L’Age d’Or – Luis Bunuel - DVD – Alongside Un Chien Andalou (1929), L’Age d’Or (1930) is often upheld as the keystone surrealist film. Like, Un Chien Andalou it was a collaborative effort that, in addition to Dali (although Bunuel fell out with Dali during the film’s production), included several other surrealists. Max Ernst played ‘the leader of the bandits’ and Pierre Prévert (director and brother to the prolific surrealist poet and screenwriter Jacques Prevert) played ‘Pémen, the bandit abed’. To accompany the film’s release (and in the wake of the popular success of Un Chien Andalou – even though Bunuel was disappointed that people ‘liked’ the controversial first film, the surrealists were not going to pass up a platform for publicity) and as part of the Studio 28 brochure for the film’s launch, a collaborative text was published, in which the surrealists expanded and elaborated upon the film’s themes. The surrealists who contributed were: Maxime Alexandre, Louis Aragon, André Breton, René Char, René Crevel, Salvador Dalí, Paul Eluard, Benjamin Peret, Georges Sadoul, André Thirion, Tristan Tzara, Pierre Unik and Albert Valentin. The film opens with footage of scorpions, the sense of a latent violence introduced in their upheld pincers and poised sting. Then, through the casual intertitle Segway of ‘Some hours later’ …the film begins (with the threatening insect prologue lending what follows an incipient sense of nervous danger).
The film, like Un Chien Andalou, follows a loose and interrupted narrative of love. Expounding ideas of Breton’s L’amour fou, love is portrayed as a rupturing experience of elemental force; the film follows the melodrama of two lovers and the course of their desire (a theme Bunuel addresses in many of his films, returning in his last film to approach it most explicitly- That Obscure Object of Desire). Along the way we encounter moments of oddball comedy (a classic example being when, early on, the male protagonist, Gaston Modot, decides – without apparent reason – to wildly kick a small dog. This is later followed by the, equally enthusiastic, kicking of a blind man- which, granted, is a frowned upon activity, but somehow captures the convulsive beauty – in a comical vein – that surrealists were so enamoured with.) Religion is undermined, with near infantile glee as popes are shown wasting away to skeletons and later (near the film’s end) chucked out of a bedroom window. It seems the ‘pope plummeting to his untimely demise’ was a popular surreal image, appearing also in Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman (written by Antonin Artaud). Made in1928, this film is often credited as being closer in influence to German Expressionism, yet still clearly has a lot in common with aspects of surrealism.
Perhaps one of the most inspired moments of absurdity is when the female protagonist walks into her luxurious bedroom to find a huge cow lying incongruously on the four-poster bed. It even has a cow-bell. Inspired! Perhaps the most famous scene, in which the lovers elope, features a cheeky bit of toe fellatio – after her lover departs, the woman lustily becomes distracted by a statue’s phallic toe, which she then proceeds to adoringly suck. More disturbingly, earlier the two lovers converse as if they are in bed exchanging pre slumber small talk (‘where is the light switch?’- whispers of being ‘dreamy’) when, on cutting back to the man, he is suddenly shown bleeding heavily and cut across the face, moaning as if in dark ecstasy: ‘My love…My love’. It is a chilling moment, made all the more unsettling by its unexpected suddenness and the similarly abrupt return to relative normality. This jolt, or convulsion of surrealism confrontationally erupts, troubling the surrounding normality to suggest a violent euphoria of desire with uncompromising shock. A sky in a mirror; a burning Christmas tree; scorpions; desire; death; comedy and discordance. 8/10
L’Etoile du Mer – Man Ray – available on t’internet (ubuweb/youtube) – based on a poem by Robert Desnos this short (17 mins approx.) film uses the imagery of the starfish to imply an exploration of the common surrealist theme: female sexuality-desire and the oscillation of the male gaze between libidinous and repulsed. The film obtains a dreamy haze through the use of gelatin smeared on the lens: rendering the image to become like that of a painting. Rather than visually realizing Desnos’ lines in a direct manner, Man Ray’s film offers an elaboration and critical involvement with the poem. The poem’s lines appear as cryptic and sometimes punning intertitles: ‘beautiful like a flower of flesh’ ; ‘beautiful like a flower of fire’; ‘one must beat the dead while they are cold’; ‘The sun, one foot in the stirrup, nestles a nightingale in a veil of crêpe’. In Paul Hammond’s sophisticated and dam insightful introduction to BFI’s The Shadow And Its Shadow (an anthology of surrealist writings on film practice and theory), he explains the surrealist method of ‘synthetic criticism’ (first mentioned by Louis Aragon in a review of Apollinaire’s Calligrammes). This was a process whereby surrealists would subject a film to something similar to Freudian psychoanalysis- intending to draw out the latent unconscious of a film and make it manifest. Hammond convincingly suggests L’Etoile du Mer internalizes this process, engaging with Desnos’ poem in a similar fashion- not illustrating the poem but accompanying it. This intriguingly imagines the film as a tangential excavation of the poem’s unconscious.
However, unlike the images of Bunuel’s two surrealist masterpieces, Man Ray’s film feels too rooted in more Dadaistic tendencies and photographic experimentation to convey the same power that un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or posses. Rather than using the form of conventional cinema to ironically invert and explode that form (as Bunuel’s films do), there is instead a tension between narrative and a more abstract experimentation which, although interesting, makes for less exciting viewing. However to map cinema’s relationship with surrealism, this film, while perhaps not as involving or exciting as Bunuel’s efforts, remains essential viewing.
Clergyman and the Shellfish – Germain Dulac – (1926) based on a scenario conceived and written by Antonin Artaud this film is often aligned more with German Expressionism than surrealism. It is, at its core, a tale of repressed sexual desire. The central figure of the clergyman wears a continual expression of perplexed anxiety very similar to the much later Henry Spencer in David Lynch’s Eraserhead. The film features labyrinth-like hallways, empty ballrooms and cavernous rooms-which alongside slow motion and oneiric cross fades - conspire to create a hypnotic and at times hallucinogenic film.
Antichrist – Lars Von Trier – DVD – So much has already been said: Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Defoe are a couple with an only child, one fatal eve they are so obliviously ensconced in the throes of sexual ecstasy that they fail to notice their only child (in the other room) playing perilously close to a window-from which he falls to his death). Willem Defoe (who happens to be a therapist) takes the deeply depressed/distressed and mourning Charlotte to a cabin in the woods to try and help her through her traumas. Strangely enough, a weekend away in an isolated cabin in the middle of a foreboding forest, does not work a charm. Madness, theories of genocide, the menace of nature and much darkness ensue.
I watched this film in bizarre circumstances, slumped in the small hours of the morning, quite drunk, quite alone and quite disorientated (a kindly, equally inebriated, friend popped the DVD on, declaring Antichrist to be a suitable choice, before retiring to sleep in another room – away from his dramatic ‘suitable’ choice). Perhaps not the best viewing scenario – and yet, in some ways it was an appropriate disposition with which to see Von Trier’s tense tale of grief and pain. Antichrist was a film that I had wanted to see for a long time, but, due to the media hysteria surrounding its controversial scissors scene, there was never a sober moment when I elected to muster the courage to endure said scene (I mean…I like Charlotte Gainsbourg…Science of Sleep is beautiful, she herself is beautiful…and somehow, well, it was not appealing). Firstly, in reference to that too frequently mentioned scene, it is not only a tiny part of the film, but also a part that is visualized without any of the confrontational brutality that many reviews would have you believe.
Placed alongside Von Trier’s earlier works, Antichrist, contains some of the most genuinely beautiful sequences and photographic splendor of his career-moving far from his original sparse Dogme 95 aesthetics. Here we see slow motion, paired with surreal effects and even a prologue-like start to the film in dramatic black and white. Having seen Meloncholia, Antichrist feels like the beginning of Von Trier’s developing a more visually indulgent palette. I don’t say that as a negative point, for Antichrist has some genuinely arresting moments of impressive and memorable drama. There is one sequence in particular, in which Willem Defoe’s character leaves the cabin and suddenly the camera slows everything down to spectacular effect: we see a shower of acorns twirling in graceful spirals, each one gently brushing past his hair, while in the foreground grass and weeds writhe like parasitic limbs. Far too little has been made of the breath taking craftsmanship of some of the film’s images, eclipsed instead by misleading diatribes of cartoon controversy.
That is not to say the film is not without fault. Alongside Meloncholia, Antichrist feels underdeveloped in both its structure and the chacterisation of both Charlotte and Willem (it is a two person film…and although their performances are intensely committed, I felt the need for more emotional elaboration- with would have better justified the spiraling madness), also in the film’s opening sequence Von Trier seems perhaps a little too trigger happy with his new found cinematic beauty. In the opening scene we witness Willem and Charlotte having intensely passionate sex (all in monochrome slow-mo), oblivious to their only child as he tumbles to his death out of the window. The sequence, although technically impressive, feels over fetishized to the point of evoking a smug pseudo arthouse car advert. However, overall a very interesting film that deserved none of the unfair onslaught of critical exaggeration (although this obviously boosted interest). Although Von Trier courts controversy and has often been seen as a prankster, I feel too many are too quick to overplay this card and forget the fact he is making genuinely interesting, individual and uniquely powerful films. Although Antichrist embodies an important development in Von Trier’s style and provides a handful of astonishing sequences, the sparse script and structure ultimately denies the film the possibility of being anything other than sporadically interesting. When combined with a heavy handed symbolism that lumbers through ‘femmicide’ (a thesis on female genocide) and the threat of nature, a dedication to Tarkovsky before the end credits, seems a presumptuous and misguided reference to make (as heavy handed as the film’s symbolism). It is this, far more than the infamous ‘clitoral mutilation’ that should have drawn more derision (although there was an outcry at Cannes, the film’s violence soon eclipsed this reference in more general reviews). So…in conclusion, yes it may polarize people, yes it may be flawed and suggest a clumsy arrogance – BUT, it is an arresting, dramatic and, at times visually impressive, film. 7/10
Freaks – Todd Browning – DVD – Made in 1932, from the director of Dracula, Freaks essentially ended Browning’s career due to it being deemed too controversial-and thus preventing him from ever being able to fund another film. Banned for 30 years, the film tells the story of a community of circus ‘freaks’ – each one played by actual circus performers (Browning had in fact joined the circus at one point in his life). It was based on the story Spurs, by Todd Robbins and revolves around a married midget who falls for an acrobat. The acrobat manipulates his love and attempts to exploit him. Despite an obvious and age old recycled narrative, the film creates an entertaining tone of bawdy and energetic humour – displaying the ‘freaks’ in their gypsy community, in a way which manages to balance a fascination with the freakshow motley cast and a genuine humanism.
The first time we encounter the ‘freaks’ still carries a weight of shock today, playing in a clearing in an idyllic forest we see: a man without legs walking on his hands, a man who is simply a torso and a head, three siblings dressed as young girls but with the facial features of disabled grown men and a lady who seems to be looking after all of them in a bizarrely simplified maternal manner. The scene has an alarming realism (due to each of the performers being and playing themselves), while conversely toying with a queasy fairy tale aesthetic (with the forest and the self assigned mother – her circus freaks, playing like lost orphans). However, throughout the course of the film, as a viewer you feel yourself becoming immersed in the world, realizing that Browning’s portrayal achieves a rare and strange tension between authentic understanding and unnerving spectacle. Critics have pointed out the troublesome connotations of one scene, in which the ‘freaks’ are shown writhing menacingly through the mud in pouring rain. However, questions of morality or suspect exploitation and voyeurism seem redundant, as the film ultimately uses the supposed ‘freaks’ to illuminate the corruption and twisted nature of those who define themselves against the ‘freaks’. It is those who maintain a sense of distinction and superiority who are called into question.
The film has a series of terrific scenes: the man who is just a torso and a head lighting a cigarette, with the innovative dexterity of his moustache; the ‘One of Us’ chant; the poignant comedy of the Siamese twins; fire eaters, sword eaters and the overarching tragedy and moving power of the simplistic narrative. A film that surprised me in its emotional strength and spectrum: times unsettling and frightening, often comic and tragic, and sometimes beautiful. An oddly charming, deceptively powerful masterpiece that deserves to be recognized as a piece of art as disarmingly simple as it is hauntingly complex. 9/10
Cowards bend the knee – Guy Maddin – DVD- originally commissioned as an art instillation, Guy Maddin created a peep show in which ten separate chapters of a complete film could be viewed. The film is one of the most entertainingly exhausting and frantic oddities I have ever had the bizarre pleasure of experiencing. The story unravels from a genius beginning; a man sits down at a microscope to inspect a globule of cum – into the microscope he peers, down into the kaleidoscopic pool of spermatozoa…and into this world the camera floats downwards into an aerial shot of a hockey game…a suitably bizarre inauguration of an energetically bizarre film. Using the intentionally aged look of silent film reel, what unfolds is a melodrama that fuses a sense of Euripidean tragedy, with warped biography, homoeroticism, comedy, violence and a whole host of gleefully mixed genres. All of which creates a film that could only have been made by Mr. Guy Maddin…homebrewed Canadian surrealism. Ah Canada…home to Shania Twain, Leonard Cohen and the pickled blue hands of a murdered father, lovingly enshrined in the cinematic hiss and scratch of a ghostly tale of confused and ecstatic vengeance. 7/10
Midnight express – Alan Parker – DVD – A student attempts to smuggle drugs through customs after a trip in Turkey, he is arrested and unremittingly bad luck ensues, spiraling him into an excessively long prison sentence. The film features a slightly distracting soundtrack that, due to its heavy synth exuberance, feels clumsy and dated. However, as an arching retelling of the ‘based on a true story’ events, the film is an engaging experience. John Hurt features in a particularly eccentric and over Anglicized portrayal of a fellow inmate (bizarre British caricature territory). 7/10
The Dictator – Larry Charles – seen at cinema – After the quotable, memorable, provocative and inspiring comedy of Borat, Bruno seemed fun…but not as funny (not as loveable and politically astute) and following this pattern: The Dictator is entertaining, while still ultimately falling short of Cohen’s previous comedic heights with Borat. Returning to a conventional ‘film’ approach (a la Ali G inda House), as opposed to the documentary antics of Borat and Bruno, The Dictator features renowned acting talent (although the acting ability of Ben Kingsly seems underused and perhaps wasted in a relatively character-less role) and a host of unexpected cameos. Removed from a comparison with Borat, the film offers an enjoyable, ridiculous and at times hilarious vehicle with which to undermine failing manifestations of ‘democracy’. Through a parody of various dictators (primarily modeled on Gaddafi and Sadam Hussein) and their associated whims of insanity and violence, Cohen reveals the supposed antithesis of democracy as hypocritically corrupt. Democracy is exposed as a delusional charade of equality. Beneath which, corruption, manipulation and prejudice are all allowed to co mingle in a questionable cocktail party of the unfairly privileged (resonating with timely phone hacking/political bribes and assorted coalition based shortcomings). Not exactly a delicate, subtle or revelatory satire but sufficiently entertaining to merit a cinema visit! The subtitled sketch in the helicopter is particularly brilliant, while a later scene involving childbirth is Cohen performing at his scatological, inappropriate best. All in all, an entertaining film that, due to the impressive legacy of Borat feels inevitably less vital. Any film that provides the line ‘Democracy is a midget in a chemo wig!’ more than validates its own existence. 7/10
The Third Man – Carol Reed (screenplay by Graham Greene, who later published a novella of the same name) – seen at the cinema - Film noir shadows, comic quips and amazing screenplay courtesy of Graham Green, one of the best reveals/entrances in any film I have seen, an iconic soundtrack (played entirely on a Zither…you would recognize the tune if you heard it, insanely catchy, jovial and dangerously hummable) and a climactic sequence of tense, cat and mouse pursuit. The scene between Orson Wells and Joseph Cotten talking in the ferris wheel, engineers a chilling tension of unresolved drama – masterfully acted and shot. A genuinely impressive film of humour, tension, and beautiful shadow cloaked cinematography. Class. 9.5/10
“You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."
Rabid – David Cronenberg – DVD – Possibly the most gloriously ridiculous premise for a zombie-esque film ever devised! Cronenberg himself even had misgivings that the audience wouldn’t take it seriously, those around him assured him of the film’s strength…and thankfully he persevered. Rabid is a thrilling, tense and brilliantly enjoyable (relatively low budget) film, made before Videodrome, The Brood or Scanners it feels better paced and more cohesively structured. Now…for the premise: A woman is in a motorcycle accident, she is rushed to the nearest hospital (which happens to be an experimental pioneering plastic surgery lab) and has a ‘never before tested’ skin graft. Naturally, something goes horribly wrong. Naturally, as a result of complications, the woman develops a blood sucking penis that grows beneath her armpit. So, we have surgery body horror meets succubus, zombie creating, sexually ambiguous, drama ahoy! When her carnal lust for blood becomes insatiable the probe like growth shoots from a (near vaginal) opening under the armpit and stabs her chosen victim. The victims then become zombies…the film then blossoms into a Freudian/Romero mash up of social and sexual critique. Nothing says subtle symbolism like a cock that emerges from a vaginal armpit oddity, Cronenberg took this blessed creation…and my, how he ran with it. The film manages to commendably carry off this laughable concept with straight-faced tension. Cronenberg originally wanted Sissy Spacek to play the female lead (after watching Terrence Malick’s Badlands), but the studio insisted that, to ensure success and distribution, they needed a name (when Spacek went on to star in Carrie she ironically became such a name). In her place the (then famous) porn star Marilyn Chambers was chosen. Having wanted to try a ‘legitimate film’ for some time, Cronenberg’s Rabid was a perfect opportunity. Despite providing a genuinely competent and even arresting performance (perhaps drawing on her physically relaxed experience-plentiful writhing and topless scenes abound), Chambers sadly (for the ‘legitimate film’ community…less so, for her doubtless avid porn fans) returned to pornography after the film, never again acting in a ‘legitimate film’. 7/10
81/2 – Federico Fellini – DVD - A complex and reflexive portrayal of a director’s attempt to make a film. Fellini’s ambitious 81/2 (a numerical reference to his filmography at that point) energetically moves between dream, reality, memory, his film and what he intends to film. A carnivalesque pageantry of characters, boisterous scenes and imaginings all conspire to distract Guido (the director) from any respite or indeed work. As a result he begins to meditate upon past love, infidelity and his own artistic decisions. Therefore the film comes to play with ironic observations, describing the need to avoid chaos and indulgence…adding to the already muddled muddle of man’s cultural existence, while simultaneously rejoicing in just that act. It makes for, at times tiring viewing, due to the relentless pace of what often feels like shifting vignettes. However, Fellini’s theatrical comedy, drama, and at times richly imaginative digressions, ensures the film maintains a uniquely compelling momentum. There is a lot to take in, the adventurous and ranging structure often feels literary in its scope – and as a result I definitely feel this would benefit a second viewing. 8/10