Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Banishment (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2007)

I found the opening sequence of this completely gripping. A speeding car passes from an idyllic countryside to a rain-sodden city. The driver – we learn this at the point when he is forced to stop at a level crossing to allow a train to pass – has a wounded arm that he's tourniqued with a belt. Is some kind of dystopian crime drama in the offing? Unfortunately after this things rather fall away, and all that remains of such a drama are the vaguest background hints. The driver, Mark (played by Aleksandr Baluev) turns out to be our protagonist's brother, Alex (Konstantin Lavroneko), who soon returns to the idyllic countryside with his family – wife, son and daughter – to their country house there. It isn't long before it becomes clear that allegory is on the cards. With a vengeance! The film offers such a compote of allegories that we're left largely with muddle. Specifically, the two children are aligned with Adam and Eve – the son, Kir, is given the power to name a young foal; the daughter is called Eva and is even at one point told to pass her mother an apple! The film's title, Izgnanie in Russian is, as Tony Wood points out in his New Left Review article on Zvyagintsev, the Russian word used to refer to the expulsion from Eden. But this was clearly not enough allegory for Zvyagintsev, so the mother is also pregnant, with an unspecified father. At one point, to help us out if we've not spotted the allusion yet, the children construct a jigsaw of the Annunciation.(Things seem to have been even clunkier in the source novel, which I have not read: the protagonist of William Saroyan's The Laughing Matter is called Evan Nazarenus.) What sense we are to make of Mary and Joseph being the parents of Adam and Eve is unclear (to complicate matters still further there seem to me to be indications that the two brothers are in a sense two sides of the same person); Wood quotes the director as saying that Alex is "a 'new Joseph', who wants to expel Mary for the Immaculate Conception [he must mean the virgin birth], but in this case is tragically 'unable to hear the voice of the angel that is speaking to him' ... 'we are all of us Eves and Adams', and the banishment of the film's title is not a single event but a permanent human condition: 'we have all of us been banished'." Despite the fine acting the indefiniteness of setting, with regard both to location and to time, hamstrings the possibility of focusing on characters and narrative on their own terms. It's also stylistically self-regarding, chock full of aggressively shallow focus and explicit nods to Tarkovsky, in particular. It all adds up to the kind of thing that allows some film scholars to claim that there's such a thing as an "art cinema" genre (is there a genre of painting called "art painting"?). Darren Aaronovsky's Mother! may be a much sillier film than this, but if you want a confused muddle of allegories, at least it's also much more fun.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh, 2017)

I rather came away here with the impression of a cast outclassing their script. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri certainly contains a host of very fine performances, is indubitably engaging and often very funny, but it also suffers from the kind of "neatness" that plagues a certain style of playwriting. The film thinks that it is – among other things – a fairly serious look at certain phenomena, chiefly rape, murder, racism and the police responses (and of course contributions) to them. For maybe its first third I thought that the most interesting aspect of it was not the issues it confronts explicitly, but rather its examination of the nature and consequences of political action, considered in the broadest sense. The specific political action in question involves the messages that Frances McDormand's character, Mildred Hayes, puts up on the eponymous billboards, demanding – this is a spoiler, but only of about the first five minutes of the film – why the police have made no progress in solving her daughter's rape and murder. The responses she receives of "we're all with you, but we don't want you to actually do anything about your situation" have all sorts of resonances. But for the film to really explore the political in this sense it would have had to sustain the kind of general credibility maintained by something like Manchester By The Sea, whose Lucas Hedges also crops up here as McDormand's son; it would also certainly have had to include some fleshed-out black characters, which it almost resolutely refuses to do. Instead, although it ends on what I found to be a pleasingly ambiguous note, the film descends into a series of increasingly contrived set-pieces which undermine its claim to any genuine seriousness, political or of any other kind – and this even before we get to the question of the redemption that Sam Rockwell's character seems to be allowed (something which has become, I think rightly, controversial).

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Happy End (Michael Haneke, 2017)

A curious beast, this. As a number of critics have said, all the expected Haneke manoeuvres are present and correct, but rather too present and correct. (A bit like "Haneke's greatest hits", somebody said to me.) The filming is as beautifully meticulous as ever, but I was also pedantically irritated by the opening cameraphone shots, which show us the entire screen of the young daughter's smartphone, with running commentary in text message but nary a thumb to be seen. How exactly is she supposed to be typing the messages, then?!? Fantine Harduin as the 13-year old Eve is in fact one of the best things about the film – understated but not quite pathologically so – and Trintignant gives a wryly precise performance; Huppert and Toby Jones, watchable as they both are, are never required to break a sweat. But my general impression during the film was largely one of Haneke spinning his wheels. And yet when it closed on an overtly comic treatment of attempted suicide I found myself reconsidering. It is made clear, earlier on, that the film is in some senses a sequel to Amour, but the comedy (which surfaces intermittently throughout) made me reconsider the other references to Haneke's own work. What had seemed worryingly derivative (clichés are clichés, even if they're your own – just look at Tarkovsky's last two films) now seemed so blatant as to be clearly deliberate: there is, for example, a conversation in the middle distance that we can't hear and a sudden, shocking eruption of violence (conflating two scenes from Caché), and a woman involved in a sadomasochistic affair turns out to be a musician (The Piano Teacher). Is this latter fact an actual joke? Seeing reflexivity rather than mere repetition also caused me to reconsider the film's relative gentleness, which some have seen as bland or disappointing; horrible events are telegraphed but do not happen, and two excruciating social situations are only mildly excruciating. Is this, too, to be seen in relation to Haneke's preceding films, a comment on his own method? Is it deliberate bathos rather than a failed attempt at intensity? Is the whole thing poking fun at his own body of work, at the notion that film is an appropriate means for a traumatic working through of hypocrisy? Does this explain why the migrant crisis is quite so peripheral to the film, as well as the crudeness of its one major appearance in the narrative? Is Haneke, perhaps, satirising his own bourgeois filmmaking here as much as the bourgeousie in general? After just one viewing, I'm not at all sure, but Haneke is surely far too intelligent not to have considered all this, and so it definitely merits a subsequent viewing (something I didn't think I'd say half way through) and some more pondering.

P.S. Interesting remark by Haneke in an interview in Cineaste (Winter 2017, pp. 4-9: 4).
"Nasty commentators have said this is a "best of" compilation of my work. It is, in fact, a kind of summation. It also has something comical - in the sense of a farce - which makes it easy to reference other films. That was fun. This gets noticed only by insiders. They get the jokes that, nevertheless, don't change the seriousness of the narrative."

Friday, December 01, 2017

Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles, 1965)

It must be a dilemma for almost any production of Shakespeare, whether on stage or screen – why are we bothering with all this business of staging, blocking, scenery? Why not just have the audience close their eyes and the actors deliver the lines, given that we're dealing with some of the richest poetry ever written, in the English language or any other? The parts of the plays that Orson Welles fillets to produce his Chimes at Midnight may not contain the very richest of Shakespeare's poetry, but still, the director's solution is admirable in its simplicity: he simply ignores the fact that there might be a problem at all. The slight divergence between image and sound produced by overdubbing suggest that one might do well to watch this film with the sound off, as well as to listen to it in the absence of the images, such is its richness in both dimensions. Welles resists using the images to simplify, clarify or even comment on the language, and simply develops both aspects to the best of his ability in the service of the narrative. The visuals are quite magnificent, with beautiful camera movements married to some at times quite startling editing that never allows the choreography, in itself, to become the point. Of course it recalls nothing so much as Welles, but Bergman, Tarkovsky and even Eisenstein all come to mind at times, as well as some pre-echoes of Béla Tarr, surprisingly, and particularly Aleksei German's Hard to Be a God. (The battle scene is very fine indeed.) And Welles' own performance is quite magnificent, his voice never more precisely deployed. It's instructive to put his Falstaff here against the eponymous Mr. Arkadin (1955) to see all that is best and worst in Welles as an actor. In the earlier film, boldness becomes mannerism, preposterousness and overexplicitness; here, minute attention to detail and great subtlety never become precious or self-regarding, and broadness does not exactly become delicate but is handled with as much delicacy as the delicate aspects themselves. Subtlety does not become an obstacle to directness, but neither do broad strokes do away with nuance and ambiguity. In Chimes at Midnight, this is true of Welles' acting and of his directing both.

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.