Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Deathmaker

I've written a piece for Mubi.com on the 1995 German film The Deathmaker, which dives into the extensive single-room interrogation of Fritz Haarmann, the serial killer first dramatized in 1931 by Fritz Lang with M. The film's directed by Romuald Karmakar, a filmmaker that too few cinephiles are familiar with. Head on over to The Notebook to hear about why I find this spatially limited film so damn compelling.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

DIY Dystopia

Balagan Films of Cambridge, Massachusetts represents what is currently the heroic norm in avant-garde cinema curation and exhibition: a not-for-profit operation scouring the world for distinctive aesthetic experiences while relying on crowdsourcing to scrape enough funds together to just barely survive. At Balagan’s latest program – their first after an abnormal hiatus of several months – the staff’s repeated plugging (self-consciously described by head curator Jeff Silva as “beating a dead horse”) of their soon-to-expire Kickstarter came across less as cash-happy beggary than as an unfortunate necessity, an earnest plea for assistance better to get out of the way up front and move on to what really matters: the moving images.

The films in this latest program, which was entitled “DIY Dystopia” and ran approximately an hour and a half, are associated by their shared concerns over the state of the natural world in an increasingly jeopardized industrial landscape. An additional charge of immediacy is attached to this theme when considering that all of the filmmakers involved – Douglas Urbank, Jennifer Reeves, Christina Battle, Dan Baker, and Ben Rivers – are currently based in cities; an intensely “artificial” environment, as one Balagan curator noted. (Dante’s Quartet (1987), a film by the late Stan Brakhage, was also featured in the lineup, and he too spent a great deal of his life in an urban center.) Incorporating a blend of traditional shooting, hand-painting, optical printing, found footage manipulation, and other esoteric uses of celluloid, the films not only seek unpredictable methods for representing the contemporary environmental crisis but also tie this lament into the decay of material cinema as a larger practice and as a way of seeing.

Boston local Douglas Urbank’s in-progress found footage film WWII kicked off the evening accompanied by a live score from acoustic improv trio Duck That, a hissing, squelching, howling exercise in sustained tension that eerily matched the images of dead soldiers being carted to and fro in wheelbarrows and Nazi officials gathering in chunks. In fact, the otherworldly rattle emanating from Duck That’s shadowy corner beneath the screen – blown through woodwinds, gargled through loudspeakers, and punctuated by the sounds of unidentifiable trinkets – threatened to divert the attention away from Urbank’s somewhat dryly repurposed imagery, in which the only conspicuous marks of deconstruction are animated shifting tear lines and rows of circular negative space, implemented as if to suggest the footage crumbling and splitting apart.

The next film, Jennifer Reeves’ Landfill 16 (2011), offered a far more dense and mysterious visual surface. Presumably a tattered amalgamation of direct painting/scratching and less controlled manners of celluloid handling (i.e. burying in the dirt), the resulting visual chaos alternately evokes bubbling magma, eroded rust, and scorched Earth. The film’s weather-beaten color palette – resembling that of late-period Tony Scott – mutates as frequently as the textured surface, pulsating inward and outward in a mess of scratches, blotches, and Petri dish patterns. Towards the latter half of the film, barely legible images of wildlife begin emerging beneath this layered visual noise, marking the first instance of a rather didactic gesture that repeats throughout these films: the posing of a contrast between technology/human waste and seemingly untainted nature. (Landfill 16’s ambient soundtrack, which pits together distant industrial noises and ghostly field recordings, forges the same dialectic.)

Christina Battle’s Buffalo Lifts (2004) packs similarly hypnotizing imagery into its concise three-minute running time: an extended shot of a buffalo herd moving, significantly, from right to left that is nearly overwhelmed by the calculated destruction of the film’s surface. Here, a particularly punchy metaphor is raised regarding the simultaneous degradation of the natural world and physical cinema. As the buffalo charge insistently across the frame – their mere directionality subliminally invoking degeneration – they rush towards extinction, just as the celluloid they have been captured with is combusting around them, reducing them to strokes of pure movement. The film’s silence underscores its power; no frivolous elements are needed for such a harmonious matching of form and content.

Battle is also responsible for Oil Wells: Sturgeon Road and 97th Street (2002), a work of similar brevity and potency. The film’s focal point is an image of a silhouetted oil derrick bobbing slowly in and out of the ground, but it’s by no means a very descriptive shot. Instead, the methodical motion of the drill is reduced to a graphic cadence in the frame around which the detritus of burnt, dirty film stock gathers. Through rephotographing techniques, Battle shows the image being knocked out of alignment with the projector, a sudden boundary obstruction that echoes the derrick’s disruption of the line between land and sky. As in Buffalo Lifts, neither the Earth nor celluloid can survive such exploitation of the natural world.

Dan Baker finds a lovely image for this inherent doom of nature in the face of man-made extravagance in Transaension (2006), which the filmmaker claims is about fossil fuel extraction: a human figure, burning like the sun in the bottom right corner of the frame, dwarfed by a fog of fiery abstraction, stacked up like layers of compromised geological crusts above him. It’s a fleeting image, but it’s undeniably the most resonant of the show. Baker pushes past some of the simple-minded dichotomies permeating the rest of the films to arrive at a crystallization of human resilience against its own self-destructive tendencies. The rest of the sex-minute film is spent building up a hellish miasma of red and orange blotches and spiderweb scratches suggesting cracked rock, all set to a menacing low-frequency drone; this is human progress as an inescapable nightmare, not something to be pondered or lightly questioned.

Alongside these relatively low-profile works, Balagan curators thought it fitting to conclude the program with films by Stan Brakhage and Ben Rivers, two artists already somewhat well known for their expressions of a pastoral ideal. Dante’s Quartet, a hand-painted assault structured around Dante’s four stages of afterlife, and Ah, Liberty! (2008), another of Rivers’ monochrome, cinemascope explorations of human communion with nature, provided a rather serene ending to the dystopia presented by the other films. Two Years at Sea, Rivers' first feature-length work, was one of my key discoveries in 2011 and remains one of my favorite films of the decade so far, and this short, Rivers' very first release according to IMDB, works in a similar vein. Naturally lit black-and-white images of wildlife mix with a score comprised mostly of diegetic sounds, but here Rivers brushes up against narrative and genre elements. The film's premise is simple: a seemingly pure landscape becomes host to a series of increasingly bizarre human interferences culminating in a pair of hooded toddlers beating and swatting mindlessly at the wreckage left by an earlier brush fire. These odd staged bits rest somewhere between horror and absurdism, but the overall tone lands on the lighter side largely because of Rivers' inspired use of the spacious 2:35:1 format, which creates an inherently freeing composition; even in an ostensible close-up, there's a great deal of image for the eye to explore.

It's easy to wonder whether the Brakhage short was included merely for the sake of contrasting a current, politically charged approach to handmade film with an older, more metaphysical one. Otherwise, Brakhage's short seems out of place in the context of all these self-consciously environmentally-minded works. At the very least, its existence within such a contemporary program exposes how prevalent and unavoidable this issue is in our present world; recognizing the eerie parallels between the decline of celluloid and the decline of the natural world, these filmmakers seem to have arrived at their finished material out of a sense of obvious ethical responsibility. The urgency shows. Only a measly portion of contemporary cinema bothers to creatively engage with the unignorable fate of our industrial over-reliance, and Balagan has managed to tactfully unify the noble few.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Deer Hunter (1978) A Film by Michael Cimino

Particularly during a time of our continued military entanglements with foreign nations, Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter comes across less as an honest grappling with the American involvement in Vietnam than as a deeply myopic stroking of American machismo. Opening with a wedding and ending with a funeral, the film announces itself as a vital statement on the transformative effects of the war on our national consciousness, positing with its very structure that the war presented a threat to our sanity, well-being, and, most of all, our moral exceptionalism. Trouble is, the only perspective it bothers to represent is that of the working-class male, and thus the film’s every development is filtered through masculine ethos, which, by extension, is equated with American national identity. Inevitably, this leaves out the possibility of hearing from women, and, most egregiously, the Vietnamese people, all of whom, historically, should be owed a say in these pivotal events.

The film divides its three dramatic acts quite transparently: pre-Vietnam, Vietnam, and post-Vietnam (these acts refer not to the actual timeline of the war but rather to the involvement of the main characters in the war). In the first act, Cimino laboriously establishes the drab Pennsylvania industrial milieu in which these characters live and work. Michael (Robert DeNiro), Stan (John Cazale), Nick (Christopher Walken), Steven (John Savage), and John (George Dzundra) are all factory laborers who spend their free time hunting deer in the mountains nearby. The sheer amount of time spent on this preamble to combat is designed to outline the core American values embedded within the milieu that will be compromised by the experiences in Vietnam: material modesty, work ethic, commitment to community, and self-reliance.

For the sake of plot convenience, the second act presents the inverses of these values, naturally displacing these negative attributes on the Vietnamese without ever realizing the floating irony that Vietnam’s history of imperialist manipulation mirrors some of our own early struggles to become an autonomous nation. Without deviation, our “enemies” are presented as barbaric, impulsive, and careless with regards to the life or death of their peers. Russian roulette, which eventually factors heavily into the plot, is formulated as the harrowing site of all these qualities, and the violence-plagued pleasure districts that Michael and Nick find themselves charting perilously into represent the opposition to the modesty and faithfulness that mark the film’s notion of American domesticity. These high-stakes events and settings are incorporated by the film exclusively for the purpose of challenging the characters' inner strength, and thus the narrative demands that they be pitched at the level of hyperbolic extremity. The result is an undifferentiated mass of hollering Vietnamese hooligans (portrayed, largely, by Thai actors) whose lives are apparently consumed by pointing handguns at anonymous heads and shouting deadly instructions, or unleashing cries of thoughtless thrill at the sight of blood gushing freely from someone's skull.

Anyone with even the smallest margin of empathy and understanding for that which is unknown to them should be able to spot such ludicrousness as a grotesque distortion of an Other. Perhaps this shortsightedness would be less offensive if Cimino didn't relay his fear-mongering exaggerations through a veneer of authenticity. The Deer Hunter as a whole is production-designed with exquisite attention to filth and squalor, and it saves its grimiest effects for Vietnam; the back-alley roulette room where Nick finds his sanity slipping away is a madhouse billowing with smoke, illuminated by a single unflattering overhead source, and otherwise shrouded in murky shadows where one can only assume the walls are caked in dried blood or Stalin portraits. While this filth is disorienting, seemingly a black hole of darkness capable of destroying one's sense of space and time, the lesser circumstances on the home front feel comparatively inviting. The only dangers presented by the Pennsylvania environment are metaphorical rather than actual; thanks largely to snatches of mystical a cappella drenched in church reverb, the mountains emanate mythical overtones throughout, and it is here that the central metaphorical challenge of the film is posed: will the men be able to kill the deer in one shot, thus affirming their strength and certitude, or will they need two shots, thus descending to the misogynistic level of “pussy”? Cimino applies the ill-fitting logic behind this masculine code of honor across the film.

The talents of Meryl Streep, Rutanya Alda, and Amy Wright, meanwhile, who constitute the pining feminine cluster back home, go to waste against the brute force of all this macho grandeur. As Linda, the conflicted love interest of both Michael and Nick, Streep is allowed the most screen time by a long shot, but even then her potentially complex character is reduced to a stick figure of grief, indecision, and longing, the collision of which Streep does her best to muscle out in numerous close-ups. Especially in the film’s final third, she is always on cue to be acted upon according to the needs of the script. She is less a character than a cipher onto which the male characters’ romantic desires and frustrations can be projected, and thus is physically oriented as such; when Michael finally returns home, she is merely sitting there in the middle of the room doing nothing when the door is knocked, her motionless pose of ennui not only a comically overwrought actor’s gesture but also a crystallization of her blatant passivity throughout the film.

If there’s one thing The Deer Hunter fully understands it’s masculine stubbornness and the absurd lengths to which a man will go to affirm his bravery and self-sufficiency, or, to put it more fittingly in the terms of the film, to prove that he’s not a pussy. The issue with the film, however, is not the degree to which it represents this quality of virility, but the astounding arrogance it takes to conflate this position with national identity. Nick's final, and ultimately fatal, dismissal of Michael's plea to come home is particularly wrenching because it fully invests in this warped mindset at the expense of an uplifting outcome. But in the end it's Michael who the film equates most squarely with the persevering virtues of the American Man because he finds a less senseless outlet for this stubbornness, overcoming the tempting madness of the "enemy" to re-focus his attentions on his local community. Yet in doing so, he remains stubborn; his unwillingness to recognize the root of the issue – his country's flippant refusal to try to understand the victims of their attacks – muddies his supposed self-actualization, even as the film celebrates his behavior as headstrong leadership. It's possible to praise the film's downcast ending as an admirably ambivalent take on patriotism, but even its manufactured ambiguity is flimsy: the "wounds" of the war may weigh heavily over these characters, but the lasting impression is of a questionable moral victory for those surviving.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Tangle of Notes, Impressions, and Questions on Hollis Frampton's Zorn's Lemma

(Note: This piece assumes that you've seen the film. If you haven't, I strongly encourage you to do so before navigating my jumbled thoughts. The film is part of The Criterion Collection's characteristically revelatory edition, "A Hollis Frampton Odyssey.")

- Opening in darkness, Hollis Frampton's Zorn's Lemma (1970) asks its viewer to clear his/her perceptual slate and approach the film with fresh eyes and ears. Then, for its ensuing hour, it asks if this is even possible.

- Pulling its title from a mathematical theory proposed by Max Zorn in 1935 concerning algebraic sets and limits and featuring readings from a primitive grammar textbook, Zorn's Lemma sets itself up against man-made systems for comprehending the world and then creates some of its own corresponding yet distinctly cinematic systems. One of these is the film's structure, divided into three sections and progressing, broadly, from darkness to light, from sound to silence to sound, from visual absence to visual assault to mechanical recording, and through various attempts at rule-bound objectivity.

- In the film's extensive, unfurling middle section, the question of intentionality vs. spontaneity is repeatedly frustrated. Frampton's self-imposed A-Z structure, for the most part, dictates itself, but there are continually slippages of rationality when it seems as if the mathematical ordering of images and words has been deliberately obstructed. Assuming the one-second shots were arranged chronologically according to the order in which Frampton filmed them, I can't help but wonder whether a sly pairing such as "limp member" might not be quite so aleatoric. And if it's indeed something Frampton slipped in deliberately, why? This middle section is a puzzle of images without a clear solution, and in such cases I get the sense that the lack of clarity is carefully modulated, that Frampton might be fudging with his own rules as a way of positing the impossibility of objectively making sense of the world.

- I interpret Zorn's Lemma as a film about the limits of constructed knowledge systems (i.e. language, symbolism, time, cinema), so in one sense my desire as a viewer is to witness Frampton crafting a set of principles that he pedantically follows, only to watch as that system naturally crumbles, forcing a secondary system to emerge. In the context of Zorn's Lemma, that first system is language, broken into letters and their accompanying words, and the secondary system is images, which begin to emerge as Frampton runs out of the filmed words he collected. One way of looking at the second part of the film is through the assumption that words are unambiguous and closed-off while images are alive to the interpretive powers of the viewer, but then there are Frampton's additional tricks that complicate this reading. First, there is the fact that the words too are images, and secondly, there is the fact that the images too are a construction of the man behind the camera, framing the world according to his existing set of principles. These paradoxes and complexities are crystallized by the seemingly arbitrarily recurring motif of optically-printed text on top of an image, a calculated effect that simultaneously makes plain and simple the word/image double standards and also seems to violate Frampton's rules.

- Meanwhile, the images themselves are complicated. They are too diverse to be pinned to a shallow, undifferentiated reading as "images," posed dialectically against "words." There are shots that are temporally-bound (a jar filling up with beans, a cropped view of hands assembling a tinker toy, a man painting a wall) and others that are infinite. The time-based shots are defined by the fact that the actions contained within them are finite; they will end, and, presumably, so will the shot. On the other hand, the ocean or a single leafless tree on a hill will continue existing indefinitely. Only the representation of it through the camera will end. Frampton is calling attention to the inherent discontinuity between material reality and the human need to compartmentalize it, to give it shape and meaning through representation. Is there any other way to interpret the special effects shots in the film (two halves of a woman's head unsettlingly misaligned or three identical figures bouncing a volleyball in the same frame) than as flagrant expressions of this urge?

- The film's final section, then, is the (attempted) inverse to this manipulation: people performing an action seemingly of their own accord (walking across a snowy field into the forest) and a static camera recording that process in three uninterrupted takes, each the length of an 100-foot 16mm roll. On the surface, the approach might seem God-like, or at least that's how I see it. These figures appear to be unaware of the camera and their resulting representation therein. However, as a cinematic spectator it's obvious that this is a constructed scenario merely aiming for the illusion of truth. In service of its reprisal of age-old debates about photographic objectivity, this section decidedly inverts Frampton's editing system in the second section; here, cuts (which resemble dissolves in this case, complete with the defects inevitably accompanying the tail end of the film roll) are dictated by the limits of the cinematographic apparatus, not any editorial consciousness. But when a sudden squall of snow fills the frame, momentarily flooding the film with natural beauty despite seeming to arrive with unnatural haste, can we still trust this to be the case, or has Frampton's (and, by extension, man's) desire for aesthetic surprise and fulfillment intruded?

-On the soundtrack, loopy words spoken by two women at the pace of a nagging metronome dissolve into sonic mush. Again, the possibility of a subjectivity (the women's voices) is raised within a rule-bound system (the metronome) and the latter overwhelms the former. The subjective is reduced by the limits within which it is contained. Zorn's Lemma demonstrates that everything inside of it is a product of human interference, and any attempt to dissect its contents can only be as rewarding as its viewer (and its viewer's accompanying systems for understanding the world) will allow it to be.