Wednesday, October 04, 2017

mother! (Darren Aronovsky, 2017)

Isn't that poster a thing of true hideousness? Anyway, there are certainly spoilers in what follow... To begin with I enjoyed this very much. Claustrophobically close-up camera work on Jennifer Lawrence (who I thought did creditably throughout, particularly early on when a certain stiffness or blankness in her performance very effectively amplifies the sensation of always being the last to know) is combined with the usual horror clichés (curious little sounds, sudden jump scares), all adding up to a very funny rendition of that feeling of having people descend on your house for reasons that escape you and then refuse to bloody well leave. The mechanisms may be transparent but the tension was deliciously maintained. (Michelle Pfeiffer is also deliciously waspish.) After which, unfortunately, things begin to escalate in a kind of sub-Kaufmann fashion (think Synechdoche, New York all happening much faster with a great deal more – entirely predictable – violence) and the sheer muddled banality of the allegory makes itself more and more apparent. I've got sympathy with A.O. Scott's recommendation: "don't listen to anyone who natters on about how intense or disturbing it is; it's a hoot!", but I couldn't spot the "churning intellectual energy" he sees at work. Aronovsky seems to think that allegory is a matter of making parallels which then justify themselves, simply by being parallels. Oh, Ed Harris has a wound in his side because he's Adam, so Eve is surely about to turn up. But why is Adam on the verge of death? Oh, who cares, it lets us bring in Cain and Abel so that things can start to get violent... We need a flood! Get some people to sit on a sink, then... The most coherent thing I could extract is that Bardem (as God) represents male creative energies while Lawrence (the Earth Mother) represents the feminine. The film thinks it's critiquing the patriarchal, male-centred traditions of religion, art and capitalist extraction (no theme too big or obvious for Aronovsky), but it appears to be entirely unaware that its representation of Woman (non-intellectual, hard working and uncomplaining – well she has a moment of complaint when things get really bad, but acquiesces happily enough at the very end – whose real function is to bring life into the world) operates entirely according to the same misogynist logic as the representation of "God as Man" it wants to attack. (I also imagine that Aronovsky intended to attack Christianity in general with the baby-eating scene, but he ends up rehashing age-old anti-Catholic propaganda. Perhaps that was the point but such subtle niceties seem quite beyond this film...) For some reviewers, inexplicably, this kind of thing passes for profundity; I think it's the kind of thing that gives allegory a bad name. I would watch the first half again, though.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Rauschenberg's animation: three works

I wrote this piece back around the time of the Tate Modern's Robert Rauschenberg exhibition but never found a home for it.  (PDF version available here.)

Rauschenberg's animation: three works

A gelatin silver photographic print, black and white of course, fifteen inches square, showing series of broad flat steps, possibly in marble, that rise away from the viewer, filling the image entirely apart from the tiniest sliver at the top of the frame. Depth is gently suggested by parallax (we can see the tops of the nearest steps, but from about a third of the way up the picture we cannot), and scale by two small black stumpy columns at the top of the image, verging on abstraction but nevertheless recognisable as a pair of legs, seen from about the knee down. To the right of this image hangs another print, of identical dimensions, the framing also almost identical, though close examination of the steps suggests that the camera has moved just a tiny bit left and a sightly upwards. The figure has also moved: the legs are now a few steps closer to us, and visible all the way to the waist. A bit of shadow extends to the left of the legs as we look at them. Another image: again an almost identical framing (the camera tilted back a smidgen to show a bit more of the space above the steps), but the figure is still advancing, just a few steps closer to us than before, but whereas previously it seemed entirely static, now the right leg is just a little in advance of the left, the leg just a little bent, suggesting movement in progress, caught in the act by the shutter. Hands can now be seen, hanging relaxed next to the waist. In the fourth image the figure is suddenly much closer although, again by comparing the steps closely, we can discern that the camera has in fact moved back slightly. Once again the right leg is slightly advanced, but it's straight again; this is a static pose. We can see all the way up to the elbow now: it's a man, in dark jeans and a light-coloured sleeveless shirt, tucked neatly into his trousers. There is one more image. The framing is a little closer: for the first time the steps really do fill the frame entirely. The figure has advanced still further, and for the first time part of its legs are cut off. It's now framed from about the knee to just below the shoulders. A watch is on the left wrist, face on the underside of the arm. The shirt has two breast pockets, both full; the left-hand pocket looks like it probably contains a cigarette packet. In the previous images, focus was evenly balanced between steps and figure, both clear; here the depth of field is ever so slighly shallower, the figure now definitely in the foreground, standing sharply out against steps that have become ever so slightly fuzzy.
These images are remarkably relaxed and casual: despite what I've noted of their precision, there is nothing fussy about their composition. They are also, with the simplest of means, remarkably evocative of movement. They're not large photographs, but still, one cannot take in all five of them with a single glance, so that moving one's head from left to right, or right to left, the figure advances or retreats, like the simplest flickbook. Others have already connected these photographs to the pioneering photographic analysis of movement conducted by the likes of Muybridge and Marey. But note how carefully everything about the images contributes to the effect of movement: the framing, the composition, the disposition of the figure, the depth of field. They're vivid, dramatic, playful. The series is entitled Cy + Roman Steps (I-V). The photographs were taken in 1952 in Rome (on the steps of the Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara coeli), the figure in them is Cy Twombly, and the photographer is Robert Rauschenberg.
Rauschenberg's range of media is famously vast, often in series with specific designations: White Paintings, Black Paintings, Combines... Seeing these photographs in the context of the retrospective running at the Tate Modern from December 2016 to April 2017 (after which it will travel to New York and then San Francisco), I was struck by a small but fascinating undercurrent running through a number of works from diverse periods, all dealing with the phenomena I have highlighted in the photos of Twombly: the ability of static images to evoke movement. We know that Rauschenberg had an abiding interest in movement, as attested by his involvement in dance and other performative arts. He did make at least a few films, such as 1966's Canoe, and there are works that literally move, such as 1967's Revolver II, with its five rotating Plexiglass discs. John Cage's claim that Rauschenberg "regrets we do not see the paint while it's dripping" is well known. But I am less concerned here with Rauschenberg's involvement in "actual" movement than with the fact that what it might not, I hope, be too fanciful to describe as an investigation into some of the fundaments of cinema seems to have been an abiding, if minor, interest. But whereas in cinema we can keep our heads still while the images succeed each other, and hence appear to move, Rauschenberg makes us move our heads, forcing us to generate movement from static images.
Take the paired Combines Factum I and Factum II, from 1957. On two rectangular canvasses, in portrait format (roughly 61.5 inches by 35.5 inches), Rauschenberg has used oil, ink, pencil, crayon, paper, fabric, newspaper clippings, printed photographs and calendar pages to create two nearly identical images. Both have the same calendar pages to the bottom left, the same grey smudges of paint below the calendars, the same red daubs above them, streaks of red dripping over February and October 1958 (dates now relegated to the past that were in the future when the images were made). The same trees over to the right of the smudge, the same big red T beneath the trees. To an extent the pictures explore the inevitable differences between them: no two smudges of paint can be exactly identical. But they also exhibit Rauschenberg's remarkable technique, if technique can be measured by the ability to execute ones intentions repeatedly, with accuracy. Branden W. Joseph has talked about these works in terms of philosophical notions of similarity and difference, and showed how much play there is with identity and difference within the works as well as between them. Ordinarily, in fact, it is impossible look directly from one to the other: Factum I usually hangs in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, while Factum II belongs to MOMA in New York. At the Tate retrospective, however, they hang right next to each other, thereby creating a faint echo, perhaps, of an anonymous early seventeenth-century painting that hangs in Tate Britain: The Cholmondely Ladies. It seems likely to have been the biographical coincidences between two lives (the painting shows two women with young babies that an inscription informs us were born the same day, got married the same day, and gave birth the same day) which prompted their being painted in such a way that one has to search for differences between them. The filmmaker and theorist Jean-Louis Comolli wrote of The Cholmondeley Ladies that we see in the painting 'a repetition that is not a repetition... a contradictory repetition... it makes us believe that it repeats itself just because it does not repeat itself'. Standing in front of Factum I and Factum II, as one flicks ones eyes back and forth between the two paintings, it can be astonishing how little changes, how little the repeated forms seem to jump, change position or transform. And yet these two paintings do not repeat themselves. The big T is not in exactly the same position, being notably lower and to the right in Factum I compared with its location in Factum II. The white block above it, painted over the bottom of the image of the trees, is also different in the two images, dripping from both its left and right sides in Factum II while in Factum I it drips only to the right. The more one looks at The Cholmondely Sisters the more different the two women become; that is not the case with Rauschenberg's paintings. Glancing from one to the other, one cannot help but see the T jumping between positions, cueing us to see the whole dyptich as a kind of minimal flickbook. (A very early work, 1948's This is the First Half of a Print Designed to Exist in Passing Time, could literally be used as a flickbook. Its cover can be seen in the exhibition, but sadly it is too delicate to display properly, though a small reproduction can be seen in the catalogue.)
Collage, obviously one of Rauschenberg's most persistent interests throughtout his career, is the art of juxtaposition. Yet we are most accustomed to think about juxtaposition in terms of what we can take in in a single glance. What do we make of a goat with a tyre round its middle? The effect of the juxtaposition is to hover between two things and one thing: is Monogram (1955-9), still Rauschenberg's most famous and most notorious work, a goat together with a tyre, or is it a tyre-goat (or perhaps a goat-tyre)? With Factum I and II, however, it is impossible really to take the two images in at once, even if one stands right back from them. Difference is not enfolded within a single image of a double. We do not see similarity in these two paintings; rather, difference is seen as change, as movement. As Jonathan T.D. Neil has written, it is "impossible to read these two canvasses as just one Factum after another." If one want to compare, one has to flick ones eyes back and forth, and then movement, however minimal, leaps into being. Rauschenberg observed in 1963: "Listening happens in time. Looking also had to happen in time." A number of works make prominent the time it takes to explore them, and the movements of the viewer that this might require. But here movement is a matter of the instant: as we look from one Combine to the other, movement happens, but we cannot experience the time in which the movement happens. The dates on the calendar pages included in Factum I and Factum II had, at the time of painting, not happened yet. We know this when we look at the painting, but this does not alter the fact that they will, now and forever more, always have happened. But the movement that turning our gaze from one of these painting to the other generates is neither about to happen, nor experienced during the looking, nor safely in the past. It has always just happened.
One of the wittiest explorations of these ideas is to be found in Glacial Decoy. If Factum I and II are a minimal flickbook, this really is a minimal piece of cinema. Produced in 1979 as a backdrop for a Trisha Brown dance piece – for which Rauschenberg also designed the costumes – this silent eighteen-minute series of 620 slides also works remarkably well viewed on its own. The images are photographs taken around Fort Myers, Florida (whose Arcade Theater, apparently, "Thomas Edison sat in to view his first films, with his friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone"). The slides are projected as huge, portrait-format images, each twelve feet by nine feet, four at a time. Every four seconds the images slip one place to their right: the rightmost image disappears, images 1, 2 and 3 become images 2, 3 and 4 respectively, and a new image appears in the leftmost position. Of course, there is no actual movement: each image merely dissolves into the next. Trisha Brown called the result a "luminous continuum". It is impossible not to see a continual rightwards march of photographs, however clearly the mechanism of this illusion is on display. We are told that it is the speed of the projection which gives cinematic images the illusion of movement and yet here, while in a sense there is no illusion, there is nevertheless, very definitely, movement.
Photos of what appear to be the back of a metal set of steps visually pun on the appearance of a celluloid film strip. The title also puns: on the piece's combination of display and artifice ("decoy") as well as on the slowness of the images' progress (a picture of a tortoise is a further joke about this). The images refer at times to Rauschenberg's previous work: images of goats and of tyres, taken together, obviously reference Monogram, while the tyres also evoke 1953's Automobile Tire Print, another work concerned with movement and the need of the viewer themselves to move, for which John Cage drove his car over a long strip of twenty sheets of paper glued together, after first passing through a puddle of paint. The movement of trains (which, like that of celluloid film, occurs only with the bounds of parallel tracks) is a frequent theme in Glacial Decoy, which contains many images of freight cars. The final image also has a railway theme: a closeup of a road sign indicating an upcoming railway crossing, comprising a black St Andrews cross in the middle of the letters "R R". This is, of course, a kind of signature: "R R" for "Robert Rauschenberg". (A later work, 1987's Polar Glut, is a sculptural collage consisting, in part, of two such signs.) But by placing this image last, Glacial Decoy comes to an end with an image indicating the necessity to stop (for the motorist), but only in order to give way for a different movement (that of the train). The final image recapitulates something of the piece's phenomenology: each time the slides have clicked into a new position (or, likewise, each time we stop moving our heads in front of the other pieces I have mentioned), one form of movement ceases only to give way to another. The movement that has "just happened" shifts from the visual to the mental: we stop seeing movement and start thinking it. In all these pieces Rauschenberg, with simultaneous seriousness and playfulness – never approaching either portentousness or frivolity – explores the mechanisms of movement and of our perception of it, the movement of our world around us and our movement within the world. The results are curiously exhilarating, both affirming the physicality and temporality of our experience and slipping, continously but pleasurably, from our grasp. I would hazard a guess that Rauschenberg would have agreed with the great French filmmaker Robert Bresson, who writes in his Notes on the Cinematograph that "the sight of movement gives happiness".

Dominic Lash, April 2017

Download PDF version, including footnotes and references

Friday, September 29, 2017

Love Torn in a Dream (Raúl Ruiz, 2000)

Curious one this. At the beginning I thought it was absolutely delightful. I loved the way the self-reflexive opening (concerning the actors and film crew) pretends to explain the film to come and its nine interlocking stories, all the while managing to properly confuse the viewer! And yet somehow also provide some genuinely useful information. The film seemed at this point to be the closest any film I can think of has got to the lightly played games of a Calvino combined with the equally playfully deployed learning of an Eco, and yet the transitions between stories are handled with simple but wholly filmic means (montage, superimposition) that mean it's almost impossible to imagine a novel achieving the same texture. The fable-like stories of earnest young Jesuit theologians perplexed by Descartes, mysterious beautiful women and a modern young man who discovers an internet site foretelling what he will do the following day (this last perhaps recalled by the graveyards complete with web addresses in Carax's Holy Motors) seemed perfectly matched to the acting style: played straight enough not to be arch but with the confidence that we all know it's rather silly. And yet as it goes on (and it does go on; I don't think shaving off half an hour or so would have hurt) the balance seems to get lost and it separates into its component parts: the excessively clear (yes, it's about free will and predestination); the merely weird, perhaps hoping that repetition will somehow give the impression of coherence (all those nuns wielding big sticks); the genuinely silly (the dog-headed man); and a rather pretentious earnestness. Possibly a second viewing would generate a different impression but sadly I don't think I'm likely to give it one any time soon.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Pola X (Leos Carax, 1999)

This is the only one of Carax's films which is a literary adaptation, but on the strength of it I'd love to see him do more. Much has been made of its obscurities and obliquities, but Melvile's Pierre is a very strange book in the first place, and Carax's film is in fact a rather straight adaptation, with, of course, certain adjustments. Aside from the change of time and location, there is the introduction in the middle of political content concerning the treatment of Roma people (which manages not to either overwhelm or be overwhelmed by the film's other concerns), and of course the fact that, unlike in the book, not all the protagonists finish up dead. Ultimately the film, much like the book, is a Gothic melodrama, and it would be interesting to consider it in the wider context of cinematic melodramas. Of course there are connections to Carax's previous films (Pierre develops both Alex's limp and Michelle's fading eyesight from Les Amants du Pont-Neuf) but for the most part a certain naturalism takes hold (modulated, of course, by the extremity of the content). The performances are almost surprisingly restrained; it is as an ensemble that the film impresses. The opposition between the ludicrously glowing opening, almost a Merchant Ivory pastiche, all golden hair and blazingly white clothes, and the literal darkness later on (either rich midnight blues or, as in Isabelle's remarkable opening monologue, almost completely black – the comparisons here with Grandrieux's Sombre don't seem off the mark) is very well handled; the point being that neither extreme represents either health or sickness, whether of body or mind. Like many a self-respecting melodrama, families, quasi-families and pseudo-families are at the heart of the narrative, and in particular their secrets. We are asked to wonder whether certain secrets need to be exposed, lancing the boil, but also if some secrets are best off remaining secret. Eventually, the film deeply problematises the distinction between the apparent and the concealed; lies and secrets might even be said to create the very distinction, so that – as with the empty room behind the blocked-up door in the chateau – there may be nothing behind them, or the attempt to reveal the truth may only plunge one further into doubt, as when Pierre attempts to shed his pseudonym but is accused of being an impostor. Pierre tries to write a novel that will reveal, as he says, the great lie hiding behind everything, only to be accused once again, this time of plagiarism by his publisher. Authenticity proves not to consist in penetrating beyond the surface. There may be no such lie – which by no means guarantees that all is truth. Isabell's claim to be his sister cannot be neatly deciphered as either truth, lie or delusion. Pola X seems to conclude with the profoundly unconsoling message that we cannot operate other than by lies and concealments, but that they will nonetheless come to destroy us, in the end.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

2 by Carax: Mauvais Sang (1986) and Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991)

My previous experience of Mauvais Sang was that, though I found every other film of Carax's to be at the very least extremely interesting, this film was one of the most deeply irritiating I have ever seen! I don't find it so any more, though it certainly hasn't become one of my favourites. (It should be said that the transfer on the Artificial Eye DVD looks stunning, greatly superior to the DVD of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf that I have.) What is most striking, watching these two films in close proximity, are the parallels between them; they almost seem like two versions of the same thing. In both, Denis Lavant and Juliette Binoche are at the heart of a narrative of love, death and jealousy, where physical conditions (the diminishment of capacity or its overloading) serve highly metaphorical – even allegorical – functions. Both tales set individuals against sweeping backdrops that are mostly only alluded to (the passing of Halley's Comet in Mauvais Sang; the bicenenary of 1789 in Les Amants). The progress of these concrete abstractions takes precedence over conventional narrative per se. In the later film, however, there are coherently constructed narrative threads throughout, even when they stretch plausibility to the extent that the film becomes impressionist, such as when Michelle's poster appears on every surface Alex passes. The film is satisfying on multiple levels: narrative, metaphorical, structural. In Mauvais Sang, however, the opening structure of noirish thriller is handled almost entirely abstractly. It is abandoned so completely for much of the film – there is so little sense of tension – that it is a surprise whenever it returns. This probably accounts for my initial irritation; not expecting the film to be any kind of crime drama helps on accomodate oneself to it. (Both films have a kind of prelude after which Lavant and Binoche enter into their "world" together, largely – but not entirely – cut off from surrounding realities. But in Mauvais Sang this prelude promises a genre that the film entirely unfulfils, while in Les Amants it deals with the world of the down-and-outs in Paris and their treatment by the authorities and so, though we never quite return there – Alex's arrest at the end draws him into the more standard world of the police – it sets up a number of narrative and thematic issues very effectively.) Mauvais Sang may have the more arresting set-pieces (such as Alex's run along the street to the soundtrack of Bowie, and his magic tricks; some of the set-pieces in the later film seem like less effective re-runs of these), but Les Amants seems to me the more consistently engaging work of the two, in no small part because of Binoche, who is quite remarkable. Despite the various extremities she has to go to she avoids caricature entirely. Her mannerisms only return at the end of the film, as it sets itself up for the happy ending that its logic does not really lead towards. (I believe Carax's initial intention was to have a tragic ending.) If one wanted to distill a notion of the "Caraxian", these two films would be excellent tools with which to do so; but if I were to be forced to never see two of his films again, I think these two would very likely be the ones I would choose.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Boy Meets Girl (Leos Carax, 1984)

Yesterday I watched and wrote about Diva, which I found almost wholly underwhelming; this, on the other hand, is absolutely magnificent. It does share with Beineix's film a scene of cunning LP theft, which in this case is not entirely successful; it is characteristic of the delicate paradoxes of Carax's film that Alex fails because he gets greedy and tries to stuff too many records into his jacket, but that his greediness is an act of selflessness, because the records are intended for his unfaithful girlfriend. This was my second viewing and, while certain perplexities remain, it now seems, a little surprisingly, almost entirely pellucid. Yes, it's unashamedly "arty", and even rather arch in places, but it wears its influences (particularly Godard) so much on its sleeve that it seems unfair to accuse of it being derivative; this, combined with the fact that it has digested its influences into something wholly consistent and distinctive, which is all the more remarkable given the youth of its director. The black and white cinematography is astonishingly beautiful, somewhat putting me in mind of Pedro Costa's debut, Blood, from just a few years later; a comparison of these two might be interesting as it feels to me as if they have more in common than visual style – a combination of urgency and apparent stasis, for example. The images, just like the rest of the film, balance cool abstraction and perfectly comprehensible emotion, making much of the film totally understandable to anyone who has ever been young and in love. But it does not merely handle a perennial subject in an abstract fashion; rather, the abstraction is essential to one of its central themes, which seems to me to be precision. It constantly explores binary notions (visible/invisible; audible/inaudible; purposeful/contingent) and finds distinctive points between things we might have taken to be mutually exclusive. Thus, a couple's private embrace becomes public when Alex throws them some coins as if they were busking. When milk is poured into an opaque white cup, something that surely ought to be invisible, we can nonetheless just make out the level of the liquid rising through the cup. The sentences practiced by the woman at the beginning and written down by Alex at the end represent the nervousness of one partner who is leaving another and that of a young lover, respectively; but they also represent the indiscernibilty of the distinction between the spontaneous and the rehearsed. This also makes sense of the confusing narrative at the beginning, when the woman we assume must be Florence (because Alex finds what he takes to be her scarf) turns out to be a complete stranger, unconnected to the rest of the story. Yes, this underlines how the same stories of boy meeting girl, or girl leaving boy, are taking place everywhere, but it also breaks down the boundary between explicable and random events. Everything that happens, happens with equal precision; misunderstanding is still a definite occurence. Alex really does find this scarf, in this place, at this time, an event that could be mapped on his wall, along with the date, just like any other. Whether looking forward to what they will do or regretting what they haven't done, every character in Boy Meets Girl is living a life of equal richness, if not equal satisfaction.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Diva (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1981)

I find the reputation of this one a little baffling. It seems to me to consist of an entirely ludicrous and hackneyed story of music and obsession that fails to cohere with an equally ludicrous crime story that swiftly drains itself of any tension or intrigue whatsoever. Not that I have anything against the ludicrous, but I can't see the glorious excesses and excitements that supposedly justify it (though I quite enjoyed the scene about buttering baguettes and the thugs are entertaining enough). If Pauline Kael really did compare Beineix to Orson Welles, that has me all the more baffled. I think a well-chosen episode of Columbo would have more of everything this film is trying to achieve.