Thursday, February 28, 2013

New Robert Todd Films

(Note: Many of Todd's films – including some of those discussed in this piece – are available in full or excerpted form on his treasure chest of a Vimeo profile, but I have only written about the films I saw in the theatrical setting. It goes without saying that this is the ideal venue for this kind of work.)

The otherworldly meditations on the everyday produced by Boston-based filmmaker/professor Robert Todd are some of the most underappreciated visions in contemporary experimental cinema. Living in the same niche as the much wider seen work of Nathaniel Dorsky, Todd’s films have consistently targeted an alternative way of seeing the world, privileging abstraction over concrete representation to turn mundane spaces into alien landscapes of light, color, and texture. However, despite the way his work brushes against the unknown in its willful transformation of perceived reality, it also maintains a sensuous connection to earthbound pleasures; though he’s lived and worked in a major urban center for decades – a quotidian reality that would lead another filmmaker to concoct something like Peter Hutton’s New York Portraits – his films are notable for their tranquil evocations of nature, of animals, of children playing, etc.

For the majority of his career, much of this material has been captured within and around Boston. Todd’s past year’s worth of work, however (which recently screened at the Paramount Theater), finds his camera discovering the latent alcoves of cinematic beauty in locales as diverse as Canada and Portugal. All shot on 16mm and presented silent or with ambient soundscapes, the six works presented (part of an alarmingly prolific total of 14 in 2012) expand upon Todd’s sophisticated idea of the lyrical film, not only widening the depths of mood already achieved in his oeuvre but also introducing new landscapes, textures, and perspectives.

The program opened with a somewhat comfortingly familiar slide into the Todd world: Summer Light: Tuesday, a silent, sunny ode to his Jamaica Plain residence that Todd himself described aptly as “the way my mind works.” The film is the fifth and final piece in a series of works focusing on different qualities of light in the summer, and here the focus is on even mid-afternoon rays obstructed by layers of foliage. Todd's richly textured images of plant life, unidentifiable surfaces, and the rare, fragmented hint of humanity are marked by strong contrasts between sun-bleached portions of the frame and regions shrouded in thick darkness. Long lensing renders much of the images as washes of color and light punctuated by one particularly detailed focal point, such as the skin of a leaf or the surface of a chain-link fence. The fluidity of these images in conversation with one another becomes especially impressive when taking into account that they were edited in camera on a single 100-foot roll of 16mm; analog dissolves and subtle superimpositions abound, speaking to Todd's prophetic feel for tempo, visual architecture, and exposure.

If Summer Light: Tuesday seems to exist within Todd’s artistic/mental comfort zone, the next films suggest the filmmaker attempting to chart less familiar modes of representation. Construct is shot at an emu farm in one of Todd’s favorite formats: high-contrast black-and-white stock, which casts the photographed reality under a particularly chalky chiaroscuro, rendering it strange and unearthly. The science-fiction undercurrent of Todd’s work detected by one commenter in a post-screening Q&A is a sentiment that likely arose from this film in particular. Given the way Todd’s close-ups, canted angles, and distinctive film stock transform the emus into an amorphous mass of silver fur and twig-like limbs, mistaking the film for extraterrestrial footage is not entirely out of the realm of possibility. Likewise, every earthly object has been transformed into an abstraction; a sheet blowing in the wind becomes something else entirely, and the source of one cotton-like surface dappled with light is impossible to discern. On the soundtrack are what presumably were once diegetic recordings at the farm, but they're distorted and looped beyond recognition so that what's left is a murky drone augmenting the already ominous mood developed by the imagery.

Emus return in Sunderlight, this time in color but looking no less menacing. If there's one key difference between Construct and Sunderlight besides the shift to monochrome to color, it's the overarching tone. While Construct is eerily meditative, Sunderlight is the closest thing to an imposing horror film in Todd's body of work, an impression largely aroused by a haunting, sustained ambient score of clipped diegetic noises, long bell-like tones, and ghostly, operatic vocal bits. The bizarre presence of the emus is crucial too; these slender, jittery creatures stare at several points directly into the camera, and the only thing separating them from the viewer is a measly wire fence that Todd's camera pays a great deal of attention to. It's possible to read a certain environmentalist warning into the film (could Todd be making a statement about the dangerous human habit of forcefully containing nature?), but as with all of these pieces such narrative or thematic analyses come up short. What's really achieved here is the approximation of a completely foreign perspective. Brakhage's lofty aim to use the camera as a child's eye is fully realized by Todd; Sunderlight presents an environment so profoundly fragmented that every shot feels like an unsettling discovery through some primitive consciousness.

The same impulse towards extracting a sense of uncertainty or danger out of ordinary places is inherent in Passage, though it’s re-contextualized to fit a more geographically and thematically diverse film. Erecting dichotomies such as nature vs. civilization, subjectivity vs. objectivity, and comfort vs. foreignness, Todd’s camera spans a nondescript forest, Portuguese ruins, and tall, mathematically ordered buildings to present a meditation on visual forms that echo across organic and man-made phenomena. As is often the case, Todd uses an aesthetic framework to link his images together; in this case, it’s the visual incorporation of dark doors and windows framing the world beyond it, implemented as portals to the various locations in which he films (the idea of passageways, both organic and synthetic, was established by Todd with his 2011 film Portcullis). Within this framework, nature possesses a serene quality (typical in Todd’s work and another of several things that aligns him with Brakhage) while buildings and foreign landscapes are to be regarded with additional caution and consideration.

Mosaic de Porto continues the arms-length fascination with Portugal introduced by Passage. In both films, footage taken in the country is clearer, crisper, and more evenly lit than the type of amorphous, intimate imagery in Todd's domestic work, but despite that superficial clarity the Portuguese material feels distant and unknown, the activities captured capable of overwhelming Todd's usual command of the frame. Mosaic de Porto offers a flurry of afternoon impressions in a well-populated area, shifting from a significant human element (children running around in grassy fields and families gathered for picnics) to images of the landscape and architectural creations. Rather than bending the physical world to his own painterly aspirations, Todd's presence is closer to that of a fly on the wall, collecting bits and pieces of what's happening around him, attempting to adhere to his impulse towards contemplative abstraction but consistently being thwarted by the level of exuberance and newness in his vicinity. As such, in spite of its brevity Mosaic de Porto nonetheless bursts with life, showcasing a looser but no less potent side of Todd's artistic sensibility.

The evening concluded with one of Todd’s throwaway joke films – a mash-up of close-ups of Elijah Wood from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy that’s allegedly a homage/update to Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc – but even this seemingly tossed-off experiment is in line with Todd’s sensibility, sharing parallels with his lyrical work in the way it takes a familiar object (a daily environment, a pop culture item) and distorts it to create an unfamiliar space of contemplation. By isolating the emphatically emotional close-ups of Wood, the actor's face becomes a landscape of reflection, simultaneously encouraging and frustrating a narrative reading. Todd, noticing certain patterns within Wood's expressions that fall loosely into the categories of wonder and intense agony, slowly sculpts the arrangement of the shots to extract a bizarre maternal narrative in which the smiley Wood seems to birth a devilish doppelgänger who is repulsed by his creator. There were plenty of laughs scattered throughout the theater during this clever repurposing act, but they were balanced by the sense that Todd’s aims were just as eye-opening and worthwhile as in his more decidedly serious work. In the process of watching these films, one witnesses the physical world radically re-imagined in a way that that unveils the beauty, complexity, and strangeness previously hidden in plain sight.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Screening Notes #18

The Day He Arrives (2011): I don't feel comfortable writing at length about Hong Sang-soo's work yet, due both to my limited exposure to his films and also to the fact that I sense a strong understanding of his worldview can only adequately be gained after seeing a large chunk of his movies, if not his entire body of work. As of now, there's an entire code of language and a warped way of seeing things that I can only grasp superficially. That said, I have been thinking a lot about The Day He Arrives in the context of the monologue given by Richard Linklater at the start of Slacker: the existence(s) of Hong's characters splinter off into multiple possible directions – all of which are visualized in identically drab fashion (a surface homogeneity that probably accounts for the spatiotemporal confusion) – based off casual misunderstandings and fanciful mental projections. In other words, the introspective rumination that occurs during conversation is concretized into separate chapters of the narrative, an approach that becomes doubly fascinating through Hong's refusal to actually consistently depict an inner life.

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937): The final half hour of this movie is perfect. Never before and never since, to my understanding at least, has the love of an elderly couple been conveyed with such compassion, purity of vision, and such a wonderful lack of condescension. Beulah Bondi's bashful glance at the camera in a NYC ballroom as she's about to kiss her longtime husband (played by Victor Moore) on what is potentially their final night together crystallizes the pointed balancing act of pathos and irreverence that characterizes Leo McCarey's approach. Unfortunately, I'm not as keen as others on the rest of the film, a scenario in which the couple's self-involved urban children are forced to reckon with their parents' newfound homelessness that occasionally veers into a preachy territory that is quite atypical of McCarey's work. The director's greatest sensitivity is saved for Bondi's self-proclaimed "favorite son" George (Thomas Mitchell), but beyond this portrayal the film offers far too many instances where the message of a scene is all too clear.

Keyhole (2011): Cinema needs a little space carved out for a filmmaker Guy Maddin who excavates beyond-obscure crevices of film history and repurposes them to his own end, in the process revealing how these utterly forgotten moving-image strands are part of a cinephiliac subconscious that continues to inflect the alternative mainstream and the avant-garde. Take Keyhole, a film that has a palpably musty stench of unimaginative detective miniseries only watched by those on the late-shift in some ice-cold Canadian suburb in 1941, yet also seems to echo the mood of early David Lynch and the Freudian narrative logic of Un Chien Andalou. Maddin understands the eternal magnetism of cinematic images and stories more than almost any filmmaker working today, the way they unspool wildly in our brains, losing specificity and everything but sensory impact – this idea was practically the thesis of My Winnipeg. If that film rendered this truth direct and visible, Keyhole returns to Maddin's habit of coding it impulsively into the DNA of a film; like Brand Upon the Brain, the film often feels like little more than an attempt to tell an absurd noirish tale through Maddin's fogged vision. What emerges is simultaneously wholly original and vaguely, mysteriously familiar.

Unstoppable (2010): Disclaimer: I've been slow to catch up with Tony Scott's work after his recent suicide-cum-critical-reappraisal, so my thoughts on these films are anything but fleshed out. My exposure to his body of work is pretty scattered; I saw Man on Fire, Domino, and True Romance when I was much younger and haven't felt the urge to revisit them, whereas the only thing preventing me from tackling his alleged magnum opus Deja Vu is a feeling that in order to get the most out of it I need to bone up on the earlier stuff – classic auteurist assumptions, really. As for Unstoppable, I'd only caught bits and pieces of it on television before finally watching it start to finish recently, and the responses I fleetingly assumed during those earlier fragments collected into something of a stance this time around on this alternately admirable and frustrating thriller: the movie's interesting aspects – its kinetically gorgeous visuals, its barrage of narrative perspectives, its geographic specificity, its vivid sense of being on the precipice of life and death – are routinely complicated by surface-oriented stupidity. For instance, there is the film's socioeconomic stereotyping, wherein each class archetype is addressed through its own blunt symbology (the Hooter's girls are treated to prurient booty shots, the mustachioed, bar-dwelling railway employee is signaled by clichéd country music, the Soulless Corporate Head spends the entire movie in an anonymous grey urban suite), or the flagrantly unsubtle methods of aligning the spectator's responses to the central crisis with those of the third-party onlookers. Still, there's a lot going on here that bears repeat consideration, something I'll hopefully get to after further examination of Scott's cinema.

Faust (1926): Out of a classic German legend consisting of angels, devils, mystical pacts that compromise souls, and other sensational details, F.W. Murnau fashioned a down-to-earth romance that is just as much about humankind as a more decidedly unremarkable film like Sunrise. Funneling the narrative into a flawed romance between the hasty but good-hearted protagonist (Gösta Ekman) and a beautiful commoner (Camilla Horn), casting the Catholic orthodoxy as a morally bankrupt evil, and privileging images of small communities, simple acts of kindness, and humbling forces of nature over the sensational hysteria of the plot are just a small sampling of the ways in which Murnau bends this ancient parable to his desired ends. That said, Faust is still rousing spectacle as far as the twenties are concerned; Murnau renders the iconic and the mythic as eloquently as the human and the mundane, most memorably in a stunning special-effects shot of a larger-than-life demon shadow engulfing a wintry German town and in a final stratospheric battle between the Angel and the Devil. Unfortunately, the otherwise functional theatrical setting in which I witnessed the film (live electronic keyboard score, big screen, respectful audience) was hampered by the irreconcilable flaw in the fact that the movie was presented on a DVD with conspicuous interlacing.

China Gate (1957): Following an ostensibly documentarian but patently ridiculous opening informational montage on Communist and French intervention in Vietnam with a moody ballad of the titular song crooned by Nat "King" Cole set against elaborately production-designed war wreckage is about as sturdy a method as any for wiping away any semblance of narrative authenticity and authority on the Vietnam War, and director Sam Fuller continues to apply irreverent and often times tasteless elements to a strife-torn backdrop throughout China Gate. For much of the film's middle section, the Vietnamese jungle is nearly mistaken for a steamy bathhouse, with petty narratives of lust, betrayal, and selfishness strewn around. Big Statements are kept to a minimum here, but the film's overblown assumptions (that every Communist is a crude womanizer, mindlessly lethal, and essentially synonymous with Stalin, that all children are innocent and pure, etc.) still supply laughs, and it becomes difficult to disentangle the film's perceived racial tolerance and such broad generalizations. Fuller's always good for impressions of brawny stylistic heft though; every gunshot fired rings deadly, momentarily trivializing the plot's goofiness. And one would be hard-pressed to find a more expressive airplane/helicopter getaway sequence than the muted, pared-down, harrowing one that concludes this film.

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943): Revisiting this on a 16mm print confirmed what a genius piece of filmmaking it is, and furthermore how ahead of its time it was aesthetically, narratively, and politically. Deren's subtle and hypnotic modulation between slow-motion and real-time anticipates Tarkovsky, her rabbit-hole narrative – complete with recurring objects and motifs – is a clear template for Lynch, and her approach to the image of femininity espouses a critique of Hollywood objectification that has inflected a number of socially-conscious filmmakers too great to accurately summarize in a sentence. What really stuck with me this time around was the film's entrancing score, a buzzing, clamoring drone prophetic of Toru Takemitsu's work for Hiroshi Teshigahara and also reminiscent of ritualistic tribal music, speaking to an enduring interest in the topic that eventually led Deren to the villages of Haiti.

Go! Go! Go! (1962-64): A frenetic single-frame diary of Maria Menken's daily NYC commute to her desk job and throughout the city that achieves levels of whimsy, poignancy, and darkness that go well beyond mere observation. This is a film seemingly comprised of impulsive gestures with the camera that nonetheless captures impressions of urban truth: bodies moving rapidly to and fro, boats docking and setting off in a harbor photographed in such a way that they resemble toy ships being manipulated by a child, people relaxing on a beachfront surrounded by looming buildings, and humorous asides distilling and poking fun at constructions of gender norms, such as an amusing bit at a muscle show. Menken's in-camera editing unfolds with joyful abandon, passing over large swaths of time to get at key aspects of the modern city. Looked at this way, Go! Go! Go! suggests the mechanics of mental recollection, the strange feeling of cycling through a day's, week's, or month's worth of events in one's head.

Geography of the Body (1946): If Menken herself is absent from Go! Go! Go!, she's very much present, albeit heavily segmented and abstracted, in her husband Willard Maas' film Geography of the Body, which, superficially speaking, takes her body (and an unidentified male's) as its subjects. Visualizing the "mysterious caverns" referenced by surrealist narrator-poet George Barker on the soundtrack(a text related in Barker's droll British accent, suggestive of a particularly flamboyant Kubrickian monologue), Maas shoots these figures in tight close-ups, focusing on neglected portions of the human body, discovering textured landscapes among the flesh. His takes are relatively long, allowing the eye to search for context among what are decidedly decontextualized images. Often times the shots are fairly legible (it's hard to mistake an ear or a hairline for anything but), though Maas also trains his camera on pulsating muscles, obtuse angles, and murky black holes that are very difficult to get a coherent grasp of. An avant-garde hit in its day for obvious reasons, Geography of the Body is the notable for the way it continues to inspire powerful dislocation in the face of such a seemingly intimate subject as the human body.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Outside Satan (2011) A Film by Bruno Dumont

Viewed under proper circumstances – 35mm projection, expansive 2:35:1 aspect ratio unhindered by cropping, hushed theater without booming action movie screening next door; in a word, a devotional setting – Bruno Dumont's Outside Satan bears down on you. Alternating between statuesque close-ups of faces against skies and rapturous deep-focus views of the rural dunes of Nowhere, France, the film essentially presents a series of richly detailed landscapes to meditate upon, but this desire for contemplation is complicated throughout by a vaguely sinister energy. At any given moment, nature seems capable of assuming either a rejuvenating or actively violent role; so too does the screen itself, its physicality occasionally threatening to burst outward at the viewer. Of the many contemporary practitioners of so-called "slow cinema" (a trend that's too diffuse and noncommittal to be called a genre), Dumont is one of the least likely to allow for spontaneity. With his subtly micromanaged mise-en-scène, he summons a compositional intensity that lends minuscule gestures – a whistle through fingers, a dog's bark, a sudden bodily movement – an unsettling charge. Outside Satan takes full advantage of this latent unpredictability, thus finding a stylistic match for its willfully impenetrable protagonist.

Both Outside Satan and Dumont's preceding film, Hadewijch, deal with modern figures of intense religious devotion (overt in the latter, implied in the former) driven to acts of destructiveness. In this case, Dumont centers his attention on a stoic, misshapen drifter (David Dewaele) who behaves as some kind of vessel for the alternately satanic and saintly energy flows of a dreary seaside village. Under his wing is a punkish girl with a pixie cut (Alexandra Lemâtre) who lends him bread daily (the first of the film's several Christian allusions to emerge) and follows him as he roams the windy outskirts of the town. Occasionally, they face the vast landscape before them and kneel down into prayer position. They barely speak, and when they do it's a banal collection of curt sentences suggesting the barest skeleton of a relationship marked by suppressed emotions, unremarked-upon individual traumas, and co-dependency. Early on, there is an indication of the peculiar philosophical space that binds them together: the girl follows the man to the back of a rusty shed, they wait with a rifle for a man to emerge from a barn nearby, Dewaele shoots him, and the two of them stand there motionless, solemnly directing their gazes towards the ground, flickering no visible signs of either emotional guilt or a desire to flee the scene.

The casting of Dewaele and Lemâtre, two of the most inherently expressive faces I've witnessed in some time, is essential to the power of these blank slate moments. Dewaele is a strange, intimidatingly unattractive man, like a street rat manifested as a human. His face – framed by a combed mop of wiry dirty blonde hair and punctuated by an uneven unibrow, patchy facial hair, a tight-lipped scowl, and the occasional scar or cut that suggestively comes and goes – rarely interrupts its default expression: a hard-to-read concoction of smug indifference, gentle humility, and barely veiled bloodlust. This face belongs to a stiff, awkward body adorned with wrongly fitting clothes that sometimes create the illusion that bones are jutting out from beneath his skin in random places. Beside him is Lemâtre, her features softer and more recognizably human, her physiognomy more reptilian than rodent-like, and her squinted eyes hinting at years of personal turmoil only obliquely thrown into relief by the thinly outlined narrative detail regarding her apparently abusive father, cryptically identified as the victim of the aforementioned rifle shot.

The cutthroat moral logic guiding this act (the father pays for his wrongs) continues to mark some of the behavior of Dewaele's character. It is not long before he commits another murder, this time bludgeoning the head of a man who has continually made unsuccessful romantic and erotic advances at Lemâtre's character. Later, he has a simultaneously sexual and violent encounter with a female passerby that ostensibly ends with some kind of metaphysical death and rebirth. What links these three victims is a sense of impurity or wrongdoing: physical abuse in the first instance, tactlessness and emotional disregard in the second, and flippant self-prostitution in the last. Dumont is, on the one hand, presenting a character defined by his communion with both the natural world and a higher power who appears to have some sort of agenda to rid the village of any violating behavior. But at the same time, this man is prone to mistakes (he kills a deer when trying to shoot a bird), to perceived discontinuities between thought and action (he enjoys sex with the passerby before punishing her), and to radical shifts in alleged intent to the point that he appears to be shifting at will between binaries of good and evil, self-interest and selflessness, omniscient control and chance.

Put in grander, flashier terms – and the terms popularly bandied about by those trying to make sense of this aggressively provocative work – the man vacillates between Christ and the Devil. But it may be less accurate to say he shifts between these two poles than it is to say he embodies something of both at all times. Brief appearances of iPod headphones and beer cans tell us Outside Satan (otherwise decidedly agrarian) is set in the modern world, which may lead one to believe Dumont is crafting a parable about the place of consuming religious faith in an increasingly anti-spiritual environment. If so, the question that emerges pertains not to whether Dumont condemns or praises the spiritual pursuit (it's fairly clear that it's not so simple), but to the extent to which Dewaele's character's actions are his own or if they are somehow dictated by the movements of the community he exists within. One of the film's pivotal narrative developments involves the possessed young daughter of a widow. The woman routinely invites the man over to her home to monitor her daughter's physical and mental state, and one day he lunges on top of her and bellows into her foaming mouth (an action he will later perform on the female passerby). Upon leaving, the mother graciously thanks him for supposedly saving her daughter.

There are negative repercussions to this shocking quasi-pedophiliac exorcism, though, not in spite of but possibly because of the fact that it's perceived by the woman as a virtuous act (Dumont's approach to the scene, of course, is characteristically aloof). Shortly thereafter, Lemâtre's character dies enigmatically (and, it turns out, temporarily) when she creeps into a rustling darkness in a small forested patch. If the previous moment flirted with The Exorcist, this scene takes even further an undertone of pulpy horror that the film knowingly plays with throughout. Dumont's formidable command of screen space, editing tempo, and atmospheric soundscapes is such that every shot feels as if it's on the precipice of a dangerous outburst that never arrives. Here, the simple cutting rhythm between Lemâtre's apprehensive expression as she moves slowly forward and a static medium shot of a dark alcove in the woods – coupled with the eerie silence following a soft cracking in the darkness – creates unbearable tension. As with so many of the film's suggestive build-ups, however, Dumont dodges the payoff in favor of a classic Bressonian ellipsis that places the emphasis on the result of the act rather than the act: an unassuming fade to black, followed by a tight, abstracted close-up of Lemâtre's lower legs, dirtied by leaves and mud. By never definitively assigning a guilty party to her death (cops do point the finger at an auxiliary character who may or may not be of significance, but one gets the sense that justice has not been served), the film leaves open the possibility that the culprit may not be human at all. Have the cosmos somehow conspired against Dewaele's character, rewarding his "good deed" with a competing tilt of the moral universe?

Outside Satan doesn't have a plot so much as a succession of these mysterious red herrings. In fact, there's an entirely separate narrative thread involving a group of cops investigating the string of criminal incidents that's so opaque it barely even registers as anything more than a collection of wide shots of men in uniform getting in and out of cars, asking witnesses unheard questions, and emerging from crime scenes (strangely, they seem oblivious to the coincidence that Dewaele is always roaming on the periphery). Such is the effect of Dumont's ascetic approach here, which leaves a not-uncomplicated narrative bubbling beneath a sedate surface of spacious, inscrutable images and nondescript ambient sounds. But this sense of calm is only a mask for much darker, more unstable undercurrents, all of which momentarily erupt to the surface when the vast landscape incomprehensibly sets aflame in the final third of the movie, a large-scale metaphor whose extinguishment soon after it arrives is further proof of the prophetic shape-shifting of Dewaele's character. This is a man with destructive and rejuvenating powers, and the scariest quality about him is the suspicion – sustained for the film's entirety – that he's not the one responsible for how he uses them.