Thursday, 8 February 2018

A Sense of History

A short note on several films by Eric Rohmer

I'm not entirely sure if this blog post constitutes a 'return' in the permanent sense of the word, but I've been re-examining the films of Eric Rohmer recently and just wanted a space to jabber enthusiastically about some of his works. As much as I love Rohmer's contemporary-set films, such as Pauline at the Beach (1983), The Four Adventures of Reinette & Mirabelle (1987) and A Summer's Tale (1996) (to name a few), there's always been a special place in my heart dedicated to the director's rare historical pictures, which seem to take concepts of eccentricity and personal vision to new heights.

While his contemporary films are known for their astute naturalism - the rigorous shot-compositions, controlled editing and the use of bright primary colours often being the only hints that what we're seeing is a work of fiction as opposed to documentary - his historical films seem to push for artificiality and a more ornate, painterly sensibility.

My Girlfriend's Boyfriend [Eric Rohmer, 1987]:

The characteristic Rohmer aesthetic is usually defined by contemporary locations, young, upwardly mobile characters struggling to connect to the world and those around them, and enlivened by static, flatly composed discussions on nature, philosophy and art.

Full Moon in Paris [Eric Rohmer, 1984]:

The style of the characteristic Rohmer film is relaxed and conversational. Naturalistic settings, lighting and locations are used as a backdrop, but controlled by Rohmer's carefully arranged, often static compositions, and rigorously co-ordination colour palettes.

The first of Rohmer's feature-length films to deviate from his characteristic template, The Marquise of O... (1976) was inspired by an 1809 novella by Heinrich von Kleist. The film and its presentation teases at notions of faith and magical realism, creating something that feels very much within the traditions of German Romanticism, but in a way that belies a more sinister, psychological motivation for events.

While not as daring in its stylisation as some of the other films soon to be mentioned, The Marquise of O... is nonetheless shot in a way that differentiates itself from Rohmer's previous body of work. The lighting, while still naturalistic, seems exaggerated. While previous Rohmer films employed natural lighting (or the appearance of it), the contrast of light and shadow used in The Marquise... suggests the influence of classical painting, with a particular affinity for the baroque, romantic and renaissance periods.

More specifically, the contrasts between light and shadow evoke something of the Chiaroscuro and Tenebrism techniques made famous by artists like Rembrandt van Rijn, Michelangelo de Caravaggio and Gerard van Honthorst.

The Marquise of O... [Eric Rohmer, 1976]:

The Calling of Saint Matthew [Caravaggio, 1599-1600]: 
The Marquise of O... [Eric Rohmer, 1976]:

Photographed by Néstor Almendros in the same hazy, lightly sepia, magic hour style that he subsequently brought to Terence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978), the deep shadows and warm tones give the film an ornate storybook quality that at one level suggests romanticism, while on another level creates a barrier between the audience and the true intentions of the text. The style lends itself to a film that is painterly and beautiful, like Stanley Kubrick's immortal Barry Lyndon (1975), but in a way that seems to illustrate the protagonist's inability to see the world (and her situation) for what it really is. In short, the design and photography are not merely decorative, but related to the psychology of the characters.

Rohmer would return to a similar style in his last film, the pastoral and poetic Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007), photographed by Diane Baratier. Inspired by a 17th century text, Romance of Astrea and Celadon would find Rohmer ending his career on something of a seemingly uncharacteristic note; applying his same interest in characters and their interactions to a world defined by myth and legend. The magic hour cinematography and carefully composed 1.37:1 shot compositions once again bring to mind the look and style of The Marquise of O...

Romance of Astrea and Celadon [Eric Rohmer, 2007]:

Portrait of Charlotte du Val d'Ognes [Marie-Denise Villers, 1801]:
The Marquise of O... [Eric Rohmer, 1976]:

More radical was Rohmer's follow-up to The Marquise..., Perceval le Gallois (1978). This time taking its inspiration from a 12th century Arthurian legend, Rohmer shoots his film on a small soundstage; his characters traversing an expressionistic landscape that at no point attempts to disguise its artificiality. Into this, Rohmer incorporates a 'Greek-chorus' of medieval folk music and has his actors speak the stage-directions aloud. These techniques reinforce the presentational aspect of the film, not as a more conventional dramatization of events, but as a literal adaptation of the text.

Perceval le Gallois [Eric Rohmer, 1978]:

This idea of adapting the text as opposed to depicting it was suggested by Rohmer himself when discussing his creative intentions during the making of The Marquise of O... Quoted in World Film Directors Volume 2, 1945-1985 (John Wakeman, 1988), Rohmer states: "It wasn't simply the action I was drawn to, but the text itself. I didn't want to translate it into images, or make a filmed equivalent. I wanted to use the text as if Kleist himself had put it directly on the screen, as if he were making a movie. Kleist didn't copy me and I didn't copy him, but obviously there was an affinity."

There's a similar feeling one gets from the presentation of Perceval, where the rigorous adherence to the text (to the point that the use of language dictates the use of form, structure and pace) is reminiscent perhaps of the films of Jean-Marie Straub & Danielle Huillet, such as The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968), Class Relations (1984) and Antigone (1992). Here, the space between words (and even the editing of shots) becomes a kind of verbal and visual acknowledgement of the written punctuation.

Class Relations [Straub-Huillet, 1984]:

Class Relations is another example of adapting a work that is, like Perceval, essentially unfinished. Here, Straub-Huillet's exacting update of Franz Kafka's novel Amerika (published in 1927) includes an intentionally open ending. The filmmakers also shot their film entirely in Europe in order to parallel the fact that Kafka was writing about America from the perspective of never having been there.

While Perceval is easily the most 'Brechtian' of Rohmer's films - continually reminding its audience of its own artificiality, its basis in historical text and its essentially unfinished nature - it nonetheless remains a completely engaging and affecting experience. The story is presented with a creative and often witty approach, rich in imagery and imagination, while a third-act recreation of the passion of Jesus Christ for instance (see above) is cinema at its most genuinely sacred; the combination of music, voice, text and image creating something that is an absolute revelation.

One of Rohmer's later films, The Lady and the Duke (2000), updates the artificial stylisations of Perceval for the approaching 21st century. Adapted from Grace Elliott's memoir detailing her time during the French revolution, Rohmer digitally inserts his actors into literal painted backdrops that recall the Neoclassical art of the period. In doing so, he once again creates a barrier between the audience and the work; allowing us enough distance that we're able to see the story and its historical value, as well as the parallels the same story has to the then-current political situation in France.

The Lady and the Duke [Eric Rohmer, 2000]:
The Lady and the Duke, almost remarkably, predicts a style of filmmaking that has since become dominant in Hollywood. The approach in which actors perform in front of a screen with only minimal props, only to have the world of the film digitally rendered in post-production. For Hollywood filmmakers, the technique is one of immersion and escapism, but for Rohmer it seems to have a different, more political intention.

Behind the scenes image from Sin City: A Dame to Kill For [2014]:

Audiences no longer balk at such excessive artifice. The language of the modern blockbuster now feels closer to the fakery of classical Hollywood, with its painted backdrops, matte paintings and studio magic. The acceptance that the world of a film is no longer a tangible exploration of our own world, but a two-dimensional composite.

The Arrival of a Mail-coach in the Courtyard of the Messageries [Louis-Léopold Boilly, 1803]:

Imagine the above painting 'chroma-keyed' into the green-screen backdrop of the Sin City sequel and you're halfway towards a recreation of Rohmer's particular aesthetic approach.

Omitted from this discussion is Catherine de Heilbronn (1980), a play filmed for television but featuring a similarly theatrical aesthetic as Perceval, and Rohmer's penultimate film, Triple Agent (2004), neither of which I've seen. I'd be interested to know how these works stack up to the ones discussed herein; specifically in terms of their stylisation, or even in how they compare to the more characteristic Rohmer films, such as Full Moon in Paris (1984) or My Girlfriend's Boyfriend (1987).

Nonetheless, the stylistic disparity between the two types of film that Rohmer specialised in remains a fascinating anomaly to me; the complete illustration of how 'content' can dictate 'form', and how 'form' can dictate 'content.'

In an unattributed quote featured on legendary film blog Film Walrus, Rohmer discussed the stylisation of Perceval in relation to his own unfamiliarity with 12th century gestures, dialogue, decoration and landscape. For Rohmer it was "more honest to embrace the artifice and deliver the original writing unaltered. Even historically-researched recreations would still be just a better lie, rather than a deeper truth." Perhaps this is the ultimate explanation as to why Rohmer approached these works in such a way.

Friday, 16 December 2016

A Year in Film (Part One)

A Viewing List for Twenty-Fifteen

Goodbye to Language [Jean-Luc Godard, 2014]: 

The title is non-judgmental.  "Goodbye" in the sense that technology is changing the way we live, but "goodbye" also to the thing that has failed to define us.  The shackles of language that keep us tethered to ideas, forms, thoughts and feelings; a liberation from expectation or the need to understand.  3D shots and the fragmentation of the image (from one into two) again relate to the typically 'Godardian' theme of disparity.  The disparity of ideas, politics, love, etc.  The inability of couples to co-exist.  The filmmaker remarks: we can film a landscape and an empty room, but not the landscape at the back of an empty room.  Yet here he achieves just that, and beautifully so.  At various points throughout, Godard frames his dog with the same zealous heroism of John Wayne, circa Stagecoach (1939), the same quiet stoicism of a van Gogh self-portrait and the same wounded dignity of Falconetti's St. Joan. The dog is at once a surrogate for the viewer, on the outside looking in, attempting to make sense, to understand, but also a surrogate for Godard, the eyes and ears at the centre of things.  Remarkable.

Kagemusha [Akira Kurosawa, 1980]: 

The political implications of the scenario are enthralling.  Throughout the film, themes of power, corruption, leadership and the suppression of the 'self' (in the purely psychological sense of the term), are each carefully woven into the fabric of the film.  However, so much of the subtext can be seen as an extension on the idea of performance; the character compelled to put on a costume, to adopt a persona, to play a part.  As such, it's not only Kurosawa's definitive political statement, but also his most self-reflexive/self-referential commentary on the psychology of the "warrior as performer", and vice versa.  The film is a testament to the talent of Kurosawa and his lead actor, Tatsuya Nakadai, however it is the delirious, near-psychedelic 'nightmare sequence' occurring midway through the film that not only draws a line of influence from the similarly personal Dodes'ka-den (1970) to the richly-autobiographical Dreams (1990) but remains one of the most dazzling, imaginative and purely cinematic moments of Kurosawa's entire career.

Los Angeles Plays Itself [Thom Andersen, 2003]: 

The story of a city on film, both literally and figuratively.  Like many of the films on this particular portion of the list, too much time has passed for me to give an accurate clarification of the film's "objective" merits, but the memory of the work still lingers.  Los Angeles Plays Itself is at once and simultaneously an astounding documentary, a travelogue of a city, a narrative history of that same city on film and above all else a defining work of actual film criticism that offers a quantum leap in the evolution of the genre.  Watching Andersen's visual interpretation of his own text - less a compilation of "clips" than a genuine adaptation, where each image or scene, each cut or juxtaposition, presents a theoretical, geographical, historical or emotional association - can only seem to shame all other forms of contemporary film criticism.

Sound and Fury [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 1988]: 

Arguably the great masterpiece of Brisseau's career and a film to file alongside Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959) and Pialat's The Naked Childhood (1968) as one of the most brutal and affecting works on the subject of adolescent alienation in French cinema.  Refining and re-establishing what would eventually become his trademark style through later and no less controversial features, such as Céline (1992), The Exterminating Angels (2006) and The Girl from Nowhere (2012), Brisseau incorporates a milieu of gritty social-drama against a more alarming series of scenes and images that seem to extend from an un-tethered perspective of magical realism.  The result is a film in which discussions on socialism, unemployment and educational-reform are punctuated by scenes of uncompromising violence, brutality and an atmosphere of near-dreamlike surrealism that features revenants, spirits and phantoms conjured from the past.  An astounding and unforgettable work.

They All Laughed [Peter Bogdanovich, 1981]: 

Too much time has passed since my initial viewing of the film back in February 2015 to offer any kind of definitive statement; an unfortunately consequence of my inability to put down in words any initial thoughts and feelings that circulated at the time.  However, my prevailing impression of the film is one of complete enjoyment!  Though the narrative of Bogdanovich's career is that of the talented "wunderkind" who created back-to-back masterworks with his first four features, Targets (1968), The Last Picture Show (1971), What's Up Doc (1972) and Paper Moon (1973), only to burn out and lose it following the hostile reception of the films Daisy Miller (1974), At Long Last Love (1975) and Nickelodeon (1976), the existence of a film like They All Laughed seems to contradict the critical consensus and shows a filmmaker creating what might possibly be  the greatest work of his career.  Working with Wim Wenders' then cinematographer of choice Robby Müller, Bogdanovich is able to do for New York what Jacques Rivette often did for his beloved Paris; turning the city into a fully fledged character, part melancholy labyrinth, part eternal playground, where characters left on the fringes of society can come together to share in their anxieties, eccentricities, passions and woes.

Talking Head [Mamoru Oshii, 1992]: 

Many directors of the post new-wave era of personal "auteurist" expression have tackled at least one semi-autobiographical work on the perils of filmmaking.  From Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mépris (1963) and Passion (1982) respectively, to Fassbinder's Beware of a Holy Whore (1971) Wenders' The State of Things (1982) and Antonioni's Identification of a Woman (1982), through to a vast gamut of eclectic works, including (but not limited to) Day For Night (1973) by François Truffaut, Ed Wood (1994) by Tim Burton, A Moment of Innocence (1996) by Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Art History (2011) by Joe Swanberg, the very subject of filmmaking has itself proven to be a fascinating resource for writers and directors to explore what the cinema means to them.  However, for all the variety and individuality found the films aforementioned, no other filmmaker to the best of my knowledge has explored the subject with the same gonzo eccentricity and abandon as Mamoru Oshii, who envisions his film-about-filmmaking™ as a bizarre psychodrama cum murder mystery with elements of almost Three Stooges inspired slapstick comedy, intentionally "bad" B-movie special effects, Godardian inter-titles and poetic rumination (reminiscent of something like Soigne ta droite, 1987), fourth-wall breaking and a heavy influence of Brecht.  The result is one of the great works of auteur cinema; as playful, baffling and self-deprecating as von Trier's less abstract but no less "meta" deconstruction of the role of the filmmaker, The Boss of it All (2006).

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid [Sam Peckinpah, 1973]: 

The usual superlatives hold true; this is Peckinpah's final statement on the end of the "west", on violence, masculinity and the passing of tradition.  When supposed lawman Pay Garrett shoots out his own reflection following his pitiless assassination of 'the Kid', the act itself communicates so much about the character's own loss of identity; the self-hated and the disillusionment felt not just by the lawman corrupted by a need to save face but by any and all who saw their own country slip away from them as one generation gave in to the next.  Throughout the film the landscape becomes symbolic, the journey into history expressing something about the need for heroes, myths and legends against the often brutal and unflinching reality, as the mournful, world-weary soundtrack of Bob Dylan becomes a disembodied chorus reflecting on the sense of inevitable destruction, as idealism, trust, hope and even goodness are very gradually corrupted by the bitterness of time.

For Your Eyes Only [John Glen, 1981]: 

The standard nonsensical Bond conventions are here elevated by a sense of genuine spectacle.  From the helicopter hi-jack of the pre-title sequence to later scenes, such as the Olympic pursuit, underwater exploration and literal mountain top cliff-hanger, the film doesn't just provide the usual action and suspense that one expects from the genre, it's a genuinely jaw-dropping affair!  Maybe this sentiment is simply an expression of nostalgia for a type of pre-CGI extravagance, but some of the images here are genuinely astounding; where the thrill of "actuality" - real cars, real locations, real jumps and hits - becomes as much a selling point as the narrative and its wider commitment to the requirements of the Bond "brand."  Kudos then to director John Glen, whose muscular action sequences and injection of gritty violence, often at odds with the lighter tone of this particular era, would find their truest expression several years later in the most brutal Bond film, The Living Daylights (1987).

Dodes'ka-den [Akira Kurosawa, 1970]: 

The onomatopoeic title, which suggests an imitation of the sound a tram-car would make as it moves along a track, plays into the film's notion of artifice, of a reflection of life that's not quite the real thing but an abstraction of it, while also suggesting the idea of the journey, of characters moving towards a definite (emotional or psychological) destination.  In terms of style, it is a film that feels almost like a collaboration between Walt Disney and Samuel Beckett, but with an undeniable streak of social commentary that ties it to the filmmaker's earlier movie, The Lower Depths (1957).  In its structure, it lurches from moments of burlesque humour, its scenes presenting a pantomime of larger than life characterisations amid flights of fantasy and child-like sentiment, to moments that show the brutal reality of the world suggested with a blunt, emotional honesty.  The effect can be odd and disengaging but is nonetheless unique.  An explosion of colour and stylisation; the approach offering a staggering counterpoint to the squalor and misery of the characters lives and this reflection of the modern world (circa 1970) re-imagined as a junkyard microcosm.  The only thing more dazzling than Kurosawa's experiments with colour, light and composition is the sensitivity he shows to his central characters.

Magic in the Moonlight [Woody Allen, 2014]: 

Relaxed and conversational in the best possible way, with the sun-kissed locations, lovingly photographed, and pristine period detail only adding to the charm.  It is a film full of rich and illustrative discussions on issues of nature and the cosmos; a mediation on the universe analogous to a film by Jean-Claude Brisseau - such as À L'Aventure (2008), only minus the soft-core lesbian erotica - wherein the relationship between two people becomes the fore-grounded focal point to a grander philosophical or theoretical discussion on the foundation of life itself.  Overflowing with incredible subtext, the film's smaller crisis of faith, love and loyalty becomes a reflection on greater themes, such as the nature of illusion, performance and identity; of characters as impostors, posing as something they're not; of cinema as the grand illusion, a sleight of hand; of love as the ultimate magic act, conquering cynicism; weaving its way through the elements of frothy romantic farce and bitter atheistic lament like a leitmotif.  Though many found it flawed, the film for me was a little masterpiece and one of Allen's greatest works.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

A Year in Film (Part Two)

A Viewing List for Twenty-Fifteen

Marie Antoinette [Sofia Coppola, 2006]:

Coppola transposes her own story - that of a spoiled little rich girl thrust into a position of public notoriety that she cannot comprehend - to that of the title character. In doing so, she exaggerates the naiveté of the real-life historical figure; creating in the process a more piercing feminist commentary on the way young women are often made to suffer for the sins of the husband/father/brother/patriarch; picked on and destroyed (in the case of Marie), not for her own inherently adolescent "decadence", but for the poor decisions of her husband and the generally restricting environment that she's forced to endure. In the title role, Dunst gives one of the great performances of the last decade; maybe even the current century. Unlike so many of the thankless roles she's chosen to play, Marie Antoinette sees her as both natural and radiant; her interpretation of the character arc both subtle and multifaceted; the implications of her final scenes - including the dreamlike moment in which she offers herself up to the braying mob - are haunting and emotionally distressing. Likewise, Coppola's filmmaking is sensitive, full of passion and energy; less a Merchant-Ivory chocolate box piece than a film infused with the influences of Derek Jarman and Sally Potter; specifically films like Edward II (1991) and Orlando (1992). An anarchic, post-modern, but also romantic and painterly approach that like Pasolini finds the past through a reflection of the present (and vice-versa) in order to humanise the central character and to create a political connection to the modern world.

Pigsty [Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969]:

Pasolini's most impenetrable film is also his most beguiling. The work of a true visionary, Pigsty is a film that blends hallucinatory scenes of prehistoric violence with the extended monologues of the bourgeoisie; creating a juxtaposition that suggests parallels between the past and the present, where the relationship between the two posit the idea of history - and more specifically, persecution, exploitation and corruption, essentially referring to issues of class and entitlement - repeating itself endlessly until oblivion. While difficult to know the true intentions of the filmmaker, the suggestion "a story about pigs to tell a story about Jews" - combined with the overlapping of the two conflicting stories and their different presentations of violence and brutality (physical vs. psychological) - hints at the same anti-fascist polemic of the author's later, more infamous provocation piece, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975).

Force Majeure [Ruben Östlund, 2014]:

Östlund direction of the film suggests a genial, less hectoring Michael Haneke; the approach falling somewhere between The Seventh Continent (1989) and Caché (2005) by way of a European sitcom. Like Haneke, the filmmaking style is studied and controlled; rigid, but not inflexible. Colour, composition, editing and sound are impeccable, establishing a feeling of antiseptic middle-class anxiety; an empty "going-through-the-motions" depiction of modern life comparable to a film like Archipelago (2010) by Joanna Hogg. Here, the popular and often contentious "comedy of embarrassment" trope beloved by European filmmakers - from Bertrand Blier to Mike Leigh, etc - merges with the spirit of Buñuel; eviscerating the bumbling immaturity of its characters and their self-created problems of first-world malaise, without becoming too nasty or nihilistic.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya [Isao Takahata, 2013]:


For the first time since Michael Mann's derided but exhilarating Public Enemies (2009), the experience of a film and its filmmaking suggested an almost reinvention of the very language of cinema. Hyperbole? Perhaps, but the purely sensory experience of seeing these images explode within the rich cavernous blackness of the cinema space was like moving towards something almost elemental; the imagery seemingly transforming itself from frame to frame, at once ancient and yet entirely modern. It is a style that falls somewhere between an image of a primitive cave painting brought to life by the light of a flickering flame, the 'late' formalist works of Pablo Picasso that embraced unfinished naiveté and the most current and sophisticated style of contemporary animation, which is beyond anything I've ever seen. Although the fantasy plotline is nothing remarkable (and nitpickers might note that the ending is an almost shot-for-shot copy of the final scene from Shyamalan's despised Lady in the Water, repeated here to great acclaim), the actual presentation of the image is beyond words! The moments where the film seemingly breaks free from reality, becomes entwined with the emotions of its central character and seems to soar or disintegrate before our very eyes, is both astounding and unique.

Ex Machina [Alex Garland, 2015]:

1. Part throwback to "mad-scientist" monster movies; with James Whale's classic 1931 variation on the Frankenstein story providing an obvious template. 2. Part 'Bergmanesque' psychodrama; where the intense scenes of two characters enacting a private crisis of existentialism on a secluded island could bring to mind everything from the Hour of the Wolf (1968) to The Passion (1969). Part 'Soderberghian' meditation on style and mood; the cold and clinical design, modernist spacing, intimacy of its performances and minimalist composition of actors and objects within a 2.35:1 frame is as much reminiscent in its filmmaking as the underrated Solaris (2002) as anything by the more frequently associated Stanley Kubrick. As contemplation of the line between man and machine, between consciousness and unconsciousness, Garland's film is up there with the best of Mamoru Oshii, such as Avalon (2001) and Ghost in the Shell: Innocence (2004), as well as standards of the genre, such as Blade Runner (1982) and A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). A work connected to the concerns of the modern world, but propelled by themes that are timeless and emotionally germane.

Accattone [Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1961]:

At the time I couldn't find the words for this one; I'm not sure I can find them now! Suffice to say that a whole sphere of world cinema begins (and ends) with the film in question; more so perhaps than the supposed year zero of Godard's endlessly lauded new wave defining À bout de souffle (1960) (though JLG is still eternal). So many of the scenes, images, aesthetics, preoccupations and concerns presented in Pasolini's film can be found in the work of cinema's great modern masters; everyone from Coppola to Scorsese, Fassbinder to Jarman, Monteiro to Denis, Farrara to Haynes, etc have borrowed from Accattone and its singular approach to character, theme and setting As a first-time filmmaker, Pasolini emerged full formed; his whole notion of cinema as a means of reflecting the past by way of the present (and vice versa) finds an expression in the way he depicts the central character as both lout and loser, but at the same time imbuing him with the kind of spiritual conviction, sympathy and vainglorious nobility of a martyred saint. As such, the methodology of Pasolini, which so often is defined, misleadingly, as "neo-realism", places the author far closer to the spirit of a man like Caravaggio than any of his cinematic peers; an artist who found in the bodies and faces of his local thugs, destitute crones and harlots the most sacred of religious (and later historical) icons.

The Lone Ranger [Gore Verbinski, 2013]:

Pitched somewhere between the pure cinematic spectacle of The General (1926) and the political 'kill your heroes' cynicism of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Verbinski's film wrestle with complex themes, from genocide and corruption, to betrayal and unrequited love, all the while fashioning a big-budget action adventure extravaganza that far eclipses the simple pleasures of his earlier, more successful Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003). Placing his scenes of wily escapism within a context of inglorious American history (brought to life for a child who knows only of its "heroes" while the reality is something far more cruel) the results are both thrilling and affecting. A rare but perfect example of a Hollywood blockbuster committed to taking risks.

Clouds of Sils Maria [Olivier Assayas, 2014]:

Throughout the film, several layers of interpretation become intertwined. First, a deconstruction of the psychosexual politics of Fassbinder's early masterpiece The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972); second, a Persona (1966)-like meta-drama about the difficult relationship between women (a stricken actress and her aide); third, a reiteration of Irma Vep (1996) and its playful "anti-Hollywood" rhetoric (replete with faux comic book style blockbuster-sequence occurring during the second act); fourth, a film about the "old wave" being replaced by the new (and through this a personal commentary on Assayas's own cinema); fifth, a film about filmmaking (with several personifications of the director); and finally, a documentation of a natural phenomenon (in this instance 'the maloja snake') that becomes an onscreen miracle analogous to the flickering flame of Tarkovsky's Nostalgia (1983) or the final sequence of Eric Rohmer's The Green Ray (1986). A masterpiece.

Goltzius and the Pelican Company [Peter Greenaway, 2012]:

This dizzying mix of multi-media phantasmagoria - à la Prospero's Books (1991) - and Brechtian dissertation on the nature of voyeurism - recalling remnants of The Baby of Mâcon (1993) - is also Greenaway's clearest and perhaps most personal statement on the nature of cinema and its roots in both picture-making and performance. With this in mind, the character of Hendrik Goltzius, the German-born Dutch painter, printmaker and engraver at the heart of this tale of intrigue and expression, becomes a prototypical-filmmaker, in much the same way that Rembrandt did in the earlier and no less fascinating Nightwatching (2007). He's also a potential surrogate for Greenaway himself, reinforcing the film's personal, crypto-autobiographical elements, wherein the character is presented as an artist struggling against financiers, critics and the scourge of censorship to achieve a vision every bit as daring, creative and revelatory as the film itself.

Medea [Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969]:

In the title role, Maria Callas becomes a full force gale; her performance ably demonstrating a level of passion and pain that seems beyond conviction. As she stands rebellious in the flames of her wounded love, she defies the deceitful Jason (and by extension, the apathy of the viewing audience): "it's useless; nothing is possible now!" As a final epitaph, it captures both the sadness of a woman broken and betrayed by circumstances beyond her own control, as well as the overwhelming disappointment of the filmmaker when confronted by the corruption of a modern world closed off to the magic of myth and legend. As ever, Pasolini's depiction of pre-history is never about ornamentation or simply providing a backdrop to a dramatisation; his presentation of the past is more a reflection of the present. The vibrancy, the atmosphere, the jarring culture shock, each evoke a feeling of authenticity; it's as if Pasolini and his crew had actually ventured back in time to a particular period to record it with their handheld camera. However, this feeling of immersion is to ignore the intentional discrepancies, anachronisms and stylisations, all of which are intended to bring the story of Medea out of the world of Greek myth and into the Europe of the 1960s and beyond. The sad tale of Medea's exploitation and destruction by love, jealousy, political deceit and the cruel patriarchy (either as a character, or as a surrogate for something else), is one that continues to reverberate throughout history and in countless different guises. A powerful experience.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

A Year in Film (Part Three)

A Viewing List for Twenty-Fifteen

The Red Spectacles [Mamoru Oshii, 1987]:

Oshii manages to corral the influences of '60s Godard (post-modernism) and '80s Godard (poetic ennui) alongside elements of Seijun Suzuki and Jerry Lewis; finding a middle-ground between the pop-art sci-fi reportage of Alphaville (1965) and the comical-philosophical patchwork of Keep Your Right Up (1987) or King Lear (1987). For those that find the director's later (and for me no less essential) films to be largely humourless, self-serious ruminations on tired cyber punk concerns, The Red Spectacles is a work of genuine comic brilliance, both deadpan and slapstick; albeit, with a mystical, vaguely metaphorical climax that questions the nature of reality, existence, perception, etc. It also works as a fairly successful if academic experiment in cinematic stylisation analogous to what von Trier would attempt in films such as The Element of Crime (1984), Epidemic (1988) and Europa (1991); in short, a gnomic synthesis between genre deconstruction, social commentary and self-referential critique.

Song of the Sea [Tomm Moore, 2014]:

A poetic, intensely lyrical family drama, which, like the greatest works of Studio Ghibli, has been sold as a conventional children's adventure story, but in reality seems a far more penetrating examination of deeply human concerns - such as bereavement, grief, abandonment and the end of childhood innocence - which will only be truly felt by an older, more sensitive audience. The imagery throughout is rich and magical, beautifully designed and animated with great imagination, but always relevant to the central story of the two children and their familiar disconnection. From the old woman transformed by the fearful children into the image of a great owl, to the lonely giant turned into a mountain by his sorceress mother so as to stop him from drowning the world in an ocean of tears, the flights of fancy only deepen the metaphorical interpretations of the work.

The Canterbury Tales [Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1972]:

Pasolini as the figure of Geoffrey Chaucer gives the film a more tangible through-line than his earlier, similarly picaresque but looser exploration of Boccaccio's The Decameron (1971). Here, the same medley of stories - which run the gamut from satirical swipes at politics and religion to bawdy "sexcapades" and Chaplin pastiche - are tied together by the presence of Chaucer as self-reflexive surrogate for Pasolini; casting his critical eye not just over a medieval burlesque but its reflection on the modern world. The films' third act depiction of Hell as a surreal Hieronymus Bosch-like fantasia elevates the work above the level of the "merely great" to the realms of absolute genius! One of the most bizarre and inventive sequences Pasolini ever filmed. Lyrical, funny and disturbing in equal measure.

3 Women [Robert Altman, 1977]:

Altman's strangest film. A pre-Lynch take on Lynchian themes of dissociation, identity, alienation, the blurring of perspectives. Nods to Persona (1966) escape the curse of empty "Bergmanesque" imitation by being delivered in Altman's unique and characteristic approach; the camera drifting nomadically across complex scenes; picking out startling shots, strange objects, moments that seems inconsequential but make sense on reflection. A haunting and hypnotic work that rivals the director's earlier psychological study, Images (1972).

Nymphomaniac: Vol. I & II (Director's Cut) [Lars von Trier, 2013]:

1. Joe fashions a story from the ephemera of Seligman's room. Why? Is she telling her own story or something else? The framing device gives credence to the more preposterous moments; creates a context for Joe to indulge in fantasy but also for Seligman to interject; to deconstruct the material. In this sense the film is not just a thesis on the themes herein, but a self-reflexive study on von Trier's own methodology. 2. Joe's story about the paedophile suggests hidden implications at the end. Why is she telling these stories to Seligman? What response is she looking for and does she get it? Is the film a chronicle of one woman's self-destruction/transfiguration through sexual experience or a cruel game of deception and entrapment? I would say both. The subtleties of the ending introduce a profound degree of potential reinterpretations. 3. A pornographic variant on The Princess Bride (1987) with all of the same self-reflexive dialogues about the relationship between 'author' (Joe as surrogate for von Trier) and 'spectator' (Seligman as surrogate for the audience). However, the film is also the clearest, most penetrating iteration of the filmmaker's recent themes; depression, self-destruction, gender identity, the cruelties of nature, etc. A revelatory masterwork for von Trier.

Mr. Holmes [Bill Condon, 2015]:

While the concept of a logical Holmes encountering the one thing beyond his understanding (actual human emotion) could have been played for cheap sentimentality, Condon's film hits somewhat harder. As an investigation into memory as an effort to understand what it is to be hurt by something beyond rational comprehension, the film ably touches on issues of war, genocide, failure and grief in a profound and hugely compelling way; deconstructing the notion of the procedural (or, more plainly, the detective story) until it becomes a penetrating and insightful rumination on age, memory, experience, repentance and the inability to let go.

Welcome to New York [Abel Ferrara, 2014]:

A fearless political commentary disguised as psychological examination. Ferrara uses his Strauss-Kahn facsimile as personification of both the financial crisis and the attitude of those in positions of power; here protected by laws that leave them free to use and abuse the lowest rung of society. The character, like the condition itself, becomes a wild animal; pawing and groping his way through the culture made flesh; consuming everything. The resulting arrest and trial is like an indictment against the city itself; that inbuilt corruption of money as something above the safeguarding of actual human experience that allows all other levels of corruption to be maintained. Anchored by Depardieu's grotesque, violent performance, and a series of penetrating dialogues that hint at the true circumstances at play, Welcome to New York is arguably Ferrara's most powerful and necessary work.

Phantom of the Paradise [Brian De Palma, 1974]:

De Palma buries a personal commentary on creative freedom and the exploitation of the artist beneath a post-modern blend of Goethe and Leroux, camp B-movie horror and exaggerated glam rock. Peppered with additional nods to silent comedy, Hitchcock (naturally) and Welles - to say nothing of a frenzied, faux-reportage climax that deconstructs the line between fiction and reality, and reminds the viewer of the counter-culture experimentation of the filmmaker's earlier, much underrated Dionysus in '69 (1970) - the film works both as a vicious music business satire and as a dazzling phantasmagoria, full of heightened emotions, bold imagery and clever storytelling. The intelligent, self-reflexive soundtrack by Paul Williams is without question one of the films greatest assets.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne [Walerian Borowczyk, 1981]:

Here, lurid exploitation meets art-house exploration, blending slasher movie tropes and soft-core/soft-focus sexuality with deeper philosophical questions regarding social identity, transgression and the 'beast within.' The atmosphere is evocative of the adult fairy tales of Rolin and Argento, such as The Iron Rose (1973) and Suspiria (1977) to name just two, but taken to a level of frenzied sexuality and heightened violence that only compliments the films' rich psychological themes. The combination of the baroque and the brutal is no less beautiful and atmospheric than in a film like Neil Jordan's later masterpiece of 80s meta-horror, The Company of Wolves (1984); another mesmerising and unsettling work of dreamlike psychosexual surrealism.

L'argent [Robert Bresson, 1983]:

A film less about 'money' or its power to corrupt or debase, than a film about actions and their consequences. A good man is very gradually turned into a criminal by the dishonesty and villainy of the world around him. As such, the man is less an individual than a reflection of his own society. Bresson's characteristically austere approach is perfectly suited to this story of dehumanisation; where even a third act atrocity is presented without sensationalism or melodramatic excess. As political commentary, the film very subtly communicates the ironies of criminality; that those who initiated the chain of events receive little to no punishment, while those on the bottom rung of society are forced to suffer a genuine humiliation, speaks volumes. More than anything, Bresson's masterpiece embodies the philosophy of Godard's 'Uncle Jeannot' character from his First Name, Carmen (1983); "when shit's worth money, the poor won't have assholes." A work of art.