Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Book: Ansichten eines clownes (The Clown)

To add a bit of variosity, I’ll talk about one book. Heinrich Boll’s “The clown”, or in more literal translations, “Thoughts of one clown”.

It is a damn good book. Formally, a story is placed in no more than couple of hours during which the main character, a heavily-drinking clown is trying to set some of his financial problems straight. A lot of flashbacks (pardon – in movies and comics it is flashback, in literature it is retrospective) make the span of the book years, around thirty years to be exact.

This form of a novel is not new: collage retrospectives crossing with each other and with present time, as we go onward through the book, pieces of mosaic that is main character’s life are fitting together. But it’s great nonetheless.

Story is happening in post-war Germany, in seventies. Bol uses opportunity to talk a lot about various forms of behaviour in this specific situation; For instance, people who have ability to fit into any political environment: those who are well during Hitler’s government and lend on their feet as soon as situation changes. Especially interesting is the case of a character that builds his career and public reputation on guilt: having need to apologize for being a Nazi supporter (while he was still a boy) he bears a reputation of exceptionally conscious and moral person. Society eager to wash away the recent history, accepts him and rises him on pedestal.

Indeed, this is mostly a book about moral. And what better opportunity is to talk about moral than post-war Germany, where the burden of guilt is so heavy?

Other great concern of Bol is christianity. Main character considers his wife kidnapped by a club of pretentious, moralizing extreme catholics. She merely run away from her, for a few years he managed to snitch her from the claws of extreme religion mixed with quasi-intelectualism, but deep inside, troubled by his liberal life choices, she was deemed to be returned to her previous conviction. Thus main character is deeply in denial. And deeply in love, for that matter.

Alongside, Bol tells us a lot of facts that are unknown to us who have been looking at WWII from the different standpoint, giving a lot of information that I never had where to learn from. For instance, I really didn’t know that Nazis were rarely sent to the front. Nah, front was reserved for those not involved in politics the least. Now that I think of it, it sounds logical, but I really didn’t know this. How different this picture is from that of a Nazi soldier drone from “Wolfenstein”, or from average WWII film. Not having compassion for enemy soldiers is a common place of understanding the war, and this is probably the most extreme in case of WWII. Because the guilt of Germans didn’t leave any doubt. Nowadays, with world politics as it is, it is not safe to kill Vietnamese, Russians, Chinese, Cubans, it will easily get a smell of racism or nationalism, and some history events have shown not to be so clear as it seemed. But with Germans, it’s safe, you can set your film back into WWII and noone will ever blame you for killing thousands of German soldiers. Well, that picture is not so acceptable when you think that all those soldiers were poor ordinary people who never wanted to be there in the first place, probably even opponents of Nazism forced to the front – while real ideologists were back on safe. Hard critique of this can be found in “Slaughterhouse V” by Kurt Vonnegut, who lived through Dresden bombing as a war prisoner.

Nobel Prize winner for year 1972, Bol still cared about making characters we can easily identify with, then concentrating on documenting history on grandiose scale. No symbol-characters, Ana-Kareninas and Rascolnikovs, more assemblies of all possible human doubts than real characters, that don’t live their own life so much as serve for a writer to present his philosophical theories on them. Being a good writer is greater achievement than being a Nobel Prize winner, and to me Bol is a very good writer now, even though my first acquaintance with him might’ve been through his Nobel-prize fame. And while we’re talking about good writer, you know – that retrospective collage scheme is really good – It gives you a chance to really get to know characters, to understand them even though they’re complex in their own way – and when, near the end of the book main character says “The only people who never had prejudice for me as a kid of rich parents were...” and names those people, you really have to say: “Hey, he’s right!” You feel like you were there all the time.

And, at the end of the book, you really have to be a bit sad, looking at him, making what can be the stupidest or the best decision of his life.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Film: 400 Blows

Several years ago, I was sitting with my friend after watching a film in cinema, arguing about some huge artistic subjects. Basically, he was claiming that film should be a product of one person, director, result of his personal vision as much as the novel is a product of one writer, or a musical piece of one composer; Even though there are many people involved in making a film, they should all (and in most cases, they do, willingly or not) adjust to the needs of the director and apply to his vision. I was claiming that the unique nature of film, as the art that includes so many creators in one piece of work, should rely on personal input by all of those participants; That the film should be a mash of personalities and visions and that, why not, in should rely on a chance that all those visions comply. In years that came, I grew to agree with his opinion that good movies are the result of vision, and the responsibility, of one man, the director. Of course, it is actors, cameraman, writer, editor, producer, who add their personal touches to the movie, but it is director who controls those, allows them in the film or banns them from it. In years that came I learned, for instance, how much actor’s performance relies on director’s guidance and that if an actor who is great in one movie, is awful in other, it is usually director’s fault, because he didn’t know how to guide the actor through the role.

(Of course, in Hollywood, it is not the case, as in most of films, it is producer who makes the major decisions, particularly those on casting and those of a nature of ending; They even hire a director instead of coworking with one. This kind of industrialization, where a person who is detached from the moviemaking process – who, actually, doesn’t have any credentials that he has insight in moviemaking process – makes some of the most important decisions, it’s a kind of process that gives us so many worthless movies every year.)

We didn’t know it then, we arrived around 40 years late on that discussion. It’s the same discussion that pioneers of the cinema new wave movement had with their precedents. Main exponents of this movement are today legends: first criticts, later great directors, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol. First one to make “Fahrenheit 451”, second one to influence generations Hollywood thriller directors with “Breathless”, third one... well, to make a lot of movies starring Isabelle Hupert. Later, the movement found new followers in Louise Malle, Roger Vadim and a lot of other directors, and influenced film to the extent where its influence is so common that we fail to realize that it wasn’t there since the film beginnings.

What they argued against were big, impersonal movies such were the one made by Henri-Georges Clouzot or Rene Clair, where director’s job was to tell a story without stuttering, and that was it. These movies were praised not for the film language used, not for the emotion they could bring, but for the topic. Now, is a grandiose and important topic a reason to praise a movie? Is a movie instantly good if it is, for instance, a war story about human suffering? Doesn’t it also need to have a way of making us care for those characters too, for instance? Yet, no matter how widespread new wave influences are today, movies are still often praised for ambitious theme, regardless of what the movie is really like, and movies are often valued by the craftiness of the director.

New wavers actually made strict division between directors who were relying on craft and technique and the others, who they called “authors”. Author is, by them, a kind of director whose film you can recognize solely by it’s film language. Take comic strip artists or illustrators, whose art is always more or less distinctive, whose drawing is, intended or not, influenced by artists personality, from his temper, from his steadiness of his hands, to the pictures that he used to redraw while he was still learning drawing. It is much harder to recognize a director, which is why distinctive filmmaking style is much harder to achieve. That’s why director has to be strict on his author decisions, on choice of elements of film language that he is going to use. New wavers believed that the filmography of a particular director-author can be seen as an integral work, with elements spanning all through his work.

Time proved them mostly right. What they did was logical: Applying to film some of general rules that exist in any other art medium.

I could have used “auteur theory” and New wave as an intro to a text about “Day for night”, but that film enforces the theme of more practical sides of filmmaking. I could’ve used it an intro to “Fahrenheit 451”, but I’d rather not detract attention from it once I decide to write about it. So I’ll use it as an intro to writing about “400 blows”, Truffaut’s first film (apart from two shorts), nice little film that, by the way, got “bet director” award in Cannes.

First time “400 blows” arrived to cinemas around here, some thought, based on it’s name, that it’s a new Bruce Lee film – or so I’ve heard. Knowing that it’s a film about growing up, my first thought is that it’s referring to a beating the main character Antoine (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is deemed to receive from various angry teachers. But actually, in French slang, 400 blows means... hm, I think something related to rebellion, protest.

“400 blows” show a slow process of a boy growing up into a juvenile delinquent. It shows all phases of that process: from running from school, across first, clumsy stealing, to the juvenile delinquents home, and escape from it. It also shows some of the causes for it: first and foremost, lack of attention from his parents, his restrained relationship with them, dysfunctional marriage, their indecisive upbringing of him and finally their giving up on them when he is caught and sent to juvenile home. It’s a deeply personal film, as Truffaut himself was saved from juvenile delinquency by his mentor Andre Bazin, by encouraging his interest in films. It’s also a film with no real good or bad characters, but with people who have both their good and bad sides, decisions and actions.

High points of the film include finely orchestrated scenes in the classroom where havoc breaks instantly every time a teacher turns his back to the class; Father’s logic: “You ask for 1000 fr. That means you expect 500; That means you need 200; You’ll get 100”; And finally, escape sequence at the end, with a shot of an open seaside landscape that finishes the film.

Antoin was a sort of Truffaut’s alter ego; He followed Antoin through his life, making three more films with him. The long pauses between making those films allowed him to use the same actor for all movies, acting Antoin in his various life stages.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Film: Belle de Jour

20th century turned the ideal of artists as tortured souls who die a young age upside down. Nowadays, artists end up as old men, not prepared for dying because they still have so much to say and to many ideas. I recall of the picture taken late in Matisse’s life, where he is too week to stand up, but he attaches brush on a stick to that he could paint on the wall while laying in bed.

And even then, Luis Bunuel is a particular case. He made three three of the most influential films in history somewhere around the age of thirty (those were, of course, surrealist manifests “Un chien andalou”, “L’Age D’Or” and, hm, surreal documentary “Las Hurdes” (“Land without bread”). He only continued directing at the age of 47, after years of working various supporting jobs in film production. Then he executed a series of films, some of them masterpieces, others hired jobs, but his greatest creative period falls after he turned 60, when he made a series of films that set him within a handful of greatest directors in history. He retired at the age of 77. They say that the period of the most creative thinking falls between 20 and 30, and that, after 30, most of artists get away with experience. Bunuel seems to have creatively matured 30 years too late.

I may talk a lot about Bunuel later. Lots of his films have a story behind their making, that would make a good movie itself; “Las Hurdes”, for one, was produced with money that one of Bunuel’s friends won on lotery (he promised him that if he won the lottery, he’d give money to Bunuel to make a documentary) and it was edited on Bunuel’s kitchen table, with Bunuel staring at the tiny film against the lantern, trying to figure out which part of the film is which take. Anyway, reading Bunuel’s biographical book, “My last sigh”, is an excellent read: filled with anecdotes of his rich life and, perhaps more interesting, description of his acquaintances with many of the most important figures of 20th century culture. The ones he describes most elaborate, of course (because he knew them the best) are Salvador Dali, Federico Garsia Lorca and the Parisian surrealist circle of 1930ies, with artists such as Max Ernst, Juan Miro and Rene Magritte.

For the record, my favourite Bunuel’s movie is “The Discrete charm of the bourgeoisie”, film with so complex dream-fueled plot, that for now, I am choosing a more conventional, yet still a masterpiece, “Belle de jour”.

Bunuel is often considered surrealist director, although, apart from his early movies, and a very few later films like “The Exterminator angel” and “The Discrete charm”, his films were mostly neo-realism studies of class society, often rich in satire. What makes him surrealist is his deep belief in dreams, his liking of a unique quality of dream imagery; His movies often have dream sequences as a sort of a clue to character’s motives and actions, and it’s those brief dream sequences that give the entire film a texture and that remain in our memory the longest.

“Belle de jour” starts with such sequence: We hear horse hoofs clomping on the road. We see Severine (Catherine Deneuve) and her husband Pierre (Jean Sorel) riding in a horse carriage, surrounded by pastel-coloured landscape scattered by leaves. We see them stopping, Pierre tying her up, and then whipping her, at ambivalent looks of two cabmen. As the camera is suddenly brought to an ordinary bedroom, with Severine lost in her thoughts and her husband Pierre, not nearly as eager to punish someone, we realize that it was all Severine’s daydream, and we get to be aware of her weird sexual desires.

What follows may be known from notoriety of this film: Severine is slowly intrigued, and later drawn to secretly work as a prostitute is one Parisian brothel. Thing is, Severine’s husband is wealthy, their marriage is happy, even though not very eventful, and Severine apparently loves her husband. What draws her to prostitution? This setup works as a double edge – as a satire of bourgeoisie double morality, and as an insight into a world of unconscious and of sexual fantasies. See it as you will – some tend to see Bunuel’s work mostly as social commentary, some as psychoanalytical before all, but it is open to lots of readings and that’s what grants it richness. So in a scene where Severine is laying exhausted in the bed, after a session with the customers, a cleaning lady comments “Poor madam”, to which Severine’s reply and the look on her face is the one of fulfillment, if anything.

But that’s all explanations that we will get from either Bunuel or Deneuve’s performance. To which, I just have to praise that performance, elegant all through, enigmatic, with her face prompting us to ask questions but keeping all the secrets. Sexuality in this film, rich in assumption, but never having an open display (with only a glimpse of nudity), is consisted not in what’s shown in film, but in what is not shown; In what is outside the camera’s view; Thus, leaving everything else to imagination. In such concept, perhaps the most erotic thing on Deneuve is her face.

When talking about things not shown in this film, one notorious scene is where a customer of the brothel opens a box that he keeps tightly, containing perhaps some sort of sex tool? We don’t see what is in the box, but the prostitute sees it and, disgusted, loudly disagrees. Yet, a bit later, Severine agrees to serve that customer. We never find out what was in the box, what is it that Severine agreed to do. Bunuel was later asked that question a lot, and he always stayed enigmatic. Perhaps because he didn’t know what it is either? This way or the other, the scene with the box sublimes a lot of Bunuel’s storytelling: by not telling us what’s in the box, Bunuel keeps us asking ourselves; He carves that scene into our brain; What we imagine was in the box, might be much more terrible than anything that Bunuel might’ve come up with. Forty years after making of this movie, anything that he might’ve explicitly shown might seem mild today. This way, the content remains perpetually terrible. (I can’t help mentioning that John Updike used the same effect in “Run Rabbit, run”. What is it that Rabbit’s lover agreed to do, after which all her love for him was gone? I was puzzled over it, until I was reminded of “Belle de jour”).

This example, perhaps, explains Bunuel’s poetics in this movie and in others, better than any possible explanation. Bunuel always leave a lot unsaid and unexplained. Why? Read previous paragraph for an answer. But it is what lends his realistic movies dream-like quality, and what lends this movie in particular, erotic aura, even though nothing on it’s surface does.

Then, a plot comes, with a customer that falls in love with Severine. This dangerous man, neurotic gangster (Pierre Clementi) of some sort, thinks that he is hinted by Severine that her husband is the only obstacle of their happines, so he puts it to execution by shooting her husband in the middle of the street, after which he is chased by police and shot dead in place. We don’t see any of this, we see Severine hearing shots from inside the house, then a sight she sees through the window – a moment too late – and we hear the rest from the report of a policeman. That’s it, Bunuel decides not to take action and shooting an opportunity to steal the movie; We’ll notice that he didn’t allow the love melodrama to do the same minutes earlier: For him, they’re just plot devices, and he doesn’t stay on them long enough to make a visual firework (which, no doubt, some other directors would do despite the fact that it might ruin the movie).

What follows is one of the most intensive finale’s I’ve seen – told without any obvious intensity:

Pierre is alive but stuck to the wheelchair, unable to speak or move, but able to hear and to grasp things happening around him. The person he must rely on to take care of him is his betrayer, Severine. His friend Henri (Michel Piccoli) enters the room to tell him the truth about Severine’s day job. Severine doesn’t stay in the room for this, and Bunuel decides to rather show her despair, than the scene of Henri’s revelation. But as she re-enters the room, we are surprised along with her: Pierre is up from the chair, talking and walking again. He seems to be in a very good mood.

To which Severine hears clomping of the horse feet, approaches the window, and sees the horse carriage, the same one from the beginning, thus rounding up this film’s circular structure. We can see that the sequence with which the film started is about to begin, and even though the film ends as the carriage approaches, we know that the scene from the beginning is about to begin. We realize that Pierre is not walking, that it is another Severine’s dream; But what was just a masochistic sexual fantasy at the beginning, now is a futile attempt of self-punishment for what she’s done to her husband. Is it possible that the fantasy and the real torture are so close to each other? Is it possible that this is, just maybe, what Severine wanted all along? That the real-life materialization of whipping from the dream, nursing an immovable husband, the psychological torture by his hatred and despise (that she is aware of although he isn’t even able to express, expect with his eyes), is another sort of masochistic enjoyment for Severine? Or is it just a turn as her fantasies come to hound her? Read this end as you will too, it is amazing in any case.

Bunuel’s “Virdiana” won Palme’D’Ore in Cannes. “Discrete charm” won Oscar for the best foreign movie. His first phase of work is among the most influential in cinema history; Each of his 60ies and 70ies movies is considered a masterpiece on it’s own; He arose controversy in 1930 with his banned “L’Age D’Or”; 61 year later, he caused controversy again, with “Viridiana”, banned by Franco’s government in his homeland. 61 is probably the oldest age anyone has ever been controversial at. Some consider “Belle de jour” his best movie; Some consider others; They’re both right.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Film: Ten minutes older: The trumpet

Two omnibuses of the name “Ten minutes older” were assembled from short movies by such respectable directors that I keep wondering how producers ever managed to get them all on the project. There are some of the greatest living director’s names on the list, and from all around USA and Europe (only one Asian, though).

The task was simple: make a movie, no longer than ten minutes, with the theme of time. After watching each segment of the movie, you are indeed ten minutes older, and hopefully you’ve spent them worthwhile. Stories in “The cello” are tied together with the chamber cello music that every segment begins and ends with, while in “The trumpet”, that role is given to the laid back trumpet jazz.

And the result was strangely even for this kind of project. “Ten minuter older: The cello” is, in it’s every story, so different from “Ten minutes older: The trumpet”, that I have get feeling that the choice of stories for each movie was made after the stories were shot. On the other hand, orientation of the choice for “The trumpet” mostly to the directors who made their fame since the start of 80ies onward, while “The cello” prefers directors who made their names a decade previous to that (although, this is not the rule), makes me think that the choice was pre-made. I’m left with the impression that directors for the each movie coincidentally thought along the same lines.

In any case, “The cello” directors decided for the experimental, uncommunicative approach, while “The trumpet” directors made a set of emotive sketches. The second movie was much more to my liking.

So anyway, about “The cello”: film starts with Bernardo Bertolucci (once great, nowadays mostly struggling to find his muse) with his “Historie d’eaux”, a slow-paced ethnic drama. Followed by Mike Figgis (director who turned from such straight movies like “Leaving Las Vegas” to experimental approach in “The loss of sexual innocence” and “Timecode”) with “About time 2”: this is a story told through screen split into four parts – and the only reason why we can follow the story is, there isn’t much of it anyway; The segments seem more like a test area for furthering his experimenting. Claire Denis who made her first feature “Chocolate” in 88’, with “Vers Nancy”, takes a simple (but too obvious) choice of making a segment with two people talking about subject of time in train. Istvan Szabo, the most acclaimed Hungarian filmmaker, makes “Ten minutes after”, a probably most narrative segment in this movie. Jiri Mencel, Czech master, gave in “One moment” nothing more than a string of poetic impressions, however nice to watch. Volker Schlondorff (“Thin drum”), in “Enlightenment”, made parallels between the narrated text from the Augustine’s “Confessions” and the flight of an insect. Michael Radford (“Il postino”) made “Addicted to stars”, a story different in execution, but not in tone and pacing, from the rest: an SF segment about an astronaut who comes from the mission and meets his son who grew older than him. Finally, Jean-Luc Godard, legend of the 60ies new wave and director of such influential movies as “Breathless” and “Weekend”, in “Dans le noir du temps”, through a string of blinking segments, made a little lexicon of terms, often related to morality (however, with some of the latest films he made, I don’t have much trust in his understanding of morality – but that’s another story).

Often painfully hard to follow because of the muddled film language, “The cello” failed to impress me with anything but the list of authors. There is some great imagery in it (Mencel), some interesting ideas (Szabo, Schlondorff), but a lot of empty talk and walk as well. Interesting, but that’s it.

Now, that’s it about the first movie. I’m going to dedicate much more space to “Ten minutes older: The trumpet”, that is a completely different story. Each and every director from this list managed to make a great little story, all using their conventional means of narration. There is true in the fact that all directors given here are in the peak point of their careers, with as much great movies in front of them as behind them, while for a lot of directors in the previous list, the greatest moment has already passed. Anyway...

Film starts with segment by Aki Kaurismaki (Leningrad cowboys trilogy), Finnish master of minimalism. Segment called “Dogs have no hell”, with his favourite actors Markku Peltola and Kati Outinen, tells in his usual style, stripped of any surface display of emotions, about a story of a man who proposes a woman to go with him to Siberia, where he got a job. The emotion is, as usually with Kaurismaki, hidden in hints and little things that his characters, genuinely good people, do. So, she says yes. And then they buy the ring, and get on the train. There is barely and word spoken in the entire movie. Even though I’ve seem much more powerful and evocative moments in Kaurismaki’s movies, this piece is a fine little display of his stripped poetics; Not the best segment of the film either, but if you appreciate Kaurismaki’s style, any little piece of his work is precious.

Victor Erice is the Spanish director for whom I’ve shamefully first heard of him here. But his work spans since sixties, though in very uneven tempo. Anyway, his segment “Lifeline” is a beautiful piece shot in black/white. For the most part, it shows a series of idyllic rural sights. But Erice somehow manages to sneak in a hint of trembling and expectance of something terrible to happen. And indeed, a cradle with the baby is slowly getting filled with blood. Then, a scream. Yet, the baby is saved: her navel chord hasn’t been tied properly, and now we see a big village women re-tying it and saving the baby, who instantly smiles and giggles.

And let me tell you, that village woman is great, with the power of appearance that only amateur actors have. She shows so much love, by pressing baby’s little feet to her lips, the maternity glows from her large face. Erice shot this segment in colour, then in last moment decided to print it in black and white.

Werner Herzog, German director with impressively large filmography behind him, but who only reached world recognition with his 1977 film “Stroszek”, made “Ten thousand years older” for this film. It’s a documentary about last discovered south American tribe and how the burst of western civilization slowly brings to decay the old culture of this tribe. Excellent movie, it’s sole subject is very emotive, and skilled Herzog gives it justice. Themes of how aggressive western culture decays old values of smaller cultures is often topic of his ultimately sad movies, as is visual style that resembles the documentary.

Jim Jarmusch, need I say more about the cult director of American independent scene, does “Int. Trailer Night”, the story in which virtually nothing happens: We see an actress (Chloe Sevigny), in her trailer during the break on the set, spending ten minutes resting, occasionally being interrupted to prepare for the rest of shooting.

This is a classic Jarmusch setup; He is always more interested in moments of character’s privacy as they tell the most about the character itself; Action is not his concern, it is moments between the action sequences. In “Ghost Dog – The way of samurai”, his only film that could be considered an action movie, we do spend a lot more time watching the things Ghost Dog, hired killer, does between his jobs, than actual jobs. We see scenes and situations that would, by any other director, be rejected as not important for the story. Such is the choice of scene in “Int. Trailer Night”: a film about making films by Jarmusch, is deemed to show his character during the break, instead of during the shooting, trying to find her peace. This film is also black and white.

Then there is Wim Wenders, director known for his slow-paced, introspective, poetic films, like “Das Himmel uber Berlin” (“Wings of desire”), “Lisbon story”, and “Buena Vista Social Club”. His segment, “Twelve miles to Trona” is, however, anything but slow. It tells a story of a poisoned man (Charles Esten), driving to get to the nearest city and hospital. You might say that there’s not much of a story except for a little glance at his dysfunctional marriage that we’re allowed to see, but Wenders gets a great joy out of the deserted landscape that the man passes through, with windmills that accent the desert more than they interrupt it, then from psychedelic, hallucinatory colours seen through man’s eyes; A beautiful, absorbing sequence. It is interesting how Wenders uses colour in his segment, as opposed to the number of black/white segments in the rest of the movie.

Eventually, a man meets another car in the crossroad, and is still lucid enough to get to the other car and ask to be driven to hospital. He wakes up in hospital bed hours later, and meets a person who saved him: sixteen years old girl. He tells her that she’s a good drives. She says that she just got her license the other day. Just in time.

Spike Lee, star of the independent American scene, does another black and white segment, “We wuz robbed”. This time it’s a documentary about the elections for president of USA in 2000, and the assumption that George W. Bush stole the elections. Lee cross-cuts series of interviews, making it into a chronological story that spans over the election day. Lee shows significant skills in the effort of crosscutting, making his characters interrupt each other, or finish each other’s sentences. The result is a very good and engaged piece of filmmaking.

Another director, Kaige Chen, got me by surprise. This Chinese director gave the final piece, “100 flowers hidden deep”, a bittersweet comedy that offers several emotional twists during it’s short lasting. A group of moving workers is picked up on the street by a man who hires them to move his furniture. But when they arrive to the place, there is no house around: just a plain where houses maybe used to be, long ago. Head of workers calls the boss on the phone, gets informed that the man is crazy and to try to take the money from him anyway. But the man won’t give the money until the furniture is moved. And so workers start the moving job, pretending to hold the man’s “furniture” in hands. It goes on until one of workers forgets that he was holding “the vase” in hands, and, in man’s eyes, it is broken. This event saddens the man more than a broken vase would; It seems like something is broken inside him. Crust-hearted workers feel that, and, growing to like him, they offer not to charge the moving in exchange for the broken vase. This doesn’t help much.

Driving from the scene, a mover’s truck gets stuck in the mud. While trying to get the tire out of the mud, a head worker digs out a doorbell. The man recognizes his old doorbell from the house that was once in that place and, as if he got some strange new energy, runs away chiming it. Turning around, the workers suddenly get a vision of what the man saw the whole time: a house surrounded by garden with flowers – in perhaps an unnecessary but still beautiful, computer-generated scene.

Wit this scene, the film ends. We get another look at the impressive cast of directors once again, after we saw a glimpse of what they’re great for.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Film: Smoke

Wayne Wong, Hong-Kong-born, USA-educated, is the director you have to pay attention to. He made films in switching between indepedent USA production and Hong Kong (being just one of exponents of Hong Kong cinematography – a cinematography that, not so long ago, gave Bruce Lee and Jacky Chan, half-dancers, half-warriors, now brings up some of the most interesting film authors, such is Wong Kar Wai). When watching his movies, I seem to see a strong hint from the director that I am not watching an ordinary film (even though themes or settings might be ordinary), but instead a piece from a profiled director who always goes for a bit more than just telling a story. But it’s small, minimalist, cheep (in most possible positive sense of the world) where he’s at his best. One of such films is “Smoke”.

Well, I had a chance to see “Smoke” quite a lot of times. Our TV stations used to run this movie over and over. I’d see it most often on local, half-volunteering channels, as if they were giving a thumb up to their colleague in dedication to make as much as they can with little to no resources. Wang is, however, more successful in that dedication (reprising the same movie three times in a month is not a good programming decision, no matter how good movie was) and he acts that way when he finds it suitable, not because he musts.

Now, hanging around, making small talk, knowing your tobacco seller by name – those are probably activities ordinary people like to engage in everywhere in the world. They do here, that’s for sure. That is actually what’s happening in “Smoke” most of the time. It’s one wonderfully laid back film, in which stories behind characters get known to us through seemingly unimportant stories and hints, rather than stunning revelations. It also has some of the best small-talk lines.

Any why not, the script is by Paul Auster, one of the most acclaimed writers today. Wang’s choice of film language, therefore is interesting: he chose in favor of long, total, still shots, fixating on the entire room with the entire crew in the frame, as if they’re all important even if just one is talking; Only in more emotive scenes, he turns to a more conventional scenes, with emotionally rich close cuts given by actors such are Harvey Keitel, William Hurt and Forest Whitaker.

Now, such choice might not be in favour of those who prefer hard-boiled action or heart-throbbing drama, and there are indeed hurtful parts of the movie that Wang could’ve directed as someone would “Wuthering heights”, but Wang rightfully decided that that is not what script is about. Thus, this movie is decidedly lacking in movement for most of it’s parts. I once had a chance to see it right after “Pulp Fiction”. After the thrilling action of “Fiction”, its unstoppable tempo at the second half of the movie, and a whole lot of hand camera, “Smoke” as the opposite extreme did seem too still. But if I was watching the “Smoke” first, I would’ve probably thought that “Pulp fiction” is just a bit too fast. I don’t really favor any of these two styles.

I said that Wang always makes it clear that he is an intelligent director. Take “Smoke” for example, favouring of wide, still shots might seem like laziness or decision made for financial reasons. But then again, there is a final scene in the movie, where Agguie Wren (Keitel) tells a story to his friend Paul Benjamin (Hurt), a story of one of the most influential moments of his life.

But we don’t see a story. Camera fixates to the Keitel all the time. It is only strength of his acting performance that makes characters of the story alive in front of our life. Story takes long to be told. Camera still fixates Auggie, but slowly zooms up meanwhile. Almost unexpectedly, we see that we are now gazing at his mouth, or at some other detail of his face now. And meanwhile, he still talks. Movement of camera is almost invisible, it doesn’t take stage lights from the story, yet it searches Auggie’s face, expressive face.

That takes one long, uncut shot. A long story that Keitel has to tell flawlessly, because any mistake can’t be cut out. And all the time, he has to keep his face at the edge between calmness and cry. Seems to be no problem for this actor.

Oh, that’s before Wang surprises us once, before the end. As the credits roll, and Tom Waits sings “Innocent while you dream”, we see a kind of mock-up play of the entire story that Auggie told, a kind of poorly-crafter, black and white silent film sketch, that puts a little bit brighter light to what we just heard. Sketch ends up as closing credits do too.

Now, after I spent a little more time to “Smoke’s” film language, I will try to retell a story, although there isn’t much to tell. Central figure, not so much active participant in events as the perpetual lurker, is a tobacco shop owner Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel). His standard customer is Paul Benjamin (William Hurt), a writer with a writing block (go figure. One could think that the whole “Smoke” script was a product of one fruitful writing block). In one of the first scenes we see Auggie taking a photo of the street in front of his store. He takes his time; it seems unusually long for taking one single photo. Thing is, Auggie does this every morning, in the exact same moment, on the exact same corner, for years. He has albums of photos of the same corner, each photo different for as much as people were different that morning.

A bit later, he shows albums to Paul. On one old photo, Paul sees his deceased wife passing by. Whirl of emotions comes in, and he realizes why all photos aren’t the same: Take this one; A person on them will never walk by that corner again, she’ll never appear on any of those photos again.

Now you get a hang of what this movie is like. It’s inhabited by such inspired small life stories, little lessons, bits of unusual, yet understandable behaviour. But let’s go on.

Saving him from a car accident (in a laid back style, of course), in Paul’s life enters a young man Rashid (Harold Perrineau Jr.). Rashid seems to be without a place to stay so Paul offers him to stay with him a couple of days. Later in the movie, it turns out that Rashid does have his aunt’s place to stay at, but he is hiding from a cup of local crooks from whom, by accident, he has snatched a large sum of money, and intends to keep it. Rashid’s mother died in an accident long ago, and his father disappeared after that, Rashid is a liar to the extent that limits with pathological, and his name isn’t even Rashid.

Rashid tracks down his father Cyrus (Forest Whitaker) owning a gas pump out of the city. He applies for a job there, under the fake name (he uses name Paul Benjamin) with no real idea what to do next. He snatches a half-broken TV from Cyrus’s attic and gives it to Paul. He is exposed as Paul and Augie come to visit him. What follows is a hopeless fight, well, more struggle than a fight, in which Cyrus attacks Rashid, repeating: “You’re lying!” Hurtful memories and his own shame won’t let him believe at the first moment. What follows after that is a peaceful, silent scene in which they all sit around the picnic table. But it’s not uncomfortable silence. Sometimes, greatest misunderstandings are resolved in silence; This film definitely likes that kind of resolution rather than yelling and screaming. A scene in which Paul watches game on tv, then picture disappears in snow, Paul rises up, knocks it a few times on top, then resolves that the TV is definitely broken, illustrates the tempo with which the movie is going.

Another more important story of the film relates to Auggie whose old girlfriend Ruby (Stockard Channing) comes to the city, telling him of his daughter he never even knew about. His daughter Felicity (Ashley Judd) is a junky, and Ruby needs all the help she can get to get her out of it. In the loudest scene of the movie, Felicity literally kicks Auggie and Ruby out of the house. At the end, Auggie gives Ruby money that should help her get Felicity to treatment, and he asks her “Is she really my daughter?”, to which Ruby, after a pause, replies “I’m not sure”.

In the last part of the movie, Paul comes to a tobacco store with a task to write a Christmas story to the newspapers. Auggie promises that he’s tell him the best Christmas story and what follows is a scene that I described earlier so thoroughly; At least one bit of a movie that I will sustain from re-telling.

That Christmas story, along with a few other small stories, almost digressions, told along the movie, are specialties. The movie itself starts with Paul telling to a bunch in tobacco store of how first European smokers tried to measure the weight of a smoke (to which I always remember of similar story of scientists trying to measure soul). Later, he tells a story of a writer who is forced, in lack of paper, to wrap up tobacco into pages of his just written novel, only copy; Listeners question whether any writer would ever do that. One of the most interesting stories he tells is of a man who went skiing in the mountain but gets in a way of avalanche and dies buried in snow; He leaves his wife and a little son behind him. Twenty years later, his son visits the same mountain; Gets his skies off to take some rest and have lunch; And while he’s sitting on a block of ice, he looks down and for a moment thinks that he’s looking at the mirror. What he’s looking at is actually a face of a man who is looking exactly like him, frozen in ice.

These stories, interesting by themselves, are related closely to the main stories of the film. If the story about measuring the weight of the smoke rises tobacco to the level of a dedication, of a centerpiece of a culture, this last one is referring to Paul who, after the death of his wife, remains frozen in time, letting events pass him by.

So what’s the movie about? Sitting and doing nothing? Hardly, that would make an interesting movie, but not a great movie. “Smoke” is about how small events determine your life: both accidental death of Paul’s wife, or of Rashid’s mother, Rashid’s entrance into Paul’s life, and, of course, Auggie’s Christmas story, the seemingly small event that he might’ve hardly remembered it, but from which day on he takes a photograph of his corner every morning; Small events that pass by hidden by the calmed sea of what makes the rest of the life; It’s about people’s mistakes and forgiving them; Auggie gets all that. He, if anyone, understands the poetry of ordinary life. That’s why those pictures are never the same for him.

Initially released, “Smoke” unanimously took all the critics praises with its subtle messages. Did it take audience too? Well, some might’ve rather went to see “Things to do in Denver when you’re dead” made that year – you know, the kind of films where you’re overwhelmed with information non-stop, so you don’t really have time to stop and think about what you’ve seen. Not that I necessarily have anything against dynamic films – it’s just that there are certain emotions that can’t be achieved that way and certain themes that can’t be explored that way; Particularly themes of life; Because life doesn’t keep you entertained every minute.

“Smoke” is a lovable film, a solid masterpiece, a film that achieves in every segment it attempts to. Wonderfully and deeply written by Auster, with Wang’s direction that most of time flatters the script, in some moments levels it up to a very emotive experience; Hurt is honestly confused, Whitaker deeply sad and Keitel, with little visible resources, delivers a role that glues all pieces together, a role of a man who knows a little bit than the next guy. Did I mention that I love this film?

Strangely enough, soon came a sort of sequel, “Blue in the face”. Having left with a bunch of characters they couldn’t have left alone that easily and with some extra footage that didn’t make into the movie, Wang and Auster decided to add to the mix: A lot of improvisational scenes by a lot of odd people including Roseanne, Michael J. Fox, Mira Sorvino, briefly (thank god) Madonna and, of course, cast of the original movie, all that fueled by just a few lines of script; To which actors were allowed to even go hysterical, which they often did; Following half-interviews by people like Jim Jarmush or Lue Reed, contemplating a lot of small things; Jarmush, for instance, quits smoking so he wants to smoke up his last cigarette in Augie’s company: He talks of the joy of smoking, of how they were addicted to it in the first place, of how view of smoking has quickly changed from “cool” to “uncool”, of how people in war films always throw away empty gun instead of refilling it... Next a lot of documentary footage of Brooklyn, it’s people and their life stories. The result was more an homage to Brooklyn as a homey place with your favourite tobacco store on the corner near your house, than anything else; Interesting movie to see, although it loses its grip several times during its run.

But “Smoke” was great.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Film: Conspirators of pleasure

Eh, eh, after hearing the name of this film, many people asked me whether it’s porn. It’s not porn, it barely has any sexual content, and yet it’s one of the weirdest and kinkiest films I’ve seen.

But Jan Svankmajer seems to be a very weird man anyway. He is Czech stop-motion animator who dedicated his stop-motion skills to bringing to life grim world of man’s deeply hidden fantasies and fears. Needles to say, these toons are not for kids. But that’s nothing unusual, animated films are more often not for kids than yes. It’s just that those others get better distribution.

Svankmajer bases his films on combination of live action and life-size stop-motion animation, allowing the second to bring unusual and unexpected sights into the world of the first one. This conception forces a certain stiff directing style on Svankmajer: he uses a lot of close cuts on object (often, hands) and barely any camera movement. That way, when the stop-motion takes it’s turn, there is no leap.

His films are very theatrical, which, again, may as well be result of his beginnings in theatre.

Stop-motion animation may not be as smooth as the one of Harry Selznik, but then again, Svankmajer manipulates with life-size objects with no help of computers, and the entire world of his movies is not so smooth anyway. On the contrary, in Svankmajer’s movies we see dirty walls, old furniture, ripped clothes, and there seems to be a social content in there, avoided but still implied. His films usually feature no more than a few words spoken, they mostly rely on visual.

It’s only logical that Svankmajer would choose to film “Alice” in wonderland”. The result was one grimy, bizarre world with plush White bunny keeping his pocket watch inside his chest, where his heart would be, and Centipede becoming from enlivened sock, set of fake teeth and two eyeballs. Film follows the original story closely, but lends it a unique visual style that gives the story psychoanalytical and fearful connotations.

Other big piece of literature that Svankmajer filmed was “Faust”. This film features very little stop-motion. It’s place is taken by marionettes, puppets, that enliven Faust’s surreal persona (while the real is acted by Petr Cepek); He meets devil and his minion mostly in a puppet form. The most stunning scene in the film is still one of rare featuring stop-motion animation: The one where Faust makes a baby out of clay and breaths life in it; Then, when the baby starts to form weird and fearful shapes, he destroys it, squishing the clay while still recognizable arms and legs squiggle between his fingers. The scene that strongly emphasizes Faust’s reckless curiosity, his thirst for knowledge and in the same time, fear from it.

There’s another film of his I’ve seen, ten minutes long “Jabberwocky”, that I consider most stunning of his work – except for the Film in the title of this text. “Jabberwocky” is a cheerfully grim play of childhood. There’s a naively cruel (empty) child school uniform dancing across the screen, there’s a lot of toys transforming into dangerous and potentially violent objects, like the pocket knife piercing through the tablecloth while it joyously hops around; A condom-holder sweeping an army of small soldiers in one move; Brutal torture of plastic dolls (no doll was harmed during making of this movie, eh?) This vile play is occasionally interrupted by attempts to find the way out of drawn labyrinth. When we finally make it through the labyrinth, there is no school uniform in the closet anymore: there’s a grown man’s suit.

And now, “Conspirators of pleasure” (or as I like to call it in it’s original name: “Spiklenci slasti”. Or just “Spiklenci”, has a nice ring to it.). This movie, just like “Faust”, has a very little animation in it, but it’s exceptionally effective. It’s like a movie Svankmajer was born to make.

What is it about? I don’t think it’s even possible to explain. I’ll try, however. He parallel follow a group of people, walking about their own business, be it postman, housekeeper or TV speaker, and we see them as they stop by, take their time to do strange, conspirative things, like buying a bunch of brushes in various sizes, or making little balls out of the middle of the bread and collecting them. Especially interesting is a skinny tenant, who slays a chicken, then resourcefully uses its parts to make a mask. We follow those silent actions in close cuts, wondering “Why the hell are they doing all that?”

They are going about to make their weird, fetishist, surreal (and possibly sexual?) fantasies alive, there’s a lot of meticulous preparing of the needed equipment and thorough planning (because that day, everything has to go the way they intended, even the needed lunch break), and we get really absorbed into the level of elaboration with which they do their preparations. Then, the day has come – yep, basically, months of preparing for just one day of pleasure: young women might’ve collected bread balls for months, to use them only once. This is, of course, where we see stop-motion animation, as the fantasies became alive and straw dolls start to move and feel. It’s all one funny, absorbing and disturbing mash of psychoanalysis. And there’s nearly no actual sexual content in there. Just an assumption.

And then, next day, they go on about their own business again, looking for new fantasies and new thrills.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Film: Three colours: White

A biography book of Krzysztof Kieslowski, great Polish director, is sitting on my table for months now (well, it’s actually a chronological collection of interviews). It’s cooking up for the right time to read it. Anyway, a fair warning: Later in this text, I couldn’t help but retelling the entire film in details. This might ruin watching the movie to someone who intends to see it soon, specially for its unexpected story. I don’t think so, I watched it a lot of times, I liked it every time the better, even though I knew the story. But a fair warning is in order.

Even though it’s inseparable from other two parts of the “Three Colours” trilogy, I have to take “White” into special consideration; It’s to this day one of my favourite films, also one of the films that influenced my look at films as it is now. Back when I was attending film workshop, it was one of the films that we watched slowly, with a lot of pausing, scene by scene, just learning about how good a film can be, and why. Back then it was still relatively fresh film and a good showcase that film industry isn’t in such desperate situation as it seemed from the most of cinema hits.

Singling out “White” – that’s ok, Kieslowski liked to group his films anyway. After a start as a director of documentaries, he spent a period of 1984-88 in making a series of hour long TV movies, each based on one of Ten Commandments, followed shortly by a pair of films “Short film about love” and, for him unusually violent, “Short film about love”. These were actually extended versions of “Thou shall not kill” and “Thou shall not commit adultery” parts of “Decalogue”. These were followed in 1991 by a single movie, “The double life of Veronique”, with theme similar to the one of the later and better known, Peter Howwit’s “Sliding door”.

And then there was “Three Colours” trilogy: “Blue”, “White”, “Red”; Colours of the French flag: liberty, equality, fraternity. All three films were shot at the same time, which Kieslowski largely used for many intersecting scenes. In each of these movies, according colour was accented; so, for instance, in every single frame of the “Red”, there is at least something red.

Not long after the release of these films, he announced retiring from filmmaking and two years later, died.

Started as a director of documentaries, Kieslowski remained a documenter of ordinary life; In his movies, characters need not to do something the entire time. They can just walk, think, or sit at the corner of the street watching some equally ordinary sight (like character of “White” does near the beginning). A lot of scenes seem needless, but they form a fine net of motives, actions, characters, that is visible in whole only at the end of the movie. Kieslowski enjoys throwing some strange scene or detail in front of us, only to explain it scenes later; He often throws in a short cut of the scene from much later in movie (and, yes, it’s our job to connect those two scenes. Kieslowski’s films, although filled with everyday situations rather than philosophy or metaphorical charge, require active thinking for their full understanding). The result poetry in a film form.

For instance, “White” starts with a cross-cut sequence of Polish hairdresser Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) entering courthouse in Paris, cut with scenes of a large suitcase sliding along the transportation track on an airport. We will recognize this suitcase sometime later in the movie. But now, we follow Karol as he enters the courtroom where he’s supposed to divorce his wife Dominique (Julie Delpy, with an extremely white complexion). As we realize, Dominique still loves him, but divorces him because he became impotent. Now there is an interesting poke at national differences: she, being French, can’t imagine love without sex; She loves him, but at the same time hates him for not being able to satisfy her (we see this more clearly in a later scene where she catches him breaking into her house – an incoming passionate love scene is interrupted by an obvious reason, and it ends with her ruthlessly kicking him out of the house).

Other side of the national coin is Karol, impotent for no other reason but homesickness. We see this later when his potency returns upon returning to Poland; Poland might not be much, as we see later in the movie, but he’s deeply attached to it (how much biographic is there, being that Kieslowski was a Polish living in France at the time? To some extent probably, but not entirely. I don’t like to project characters of films to the authors – art psychoanalysis seems a very cheep discipline to me). He met Dominique years earlier on a hairdressing competition and the love was instant and mutual. But after some time spent in France, problems start to appear, that lead to the situation where we find him at the beginning of the movie. Of course, he still loves Dominique too; He steals a statue that reminds him of her from the shop window and watches it for hours.

(Worth mentioning, during the courtroom scene, we can see Julie from “Blue” (Juliette Binoche) peeking into the courtroom for a moment. In “Blue”, we can actually see Julie peaking into the wrong courtroom at one moment.)

Now, the thing is, since Dominique kicked him out of their house, he is forced to live in the street with nothing but a giant suitcase full of diplomas for winnings on hairdresser fairs. Playing Polish folk songs on harmonica in metro station, he gets to meet a landmate Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos), businessman who offers him a job: one man he knows wants to commit a suicide, but needs someone to do it so that it looks like murder, for the life insurance purposes. Karol declines but the friendship is instant. Another idea incoming: Karol empties his suitcase and gets inside: Mikolaj is going to smuggle him into the Poland.

Yes, it is the suitcase from the beginning, and yes, it is the same airport. We realize: at the beginning, we were watching his parallel entering the courthouse and Poland.

Now, a small ironic plot-twist, the likes of many that Kieslowski enjoys to throw into his movies. Upon arriving at Poland, the suitcase is stolen. We see Nikolaj at the airport, concerned about the disappearance of the suitcase, but unable to even tell the value of items in the suitcase. We also see a gang that stole the suitcase, dragging it somewhere near-to-nowhere, looking forward to goods that they’ll find in such big suitcase. Instead, with surprise, they find a living man. Missing loot is not what makes them angry – it’s the fact that even Karol’s wristwatch is not manufactured in Poland that ticks them off. They beat him up, break his Dominique-look-alike statue and then leave. Even though not properly welcomed back to his homeland, Karol stands up, looks around, recognizing the landscape: it is Poland, it’s covered with snow, the scene is overwhelmed with white; There’s no doubt about the meaning of the smile on his face. And we smile with him.

Now, Karol has no problem finding the house and hairdressing shop of his brother. Soon he starts working in his brother’s shop and, being an awarded hairdresser, the waiting line for his chair is long. But seeing an ex-Communist Poland, clumsily adapting to capitalism with lots of mobsters taking advantage of that, Karol has different plans: he sees an opportunity to get rich easily. He starts working for some local mobsters, eyesdrops at their conversation about a land-ownership scam and soon decides to double-scam his new bosses. But to buy the desired land before mobsters do, he needs some initial capital.

So he finds Mikolaj and tells him that he accepts the murder job that Mikolaj offered him earlier; Things are as Karol suspected from the sorrow in Mikolaj’s eyes: he is the one to be murdered. Karol has a moral choice to resolve: whether to murder his recent but close friend, or not? What follows is one of the best and most emotional scenes I’ve ever seen, so read closely (if you don’t have a chance to look at the film. If you do, better see it first – there’s a lot of spoilers here):

Karol and Mikolaj meet in an abandoned metro station; Karol has a gun, Mikolaj has the money. Karol asks Mikolaj if he’s sure. Mikolaj nods. Karol raises the gun to Mikolaj’s chest. The scene is shot from the side, in dark, almost unemotional in its distance from characters and lack of movement.

Karol shoots. We see muffled bang and some smoke. Mikolaj falls on his knees and stays there. At that moment, we can feel his fear. Karol says: “This one was blank, the next one is real. Do you want to continue?” A cheerful violin tones slide secretly into the scene.

White flashes unexpectedly into our eyes as the violin music increases and fills the air. We see Karol and Mikolay sledging on ice, joyful as if they were little kids. We see a celebration of life. We see film-language poetry.

After it brought tears to our eyes (mine at least – I don’t cry often at movies, but this scene gets the best out of me), film returns us to earth. In quick and informative sequences, we see Karol’s plan revolving, thanks to Mikolaj’s money. But we also see Karol, transforming from a modest hairdresser into a slick businessman, with a greased hair.

There’s a lot of Poland sightseeing in this movie. Take, for instance, the scene when mobsters find out about Karol’s scam, break into his apartment and threaten to kill him. “I left it all to Catholic Church in my testament”, he says. That’s where they back up: you don’t mess with Catholic Church – not in Poland. Even Pope was from Poland. So they take Karol for a partner.

Next, another unexpected move, but something that Karol seemed to be planning all along: without much trouble, he buys a corpse on black market and fakes his own death and funeral.

Dominique travels from France after she is informed that Karol has left all his wealth to her. Needles to say, she is very confused. He had lured her to Poland.

Evening later, Karol appears in her hotel room. She is scared, but old passion overcomes, and they make love. Love-making scene fades into white (of course). A morning later, Karol had disappeared, and Dominique is accused of his murder by Polish police. She is honestly confused and disoriented, claiming that Karol is alive and that she had just made love with him the other night.

A perfect revenge.

Dominique is in a cell in mental institution. We see Karol, standing in the backyard, a shady person looking at her window. We see her seeing him, and, in a single, sliding shot, giving him hand signals. A string of hand signals that I assigned to her mental state first time I saw the movie, until someone pointed a meaning of those movements to me. Their meaning is: “When I come out, I will not go away, I will stay with you”.

The end.

Film: Altered states

I get a kick out of recognizing films that I watched as a kid and then later forgot about them. Well, not actually forgot – I spent a lot of time as a kid, sitting near TV-set. I glanced a lot of movies passing by and some of very impressive sequences carved into my brain. I get a kick out of recognizing such scenes.

Some of those scenes were really terrible. I can recall a horror movie where a dead body brought back into live loses it’s head, but still springs up and waves arms around headless, threatening at present people. It all happens in some kind of hospital. Later, I heard of a real event similar to this scene, but that’s beside the point. For the record, I still don’t know which film this scene is from.

I also recall watching Ken Russell’s “Altered States” and being very scared of surreal visions displayed in this movie. Then, being scared of the sequence where main character turns into a prehistoric ape. These two parts of the movie are so different in tone that long after that, I believed that I was watching two different movies, but being concentrated on something else, didn’t notice when one ended and the other one started. I was very small.

But that’s ok because Ken Russell is expected to cause confusion. This Englishman is one of the most controversial directors of all times. He’s a kind of director for whose films you can never be really sure: whether they’re complete crap or misunderstood masterpieces. Probably a little of column A, a little of column B.

He started his career as an unconventional director for British TV. His first cinema release, D.H.Lawrence adaptation “Women in love”, is nowadays considered masterpiece. His unconventional quasi-biopic “Mahler” in which he enjoys inserting elements out of the timeline (like Nazi ideology argumentation into the moth of enemies of this classic composer) is very high rated too. Other films from this period, however, aren’t. Most of them follow the same formula as “Mahler”: weird imagined biography of a famous classic composer: “Music lovers” deals with Tchaikovsky, “Lisztomania” with Liszt, and, widening that formula, “Savage Messiah” is about sculptor Henry Gaudier, “Salome’s last dance” about Oscar Wilde. These “biopics” are, in spite of all, affectionate, as Russell is, despite the weirdness characteristic to modern times, before all a classic music and art lover. The claim that he is simply filming his own sexual fantasies, sometimes understandable, often over-the-top, sometimes even gross, but always weird – just attaching the well-known name to them. Claim, not so far from reality.

Between filming these “biopics”, Russell managed to find time to film a few other stories: for instance, acclaimed adaptation of “The Who’s” rock opera “Tommy” (his only wade into popular culture), conventional gothic horror “The lair of the white worm” (Wth? Conventional? When did that happen?), god-awful trashy low-budget set-piece-is-falling-apart movie “The fall of house of Usher”, barely related to the namesake novel, and “Altered states”, film unusual for it’s serious tone and lack of excess (that’s unusual for Ken Russel film).

First of all, it’s strange that Russel would accept to work on a script with elements of SF, that is trying to talk about such big topics as genesis of human race and of the world in general, of the codes written in our genes and of the danger that lies in finding out answers to such questions (script based on Paddy Chayevsky novel).

Why did he take this unusually stiff script and film it? Probably because there’s a lot of drug-experimenting involved, a lot of hallucinations, surreal landscapes and religious and other symbols in them. So he took it and in the process found something else in it. He found what anyone who reads previous paragraph will probably think: that this script is almost ridiculously overambitious in things it’s talking about, that the span of the idea is such that this movie is bound to be either a philosophical masterpiece, or a farce. So he decided for both. And he managed well to keep the tone of the film both serious and silly through the entire movie.
Ok, here is what it’s actually all about: The film starts as the scientist Eddie Jessup (William Hart in his first role) experiments hallucinatory effects of immersion tanks on himself. Intrigued by religious symbols in his visions that coincide with some frustrations from his childhood he decides to go further in his experiments, using hallucinatory mushrooms found by some primitive tribes. Slowly, he forms a theory that what he experienced in his hallucinations is remains written in our genetic code, remains not only of creating our species, but of genesis of the entire universe. Big bang or whatever you call it. Jessup is driven further in experiments, to go further in the past, mostly because of his scientific curiosity, and the least for any purpose that his finds might have. Now you see why it is so ambitious.

Now, this is what the first part of the movie is about: Jessup’s researches, his flunky relationship with his wife and colleague Emily (lovely Blair Brown) always in shadow of his job, his colleagues and bosses telling him that it’s dangerous – all this realistic mash is worth waiting through, just to see those overwhelming, apocalyptic hallucinations that the film is offering us in glimpses. It’s these hallucinations, animal sculls, crucifixions, bodies covered in sand in the middle sandstorms, that carved into the brain of little me when I was watching the movie at first.

But – that’s the first part of the film, and there are no visions after that until the end. Other director might churn out some conventional filmmaking in the rest of the film, hoping that the first part is redeeming enough – Russell, however, found a new source of inspiration: he finally pushed the “farce” button, his ace in the sleeve.

As a result of experiments, Jessup experiences some physical mutations as well. One of them goes as far as regressing him evolutionary and leaving him unable to speak for a couple of hours. Despite this, he decides to continue in secret, after all his assistants refuse to help him.
Which is where another scene that carved into my brain begins: he regresses into a sort of primitive, pre-cavemen ape and, escaping from the laboratory, goes on a running spree through empty streets at night, being chased by a pack of street dogs. This scene, with it’s primitive-in-urban-environment setting is another thing worth seeing: it’s startling; It’s ridiculous; It’s the farce Russell was counting on. Perhaps it wouldn’t work so well in the entire movie if the first part didn’t consist very subtle farce as well: in the grandeur of the whole idea, in the quasi-scientific talk that we never even hear properly because it’s usually covered by some background noises, and in the daring and direct nature of Russell’s hallucination scenes.
Jessup ends up killing a sheep in a zoo, and as the effects of experiments aren’t permanent, next morning he is found as a normal human, sleeping in a zoo naked.

This is where the third, shortest part of the movie starts. Jessup returned to the starting point of human genesis, but he wants more – the universe. Side-effects of experience make the equipment and drugs unnecessary from this point – flashes of regression appear on their own now. Now that he passed the point of genesis of a living been, he’s regressing right into – nothing – and he’s not able to stop. For one moment, he is staring right into nothing of before the universes existence. The moment before he joins this nothing, Emily pulls him literally by the hand out of this time whirl. He is saved in this last scene, terrified from looking into the lack of existence, the only man who has ever seen complete nothingness. Part of the terror comes probably from the implied fact that he didn’t see God (is this movie anti-religious? I don’t think that Russell tried to give that kind of message – it was simply a proper ending for a movie with character such Jessup is).

This, last sequence of the movie is told with no words, through a series of well-done special effects. Russell leaves it to viewer to understand what’s going on from given transformations (Jessup is transformed into a cloud of primordial matter, Emily into a universe-like net, symbolizing the living force), from the context and, well, from everything that’s said earlier. As we watch the slow regression through the movie, this last scene is something that was announced a good deal of film earlier; Even if the movie was ended after the ape part, we coulda guess that this scene would occur. But through this no-talk scene, Russell gives a better insight into these mind-numbing concepts than he would with all “scientific” mumbo-jumbo from the rest of the movie. And how would he say it with words anyway?

At the end, I have to mention the characterization in this movie, fueled by unusual but understandable motivations. Jessup, genuinely curious, more reckless than bold, hopes with one part of his personality that he would see God himself; with other part that he would disapprove the existence of god. Emily, much more with her feet on the ground, but indecisive in whether she should let her man wade into this kind of danger and, in some moments, whether she should still fight for him at all; Their sexual life described briefly, realistically and in a sustained manner, which is all very unusual for Ken Russell. Characterization is not the main thing in this movie, but it is interesting and complex, and it’s Jessup’s character that pushes the story through the good part of the movie. However, it is all often neglected in favour of the spectacle that this movie is.

“Altered states” - just as I said: dead serious, grandiose, but at the same time, subtly, very subtly ridiculous. Too bad Russell doesn’t try it more often.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Film: Hair

I don’t like musicals very much. Not the old golden age ones, I never knew how to enjoy in long sequences of Gene Kelly or Fred Astair displaying their dancing skills. I enjoyed some Boliwood musicals (and in Boliwood, every movie is a musical) but more for the awkward and campy fun of their music, coreography and moviemaking altogether. I dig older Disney animated movies, even those with a lot of music, but I somehow skip those parts instead of getting into songs. I tend to think that songs usually unnecessarily slow down the story. And modern musicals are so rare that I don’t even get to have a particular opinion of them.

On the other hand, “Hair” is one of my favourite films of all times. It’s one of those movies that I can watch thousand times without getting bored. And it’s a musical, with lot of music. “Hair” hasn’t got much of a story, so there’s nothing to slow down. Instead, it offers a document of the period, influential in music as well as in politics, lifestyle, culture. A document from the fair distance (movie was made in 1979), which allows it one unpretentious look, critical towards heroes of the age, though also very affectionate – not as nearly naive attitude as the from “Easy Rider” (“They can do it, man”). Music is a must, because music was a crucial element of life more than in any period of history.

Film is based on the cult theatre musical of 60ies of the same name, played in almost every country of the western world at the time. Directop is Milos Forman, great Czechoslovakian director. Forman made relatively small number of movies, but made each of them masterpieces. Starting off in his homeland, he made three movies, of which two were defining pieces for specific Czechoslovakian approach to comedies. One, “Lasky jedne plavovlasky” (“Loves of a blonde”); The other, “Hori, ma panenko” (hilarious title “Burn, my baby, burn” was translated into descriptive but unimaginative “Fireman’s ball”). After his first American movie “Taking off”, he managed to make four cult movies, masterpieces in a string, in period of 1975 to 1985. Those were “One flew over cuckoo’s nest”, “Hair”, “Ragtime” and “Amadeus”. His latest successes are “People vs. Larry Flint” and “Man on the moon”. It is his careful choice and wide variety of themes and settings in his previous movies that make me wonder: Why two biographical movies in a row, both biographies of controversial people, and both in many ways alike? Anyway, that’s not the topic. The topic is “Hair”.

The movie starts with famous opening sequence with the song “Aquarius” and, with it’s mass choreography, takes energy right from the play. But then, dancers step back to give us a chance to see Claude Bukowsky (John Savage of “Deer hunter”), a naive farmboy, summoned to New Your fby army draft, walking through the Central Park. In a charming sequence, he meets a group of hippies lead by Berger (Treat Williams), and minutes after that, a rich heiress Sheila (Beverly D’Angelo, previously rock singer and Hannah-Barbera cartoonist) tackles his inte


Hello and welcome.

I am Srdjan Achimovich, Serbian, EECS student, webcomic artist and I’m led to believe that I’m a nice guy. Either that or they’ve been lying to me all this time.

From now on, I’m going to use this blog to write about various things, movies, music, books, the least of all comics. That’s because I am writing about comics elsewhere, but I don’t really think that my competence in any other area is good enough to make serious (even less, objective) writing. Which means that this blog will be very subjective and, I guess, personal. No, not that kind of personal, I mean that I’m going to put my personal experience of watching/listening/reading something rather than some data or even review.

Grammar in this blog will be flunky. That’s because English is not my first language – my English is good, but for writing in some language flawlessly, you usually have to be more than good. That’s a fair warning to everyone who can’t stand reading text if the grammar is not perfect.

This blog will not be topical. Besides the fact that I often can’t get my hands on newest films and music, I also often don’t have interest to. I’ll rather talk about good old films that you’ve probably forgotten than latest hits.

While we’re at that, I do intend to write mostly about films for now. That’s what my current interests are. Later, I will probably turn to other subjects. I feel that I have to point that I have no official film education other than attending a few workshops (which was long ago anyway).

The blog is named after an old David Bowie song. It’s a sort of a hint, pointer at all pretty things around us, that you sometimes can’t see at first because they’re covered by a layer of dirt. That’s why it’s good to use your nails from time to time.

Most of all, I’ll try to be funny. This blog might end up having three readers, but that’s no reason for those three readers not to have fun.