Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Films seen in March

Zvenigora – Dovezhenko – The first in a trilogy (The Ukraine trilogy, alongside Arsenal and Earth) A 1928 silent Soviet film, in which a Grandfather relates a folkloric tale of buried treasure to his Grandson, subsequently weaving a sense of epic history, hallucination and superstition into an exuberantly digressive myth. It begins with an arresting shot of galloping horses, in beautiful slow motion. The film’s quality is shivering with its own age – enhancing the spiritual and dream-like nature of the tale. More than remembering the, somewhat ambitious and convoluted, structure, instead I was left with the rich feast of images: from wizened wrinkled soldiers; a spectral monk-like figure; flowery wreaths floating on the black mirror of a lake; a young boy playing naked in the water and then, after beaming at the camera, gleefully pissing; a young man conducting his own firing squad; iron girders, machinery and the crossed beams of industrialisation; to the vast panorama of majestic beards and roaring trains. The ending is darkly exhilarating and follows a particularly memorable episode in a theatre, in which the grandson promises the audience he will shoot himself onstage. This produces a feverish anticipation in the crowd, close to salivating at the thought of a dramatized - but real – on stage suicide. So much happens and by the end, so much has been seen. For such an early film this is an extraordinary feat of scale, ambition and imagination, one that additionally showcases an energetic development of filmic techniques (interesting cross-fades abound). 9/10

Europa – Lars Von Trier – Set in a post WWII Germany, this film explores ideas of European and German identity searching for reconstruction in the consciously cinematic noir of its own haunted guilt and trauma. The film is predominantly in black and white with occasional shifts into colour, transitions that occur without obvious emotional or logical warning. The film restlessly jerks between experimentations in acting style and more visually integrated oddities – for instance actors will often become marooned against pre-recorded film projections, all of which creates a mesmerising and unsettling viewing experience. Its squalid noir shadows lurch uncomfortably between filmic parody, Orwellian atmospheres of faceless industry and the more unnervingly indelible memory of World War 2 – the atrocities that cannot be repressed.

I say ‘lurch,’ as the juddering train carriage becomes a central motif in the film’s narrative, again queasily evoking the shipping of bodies like cattle that facilitated the ‘final solution’. The film begins with blurred train tracks as the camera speeds into the dark, there is a scene in which the protagonist sprawls with his lover on a model train set and its miniature landscape, and, finally, the plot’s climax revolves around an attempt to stop a train – and becoming trapped: the carriage becoming a sunken tomb.

 This is a visually bold and fascinating film, and while its dark subject matter becomes entangled, warped and trapped by the various cinematic techniques – this feels appropriate for a film that is exploring the slippery reparation of a national conscience (let alone its economic disrepair). It feels melodramatic (in a self-aware sense, drawing upon the language of schools of film acting), hallucinatory and claustrophobic, effectively communicating the essentially damaged and disturbed nature of its content. 8/10

Bad Lieutenant, Port of Call New Orleans- Werner Herzog – Oh crazy Cage…this is a fine moment indeed for that distinctive, much loved, strain of Nicolas Cage lunacy. Herzog takes the ‘cop movie’ and introduces his own reptilian streak of erratic and (occasionally parodic) humorous eccentricity. Based on Abel Ferrara’s 1992 Bad Lieutenant, starring Harvey Keitel, Herzog’s film strays from the original themes of Catholicism and forgiveness into a far more bizarre realm. Playing a detective who is manipulating both his role in the police force and his connections with crime to further an intensifying drug habit, Cage perfects a range of delightfully deranged expressions: from hallucinating iguanas to shooting madly at the break dancing soul of a - just killed – criminal heavyweight. Oh Cage, why don’t you pair up with inspired directors more often? As much as Ghost Rider, National Treasure and the, no doubt pioneering, dual syllable thriller Stolen (Taken comes to mind) will fuel your trashy cult status…how I wish I could see you supported by directors as gifted as Mr. ‘cut to the lizard cam’ Herzog more often! 7/10

Several shades of Crazy Cage:

no one laughs as intensely as Cage

No one loves drugs with as much maniacal triumph

No one sees reptiles with such alarming frequency...oh Cage.

Vampyr – Carl Theo. Dreyer – Filmed in 1932, Dreyer’s haunting film is suffused with its own idiosyncratic and hard to place atmosphere. During the first few shots, in which the protagonist approaches an inn for a place to stay, there is the unmistakable sense of apprehension and melancholy. Through the film’s own decayed palette of colours (an oneiric and hazy black and white) and time-worn score, the Gothic scaffolding of the narrative dissolves into something far less stable, almost uncanny. Into the seductive fog! We see a boatman with a scythe, an angel weathervane, a blind old man warbling nonsensical noises, shadows that move in irrational reverse, ballroom dancers resigned to live out their steps as shadows, unsettling ornamental skulls, a prophetic painting of a skeleton and a coffin’s eye view of bony branches and empty sky. It is a murky dimension that sleepwalks through the motions of narrative, its power not in the conceit of the vampire or what actually happens, but in the marinating gloom of a drifting mood. The protagonist also often looks like a young André Breton…which feels appropriate. 8/10

Zero de Conduit – Jean Vigo – The director of L’Atalante, in this earlier and shorter film, demonstrates the gleeful spark of anti-establishment anarchy that later inspired Lindsay Anderson’s If…(1968). A rebellion of boys in a stifling boarding school provides the drama of childhood’s revolution – a celebration of play and possibility over acceptance. From carrying their leader aloft on a makeshift throne to scampering over the rooftops, Vigo brilliantly portrays the adventure and idealism of resisting patterns of structure. It is a willingness to subvert, here encapsulated in the boys’ rebellion, which adds to Vigo’s sparkle of surrealist audacity. In L’Atalante we encounter Pere Jule (Michel Simon) in his cluttered cabin: a surrealist Wunderkammer that heaps memories and oddball treasures alongside a puppet show and his coveted jar – containing pickled hands. Then there is the visually oneiric spectacle of Juliette (Dita Parlo) in her ethereal wedding dress, seen by Jean (Jean Dasté) underwater. All of which is complimented by the latent eroticism, fondly fostered by any self-respecting surrealist. Meanwhile, in Zero de Conduit it is the confrontation of bourgeois stability and order straining the surrealist sling to Vigo’s back-pocket Beano catapult. There are some breath-taking sequences in slow motion – and an unexpected, if brief, moment of childish animation. The last shot of a silhouetted band of boys disappearing over a rooftop horizon masterfully summarizes the film’s spirit.  7/10 


The Long Goodbye – Robert Altman – Elliot Gould lopes with effortless charm throughout the entirety of his ‘dishevelled, private eye’ performance, as Phillip Marlowe. At times recalling a very early Tom Waits, not so much visually but instead through invoking a particular strain of American mythology: that nicotine nimbus of noir authenticity; that dazed barroom enigma – seen through a fog of perpetual smoke; unprofessional and roguish heart; that man, falling apart at the seams but with a nonchalant competence - the kinda fella they refer to in the trade as a maverick…outwardly haphazard, bordering on bumbling, but by god, you know he gets results! A creased jacket and loose shirt (which, in a somewhat unlikely situation, is referred to following a tumble of laundry, with the concession that:  ‘I don’t need too much starch in my collars’), eyes glazed with self assured bemusement, continually mumbling…’it’s ok with me’…a persona so dam cool and self contained that despite living next to a troop of yoga practising, normally nude, attractive women, he never bats an eyelid – or even shows the most remote sign of interest. He is instead neatly prioritising life between a double murder, his lost cat and the next cigarette.

Arnie's inconspicuous cameo

Altman’s film, a substantially altered adaptation of a Raymond Chandler story, takes leisurely enjoyment in parodying strains of noir, while still managing to maintain the suspense and thrill of that genre. The score, by John Williams, invents several incarnations of the titular song and overlays the differing versions in witty correspondence to scene changes: one moment the song is playing on the car radio, next as a tinny reproduction in a supermarket and later in sweeping strings. The climactic ending is both shocking and perfectly realised, leading on to what seems to be a cheeky inversion of the end shot of The Third Man.

The Long Goodbye (1973)

The Third Man (1949)

It is a playful, ridiculous and charismatic celebration of Hollywood and, more specifically, Hollywood Noir. A rare example of a film that manages to have its cake and eat it – both gently mocking the genre, while simultaneously carving out an exciting position within that genre. ‘Having your cake and eating it’ is a phrase I have always found offensively illogical. I’m probably missing a very basic ‘slap you in the face’ blatancy, but…what else are you meant to do with a cake?  Except maybe for temporary ornamentation, before eventual consumption, a cake exists to be eaten! So ‘having your cake and eating it’ is not an audacious demand but a rational expectation! If you were to do something a tad more unorthodox with said ‘cake’ then yes, maybe the phrase would be tenable: ‘Having your cake and conversing with it’/ ‘having your cake and dressing it up as your recently deceased partner’/ ‘having your cake and burying money in its spongy innards, using it as a make-shift elaborate bank’/ ‘having your cake and naming it Arnold, whereupon you immediately buy two tickets (one for the cake) to travel on a transatlantic flight. On arrival you and the cake check into a hotel room. Later you are found mysteriously dead and handcuffed to the bed, with your cake ‘Arnold’ smeared all over the walls’/ ‘Having your cake and sitting on it’ / ‘Having your cake and drinking it’ / ‘Having your cake and sacrificing it, to a tyrannical god of all things baked’…etc. Still, great film. 8/10

'Nothing says suitable tagline like a spoiler'

Imitation of Life – Douglas Sirk – There was a sound bite on the front of the DVD which read ‘supreme soap opera’ and, in the best way possible, this is pretty close. The film’s melodrama follows an aspiring blond actress, Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) and her daughter, when relatively broke and struggling for work they meet Annie – a black woman (Juanita Moore) also trying to raise her child as a single mother. It is from here the plot takes its tragic and troubling heart (for it is a heart, an often saccharine and fluttering Hollywood sheen, that, if you can stomach, repays with a rewarding wealth of emotions … even if they are sometimes a tad cloying for my taste, I could appreciate the merit in this glamorous soup!). Annie’s daughter, having lighter skin than her mother becomes distressingly enthralled with the notion of being ‘white’…or, perhaps, more painfully for her mother (and for us, as an audience) not being black. From refusing to play with a black doll, to later being so horrified by her mother’s appearance at her school that she races out of her class and into the snowy wilderness of outside.

The more nuanced tragedy reveals itself through Lora and Annie’s relationship, which while acting under the guise of friendship, as Annie unquestioningly becomes her maid, treads uncomfortably upon a naturalised injustice – in which Lora neglects to really ever learn anything about Annie. Who, for a large majority of the film is demoted to being an amiable, background matriarch – as we are meanwhile cajoled into the acting dreams of Lora’s Hollywood seduction. It is this narrative strand that, in its initial appearance (Lora and her child appearing first in the film) lures the audience into becoming complicit in the racially problematic assumption of deciding this to be the film’s unproblematic centre. Whereas it soon becomes clear the film is much more than this misleading and candied expectation.

Not only an anguished confrontation of racial inequalities but, transcending questions of race, also a surprisingly fraught and upsetting portrait of motherhood. Like the glittering diamonds of its credits sequence – there is a deceptively sugared swoon to this sour hysteria. 7.5/10

The Devils – Ken Russell – A film more than worthy of being considered a controversial masterpiece. Based on gloriously weird historical fact, in which a French convent in 17th century Loudon (France) is beset by a frenzied spell of supposedly satanic possessions. At the film’s core is a powerfully charismatic performance by Oliver Reed, as the Roman Catholic priest Urbain Grandier – a role counter balanced, in commitment and disturbing conviction, by a hunch back nun, sister Jeanne, played by Vanessa Redgrave.

Grandier is a somewhat unorthodox priest, and by ‘unorthdox’ I mean energetically womanizing. Adopting a liberal interpretation of biblical sin and the flesh, Grandier not only fucks with wild abandon – but also eventually marries, in a clandestine ceremony that he both conducts and partakes in. Meanwhile, in the subterranean white tunnels of the convent, Sister Jeanne is plagued by a feverish lust for Grandier – visited by him in dreams where he strides, Christ-like, across a lake.  All the while there is the external pressures of an imminently approaching centralised government, which would mean the walls of Loudon would be torn down – the town subsequently losing its independence. This is something that Grandier has passionately opposed, with oratory vigour and passionate defiance. As a result, when Sister Jeanne succumbs to her lusting madness, political figures descend upon the town and whip up a witch-hunt frenzy – leading her to inadvertently frame Grandier (as the source of her desire) to be the site of satanic corruption. Thereby giving the political authorities a reason to conveniently remove the main vocal opposition to spreading the influence of centralised government.

It is a film in which, to use a stock phrase, it feels as thought ‘everything comes together’. We have two unbelievably powerful lead performances, a torturously fascinating premise (based in historical fact), lavishly geometric and memorable sets designed by Derek Jarman and the directorial audacity of Ken Russel, all of which conflate in a film of visionary and carnivalesque genius. Scenes of the maenad-like nuns that led the film to become so controversial were censored heavily in America, and are still censored on DVD. Two particularly extreme scenes were cut: the first, affectionately referred to as ‘the rape of Christ’ features naked nuns with shaved heads rutting deliriously up and down a felled crucifix – the other involves Sister Jeanne masturbating with the charred femur bone of Grandier – who is burnt at the stake…not really a spoiler, due to historical fact n all. The bacchanalian revelry of the nuns, recalls Russel’s background in musicals (Tommy and Lisztomania) as running throughout the disturbing circus of The Devils is a sense of choreographed madness. In accordance with Jarman’s modernist geometry, crowds and sequences play out with the momentum and orchestration of a dance. Perhaps revealing the performative discipline of spiralling reactions in this drama between Church and State.

The power inherent in this cinematic beast, although feeling choreographed and although highly aestheticized also manages to feel unflinchingly physical. This can be attributed mainly to the brute force in Reed’s commanding presence, his excruciatingly believable cries of pain and his enduring and visceral sexual magnetism. In pleasing symmetry to his muscular portrayal of masculinity, faith and principle, Vanessa Redgrave offers a frightening portrayal of caged desire – femininity grotesquely repressed, distorted and ruptured anew. This film has, to repeat the ‘everything comes together’ mantra, an elemental array of wrestling demons: sex, desire, faith, religion, state, politics, leadership, madness, masculinity and femininity, all disturbingly baptized in this dark and cinematic dream. Genius. 10/10

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