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 a....game 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?)