Wednesday, February 22, 2006

La Vie nouvelle (Philippe Grandrieux, 2002)

This being the first Grandrieux film I've seen, I was naturally bewildered during much of my viewing, but I knew I was watching something alien, something special. It brought back some of the images and the sounds of recent Claire Denis films (it especially has a deep affinity with Trouble Every Day), but I couldn't understand the motivations behind Grandrieux's method. Until that remarkable extended dance sequence in the underground sex club which occurs towards the end when the quietly aggressive Boyan manipulates Melania into adapting a series of dance moves for her performance that night. The scene begins with silence (or near-silence, since almost the entire film has a distant droning noise in the background) as Melania is spun around upon Boyan's instructions. Throbbing techno music seems to emanate from within her, and Melania's body loses control and breaks into a jittery, fragmented, out-of-focus vibration. Slowly, the music abandons her again, and the camera seems to lose itself upon her flesh, only to find itself yet again (to the return of the beats) as it pulls back and shows her dancing as if in a trance, in front of a crowd. (The entire sequence has been brilliantly deconstructed by Adrian Martin.) This scene exhibits the film's central obsession with the malleability of image and sound to produce a primal, completely sensorial experience, and externalises its underlying sadist/masochist games, only hinted at previously in the film. That this beautiful and frightening sequence is followed by another one that is even more (strangely) beautiful and frightening signals the culmination of the film's own dance of images, when its blind gropes-in-the-dark have become an animalistic ritual, when all of its primitive emotions have become exhausted (the rapture of some of the earlier images - such as the fantasized nighttime motorbike ride - coming to a sudden burn-out). This subsequent sequence (which I won't - I can't! - describe), filmed with a thermic camera, represents what Nicole Brenez calls "the bottomless terror of the unconscious" in her interview with Grandrieux.

But the principle obsession of the film is with bodies colliding (usually in sex and/or violence) and seeking transformation with such interactions. And in the absence of dialogue (for much of the film), plot, and character development, the viewer relies on the texture of the sounds and images to guide him/her - from the ambient- and techno-saturated sound spaces to the colour scheme of reds and browns and its anti-claustrophobic use of out-of-focus close-ups - and we experience the sensory responses of the figures on the screen with an unusual degree of intimacy and clarity, and with no trace of sentimentality. Ultimately, it's as Brenez puts it: "a particularly striking moment is the track-in, down a hotel corridor and out a window, towards the urban landscape. It’s as if one were seeing a frame for the first time: the image opens up, the frame opens, then the screen, the theatre, and finally us too, everything is opened and we gaze wide-eyed into this most intensive clarity". Opening the body's night, indeed.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

two faces of 'The Threepenny Opera'

Recently I watched both the French (L’opéra de quat’sous) and the German (Die Dreigroschenoper) versions of G.W. Pabst's adaptation of Brecht's The Threepenny Opera. Being semi-aware of the controversy following its 1931 release, and with curiosity further piqued, I looked up this Senses of Cinema article, which reveals the events following the film's opening to be as interesting as the film itself. Brecht unsuccessfully sued Pabst for "the misappropriation of intellectual property", and the Nazis themselves attempted to burn the film (there is a very Hitler-like character in the film, who is introduced into the narrative somewhat grotesquely).

What I find most interesting in the film is the common denominator of Pabst and Brecht's stylistic devices, wherein they overlap as artists, and alternately those where they remain distinct from each other (such as Pabst's expressionistic aesthetic which at times overwhelms Brecht's bitter cynicism and ideologicalism). The most obvious point of convergence between their works is the style of acting adapted by Pabst - deadpan, largely emotionless, and distant deliveries of dialogue and singing, and interestingly this is more evident in Die Dreigroschenoper than in L’opéra de quat’sous - both filmed at the same time and on the same sets, each with a different cast - the latter's significantly more melodramatic, more playful even, and ultimately, less memorable (J. Hoberman prefers this version, though). This difference in acting style between the two versions has been previously explained in the choice of actors for Die Dreigroschenoper, many of whom had appeared on the stage in Brecht's version (the standout performance easily belongs to Lotte Lenya as Jenny - whom Brecht was impregnating at the time - her gruesome revenge fantasy "Pirate Jenny" sung delicately as if it were a poetic expression of love). The filming of the musical numbers also sticks to the Brechtian spirit of obvious theatricality - they're filmed to exist outside the narrative (while contributing to it), and is pretty much composed of quasi-rhythmic talking set to music whereby the performers seem to "go against the music". The famous Brecht quote on this: "Nothing is more revolting than when an actor pretends not to notice that he has left the level of plain speech and started to sing." I get the feeling he would have loved Bollywood. Not to mention The Dresden Dolls.

Monday, February 13, 2006

blog-a-thon: deuxième partie

The second edition of the amazing blog-a-thon 'series' is on today, with several bloggers coming together to contribute their words to Michael Haneke's Code Unknown. I'm only cheering from the sidelines this time, since I couldn't give the film a much-needed second viewing before committing to write anything (but I'm hoping to be there in late March for the next one: a collective assaying of Abel Ferrara's cinema).

Be sure to check out the posts, as linked to at Girish's.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

on the www

I had barely caught up with the latest issues of Rouge and Bright Lights, and now Senses of Cinema have unleashed their latest edition, and this is of course their mammoth World Poll issue. I was most happy to see a couple of lists mention Gustav Deutsch's beautiful, Welt Spiegel Kino, and Adrian Danks' list puts this film at the top with the following spot-on comments:

"In many ways, this was the most profound new film I saw in 2005. It was certainly the film that had the most to teach and show me about film history. Proceeding, somewhat fancifully, from three street scenes outside of cinemas in Vienna, Surabaya and Porto, respectively, at three different points in time between 1912 and 1930, the film provides an extraordinarily novel approach to the fragmentary nature that defines the remnants and common experience of early cinema. Rather than insisting upon the melancholy singularity of individual films, or the wreckage of fragments of decaying footage that dominates early cinema’s legacy, World Mirror Cinema stiches together early film history and its artefacts as a massive force of historical continuity, a web of pictorial and social connections. In Deutsch’s great, but gently dissolving montage of early cinema footage he points towards both our connection to, rather than separation from, the past and the possibilities offered by actually looking at the images of the past as images rather than just images of things and events. One can perhaps now only dream of a cinema – like that in Surabaya, Java, now Indonesia – that would show Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) and Tod Browning’s The Unholy Three (1925) side-by-side."

Also - I wish I could devour these lists: Paolo Bertolin, Olaf Möller, Darragh O'Donoghue, and Jit Phokaew.

in furs and denim

Two recent film viewings that I have to share: Firstly, Jess Franco's jazzy, psychedelic, Venus in Furs (1969), which is my introduction to this director. The film indeed has style to burn (those slow-mo scenes set to the trippy score largely contributing to the hypno-mood), along with some bad, bad, bad dialogue, courtesy of a trumpet-playing James Darren's stone-faced first-person narration ("Oh my god...It's me. I'm dead! I've been dead all the time..."), but the film is ultimately most interesting because of the atmosphere generated by the zombie-like performances rather than its Vertigo-/Resnais-inspired narrative. The revenge story of a fur-fetishist, bisexual bargirl (drugged and beaten to death for evil "playboy millionaire" Klaus Kinski's sadistic pleasure) who comes back from the dead is executed in largely wordless and temporally elongated sequences - the best scenes in this exploitation flick by far. Yet, while it is enjoyable and appropriately idiosyncratic (just consider the scene when the titular heroine caresses the statue of Venus Di Millo while cruising James Darren's girlfriend), it doesn't make much of a lasting impression.

Quite unlike Radley Metzger's sublime, Score (1973), for which I jotted down this capsule-babble when I saw it a few days ago:

"In the Village of Leisure, in the lush little Land of Play, deep within the Erogenous Zone", live chronically hedonistic couple Jack and Elvira who attempt to seduce the (seemingly!) innocent new-couple-on-the-block, as they attempt to beat each other's score of same-sex experiences with strangers. Casual friendships are quickly set-up (after the initial romp with the telephone-repair man, of course), and the tense prey-couple of Eddie and Betsy appear for a dinner date at their predators' mansion, beginning the long night when Jack and Elvira's respective games of seduction are gently rocked into motion with weed, dildos, undone bras, and a nun's habit, a sailor's suit, cowboy hats and denim being donned, all with a certain comical abandonment, but without the realisation on the part of the prey that they are props in an immaculately-staged fantasy. That is, until the four become two twos - the women take on the upstairs bedroom and the men descend into the more-than-adequately-furnished basement - and Metzger's film settles into its relentless burn, revelling in the crushing of naïveté (/"middle-class morality", no less), just as the intense editing and rhythmic cross-cutting dances towards a unified climax, intact with trademark Metzger touches - mirrors reflecting reflected images of nude flesh, projected images in search of a screen, and subliminal identity switches (as a manifestation of Eddie's pre-penetration 'guilt'). This pansexual soft-core classic defies easy classification while proudly displaying its pretensions, and even today, it comes across as daring, hilarious, erotic, and absolutely essential.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

rabbit rituals

David Lynch gives me nightmares again...

(... and I don't know what it all means.)

El Sur / The South (Victor Erice, 1983)

El Sur, the second feature film of Victor Erice, following his delicate and beautiful debut, The Spirit of the Beehive, by a decade, and preceding his masterpiece, El Sol del Membrillo (The Quince Tree Sun a.k.a. The Dream of Light), by almost another decade, is an exquisitely realised, autumnal colour-bathed film about a child who constructs her own reality through little day-to-day discoveries, in post-Civil War Spain. The film adopts a first-person narrative (which it occasionally drifts away from), as the now-teenaged Estrella recounts her childhood days when she longed to connect with her father, and somewhat obsessively attempted to piece together his past.

The 'south' is something that is never seen (Estrella's parents moved to the north of the country due to differences in the political ideology of her father and grandfather), but always haunts the characters in some way or another - nostalgia, and perhaps regret for her father, and the isolation and subsequent emotional distance between Estrella from her father. There are several memorable sequences within the film's episodic structure: Estrella's first holy communion when her grandmother and her father's outspoken governess visit (the night-time chat between the latter and Estrella is the film's most overtly political moment - just the slightest acknowledgement of conflict between her father and grandfather hints at the broader separations that existed in post-Civil War times), Estrella's discovery of her father's secret obsession: a film star by the name Irene Ríos, whom Estrella's father goes to see in a local cinema screening the very Sternberg-like, Flor en la Sombre (actually shot by Erice himself), one of the few sequences in the film when the narrative is allowed to wander away from Estrella's point-of-view.

As always, Erice makes great use of natural lighting. Here, as in The Spirit of the Beehive, his characters are afloat in and isolated by yellows, browns, and reds. Indeed, if this film were a season (which it just about is, considering the shedding of perspective, the fluid passages of knowledge, and the ultimate regenerative act which stems from a death), it would be autumn.

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