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Monday, 15 April 2019

#538 PATHS OF GLORY Stanley Kubrick 1957

"I knew I should of taken the Ant Hill."
Timothy Carey's sardonic tone so captures the absurdity of the events here.  

Kubrick would be remiss if he did not touch on the absurdity inherent in situations such as those depicted in this film.  Any work that spotlights authority has to be able to laugh a little bit, especially since most of it usually ends in tears, or a firing squad (one man isn't even conscious when he is shot...If that is not absurdist irony, what is).  In fairness, this one ends in a song, but the tears in the eyes of the toughened soldiers belie the Old Lie, eloquently rebutted by Wilfred Owen in every highschool poetry class in the English speaking world.  Sweetness and Honour are mangled on the battlefield, and retained only through the person of Kubrick's future wife Christiane who must sing as a terrified, lone, vulnerable German girl among the "enemy."  

It is weirdly appropriate, furthermore, that the film should be filmed in English, even though the story takes place in France, with French names all around.  That strange cinematic convention somehow binds the actors to the universality of the themes here, especially when you throw in an English girl playing a German who is, essentially, a prisoner of the war.  Her innocence might have served to highlight more brutal themes of the war, but the placement of the song at the absolute end of the last reel ensures a more appropriate--and hopeful--note.  There are fascinating articles written by soldiers and writers of war who present the ultimate dilemma in the war film genre:  how do you protest war while showing it?  how can you demonstrate the vile brutality of it without showing same?  War films have been compared to pornography in this regard.  In Jarhead, the soldiers would pump themselves up by watching Apocalypse Now--surely an anti-war film from Coppola's point of view.  As David Simon points out, "an anti-war film always becomes a war film: but not Paths of Glory" (see his brilliant commentary on the connection between Paths of Glory and The Wire on the Criterion Channel).

Kubrick dances so well with this potentially fatal cycle of war criticism/glorification.  He starts by blatantly assigning an irreconcilable irony to the title.  And not to be pedantic but I would say adding an "s" to "Path" and making that word a plural in turn "pluralizes" the outcome:  there are several paths to glory, and not necessarily only the one that the officers in this film inflict upon the men, and which they assume to be THE path, singular, to "glory."  For instance, the priest (surely a representative of the authority class) offers the condemned (ironic) "innocents" another "path:" that of eternal salvation.  Predictably, one takes a false refuge in this glimmer, but the other will have none of it--an interesting footnote reaching through the story criticizing the vacuous heart of a Judeo-Christian tradition intimately tied to the righteousness of wars and crusades for hundreds of years; this righteousness, curiously, diminishes the individual, even as it purports to save him or her especially.  What Kubrick ultimately "glorifies" here is the enduring humanity of the individual soldier even as he is faced with the inherent (and almost obligatory) inhumanity of the war machine.  It is always difficult to dance with the cliches intimately tied into such a discussion:  Kubrick neatly evades cliche with, of course the girl at the end, but also through the casting of Kirk Douglas in the role of the father-patron-executioner.  He can not save his children, but he can cast at the very least a legal punishment on one who would mangle basic principles in the name of victory in battle (the "best" path to "glory").  His very dominance on the screen painfully underscores his impotence.  A faceless actor might have produced an outcome dimmed in its Pathos. 

On the other side of that Aristotelian coin, Private Maurice from the photo above infuses some Bathos into the discussion.  There is nothing funny here, but it seems that just as the officers are always amused about something, the soldiers find a desperate ridiculousness inherent in their plight. The Private's bitterly sardonic comment serves to throw the foolishness and cruelty of the senior officers back in their faces.  The fact that the kangaroo court takes place in such impossibly luxurious rooms (from a frivolous, bygone age whose peasantry built the pyramids, so to speak) adds to the tragicomic turns, and the inadequacy of the court.  

No Hollywood ending here: how can there be?  That would in itself be a betrayal to the soldiers and victims of this War which, by 1957 in the heart of the Cold War, had become an especially brutal symbol of the hopelessly black hole war is.  World War II had specific faces, but not the Great War: In Paths of Glory the closest we get is the scarred visage of a shrill, demented General who toddles off safely and dies--in bed.    

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
         And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour.
         The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Friday, 15 March 2019

#696 FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT. Alfred Hitchcock 1940

Hitchcock would soon drop the stereotypical tropes of American ra-ra-ism (unavoidable in the context of this film) and turn his lens within, to the labyrinths of the subconscious and its conflicts with the conscious life.  There are some seminal sequences here revolving around identity that help create a line of sang-froid through the film; not even the saccharine 30s acting can completely cancel it out. Images like that one above constitute just a hint of where his camera eye will take us. There is also a water disaster sequence that is masterfully done and, I'm sure, serves as a superior model for subsequent films, from A Night to Remember to Titanic. As part of an early film education on a master, this picture could be quite useful. It's 39 steps backwards from most of his other work, however.

Thursday, 21 February 2019

#211 THE SILENCE Ingmar Bergman 1963

The film is still capable of shocking every time.

Bathing in the senses.

You can practically count the lines -- yet what dialogue exists cuts, cuts, cuts. The Silence speaks in deed and in speech.  Opposing forces such as those embodied in these two women are archetypal:  cain and abel: siblings, nemises, jealous lovers, mortal enemies in a love and death struggle. The sly connections to Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light are also gratifying. Illness is not just manifested physically in those two films; every character is inflicted with a mental anguish of one sort, just as the two sisters in The Silence clearly are. The words between them mask the gap, a silence that for some reason can't be crossed. We don't need to understand their backstory; it's the same backstory for anyone who has a sibling or something closer--or both.... Sacred spaces, physical and psychological, are implicitly vandalized. Anna has a tryst in the shadows inside a church. Her sister tries to kiss her.

Bergman: "How…incredibly dependent one has become on talking." (qtd. in Koskinen)

Ironically, many sounds are rather loud in this film; take, for example, the insistent churchbells, which in the context of being in a foreign land (with a made-up language, a virtual Babel), serve as a unifying or universal note as well as another bridge to Winter Light and its pastor's search for the voice of God amidst the pastoral Swedish silence: in other words, just as futile. Bergman creates in the viewer almost a craving for intelligibility in terms of language, whether written or spoken. This is a natural yearning, for we have been trained since the passage beyond silent film to respond primarily to sound cues in the form of dialogue; not just words, but the sound of words. Interestingly, the only universally comprehensible word in the film is the name "Bach," both spoken and in a newspaper that is otherwise gibberish (but somehow eastern-european looking).  (We see as well that the dwarves are from Madrid, according to a stencil on their baggage.) We thirst for more. In Maaret Koskinen's study Ingmar Bergman's The Silence, she concludes that "a … kind of battle rages in the film, between the letter and the image, speech and sound, the word and the flesh." The intellect versus the senses as well. Anna sneers at Ester that even "with all [her] education," she can't really understand feeling[s]. Ester denies it, but her occupation is to translate texts, to carry them from one set of meanings to another, not absorb them.

Fascism and chaos loom: these transient female characters are only superficially affected. The one signifying a barrenness is contrasted with an oversexed mirror image, both unnatural in equal and opposite measure.  Love lies in between: the boy, who is too naive to understand that lines have been drawn and who loves in spite of the overshadowing threats of war, hatred, and godlessness, not only in the context of his surroundings, but within his own family.  Uncomfortable scenes ensue of grown women using a boy almost as a sexual pawn; clearly their own stifled natures cannot help but reveal themselves unconsciously.  Bergman creates a real tension there.

In fact, family as a concept is cynically presented in the film, especially insofar as it is an extension of humanity, faith and feeling. These women experience the "kindness of strangers," the sole form of positive (albeit empty) emotion in the film. As for the boy, even though he is treated kindly by his mother and aunt, as well as at the hands of Spanish dwarves and the hotel servant, the subsumed text of his own family's issues is not yet consciously perceived. Ironically, we the audience understand this unspoken and unwritten text. The film ends with the boy trying to decipher meaning on the train, in a way choosing his aunt's side, even while his mother is sticking her head out the window in the rain, as usual literally bathing in her senses. A fine juxtaposition. As evident in some of his comments throughout the film, Johan has already started the process of growing up. That day when these contradictory family subtexts are "translated" and fully understood by this boy will be a sad reckoning. 

Friday, 18 January 2019

#204 THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN. Rainer Werner Fassbinder 1978

The ironic passivity and formality of the title emphasize the fact that Frau Braun can never be possessed by anyone or any institution--much to the chagrin of the men in her life. The title, then, begs the question: to whom or to what is she married?

Thursday, 6 December 2018

#702 THE GREAT BEAUTY and The Exorcism of Roots. Paolo Sorrentino 2013

It begins with a barbaric yawp. 

This beautiful film is an essay on, or better yet a contemplation of, creativity and its place in time, appropriately set in Rome. It begins with the protagonist's milestone 65th birthday party and evolves into an exploration of energy, sex and ennui combined in coherent unison.  Even funerals are not exempt from the Romantic. Funerals, after all, like all of Jep's life, are theatre. The movie is replete with performance, art, and performance art. Of course Sorrentino pays homage to Fellini in any number of instances as we journey through Rome's backways from Jep's point of view. However, this is not the busy, smelly, carriage-car ridden Rome of Baedeker fame. Silence embraces the slight echoey sounds of water in fountains; you can almost taste the water, and feel it on your face. No one crosses a busy road, no horns are honking. No cars appear (except for one chauffeured vehicle with a Cardinal inside--faith always paired with decadence in Roma). As a matter of fact, aside from the Cardinal's ride, we see only two symbols of modern technology: we see airplanes far, far, up in the sky; in that context, they take on the characteristics of birds and just blend in with the other natural settings (by "natural" we must, with some delight, include art and architecture). The other instance is during a flashback where Jep has a run-in with a motorboat. The homage is more 81/2 than La Dolce Vita  but when a wild animal appears around a corner in the middle of a piazza, that image of striking juxtaposition from And the Ship Sails On, the one of the rhino on the boat, is evoked. Nevertheless, we can hardly be surprised when Alice's Wonderland turns out a wonder or two.

Tempus fugit: When the hangover is done, Jep realizes that although time has passed, what has not been so obvious is that those images, people and events that have passed are truly gone and, with them, crucial parts of himself. Can he regain them? Can Time be regained? He spends many moments in this film with tears in his eyes (much like Proust's protagonist in the novels I imagine). In a spoken word performance, one of his friends declares that there is nothing at all wrong with "nostalgia" -- it's the only thing left for those who have no faith in the future. Another friend has set up an exhibit of photographs in the midst of a gorgeous, grassy outdoor arena. As the sun shines on him, Jep peruses the thousands of small photos on the ancient walls. They are photos of his friend, taken by his father every day since he was born until the age of 14, and after that by himself. Not one day of his life is missed. What a brilliant metaphor: some photos have a smile, some are grim, some goofy, some sad looking, others just hung over or looking like shit. Forgotten days, yet so important in the moment. The only time we can possibly die is in the moment--the past deserves respect because we made it through that moment repeatedly. The point is emphasized by someone's suicide: that soul did not survive the moment.

Love is paramount. Paramours are rife, but young, true, first love is still sacred in this picture full of sacred things and people, and sacrilege of same. When a man comes to Jep's door and says that his wife has just died--an old flame of Jep's--Jep and he stand in the foyer weeping. Then the man confesses he read his wife's diary where she says Jep was the only true love of her life--a man she had broken it off with 35 years before! These ironic parallels and cross-overs into an almost alternate reality are poignant; it's always poignant (and sometimes terrifying) to get a glimpse behind the curtain of Fate and our role in it, and its role in our lives.

Jep has a beautiful aging girlfriend who literally embodies this tension between times past and present. "I spend all my money on medical treatments," she tells him. They are content in each other's company, almost relieved to find even a semblance of love at their age; with another lady friend he rejoices that they haven't ever slept together (of course he has to ask her to make sure) and says it's wonderful to have something to look forward to. Faith in the future. Jep struggles to have it, and seeks it, while his "nostalgic" friend gives up and leaves Rome, calling it, in a moment of delicious understatement, a "disappointment"--he had lived there for 40 years.

Jep seeks "people who are younger than me. Things." Thanks to his friend with a case of ancient keys, Jep is able to tour the secret places of Rome where everything is far, far older than he. He feels youthful before the statues, the sculptures, the paintings--although even there he can't completely escape Time, as Sorrentino softly draws us in towards a medieval painting of a girl in her youth, her deshabillement somehow coy and innocent at the same time, her smile enigmatic, as if to say to him, "Remember this?" Flashback to when he was 25, swimming at the beach with some girls, including that one he loved but who ended up marrying someone else. He does not know why she left him, and it haunts him.

Haunting is a function of time as well. You can not be haunted (unless you are Mr. Scrooge) by the future or the present; the traditional ghosts are dead ones from the past. The only "spiritual" question Jep asks of the Cardinal at dinner is if it's true the father was a great exorcist. What demons does Jep have in mind? The dinner party is thrown in honour of the 104 year old Sister Maria--a saint but not a Saint, as the culinary Cardinal makes clear (he tediously spouts recipes as dinner conversation rather than pithy theological bon mots). The Sister wears the nun's garb, but she could not be further removed from the church, as demonstrated by the Cardinal's sour faces and total lack of connection with her--he natters on about rabbit recipes and drives off in a shiny black limousine, while she she speaks rarely, slowly, and at a low volume, but very clearly. The first time she speaks she utters, tellingly, a piece of wisdom cleverly consistent with the film's theme. Essentially she says (is Jep listening?) that one doesn't talk about life, one lives it.

Is she part of the supernatural, part of the "great beauty" that Jep has sought his whole life throughout the inner sancta of Roman streets and galleries since writing his only novel at age 26? We are not sure--but she appears to command a flock of flamingos. Jep seeks answers but asks the wrong questions, as he did above with the Cardinal, but the Sister knows what to tell him, unsolicited. "Roots are important," she murmurs to Jep, and the circle is complete: the conflict inside him that was catalyzed by his 65th birthday may not be resolved, but her words act as a vital reminder to him (and to us of course) that it doesn't have to be one or the other--stark differentiations of life moments, ages, and faces, like at his parties where the old desperately party with the young as if that youth can infuse them and alter their aged genes. Roots are important. The past is not only just as important as the present, but they are indispensable to each other as a means to moving forward...and finding that faith in the future. Jep's blue-haired editor remarks dryly to him soon after his birthday, "You've changed. You're always thinking." His struggling climb ends when he stops obsessing over "the awkward predicament of existing in this world" and allows himself to remember, not like a series of photographic images gone by, for he must renounce the negative trap of nostalgia, but as a wake of feelings that wash away the animal numbness and open the door to the great beauty of creativity.

"Roots are important."

Thursday, 15 November 2018

#229 SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE. Socratic Screenwriter: Ingmar Bergman 1973

Marianne thinks she can drop the "horrible masks."

Ingmar Bergman undoubtedly would like to be placed next to August Strindberg on history's shelf--but Henrik Ibsen shouldn't be too far away.

Not to say that we can not distinguish between Scandinavian geniuses, but there definitely is such a thing as the Scandinavian genius when referring to theatre. Scenes from a Marriage is a brilliant piece of film disguised as theatre.

As Johan leaves Marianne, cinematographer Sven Nykvist zooms in on Liv Ullmann's anguished face and we hear a door slam in the background: This is an echo of the original "door slam heard around the world," a famous comment attributed to Shaw about the ending of A Doll's House (1879). Johan is the new Nora, a fascinating, even humorous, ironic twist on a sacred theme. The final moments of A Doll's House set the social world between the sexes on fire. The ending even struck the Germans as so egregious that Ibsen was forced to write an "alternative ending" lest the censors just go ahead and do it themselves (copyright law has come a long way). Scenes from a Marriage is a series of door slams: reality, honesty, self-worth and reliance are all slammed, as are their anti-social and destructive counterparts.

Ironically as well, Johan and Marianne go to see A Doll's House early on in the series. When they get home they start discussing it as they change clothes and prepare a meal. Johan is derisive about the ending of the play. In a speech he concludes by saying he doesn't "mean a word of," he mocks the ending as rubbish, saying that women can do whatever they like now, which basically implies that Nora's ending is therefore irrelevant in a modern context: and so, according to Johan, is feminism. The source for this Comic diatribe is partly what makes it comical: Johan's insulation from the world and from the realpolitik of female life is almost charming.

This charm is part of the trap that Marianne is lamenting falling into--the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie. The codes of behaviour espoused in female life are transferred and reinforced from generation to generation, in an endless progression. Bergman aggressively questions these "expectations" as Johan calls them near the series' end. Marianne tries to open Johan's eyes to the brutal reality of this cycle, albeit with limited effect. In a telling moment of self-awareness, she declares, "I was outnumbered, having to fight you, both sets of parents and society." Freedom from these bonds is freedom from and for oneself, whether that freedom comes with a death or a divorce. Knowing what you want allows you to decide whether to let the other person have what they want; the two are not necessarily always mutually exclusive. Marianne believes humanity's emotional holy grail is to "feel tenderness" without "effacing" oneself.

Marianne writes in her journal that she was always "wanting what he [any man] wanted," rather than what she wanted. Even Johan himself reveals that he "tried to fulfill other people's expectations," although this is especially true for Marianne; only in solitude does she realize she never even knew what she wanted before--or that she was wanting anything at all. This is revealed over a beautifully quiet montage of photos, ranging from childhood to precocious teenage wakefulness, which slides before us as her soft voice reads. It is one of many mesmerizing sequences in the series, a series that at first blush (even to Ullmann herself when she was reviewing the script) seems like it will show as a flat back and forth between two tired complaining people as they recline on tacky furniture and sip chardonnay. Like a socratic dialogue, but with dirty dishes.

The truth could not be more contrary to this image. The quotidian, the minutiae, and the trivial remain as such, but they extend from mere actions or activities into more complex territory: habits of thought, of feeling, even of gestures, which reveal scars heretofore unknown even to the wearers themselves. Their rituals are our rituals. There are many times when the dialogue or a scene is uncomfortable to sit through. Nevertheless, their conversations are consistently revelatory, even revolutionary at times. It is no accident that this series has resonated worldwide and continues doing so.

Our perspective as silent third party in turn has an ironic and unexpected effect: we begin a dialogue within, echoing Johan's and Marianne's questions and the lies they tell themselves and each other (even when they are being brutally honest). These characters, who begin this series as very different people indeed (from themselves and each other), come to represent two paths in life, both painful: one that of maturity and growth, the other a darker passage into the temptations of nihilism. The crucial bit to remember is that this is a fiction: while these characters are powerfully vivid symbols of the male and female paths, they also act in combination as a metaphor for the modern individual; they are also one, and taken in tandem they encapsulate our own foibles. As Liv Ullmann says in the Criterion interview: "Here we are [30 years later], with our longing, with our love, with our lust, with our being deceitful--and being left." As the scenes unfold one after the other, we ask ourselves, test ourselves, and the sweat breaks out on our brows as words are spoken which echo in our own secret chambers.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

#637 PURPLE NOON. René Clément 1960

Clément touches on many themes we would now still consider au courant in this first cinematic adaptation of the novel The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (who also wrote Strangers on a Train). Identity is another concept explored, of course, but I was reminded mostly of our present fascination with the "3%" (or whatever arbitrary percentage is the flavour of the day) and our collective jealousy towards this ephemeral group. I'm sure Tom Ripley would agree that somehow those richer than we are do not deserve their money or their status--at least, not as much as we would deserve the same. And while it is absurd to kill someone for condescendingly teaching us how to use a knife in society, this is implicitly an acceptable motive in the film. The injustice of it! Our complicity, then, is perhaps the key theme in this sly story. The fact is, while this film is indeed about the tragic misuse of resources, the misuse focused upon is on Tom Ripley's part, not Philippe's (whose greatest sin on screen appears to be that he is a consummate asshole; it is very reasonable, of course, to have doubts concerning his father's off-screen business practices which may or may not be (stereotypically) dubious). Tom uses his so-called "talents" to commit fraud and murder, full stop. The fact that this character is so likable says more about audience sensibilities, past and present, than about him. 

Friday, 2 November 2018

#837 DEKALOG 5. Krzysztof Kieślowski 1988

"It was almost as if my case was being tried without me," Camus writes. 
In his Criterion write up on each Dekalog segment, Paul Coates reminds us that "Jacek says he did not listen to the trial." This "Outsider," much like Camus' Meursault, may even have felt a little "superfluous" as he was caught up in "the merciless rite" of capital punishment. Just as Meursault "was already very far away from that courtroom," Jacek is ready to go back home, to prison (the real one and the one in his mind). The prison is part of a system which is as determined to kill him as he was the taxi driver, legalities notwithstanding.

For Kieślowski, Jacek's presence is far from superfluous, since his goal is not so much to expose the legal machinations of capital punishment as to put as human a face as possible on this rite. Yet it is not sympathy we are asked to feel: the protracted murder scene definitively precludes any such feeling. We are meant to feel a more systemic sympathy as it were; just like in Oshima's Death by Hanging, which is full of uncomfortable confrontations regarding the death penalty, we are forced to look into the face being inserted in the guillotine. Coates posits the murder in Dekalog 5 as a type of revenge killing: Jacek's revenge against the world that took away the person most precious to him, and his sole tether to the collective we call humanity. He was definitely a part of it; the moments when he smiles at the little girls, separated from them inside the cafe by the glass barrier, ironically take on a charming and poignant quality rather than seeming creepy, because we can see how precious his little sister was to him.

The world Kieślowski shows us is not only ethically and morally tainted; it is literally dirtied through the use of a series of filters. The cinematography is grainy, dark around the edges, almost like the point of view of someone in the last moments of life as their eyes close. The shutter is closing; the rest is silence. We also see many other symbolic snippets and images, such as the one above of the devil's head hanging from the taxi driver's windshield, a "nod" to the modern world's broken faith.

Also broken is the brackish landscape that constitutes the murder scene and which gives a desperately remote feel to those moments; the murder happens far from the eyes of God, and is as disturbing as can be expected, despite the taxi driver's previously despicable behaviour; what aspect of our humanity is dying there in the victim's throes? The only witnesses are not human: a horse looks on, as do the inscrutable Easter Island faces of nearby apartment blocks. The train going by might represent the dehumanizing and faceless rate of progress that inevitably leaves the individual behind. The water's muddy reedy edge where the driver's body ends up looks like a primordial swamp, a setting for our species' basest urges. Kieślowski firmly connects this messy horrible act with the antiseptic legal processes that kill Jacek and, like Jacek's tormented lawyer, asks whether there is any difference between them.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

#583 THE FOUR FEATHERS. Zoltán Korda 1939

So ’ere ’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your ’ome in the Soudan;
    You ’re a pore benighted ’eathen but a first-class fightin’ man;
    An’ ’ere ’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, with your ’ayrick ’ead of ’air—
    You big black boundin’ beggar—for you broke a British square!

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

#212 INGMAR BERGMAN MAKES A MOVIE. Vilgot Sjöman 1962

"More contour."

The unmatched access portrayed in this film is somewhat deceptive; Vilgot Sjöman (of I Am Curious Yellow/Blue fame) certainly does have frank conversations with Bergman, but with limitations. The inner sanctum contains a few Do Not Enter signs. For example, we do indeed see footage of detailed rehearsals for a scene in The Communicants/Winter Light, but as Sjöman reveals in the DVD sleeve, they are re-dos of rehearsals and filming--a kind of re-creation of actual events, but which for all intents and purposes may as well have been the "real" thing, since the director, crew and actors were all perfectly and genuinely engaged in the scene just as if the TV documentary cameras weren't there to observe and record every nuance and detail. And of course Bergman had input on how the interviews turned out, not hesitating to insist on further takes of certain portions (he gets his way).  

I could not help but watch this documentary in the context of another recent documentary on the man: Bergman - A Year in a Life (2018) directed by Jane Magnusson. Like this film, Magnusson focuses on a very specific time period for Bergman (1957, a particularly prolific year). While Sjöman is on an artist's journey, Magnusson spotlights the man himself, his neuroses and even some alarming attitudes and behaviour. So as Bergman eloquently and disarmingly explains his fears and hopes to Sjöman, I have a kind of commentary reel running parallel in my mind full of images and descriptions of Bergman in a sometimes less flattering light. This struck me as relevant because, first of all, this documentary is essentially given a meta-title--Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie. It's a movie about him being asked questions about himself making a movie about himself (well, his inner workings). It's very much a before/during/after structure (even though Bergman would not show his Boswellian interviewer initial drafts of proto-ideas for the Winter Light project). Bergman makes it clear that you can not separate the man from the film. Magnusson turns the question inside-out: Can you separate these films from the man? 

Regardless of opinions about the person, his process, or even Winter LightSjöman (and Magnusson, in a different way) honours truth--or at the very least has created for the record an attempt to discuss and elicit genuine feelings and ideas from Bergman regarding Bergman's perspectives on many fundamental concepts of artistic creation, in particular resulting in a penetrating study of the technical, spiritual, and human aspects of the art form of film itself. 

Vilgot Sjöman: Do you feel filming is a technical task, or is it a continuation of the creative aspect?...
Bergman: ...With the script you're only halfway there.... It's about continuously creating life. Making sure it's alive the whole time.
Bergman: I don't think a play or a film becomes a play or a film until it has encountered the audience.... The work isn't born until that strange and terrible moment of encounter.
 At the premieres of his films, Bergman used to get "the feeling of being judged. What you've envisioned in your innermost heart, that which you've created in the belief that it was somehow necessary and that it might be necessary for other people too...is judged unnecessary or stupid or silly...."

Vilgot Sjöman

Friday, 28 September 2018

#786 DONT LOOK BACK. D. A. Pennebaker 1967

Dylan is no milquetoast pop icon, yet being labelled an "anarchist" absolutely befuddles him.

                                                                             I am not surprised Bob Dylan seems like a cool dude, but there are a couple of very tense scenes. There's one where Dylan is absolutely livid that someone has thrown a glass into the street where it has shattered. He is relentless in his interrogations to find out who threw that glass, and the language, both verbal and non-verbal, is heated. When, unsurprisingly, no one fesses up to it, Dylan prepares to go outside and clean it up himself. Just before we see the subsequent scene where things are calm and reconciliatory, Dylan is caught personally apologizing to what looks like the concierge for the glass. All this while Donovan sits observing bemusedly, a little nervous smile on his face. This scene was very peculiar set as it is in the midst of footage full of all kinds of "deep" philosophizing--like when Dylan asks a journalist what the word "friend" actually means, kicking off a fascinating Socratic dialogue about the nature of friendship as it pertains to our own selfish wants and needs. In another sequence Dylan is the one who throws and smashes the glass, rhetorically: he has an incensed anti-interview with a non-plussed writer from Time, and does a fair job dismantling the intent and efficacy of main stream media. "There's no ideas in Time magazine," he insists. "There's just these facts which too are switched." His categorical rejection of labels such as "folk artist" is ironically epitomized when he learns a couple of papers have written that he is an "anarchist," which he says, in his laconic manner, is "not cool."

Most of the first half of the documentary catches "behind the scenes" with only some actual stage footage, this increasing as the film progresses. As Bob Dylan goes through a door onto the stage, someone closes the door on the camera, blocking as it were its (and our) progress behind him, as if the camera's power stops at the stage door. Indeed, his captivating performances notwithstanding (especially the Albert Hall clip, filmed surrealistically from behind him), a lot of the magic of this film centers on those scenes where the artists are plunking at a piano or guitar strings amongst abandoned empty wine cups and smouldering cigarettes, with Joan Baez's beautiful lilt interwoven there.

Friday, 17 August 2018

#720 THE BIG CHILL. Lawrence Kasdan 1983

The distance from the outside world is implied by infinitely receding landscapes.

A group of former college pals gather at the funeral of one of their own; that is not a spoiler, but the premise of the film. Zeitgeist USA captured; watching in the 80s, younger audiences felt nostalgic for a part of our lives that we knew we would live in the near future and that would be gone in a fleeting moment. Yet the film is firmly not obsessed with nostalgia for the past; hence Kasdan's decision not to include any thematically retrograde flashbacks; this is actually a film about moving forward. Every character has been in a sense rejuvenated by the sacrifice of their friend. They are not young and not old but have just enough experience to be in need of rejuvenation. "I'm getting a little frosty myself," the defense lawyer says of the big, chilly world she must deal with. The Magnum P.I. action hero is surprised at his naivete in thinking how many people who grew up just like him and his friends and who went through so many similar experiences (presumably 60s stuff) are scumbags. He expected them to be more like him and his friends, essentially decent people. The irony of what he is saying is cute: he's a Hollywood actor, another is a tabloid junk writer, another is that defense lawyer, another is a chain store magnate; good people, all, who are slightly uncomfortable with how their bourgeois lives sit with their revolutionary roots. When a delivery man calls Kevin Kleine's character Harold (who is the magnate) "Mr. Cooper," one of the others raises eyebrows at the "Mr." He says, sheepishly, "It's my name." Material gain and money are almost at the center of it all; that center in fact belongs to conflicts that abound under the various sunshine and shades of sex, whether out of desire or for family; the line is indeed thin. Kasdan asks, How does time work on all of these variables?

The overarching variable that works on us all once we leave the nest (if we had the privilege of having one) is the cliche that is nonetheless a fact: the big bad world out there. Herein lies the central conflict and the reason why Kasdan's multi-protagonist format can work; they are hunkered down against the encroachment of that world. Their presence fills their friend's absence, and their struggle to understand his motives is the struggle to find their own. But to do that they need respite from that outside realm in which they have become so completely enmeshed by family, work, competing scruples, and even war.

Their distance from the outer world is not measured in miles; it is implied by the landscape shots, at times receding into mist. Even the jog through the town with William Hurt and Kleine is tinged with a lovely misty dreamscape quality--well, it's literally foggy. It is as if the edges of their domain disappear, and their domain, for just one weekend, is all there is. Communications from the outside seem distant and are certainly silent, like the phone calls from Harold and Sarah's kids. Actual sounds within their cocoon emanate from the hi-fi system as Motown classics, music from their youth trapped like a genie in a bottle. Still there are some symbolic contemporary intrusions on their idyll, all based on comic turns.

First of all, at a crucial juncture in a conversation a bat gets in through a window and a fun bat hunt ensues. A creature that may have darker symbolic significance in other contexts becomes a hopeful reminder to these friends that the evil (to say vampiric might be too heavy) nature of the enemy without is not insurmountable. The delivery I mentioned is the other; everyone gets their own new pair of Nikes, delivered to Mr. Harold Cooper's door on the weekend by a worker, a tribute to his power, no matter how sheepish his reactions. Despite the light-hearted treatment, there is something slightly weird about someone buying your shoes for you; it almost reads as an impertinence. But they are colourful shoes. Finally we have the ultimate divisive symbol in the form of a local police officer who turns up with the ironically manly Vietnam war vet Nick in tow and is cause for an argument with Harold, who now sides firmly with the Man. All these agents of the outside serve as symbols of the cruel world; ostensibly, Alex's suicide stems from his intolerance for the hypocrisies of this same world.

That is why his girlfriend is such a funny juxtaposition to this class reunion. She seems simple minded at times, giggles at inopportune junctures, is disappointed she can't ride in the lead limo at the funeral--because she's always wanted to ride in a limo. Nevertheless, her surface naivete represents a refreshing lack of angst; she never had to protest a Vietnam. They don't get her, but she is a citizen of these chilling times that are challenging their principles on a daily basis. She is the relevant one, the new child: They realize time really runs one way and that they better keep up, but Kasdan keeps the lesson fun. He plays with notions of family as much as friendship, implying the two are one and the same category, intertwining just as various bodies intertwine in the film. The offspring of these unions, both emotional and actual, will carry them forward and prepare them for the next phase of their lives, where they will arrive presumably more grounded than at the start of this film.

Monday, 6 August 2018

#486 HOMICIDE David Mamet 1991

I'll look at this viewing like an historical project:  It's Mamet, so I am watching.  My main objection to this film is the very same central theme Mamet wishes to explore/explode, that of identity.  I thought it was absurd, in an immigrant based society, to present an argument that without your original cultural identity you are nothing, even less than.  So the Jewish cop did not know from Hebrew and was therefore looked at with pity, if not open hostility.  To me, the cop not being able to read Hebrew seemed a perfectly normal second-generation position to be in.  He does have an identity:  American.  The argument for the value of cultural roots is valid and important, but the absence of same is not a handicap in a New World context, since you are living in a--wait for it--new world.  So I tossed this thematic spine out from sheer irritation.  Seeing a grown man and a cop no less being bullied for this reason is not palatable.  And then, I'm sorry to say, you have the painfully stereotyped cop show and some weird moments regarding fire arms.  Mamet's signature conversational patois is not exactly missing here as it is ineffectual and even ham handed.  I'll have to leave this as a rare negative, all the more surprising for being Mamet.  

Friday, 29 June 2018

#888 THE BLAKEAN: STALKER. Andrei Tarkovsky 1979

This film conflates two fundamental legends of human nature, that of the Pandora's Box and of the djinn (we can fold the Fountain of Youth and a Holy Grail quest into the latter--the djinn will grant both eternal life and the grail, if you want to waste 2 wishes on those). Because we can't stand aside while a Tree grows there enticingly dangling fruit we were told not to touch, or while a closed box we were told under no circumstances to open sits in front of us. And because we have learned on the cellular level what Buddha articulated as "all life is a struggle" (for which, as he tactfully failed to mention, we are not equally equipped)-- for this, the djinn can offer some sweet shortcuts. 

Enter the Zona.

In the Zone the old instincts are triggered, with a slight alteration (think post-monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey). Since our awakening, a spontaneous fight and flight signal is often fired up in the kiln within. For the Zone requires battles on multiple levels, and simultaneously represents a running away from. (Each individual running away from their own something.) There are only broken souls in the Zone. And a dog--but nature is never affected by itself except in the context of a closed system. We are always trying to separate ourselves from this cycle, and many of humanity's stories serve as allegories and warnings against this tendency. Science Fiction often strives to remind us that we can not extricate ourselves from our universe. What better metaphor for nature than an alien presence/absence that doesn't seem to know of our existence yet has a profound effect on it, and not just physically? These themes and motifs are later echoed in SOLARIS in terms of the planet itself, a doppelganger of earth, both a mirror of us, even though we often strive to deny the latter.

And so the Zone is a mirror of us, a freeze-framed alien DMZ within us that borders the two countries, the World, and the Undiscovered Country, the eminently unknowable that we strive to know. This "zone" within represents our deepest fears and our most intense desires. We often flee them, even as we fight for them, a paradox. Humanity is a paradox and, by fantastic extension in the context of most science fiction, so are all sentient beings , such as the ones responsible for the Zone. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, authors of the source novel Roadside Picnic, provide Tarkovsky with a rich playground, full of nice shiny toys to choose from. However, just as Solaris is a Tarkovsky film rather than a sci-fi flick per se, so is Stalker

The Zone is a demented version of (an inversion of? a diversion from?) the Garden of Eden, conceived by two brothers living in their own ironic Eden, a garden full of knowledge of good and evil where the inhabitants are simultaneously caged but roaming free, and cast out but not allowed to leave, another paradox; the place was called the Soviet Union (hence "red"?). The novel gently (but firmly) pursues this aspect of life in its depiction of the town of Harmont (Roadside Picnic did finally get by the government censors in the late 1970s, although it was a back and forth process that took a couple of years: kind of a QED moment for the brothers.)  The fact is, like the concept of a "country", the primordial concept of the garden is inherently complex; i.e., dead things allow new things to live. In Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, Salman Rushdie's protagonist Geronimo Manezes has an epiphany about the dual nature of gardens: 

 ...The garden was the outward expression of inner truth, the place where the dreams of our childhoods collided with the archetypes of our cultures, and created beauty.... but he...knew...that a garden could also be a metaphor of the infernal. In the end [gardens depicting] both...terrifying "earthly delights" and...murmurous mysticism helped him formulate his own thoughts and he came to see the garden...as somehow Blakean, a marriage of heaven and hell.

A Blakean landscape--I can not say whether Tarkovsky was familiar with Blake, but the Zone does seem a blend of heaven and hell. It is a source of miracles and an eerie peace, although the quiet may result in the visitor's quietus. We must not mistake the 'hell' part for those natural hazards found in the Zone--these are no more hellish than a forest fire or volcanic eruption. The cliché "hell on earth" is redundant--there is only earth. Any "hell" is of our own making, anthropomorphism at best, arrogance at worst. The anguished souls that enter (and re-enter, in Red's case) the Zone bring their hell with them and believe they can quench its fires in the Zone with a deus ex machina short cut straight from the djinn's lamp. The "Golden Sphere" of the novel is exactly the Aladdin's lamp: the rub is, in the Zone you may not live to get close enough to rub it. In the film this concept is presented as The Room, that unreachable place of the soul, an El Dorado where the seekers do not see that their destruction is inevitable given that contradictory rules run this Place--how can a place be both a panacea of the soul, and a source of material wealth. I mean, literally, how much gold can one human carry? This metaphor brings to mind an image of Smaug sitting atop his impossible Hoard, a perverted dream of humankind, and inevitably guarded over jealously by a beast that serves as an ugly and deadly symbol of the greeds that consume us.  Whence come these hungers?

Strugatskian strangenesses implied. The disturbing side of a new age of miracles.

One of the intriguing aspects of the film is the illusion how virtually nothing happens in it. At one point, we see long shots of Red sleeping. Action, movement, causality and death are all implied. Tarkovsky is challenging us: You want to learn about life, but want the instructional video to be in fast forward? No, friend. This is the speed at which we live, and therefore the speed at which we must learn. Any cheating--any excessive uses of editing, or sound, or overt imagery, gets us off the hook, much like relying on a film for a novelist's story instead of actually reading the book. Yes, art can be said to imitate life, but do we really mean it when we say we accept that? This is not to say that Tarkovsky avoids these artistic conceits altogether. Sound in particular is used in a unique way in the film, for Tarkovsky is determined only to imply the Strugatskian strangenesses. So voices are heard, objects move by themselves for a moment, but mostly we rely on Aleksandr Kaidanovsky's performance as Red to convince us that the Zone is the deadly thing the legends say it is.

The fact is although this is a new Garden, one created (even passively, thoughtlessly) by aliens, human beings are the ones alien in it, as usual perverting it for their own uses and in turn tempting us to foster and serve our lowest most desperate tendencies. Tarkovsky is essentially demonstrating the birth of a new religion, with the all the concomitant persecutions, political machinations and miracles that this implies--a forgivable shift of emphasis from the Strugatskys, for both texts are enriched by this choice.

Dr. Valentine in Roadside Picnic: "The aliens are...preparing us for the time of cruel miracles." This phrase comes from the last sentence of Stanislaw Lem's novel Solaris.  It is also translated as "the time of cruel wonders." The phrase is quite in keeping with the "cruel wonders" that these science fiction writers saw coming thanks to rampant technological advances; as always, they were worried whether our ethics would also advance in time to save us from ourselves (they were, after all, writing in the Cold War era, where a terrorist bomb was a pin prick compared to mutually assured destruction).

Of course, the iconic visitors he is guiding through the Zone, the Professor and the Writer, are the doubting Thomases of our day. Thus Tarkovsky adds yet another dimension to the novel, the intellectual versus the spiritual, the classic struggle over our belief systems and very existence. They doubt the integrity of their Red Priest, and well they should.

I went to the Garden of Love. 
And I saw what I never had seen: 
A Chapel was built in the midst, 
Where I used to play on the green. 

And the gates of this Chapel were shut, 
And Thou shalt not. writ over the door; 
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love, 
That so many sweet flowers bore. 

And I saw it was filled with graves, 
And tomb-stones where flowers should be; 
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds, 
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

A new Priest in a new kind of Garden, Red guards the rituals of the Zone, a fervent believer and living martyr, reborn Lazar-like every time he survives a new foray into the Zone--this along with all-new crucifixes.

The Strugatsky epigraph for the novel is from Robert Penn Warren and reads: "Goodness...You got to make it out of badness.... Because there isn't anything else to make it out of." All the materials for our world are here; nothing alien will come and save us, we must use what we have: we must use what this worldly garden provides, yes, but, more profoundly, we are a product of this same garden, not above it, for thinking that is just another metaphor for calling ourselves a god over a creation. We didn't create this garden, and it didn't create us. It is, and we are. The universe is, and so, the Zone is.

Monday, 28 May 2018

#152 GEORGE WASHINGTON. David Gordon Green 2000

A cold blooded-dinosaur-like mask to represent the "extinction" of childhood.

Buddy recites from the Book of Job and the words reflect regret for loss and a yearning for a time when the world smiled on us (which, sadly, is what childhood is supposed to be). The title itself implies a hearkening back to the nation's innocent hopeful beginnings when the republic was all potential; a brutally stark contrast is created in the imagination, as we look around at what the camera captures. The setting is littered with the post apocalyptic detritus of an industrialized world. Wealth --somewhere else-- is represented by mountains of rust and decay. You can't have that much garbage without a glorious bounty --somewhere. Yet ironically Rico Rice says to Buddy that their town has its good and bad aspects like any other place. At first that is easy to dismiss, but if we take his words at face value and think about them, they are profound. As helpless and hopeless as these characters feel (and seem, to us), the positive tries to poke its head out throughout the film. Relationships, and love, try to flourish.

Nevertheless, make no mistake, this film is a funeral dirge for broken youth. Job's forlorn speech is a lament rather than a prayer per se. Rico can't tell if it's Shakespeare or the Bible; a clever equivalency is suggested, with neither text diminished. Vernon's chant-like monologue can be juxtaposed with Buddy's speech, bringing the intertextuality full circle. The emotional essence of Vernon's elegiac plaint is similar to that of Job, and its desperate poignancy takes you by surprise.

I just want out of this.
All my life--It's like I can't trust nobody, man.
I just want to be by myself and just think about this...
I just wish I had my own tropical island.
I wish I could go to China.
I wish I could go to outer space, man.
I wish I had my own planet.
I wish there were 200 of me, man.
I wish I could just sit around with computers and machines and just brainstorm all day, man.*

Oh, that I were as in the months past,
as in the days when God watched over me:
3While he kept his lamp shining above my head,
and by his light I walked through darkness;
4As I was in my flourishing days,
when God sheltered my tent

George is "soft in the head." He can't take the blows that life normally deals out, but he has a lot to make up for, and so he tries on the guise of "hero."

*my favourite