet of the British "identity" (though the term itself is a misnomer: there is no one cultural identity definable as British, but countless different identities, all of them "British", all of them occupying the same plot of land.) However we chose to identify ourselves, personally or politically - whether we voted to 'leave' or 'remain', or didn't vote at all, whichever the case may be - the dummy here is us.

2. Merrie Land

3. Gun to Head

4. Nineteen Seventeen

5. The Great Fire

6. Lady Boston

7. Drifters and Trawlers

8. The Truce of Twilight

9. Ribbons

10. The Last Man to Leave

11. The Pioson Tree

The appearance of the dummy itself is inspired by a segment from the Ealing Studios anthology film Dead of Night (1945). The segment, titled The Ventriloquist's Dummy, sees the titular object develop a mind of its own, terrorising its master who can no longer control its amoral urges. Or does it? Is the dummy really possessed, or is the ventriloquist simply losing his grip on reality? Significantly, a still image from the film also features as part of the album's artwork.

Merrie Land [The Good The Bad and The Queen, 2018]:

In the presentation of the dummy, Albarn finds the perfect symbol for Brexit, if not Britain itself. This thing that has somehow gotten away from its own master, saying and doing appalling things without punishment, and destroying the psyche of the individual that can who can no longer control it.

Merrie Land combines the same musical influences of The Good The Bad and The Queen's first album, chiefly folk, ska and dub, but adds an element of music hall. In interviews accompanying the album's release, Albarn said he was influenced by the Northern English town of Blackpool. Fittingly, the music here has the feel of faded seaside glamour, empty funfairs and a world where the last bastions of "Englishness" (fish and chips, novelty postcards, cups of tea) struggle to remain relevant.

Friday, 13 September 2019

The Red and The Blue

Thoughts on the film: Demon City Shinjuku (1988)

First scene, pre-credits: a battle upon a rooftop. The evil Rebi Ra has sided with the demon world to become all-powerful. In attempting to open a portal that will unleash the demon world into that of our own, Rebi Ra is challenged by a former associate, Genichirō Izayoi. From the first images, the presence of Rebi Ra - and by extension, the demon world itself - is linked to the colour red. The presence of Genichirō and the side of good is linked to the colour blue.

In these first frames we can already see an obvious polarity between these saturated colours: red, with its connotations of heat - equating to hell, violence and "sin" - and blue, with its connotations of cold - equating to logic, introspection and the natural world. In a sense, these are the colours of dawn and dusk, falling at either end of a chromatic spectrum. Red also suggests fire, but in a way so does blue. The blue flame burns brighter, and perhaps that's the point.

Throughout the film the colours will be at war with one another: their battle for dominance over the cinematic frame mirroring that of the battle between characters on-screen.

Demon City Shinjuku [Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1988]:

As a visual aesthetic, this same contrasting colour palette was used previously in Yoshiaki Kawajiri's earlier film, Wicked City (1987). As in this film, Wicked City concerns itself with the battle between a demon world and our own. Though both films are unrelated and based on individual source materials, there are parallels that go beyond simple auteurism to suggest an actual lineage. In Wicked City, a human agent and a demon agent must join forces to attempt to stop the "black world" from encroaching on reality. Their relationship again defined by this same contrast between a red and blue lighting strategy. The colours there were redolent of that of a police siren: an invocation of law and order?

Wicked City [Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1987]:

The same connotations apply there as they do here, but the aesthetic was used much more sparingly in Wicked City than it is in this subsequent work. From the outset, the interplay between the two colours is made a defining feature of Demon City Shinjuku, obvious even in the on-screen presentation of its title. The text is repeated twice, once in red, and again in blue, as both colours re-enact a version of the rooftops battle that we've previously seen. Here, it's the colour blue that remains dominant: a telling sign perhaps of which side of this cosmic battle its filmmakers have taken.

[NOTE: One could argue from the screen-captures included that black is also a dominant colour. However, I tend to think of black, in this context, as a neutral backdrop, like the white of a piece of paper. The blank canvas or arena of a medieval darkness on to which these colours, as a personification, interact.]

Demon City Shinjuku [Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1988]:

Let's cut back to that opening fight for a second. In narrative terms, this scene is pure exposition. It establishes a context and back-story, but also gives purpose to our as-yet to be introduced central character, Kyoya Izayoi: Genichirō's son. One of the defining characteristics of the anime films of this period is their ability to marry exposition to scenes of action and spectacle. In conventional terms, it's unrealistic to assume that these characters would be sharing necessary background information so freely during the midst of battle, but then there is very little in the film that is realistic, or that aims to reflect reality in the literal sense. As such it's something we either embrace and go along with, or reject and move on.

Demon City Shinjuku [Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1988]:

As the battle here progresses, Kawajiri and his animators push the saturation of the colours even further, abstracting the reality of the (human) world as it might ordinarily appear and showing instead how it is destroyed (or reclaimed) by the shadowy supernatural forces of the demon world. There are broader social and political implications to this scene, specific to the destruction of Japan by the allies during the Second World War, which I'll return to in more detail in a subsequent post, however, there's also something more subconscious to this relationship between man and "world" that is worth remarking on.

At this point, it's probably not a massive spoiler to suggest that the noble Genichirō loses his battle. It's often a cliché in such films that the early death of a character is used to provide purpose to the subsequent protagonist, and especially if the deceased character is a parent, as is the case here. However, there is also a symbiotic relationship between the characters and the worlds that they inhabit. For example, if Genichirō is wounded, then the world is wounded. If Genichirō dies then the world dies too. Each physical wound against the human body causes a corporeal "wound" upon the landscape itself.

Demon City Shinjuku [Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1988]:

This subsequent shot, depicting the bruised and bloodied figure of Genichirō, makes the point somewhat clear. As the character approaches death he must look on, hopelessly, as the city he was fighting to protect falls into rubble and disarray. The colour red, now the colour of blood, suggests the severity of his wounds and the visualisation of life escaping into the shadowy depths: further clarifying the role that red, as a colour, will play in signifying death.

Demon City Shinjuku [Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1988]:

After the defeat of Genichirō, the subsequent shot of the city as it's reduced to rubble is entirely saturated in the colour red. In this timeline, blue has been removed from the palette. I'll return to this image in a subsequent post as I find its significance goes far beyond the level of mere aesthetics and opens up on an interesting thread that runs throughout many Japanese genre films of this period (and especially in OAV/anime movies.)

Demon City Shinjuku is in no way a masterwork. It's anticlimactic - feeling more like a series of set-pieces than a coherent narrative - and is marred by many of the shortcomings of other Kawajiri films, specifically his fondness for obnoxious characters and scenes of sexual violence against women. However, it stands out in part due to its bold imagery, its nightmares of body horror mutation and the atmosphere of its ruined world.

Friday, 6 September 2019

The Sheltering Sky

Thoughts on the book by Paul Bowles

"And in the same fashion, the strange languor in the centre of her consciousness, those vaporous ideas which kept appearing, as though independently of her will, were mere tentative fragments of her own presence, looming against the nothingness of a sleep not yet cold. A sleep still powerful enough to return and take her in its arms. But she remained awake; the nascent light invading her eyes, and still no corresponding aliveness awoke within her; she had no feeling of being anywhere, or being anyone."

Several years ago I saw Bernardo Bertolucci's 1990 film version of the book in question and found it rather forgettable. The film version felt like the story of a bourgeois couple who venture off the beaten track in search of new experiences and pay the price for their xenophobic entitlement. It was all surface, with none of the deeper nuances or illusory tone that Bowles captures so brilliantly in his book. Here, the connection with the female protagonist, Kit Moresby, is so absolute, that it becomes impossible to view the book as anything less than the story of a woman seeking liberation against the imprisoning factors that attempt to define and dominate her throughout. Feelings of guilt and grief circle about the thoughts of this character like the encroaching sandstorms that drift across the book's arid North African deserts, as Kit finds herself incarcerated repeatedly by systems and circumstances, and finally by the landscape itself.

 The Sheltering Sky [Bernardo Bertolucci, 1990]:

I saw the Bertolucci film for the first time in October 2012. At the time I wrote the following: "Like its characters, the film is in too much of a hurry to get from one location to the next; rarely capturing the atmosphere or the colour of a place before we're off again, onto the next misadventure. Bertolucci seems to view North Africa with a cynical suspicion. The landscapes may be striking but the people are seen as shady, even untrustworthy. The closing lines are beautiful (and beautifully delivered by the author himself) but offer only a vague hint to the reflective and possibly even poetic film that might have existed before it collapsed into melodramatic excess."

The Sheltering Sky [Paul Bowles, 1949]:

Needless to say, I found the book remarkable. Not least in its storytelling, but in its moments of evocation and surrealism. Passages where the language becomes so heightened and atmospheric that it passes through the influences of observation and the "travelogue" to become charged with something altogether more figurative and revealing. Images that are stark and entirely unforgettable in their illustration, but also in what they communicate, imparting upon the narrative something richer, more psychological and suggestive. Without wishing to spoil anything for the uninitiated, the final part of the book in particular maintains an odd, dreamlike tone, becoming more than just a continuation of the character's journey but an effort to distil the narrative of the first two parts into a figurative, psycho-dramatic, psychosexual expression of Kit's inner consciousness.

I took my copy of the book with me on a recent Scottish excursion and as such it's now pretty beat up. However, the bends and tears that mark its cover and the water damage seeped into its yellowing pages each bear the memories of that great trip, which of course feels fitting for a book about travel, and about the lure of losing oneself completely in a culture that isn't your own. I may return to the Bertolucci film at some point in the near future to see if a familiarity with the book deepens or enriches the adaptation, but in all honesty I think the subconscious film that was constructed in my own mind during the reading of Bowles's evocative and illusory text remains more powerful and certainly more transportive.