Wednesday, March 30, 2011
After seeing Alexander Medvedkin’s 1935 Soviet silent film Happiness, Sergei Eisenstein supposedly remarked, “Today, I saw how a Bolshevik laughs.” Strangely, he meant it as a compliment. But viewers of this beautifully barbed fable could be excused for thinking otherwise, given that every laugh in the story comes at the expense of revolutionaries turned greedy and foolish. This is laughter skittering along the sharp edge of despair—how many comedies contain two suicide attempts? One, brilliantly, involves an old woman attempting to hang herself on a windmill (the blades pick her up and drop her down again and again, and the laughter gets mighty queasy but quick). The other occurs when our hapless hero—Khmyr, a peasant so poor even robbers have to give him money—says farewell to the cruel world and starts building his own casket, much to the anger of the authorities, who are the only ones allowed to authorize death here. His punishment: whipped for 33 years, shot 12 times, killed 7. After which, the film dryly notes, his faith in happiness is somewhat shaken. Still, he discovers some kind of joy by film’s end when, flush with new wealth, he drops a bag in the road just to watch two beggars scramble for it. Little wonder this surreal, savage film was banned in the Soviet Union for decades. The laughter of one Bolshevik feeds on the tears of another, and in a world of supposed equality, happiness for one little man is just feeling bigger than someone else.
Monday, March 21, 2011
There’s something crucially key about Luxury Cruises in evidence here: being entertained by someone who clearly dislikes you, and feeling you deserve the dislike at the same time that you resent it.
— David Foster Wallace, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”
I’m not sure why Jean-Luc Godard hates me, but I’m pretty sure he does.
Is it my comfortable North American lifestyle, which insulates me from all the suffering in the world? Is it the essential banality of my white-collar job? Is it my face? Do I read the wrong books? Do I watch the wrong movies? Is it because I’m gauche enough to visit the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris and take a picture of Henri Langlois’ honourary Oscar even though the sign clearly says no photography allowed? Is it because I’m self-absorbed enough to think any of this matters?
Maybe he hates me because I insist on watching his latest experiment, Film Socialisme, despite the fact that every inch of the screen seems to radiate a singular sense of purpose, a simple message delivered with a kick in the ass and a punch in the teeth: piss off. This means you, jerk, there in the audience with your chai latte and bourgeois hipster smugness. So you think you’re going to watch a bit of artful Gallic business and come away feeling oh-so-cultured and oh-so-so-sophisticated? Well, the joke’s on you, because here comes Godard to show us we’re not smart, not sophisticated, not cultured, and not much of anything else really. Look inside that cup. It’s not chai—it’s water! Presto! ART.
Like any magic act, your enjoyment of Film Socialisme depends entirely upon your own credulity. Believers will trust in what they see as sorcery, and give in to the spell. Skeptics, bored and distracted, will fidget and start poking around for the trapdoors. Or, put another way: everyone agrees that Godard is at least several steps ahead. The question is what planet he’s walking on.
Divided into three parts, the film defies easy summary. The first section is set on a luxury cruise, populated with the disparate likes of a Russian detective, numerous puckered silver-haired vacationers, and Patti Smith. There are glimpses of several stories, but these rumours of narrative remain unconfirmed. We move to a small gas station for the second part, where an obnoxious television news crew harasses the family that runs the place. The final section consists of a montage of art, film, and history, finally ending with white text on a black screen, the legal disclaimer against piracy you find on DVDs, and a defiant final message: “No comment.” No kidding.
Why then, despite all my skepticism, is it so hard to get that final silence out of my head? The entire film is a thwarted attempt at communication. The subtitles—written in a halting, gnomic style that has been dubbed “Navajo English”—are inscrutable little puzzles. When someone says, “War is war,” does it mean anything? How could it? You might as well say, “Chair is chair.” (Actually, maybe someone does at some point—it’s hard to tell.) But the audio offers little help to those not bound to the subtitles. Voices fade in and out in mid-sentence, the smothering noise of the waves against the ship swallows most everything else, and the rest is borderline gibberish.
There’s something despairing in all of these obstructing tactics. True, refusing to speak is perhaps the most damning gesture of defiance. It suggests an unwillingness to play along, to accept the rules of the conversation. But it’s also a futile act, one borne out of a lack of power. Godard gestures towards larger meanings, greater problems—Palestine, AIDS, colonialism—but he sets them adrift in this crippled vessel just to watch them drown. This is the work of a fatally wounded romantic.
Few filmmakers have loved the medium with the same molecular intimacy as Godard, and few can hate it as knowingly as he does. All of these distortions of sound and image make me think he wants to drag cinema through the mud just to see if he can love it afterwards. And in the end, does he not relinquish his mastery of the medium? The film's finale moves from image to word to blackness. Most films end in the dark, but there’s a brutal sense of finality in this particular progression, as if Godard were retreating from cinema itself. What does it matter what he says in a movie anymore? No one is watching.
Well, except for me, in this case—but I suppose that makes me the “no one” in this equation. And for what it’s worth, this no one would like to apologize to the film for watching. I feel like I just walked into a room to find someone standing on a chair with a rope in hand. How awkward. Do you want to, um, talk about it?
No, no, I suppose not. But perhaps we can be friends, some day, you and I, Film Socialisme. I hope you overcome this morbid depression that seems to have gripped you, this overwhelming despair that film is dead and all is lost. I also hope you don’t stink up the apartment next to mine. That’s not very neighbourly, you know.
So get well soon. And maybe we’ll meet one day on the street, perhaps in Paris, out by Parc de Bercy. I’ll smile and start talking about old times. Feeling better, I’ll ask. Sure, sure. Boy, we had us some times, didn’t we? Yeah, yeah, you’ll say, eyes drifting away to some distant memory. Say, there was something that was bugging me, I’ll ask, what was the deal with the llama, anyway? And your eyes will snap back to the present, and you’ll just grin your sly grin and laugh your coy laugh, and say, Oh, that? I just like llamas, that’s all.
Yeah, that would be nice.
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
When a young child walks up to his parents, stares up at them with those wide, wondering eyes, and asks where puppies come from, I can only imagine the range of emotions felt by the parent. Tenderness? Amusement? Patience? But mostly, I just wonder why they don’t reply, “Your mom gives birth to them. She’s having a Sheltie and two Lhasa Apsos tomorrow.”
That’s basically the premise of Dogtooth at its most benign. But Giorgis Lanthimos’ ingenious film goes much, much further into darker, stranger, altogether funnier territory. The parents in the film don’t just tell a few minor fibs to their son and two daughters—they lock the children away from society and completely redefine reality, often on a whim. When the son asks his mother what a zombie is, she decides on the spot that it is a small yellow flower in the garden. The children are warned they cannot leave the house until their right (or left, it doesn’t matter) dogtooth falls out. And when you ask someone to hand you the phone, they pass you a saltshaker.
There is some purpose to these surrealist language games—or at least a pattern, given that the parents redefine any word that points to the world beyond the garden wall (sea, motorway, and excursion, for example). But there’s no explanation of why the parents are putting so much effort into hiding away their children. The father is the only one who ever leaves the compound—he works at an amusingly grey factory that seems to produce nothing—although he does bring home a young woman from time to time, who is paid to relieve the son’s sexual urges. Beyond that, there’s little sense of the larger world that produced this warped family, nor any real judgment of these bizarre rituals.
If anything, the film’s allegory is all the more unsettling for this lack of definition. Is this the story of the violence of patriarchy? The madness of totalitarianism? The malleability of reality? Yes, all these things and more! (What a bargain!) Given that everyone is reduced to mad barking by the end, you could just as easily say the film is about the Pavlovian conditioning necessary to sustain the family unit (and by extension, society).
What makes the whole thing work is that Lanthimos never comes right out and stamps a single interpretation on the proceedings. This wicked game he plays could be spun any number of ways, but he wisely steps back and allows the perverse logic of this world to take hold of the story. The results are quite remarkable—loopy moments of childish awe blend with sharp shocks of violence, and who knows if the next scene will produce a dry chuckle or stifled gasp. I doubt you’ll see a funnier scene this year than the son’s horrified discovery of an alien creature in the garden (that is to say, a snuggly little kitten). But then again, you probably also won’t find anything more upsetting than the moment he attacks the intruding monster with a pair of pruning shears. No one said allegory was a clean business.
I’ll avoid getting too deep into my own theories about the film, which will likely change with repeated viewings, personal moods, and the ever-shifting geopolitical tides. But there may be a clue in the film’s use of Rocky and Jaws, both of which find their way into the hands of the eldest daughter. This carefully monitored mental ecosystem only begins to fall apart after an injection of pure Hollywood miracle serum sends it into stupefied shock. Once she watches the contraband movies, the eldest daughter’s brain becomes thoroughly scrambled with visions of a world beyond her parents’ control, a world violent and terrifying and thrilling beyond all her experience. But there’s a fine line between escapism and escape, as the film’s double-edged ending suggests. Hollywood opens up her reality, teaches her a new language, shows her many wonderful things—except, apparently, how to be free.
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Watching Les Raquetteurs, a 1958 National Film Board short from Michel Brault and Gilles Groulx, I thought of a child at a wedding. The child is caught up in this social ritual he can only partly understand, and most of what he grasps are fragmentary images and sensations. He hears the music, sees the crowd, but what really stands out are pieces of the whole: a kid playing by himself on the stairs outside the hall, a couple sitting alone at a table talking. The child doesn’t realize that the couple at the table is venting frustration at the bride for snubbing a mutual friend. He doesn’t know that the kid on the stairs is hiding from his obnoxiously drunk parents, who are laughing too loud and slobbering all over each other. These glosses of meaning can come much later, when the scene is reconstituted in memory. But in the moment, it’s just an experience.
Les Raquetteurs, documenting a snowshoeing festival in Sherbrooke, Quebec, captures some of that childlike wonder and confusion. At times, I felt like a baffled kid standing next to my mother. Mom, why are the snowshoers running on a track instead of snow? (Answer: because it’s funnier that way, dumbass.) The film is a concentrated pill of the festival’s pleasures, ranging from the opening parade to the races, with a rowdy evening dance closing out the festivities. It’s a goofy little event—seriously, the racetracks are so well trod the racers could just as easily be running on dirt—but Groulx and Brault film everything with a delighted fascination. The film stands as an early exemplar of direct cinema.
A brief explanation: direct cinema is an approach to documentary filmmaking that has roots in Quebec, and Les Raquetteurs lies right at the origins of the movement. The goal is to give viewers a taste of an unmediated experience. Direct cinema typically forgoes voiceovers and other explanatory devices that can pull the viewer out of the film (there are no labels here telling us who these people are, for instance). There is just the subject, with as little interference as possible. Compare that to a more conventional documentary, which uses talking heads and a narrator to help capture reality. That word says it all—“capture.” You could say confining a subject is one route to understanding it; you could also ask how well a warden can ever know his prisoners. Direct cinema simply aims for a freer relationship with reality, that’s all.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the film is necessarily more real—whatever that is—than other documentaries. Brault and Groulx are certainly not above a little bit of manipulation, if it suits their purposes. There’s a hilarious offhand moment when a train interrupts the town parade, leaving one half of a befuddled marching band stuck behind a string of rail cars. An unplanned moment, sure, but what of that perfectly framed shot of the railway crossing lights flashing? Orson Welles supposedly once said that a director presides over accidents. I don’t suppose that means reading the train schedule each morning and then setting up your camera at the railway crossing.
Perhaps Brault and Groulx cheat a little—so what? Who wants to get into phenomenological haggling over what is and is not a valid experience of reality? At its best, the film is a joyous rush of images, made all the more vivid for their lack of context: the banjo player caught in mouth-agape ecstasy mid-song, the awkward staged kiss between the queen of the festival and the man who presents her crown, the dancing harmonica player who flails with pure abandon. I’m particularly fond of the man who trips and loses a race, angrily throwing down his toque and then picking it up in almost the same gesture, as if instantly embarrassed by his outburst. A couple of staged shots do nothing to detract from this sense of spontaneity. The film is nearly 15 minutes worth of unguarded moments.
At the party that closes the film, we see several different couples whispering into each other’s ears. Of course, we never hear what is said, and that’s part of what makes the images stick in the mind. Much like that child at the wedding, these experiences are more vivid precisely because we don’t know everything. Understanding is itself a filter between yourself and experience. Sometimes documentaries try to show us reality by holding it down and prying out it secrets. But in the best examples of direct cinema, the surest way to reveal the world is to preserve something of its mystery.
Saturday, March 5, 2011
Claude Chabrol has a joke he’d like to tell you. It goes like this:
So a police detective walks into a doctor’s office. “What hurts?” the doctor asks. “Everything hurts,” the detective moans. He complains about his throat, his feet, his stomach. He can only sleep for a few hours at a time, and even then, only with his eyes open. The doctor listens carefully and asks if anything else is bothering the man. “I’m also suffering from acute paranoia,” the detective says. “I’ve got a feeling everyone’s lying to me.”
And then the detective discovers the doctor has killed his wife, and everyone really is lying to him, and so he beats the shit out of everyone—not because he needs information, since he already knows who’s guilty and who isn’t, but because they’ve pissed him off with all their lying, you see—and charges whomever he wants because he’s a cop and he can do whatever he wants.
Admittedly, it’s funnier when Chabrol tells it.
In Carlos, Olivier Assayas paints the terrorist as rockstar, a high-rolling celebrity, self-assured and charismatic. Considering we’re talking about Carlos the Jackal here, there’s probably something to this, even if the ensuing collision of sex and violence sometimes crosses into the absurd. Case in point: the scene where Carlos tells his girlfriend that guns are an extension of his body, and then proceeds to elaborate upon his argument by fingering her as she licks a grenade. Not that the rockstar life is all kinky, explosive sex. On his first mission, Carlos’ gun jams after only one clumsy shot (don’t worry, baby, we can just cuddle this time).
But that aside, Assayas has actually made a remarkably engrossing epic here—remarkable because this two-and-a-half-hour film is actually an abridgement of a miniseries that runs over twice as long. Perhaps that accounts for the rather breathless pacing as over twenty years is compressed together, but there’s still an inevitable sense that we’re sometimes missing something important. Gaps in Carlos’ life are often signaled by a slow fade to the black, one of which produces not only a wife and two children, but also a mistress. That’s one fruitful ellipsis.
“Behind every bullet we fire, there is an idea,” Carlos explains early in the film, and the phrase becomes an epitaph for his terrorist career. He begins as a communist supporter of the Palestinian cause, but as he goes deeper into the web of international violence, he begins lending his particular talents to whichever criminal state is willing to play ball. He lusts after fame, hungers for power, even as he argues his every action is for the cause. Fittingly, his years of hiding end when a French agent discovers him leaving a hospital after a liposuction operation—the man’s own vanity betrays him. There may be an idea behind every bullet, but that idea remains stationary. And all the while, the bullet just keeps moving farther and farther away from the power that first gave it motion. Violence always moves past any feeble notions of principle.
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
But he was so angry. His self-hatred came out as anger against everybody and everything. He said to me, “If I didn’t drink I’d be afraid I’d kill someone.” He looks at you that way and you just say, “Keep drinking.”
— David Cronenberg on Patrick McGoohan, from Cronenberg on Cronenberg
Above all else, Scanners is about the horror of the banal. David Cronenberg’s film is littered with dead spaces and nondescript cityscapes, grey concrete blocks housing hilariously sinister corporations with names like ConSec and Biochemical Amalgamate. The world is so generic and antiseptic it turns threatening. This may have been shot in Toronto, but it looks like a roadmap of hell. Surely human beings aren’t expected to live here.
After all, is there anything quite so unsettling, so alien and unnatural, as a clean food court? That should be our first indication that this is a terrifying and strange world, vaguely like our own and yet completely different. The discomfort of the opening mall scene is heightened by the nearly total silence—the only voices are jumbled mutters and white noise. Such is the lonely perspective of Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), the derelict psychic who serves as our tour guide through the dull monstrosities of modern architecture.
Vale is a fascinating protagonist, if only for the near total absence of anything remotely fascinating in his character. The man is the human equivalent of the food court or those dull grey buildings that house ConSec—he’s a blast of stagnant, recycled air, something natural turned cold and mechanical. But I think that he’s perfectly in step with the rest of the film. For all his flaws as a performer, Lack certainly goes with the furniture.
Yes, his delivery is stilted, and it’s true his expressions are often inappropriate or ridiculous. Sometimes he flashes this creepy half-smile, as if he forgot what’s happening around him and is trying to hide his embarrassment. But it’s worth nothing that Vale is actually supposed to be a traumatized loner, unsure of his past and unable to bear human company. The line between brain damage and bad performance blurs uncomfortably.
So it works—sort of. Lack is bolstered on both sides by two fiery rage-machines: Michael Ironside (in the role of villainous psychic Darryl Revok) and Patrick McGoohan (as Vale’s saviour and psychic expert Dr. Ruth). In particular, the scenes between McGoohan and Lack make for some strange but compelling viewing. On the one side you have McGoohan, eyes ablaze, voice rumbling with authority. And then you have Lack, blankly staring ahead, reciting each line like he was told to read a grocery list with a bit of emphasis. How can any self-respecting actor react to that? These scenes are like watching a hammer beat a sponge.
McGoohan may be the superior performer, but it’s really Lack who has the upper hand in their exchanges. Strength is only an asset when there’s something to break. Otherwise, it’s pure wasted energy. The aptly named Lack is less a person than a black hole, and both McGoohan and Ironside pour their intensity into that emptiness, burning out while Lack remains unaffected. The fact that Vale essentially triumphs over both Ruth and Revok makes one wonder if Cronenberg hadn’t planned for this effect all along.
“It’s always been Vale inside me, sucking out my joy, rotting my successes,” Ruth moans near the end, displaying some of that all-consuming despair Cronenberg saw in McGoohan. As Ruth confronts the horror he has created, he becomes a numb and broken man—it’s as if he had discovered his whole life was one elaborate suicide all along. Frail and tormented, he claws at his face in a gesture eerily echoed by Vale in the film’s climactic battle. But Vale simply peels away his own flesh, surviving the death of his self because he was barely a person in the first place. Ruth’s face, by comparison, remains paralyzed by self-hatred—until it shatters, and he is destroyed.