Sunday, September 28, 2014
Screening Notes #27
M (1931): Picture Berlin as an ant farm. Suddenly the ants have been confronted by an unprecedented problem, the solution to which lies beyond their comprehension. In struggling to solve this problem, the previously efficient ants waste a lot of time and destroy their habitat. That's M in one strained analogy. In my memory bank, this was a chilling portrait of a psychopath; it’s clear now that the pedophiliac murderer is a mere vehicle through which to observe the breakdown of a system. Who else in 1931 would take a tabloid-ready narrative such as this and render it as a dark comedy about the way a society operates in cracking down on the outcast? Lang’s default view is a head-high downward angle, his special injection a bird’s eye view nearly parallel to the floor. (It’s telling that the only monumentalizing bottom-up perspective focuses on a police chief’s dick bulge.) From this perch of omniscience, we can see that the underground criminals, disappearing into their own comically overabundant cigarette smoke, are more efficient than the incompetent police force, lost in a jungle of newly minted technology—yet even these irate vigilantes are outfoxed by a blind man (M’s most diagrammatic screenplay addition nonetheless made silly by Lang’s draping of an inelegant “BLIND” lanyard over the guy's neck). The film’s shifting tone fuses seemingly incompatible registers—suspenseful and aloof, tongue-in-cheek and dead serious, joshing but ultimately nonjudgmental—to arrive at something as rich as all those delicious-looking German beers splashing around in everyone’s pint glass.
Level Five (1997): Do androids dream of the casualties of Okinawa? The answer excavated by Chris Marker is a melancholy no. Though returning to the director’s signature theme of collective historical amnesia, Level Five introduces a completely outside-the-box framing device that makes intuitive sense within the context of Marker’s restless investigatory bent: a woman (Catherine Belkodjha) is working on programming a PC game that allows the user to replay the events of World War II’s final battle, and her search for historical context and understanding becomes the movie’s structural guide, while the failure of the computer to account for the complexities of the tragedy represents its layered cautionary thread about the digitization of memory. That’s really just tipping the iceberg of the multitudes contained within this boundlessly associative closet meditation (like how bedroom pop is a genre in music, the spatial and psychological limitations of the cramped office space—which really feels more like a closet—where the programming goes down are seemingly crucial to the wanderings of Belkodjha’s mind.) Marker makes his elusive presence felt by assuming the spirit of the programmer’s late husband, the man who initiated the Okinawa game project. Thus, the film’s adopts the secondary form of a cryptic conversation between a living women engulfed by cyberspace and a ghostly creator privy to knowledge beyond Belkodjha’s insular alcove. It’s within this dialectical narrative that Marker unleashes his knotty prose and vertical montage, here collapsing the pixelated non-space of computer innards into the archival images of human suffering so compromised by the limitations of this hardware. Gluing it all together is the poignant presence of Belkodjha, who really gives an outstanding webcam performance, even when asked by her director to whimper to an electronic parrot. When emerging from Marker’s brainy historical exorcisms, the mere sound of Belkodjha’s expressive whisper and the look of her voluptuous lips (yeah, base impulses don’t escape me even during discursive video essays) dissolve the film into pure sensation and emotion.
Brouillard, Passage #14: While this season’s festivalgoers repeatedly regale us with the allegedly one-of-a-kind perceptual shocks of Godard’s Goodbye to Language, Alexandre Larose’s Brouillard, Passage #14 offers another, considerably less reported-upon experience of reframed vision. A kind of performance film where the entire performance—Larose, camera in hard, walking his backyard path to a shoreline approximately 120 times—is inscribed en masse into the celluloid in the form of a highly compressed superimposition, Brouillard winds up resembling a quivering Monet in which the famous impasto swirls don’t merely optically suggest movement but actually surge toward the viewer, blotches of color separating and colliding in the process. The image looks uncannily painted (and, given its Super 8mm format, perhaps on a canvas sprinkled with a layer of sand), but because Larose’s physical journey through this pastoral landscape could not have been identical every time, here and there a fragment of an image escapes momentarily from the gluey cluster, suddenly revealing the representational photographic origins of the illusion. Still, the overwhelming impression is of drifting through a voluptuously unreal dream zone, a synaptic rush wherein ordinary environments pop with hitherto unseen repositories of color energy (or, in a few instances, what looks like a charging herd of buffalo materializing in the back of the frame out of duplicated visual information). A short 7 minutes of this and I’m wishing my eyes could officially switch over to Larose-vision.
My Mother's Smile (2002): This is my first get-together with Marco Bellochio, and unfortunately, plaguing the experience was the overwhelming sense that he runs on visual autopilot. My Mother’s Smile’s mise-en-scène is one of total anonymity. Well over half the scenes here are staged with two or three people just sitting or standing in one place over the course of several minutes, their conversations shown (it feels inappropriate to use an adjective like “expressed”) in pedestrian shot-reverse-shot setups with a stubborn lack of variation. (One exchange in particular plays for at least 10 minutes and had me squirming in my seat in boredom.) Sure, some filmmakers accomplish more with even simpler visual strategies, but the big issue here is the lack of any indication that Bellochio thinks of his images as anything more than information carriers, or his editing as anything more than a means with which to show you who’s talking, where a character is, etc. Further impairing the film is his seeming disregard for space: disorienting 180-degree crosses are frequent and consistently pointless, and establishing shots are few and far between (and those cross the 180 line too). Maybe I’m missing something here, but it seems like a pretty decent script opportunity dropped out of a failure to engage with the medium.
Manhattan (1979): Here’s a bold, likely unfair statement: Manhattan is a great movie because of Gordon Willis. It’s healthy to have an extra artistic force behind the camera to act as a counterpoint to the constant push-pull of egotism and self-deprecation that is Woody Allen’s screen persona. It’s good to have this war zone of competing impulses performing the drama while another guy just tries to capture beautiful things around him. There’s extraordinary neutrality to Willis’ images here; at any point in time, the world is bigger and prettier than the faces onscreen, so his camera never forgets that. Shots often stay locked in one composition while the action moves in and out of the frame; one breakup scene finds half the screen occupied by urban hustle bustle while the petty relationship stuff wears on to the side, eye lines pointed offscreen as if we needed any more of a reason not to bother focusing on it. Of course, Manhattan’s not a cold film or a film that belittles its characters, just one that gently prods the viewer to see the larger scope of not only this metropolitan expanse but also the universe as a whole, the planetarium sequence being only the most obvious example of this cosmic counterbalance. There’s also a visual intelligence that undercuts Allen’s empathetic missteps as a character, such as in a domestic scene between Woody and Keaton that foreshadows the ultimate failure of their fling by placing them on opposite thirds of the frame in separate shots, a blank apartment wall a literal and figurative barrier. Connection here is really about sharing the same fraction of a 2:35:1 frame. That’s not the kind of thing you can say about many Allen films.
Fishing with John (1991): Evidence that 1991 was a better time for independent filmmaking: someone pumped money into Fishing with John, a project that, despite its proudly low-rent/amateurish aesthetics, nonetheless racked up the inevitable costs associated with carting celebrities around the globe. Of course, it’s true that placing familiar faces together in “real” scenarios to observe their “real” selves will always hold a certain voyeuristic fascination for surveyors of American popular culture, so it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which a young and hip John Lurie would be able to dupe some gullible financier into investing in a show in which this very thing would be the most immediate draw. Even so, the presumed disparity between whatever said hypothetical moneylender might have been expecting when handing over his finances to Lurie and the fantastically non-commercial, often avant-garde whatsit that it ended up being is striking to ponder. Sure, Fishing with John is light entertainment and does offer the spectacle of on-the-fly celebrity behavior, but its accomplishments are defiantly strange and difficult to discern. Its comedy, such as it is, is bone-dry: the jokes are in how long a shot is held beyond the completion of a given dramatic beat, how a sudden zoom effectively emphasizes nothing, how Lurie’s unflappably low-key persona clashes against or harmonizes with his chosen guests, or how a long-overdue injection of Robb Webb’s absurdist voiceover—the show’s greatest stroke of genius—teases out nonexistent drama from the ambient nothingness onscreen. Culturally acknowledged or not, this is the wellspring from which the 21st century anti-comedy of Tim Heidecker, GoodNeighbor, and countless other YouTube prodigies emerges.
Human Desire (1954): Give a director some well-worn, not-inherently-intriguing material and he’ll prove himself an auteur or a pedestrian hack—that’s certainly not a trailblazing statement, but it’s still an illuminating one to think about with regards to Fritz Lang’s Human Desire, the American remake of a respected Jean Renoir film that was itself based on a novel by Émile Zola. By Lang’s standards, the film is hardly firing on all cylinders, but its weaknesses reveal what’s quintessential about his work. As a noir potboiler, it’s distinctly lacking in suspense or dramatic urgency, even as its omnipresent score more than fulfills its pulse-quickening genre mandate. Instead of tuning in beat by beat to the human struggle, Lang recognizes the debilitating stasis of these character’s lives well before they do. His focus is on the macro level, on the structures enveloping their foretold downfalls. The 50s ensemble films I’ve seen so far in Harvard's retrospective are united by their emphasis on the environmental constants in their respective story settings—the doom-filled cyclical river in House by the River, the indifferent ocean in Clash by Night, and the loud crisscrossing trains tracks here. Lang keeps these powerful, unchanging forces palpably present even when they’re not onscreen, so much so that even the hypothetical highpoint of an ostensibly romantic-tragic embrace between Gloria Grahame and Glenn Ford is secondary to the formal choices bringing it forth: a chugging caboose overwhelming the soundtrack and an audacious dimness (about the darkest Lang’s relatively fine-grain stock could go without giving way to garbage-bound black leader) relieved briefly by the light of the passing cabin outside. Generally speaking, Lang’s camera is less animated than in the two aforementioned films, often sticking to static two shots to record tense dramatic moments, but even this stylistic reserve is geared toward the all-important theme: these people are going nowhere, doomed by themselves as much as by their relationships with one another.
A quick note on Glenn Ford: here, as usual, he’s more a “look” to pump scowling dialogue into than a fully formed persona—and yet, I continue to find him an oddly compelling lead. Depending on the film, he can come across as either exhaustingly affectless or hypnotically cold-blooded (of the films I’ve seen this year, Appointment in Honduras fits roughly in the former category and The Violent Men falls squarely in the latter, in case you’re wondering). In Human Desire, he’s somewhere in between, delivering his lines as if they’re being whispered by a PA just out of frame but also maintaining between the words a rugged stone face that implies intimidating depths of self-interest and insensitivity. All of which is to say, it’s a very “visible” performance, but one that’s amusing to scrutinize alongside Grahame’s comparatively immersed thesping.