Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Deep End

Cheers to Flicker for screening a film that is not just obscure, but also thoughtful and intelligent (ghettoed on a Monday night nevertheless.) Since the flickskinny guys took over, I gave a pass on Supervan and the blackploitation films screened, although sadly I understand the logic that kitsch is more appealing these days than quality.

Deep End (dir. Jerzy Skolimowski, 1970) is a dark coming of age drama set in drab working-class England, damp with misery and frustrated sexuality. Comparisons to Harold and Maude and Rushmore are common, but are apt mostly for narrative similarity. Whereas Wes Anderson operates in a postmodern pop culture dreamland, and Harold and Maude proclaims an anarchic new era of liberation, Deep End describes a society in deep distress and psychological confusion, even madness. Mike, its 15 year old working class protagonist, may share a good natured quirkiness with Harold and Max Fischer, but his fate is far darker, his sexual obsession with an older woman less love than naked lust. Thrust into an adult world unprepared, he finds a devious double standard where the young are sexually exploited but forbidden full access to adult sexuality. When Mike pursues this contradiction to its conclusion, tragedy is inevitable.

Skolimowski's sense of mise en scene and tonal construction is compelling. The decaying landscape of crumbling Victorian bathhouses, red light districts, and dingy subways make for a sober palette broken dramatically by the passionate, expressive reds and yellows of Susan, Mike's object of desire. Extensive hand held shots explore the landscape while keeping the characters distant, alienated, despite their occasional flirtatious moments. This distance is further marked by the screenplay and John Moulder-Brown's portrayal of Mike that perhaps takes on a glint of madness too early, and runs out of steam by the spectacular final swimming pool scene. I liked Deep End, which I think deserves the tag of a lost classic. Although the symbolic use of color was a bit tired (hadn't Godard already established that red paint is blood in front of a camera?) there was a earnestness here that is still refreshing. In all the stories of sexual obsession that fill the multiplexes year after year, one rarely finds this nuanced perspective; namely, that such a story can be told, with verve and sympathy, outside of an aestheticized world where hard bodies and serial killers bounce off each other like popcorn.

Strayhorn magazine was the screening sponsor. I don't know much about it, but from what I've been told its a new local magazine bringing to light obscure and out of print film, music, and art. Right on. To track down a bootleg copy of a great film, and take the time to schedule, publicize, and screen, is righteous and should fill rooms, especially if given a better night of the week. My only wish would be that Flicker would get a new screen without wanky creases, and correct the keystone distortion somehow.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Syndromes and a Cine

Ciné is important as a cornerstone of serious film in Athens, and has presented an incredible gift to the town with the screening of films like Offside, Bamako, Killer of Sheep, Grbavica, and Climates. That said, in finding their way financially and artistically, their screening practices are not above reproach.

Take, for instance, last week’s scheduled run of Rear Window. In good faith, I assumed that they had acquired a print from the film’s theatrical re-release that I recall coming to the Manor in my high school or college days. I was prepared to pluck down $8, but on a whim I called ahead of time to confirm a 35mm screening, only to be told that it would actually be digitally projected from a run of the mill DVD release. I decided that I could watch a projected DVD at home, and of a film I’d not already seen, at that.

Ciné’s policy of DVD screenings is not always problematic- for a midnight movie, for instance, the ambience is lighter and more social, so a “cheap” format is acceptable (and I also understand that midnight shows can be cash cows for indie theaters.) Bamako, which was shown on a very limited, one night schedule, came digital with a slight pixilation- but, it was a first run film that we were lucky to have seen in Athens at all.

But Rear Window is a different story. Certainly many if not most in the audience were not watching this, an exceedingly popular and accessible movie, for the first time. Hitchcock is so familiar to most film goers that to charge full price for a screening indicates the opportunity to see them in their original, cinematic glory; a DVD projection for a classic film should not be charged for, or if so, only a few bucks, a la Tate Student Union theater. Perhaps I’d be more forgiving if their advertising included a note on presentation. Without even this, it seems like a cynical ploy to cheat viewers out of what they clearly have come to see. As a friend and Ciné employee noted, it’s like going to a concert and having the band put in their CD. While I can understand Ciné’s business imperative, if you have a gap in your scheduling and have to screen repertory digitally, why not dig up something more adventurous, less familiar- there’s over 100 years of cinema to pick from (with a warning to the public that’s about to lay an hour’s wages down.)

It’s easy to forget about all that when the following week Ciné brings to Athens a remarkable film like Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century. Easily one of the best films I’ve had the pleasure of viewing in the theater, it is perhaps the type of film David Lynch would make had he at some point been humbled down from his ivory tower of cynicism and ostentation. That is, it unfolds like a game with ever changing rules, in which Weerasethakul appears to be always two moves ahead, not logically, per se, but aesthetically and subconsciously. At the end, we find it wasn’t a game at all, but a total reinterpretation of cinematic grammar that defies the rules we think we know all movies should follow.

The biggest rule to shatter is one of the West’s most essential: the expectation for a binary structure, symmetry, and repetition. Syndromes opens at a rural Thai hospital, sometime in the recent past or present. Surrounded by languid green fields and forests, the environment seeps into the behavior of the patients and staff- as they work or recuperate they tell stories, exchange folk remedies, play guitar, and feel their way towards love and grace. Eventually, the story focuses in somewhat on the young Dr. Toey who, to ward off a soldier’s awkward advances, points the film to another skeletal, digressive narrative, of her flirtatious relationship with an orchid grower. This story, or rather the fragments of time in this setting, comes to an end, but there’s still half of the movie left.

Then, we think we have Weerasethakul’s card- the story restarts, recreated almost scene by scene initially in another hospital, a high tech urban one of the present or near future. Although shots are reversed and the dialogue slightly different, we see the same actors in the same roles- the fresh army doctor, the cantankerous monk, the kind female doctor, the singing dentist. Yet after the initial sequence of shots, the symmetry crumbles, and we are led onto other paths- the new doctor’s possible relocation, a young patient’s corridor tennis practice, and the strange happenings in the dated basement of the building, including a prosthetics workshop and endless, ominous remodeling. The disappearance of a dialectical, logical game leaves the film open to the free play of memories, impressions, and seemingly unconnected scenes. To describe it as dream-like is inaccurate- Weerasethakul is not a surrealist or a freak-out artist. Avant garde is a more appropriate descriptor, but an avant garde of great humility and humanism; one that starts with quiet moments of the quotidian, building his work not to shock or confuse, but in a spirit of reverence and wonder. It is no surprise that much of the film was based on the memories of his doctor parents.

99% of contemporary films operate in a fairly closed and settled grammar that, while not always or necessarily bad, does little to expand the boundaries of cinema. Syndromes and a Century (like his previous Tropical Malady) is the 1% that confirms that cinema can and must remain a vibrant medium in the 21st century. It is a type of film-making that can surprise even the most hardened movie explorer, and will hopefully reach a wider audience upon DVD release. But, following the manner of Weerasethakul and to invoke for my own memory some of the most remarkable moments of the film, I’ll conclude not with clinical analysis, but with a list (from memory):

The blanched out color palette; going against conventional Western views of southeast Asia as a bright, colorful jungle paradise, the cinematography bleaches the sky white, and tones the verdant greens into paler tones.

We are treated to the uninterrupted performance of a festival guitarist- why not? A conventional film would deem this nonessential, distracting.

Matching shots in both “versions” of the story, both completely spell-binding but in absolutely different contexts: the solar eclipse of the first, the droning ventilation piping in a swirl of dust in the second.

In the second story, the new doctor reviews with his wife pictures of the industrial works to which they may move. The photos look absolutely dated, from the 1970’s perhaps, out of sync with the high rise landscape behind them. The image marking memory across bounds of time?

The concluding outdoor exercise shot, with its bouncing electro-pop, Niked-up Asian populace, smoggy urban backdrop, it has postmodern echoes of Jia Zhang-Ke’s The World.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Good Time Girls

Les Bonnes Femmes, dir. Claude Chabrol, 1961

Having encountered early Chabrol once before, in ostensibly the first Nouvelle Vague film, Le Beau Serge, I thought I knew what to expect from Les Bonnes Femmes. I was wrong- in fact, I was surprised by the power and shock of it- an unsettling force that grows in unusual ways through gut-wrenching tonal shifts, and lingers in the viewer's memory. The bulk of the film treads the pleasurable, good times terrain of some early New Wave films (A Woman is a Woman, Brigitte et Brigitte), or in its anarchic jaded shopgirl feel, Chytilova's Daisies. Yet bookending this episodic play of love and work are two acts of patriarchal violence- an alluded rape, and an unambiguous murder at the hands of a stalker. The rape troubles the middle portion of the film, but without souring its comedic delight. With one of the women's murder, however, the entire narrative is thrown into confusion retrospectively, playing out with the impact of a fist in the stomach (not unlike the horrible attack that closes Breillat's Fat Girl.) A doe-eyed innocent murdered, and the fates of the other 3 protagonists abandoned, Chabrol segues to a dreamy coda that clarifies theme while furthering tonal confusion. An unknown woman sits alone in a dance hall, her face in shadows, under the narcotic trance of a mirrored ball and band. A man approaches, seen only from behind, and takes her onto the dance floor, fulfilling her only social role- to be brought into the world, made whole, through the predatory desires of the male. Is this a proto-feminist film?

The first 15 minutes of Les Bonnes Femmes are perhaps its best, tightly composed and edited, and bristling with a pervasive city lights energy not unlike the opening sequence of Touch of Evil. Men purposefully wait under the neon lights of an emptying theater; a group of women emerge, one bids goodbye to her boyfriend; the two men get into a car and follow them; simultaneously, a motorcyclist tails them all. Is this a Hitchcockian suspense? Intrigue set in motion? Surprisingly, neither, but rather a pair of crude philanderers cruising for girls, the mysterious cyclist falling away from the scene, to turn up later in a seemingly less menacing role. It is a confusing and suspicious sequence for the audience, that raises one's guard, but not enough to alienate us from the gaudy pleasures of the nightclub, zoo, theater, and swimming pool to come. Chabrol spends the next hour charming us with these 4 likable working girls who share employment at a perpetually dead electronics store, before our suspicions are vindicated. All 3 men in the opening sequence will come to be revealed as villains- rapists, murderers, bullies, sadists, and liars.

This is not to say that the time we spend with Jacqueline, Jane, Ginette, and Rita is padding or extraneous to the darker themes the film leaves us with. On the contrary, it is entertaining and thought provoking enough in turn that the shock of Jacqueline's murder would be meaningless if it did not jolt us out of something so engrossing. Prefacing, in a sense, their victimization, is Chabrol's sympathetic portrait of working class life for young women- the boring, long hours of standing around and looking pretty in shops, the sexual harassment from bosses and delivery boys, immersion in the world of luxury- but luxury only attainable by pawning their bodies to men. The looming presence of clock faces suggests a collusion of capitalism and patriarchy, beyond which, heroically, the young can still dance along in search of love and happiness. Indeed the "fun and games," acted with spirit (especially by Bernadette Lafont as Jane) is what distinguishes Les Bonnes Femmes from other capitalism-as-prostitution films of the same time like Godard's Vivre Sa Vie; without the juxtaposition of comedy/tragedy, joviality/violence its main point of interest is lost. Our heroines tramping through the zoo, for instance, is on par with the best antics of Jules and Jim, Karina and Leaud. And it should not be thought, based on the bleak ending, that Chabrol is a cynic in matters of love. Starry-eyed romance may lead to Jacqueline's downfall, but she is hardly to be faulted for her desires; nor Jane for her free-spirited flings, Ginette her chanteuse ambitions, and Rita her engagement with a neurotic square.

Returning to the question of Les Bonnes Femmes as a feminist, or proto-feminist film; it's a tricky question without clear criteria (and also grappling with by what degrees this is determined by content, production, etc.), but there is a critique in the film of the ugly forms of violence and exploitation to which women are subjected. Men are brutal predators, whose veneer of charm eventually gives way to naked aggression. Those men that defy this description are given a small sliver of screen time (Jane's beau), or are controlling in other ways (Rita's fiancee.) Beyond this, a feminist critique becomes more dubious, tempered as it is by the obvious male pleasures of watching beautiful young women carry on in tight dresses and bathing suits. Chabrol's construction ducks in and out of ideas like a game, dropping characters unceremoniously, coaxing emotional investment to have it turned into stone, and making us witness to the murder of a naif before dumping us into a starlit dance hall dream. Its a bold way of making a film, and raises my estimation of the guy (although from what I read his subsequent work loses a sense of experimentation and play.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Bach: Variations

A scenario for a film about Bach, in which the audience learns nothing at all about Bach.

1st Variation
A graphic designer is employed designing covers for Bach records. Actual LP records, not CDs; she inexplicably and idiosyncratically is involved in this in 2007, which is never explained. She works on enormous canvesses, in the open air ruins of buildings. She visits churches for inspiration; begins an aborted romance; agonizes over a cover for his Triple Concerto. Suddenly, her canvasses start to disappear...

2nd Variation
A documentary day in the life of three wingnuts, accompanied by the three movements of the Triple Concerto, one movement per subject. A montage of their conversations, rituals, habits, obsessions, encounters; presented without attempt for the music to interpret the subject, not the subject to interpret the spirit of the music. Three movements dispersed throughout the endurance of the film.

3rd Variation
The genealogical search for my Rodebach heritage, the closest I will ever come to the Bach legacy. Who was Augustus Rodebach, who immigrated to Michigan in the 1870's? Could I consider my great-great-grandfather a RodeBach? A Rode Bach? Exaggeration and lying in the service of this specious endeavor. Interviews with any other Bach variation namesakes.

A Thousand Clarinets, dir. Ján Rohác, 1964

4th Variation
BACH, the word, broken down and built back up- taxi CAB; sheep BAH; broken BAC; talentless HAC; crow CAH. Linguistic play with the typed word, over detourned images from Bach film moments: Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, A Thousand Clarinets, etc.

5th Variation

The public performance of Bach in unexpected circumstances: a punk show, outside a chicken processing plant for the workers, amongst tailgating football fans. Open to the collective improvisation of a hostile, appreciative, or confused audience.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Sans Soleil, dir. Chris Marker, 1983

"Who remembers all that? History throws its empty bottles out the window."

On Sunday night we watched Sans Soleil from the New Yorker VHS release, which probably looked close to how it should given that it was filmed on 16mm. Any summary will fail to capture the depth of a Marker film, but briefly, a woman reads letters, ostensibly from whoever captured the images we see from a number of locations. This narrative gloss is quickly betrayed through the philosophical and historical musings that mark this to be an essay film, populated not by characters but by ideas loose in the world. Contemporary Japan occupies the film's center, but Marker's movement is not bounded by time or space, but by association, contrast, and the occasional non sequiter ("did you know there are emus in the Ile de France?") Japan had featured in his oeuvre before- the 1965 biographical short Le Mystère Koumiko- and there's a familiarity with the place that colors the content. Although he does dip into defining national moments, World War II and the Heian period, for instance, his exploration is far more personal, seemingly following interest and chance rather than reaching for a composite. Light is thrown into the sunless corners of Japanese culture: ceremonies, streets, tv, sex museums, outcast bums, video games, department stores, leftist demonstrations. Although the narrator sometimes reads from the letters sweeping generalizations, what we come to learn about this place and the others chronicled comes fragmented, at times contradictory.

Sans Soleil
, then, evokes early post-modernity in its fractured style and impressionistic portrait of post-industrial capitalism and underdevelopment in close, uncertain proximity on the screen. Post-colonial Africa serves as Marker's foil to technocratic Japan. Here the letters dwell far more on the past, the disappointing aftermath of socialist national liberation movements in the developing world, as mediated by extensive documentary footage. There are other travels, to San Francisco in search of Vertigo landmarks, to France with it's idiosyncratic emus, and the poignant bookends shot in Iceland. Leading the letter writer is the unrelenting theme of memory and image- Do images constitute history, or is it the other way around? How does memory use the image, and what are the implications of the image being used to dance across time and the surface of the world as Marker does?

How can I comment much more on Sans Soleil? On the internet alone there are pages upon pages of interpretation by people who've spent a lot more time with it then I have, or have a richer theoretical background. Instead, I'll just encourage everyone to make it a priority to see it soon, and give some brief thoughts as to why. To begin with, if my description sounds daunting, be comforted that Marker approaches his work with a sense of humor and compassion. Cats, dogs, children, even emus are his muses, and are treated as an essential part of the world, not to be trampled by history. Indeed, they are essential to our lives and memory. From an early scene:

"He wrote me that in the suburbs of Tokyo there is a temple consecrated to cats. I wish I could convey to you the simplicity—the lack of affectation—of this couple who had come to place an inscribed wooden slat in the cat cemetery so their cat Tora would be protected. No she wasn't dead, only run away. But on the day of her death no one would know how to pray for her, how to intercede with death so that he would call her by her right name. So they had to come there, both of them, under the rain, to perform the rite that would repair the web of time where it had been broken."

Later, however, the cat's name Tora is linked to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor- "Tora! Tora! Tora!" Even when the world is shown at its most ugly, and in the narrator's words "
history only tastes bitter to those who expected it to be sugar coated," it is in the context of an always guardedly hopeful compassion. Gut-wrenching footage of a giraffe being slaughtered, guerrilla warfare, kamikaze missions; everything has it's place, so it seems, but Marker makes no room for exploitative imagery. There may be room for faulting Sans Soleil when it reverts to anthropological language for commentary. For example: "He used to write me from Africa. He contrasted African time to European time, and also to Asian time. He said that in the 19th century mankind had come to terms with space, and that the great question of the 20th was the coexistence of different concepts of time."

Then again, according to the thin fictional veneer, this is not Marker himself speaking, but the fictional filmmaker speaking through his letters to the narrator. Who is this voice who is speaking to us, explaining or problematizing the stream of images? I'll leave it to the grad students to work on this one.

Another fascinating element of the film is the use of video manipulation, associated both with experimental art and mass-produced video games, to abstract and change images. A Japanese friend demonstrates their techniques, which they call "the Zone," a reference to Tarkovsky's Stalker, reducing film to moving shapes of color: "images, not the portable and compact form of an already inaccessible reality." As the film progresses, it seems to inhabit more and more this Zone, or at least becomes obsessed with the technical means and the results it produces. The now archaic manual pins and switches used to create these pure images take on an architectural significance, almost like the ad-covered buildings of Japan channeling the human subjects in the street. Aside from its obvious thematic significance, the aesthetic impact is awesome, especially in our digitally saturated culture where computerized illusion is the norm. The radical potential of manipulated video work such as this doesn't seem to get its due much any more; but, like Godard and Mieville's video techniques in features like Numero Deux and Here and Elsewhere, Sans Soleil's intellectual interaction with "the Zone" signals a trajectory of experimentation that has unfortunately been eclipsed by CGI sleight of hand.

I view everything in a new light since starting to work on my own movie. In Sans Soleil, the autonomy of sound and image, cut loose from each other and stitched back together (with an edging of ambiguity) by the narrator-medium, struck me. Marker's collection of images and non-corresponding sounds could potentially have been constructed into a complete film, or any number of shorter or longer projects. His technique, of course, is genius here, but what is to prevent anyone to go out with any primitive equipment (Marker here used 16 mm and frequently degraded the image electronically), record their world, and make something out of it to share? In developing the film, I've planned several scenes reminiscent of Marker's, with documentary footage and found images overlaid by found sounds and disparate narration. Sans Soleil showed the plausibility of this approach, and its pitfalls. Namely, the ideas need to be there to upgrade the images (by contextualizing, reframing, problematizing), or the images and sounds need to be remarkable, without the need of commentary.

Sans Soleil was not my first encounter with Marker; I'd previously seen his far longer and more ponderous work on the fate of the revolutionary wave of the late 60's, Grin Without a Cat, as well as earlier shorts Sunday in Peking and The Koumiko Mystery. Interestingly enough, those latter two I received on a DVD-R from a friend. We went to watch them, but found them recorded without sound. Koumiko had subtitles, but our Sunday outing in revolutionary China was dead silent. As a solution, we put on Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz, and the collaboration worked quite well. Marker's latest, The Case of the Grinning Cat got a short theatrical run in New York, but as far as I know hasn't made it to DVD- it's apparently an attempt to pick up the threads of Grin Without a Cat for the Iraq War generation, with a humorous exploration of Marker's favorite animal- the cat- in Parisian street art.