Monday, 20 December 2010

Hypnagogic interlude

Well, after weeks in the wilderness I'm back, folks. Thing is, I'm all dried up, been too busy to watch anything, haven't watched anything in ages, and feel cinematically-shrivelled. So so so so much to catch up on, film-wise, which kind of feels like the story of my life this year. The list of films released in 2010 that I wanted to see but haven't viewed yet is so large the damn thing nearly has it's own postcode. Sigh.
But...I'm back on, eyes ready and willing for some cinephiliac delight. (Something about that phrase seems oh so wrong. Am I the only person who thinks the word 'cinephile' sounds just a little too perverse? Am I also the only person round here who still uses the word, in a naïve, devil-may-care fashion, while thinking it veers too close to the borders of Wrong Town?)

Being a music fiend as much a film fiend, I was recently distracting myself from my work by playing catch-up with some sounds, via the usual vid-sharing sites. Having been intrigued by the whole Hypnagogic Pop shenanigans going around the past year or two, I was browsing browsing browsing, listening mostly to audio-only uploads to get a sense of various sounds/ acts/ etc. In my vid-sharing meanderings, I stumbled across a handful of music videos that were an awkward mixture of beguiling and odd. For those who may not know, Hypnagogic Pop is a gangly ill-fitting label for a style of music that sounds like some kind of druggy dream of the 80's – it's as if the glossy dayglo sheen of the sleek'n'synthy 80's has been strip-mined and recycled into a psychedelic lo-fi blur. Like being haunted by the dream of a decade, while under the influence. And these music videos look like a hazy and haunted equivalent to the music, chopping up what appears to be old segments from bygone commercials, TV shows, god-knows-what, and applying a film of grainy haze over the top, or making them morph into a gluey mess, or applying the digital rips and tears of mosaic corruption. I found these little visual dollops oddly engrossing, mostly because at times I felt like I was watching a haunted audiovisual archive, images hauling themselves through time, desperately attempting to kickstart back into life. Is it possible to argue that these little beasts are almost like short experimental films? Or am I so starved for cinematic stimulation that I'm inadvertently digging a film-blogging hole for myself?

I'll include a few here, if you're at all interested. If the music makes you want to bark at the screen, then try watching the vids without sound – its more trippy and you might even wish to abuse a substance. I'm onto my fifth packet of M&M's in a row, and I'm beginning to jiggle.

(Yes, this may well be a poor substitute for writing about film, but I'm a bit knackered, so think of this as a light musical interlude. Or just wait patiently for an actual film-related post in a day or two).

1. MATRIX METALS - "Tanning Salon Part Two"

2. DUCKTAILS - "Parasailing"

3. SUN ARAW - "Horse Steppin'"

4. GAMES - "Shadows In Bloom"

5. PARTY TRASH - "Beast"

Friday, 3 December 2010

Stay hooked - Get your fix with short short films!

There is a time in every cinephile's life when things get hectic and flat-out. Too hectic to sit down and watch a full feature film. Yes? No? Surely this happens to other cinema addicts, not just me. Don't you get the cinema-DT's after a few days of not watching a film, that itchy feeling that crawls on your skin when you're hips-deep in work, sprinting to meet deadlines, craving for a morsel of tasty cinema? No? Shit, it must just be me.

I've found that, whilst in the midst of balls-to-the-wall work, there's still little mini-opportunities to assuage the hunger, tide myself over until I can sit back, relax, and nestle myself deep into cine-visual bliss. I love the distraction that YouTube, and all it's little vid-sharing ilk, offer to me – a nostalgia-cornucopia I can delve into whenever I have the hankering to trawl for obscure 80's music videos, old BBC documentaries, or hilarious posts from people who think they've caught a ghost on video. But none of these things satisfy the need to see something, to have your visual senses electrified and sharpened. To feel like you're dipping once more into the historical ocean of cinema.

That's why I like to to take a brief time-out here and there, and watch a short, yet complete, cinematic tidbit, something that keeps the well from drying up. Here's a list of fifteen short films, all under ten minutes long, that I've turned to in the past, recent and not-so-recent, to keep me refreshed. Anytime you're flat-out and need a fix, come to this place, you'll find a good little hit of something flavoursome. Yup, that's me, I'm your film pusher.

1. MOTHLIGHT (Stan Brakhage; USA; 1963)

2. LIGHT IS CALLING (Bill Morrison; USA; 2004)

3. BALANCE (Wolfgang & Christoph Lauerstein; Germany; 1989)

4. DUMB HOUNDED (Tex Avery; USA; 1943)

5. XOLOGOLA (Michael Robinson; USA; 2007)

Xologola from Michael Robinson on Vimeo.

6. SCIENCE FRICTION (Stan Vanderbeek; USA; 1959)

7. SCHWECHATER (Peter Kubelka; Austria; 1958)

8. THE HEART OF THE WORLD (Guy Maddin; Canada; 2000)

9. CARABOSSE (Lawrence Jordan; USA; 1980)

10. ALTAIR (Lewis Klahr; USA; 1995)

11. DUCK AMUCK (Chuck Jones; USA; 1953)

12. 69 (Robert Breer; USA; 1968)

13. DEADSY (David Anderson; UK; 1990)

14.LA FLAMME (Ron Dyens; France; 2000)

15. FREE RADICALS (Len Lye; New Zealand; 1958/1979)

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Snippets of Rocha

TERRA EM TRANSE (Glauber Rocha; Brazil, 1967)

Quick snippets and traces of time spent looking through Rocha's eyes.

Another game of catch-up – this is only my second Rocha film, after viewing Black God, White Devil a number of years ago. My memory of that film is faint now; the story seems to have disappeared, leaving me with the impression of an intense, dazzling, sun-blinding, white that often seemed to consume the whole film, and a smacked-in-the-face feeling of seeing something out of the ordinary. Must re-visit this film soon, to play compare-and-contrast with Terra em Transe.

Lately it's seems that I'm hyper-aware of the visual inauguration of a film, of how the opening scene arrests my attention. The very start of the film is deathly quiet, a silent flight over the sea. The sea seems so unusual, so un-sea-like - tactile, still, soft and smooth. It feels like skin. We meet the coast, tracing the line where sea meets land, then head deep into the mountainous country, seemingly flying into the fictional South American country of Eldorado. Terra em Transe = Earth Entranced. Here, in the beginning, earth (and sea) are entrancing.

The film is often near-bewilderingly hallucinatory. Tumbling flashbacks and exploded chronology make for heady viewing. Point Blank, another wild ride through what feels like a time-looping narrative, was also made in 1967. Must have been something in the water.

The poet caught between switching allegiances from one political side to the other reminds me, for some odd reason, of yet another 1967 film, Miklos Jancsó's The Red and The White. Both films present distinctly different visual auras – the stark and austere choreography of Jancsó's film provides a radically different rhythm to Rocha's dancing, weaving, twirling camera. Yet I can't help feeling some strange kind of similarity inside of the constant ebb and flow of combat, a constant supplanting of one side over the other as the 'winning' side, and the pervasive feeling that both sides seem to be the same. And both films might seem to be cold, (Jancsó's film is sculpted and rigorous, Rocha's is verbose and intellectual), but are really pumping with blood, fired up with the passion of presenting the brutality of combat in a radically new format.

The ending is utterly nuts. Three minutes of the poet, Paolo, seemingly shot and in some trance-like death-throe, holding a gun and moving and gesticulating as if he is performing some kind of interpretative dance to the sound of constant gunfire. Best performance-art mime I've seen in ages.

Monday, 22 November 2010

A Fuller double bill

THE STEEL HELMET (Samuel Fuller; USA; 1950)
FORTY GUNS (Samuel Fuller; USA; 1957)

Watched these back-to-back, to catch up on Fuller, see what all the fuss is about. A war and a western, guns aplenty. I'm curious to see how, or if, one informs the other by seeing them side by side.

World-weariness and melancholy hover like dank clouds over both films. In The Steel Helmet, this world-weariness reflects an inescapability from the vicissitudes of war. Here, war is ceaseless and cyclical. Near-identical shots of soldiers walking to their next skirmish bookend the film. In Forty Guns, there's almost a listless atmosphere, gunfighting-by-numbers. Years before Peckinpah started to paint his melancholic 'demise of the Western' pictures, Fuller divulges a painful self-awareness around the gunfighter, a character all too aware that his profession is becoming an archaic enterprise. “I'm a freak!”, yells the protagonist at his younger brother, attempting to deter him from following his obsolete footsteps. (Clearly Peckinpah must have acknowledged this film as a prototype for his own attitude to Westerns, for he used the lead actor in Forty Guns, Barry Sullivan, in his own 'end-of-an-era' Western Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid).

But melancholy by no means entails limp rhythm and turgid pace. Both films are coiled up tight, ready to spring open and unravel at any moment. In The Steel Helmet, as soldiers are picked off one by one inside a temple, one begins to feel that the temple itself has deceived the soldiers, lulling them into a false sense of security. In Forty Guns, Barbara Stanwyck's brother seems ready to burn up the screen any time he appears, always on the brink of exploding.

Both films love faces. Grimy, steeled, gurning, brutish mugs in the war film, sly smirks and seductive barely-there smiles in the western.

And both films have incredible beginnings. The war film is claustrophobic, the western is panoramic. After the opening credits flash over an image of steel helmet lying on the earth, the helmet moves, a soldier is revealed, he looks furtively around, then crawls frantically forward, camera slowly tracking back to show that he is hand-cuffed and injured. In the western, a horse-drawn cart has its leisurely amble through a valley interrupted by the sound of thunderous hooves, as a swathe of riders surge over the crest of a hill, and swarm past the cart, engulfing it in dust and a deafening rhythmic patter. Both scenes embody their titles straight away, focusing on a steel helmet and forty hired gunfighters respectively, and therefore provide that delicious joy in making the very title of film itself a palpable and sensual component of the cinematic experience.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Re-considering Ben Russell

LET EACH ONE GO WHERE HE MAY (Ben Russell; USA/ Suriname; 2009)

Oh, how it's easy to get it wrong, sometimes. Often the first judgment of a film is reasonably accurate – you know whether the film is going to float into the upper echelons of your Pantheon Of Cinema Masterpieces, or descend into the flaming bowels of Screen Hell. But then sometimes one's judgment is addled, influenced, or off in a corner talking to itself maniacally.

Sometimes I get food rage. If I haven't eaten in a while, and I'm getting crazy-hungry, I become grumpy, loopy, and uncommunicative, all in one go. Pity the poor film that has encountered me when I'm in food-rage-mode. Other times, I've over-indulged on cinema, and the film suffers because I can no longer watch with happy ready-and-waiting eyes. In those moments, I feel jaded and cynical, contemplating my impending and necessary cold-turkey from cinema (maybe go for a run, or read a book, or have a beer, or tape my eyelids shut). And other times again, I just wasn't ready for what I was watching, and got all cross and annoyed for feeling stupid, and therefore got stroppy at the film, when in fact it probably wasn't all that bad.

I'm not sure which brain-fried example suits my experience of viewing Ben Russell's Let Each One Go Where He May about 4 months ago, but I feel like saying 'sorry' to the film now. I was too hard on it initially – I'm usually quite at home inside a film that let's me drift, but for some reason I felt underwhelmed by this film. But the dear wee thing has clung to my memory, yelling “love me!” Over time I've replayed many sequences again and again in my mind, and have found myself almost missing the film, as if I need to be there again. Tracking the movement from place to place of two Surinamese Maroon brothers, (from their home village, to the busy streets of the capital city Paramaribo, via a cramped bus journey, through to various work sites, and finally paddling on a river), the film is composed of thirteen long takes, and each take it exquisitely shot. In my haze when I first saw it, I took the camera-work for granted, but having watched some segments online recently, the movement of the camera is graceful, dynamic, and purposeful. One segment that haunts the memory starts with the camera tracking a path in a quarry, following no-one and nothing except the texture and undulations of the dirt-path itself. After having spent about an hour following the brothers, it's a strange sensation to be left alone on a path, feeling as if you're traversing it yourself. Russell lets this slow meander across the dirt-path last for what feels like three, maybe more, minutes before a worker finally crosses the path and we have someone to follow. In this section, one experiences a moment of encounter unlike any other in cinema.

If I ever get the chance to see this film again, I'm there, with bells and whistles and other bits'n'pieces on. I must remember to eat and sleep before the film, though.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Misty Night, Crystal Day - The Docks of New York

THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK (Josef von Sternberg; USA; 1928)

Von Sternberg had the ability to sculpt sumptuous films from bare-bones narratives. Docks of New York is as basic as it comes. A ship's stoker, with one night on the town before leaving harbour, rescues a suicidal prostitute from drowning; on a whim (drunken for him, forlorn for her) they decide to get married; in the bright light of the next morning, he leaves her, then returns to rescue her again, this time from jail, as he takes the rap for a dress he stole for her. From this wispy story, the film billows and plumes into a magisterial work of art, largely through the use of two elements – atmosphere and facial expression.

There is a deep ambiguity in the faces of the main characters, a kind of evasiveness and unreadability that can remind a viewer of the impenetrability and difficulty in understanding the motives of others. When the stoke and the prostitute sit in a bar, drinking and eating and egging each other on into getting married, it's hard to tell why they are doing this. For Bill, the stoker, his ever-shifting expressions seem to suggest in one moment that he simply wants to bed her, in the next that a declaration of marriage is an act of defiance, in the face of god-knows-what, the next moment he seems genuinely sincere in his love for her. For Mae, the prostitute, it's hard to tell whether she really wants to get married or whether she is going through the motions, confused and exhausted and still feeling as if she has little to live for.

The scenes in the bar fill the screen with the bawdiness of drunken revelry, conveying the fleeting sensation when drunk of being in a heightened state of now where anything is possible and everything is permissible. Again, it's hard to tell the motivations of the drunken throng that cram into the frame to watch the couple getting married – are they genuinely cheering on the marriage, or are their cheers hiding a derisive attitude towards the couple?

An older married couple, Lou and Steve, act as a crystal-ball potential future for Bill and Mae. Far more apart than together, this couple's tragic dissolution embodies all the negative outcomes of a decision made on a whim – ennui, world-weariness, contempt, and hang-dog unhappiness. Again, expressions do not reveal a central truth – when Lou is helping Mae throughout the film, it is hard to tell whether she truly cares about her, wishes her to be happy, of whether she is mocking her, wishing her fate to be exactly as awful as her own. Her laughter appears to be utterly maniacal, as if she has just cursed Mae, yet in a following moment it is as if a genuine hope that things will be better for someone else struggles through her haggard facade. (A little aside – Lou was played by Olga Baclanova, noted for portraying the bad ol' bitchy trapeze artist who gets her ducky comeuppance in Freaks. Thought I recognised the demonic laughing visage from somewhere).

Grime, sweat, and poverty ooze from the pores of this film. The film glistens, with sweat and grime on the countenances of the stokers working in the ship, steam issuing from the ship, mists around the docks at night-time. The dock-side bar is packed with such bustling merrymaking that you can almost smell the stale beer. Bill remains in his wet clothes for so long you begin to feel clammy just looking at him. The room that Bill and Mae stay in, to consummate their marriage, is pockmarked, thread-bare, and spare, with gulls constantly alighting at the sill, acting as visual register for any mood pervading the room (calm for quiet moments, flighty for moments of anger).

Every moment feels as if it has been painted. Choreography and chiaroscuro are the twin engines that fuel the film's forward momentum. We spend so long shrouded in night-time hues that when day breaks, about 45 minutes into the film, the clear light of the morning seems like a sobering, cleansing revelation.

And Sternberg's choice for the final shot is mesmerising – instead of lingering on the protagonists as they part, the camera slides back out of the court, leaving Mae to be swallowed up as just another bystander in court, surrounded by the motion and friction of the continuation of daily life. This ending makes you feel as if it is not just their story anymore, but that the saga of quick feelings, conflicting emotions, flash decisions, self-serving motives, strained hope, and humble atonement, continues before, after, and around the film.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Revenge of the Nerd

THE SOCIAL NETWORK (David Fincher; USA; 2010)

(Yes, I know the pic is not from the Fincher film. This is not some discarded out-take where Eisenberg and Garfield test a prototype of a mobile Facebook robot. Although, that does sound kind of cool....)

I've left this film to brew for a bit, let it percolate a little in the brain, because my response to it has left me perplexed. I wasn't going to write anything at all on this – my feeling was “its been discussed to death, just leave it be.” But here I am, adding my ten cents. Dum de dum.

Immediately after first viewing, it ticked “yes, its great” boxes. Loved the whip-crack delivery of dialogue, not quite Altmanesque-overlaps, but tumbling, cascading, speeding forth, a tumult of words akin to Web 2.0 info-barrage. Loved recognising the familiar Fincher hues, a dulled world of greys and browns. Enjoyed performances that exceeded expectations (Jesse Eisenberg's faux haughtiness, Andrew Garfield's incrementally wounded soul, Justin Timberlake's hyper-mouthed bullshit artist).

But, I'm in agreement with a recent post on Zach Campbell's blog – the film could be about so many different things, so what is it saying?

Essentially, it has the framework of a nerd-revenge film. Boy gets dumped, boy gets rejected by peers, boy wreaks revenge through the power of computing. In 1984, Revenge of the Nerds set a bench-mark, of sorts, for the nerd-revenge film. A couple of nerds get rejected by their peers at university, they band together with other rejects, form their own social network of misfits, get revenge on jocks and jockettes (??) through liniment-on-jockstrap hilarity and panty-raids, and finally beat the jocks at the campus talent show by being a pseudo-Devo party band. The film ends by suggesting we're all nerds, cos we've all experienced being picked on at some stage in our life. The film is cheesier than the biggest wheel of Camembert, but it's hard to hate a film that starts with two lonely nerds who then end up finding camaraderie within a much larger social network.

In Fincher's film we have a sole neo-nerd, who also dabbles in computer wizardry, but never finds his nerd-fraternity. We never see a social network grow, we never see any real sense of true camaraderie. He gets his revenge, but it's a pyrrhic victory. The title is ironic (nooo, really?) – there is no social network in the film, just fragmented relationships, fake friendships, isolated islands (in the lawyer-meeting scenes, Eisenberg and Garfield are most often depicted alone in the frame). So, we're being told that modern social networks for the Web 2.0 generation promote loneliness, falsity, and a lack of depth, of true connection. Hmm.

Revenge of the Nerds, in it's 1984 format, could simply never exist in 2010. Mostly because people wouldn't get the Devo reference.

Sunday, 7 November 2010


PONY GLASS (Lewis Klahr; USA; 1997)

 “You can tell there is a story but can't always tell what the details are” - Lewis Klahr

When I was a teenager, I took an art history class at high school. Instead of listening to classes on Renaissance Art or Romanticism, I was always flicking to the section of the textbook that focused on the weird and wonderful art movements of the 20th century. One the pictures that always struck a chord with me was Richard Hamilton's photomontage, Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? There was something about this image (see below), seemingly cobbled together from pieces of magazines, that evoked a sense of mystery and wonder. I loved that a sense of cohesion could be harnessed from a plethora of fragments, and how this cohesion made the collaged home feel conventional, yet belied it's true surreal character. OK, I also liked this image because I was a teenager and it had a nude woman in it.

I never had the nous to wonder what Hamilton's image would be like if it moved, but the first time I saw Lewis Klahr's work I was reminded of Hamilton's photomontage, and shazam, there's the segue between the two right there.

I've only had the opportunity to see four of Klahr's pieces so far, but that's enough for me to pronounce his work as utterly fascinating. If' you've never had the chance to see his films, then check out Pony Glass and Altair here. His works are entirely composed of fragments of magazine ads and comics, usually culled from sources from the 50's and 60's, pieced together to create elliptical narratives that usually riff on genres such as melodrama and film noir. It is the employment of these stereotypical mid-twentieth pop cultural genres that infuses Klahr's work with a sense of faux nostalgia, a melancholic resonance borne from an awareness that these images are culled from the ever-growing pile of detritus from the pop cultural past.

This is not to say that the films I've seen by Klahr are not humorous. There are many incongruous juxtapositions of images and odd moments that easily garner a smile. A character walks past a wall-paper composed of repeated images of 'appealing dinners'; a cocktail-party-attired couple crash from side to side inside a large cocktail jug; a woman sitting on cork shoots off into space. Although narratives are loosely infused into each film, essentially the movement of Klahr's work derives from evocative soundtracks (Stravinsky's Firebird Suite in Altair, Sinatra and Paul Robeson in Pony Glass) and the continual use of objects as impenetrable, mysterious hieroglyphics.

I'm not sure if I'm prepared to play favourites and choose one Klahr work as the best, but Pony Glass is certainly a work that sticks in the mind more than the others I've seen. It has the strongest sense of narrative, and a clearly delineated pop-cultural protagonist in the form of 'Superman's pal' Jimmy Olsen. Presented in three movements, what we see is the tragic fall of Jimmy Olsen, spiraling into chaos and insanity as he re-assigns his gender identification and his gender preference. Jimmy Olsen is transformed by Klahr into a neurotic, sad figure, seemingly prone to depression and confusion. He becomes the classic tragic figure a la ancient Greek tragedy. Like Agamemnon, he is a man whose fate seems to be preordained and inescapable, (he even visits a clairvoyant, who conjures up images of cross-dressing), yet he remains in control of his actions, allowing them to feed into his fate.

Jimmy Olsen is an odd, malleable character in the comic-book pantheon, enduring an array of odd transformations (briefly having an elastic body, being a nazi war hero, and, yes, on many occasions, cross-dressing – if you don't believe me, check it out here.) Klahr toys with this malleability, creating a 'what if?' scenario by pushing Olsen's superhero-worship into state where his repressed emotions unleash themselves and irrevocably alter his identity. But malleability also refers to painful self-awareness, as it almost seems as if the cut-out version of Jimmy Olsen is aware of it's status as a re-used fragment from pop-culture's past. Part of the plaintive tone lies in the (self)recognition of 'dead' images being re-animated and re-modeled.

I'm curious to know if anyone else has seen Klahr, likes him, doesn't like him so much, has a favourite film by Klahr, etc.

Some Klahr info online:

Pony Glass and Altair are currently viewable on the ol' interweb.

Fred Camper wrote about Klahr in the Chicago Reader

There's an old article/ interview from 2000 via Village Voice.

David Bordwell wrote on Klahr in 2006.

Interviews at Rotterdam Film Festival and at Dispatch.

And, some brief info from Wexner Center for the Arts (Ohio State University), for a retrospective of Klahr's work in May earlier this year.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

On forgetting (and odd little notes)

I was hoping to see a couple of Lubitsch films tonight, at a retrospective season of some of his older films at Melbourne Cinematheque tonight. But, illness has got the better of me, and I'm home resting, finding solace in watching short clips of films online and browsing through books. In my meanderings, I stumble upon an old journal that I used to record scribbly little jottings about films viewed at home, written either during or after I watched them. I can usually tell the difference between the furious rambles during a film session and the quieter reflections after a film - the former is nearly unintelligible, and the latter is usually to the tune of "great/ average/ crap film, but I'm too tired to write so I'm going to bed." No, not entirely true - amongst the frantic inky scratches are some occasional nuggets that help to jog the memory. A little note here or there and I'm nearly, never always but NEARLY, drawn back into a full recollection of the film.

The thing that really surprised me, when flicking through these notes, was a terrifying percentage of films that I simply cannot remember seeing. It's not that these films were alarmingly bad, and I don't think I fell asleep through these films - you always remember the films you fall asleep in. But for some reason, they just didn't stick. A date jotted down on one page shows that I watched Gaslight on 25 April 2009. Really? You could have fooled me, because I am desperately opening all the cupboards, doors, and caskets in my mind and I cannot remember a single frame of this film. My hilariously inept notes are strikingly unhelpful, too. Most of the mad scribbles look like the work of a drunkard - the only cogent line I can make out is "Get a grip, you silly woman". Oh, and the last line asks the question "is Joseph Cotten's ear pierced?!" What the hell?

It seems I watched Rene Clair's Le Million about three or so years ago. No notes (such a shame, the notes for Gaslight were so informative) but just a date and the name of the film. Funnily enough, after some intense furrowing of the brow, I can remember one little fragment of this film - a sports commentary being played as a chase scene is comically portrayed as of rugby? Am I right, or going bonkers because I'm feeling ill?

The other funny feeling that comes up about Le Million; I struggle to remember having seen the film but I DO recall enjoying the film. It's as if the emotional residue around the film has remained alive whereas the actual memory of the film itself has been misfiled somewhere.

In my headachey stupor, I initially felt a bit downcast at my inability to remember seeing these films. "Everyone else remembers the films they see, why can't I?", I inwardly moaned to myself, like a whiney little kid. But, really, forgetting is just as crucial as remembering, for forgetting can give us the impetus to re-visit and re-view films seen and lost. I've made a smallish list of films I've seen in the past ten years and can barely remember, a list titled "To Re-View". There, a list, that makes me feel better.

(Oh, dear lord, another list. How many million films does that make it now?)

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Some small moments of horror

Halloween holds no sway here in Australia – no trick-or-treating, no scary films on TV (although the local reality talent(less) show X-Factor is on tonight, that's pretty horrifying). Nevertheless, I thought I'd weigh in with a brief list of - oh yeah, you smarty, you guessed it! - horror films.
This isn't a 'top ten of all-time' thing, or even a list of best scariest scenes. I thought I'd just offer a handle of moments from horror films that are just a little sublime. The scenes are not necessarily chosen because they offer the best frights, but because they look good, feel unusual, hold a visual and/ or textual richness that sticks in the memory.

  1. MESSIAH OF EVIL (Willard Huyck/ Gloria Katz; USA; 1971)

A highly unusual horror with a swag of well-crafted visual moments, the passage that grabbed me the most is right near the start, and repeated briefly near the end, book-ending the film. A female voice-over tells of her incarceration in a mental asylum, due to her experiences with the locals at Point Dune. Her resonant voice, almost echoey, talks of how these locals are after her, waiting 'at the edge of the city' (the idea of something dreadful gathering at the periphery of the city ushers a quietly rich sense of perilous doom). While we hear the voice, we see a brightly-lit corridor, so completely filled with white light that it is impossible to tell whether it is night from day. It becomes a corridor outside of time and space, a meta-corridor, reminiscent of Ernie Gehr's corridor in Serene Velocity. A diaphanous figure walks slowly down this over-lit passage, getting closer but never distinct, as the light constantly drowns her. Utterly arresting, as the brightness of light is as haunting and the morbid goings-on at night.

  1. PULSE (Kiyoshi Kurosawa; Japan; 2001)

For me, the smartest and eeriest of all J-Horror films. The moment when a young man enters a room sealed off with red tape is creepy as, hell. Kurosawa paints the gloomiest room possible – drab, greyish-brown, and shadows that engulf the man as he slowly steps forward. He turns, we see a woman standing at the far side of the room and walks slowly. Yes, there was an over-abundance of 'Scary Ghostly Women In Black Dresses' in J-Horror, but the odd walk of this version makes her distinctly unnerving. It's a slow-motion stride, faltering at one point, as if learning to walk again for the first time. As we learn in the film that ghosts may be infiltrating the planet through the internet, this visual represents a new cinema-ghost, the ghost-as-computer-virus, flickering and stuttering itself into life.

  1. INFERNO (Dario Argento; Italy; 1980)

Often ignored in favour of Suspiria, this film is an utterly surreal journey. The scene, near the beginning of the film, where the female lead explores a cellar underneath an antique shop is extremely odd. Discovering a hole, which reveals a room submerged in water, she dives in retrieve a set of keys. It's this water-filled room, filled with ominously half-open doors and replete with mouldy furniture and carpet, that makes you feel is if the world has suddenly turned upside down, as well as the additionally disquieting feeling of getting further and further away from the reality of the city street above.

  1. CARRIE (Brian de Palma; USA; 1976)

The scene where Carrie unleashes her powers at the high school ball, after being drenched in blood, is powerful not because of the visceral fury of her wrath, but because her pyscho-kinetic powers seem to suddenly rupture the very fabric of the film itself. Split-screens multiply and trail across the screen like psychic organisms, and you wonder if the surface of the screen can possibly contain the energy she is about to emit.

  1. DAWN OF THE DEAD (George A. Romero; USA; 1978)

As the four protagonists view the world from their helicopter, they spy some military vehicles and a bunch of rednecks a-shootin' and a-huntin' out in the rural parts. Then we're down with these folk, and suddenly the film turns into a faux documentary, simply observing the camaraderie of these people. They talk happily, chow down on some food, sip coffee, crack open beers, relaxing against cars and trucks, taking photos of each other. For a moment or two, you totally forget this is a zombie film – excise this moment out of the film and watch it context-free and BAM you've got some hunters just shooting the breeze, nothing more. Then a casual “hey, behind you” and we see some zombies stumble into view, but they're casually picked off. And then some more turn up, and they're casually picked off. It's the odd sense of the quotidian nestled within a zombie-apocalypse that I really enjoy - this here zombie-thing is treated as 'normal', assimilated already as just another part of life. Beer, food, guns, huntin', and uhhhh zombies. Yup.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

A bit of Bava before Halloween

BLACK SUNDAY/ THE MASK OF SATAN  (Mario Bava; Italy; 1960)

Horror around Halloween? How obvious. My only comeback is that I thought I was grabbing Black God, White Devil off the university library shelf - I was hankering to re-view Rocha's masterpiece, but it seems the spirits have something else in store for me. Ooooooooo. Bwah hahaaa. Etc.

Actually, I had Bava's film lined up to watch for ages, for two reasons. 1). It's on a list I feel compelled to conquer (ahh, film lists, the blood of my movie obsession, the bane of my anally-retentive tendencies). 2). Unlocking the Barbara Steele mystique. The images for this film have haunted me for years - Ms Steele with he big googly eyes, pierced face, staring straight at you as if she is about to claim your silly little cinema-loving soul. Fortunately, her hilarious ham-acting in Shivers un-did a lot of the tension regards her eerie screen presence - her ridiculous heavy petting moment when she hisses "kisskisskisskisskisskissssss" cracked me up. Now I just need to see a bit more ham from the film that generates the "Creepy Big-Eyed Barbara" mystique and I'll be fine.

If the plot is fairly standard and creaky, then at least the film is interesting to look at. The film is most memorable for its stark monochromatic look - blackest of blacks and sharp angular white. Monochrome is crucial, for the camera often drifts into cavernous dark nooks and crannies, immersing us in chills of sheers darkness. The film emits cold.

Best of all is that sense of mapping that cinema sometimes elicits, where characters move one way, and the camera tracks back to where we just were a moment ago. Early in the film, two doctors stumble upon the tomb holding the witchy and apparently deceased Ms Steele. As they travel away from the tomb in their carriage, the camera lingers briefly on their exit, then starts to gently move back to the path they came from, moving down the path towards the black opening in the tomb, the size of the blackness getting larger and larger as we approach the tomb again. You have the awful sense, just for a moment, of having been left behind, left with the blackness and impending doom.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

An evening with Lubitsch

SCHUPALAST PINKUS (Ernst Lubitsch; Germany; 1916)
ONE HOUR WITH YOU (Ernst Lubitsch; USA; 1932)

I've found every film that I've seen by Lubitsch to be utterly beguiling, which is why it feels odd to have viewed so few of his films. Prior to seeing Schupalast Pinkus and One Hour With You, I had only viewed 5 Lubitsch films, and Schupalast Pinkus was the inaugural viewing of a silent Lubitsch film. Dear Lord, the growing list of playing cinema-catch-up gets ever longer.

Schupalast Pinkus depicts the rise of the hero, Sally Pinkus, from cheeky and disorderly school-boy to a wealthy and successful businessman. Success does not come from tenacity, persistence, and hard work, but from happily and haphazardly pursuing one's own interests, and for Sally this means idleness and pursuing women. The surprise, and the delight, in seeing this film is watching Lubitsch as a young actor, grinning his way through the role of the proto-slacker Pinkus. His comedic style is not necessarily masterly, but it's effective, cheeky, and charming. His face reels off a vast array of gurning expressions, silly grins, bug-eyes, and an unusual yet hilarious predilection for poking out his tongue, done as a gesture of taking pleasure in his own audacity. As an actor, he has a knack for making simple moments amusing, such as a impudent gleeful expression he has when arriving late to class then climbing over his class-mates to get his seat in the front, or cheating at vaulting over a pommel-horse by running under it. It almost feels reassuring or heartening to know that Lubitsch's gift for directing comedy stemmed from his own gift in playing comedic roles.

I haven't seen Lubitsch's earlier silent work The Marriage Circle, from which One Hour With You is the musical version, made 8 years later, but I will hasten to view it after having seen the latter. It's interesting how an opinion of a actor can change due to one film. After viewing Love Me Tonight a while ago, I honestly didn't know what to make of Maurice Chevalier's cheerfully lecherous demeanour. Yet, in One Hour With You, he makes sense to me now. He's no longer gleefully seedy, but brash, playful, gallant, merry, and irrepressibly lusty. What helps his cause is the direct addresses to the camera, winning us over by including us in his world and even wooing us with directly-addressed song, asking repeatedly what we would do in his place.

To watch Lubitsch is to also listen, to bask in a cascade of intelligent, jaunty dialogue, delivered without pretension but with grace and sprightly ease. Every Lubitsch always seems to reveal a swathe of superb lines, so many that the viewer struggles to recall any of them by the film's end. I'm wondering if a little book could be made, replete solely with quotes from Lubitsch's films – although this would defeat the impact of the lines, for the richness also lies in the delivery, often deadpan and with a gentle natural rhythm that embeds the humour deep within the moment.

I missed a third film by Lubitsch (these were all showing in the one evening, at a season of screenings at Melbourne Cinematheque). I stayed for the first 5 minutes of his 1918 silent costume drama Carmen, because I was determined to at least see some part of this film, but had to leave due to work commitments. As I always hope in moments like this, some time in the future I'll get the chance to see this in full.

I want more. I feel a Lubitsch-athon coming on.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Straub/ Huillet on the small small screen (and buffering)

TOO EARLY, TOO LATE (Jean-Marie Straub/ Daniele Huillet, Germany, 1981)

Holy shit, Straub and Huillet are on YouTube. Now, I'd much rather see this film on the big screen, or at the very least, on my dodgy yet trusty smaller screen sitting on top of my cabinet. But laptop viewing will happily suffice considering I thought I was going to have to sell an internal organ in order to see one of their films. OK, there's some sniffing out there re: watching films via the web. I don't sniff. It's all down to access. I REALLY wanted to see this film, and 11 chunky segments on ol' Youtube will just have to shake it for now.
Are you allowed to say you've seen a film if it's via the net? Well, yeah, why not? I still palpably felt something when I was watching Too Early, Too Late, felt the frisson of seeing something different, unusual, stimulating - to start the film by ceaselessly going around and around and around a roundabout, minutes of ceaseless circling as a tract by Engels about the plight of poor peasants is recited in halting English, now that just grabbed me by the lapels and shook me. This was not just a landscape film, rotating around rural and urban locations in France and Egypt, but also a field recording of ambient buzz, hum, chatter. Birds chattering, children playing, men chatting in one section. Beeps, honks, city-drones in another. I plugged in my headphones and just listened to the sounds, imagining this was some found fragment of radio documentary from the haunted-media past.
I loved how the recited text slowly started to disappear as the film progressed, how the camera slowly moved to stasis, after ceaselessly roving about in circles, everything dropping away to reveal the simple awe of being present in an environment.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

The joy of sprocket-holes

OUTER SPACE (Peter Tscherkassky; Austria; 1999)

For some reason, I simply cannot get enough of Tscherkassky's work lately. Especially Outer Space. At a time when impending Halloween brings out the horror-film connoisseur in all/ some/ only-me of us, it seems apt to be obsessed with this film - not simply because this is a creative mauling of an 80's horror film (The Entity), but because when this film truly fires up it almost feels as if the film is eating itself, ripping itself apart in an attempt to mutate and create something utterly new. It's like a celluloidal-mirror to the doppelganger-monster in John Carpenter's The Thing - malleability of flesh is akin to the malleability of cinema itself, mimicked and torn asunder to create new film-flesh.

And it's not simply the violence of the film churning itself up, tearing itself, spitting itself back out, but the SOUND. This film is a sound poem as much as a visually brutal assault. From quiet nervous glitches and flickering pocks, to increasing stutters, then the sound seems to drop away, the calm before the storm. Then all furious hell breaks loose, as shrieks, shattered windows, yelps, battered incidental music, and other crashing sounds seem to fold over and over, creating a layered, bewildering cacophony. The film now has it's own life (I've been tempted on more than one occasion to holler, in my best Dr. Frankenstein impersonation, "it's alive, aliiive!", just at this point in the film, but have suppressed the urge for fear of my girlfriend thinking I am utterly film-fanatically demented).

The startling revelation is when the strip of film seems to unspool itself, and we see a strobing epileptic frenzy of sprocket holes, the strip of film appearing to weave over and on top of itself, wavering from side to side across the frame. This is cinema at it's most naked, the joyful shock of sprocket-holes signalling the medium stripped bare. The images all but disappear, leaving just a negative-imaged trail of weaving sprocket-holes, weaving across the screen like a set of lines in a Len Lye film. (The joy of seeing sprocket-holes also reminds me of Tex Avery's Dumb-hounded, when a cartoon character skids right out of the strip of film, enters the white limbo of non-film, and scrambles like mad to run back into the film-strip).

For me, this film feels like cinema is dying and being born at the same time, and it does this with such force and vigour that you're not left feeling depleted and bereft at the end, but elated and poised for more. It's here, if you're hankering to see to it.

Thursday, 21 October 2010


Earlier this year I watched the third part of Raymond Depardon's Profils Paysans series, La Vie Moderne. Having read about this film in Film Comment's report on Cannes in 2008, I was very eager to see this documentary. I loved the meandering style Depardon employed in this film, travelling from one farm to the next in rural France, interviewing farmers that he has grown to know very well over the course of his project (the first Profils Paysans was released in 2001, and Depardon had been filming his subjects for a number of years prior to it's release). The film starts with the camera as a car, travelling gently through a narrow winding road, to approach his first interviewee, and this slow drive through the countryside is a recurring motif throughout the film, marking a visual map that connects all of the farmers Depardon visits, and conducting the pace of the film, languid and slightly melancholic.(It also provides a kind of visual-twin to Kiarostami's many 'view-from-a-vehicle' shots). The film is pervaded with the feeling that the livelihood of the farmers is becoming increasingly more difficult, that the traditional profession of farming is dying and there are no younger heirs to continue the tradition. This is often revealed not through the simple and gentle conversations that Depardon conducts with his farmers, but through their silences, the moments where they look into the distance, reflecting, pondering.

I had the fortune of viewing four more films by Depardon recently (well four feature-length films, and one short ten-minute film, Quoi de Neuf au Garet?, to be precise). Due to prior commitments, I missed the first of the Profils Paysans,(L'Approche), plus Depardon's Direct Cinema-influenced documentary of the 1974 presidential campaign of Valery Giscard d'Estaing, 1974, Une partie de campagne. As is always the case when missing rare opportunities to see films not readily available on DVD, etc, I was somewhat downhearted at missing them, and they have been added to the ever-growing pile of 'maybe-someday-our-paths-might-cross' films. (There could be a whole future post on films missed and am waiting to see again).

But seeing the rest of the films made up for what I missed out on. Watching the second chapter of Profils Paysans, entitled Le Quotidien, after having seen the third, allowed me to see how the themes that permeated La vie moderne were already fully in place. (I've just realised that when I get to see L'Approche, I will have seen this trilogy backwards. I wonder if all trilogies should be viewed backwards, just to see what new flavours can be evoked?) Mortality, both of the traditional farming industry and of the farmers themselves, is at the heart of Le Quotidien, with the film starting with the funeral of one the farmers profiled in the first chapter. Yet, it's too easy to focus on the melancholy of the possible death of this way of life, and the impending demise of these elderly farmers, as the film also evokes a sense of determined survival. Spartan, functional, timeless living spaces, the fleshy maps of history on farmers' faces, and the panoramic vistas of French hillsides, all make for a visually delightful film. It's in these alluring shots that Depardon's vocation as a photographer comes to the fore – you can feel the energy of a shot being composed, as if at any moment the movement will stop and we are left with a snapshot frozen in time.

Les Annees Declic is an intriguing autobiography, with Depardon talking about his childhood and development as a photographer. He does this by having a camera directed upon his face, viewing photographs that mark a chronology of his life and experiences, and another camera directed upon the photos. The film simply cuts between him staring down and talking about his life, and the photos that trigger these memories. Shot in black and white, it feels unusual and yet oddly warm to see the director become the subject, staring quietly, for example, at a photo of his parents, lost in his own thoughts. Similar to the Profils Paysans, loneliness pervades the film, with Depardon reminiscing about lost friends and deceased family, but again the idea of survival comes up, with Depardon revealing to the camera at the end that art, images, photography, and film sustain him, that this is his family. The intensity with which Depardon wishes to say this is remarkable – the last photo is discussed, and Depardon appears to wrap up his autobiography. He then yells to someone off-camera to stop, and not to cut the film. He then delivers his final statement, revealing how his mother has died during the filming, and how the concept of family is maintained via photography, and who knows where it will take him tomorrow, the next day, etc. He delivers this with such passion, that the drop of clear saliva that hangs on his lip becomes an embodied coda to represent his fervour for images.

Depardon's two films on the exigencies of criminal law, The 10th District Court: Moments of Trial and Delits Flagrants, are perhaps the most compelling of all his films. The style and mood are a little different – they both feel a lot like a Wiseman film, the camera quietly observing moments in court (the first film), and all the moments that lead up to the actual trial in court (the second film). Delits Flagrants makes you wonder what will happen next to these people who are interviewed by lawyers, magistrates, court officials – will their refusal to admit to any wrongdoing make them come unstuck in court?Will they go to jail, Will they get off with a fine? You want to know what happens next, but the 'next' never comes, there's never any trial on display in this film, just continual build-up with no release. Depardon keeps layering more and more interviews, one after the other, as if to highlight the ceaseless nature of crime and prosecution. It's fascinating to watch one prolonged and significant segment of the film, viewing several interviews with a woman who has been arrested for stealing a vehicle, and seeing her go from initially admitting that she stole the car, to steadily concocting cover stories as she realises how serious her situation might become. Drug-fuelled bravado and bluster is incrementally eroded over the course of three interviews covering ten minutes, to show a fragile desparate not to go to prison. Moments of Trial is almost entirely set in court, and almost always in close-up, often simply cutting from a close-up of the magistrate to a close-up of the accused, with intermittent shots of lawyers, either prosecuting or defending. What is fascinating to watch here is the art of performance and improvisation, either from the person accused, often for minor offences, or from the lawyers. Those on trial become consummate storytellers, and the lawyers prosecuting or defending deliver their piece with all the gravitas of a orator, even though both accused and lawyers seem comical in the improvised speeches they deliver.

From seeing these films together, Depardon has leapt from 'unknown' to 'respected' in an instant. The fact that his films appear to be difficult to obtain makes the chase to view more of his films all the more compelling.

Here's a interview with Depardon in Artforum, from 2001, and here's a later interview in 2005 in Cinema Scope. Depardon is apparently at work on a new film, hopefully ready by next year.