MELANCHOLIA OR VON TRIER’S SILENCE

   

The following article was published in N-SPHERE January 2012 issue.

 

There are some crossroads where Melancholia and Antichrist meet. One of them is the beginning. Both films contain long and beautifully crafted opening scenes depicting the idea of downfall. In Antichrist there is “The Fall of Man” and in Melancholia there is a planet hitting Earth. In both films there are two environments: one that is more populated or plain familiar and another one that is isolated and sometimes menacing. But whereas Antichrist is disturbing and violent, Melancholia is quiet and cold. And it is this coldness that worked, in my opinion, in the film’s f(l)avor.

Truth being told, von Trier never really tried to be convenient or bothered to give his audience hope or true relief. However, one may argue that Dancer in the Dark or Dogville are actually quite convenient. Well, yes and no. They may be convenient by means of using the same strategy of “stomach punches”, but if you leave aside their “less-obvious meanings” (which also may turn out to be “less-possible” and definitely “less-interesting” since obviously they are underdeveloped), they are not that convenient either.
Returning to Melancholia vs. Antichrist, I said that one of the differences of the former is the film’s coldness. Most films that deal with the same or a similar subject of matter have the tendency of stuffing the material either with useless and annoying love-stories or with excessive (pseudo-?)philosophical content. But if/when something like this really happens, I doubt that the people will have time or find any use for such things. Here, there is a delicious anti-symmetry between the end as “playground” (love-stories, puppies and philosophies) and “the playground” as the end. Because the end in Melancholia is not really a theme, but a simple event. There are no deeper truths to be shared verbally; there are sad goodbyes, no hope and no real interest regarding it. The focus is maintained on what lies beneath.

There is another director I can think of who might have chosen the same path: Ingmar Bergman. Actually, one may find a strong bergmanian nuance throughout the whole picture. Coldness aside, one could notice it in the way the characters interact with one another. There is that type of bitterness and disgust which is also present in many of Bergman’s films. They may seem to be more cheerful and colourful, but, beyond that, they are empty and alien. In both cases, there is something familiar which is torn apart, mask by mask. The difference is that Bergman’s films are more talkative and somewhat more academic, while Melancholia isn’t. The dialogues here are pretty common, even the ones which are to depict revolt or anger. Because Melancholia is not about revolt or anger, but about acceptance. Justine doesn’t try to create feeble illusions; seeing the end is near, she decides to face it. And, again, there are the mirrors of Antichrist: one world mirroring the other.

Like in Antichrist, the first “world” (layer) handles the immediate, common events/aspects and the second, the underlining ones. The immediate aspects in this case revolve around the wedding and Justine’s apparent “depression”. And since I have mentioned something about “the end” as playground and the playground as “the end”, Justine’s wedding illustrates the second one. Beyond appearances, there is nothing about this event even remotely related to what we know about weddings. On the one hand, it is joyless and unpleasant from one end to another. On the other hand, it doesn’t bind together two people. It seems to be doing the latter but only on a surface, formal level. It is nothing more than a cleansing process. Justine is not depressed, but she realizes the futility of such a communion. Also, there is an interesting contrast about the two intimate scenes: with the husband and with her future work colleague. The first is involving, but ends with her refusal and the second one is spontaneous and cold, almost like leaving something behind, something you won’t really need anymore. In the first case, due to the involvement, the act itself cannot take place, letting it take place would be a lie, because Justine would have to submit to someone feeding him the idea that they belong together. It is an act of false imprisonment. The second one worked, because it is an act of relief, underneath what is seen, there is nothing. It looks gratuitous because there are no other intentions and somehow it reflects both the environment and her reactions to that environment. Expensive weddings cannot replace authentic feelings.

Many people connect Justine’s actions from the wedding to what happens after. I believe otherwise: I believe that those actions had nothing to do with any further events, that she came to a point in which she realized that every of those little things people feed her are not of any help or truth. Once you know this, once you have seen it, you can’t un-see it or act like you did not know it.

There is another interesting aspect: throughout the years, many critics/movie-goers have accused Lars von Trier’s movies of being misogynistic. Amusingly, however, in most of his films, it is the female characters that have the courage to stand up for what they believe in or to be true to themselves. Have you ever seen a notable von Trier film since Breaking the Waves (except Idioterne, which I think is anything but notable) in which a male character stands out? Cause I, for one, haven’t.

Both Melancholia and Antichrist are clear examples of what I said earlier: the male characters are artificial, cowardly. There is nothing authentic in any of them. In Antichrist He tries to “help” her in the most uninspired and academic way possible and in Melancholia, Claire’s husband uses a similar approach to console his wife but ends up committing suicide.

Returning to the anti-symmetries, in the second half there is “the end” as playground. And there is not much to be said here that wasn’t already covered. We learn that Justine “knows things”. Again, neither von Trier, nor Justine try to be too convincing. Other directors might have chosen otherwise. There is a tendency of believing that, when you put something like this into the mix, you have to back it up somehow, in this case maybe to turn the Justine’s character into some sort of psychic or anything else related, but that would have been just like organizing a rich wedding when you don’t have who to really wed. Yes, we have seen this work in movies and we indulge in believing that this happens in reality as well. But it never does. When someone holds such a gift and is aware of it, one doesn’t bother to convince others about it: simply trying would mean missing the whole point and missing the whole point means that you are not really that aware of that gift.

There is also another layer in the film, one consisting on the images. They are not random, but are closely related to what was previously said, or the other way around.

This movie doesn’t try to be preachy, just like Antichrist did not try to shock (although, admittedly, there were some gratuitous sequences the movies would have worked better without, at least in my opinion) and just like Justine doesn’t try to explain her actions too much, nor does she try to parade over who she is, von Trier never makes a clear attempt to “sell” his films or to really react over the detractors’ criticisms.

…and so the ship sails on…

by Shade

photo | Melancholia. 2011. Movie still

Full article here.

 

There are some crossroads where Melancholia and Antichrist meet. One of them is the beginning. Both films contain long and beautifully crafted opening scenes depicting the idea of downfall. In Antichrist there is “The Fall of Man” and in Melancholia there is a planet hitting Earth. In both films there are two environments: one that is more populated or plain familiar and another one that is isolated and sometimes menacing. But whereas Antichrist is disturbing and violent, Melancholia is quiet and cold. And it is this coldness that worked, in my opinion, in the film’s f(l)avor.

 

Truth being told, von Trier never really tried to be convenient or bothered to give his audience hope or true relief. However, one may argue that Dancer in the Dark or Dogville are actually quite convenient. Well, yes and no. They may be convenient by means of using the same strategy of “stomach punches”, but if you leave aside their “less-obvious meanings” (which also may turn out to be “less-possible” and definitely “less-interesting” since obviously they are underdeveloped), they are not that convenient either.

 

Returning to Melancholia vs. Antichrist, I said that one of the differences of the former is the film’s coldness. Most films that deal with the same or a similar subject of matter have the tendency of stuffing the material either with useless and annoying love-stories or with excessive (pseudo-?)philosophical content. But if/when something like this really happens, I doubt that the people will have time or find any use for such things. Here, there is a delicious anti-symmetry between the end as “playground” (love-stories, puppies and philosophies) and “the playground” as the end. Because the end in Melancholia is not really a theme, but a simple event. There are no deeper truths to be shared verbally; there are sad goodbyes, no hope and no real interest regarding it. The focus is maintained on what lies beneath.

 

There is another director I can think of who might have chosen the same path: Ingmar Bergman. Actually, one may find a strong bergmanian nuance throughout the whole picture. Coldness aside, one could notice it in the way the characters interact with one another. There is that type of bitterness and disgust which is also present in many of Bergman‘s films. They may seem to be more cheerful and colourful, but, beyond that, they are empty and alien. In both cases, there is something familiar which is torn apart, mask by mask. The difference is that Bergman‘s films are more talkative and somewhat more academic, while Melancholia isn’t. The dialogues here are pretty common, even the ones which are to depict revolt or anger. Because Melancholia is not about revolt or anger, but about acceptance. Justine doesn’t try to create feeble illusions; seeing the end is near, she decides to face it. And, again, there are the mirrors of Antichrist: one world mirroring the other.

 

Like in Antichrist, the first “world” (layer) handles the immediate, common events/aspects and the second, the underlining ones. The immediate aspects in this case revolve around the wedding and Justine’s apparent “depression”. And since I have mentioned something about “the end” as playground and the playground as “the end”, Justine’s wedding illustrates the second one. Beyond appearances, there is nothing about this event even remotely related to what we know about weddings. On the one hand, it is joyless and unpleasant from one end to another. On the other hand, it doesn’t bind together two people. It seems to be doing the latter but only on a surface, formal level. It is nothing more than a cleansing process. Justine is not depressed, but she realizes the futility of such a communion. Also, there is an interesting contrast about the two intimate scenes: with the husband and with her future work colleague. The first is involving, but ends with her refusal and the second one is spontaneous and cold, almost like leaving something behind, something you won’t really need anymore. In the first case, due to the involvement, the act itself cannot take place, letting it take place would be a lie, because Justine would have to submit to someone feeding him the idea that they belong together. It is an act of false imprisonment. The second one worked, because it is an act of relief, underneath what is seen, there is nothing. It looks gratuitous because there are no other intentions and somehow it reflects both the environment and her reactions to that environment. Expensive weddings cannot replace authentic feelings.

 

Many people connect Justine’s actions from the wedding to what happens after. I believe otherwise: I believe that those actions had nothing to do with any further events, that she came to a point in which she realized that every of those little things people feed her are not of any help or truth. Once you know this, once you have seen it, you can’t un-see it or act like you did not know it.

 

There is another interesting aspect: throughout the years, many critics/movie-goers have accused Lars von Trier‘s movies of being misogynistic. Amusingly, however, in most of his films, it is the female characters that have the courage to stand up for what they believe in or to be true to themselves. Have you ever seen a notable von Trier film since Breaking the Waves (except Idioterne, which I think is anything but notable) in which a male character stands out? Cause I, for one, haven’t.

 

Both Melancholia and Antichrist are clear examples of what I said earlier: the male characters are artificial, cowardly. There is nothing authentic in any of them. In Antichrist He tries to “help” her in the most uninspired and academic way possible and in Melancholia, Claire’s husband uses a similar approach to console his wife but ends up committing suicide.

 

Returning to the anti-symmetries, in the second half there is “the end” as playground. And there is not much to be said here that wasn’t already covered. We learn that Justine “knows things”. Again, neither von Trier, nor Justine try to be too convincing. Other directors might have chosen otherwise. There is a tendency of believing that, when you put something like this into the mix, you have to back it up somehow, in this case maybe to turn the Justine’s character into some sort of psychic or anything else related, but that would have been just like organizing a rich wedding when you don’t have who to really wed. Yes, we have seen this work in movies and we indulge in believing that this happens in reality as well. But it never does. When someone holds such a gift and is aware of it, one doesn’t bother to convince others about it: simply trying would mean missing the whole point and missing the whole point means that you are not really that aware of that gift.

 

There is also another layer in the film, one consisting on the images. They are not random, but are closely related to what was previously said, or the other way around.

 

This movie doesn’t try to be preachy, just like Antichrist did not try to shock (although, admittedly, there were some gratuitous sequences the movies would have worked better without, at least in my opinion) and just like Justine doesn’t try to explain her actions too much, nor does she try to parade over who she is, von Trier never makes a clear attempt to “sell” his films or to really react over the detractors’ criticisms.

 

and so the ship sails on…

There are some crossroads where Melancholia and Antichrist meet. One of them is the beginning. Both films contain long and beautifully crafted opening scenes depicting the idea of downfall. In Antichrist there is “The Fall of Man” and in Melancholia there is a planet hitting Earth. In both films there are two environments: one that is more populated or plain familiar and another one that is isolated and sometimes menacing. But whereas Antichrist is disturbing and violent, Melancholia is quiet and cold. And it is this coldness that worked, in my opinion, in the film’s f(l)avor.

 

Truth being told, von Trier never really tried to be convenient or bothered to give his audience hope or true relief. However, one may argue that Dancer in the Dark or Dogville are actually quite convenient. Well, yes and no. They may be convenient by means of using the same strategy of “stomach punches”, but if you leave aside their “less-obvious meanings” (which also may turn out to be “less-possible” and definitely “less-interesting” since obviously they are underdeveloped), they are not that convenient either.

Returning to Melancholia vs. Antichrist, I said that one of the differences of the former is the film’s coldness. Most films that deal with the same or a similar subject of matter have the tendency of stuffing the material either with useless and annoying love-stories or with excessive (pseudo-?)philosophical content. But if/when something like this really happens, I doubt that the people will have time or find any use for such things. Here, there is a delicious anti-symmetry between the end as “playground” (love-stories, puppies and philosophies) and “the playground” as the end. Because the end in Melancholia is not really a theme, but a simple event. There are no deeper truths to be shared verbally; there are sad goodbyes, no hope and no real interest regarding it. The focus is maintained on what lies beneath.

 

There is another director I can think of who might have chosen the same path: Ingmar Bergman. Actually, one may find a strong bergmanian nuance throughout the whole picture. Coldness aside, one could notice it in the way the characters interact with one another. There is that type of bitterness and disgust which is also present in many of Bergman‘s films. They may seem to be more cheerful and colourful, but, beyond that, they are empty and alien. In both cases, there is something familiar which is torn apart, mask by mask. The difference is that Bergman‘s films are more talkative and somewhat more academic, while Melancholia isn’t. The dialogues here are pretty common, even the ones which are to depict revolt or anger. Because Melancholia is not about revolt or anger, but about acceptance. Justine doesn’t try to create feeble illusions; seeing the end is near, she decides to face it. And, again, there are the mirrors of Antichrist: one world mirroring the other.

 

Like in Antichrist, the first “world” (layer) handles the immediate, common events/aspects and the second, the underlining ones. The immediate aspects in this case revolve around the wedding and Justine’s apparent “depression”. And since I have mentioned something about “the end” as playground and the playground as “the end”, Justine’s wedding illustrates the second one. Beyond appearances, there is nothing about this event even remotely related to what we know about weddings. On the one hand, it is joyless and unpleasant from one end to another. On the other hand, it doesn’t bind together two people. It seems to be doing the latter but only on a surface, formal level. It is nothing more than a cleansing process. Justine is not depressed, but she realizes the futility of such a communion. Also, there is an interesting contrast about the two intimate scenes: with the husband and with her future work colleague. The first is involving, but ends with her refusal and the second one is spontaneous and cold, almost like leaving something behind, something you won’t really need anymore. In the first case, due to the involvement, the act itself cannot take place, letting it take place would be a lie, because Justine would have to submit to someone feeding him the idea that they belong together. It is an act of false imprisonment. The second one worked, because it is an act of relief, underneath what is seen, there is nothing. It looks gratuitous because there are no other intentions and somehow it reflects both the environment and her reactions to that environment. Expensive weddings cannot replace authentic feelings.

 

Many people connect Justine’s actions from the wedding to what happens after. I believe otherwise: I believe that those actions had nothing to do with any further events, that she came to a point in which she realized that every of those little things people feed her are not of any help or truth. Once you know this, once you have seen it, you can’t un-see it or act like you did not know it.

 

There is another interesting aspect: throughout the years, many critics/movie-goers have accused Lars von Trier‘s movies of being misogynistic. Amusingly, however, in most of his films, it is the female characters that have the courage to stand up for what they believe in or to be true to themselves. Have you ever seen a notable von Trier film since Breaking the Waves (except Idioterne, which I think is anything but notable) in which a male character stands out? Cause I, for one, haven’t.

 

Both Melancholia and Antichrist are clear examples of what I said earlier: the male characters are artificial, cowardly. There is nothing authentic in any of them. In Antichrist He tries to “help” her in the most uninspired and academic way possible and in Melancholia, Claire’s husband uses a similar approach to console his wife but ends up committing suicide.

 

Returning to the anti-symmetries, in the second half there is “the end” as playground. And there is not much to be said here that wasn’t already covered. We learn that Justine “knows things”. Again, neither von Trier, nor Justine try to be too convincing. Other directors might have chosen otherwise. There is a tendency of believing that, when you put something like this into the mix, you have to back it up somehow, in this case maybe to turn the Justine’s character into some sort of psychic or anything else related, but that would have been just like organizing a rich wedding when you don’t have who to really wed. Yes, we have seen this work in movies and we indulge in believing that this happens in reality as well. But it never does. When someone holds such a gift and is aware of it, one doesn’t bother to convince others about it: simply trying would mean missing the whole point and missing the whole point means that you are not really that aware of that gift.

 

There is also another layer in the film, one consisting on the images. They are not random, but are closely related to what was previously said, or the other way around.

 

This movie doesn’t try to be preachy, just like Antichrist did not try to shock (although, admittedly, there were some gratuitous sequences the movies would have worked better without, at least in my opinion) and just like Justine doesn’t try to explain her actions too much, nor does she try to parade over who she is, von Trier never makes a clear attempt to “sell” his films or to really react over the detractors’ criticisms.

 

and so the ship sails on…

SEDMIKRÁSKY

   

The following article was published in N-SPHERE November 2011 issue.

 

Daisies (Sedmikrásky, directed by Věra Chytilová) works like a childish and, at the same time, an ambiguous riddle. Since the film is part of the New Wave of Czech Cinema, this shouldn’t come as a surprise (remember Valerie and her week of wonders?). However, unlike Valerie…, which played more like a fairytale, holding a frail, but existent nonetheless, resemblance of a familiar structure, Sedmikrásky completely undermines it. There is a hint of a plot, but if you were told about it during or after the film ended it would not be much help. Nor would it be to try and follow the dialogues in a standard fashion. So, yes, if you like a film that has a clear structure, a discernible plot, read no more, ’cause this movie is not the right turn. This is not to say that Sedmikrásky is without interest. Not at all. Nor it is to say that it lacks energy, quite on the contrary, it has plenty of it and if you have a crush on the Dadaist movement, this film is a delicious treat.

I don’t usually do this, because in most of the cases I find expressing my primary reactions to a particular film to be boring and pointless, but in this case I shall follow the movie’s vibe. The first time I saw the film, a couple of months ago, I did not give it too much thought. I was aware of its energy, of its odd humour and its playfulness, but, at some point, it became – for me, at least – painfully exhausting. However, as it happened with some other films I have seen these years, I involuntarily came back to it and started recommending it… the more I thought of it, the more I got drawn into it.

This film is like the weird kid on the block, at first you may find him interesting, but then the more he talks or acts, the more you grow exhausted, until you decide to lose his trail. After a while, though, you’ll start thinking about him again and the more you do, the more you find the things he said or done to make some sense. Weird kid or weird record you listened back when you were a kid, take your pick (mine was Bjork’s Debut).

Since I mentioned Sedmikrásky‘s dialogue, there in a strong reference to Eugen Ionesco’s plays to be found here. In both cases we have an absurd dialogue, but wherein Ionesco’s case this absurdity underlines the growing impossibility of communication in modern society, here it highlights something primal. It plays more like a series of hints, like a coded language of a child.

There is another interesting link to the subsequent Drowning By Numbers (Peter Greenaway) and it is not the idea of games, but of names. In both cases, the respective protagonists have the same name: the two Maries of Sedmikrásky and the three Cissy Colprits of Drowning By Numbers.

Speaking of links, the film’s opening reminded me of another Czech film-maker, Jan Švankmajer. In that first sequence, the film’s protagonists seem to be more like puppets (Jan Švankmajer was known for his blend between film and animation) and there is a specific sound to be heard throughout that particular scene. Of course, there is another footnote that can be attached to that, involving the path taken by someone who starts constrained by rules and ends by – sweet irony – forcibly defying them. This can also explain the evolution of the dialogue in this particular sequence. In the very beginning, the output suggest rigidity, formalism, being like a puppet. After a few seconds we see the image of a wall falling and then the dialogue gets more and more free-wheeling up until the point the two protagonists decide that if everything is going bad in the world, then they can be bad as well. After that line, everything changes.

The formality is also hinted by the sepia colour. It is used in the opening and also in a restaurant scene, which plays very well as a satire against the bourgeois mannerisms, the act of eating playing an important role there as the equivalent of seeing: seeing in an indoctrinated yet elegant manner and seeing in a more barbaric and honest one. I am pointing this out because it fits, it makes sense for one to have thought these things back then, makes sense for one to think these things now. In the present, however, the barbaric honesty is more of an accessory. Back then, it was something some people were fighting for.

Speaking of bourgeoisie, there is another link to Le charme discreet de la bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel). In both cases, what is subtracted is the context. We have a hint here, but it is too vague and works more like a slogan.

All in all, those who want something playful and free-wheeling, especially those who have a more organic contact with their Anima and the Dadaist movement, may be very excited about Sedmikrásky, while the rest are warmly recommended to see it (to end this review in the film’s fashion – more or less…).

Further viewing:

Fando Y Lis (1967, Alejandro Jodorowsky)

Food (1992, Jan Švankmajer)

Even Dwarves Started Small (1970, Werner Herzog)

Le charme discreet de la burgeoisie (1972, Luis Buñuel)

Sweet Movie (1970, Dusan Makavejev)

Photo | Sedmikrásky. 1966

by Shade

Full article here.

 

Daisies (Sedmikrásky, directed by Věra Chytilová) works like a childish and, at the same time, an ambiguous riddle. Since the film is part of the New Wave of Czech Cinema, this shouldn’t come as a surprise (remember Valerie and her week of wonders?). However, unlike Valerie…, which played more like a fairytale, holding a frail, but existent nonetheless, resemblance of a familiar structure, Sedmikrásky completely undermines it. There is a hint of a plot, but if you were told about it during or after the film ended it would not be much help. Nor would it be to try and follow the dialogues in a standard fashion. So, yes, if you like a film that has a clear structure, a discernible plot, read no more, ’cause this movie is not the right turn. This is not to say that Sedmikrásky is without interest. Not at all. Nor it is to say that it lacks energy, quite on the contrary, it has plenty of it and if you have a crush on the Dadaist movement, this film is a delicious treat.

I don’t usually do this, because in most of the cases I find expressing my primary reactions to a particular film to be boring and pointless, but in this case I shall follow the movie’s vibe. The first time I saw the film, a couple of months ago, I did not give it too much thought. I was aware of its energy, of its odd humour and its playfulness, but, at some point, it became – for me, at least – painfully exhausting. However, as it happened with some other films I have seen these years, I involuntarily came back to it and started recommending it… the more I thought of it, the more I got drawn into it.

This film is like the weird kid on the block, at first you may find him interesting, but then the more he talks or acts, the more you grow exhausted, until you decide to lose his trail. After a while, though, you’ll start thinking about him again and the more you do, the more you find the things he said or done to make some sense. Weird kid or weird record you listened back when you were a kid, take your pick (mine was Bjork’s Debut).

Since I mentioned Sedmikrásky‘s dialogue, there in a strong reference to Eugen Ionesco’s plays to be found here. In both cases we have an absurd dialogue, but wherein Ionesco’s case this absurdity underlines the growing impossibility of communication in modern society, here it highlights something primal. It plays more like a series of hints, like a coded language of a child.

There is another interesting link to the subsequent Drowning By Numbers (Peter Greenaway) and it is not the idea of games, but of names. In both cases, the respective protagonists have the same name: the two Maries of Sedmikrásky and the three Cissy Colprits of Drowning By Numbers.

Speaking of links, the film’s opening reminded me of another Czech film-maker, Jan Švankmajer. In that first sequence, the film’s protagonists seem to be more like puppets (Jan Švankmajer was known for his blend between film and animation) and there is a specific sound to be heard throughout that particular scene. Of course, there is another footnote that can be attached to that, involving the path taken by someone who starts constrained by rules and ends by – sweet irony – forcibly defying them. This can also explain the evolution of the dialogue in this particular sequence. In the very beginning, the output suggest rigidity, formalism, being like a puppet. After a few seconds we see the image of a wall falling and then the dialogue gets more and more free-wheeling up until the point the two protagonists decide that if everything is going bad in the world, then they can be bad as well. After that line, everything changes.

The formality is also hinted by the sepia colour. It is used in the opening and also in a restaurant scene, which plays very well as a satire against the bourgeois mannerisms, the act of eating playing an important role there as the equivalent of seeing: seeing in an indoctrinated yet elegant manner and seeing in a more barbaric and honest one. I am pointing this out because it fits, it makes sense for one to have thought these things back then, makes sense for one to think these things now. In the present, however, the barbaric honesty is more of an accessory. Back then, it was something some people were fighting for.

Speaking of bourgeoisie, there is another link to Le charme discreet de la bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel). In both cases, what is subtracted is the context. We have a hint here, but it is too vague and works more like a slogan.

All in all, those who want something playful and free-wheeling, especially those who have a more organic contact with their Anima and the Dadaist movement, may be very excited about Sedmikrásky, while the rest are warmly recommended to see it (to end this review in the film’s fashion – more or less…).

Further viewing:

Fando Y Lis (1967, Alejandro Jodorowsky)

Food (1992, Jan Švankmajer)

Even Dwarves Started Small (1970, Werner Herzog)

Le charme discreet de la burgeoisie (1972, Luis Buñuel)

Sedmikrásky

Sweet Movie (1970, Dusan Makavejev)

VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS

   

The following article was published in N-SPHERE October 2011 issue.

 

I. The Czechoslovak New Wave

The Czechoslovak New Wave was an artistic movement in cinema that pretty much covered the early 60s and was represented, among others by directors such as: Miloš Forman, Jiří Menzel, Vera Chytilová, Jaromil Jireš and Juraj Herz.

However , its roots go 4 decades back when Devětsil – an association of Czech Avantgardists was formed (Prague, 1920).

When the Communist regime has taken over in Czechoslovakia in 1948, students of FAMU (Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts In Prague) took notice of the unwelcoming changes that this regime brought and wanted to make people aware that “they were participants in a system of oppression and incompetence which had brutalized them all”.

Having said that, it is easy to hint that some its trademarks were long unscripted dialogues, dark and absurd humour and topics that regard the misguided youths of their society, or the misguided ethic which leads people to blindly condemn what others are born with (and I am not talking about rage, violence, greed, or other things that one should overcome).

II.   Valerie

“Valerie and her week of wonders” is one falling mostly in the latter category. On the surface, the film is a surreal fantasy revolving around a young girl’s maturation into womanhood. Beyond that, the film can also be seen as a violent and cheerful reaction against the way some systems may deprive people of what they really are. And while this is not depicted in a traditional fashion, there are enough scenes/pieces of dialogue clearly suggesting that.

For example:

Grandmother: Hedvika is marrying
Valerie: Poor Hedvika

The marriage here is not seen as an act that is consented by both parties, but as something that is enforced, as a form of mutilation inflicted upon a woman so that she, in turn, can inflict it on others. A form of sustained and organized disease, if you may. One can think of arranged marriages of enforced submission or other related things.

As many may expect, church figures are not left out of the equation either. Priests here, and men generally, are either barbaric figures, either hypocritical ones with an edge for incest.

Also, another aspect that is not to be neglected is the erotic one. But where other movies, use a more organic approach, relying on what we know and have experienced, “Valerie and her week of wonders” devoids its eroticism of nearly every carnal aspect and while flesh is still present, it is undermined by emotion. The film barely looks erotic, but feels erotic. There are some scenes that may stir anger in those who feel strong about old-fashioned ethical values, but because they are born out of the purest imaginings, they cannot really be held as an affront to… anything. Besides, those very scenes, form a reaction to a system that is overly concerned with numbers and empty standards instead of human beings (I figure that the New Wave Of Czechoslovak Film members were aware of it, and were pretty much against it.)

Indeed, one can argue that the film suffers from submitting to a struggle that ended too long ago, for the viewer to relate to it. After all, these days, in the majority of countries, the old-fashioned moral concerns are no longer upheld in such an oppressive manner, so one is free to choose living his life the way he or she wants as long as he/she is not harming others (‘course, if you decide to go on a killing spree to have some fun, you’ll still have to suffer the consequences). And, in this favor, it is the no-small-aspect that the film plays more like a “dream tale”, so there is not a strong relationship between all characters and not a very well-developed plot either. However, if there was one thing to learn from the evident failure of totalitarian systems, is that there are not many things that can be applied to everyone and sometimes even some things, apply to very few people. And as long as they are not harmful in a relevant way (I am pretty sure that a child won’t end up being traumatized by this film and he won’t start killing priests because he’ll assume all of them are pedophiles), I don’t see any problem.

Cinema is not a big popularity contest, but a form of communication, in the end. If you wanna appear on TV, you will definitely need a certain type of speech (sadly, in some of the cases, one you won’t be quite fond of), but regardless of how much money this speech brings you, it doesn’t mean that it holds some depths or truth and it definitely doesn’t make it better (sometimes not worse either) that the one some country teacher is holding to his pupils.

Art doesn’t offer guarantees, you are not better or worse if you read a critically acclaimed novel, or went to some opera or watched a more “special” movie. Artists are not responsible for your well-being, you are.

I said all these things, because they are surprisingly related to the movement, because if we are to look beyond that, it is not Communism itself, but the forced marriage between an individual and a foreign set of conventions he either does not understand, or does not believe in. When something like this happens, one is entitled to backfire in some fashion, not for his pride’s sake, or to prove that the system “is wrong”, but to prove that others are equally deserving of what feels right to them (again, as long as it is not firebombing, businesses that sell drugs to children or encourage people to blindly rage against others and so forth).

There is also a constant sense of menace in this film, but it never unravels a real horror, it is also seen through a child’s eyes – a child playing. There are no real dangers here, because there is a distance between the protagonist and the world unraveling before her eyes. She can always escape every peril.

III. Other Notes

Valerie’s faithful companion is Orlík – “Eagle”, In translation. He is the one who stole her earrings, only to give them back to her (the earrings made Valerie see the world as it is) and also, he is the one who gives her the pearls that protected her from… death.

There are no physically elder women in this film. It is only the appearance, that pale face which gives old age a specific meaning – that of being drained out of energy, of life.

There is also the presence of the vampire, as the one who drains, and makes others drain. These two combined give the idea that this oldness is in fact the marriage with the material, the artificial, with the blind desire to consume and make others consume (in the “incest scene”, the reverend’s face is pale as well.).

***

All in all, the film appeals mostly to those with a sweet eye for avant-garde stuff (“Sedmikrásky”, anyone) or for those who like to have a fantasy story told in an eerie way. For the rest, it may be a challenge, it may be a bore, or anything else in between.

Sweet Valeries, children.

Photo | Valerie and her Week of Wonders. 1970

by Shade

Full article here.

EXPLORING THE OPEN SEWER. TAXI DRIVER REVIEW

   

The following article was published in N-SPHERE September 2011 issue.

 

Play.
Midnight. You’re heading home after watching this 3D version of a film they’ve released recently. You’re thinking it was not shit all in all, but they definitely haven’t got too far technically. All those commercials for nothing. Partly waste of money, partly waste of time, partly staring at this guy in front of you driving you back home. And you’re thinking that you haven’t even seen his face when you stepped in the cab 5 min. ago. You’re staring now and you can only catch a fragment of his eyes through the rear-view mirror. At this point, it could be fucking anyone, an erased face whom could make up for all the lack of excitement at the cinema and drive you to a deadend. Ten minutes later you could be facing the ground with no money, twenty minutes later you could be back in red light district, why waste the time… in 5 minutes time even, the car could crash with you in it. But this is not going to happen. The film was still crap though. And this man in front is just another taxi driver.

Rewind.
1976, the year when Columbia Studios released Taxi Driver, did not mark a new juncture in the history of the U.S. in terms of political alignment or cultural change. A large number of social processes were already in full progress. Just to name a few: the civil rights movement impregnated with the stains of race riots, countercultural manifestations and radical student movements, protests against the war in Vietnam and its aftermath. Add to this the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, which had taken place prior to 1976. All of this still weighed down in the American conscience, questioning notions of national safety and independence, and let’s be honest, to a certain extent, the American dream myth itself. This period was thus dominated by angry and lonely men, violence, crime, and a deadly cocktail of drugs and alcohol. America was already writing its history of violence, national anxieties beginning to surface whilst shadowing the optimistic façade of the Promised Land that populated the cultural imaginary of the previous decades.

This ongoing process of demythologization and national destabilization was also taking place under the close scrutiny of the camera lens, as directors of the time more or less translated in their films the government’s failure to ensure a stable future for its citizens. This deconstruction of national myths of self-improvement were explored by a new generation of film directors who were later coalesced under the term New Hollywood. There was no indifference: they analyzed the spectrum of pessimism and doubt that the former Hollywood consensus tried to cover. Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s Taxi Driver was located precisely within this developmental narrative of violence, as a response to the malaise that was infusing the 1970s setting. The issues addressed in the film did not appear out of a vacuum: the increasing pessimism and alienation were already embedded within the American society. What the film did was only to render them visible, thus reflecting the morally deficient societal sphere of its time and becoming at the same time symptomatic of future developments.

Taxi Driver illustrates the story of a common man named Travis Bickle who embarks on a personal crusade to restore political and moral order in America. As a Vietnam veteran and nighttime taxi-driver, Bickle (Robert de Niro) internalizes the social anxiety that surrounds him, by witnessing the dystopian scenery that governed the streets of New York during the night. While deceiving his parents into thinking that he is an employee working for the American government, the insomniac taxi-driver becomes more and more apprehensive about the slums of the city populated by beggars, pimps and prostitutes. In this pessimistic landscape, he finds a 12-year-old child prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster) whom he tries to rescue from her pimp (Harvey Keitel) and convince her to quit prostitution in order to return to her family. In parallel, Travis develops a relationship with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) whom “appeared like an angel out of this open sewer”, a campaign volunteer for Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris).

Having lived there during childhood and youth, Scorsese considered New York to be the best setting for the film. One could argue that he employed it as a metaphor for hell, as something that goes on and on while nobody can get out of it. As a Vietnam veteran living in post-war America, Travis’ main scope was to “clean up the whole mess” there, thus becoming an embodiment of isolation followed by violent intervention. His anger was not directed to a distant frontier, but located within the very core of the metropolis. A straightforward example in this case: even the taxi he is driving in and out of the sewers functions as a boundary between his inner thoughts and the exterior world. It doesn’t stop there: Travis’ individualism gradually becomes alienation. As a creator of cultural commotion by disrupting the social and political spheres, he is also a creation and a reflector of this environment. Torn by his inner anxieties and the determination to change his surroundings, he is portrayed as a fragmented man living in a fragmented society. The close-ups and brief cuts of slices of windshields and rearview windows also reflect, to a certain extent, the fragmentation of the protagonist
himself.

Gradually, the film exposes his failed attempts to connect with the ones around him: starting from his relationships with women and workmates and continuing with his estrangement within the American society itself. He is depicted in terms of Other-ness, psychologically outside the societal borders, even if he is paradoxically living right at the core of the metropolis. Although the link between the war experience and Travis’ personality is only implicit in the film, he could be regarded as Other because of his Vietnam background as well. As a war veteran, he becomes a signifier of psychological impairment and trauma, thus risking turning into a stereotype that incorporates mental instability and violence. What is interesting is that he somehow fails to assimilate a “coming home” feeling that the Vietnam experience more or less implied. For him, home is no place, it is associated instead with “a photograph on a wall and a letter aloud on a sound track”. He mimics the social behaviour that surrounds him, but does not directly participate to real actions. Through this process of staging what is considered to be familiar, he exposes a farce concerning both notions of home and romance. Travis’ portrayal in terms of Other-ness is also linked to his status of potential criminal and social outsider with a Mohawk haircut. To make it even more complicated: the protagonist was apparently constructed using as inspiration real life sources. According to Schrader, the journal diatribes of real life assassin Arthur Bremer who shot the presidential candidate Wallace in 1972 served as a primary source. Scorsese claims that the motivation also came from an earlier event, namely the 1966 mass murder case – in which Charles Whitman opened fire on the campus
of University of Texas and killed 14 people.

In the film, Travis decides to undergo a cleansing treatment similar to a Spartan purification ritual, considering that purgation could only be done through destruction and that catharsis assumes self-sacrifice. His passage from regeneration to violence, also symbolized by the marching military music heard when he purchases guns, is directly linked to the image of New York as Sodom & Gomorrah that needs to be cleaned and washed away by a flood (yes, some Christian symbolism right there). Fire is also used as purifier for his divine mission (an example: he burns away the flowers that he had bought for Betsy, thus freeing himself from any emotional attachment).

One step further: the taxi driver job also turns Travis into a social Other, thus becoming a faceless person whose individuality is gradually erased. For him, reality is always mediated through a physical boundary, be it either the rear-view mirror of his taxi or the cinema screen. One good scene – displaying an Alka Seltzer tablet dissolving, depicts this very condition: the camera shifts the focus on the glass with water, zooms in, thus creating an enormous close-up showing the enlarged medicine bubble. This close-up, maybe paradoxically, does not seem to suggest that Travis is on a gradual route to explosion, but vice versa – his anxieties are internalized growing into implosion. This might all seem metalevel talk, but this is real life as well: before shooting the film, de Niro and Scorsese tried driving a real taxi on the streets of New York to see if passengers would recognize the actor. Afterwards, Scorsese concluded that de Niro “was totally anonymous. People would say anything, do anything in the backseat – it was like he didn’t exist.”

Being depraved of individuality also turned Travis into a mask that could articulate both fear and alienation, which were experienced by the population at large. Both Scorsese and Schrader projected their own feelings of desolation and rejection on Travis. Scorsese asserted that he knows the feelings of being really angry that Bickle has, which “have to be explored, taken out and examined”. Drawing a line, Travis’ apparent portrayal as a singular Other seems to point out more towards his commonality, loneliness being central to human existence in general. His condition as an alienated person living in New York seems to reveal the estrangement of a whole generation. When he claims, while staring at his reflection in the mirror, that he is the only one there, Bickle does not only distinguish an Other staring back from the mirror (i.e.: one might immediately think of Lacan’s mirror stage).

In other words: Taxi Driver is not about a man who is fucked, it goes further and claims that we are all more or less fucked. And how could one counterargue that?

photo | Screenshot. Taxi Driver. 1967

by Diana Daia

Full article here.

THE NAKED EYE. HENRY AND JUNE

   

The following article was published in N-SPHERE August 2011 issue.

 

There is a common mistake to be made when approaching sexuality in a film, that of showing without suggesting anything. There are dozens of films containing wild sex scenes, shoving the viewer’s nose in them, but few really are bold ore inspired enough to be committed to their  own material. In most of the cases, we have movies that serve the viewer’s basic needs with no real insight. Copies. Because it is not the act itself, it is a raw and passionless image. It is very easy to show two people kissing, but it is rather difficult to make this simple act be felt on a nearly organic scale. How many kissing scenes have you seen and how many made you feel like you are the one being kissed? And the examples could go on…

It is a difficult task to accomplish because then your whole film is no longer focused on a particular topic, or not even on some particular characters, but the intimate interaction in between them which means that somehow the whole films must take their course, otherwise the material might pull itself apart, since whatever is around or in between is only a mere distraction.

In Henry and June, this task is accomplished: one cold care less about the story itself (or about some other historical or fictional context) once he is drawn into the film’s sensuality. Like Bernardo Bertolocci’s Last tango in Paris, this film works with contrasts (something that is raw and dirty and something that is frail and “clean” being one example). Of course, in this particular case, expressionism cannot be taken out of the list, which may seem a rather obvious aspect, but largely misunderstood by others. Because you can say that a porn film is expressionist in its own right, but the expressions depicted there, the image, is cheap and common, mostly because the directors choose to be practical in all the wrong ways. They rely on immediate (yet if – in considerable cases -) pleasures into something the viewer may like, not it to something that viewer may feel.

In fact, expressions and gestures are, in some sense, gateways and they also can cover more obvious aspects because depicting something erotic is mostly like depicting something horrific: sometimes you are best advised to show less and suggest more. Many of today’s films show everything and suggest nothing, so, what we are left with, at best, is a series of mechanical gestures strictly linked with a plain biological process. Not much pleasure in that, is it?

Amusingly, in one of Henry and June‘s scenes we are shown an excerpt from Carl Theodore Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc and I say “amusingly” because as in Dreyer’s film Joan, the saint,  is mirrored in the suffering of Joan, the human, the inner communication (and meaning) between partners, may be very well mirrored in the organic »course of events«.

If Henry and June or Last tango in Paris use a simple artifice of contrasts and movements to unveil an emotional world, Peter Greenaway’s Pillow Book takes a more “abstract” approach. Here we have the link between the sexual act and the process of body calligraphy. It is apparently a more distant approach because most of the characters’ insights are not shown because they are of no interest. There is no process of “discovery” (the mere act of two people undressing one another can be called a process of discovery), here, in this aspect, everything is shown (the two people ARE already naked), but this time one has a blank form he has to fill (the calligraphy theme). Where one discovers, the other summons and, in the end, partially offers a translation (Julio Medem’s Lucia Y Lo Sexo works pretty much in the same manner, less the summoning part, more the translation part).

Another interesting approach is presented in two of David Croneneberg‘s films: Naked Lunch and Crash. The first choice seems very peculiar, I know and in some respects it may be. But strange as it may be, here we have the same act translated in mutations. It is not unveiled here, but described (remember the Mujahedeen typewriter scene) and then fleshed out. Not even the Interzone boys or are “unveiled”. It is again the use of expressionism that does the trick: Kiki, for example. His face and voice are doing everything so we do not need any additional descriptions. The same can be said about Yves Cloquet’s character.

Naked Lunch is a movie about alienation taken literally. The character alienates himself, but so is the movie, fortunately not a in an unfavorable manner, mainly because the film’s outlandishness does nothing to undermine anything, quite on the contrary, some of its aspects would not work otherwise, not even the sexual framework (remove the outlandishness and none of this would sustain itself).

In Crash there is an even more organic approach, more in the vein of cult favorites such as Tetsuo. Here, there is an interesting linkage between the intensity and violence of a car crash and the raw intensity of a sexual act. After all, leaving the physical aspects behind, the sound of broken bones may be seductive in its own right as it may be the idea of symbiosis between metal and flesh, but this is an already visited topic.

Of course the list can continue with films such as In the Realm of Senses, 9 1/2 weeks or even Eyes Wide Shut, each of them having their own patterns and ideas, but I leave you, dear reader(s), to discover them… with your own eyes.

photo | Screenshots. Henry and June

by Shade

Full article here.

SHINYA TSUKAMOTO

   

The following article was published in N-SPHERE July 2011 issue.

Amongst cult circles, Shinya Tsukamoto may be a hero of sorts. Although, throughout his career, he made a share of fairly accessible films, he is known for the more “unfriendly ones”.

Tsukamoto started making films at the age of 14, but it wasn’t until 1988 that he achieved notoriety with Tetsuo: The Iron Man. A very graphic yet striking fantasy revolving around the collision between man and post-industrial technology – also coined with Japanese cyberpunk -  the movie is somewhat reminiscent of David Lynch’s Eraserhead by means of decomposed narrative and a very disturbing atmosphere, but while Eraserhead retains some familiarity, Tetsuo‘s moments of coherence remain linked with the mood it creates rather than what happens in the film. After all, how can one explain how someone’s body is turning gradually into metal after his encounter with a metal… “fetishist”? And why would one do that, since in film the “how”-s in many occasions are more important than the “why”-s. There is a hint of an industrialized Metropolis (Fritz Lang), there is a strong sense of repulsion or revolt towards the mechanical society of earnings-collecting ants (many of Tsukamoto‘s protagonists are as such), there is even an eerie kind of logic that follows the maddening succession of images all of them sustained by the seemingly absurd premise of the film. There are some ridiculous moments and lines, as well, but they seem somewhat deliberate as some ugly mirror-images of real actions.

In Tetsuo, Shinya Tsukamoto creates a nightmare world, comes up with stories impossible to believe and yet, at the heart of such stories, lie frighteningly real human emotions. And here, there is another link with a modern director, David Cronenberg, who used the same strategy in his earlier films (The Brood, for example). But where Cronenberg still retains a narrative sense, Tsukamoto is mostly focused on the mutations themselves and on their relationships with the characters.

INDUSTRIAL SYMPHONIES
INWARDS THE “NEW” FLESH

In its early days, industrial (the music genre) was harsh, abrasive, disturbing and somewhat repetitive or obsessive (you can choose the term that you think fits better). There was a desire to tear apart preconceptions about how music should sound like, there was the use of technology to create something that is ultimately primitive, savage, in complete opposition to what technology would represent. Ultimately, it was transgressive.

If we are to look at the film, we can observe it holds pretty much of the same characteristics and the more we think about it, the clearer they are, because we see a reason behind them.

First of all, we are talking about Japan, a country in which technology plays a large part of daily living so it is easy to deduct that people may ask themselves one day whether it did not become an extension of the human nature, because not only that people use it every day, but they seem to get more and more mechanical, they seem to want to embrace a mechanical life-style. So, therefore, the next easy question is what happens when those boundaries between humanity and technology vanish. Of course, it is not the first time one hears this question; it isn’t, by any means, a new idea in art, but in few cases, broken boundaries meant literally broken boundaries. And so, we uncover another aspect.

While this may seem a second-rate argument, Japan was the target of two nuclear bombardments so there is no wonder that they retained a more sensible and careful eye to whatever involves physical mutations.

In the wake of these aspects, Tetsuo‘s approach may not be entirely predicable, but necessary.

Also, there is another ground where things are laid upon, and this one is connected to other of Shinya Tsukamoto‘s films, Tokyo Fist especially. The reason behind these series of mutations is also related to what those mutations mirror when it comes to inter-personal relationships. Generally, Tsukamoto‘s protagonists are humble, half-mechanical employees, “ants” trapped inside an unrewarding system. Occasionally, they try to glance at the world outside and eventually abandon their routine, but soon they find themselves unable to have real and workable interactions with other people, except the ones imposed by the system (they are trapped in and ironically fuel day by day), or try to cope with what is around them. And they fail, or they fall victims to horrifying circumstances. Then it all comes: guilt, anger, repression… Especially anger. And here there is a little to talk about, because anger is a common presence in the Japanese cinema, no matter if we are talking about poltergeist, action or horror flicks – anger is in almost every case unmistakably present.

Having said all these, we return a little to David Cronenberg and one of his earlier films called The Brood. There the anger in a woman was a source of summoning fiendish, children-shaped presences/entities (I refuse to call them children, for they were not children, the just looked like children, creepy children). Tsukamoto walks the same road. It is not only the technology as an extension, but it is also the cripple inside. In Tokyo Fist this is seen a lot better in one of its closing scenes: a failed couple disfiguring one another as a mirror-image not only to their relationship itself, but to each of themselves individually and also to the way their relationship deteriorated. And it is another “tradition” in Japanese cinema to have characters holding their calm for long periods of time and then bursting into extreme violence: it is either one or the other, no middle ground.  But middle ground has its role, it shows you can control the rage, or try to control the rage, it show that it is coming, or it will come from you, in the end, it offers a continuous image. Its absence splits the subject in two, and that is why in all those mutations in Tetsuo you can see a man, as if he is looking from the inside, as if he lives there, as if those pieces of metal are inhabited by him. It is an act of possession and it is very common in people who received a very strict, but inconsistent education, by means that they were told, ordered what to do, there was an instance/person that made sure they are doing what they are told, they were given hypocrite and shallow explanations, but no real insight. So this repression grew something in them, but, because they were unable to show it, they fed it day by day with angry thoughts, fantasies of escaping, taking revenge, unleashing hell on earth or anything else related, and that “something” laid dormant, until it was actually powerful enough to take control once in a while. It is like having someone locked in the floor below with only a cracked floor covering. Once that crack is big enough the trapped one may find his way out.

The same kind intensity describes the sexual act as well. Of course, in a sexual act, an involvement  of sorts is mandatory, and therefore intensity is present without saying. But here, the involvement is linked again with the primitive needs, with something that was long buried. And ultimately the sexual act is not performed by the partners themselves, but by their mutations, henceforth we don’t have “angry sex”, but the anger itself as the protagonist of the sexual act. It is also a collection of movements, nothing more, because behind all curtains lies only a great void, where one’s conscience used to be. The math here is fairly simple: in the man’s case, the conscience is mutated to eradication, and the entity exists for itself, it has no such thing as conscience or a soul, but only a form, therefore the transformation itself, the anger unleashed resolves nothing.

There is another interesting link with another David Cronenberg movie called Videodrome, in which we have the line “Long live the new flesh!” used there as a statement of liberation. Here, the new flesh exists, but it is only a vehicle from a cage to another.

CYBORGIAS

“So my cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work.”

We are all familiar with »cyborgs«. We’ve been ever since we were children and we encountered films such as Terminator, for example. We might even deduce a traditional meaning and might even be right.

However, there is another look at the problem, one more deepened in our own existence, in our own selves, one that does not necessarily imply, but neither does it exclude implants, familiar physical extensions, but it is coined with things nearer to us, like the quote above. It is ultimately about escaping a preexistent pattern and accepting the final outcome, no matter how »against-the-stream it is«. And the enumeration can continue, but I guess you got the point.

Tetsuo revolves around nightmares, nightmarish transformations, mechanisms, repression and so forth, but if we are to take a step forward, we can hint that it is about acceptance as well. As I said before, there is no beautiful and ugly, outside our own perceptions and with or without metal limbs we remain who we are. Once we can accept our anger, our inner violence (creation is ultimately a violent act) we can learn how to master it, if we run from it it will chase us during our entire existence.

Inside, it may be as Donna Harraway suggested: that we are all cyborgs. We are not straightforward beings, we are not defined only by a set of unitary attributes. There are things placed somewhere outside, things that still define us, things we, sometimes instinctively, run away from and this is why we perceive them as ugly, repulsive (temptation unveiled is always depicted as ugly, and veiled as unearthly beautiful). Once we learn how to shatter the boundaries, we may evolve.

FINAL CONSIDERATIONS

Tetsuo works better with no complex storyline to be wrapped in. This is why I overlooked the sequels, because they all find the roots here. They are better produced, but sadly, less effective, since only in an austere space the ideas behind it work best. The more detailed and crowded the space is, the less efective the material becomes. The first film is a take-it-or-leave-it ride, you either like it or you don’t, in the end there may not be many things you can criticize, because it barely has any common ground with other films and since criticism involves comparison, at least to a certain degree, this option is one foot out of the map.

The sequels both have stories and the problem is that they are not well developed enough to draw attention, but not vague enough to be ignored. Maybe they are best being seen just as a curiosity to see how some parts of the first film work on a better budget.
This is it from now, sweet metal dreams, children…

Quote: Donna Harraway. 1991. A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century

Movie still: Tetsuo the Iron Man. 1988.

by Shade

Full article here.

THE SWEET MOVIE?

   

The following article was published in N-SPHERE June 2011 issue.

…if we are to take into account some scenes, yes, one can say that Dusan Makavejev’s movie has a strange sweetness attached to it, but one that can easily deceive.

On the other hand however, its title is also an indicative that the film flirts very much with the idea of tasting something, which indeed happens.

The film opens with a strange Miss World contest, where models are prized according to their abstinence and virginity (we are in 1974, so this was a clear mark of a movie looking for trouble) and the prize is the hand of a very wealthy guy suggestively name “Mr. Dollars”).

This approach has strong Jodorowskian reminiscences by means of character depiction and straightforwardness (in terms of a satire) and it also kind of prefaces the films coordinates: powerful visuals, occasionally shocking scenes and a very vague narrative plot (outrageous in its own right).

Going back to the title, I said that the film deals very much with the idea of tasting things, actually it revolves more around this idea, than around anything else. One could observe that the film also satirizes various ideas, but the satire is never really powerful enough to stand on its own, and while there is a plot it is rather vague and implausible for the viewer to pay real attention to.

We have an organic film here, an organic film that seemingly celebrates insanity, but not as a pathological factor, nor as an equivalent of complete absolute chaos, but as a departure from a specific form, from certain patterns, rules. By subjecting the viewer to a succession of appalling, controversial scenes, scenes that however instill a sense of beauty, Makavejev challenges him to look past what is before his very eyes. People may get the wrong idea about the organic cinema: it is not about the flesh itself, but about the anatomy of things, about the way some things take place, it is less about meaning of something, but about the act itself. We are the ones who generally give meaning to things, and we will continue doing that with or without films, books, movies or paintings. This is why sometimes art doesn’t hold any true meaning, because it doesn’t need one.

Sometimes it is just about looking deeply, in detail, at something: examining a process under the microscope, and translate it into another environment, one where you would have the luxury of an even deeper and detailed sight.

I mentioned Jodorowsky earlier on, that is mostly because the character depictions and acting styles. In many cases the actors in Jodorowsky’s films – especially those dealing with smaller roles – deliver wooden, strange performances. In a way, they make sense, they are what I call mood performances, they exist not to serve themselves, but to create a mood. You can see that in Jodorowksy, you can see that here, in Lynch, sometimes in Greenaway even (and other directors as well).

Leaving this aside, this type of performances also pulls the movie further away from traditional cinema, where traditional implies balance. This film is not balanced, it was never intended to be. It goes as far as possible with its ideas, obsessions, insanity, too far maybe for his director’s own good, who started to immigrate afterwards. As for the film, it is needless to say that it stirred controversy, sometimes even considered as part of a plague or a social disease. But it is interesting to observe how these things lose meaning afterwards, how what used to be appalling, isn’t anymore.

If I were to see the movie back then, I might have been shocked as well, but now I wasn’t. I could hint the director’s ideas, I could even find some familiar ground and in some sense could flow with it. In the terms of the movie, what once used to be rotten, now became sweet or, at least, bearable. It is like a reverse of the common- sense. Time does not alter, but heals, or altering has a completely different meaning there. In an art-like logic, it would make sense. “Beautiful” is altered to “Ugly”, but “Ugly” does not become “Uglier”, but “Beautiful “. And while some scenes in Sweet Movie are anything but beautiful, one can really see that, they are not appalling
anymore.

Returning to unconventionality, when we strip away a film of its conventions, we can focus better on things that lie beyond those conventions, we can see things in their wholesomeness, and we can also gaze at the symbols beneath them, as Julien Sardeau also noticed:

“With this cineaste of transgression, the imagination knows only two rules: Dyonisian pleasure in the poetic image, and absolute primacy of the material and the organic. So, in Sweet Movie, the symbolic and the literal are never dissociated. On the one hand, sugar is presented in a form that is purely organic, and in its multiple concrete representations, in the image of Descartes’ piece of wax. But on the other hand, Makavejev tells us “this is not sugar”, but a mirage of sweetness whose truth is in turn alienation (the consumer society) and a perverse and murderous ideological mystification (what the revolutionary ideal and the USSR became under Stalin). A veritable principle of montage, the passage between the literal and figurative registers can even take place from one shot to the next […] With Makavejev, poetic power is always expressed by the brutality of the relationship established between the symbol and the object to which it refers; the more immediate this relationship, the greater its stylistic
impact.”

There is always an interesting thing to look at a film from a point that is unfamiliar, from beyond what we are taught or used to accept. It is very easy to dismiss this film as amateurish, repulsive or who-knows-whatelse. But what happens when we look at if though other lens? When we see those characters and human beings and we try to explore their eeriness, when murder isn’t murder and sugar isn’t just sugar. Like in fairy-tales.

Nowadays, I have to admit that Sweet Movie stroke me as familiar, because I have seen Jodorowsky, I know of John Waters, Kenneth Anger and I am quite familiar with various “underground” approaches.

This having been said, Sweet Movie is still a film to be watched with caution and still there are high chances it would appall the vast majority, but to those with a stomach for John Waters, Kenneth Anger, Jodorowsky and others alike would find this movie quite delicious.

Movie still: Sweet Movie. 1974.

by Shade

Full article here.

PEEPING TOM. THE UNMASKED FEAR

   

The following article was published in N-SPHERE May 2011 issue.

 

Peeping Tom shapes the story of a young man with a delight in photography… or so it seems. The film embarks on a journey that is never finished and leaves behind a frustration that is never resolved. Reeking of selfishness, the story is told dominantly through the eyes of one man, and making assumptions about the outcome of the true protagonist of this film is what is left at the bitter end, while standing up and dredging the feet on dirty cinema theatre carpets.

Released in 1960 and directed by Michael Powell, Peeping Tom employs a rather delicate sense of observation. Instead of wreaking havoc in military boots, the viewers might find themselves wearing fluffy bunny slippers… made of actual bunnies, with blood and other things leaving imprints behind; at least that is how critics have perceived this piece of cinematography for years. From almost puritan views, to shy interpretations from the perspective of banality infused masses, the point of the film eludes the decades. Not surprising, since the mask of deformity that this film carries has been analysed, discussed, dissected, tortured, poked and pierced, but never removed.

The first half of Peeping Tom sets the scene and brings forth all elements necessary for understanding the real implications of the entities engaged in the story, while the second part makes way into not resolving anything – neither the plot, nor the emotional issues priorly brazed upon. The link between all these is Mark Lewis, a focus puller at a film studio and part time pornographer. Quasi–childish, Mark oscillates between highly emotional states of mind, when he seems to regress to a frightened little boy, to tense moments when he becomes deeply dominant and eager to appease his obsession. Mark films from around corners, he is not getting directly involved. His persona is enveloped in a sense of detachment that, as it will be discovered later, makes him not a part of this world, but an object manipulated by the true protagonist of this film.

Watching through the first part of Peeping Tom, a myriad of obvious hints are given in order to construct Mark’s personality and obsessions. There is utter loneliness sifting through each frame and a high level of shyness when talking face to face with women. His closeness to them can only be achieved through the reels, and only inside the personal space detached from the rest of the world, a special studio hidden from the part of the room that is visible to others. Intrigued by the imperfections in women, he needs to relive the moments he films, watching them at home over and over again. Slowly, Helen makes her way into Mark’s world, not as a watched upon neighbour, but as a possible witness to the unseen face behind the mask. She demands and he gives in, she asks and he answers; Helen becomes a shallow duplicate of the entity driving him forth, but still unable to overcome the deeply rooted obsession. At the same time, the viewer is introduced to childhood trauma Mark has suffered. On the one hand, these revelations try to explain Helen’s behaviour, adding another layer to the mask. On the other hand, they subtly and ingeniously open the curtain towards the true protagonist of this film. During childhood, he was borderline tortured by his father in the name of science, a father interested in studying fear in children. Mark was always filmed, never had a moment of privacy, was awaken during the night by the cold touch of lizards or was even forced to hold his dead mother’s hand, generating repercussions into his view of women later on. Fear has become for him a way to view his surrounding, and thus, other women; the lenses have become his eyes, as he shifted from the role of the frightened to the role of his father.

A very important piece of the narrative, and one easily passed upon, is Mark’s dedication to his father’s house and his father’s books. These books that he holds in a shelf, together with the films his father took of him and the audio tapes that hold his screams and tears, represent the outcome of his suffering, they have a life of their own. They exist into eternity, not frail, not mortal. The image of Mark’s father fades away, but his work remains. Looking closer, the father is suffering from a special form of voyeurism in itself – filming his son. While his obsession is materialized into books, Mark’s obsession should be transformed into a documentary, revealing a repetitive cycle.

Not searching for sexual gratification, but instead looking from afar at what he can’t ever have, Mark doesn’t care that he could be caught. He enjoys the scared looks of people when they surprise him basically staring, either when seeing couples kiss in the shadow of a wall or while looking through the window of his tenant party. Mark’s interest in the investigation taking place around him is pathological. He needs to capture everything on camera, he even expresses his desires openly. That’s why his interest in scopophilia and whether or not it can be cured is not a valid inquiry, but a way to move the interest of the police towards him. But why, why be caught? To break a cycle, to catch his father in his infamous actions, too.

The one question left to answer is: who is the true protagonist of this film? The answer is clear the moment Mark receives his first kiss. He transfers the kiss to his camera, defining himself through it, pledging his eternal submission to the entity holding him captive: the documentary. All Mark’s actions are driven by the documentary, all his thoughts go to it, even when Helen appears in sight, but she is no match for this primal being deeply lodged into his essence.

The world has its heroes, the world has its foes. By subtle impositions over the definitions of both, the borderline between right and wrong, art and perdition fades abruptly. As perspectives change from outside to the ones inside the lens, the camera bonds together a hidden, quintessential, congenital peeping tom: film itself.

Movie still: Michael Powell. Peeping Tom.

by Vel Thora

Full article here.

ANDREI TARKOVSKY. CINEMA THROUGH A MIRROR

   

The following article was published in N-SPHERE April 2011 issue.

 

Andrei Tarkovsky is the kind of director who makes great demands on the viewer’s patience due to his loose narratives and very slow pace. But this is not to say that that they are without an interest or importance.

Tarkovsky was born in 1932 in Zavzhe (now Belorus), the son of the poet (and translator) Arseny Tarkovsky and the actress Maria Ivanovna, who also appeared in his film Zerkalo. Fragments from his father’s poems appeared as well in Zerkalo, Stalker and Nostalghia. I pointed out this biographical detail because it is easier to understand his style and themes using this as a starting point. Tarkovsky was not an ordinary director, even for arthouse film–making.

Generally a film, no matter the genre, either sends a clear set of ideas, either has a fascinating story/great characters, or it toys with the viewer’s emotions and so forth. Tarkovsky did none of those; his films aren’t about the ideas one can extract, his characters are pretty much the same in all of his films, the plot is generally vague and minimal; as for emotions, one would rather say that his works are toying more with patience than emotions. Yet, trying to judge his movies from these coordinates would be simply missing the point.

However, we can perceive his films more like poems because poetry has a specific way of resonating with its reader (and/or the other way around). Like his films, poetry is not about narratives or message (read Stéphane Mallarmé’s works if you do not believe me), but it is about creating a space of its own, a space you walk into rather than take for granted and claim it as yours. In this context, his films make more sense, because they, as well, remain in a space of their own. In the light of all these aspects, his slow pace makes more sense: in real life, when you watch an event, there is no fast forward option, nor is it there when you are wandering confused some abandoned road.

Sadly, today’s films are more about the fast–forward process, about the things we see, we know or like to hear, not about what escapes us. However, the film (as an environment) is not about that – if you want stories, there are plenty books to read, if you want convenience, then you have dozens of sitcoms and standup comedy shows either on the web, or on your favorite TV channel – it is about being able to bring life on screen. Yes, everyone will agree with that, but there are only a handful of films that do it. The rest is just entertainment, well done entertainment occasionally, but still too artificial to be really believable. Slowness has its own role as well: it is like capturing time in there; I am not saying all these just for the sake of wild–guessing, but because Tarkovsky considered the capture of time at its most significant instance to be at the center of film–making.

Tarkovsky’s first feature Ubiytsy (The Killers) (1956) was a short film based on Ernst Hemingway’s short story with the same name which was met (and still is) with an overall positive (even if restrained) feedback. (Indeed, it was not only his feature, as the writing/directing credits were split between him, Aleksandr Gordon and Marika Beiku). Three years later, he made another short – Segodnya uvolneniya ne budet (There Will Be No Leave Today) . In 1961 he made his school diploma short film Katok I Skripka (Steamroller and the Violin) , which, of all three, is closest to what his later works would aim at. One year later he shot his first feature, Ivanovo Destvo (Ivan’s Childhood) which takes the war–film pattern and infuses it with dream sequences and dazzling images. The result was a bleak, unusual haunting film that would set many of Tarkovsky’s coordinates.

Four years later he would resurface with what many consider to be his masterpiece: Andrei Rublev (1966). The film is loosely based on the life of the famous medieval icon painter Andrei Rublev and the interesting aspect here is that the film itself has some sort of an iconographic plot structure. There is no real protagonist here, but there is a certain tone and a certain vibe that holds the movie together during its daring 204 minutes (original) length. Here, the idea of a time–sculpture is strongly underlined. The long takes allowed the time to flow through individual sequences so that they can take effect on the audience. While some may consider this film tedious and meaningless, one thing cannot be denied: that every new thing Tarkovsky has ever brought to cinema had its roots here.

In 1973, Andrei Tarkovsky helmed Solyaris, an adaptation of the Stanislaw Lem’s novel with the same name and also as a reaction to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A space Odyssey which he found to be too cold. However, there is one thing the two films have in common: Solyaris is as much your daily SF movie as 2001:… is. On other notes, Solyaris maintains the contemplative tone of its predecessor, but with a far greater effect and, if some things passed unnoticed on Rublev on the date (delayed due to conflicts with soviet authorities), now they became clearer. On the one hand, Tarkovsky was a great portraitist: his camera lingers onto the actors’ faces, surprising key emotions and also – why not? – giving his characters’ credibility. On the other hand, there is a certain distance to be noticed when it comes to the female characters.

The landscapes in Tarkovsky’s films have an outlandish quality of their own, as if they lent a sense of timelessness. Vivid images of all the four elements (air, earth, fire, water) abound in his films as well, giving the whole output a mystical resonance (not to mention that most of his movies have a religious touch). Animals (dogs in particular) appear very often in his films, very probably as being entities or embodiments.

Now returning to Solyaris (and drawing a parallel to Stalker, as well) one could notice that for a science fiction film, it has barely anything to do with any technological gadgets. The science fiction attribute is just coined to make some certain things possible (believable). There is a post–apocalyptic tone, especially in Stalker and Solyaris, but the amusing aspect is that, on a second glance, one could notice that appearances can be deceiving. Tarkovsky was neither a nihilist, nor a man without hope. In his films nature seems to be an active force so the post–apocalyptic tone may actually suggest a symbiosis.

Moving on, Mirror and Nostalghia both had a pronounced auto–biographical note. In 1986, well aware of his illness (lung cancer), Andrei Tarkovsky helmed what would be his final project: The Sacrifice. The result was an interesting blend between Tarkovsky and Bergman (the latter’s cameraman, Sven Nykvyst, was involved).

There are many more things to tell about Tarkovsky’s films, but becoming too detailed about this particular topic is not helpful because, outside some important considerations, there nothing about his films I can tell you that you couldn’t figure out yourself. There are many interesting dialogues and symbols and themes, but they are easy to spot (the self–confrontation in Stalker is a good example). The difficulty in his films doesn’t come from misunderstanding their signals, but from not being able to sit them through. However, those being able are rewarded with some of the most stunning cinematic experiences ever recorded on the celluloid.

Good night and happy stalking.

Movie still: Andrei Tarkovsky. Ivan’s Childhood.

by Shade

Full article here.

DER SIEBENTE KONTINENT

   

The following article was published in N-SPHERE March 2011 issue.

 

How can we be aware of what we desire or feel, when our world is manipulated at a more or less subconscious level by the media? In the introduction of the documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Slavoj Zizek defines cinema as the most perverted form of art, on account of its ability to tell you how to desire. Thus, the human being becomes false and artificial. In this context we should ask ourselves if there’s any reason to continue our existence in an emotional inertia.

In an attempt to give an answer to this question, the Austrian director Michael Haneke helps us. He graduated from the University of Vienna, where he studied philosophy, psychology and drama. After that he started his career as a film critic and television director. The world described in his movies is often sad and desolate, demystifying the real world. In an interview, he stated “images should not be manipulated in any way, revealing the tricks used to increase the drama”. One of his most famous films is Funny Games, in which he is raising the issue of violence used in computer games and its effects on children. The movie becomes a clear example of gratuitous violence.

Michael Haneke was rewarded for his productions at Cannes Festival for the film version of the book The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek, and the Golden Globe in 2009 for the best foreign movie with The White Ribbon.

In 1989, Haneke opens his bleak universe with the movie Der siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent). This is an inquiry into what inertia means for everyday life. Inspired by a newspaper article that reported the mass suicide of a family, Haneke tries to recreate the last three year of their lives. He creates a certain framework of the story, thus provoking the viewer to gather details, the broken pieces of their world, leaving the interpretation up to the spectator. Not giving an explanation for his characters’ actions, he focuses on cause rather than effect. Haneke manipulates the camera as a surgical knife, which uncovers the damages made by society at a personal level. In this aesthetic simplicity we can see the influence of the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami.

The first frame of the film introduces the characters by using a close-up of the car number, a matter that includes them in a register. Due to this fact, they can be identified by numbers not by features. After the introduction, the image of the family is constructed like a puzzle by observation, analysis or dissection of their daily domestic rituals. Although we can watch their intimate actions, we are still unable to see the faces. The first character revealed to the viewer is the wife, Anna. She is observed while preparing breakfast. The other figures portrayed, Georg – the husband and Eva – the daughter are shaped in the social context in which they operate. To this extent we can see how Haneke gives a visual identity to his characters placing them in the schizophrenic society that forces them to act through a set of rhythmic gestures. The feeling conveyed to the viewer through close-ups, suggests an individuality harmed by society.

Communication is not made through direct dialogue, and, if it exists, it is laconic. Likewise, the figures of the characters are empty, using this lack of expressiveness to convert them into objects. The only emotion present is caused by death. The first character depicted in this situation is Anna’s brother. His affective memory is activated by a song heard on the radio that reminds him of their mother’s death. The end of this sequence shows him in front of the TV, along with his family, looking very calm. So we can see how a television show can repress even strong emotions.

The last part of the movie suggests one escape route. The last 30 minutes of the movie depict the mass destruction of their material items, before committing suicide. We can be tempted to say that this is a fortunate case of a bourgeois family, that realizes its limited views, and does something about it. Protecting themselves with gloves or goggles following the same rhythmic gestures, each object is destroyed one at a time. In this context we are witnessing another metaphor. Eve has a nervous breakdown when she sees her father destroying the fish tank. This reaction could be triggered by two factors. First of all it could be the fact that she doesn’t care about what they are doing as long as living beings are not involved. And second of all that fish tank could be the symbol of their family and its destruction would suggest that there is no escape, and life is meaningless.

As a personal note, my favorite moment and the most intense part of the movie is the final scene. After they commit suicide we can see them laying on the bed in front of the TV, showing only static. This is quite interesting because this electromagnetic noise might be perceived as containing particles emitted during the Big Bang. We could see it as an irony: combing the media with the primordial source of energy makes the suicide in vain, making the alienation of the society through television a normal state of mind/existence.

In the end, I would like to draw attention on the philosophical aspects that Haneke uses for this movie. He is recognized as one of the contributors to the “cinema of existentialism” among Chantal Akerman, Gaspar Noé and the Krzysztof Kieślowski. The most influential thinkers that we find in the work of Michael Haneke are Martin Haidegger and Karl Jaspers. The latter one is constructing his philosophy around the idea of how man is losing himself in the technological progress, which is making him more plastic and conducting him to self destruction. All in all, we can see that Michael Haneke allows a release of emotions only in the context of death, which makes us wonder: what if death is the only thing that makes us human in a postmodern society?

Movie still: Der siebente Kontinent.

by Ioana Stan

Full article here.