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.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010


I've undergone a blog-hibernation, these past two months. A necessary thing to do, in order to re-work and re-jig the whole blog enterprise. The original idea was to purely review all films seen, starting with my local international film festival here in Melbourne. In the mad hubbub of trying to pump reviews out for each film viewed at the fest, I started to feel the need to present other musings on things cinematic, to stretch the film-writing legs in other ways. I've decided to kind of start from zero again. I've created a new blog, transferred over the reviews from the old blog, and decided to just start here and now, and see where my musings take me. I will still write on films that I see, but as for how I write on films, I'll see what comes out - I imposed a rigid '250-400 word review' style to the original writings, and I may keep this or this may alter. In other words, it's time to play a little. And, in other words (reprise), after years of incrementally accruing a deepening obsession with cinema, it's time to start communicating, letting thoughts and ideas drift out into the world of cinephilia, make contact.