Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Second Track

Who knew East Germans made films? And who knew they made films as stylish, paranoid, and fascinating as this one? While heavily referencing The Third Man—the last shots of both films are obviously similar, and both share comparable trajectories of moral disillusionment—Joachim Kunert’s 1962 The Second Track is ultimately a strange beast all its own. True, Kunert plays up the noir atmospherics nearly to the point of genre parody, but has there ever been any other noir to score itself with a harp? Imagine a sinister figure walking through shadows while a pastoral lullaby plays on angelic strings—reality just breaks down.

This incongruity of sound and image might seem like a flaw, but for a film defined by the dissonance of belief and reality it’s actually a rather smart tactic. Walter Brock, an employee in a train yard, witnesses a robbery, but when asked to identity the culprit, he mysteriously holds back from fingering the guilty party. Hidden Nazi pasts and buried crimes are exhumed, and even as the film remains a terse thriller, it also becomes a kind of social allegory—the younger generation discovering and repudiating the sins of the old. However, the film is too unnerving to offer any genuine cathartic release from the burden of Germany’s Nazi past, especially when Kunert twists audience sympathies so effectively by making us identify with Brock before unveiling the worst of his sins. The issue isn’t how a Nazi could be disguised as a decent person, but rather how a decent person could have the capacity to be a Nazi. Noir was always the best genre for finding the evil in everyone.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Profound Desire of the Gods

Japanese director Shohei Imamura made a career out of casting a sardonic eye towards society and sympathizing with the plight of outcasts. But he also possessed a benign fascination with the peculiarities of human communities and the way baser urges cannot be repressed by civil society, all of which come to bear in his 1968 film, The Profound Desire of the Gods, an immense three-hour epic of a remote island community.

The film focuses on the inbred Futori clan, pariahs of this resplendent tropical paradise. One of the sons, Nekichi, is even kept chained in a pit, slowly digging out a hole so that an enormous boulder (placed there by a tidal wave supposedly as the gods’ punishment for the wicked ways of the family) will fall into the earth and allow the family to reclaim the use of its rice paddy. Compounding his sins is his love for his sister, Uma, a priestess who is also the mistress of Ryu, the island’s leading businessman. Making up the rest of the clan is Nekichi’s father, Jaja, a befuddled old man who also married his own sister, and Nekichi’s two children, half-witted, lusty daughter Toriko and son Kametaro, the only member of the clan who aspires to leave the island.

The basic plot sounds almost cliché—an engineer from Tokyo arrives to help find a freshwater well on the drought-plagued island so that his company can build a factory to process the sugar cane grown there. This big-city outsider in a remote rural location premise is by no means fresh, but it is typically played for light farce, not the frenzied anthropological melodrama that Imamura sustains here. He envisions an entire culture for the island, complete with pagan rituals and local creation mythology, and then sets it into conflict with the industrial capitalism brought by the engineer.

There is a density of incident and richness of implication here that you might find in an epic novel, and Imamura’s style rises to the challenge. The nature photography in the film is stunning, and the animal world is omnipresent, always watching over the action like taciturn, troubled gods (as one character explains of the island’s religion, their gods are the whole of nature, right down to the grass). But Imamura is just as skilled with filming the human animals. I’ve never paid much attention to the style of Imamura’s films before—he seems like a director more concerned with effectively serving the story rather than creating prettified images—but the entire film is constructed with meticulous intelligence and care. Conversations—the stumbling block that separates the good director from the mediocre—become riveting with their complex layers of competing action. With the camera typically set at a distance, Imamura creates webs of relationships within a single shot while letting us witness the characters in their environment, at the mercy of their gods.

Even though the film evinces nostalgia for a natural world lost to industrialization—most eloquently in a shot of a lizard’s tail severed by a bulldozer and left writhing on the jungle floor—Imamura is after a mood more complicated than mere yearning for rustic simplicity. As is common with his films, he uses often-depraved characters to tease out the primal urges denied by polite society—characters who as a result of revealing such truths are cast out and despised by the community. Social order maintains itself by the people uniting against the outcasts, such as in the truly terrifying scene when a group of villagers gather around Nekichi’s pit one night and start to throw dirt and rocks into it while he cowers and begs absolution for his every sin. Black silhouettes rim the top of the pit while Nekichi is brightly lit below—exposed and vulnerable, while the villagers can hide in the anonymous violence of the mob claiming to act for the good of the community.

As Imamura’s outcasts re-enact the myths of the island they become stand-ins for the gods themselves. The Futoris evolve from social rejects to social myths that enter the fabric of the island’s culture (it seems even outsiders have their place in society). As the island opens up to the world, the primal passions of the Futoris remain, albeit coded in the language of legend and superstition. But what they represent can never be fully repressed or removed, and the film leaves us with the ever-present possibility of the irrational world derailing the rational—the inescapable spectre of our own animal nature that haunts us no matter how many gods we kill.

Note: Shohei Imamura’s films have become increasingly available in recent years, but The Profound Desire of the Gods, arguably his masterpiece, has yet to be commercially released in North America in any form. Desperate to find a copy for myself, I took to the shady cybernetic underworld and chanced upon an excellent quality DVD rip with good subtitles. If you have the patience to download 15 Rapidshare files (which I hope you will), the film can be found here.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

NFB Film of the Week: Flutter

Films like Howie Shia’s Flutter remind me of what makes animation so attractive a medium—a distinctive artistic style put into motion in order to tell a tale primarily in images, albeit aided by music, sound effects, and the occasional sub-linguistic noise. This is prime visual storytelling, and is that not the essence of all good filmmaking?

The film takes off from a single striking image: a boy with paper wings glued to his sneakers. The boy lines up for a schoolyard race, jumps the gun, and then leaps the fence, heading out of the schoolyard as his baffled teacher helplessly blows the whistle and his classmates watch in confusion. He runs and runs—through the urban landscape, leaping over cars and buildings, into the countryside, racing through wheat fields and alongside buffalo—until he reaches a vast body of water. With the stars reflecting in the water, the night sky and the ocean seem indistinguishable from each other. So the boy simply keeps running, across the water and into the sky.

At the same time, a friend of the boy—a female classmate—takes inspiration from his escape and spray paints a huge mythological mural on the side of a building in the city before being chased away by a resident of the place. The boy’s act of rebellion inspires the girl to her own defiant act of creativity, one great deed inspiring another.

Shia’s animation style is fluid and simple—perfect for capturing the more pronounced movements of his characters as well as their more subtle expressions. The film is primarily in black and white, except for flashes of red when the boy cuts himself as he runs through the wheat field. The backgrounds are dark, imposing shapes that bring into relief the figures, which are drawn with a clean line, turning them into little pools of white space that attract the eye in the threatening urban landscape.

True, this is a modest film. Its goal is simply to celebrate creativity and rebellion with the energy and imagination such themes deserve. But even a modest animated short can attain some powerful effects that are beyond the capabilities of live-action filmmaking simply through the sheer expressiveness of its line or the shifting moods of its different shades of grey. Consider this quote from Rudolf Arnheim, who wrote in his book Film as Art, “I would venture to predict that the film will be able to reach the heights of the other arts only when it frees itself from the bonds of photographic reproduction and becomes a pure work of man, namely, as animated cartoon or painting.” Arnheim, an old-guard theorist writing during the transition into sound in the 1930s, essentially argued that film was an art inasmuch as it diverged from reality. The artistry of the medium lay in its manipulations of reality, not its photographic reproduction thereof. Colour, dialogue—these were the problems, not the solutions.

This stance might sound a bit perverse to audiences today, but considering the limitations of early sound films, which felt comparatively shackled next to the sublime gracefulness of the late, great silents, it’s an understandable if ultimately futile argument. Time marches on, and once people start talking it’s a bit hard to shut them up.

I bring all of this up not because I want to subject this humble animated short to some sort of lofty theoretical analysis—god forbid I should be so cruel to any film, never mind one as charming and beautiful as Flutter—but rather because I want to celebrate its nimble visual storytelling. Animation is really the last bastion of this type of filmmaking where everything can be expressed without words and no one will bat an eye. Film as a medium is at its most distinguished when conveying ideas and emotions through images—that much better to say things that are beyond words. If dialogue driven films most closely resemble novels, then visually driven films most closely resemble music. Sing it, Shia, sing it!

Sunday, March 15, 2009


One of the funniest jokes in Alex Cox’s Walker comes in the very first minute, when the words “This is a true story” flash in bold red letters on the screen.

That’s not to say this film is pure fiction. The plot is based on the exploits of William Walker, an American filibuster who travelled to Nicaragua in the nineteenth century and became self-declared president of that country from 1856 to 1857. But it takes a lot of cheek to label as a “true story” a film set in the 1850s but containing cars and helicopters, as well as Time and Newsweek (both of which didn’t exist until after World War I).

With such perverse anachronism, Cox throws off the musty mantle of historical drama and reaches for something far more colourful and unique—less a comment on history than a burlesque of it, Cox picks up on a neglected episode of American history and turns it into a savage parody of the nation’s history of ill-conceived foreign interventions, evoking both Vietnam and the American government’s support of the Contras in Nicaragua during the 1980s (the primary target of this 1987 film’s sharp-edged political rage). Even though this is ostensibly a “true story,” Cox’s goal is to put those quotation marks around the phrase and undermine the much-abused authority of received narratives and the historical record.

This schism between what we are told and what actually happens is the foundation of the film, and the distortion and corruption of language is rampant throughout. Walker narrates the film in a dry tone that belies its self-aggrandizing intentions—the voiceover rarely matches what appears on screen. When Walker and his crew arrive in Nicaragua, he merely notes that they “landed,” even though we can see his ship in a flaming wreck on the ocean and his men lying soaked and exhausted on the shore with whatever meager supplies they could salvage. Walker’s modestly optimistic description of their arrival elides the calamitous landing implied by the film. Later, after defeating his opponents and essentially conquering the country, Walker and his men ride into Grenada where the voiceover declares, “We were welcomed as liberators.” The town square is conspicuously empty.

Walker’s sense of self-importance is one of the film’s primary targets of humour—he even occasionally slips into the third person as he speaks. Well played by Ed Harris, Walker is a rigid, pious authoritarian amid a rabble, cutting an imposing figure as he strides purposefully through his ramshackle army. One of the most striking scenes in the film has Walker brazenly marching down a street as gunmen ambush his squad. As bodies fall around him, Walker ignores the carnage and continues undiscouraged because, as he notes to one of the wounded soldiers, advancing is all he knows how to do.

Combining confidence and folly, Walker quickly moves from being a comical figure to a frightening one. When the brawling, degenerate band of rogues that make up Walker’s army are mockingly described as his “immortals,” it at first feels like a poke at the loftiness of Walker’s Manifest Destiny talk and his paltry means, but the word’s associations with imperial emperors soon become disturbingly real.

As the self-installed president of Nicaragua, Walker turns into the power-drunk, penny-ante tyrant of a tiny nation beset by poverty, disease, and civil unrest (feel free to draw present-day parallels if you so desire). But his talk never swerves from his original rhetoric of democratic liberation, even as he claims absolute power, murders his opponents, and in a final fit of imperious rage, sets fire to Grenada. Unflaggingly confident of the purity of his purpose, Walker rationalizes or simply ignores the constant corruption of his ideals, perhaps reaching the greatest depths of his own personal moral debasement when he forsakes his abolitionist past and re-instates slavery in Nicaragua in an attempt to elicit sympathetic support from the southern states (an event that is true to the historical record, although the fact that one of Walker’s closest aides in the film is African-American is very likely invention). And yet, Walker maintains he is a liberator, bringing freedom and equality to the country. When his mistress argues that they must stave off revolution in Nicaragua because they are both aristocrats, Walker recoils in disgust and haughtily declares, “I am a social democrat.”

Call that hypocrisy or plain old American schizophrenia, but either way Cox goes for the throat and doesn’t relent. This is truly a funny film, but also an angry one, and it ranges wildly from broad farcical swipes at Walker’s pomp and folly to the somber and disturbing footage of victims of war in Nicaragua that plays over the credits—a manic tone that is likely based in the peculiarities of the film’s production. Although financed by American money and distributed by a major studio (Universal), Walker was actually filmed in Nicaragua. Granted, production was removed from the actual fighting occurring at the time—this isn’t front-lines reportage, after all—but there were Sandinistas on the set and bloody conflict at the other end of the country. Surely that would alter the mood of any production set.

Maybe that is why the film’s digressions from historical accuracy and leaps in logic and tone feel so right and so necessary to the telling of this story. When a helicopter comes down at the end of the film and airlifts American citizens from the burning chaos of Grenada, Cox echoes the fall of Saigon and creates a continuity of American imperialist ventures all within this one largely forgotten historical episode. When Walker’s deaf-mute girlfriend tells off a pro-slavery advocate of Manifest Destiny by signing the phrase, “Go fuck a pig,” Walker translates her objection into polite, neutered terms—dissenting arguments are suppressed, and the film’s clearest voice of reason cannot be heard.

Moments like these may feel outside of historical logic, but what is history in this mess of lies? The film ends with footage of Ronald Reagan saying American troops will not be sent to central America, followed directly by images of American troops in Honduras, right on Nicaragua’s border, conducting “manoeuvres.” There’s honesty for you. Who wouldn't be skeptical of historical fidelity in light of such perversions of the record? Far better instead to highlight the story of corrupted, delusional power that recurs again and again, the history behind the history. Maybe that's why despite all the anachronisms and absurdities Walker somehow remains a true story—or at least truer than most.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

NFB Film of the Week: Paul Tomkowicz: Street-railway Switchman

Digging through these National Film Board archives, I find myself constantly discovering these films that might appear bland on the surface, but which reveal surprising reservoirs of emotion. Take Roman Kroitor’s Paul Tomkowicz: Street-railway Switchman as an example. It seems like a rote piece of nationalist filmmaking: part of the “Faces of Canada” series, it focuses on the titular character, a hard-working Polish immigrant who works as a switchman in Winnipeg. Set in the middle of a rather chilly looking winter’s night, the 64-year-old Tomkowicz sweeps the snow from the streetcar tracks and provides a dry narration that recounts bits of his past and mundane details of his present routine. But the film’s winter imagery—of whitened streets beneath the black night, lights surrounded by a halo of snow—evokes the beautiful quietude of walking a Canadian city in the depths of a cold night, that sweet melancholy state before the frostbite kicks in.

This brief character study unsurprisingly takes on the same desolate qualities as its setting. Observing that he can safely walk Winnipeg’s streets at any hour of the night, Tomkowicz explains in a clipped, restrained voiceover, “My sister wrote me in my village in Poland the soldiers came in one night and murdered 29 people—my brother, my brother’s wife.” It’s a shocking detail, but even more startling is how detached the man is as he describes the death of his own relatives. “Why they do that?” he asks. “I don’t know.” As he speaks, the tone in his voice sounds no different than when he later contemplates smoking his pipe and reading the paper on his day off.

The rest of the voiceover is delivered in a similarly dispassionate tone. This can at least be partially contributed to the fact that Tomkowicz is no professional actor, and like most non-professionals, he becomes self-consciously inexpressive and controlled when being recorded. Not that this is a deficiency in the film—if a director like Robert Bresson could wring potent emotions out of the non-emotive amateurs in his films, then why not this film?

In fact, Tomkowicz’s lack of emotion as he describes his life is what gives the film its surprising emotional impact. The voiceover has the quality of an internal monologue—it skips around seemingly at random, jumping from quotidian musings about what he will do on his day off to thoughts of mortality as if the two were interchangeable notions, each of no greater significance than the other. Tomkowicz mentions that the streetcars will be replaced by trolley buses, effectively making the switchman obsolete. He sounds unperturbed by this turn of events, noting that he will be retired before the trolleys drive him out of a job. But his thoughts continue on this declining track and he considers the possibility that at 64 he might not have many years left: “Maybe another couple of years—finished. I don’t know.”

Of course, even after making this observation, Tomkowicz goes on to sketch out things he can do when retired, so if it sounds like I’m obsessing over the man’s death, at least take comfort in the fact that he doesn’t seem particularly bothered by the prospect of that last streetcar ride into oblivion. His mortal thoughts come and go as casually as those passengers whose faces occasionally light up the film with the promise of a bustling, dynamic world somewhere far away (and warm too, I’ll bet)—somewhere outside of the serene, lonely world of Paul Tomkowicz.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Seed of Man

A late-1960s art-movie rendition of the post-apocalyptic descent into barbarism. Oh goody. This 1969 Italian film from director Marco Ferreri is perhaps best regarded as a fitfully engaging failure, or maybe just a bilious curiosity for connoisseurs of dystopian satire. As a plague ravages humanity, Dora and Cino hide out at a remote beach house where Cino—encouraged by local authorities who suggest that all women have a duty to repopulate the human race—pressures Dora to bear him a child. Dora refuses, presumably not wanting to bring a child into such a vile world, and Cino resorts to drugging her in order to “plant the seed of man.” With a premise like that, it’s clear the film wants to create a scabrous vision of the relationship between men and women, but the drama is inert and the central conflict over bearing children underdeveloped, leaving the satire strangely toothless despite the extremity of the subject matter (which includes cannibalism and rape, both filmed in pastoral and romantic tones to allow for easy irony and increased provocation). As it turns out, the seed of man is explosive (no shock there), and Dora and Cino meet a fate that might have been startling if they had ever been more than empty vessels masquerading as characters—the film senselessly, inexplicably blows them up.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

NFB Film of the Week: The Street

Based upon the Mordecai Richler story “The Summer My Grandmother Was Supposed to Die,” Caroline Leaf’s animated short The Street tells the story of a young Jewish boy in Montreal forced to share a bedroom with his older sister while his grandmother lies slowly dying in the room that he believes should be his. The film has the feeling of a memory revisited, grounded in concrete details of everyday life but filtered through the shadings of perception—an effect aided by Leaf's distinctive animation style of using water paint on glass (she mixes glycerine in the paint to prevent it from drying). The images flow from one to another, and the heavy, wet paint gives the visual style a distinctive sense of texture and a remarkable sensitivity to nuances of light and movement. Consider this Impressionist animation.

This style of animation, which avoids hard cuts between scenes and instead allows the images to constantly transform, is hardly unique in itself. In fact, there is a long history of it at the NFB. Leaf was likely influenced by the NFB’s resident innovative animator, Norman McLaren, who could build a short film simply out of the transmutations of a single doodle (see Hen Hop for just one example). Or, for a more recent example from outside the confines of the NFB, you can look at Josh Raskin’s I Met the Walrus, which uses the continuous transformations of its images to illustrate an old conversation with John Lennon. The mutating visuals in these films carry some of the charge you would find in a particularly long, unbroken shot in a live-action film, even if the effect is ultimately dampened by the lack of narrative (it’s hard to have a sense of lived time in an abstract film). Regardless, this style creates a sense of unbroken time, as opposed to the elliptical time created by editing.

But The Street feels like a fortuitous meeting of style and story. The fluid transformations are an approximation of memory, condensing a span of years into a series of vividly recalled moments that carry the emotional weight of a larger story. These small moments—the boy’s confused cry of “Who’s getting married?” after being told his grandmother left a ring behind for his wife, for example—are the sort of incidents that seem to grow upon recollection, gaining significance over the years as you try to impose order and meaning upon the past.

In one of this short film’s most beautiful sequences, two men at the funeral stand on the balcony ruminating upon how cruel it is that there should be such sorrow on so beautiful a summer’s day. The view shifts to the whole of the street, complete with children riding on bicycles and sheets on clotheslines flapping in the breeze, before returning to the two men on the balcony. The sun sets almost instantly; the sky rapidly shifts colours before fading to black. The vividness of the summer day is made poignant by the overwhelming sense of transience that hangs over it.

The film ends with a similar juxtaposition of vitality and decay. After his grandmother passes away, the boy’s sister declares that he will at last have a room to his own, but that long-held desire no longer appeals to him. Now the boy dreads sleeping in the bed where his grandmother died. As he tries to sleep, his sister dances around the room wearing a sheet and moaning in the voice of their dead grandmother, “Who’s that sleeping in my bed?” The boy has gained his first glimmer of his own mortality, with old age hanging over his own youth like a wraith. In this film, as in memory, time is simultaneous.