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.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Death in Venice (Luchino Visconti, 1971)

Dirk Bogarde reminds me here of no contemporary actor so much as Kevin Eldon (and I say that as the highest compliment to them both; I would love to see Eldon take on a substantial non-comic role like this). For the most part Bogarde stays just the right side of excess, the histrionics part of the character's own self-admiring sense of restraint. Some points that I felt were overstepped in fact later create interesting patterns. The smile indicating Aschenbach's pleasure at the fact that his misdirected luggage compels him to stay in Venice seemed too explicit (compare the deadpan manner in which the closure of the telegraph office is handled in Tourneur's Out of the Past), but then this smile is echoed in another smile when it is finally confirmed that cholera is in Venice, and the wish for death is wholly apparent to us and yet, we feel, not quite apparent to the character. Generally, however, the first half of the film feels much stronger to me than the second. By the end we are both wholly outside and wholly inside the dying Aschenbach. The violent constrast between his vision of Tadzio against the setting sun and his own grotesquely disintegrating face – hair dye running down his cheeks – compares unfavourably to what I remember as the quietly inexorable slipping away of the novella, in which the delusion is still palpable, but much more delicately. Visconti does manage something similar in the earlier scenes of isolation in the hotel. The baroquely 1970s use of camera movement and the zoom lens might recall Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, four years later – with Marisa Berenson the direct link between the two films – but there is nothing of Kubrick's inscrutably irony here. Visconti instead uses the way the camera searches, but does not always underline what it is searching for, and the way the zoom flattens space (allowing him to play games with the contrast between mental and spatial proximity) to inhabit Aschebach's mindset without putting the viewer securely either within or without it. We might, in fact, be closer to another Venetian film that uses similar techniques, namely Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now, which both observes and replicates Donald Sutherland's psyche. (The most explicit points of similarity occur, however, in the later sections of Death in Venice, as Aschenbach pursues Tadzio through increasingly phantamagoric and death-ridden streets.) Alternatively, one might even make a comparison with Robert Altman, with Visconti's productive use of the difficult-to-hear another point of contact (half-heard dialogue overlaps in a panoply of languages). Aschenbach feels himself, like Marlowe in The Long Goodbye (also, like Don't Look Now, from 1973), to exist out of his time, divorced from sympathy with or understanding from his surroundings. But whereas Altman indicates that Marlowe is largely correct, Visconti shows us that this is precisely Aschenbach's vain delusion; he is in fact very much a man of his time, as the parade of almost-doppelgängers (the photographer on the beach; the man in front of him in the bureau de change) makes clear.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

in memory of John Ashbery, looking back at Twin Peaks: The Return

[On September 4th I learned of the death of John Ashbery and watched the final two episodes of Twin Peaks
Ashbery was, apparently, an enthusiast for David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE.
"They do cross over, poetry and movies. My poetry seems to be something I make up as I go along. 
Certain movies strike me that way - going in and out of one's dreams..."
Reading some of Ashbery's poems on the LRB website a few passages struck me.]

from Chronic Symbiosis

[...] For one irrational second I thought
today's subject was plagiarism, as symbolised
by that desk. But no, it's joy
in never knowing, in having once known,
and in its still not being too late to know.

[...] Quick, tell me a story

that I may repeat it with minor variations
and the job be over. Rakes and shovels lean beside
the open door this evening with a special lustre
all their own, that they can't know. And I,

I was spirited away by a handsome enchanter
to a medium-sized city not twenty miles from here
and live my life as I can hear and smell it. No grouch
am I, yet hardly an earth-mother either. [...]

from Many Are Dissatisfied

yet the wind from Seattle blows over and over,
against the facing page and against the anthill.
You would wonder at all the crumbs
that have been dropped, lest you find your way
through this tangled story of ours,
and at how the gentlemen fliers cursed us
as mere entertainers, made us put our wallets away.

[...] Or is it all declamation – the wanting
to sue nature for the tide’s infirmities,
sliding off into a lather,
mouthing the old pulchritude a house has?

from Homecoming 

Weather drips quietly through the skeins
in my diary. What surly elision is this?

Who faxed the folks news of my homecoming,
even unto the platform number? [...]

Later I’m posting this to you.
I just thought of you, you see, as indeed I do
several million times a day. I need your disapproval,
can't live without your churlish ways.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

It Comes at Night (Trey Edward Shults, 2017) & The Human Surge (Eduardo Williams, 2016)

With It Comes at Night it is, I suppose, interesting to find a horror film that draws on Tarkovsky, but generally I found this derivative and uninvolving. The horror elements are confined to - admittedly effective - jump scares, while for me at least any real psychological horror is undermined by the overfamiliarity of the "underexplained plague" scenario and the flatly grim "boy's own adventure"/"heteronormative families are at the centre of our humanity" survivalist narrative. The dialogue is also mostly without wit. It's certainly by no means a poor film, but nothing in it reached out and pulled me in, not even the games with dream or delirium (keep an eye on those aspect rations).

The Human Surge, on the other hand, had me continually engrossed and is the most original new film I've seen since Kaili Blues. There certainly seem to be traces both of Pedro Costa (including some meticulously worked post-synced sound) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but I got no sense of influences being worked through, as is often the case with young directors - such as Shults in It Comes at Night, in fact (Shults and Williams are almost the same age). The Human Surge is a meditation on different forms of connectedness and proximity (mobile phones and the internet are prominent throughout) - both montage and thematic, narrative, or visual echoes all come to seem embodiments (more than allegories) of this theme. Like digital media, the film explores the making of continuity out of discontinuity (1s and 0s; sleep/waking; work/play; inside/outside - at one point two men discuss sneaking into a building and then seem to find themselves on a wide open plain). Location and the distinction between being lost and found are also central throughout. In the film's last section, set in the Philippines, the idea is proposed that if you get lost you can find your way back by following a beautiful person, which is indeed what the camera does for much of the film. Earlier on, somebody helps someone else out over the phone with a trigonometry problem, which also connects to the fiction/documentary binary; as Leo Goldsmith writes, "though presumably a fictional narrative, the physical and psychological triangulation between camera, cameraperson, and subject suggests the voyeurism of documentary". There are further gentle doses of reflexivity: a young man refuses to kiss his girlfriend because people might see - meaning, perhaps, those of us sat in the cinema? Though some of the film was shot (beautifully) on 16mm there is no sense of elegy for old technology, but rather an emphasis both on the humanity of the connections formed by various media, and the distortions and disconnections they afford. Connections are made boldy: at one point the camera passes the young man who has been the protagonist thus far and follows a young woman instead. So far, so familiar - we've seen this move before. But shortly afterwards what seemed to be images from a diegetic webcam prove to derive from a camera that is able to follow its subjects out into the night, and we realise we have moved from Argentina to Mozambique. Later, a descent into an anthill (shades of Blue Velvet) that one of our new protagonists is peeing on takes us through its tunnels, only to emerge in the Philippines. The Human Surge manages to show that the connections forged by new digital media are real connections - there is, as I said, no elegy, but neither is there a gleeful embrace of "posthumanism" or any such concept - without losing sight of more immediately physical chains of production and interface: we end in a factory (presumably also in the Philippines) making laptops, soldering together circuit boards. (As Ela Bittencourt puts it, "he is not looking at the digital age as something alien, imposed or a metaphor, but rather as a new type of immersion".) The digital may be differently physical, but it is still physical.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

L'Eau froide (Olivier Assayas, 1994)

Beautiful and enthralling. My knowledge of Assayas is not extensive. Irma Vep I thought very good, Personal Shopper interesting but ultimately unsuccessful, and Clouds of Sils Maria increasingly obvious and increasingly irritating as it mined deeper and deeper into an exhausted seam. But here the mix of cinematography, "hip" early-seventies music, elliptical but not obscure narrative, and sensitive characterisations/performances won me over almost entirely. The scene where the bong gets passed round is a beautiful image of community in/through isolation, and weirdly reminded me of the sleep/dream sequence in the abandoned house in Tarr's Satantango. The person I saw this with saw only cliché and nostalgia, but the warmth and subtlety of the film means I wholly disagreed. I was just reading Robin Wood on Howard Hawks and a little irritated by his claim that High Noon is nothing but cliché, whereas Rio Bravo - despite its abundance of stock character and situations - contains "no clichés". I would still prefer to speak about different uses of cliché, but after watching L'Eau froide I feel I know more what he meant.