Alphaville (1965)

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The opening sequences are excellent; thinking forward to Bladerunner with the noir pastiches, then the tracking shots of sullen Caution in the hotel (terminuses, outposts, a little of Ashes and Diamonds). Then the bedroom scene is absolute gold: brash, wild, hilarious, perfect introduction to the way LC punctures this world of perverted efficiency with his ruthless, provincial, illogical violence. Some incredible camerawork here out, too, particularly in externally tracking a glass lift down a floor.

The grimness and the systemic absurdity put this in a Russian mode for me; maybe Zamyatin or Roadside Picnic. The world is, at times, as intensely refractive as Cléo de 5 a 7‘s Paris; loved watching LC track his own plot through the lobbies and dimly lit streets. At the same time, the whirring and spinning technology on show here is fascinating, humanised in its visual mechanics unlike today’s abstracted and occluded digital computing.

Then the script really bulks up, and A begins to drag its heels. There are interminable hotel scenes where the dynamics of the political setup are simplified (after some opaque narration by the central tracheotomic HAL character Alpha 60) into generic binaries of technology/humanity, rationality/sensation, trans/humanism. Begins to lose its flavour in spite of frenetic accelerations and a pulpy, destructive climax. By the time the inevitable disruptive editing effects kick in they feel like excessive seasoning.

Perhaps because I connect it most closely, as a holistic piece, to Marker’s superior La Jetée, which seems wordless in spite of its narration. Would seriously consider watching again with no sound (despite an excellently menacing score) or at least no subs.

100th note.

7

The Levelling (2017)

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Being touted as Hope Dickson Leach’s feature directorial debut, but she’s already got a few short films under her belt.

Begins with a confused, unsettling melee; torchlit party but with a Kill List-esque folk-horror excess. This threatening provincial gothic atmosphere becomes diffused across the whole film, which takes the shocking death of the brother of our central character, Clover, as the traumatic rupture at the film’s centre. Poster above is very apt: sense of bifurcation, splitting – regret that it was her brother not her father; return to a past world; a parent and daughter who’ve grown apart. Central death like a ridge, scar-tissue which must now be traced and examined; Clover feels her way up her brother’s cold arm under a sheet, navigating the terrain of this new situation. All this in a world after the 2014 flooding on the Somerset Levels; distinctly apocalyptic unreality to the ossified homestead, unsettlingly mathematical and arbitrary floodline cutting the world horizontally in two.

Quickly turns into a wonderfully haunting investigation of spatial memory and trauma. Preserved spaces like Clover’s room (with its petrified mementos of childhood) and Harry’s room, concealed spaces like the neglected dog Milo, the scene of the suicide, the ominous kitchen. Part of the farm as a breathing entity, father Aubrey as a kind of sodden Fisher King letting presiding over stock and space. Ambient landscapes interposed, psychogeographical influence of Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant, evidence of the natural disaster in innocuous rivers and sunken flatlands. First refreshing approach is the appropriately catastrophic metaphor for real historical events effecting under-examined provincial populations and territories (all the while giving the personal drama a proper, respectful weight and autonomy).

Most important spatial dimension, though, is old idea of the traumatic return, return to trauma. This resumption of old duties takes C by surprise – “I didn’t bring any wellies” becomes symbolic in a feature-length exposition of the same metaphorical physicalisation of trauma represented by Cillian Murphy’s shellshocked soldier in Dunkirk. A’s aggressive self-defence frequently blocks C’s inquiries by invoking her past absences – “you weren’t here” for H’s death; I didn’t give you the farm because “you left” (a particularly chilling strategy given that his miscommunications enforced another of C’s absences during her mother’s death, which serves as the traumatic precedent for H’s death). His oppugnant attitude is bolstered by an apparently un-selfcritical insistence on efficiency: “You have to get up get out of bed and milk the bloody cows.” His strategy eventually gets to C, as she attacks a sympathetically probing pastor: “I’m not feeling guilt – I wasn’t even here.” What’s perhaps more insidious is the subsequent switch in A’s defences wherein he uses the past life, with which C is trying to reconnect, as a new weapon against her, evoking that brute efficiency in enjoining C to kill an unneeded calf (having jokingly encouraged her to eat shepherd’s pie earlier).

Second refreshing approach is portrait of creepily feudal or monarchic yet cooperative limbo-world of traditional British farming. Lots of talk of authority, succession. Buried Hamlet vibe was brought home to me at the point where C jumps into a ditch to rescue Milo from drowning. Frustration at resumed efficiency mirrors Hamlet’s disgust at weddings immediately following funerals. Most notably the digging connection, with H‘s first utilisations of “harrowing” in a metaphorical sense, images of buried accusing bodies (shot badgers). The rotation of familial personnel from lends weight to C’s gendered isolation and desire to forge her own career off the farm, reflecting more broadly on relationship dynamics in that novel agricultural context.

To go with the cinematography and use of ominous metaphorical shots of submerged rabbits and cattle there’s some excellent sound design: Kermode talked about the use of ambient noise in the negative space between failed communications; sparing use of interpolated music too, particularly A Silver Mt. Zion’s He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms… (particularly ’13 Angels’).

Ultimately C sees the fragility behind her father’s capricious attitude; her decision to stay at the farm is rescued from an unsatisfying act of forgiveness by an acknowledgement of nuanced psychological effects of grief (she herself lashes out at a friend in her very first appearance). The fact that this reconciliation is staged as quite a sensationalist climax does ultimately solidify a slight sense of the post-Scandi noir BBC drama, a context which emerges occasionally in the ambient landscape shots and the highly-strung script (elsewhere, the screaming peaks of terror and grief are seriously gripping). However, there’s no lasting impression of genre, because this is an intelligent, beautifully economical and expertly paced drama. Keep an eye out for the name.

9

Murder By Contract (1958)

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First time with Irving Lerner I believe.

Some thing almost fascistically Randian about Claude’s impulse for physical self-improvement, coupled with his desire to become gun-for-hire despite already working a steady job. His apparent initial greed is undercut by the methodical patience of his process (“There’s too many doers in the world not enough people take time to think”); efficiency and twisted morality (“I brush my teeth three times a day and I obey local speed limits”) of Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter. But, in the prologue section, the figure who really suggests himself is Travis Bickle; no surprise to read that Scorsese loved this. Cruising, inexorability, blackened cynicism, domestic fidgeting. C’s beliefs and justifications suck you into the film; they later comment on ruthless capitalism, with a terrifying unblinking speech about cutting costs vs cutting throats and the fundamental similarity between assassination and competition.

MBC is also very distinctive stylistically. Read comparisons with the French new wave and I certainly see Bresson in the elliptical efficiency – an early contract in a barbershop is hitchcock-level suggestive and terrifying. Welles all over the place too: Touch of Evil in the motel showdown, Lady From Shanghai in the geometry, Third Man in the final shot. All the time under bleached-out LA sunshine, languid isolation in Antonioni streets.

Unfortunately the pulpy sensibility does tip over into some ridiculous moments, such as C bizarrely berating a hapless waiter for his complicity in ruthless capitalism, or the way C’s misogyny is much less poisonously alluring than his misanthropy (“the human female is descended from the monkey”). And when you’re spending most of the 80 minutes with three characters you feel the need for decent acting from more than just one of them (C reminded me of a midpoint between Brando and Ruffalo). Still a lean and clean B noir with a jazzy sense of cool and a masterful efficiency.

7

A Separation (2011)

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Returned to this after eight months and having watched The Past and The Salesman in the interim. Particularly after the latter, interesting to see how little legwork Asghar Farhadi’s camera is doing: in place of clever metatheatrical framing and disorientating tumbling through domestic spaces we have, here, relatively unostentatious wobblycam observation. Perhaps most notable is the confused geometry of the house’s open-plan interior, with panes of glass and doors set ajar frequently interposing communicative barriers between family members. These shots frequently entrap Termeh as she is called from room to room by her bickering parents. There are some analogous shots of the maid’s daughter through crowds at the courthouse, though T views their family as desirably nuclear despite their poverty; tempting to speculate, too, that T might favour their religiosity, with her conscientious probing and conservative dress (uniform, often). Overall perhaps this is the high-watermark for wobblycam realism: though we feel fully involved, there is no sense of ‘artistic’ intrusion; definitely a bald, unpretentious clarity in contrast to the more ruminative elegance of that other unshakeable, generational, domestic, Academy-beloved foreign-language drama from a year later, Amour.

Less the weaving of sympathies across the aisle through revelations and confessions, what actually emerges on second viewing of AS is the growing centrality of T. Much more conscious of the bogus ethical agency thrusted upon her by her father, who frequently issues her with such ultimatums as promising to confess or reconcile with his wife only if she finds him guilty. This really undercuts his apparently liberal toleration of their wishes, therefore counterbalancing his apparent vindication and the high ground above his wife which it affords him. The ending is perhaps doubly desolate, pitch-perfect: it really is unfair to make T choose.

The writing here is so much tighter than TP, and more distributively balanced too, which gives it a considerable observational edge over the excellent TS. Possibly the best film from this decade so far.

10

Late Autumn (1960)

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Fifth time with Yasujiro Ozu after TSLSFW and Brothers And Sisters of the Toda FamilyBeautiful poster there but no idea why it emphasises the guy at the front, who must have about four scenes total; must have been a fan favourite at the time.

Probably Ozu’s fullest picture (of the above, at least) – in the first scene, disparities of gender, class, region, and (of course) generation are introduced very discreetly and succinctly. BFI guide labels this a “remake” of LS, which I think obscures the extent to which YO’s films are individual takes on the same issues – in any case, the balance here is much more level, with various groups and peripheral characters playing off each other in contrast to the centripetal LS (which is far more magnetised around Setsuko Hara). Here nostalgically meddlesome, almost mischievous men are occasionally undercut by their gossiping wives, who nevertheless very notably follow them around picking up discarded workclothes or empty bowls. Perhaps most distinctively, youth culture (or at least mid-20s) gets a fuller portrayal. While comic references to “that Presley” situate LA after the westernised explosion in youth autonomy (with some assumptions here about hemispherically comparable postwar prosperity and liberalisation), YO’s eye for behaviour and mores is most evident in the way the captivating Mariko Okada runs rings around the older group of male friends. There’s an especially poignant moment on a balcony at work (perhaps a reference to the famous TS shot) when MO’s Yuriko and Yoko Tsukasa’s Ayako question the significance of female friendship if it cannot survive marriage in a way that male relationships clearly do.

From the beginning this does feel in step with BaSotTF on account of another late arrival at a memorial service, as well as the initial impetus arising from an absent father-figure (postwar context is elucidated at the end here). The late Miwa’s associates swarm around his widow Akiko and surviving daughter Ay, explicitly taking a possessive tone on account, firstly, of fraternity, but later simply the women’s beauty. Their project is as clownish as the colluding secondary actors in FW, but they never lose this unsettling sense of intrusion; later the two husbands among them profess a wish to be widowers. The initial suggestion of Ay’s marriage is edited to emphasise her discomfort in a way sufficiently deft as to emulate the comic negotiations of LS.

For its understatement, SH’s performance here is probably my favourite of hers. While in LS she is much more reticent about her marital misgivings than YT is here, giving her the same mysterious glow as in TS, here she balances the trademark deferential passivity with reproachful engagements with Ay and more knowing, maturer conversations with the peppy MO (who I think channels the consistent dismissive pragmatism of Haruko Sugimura, of LS particularly). Occupying all the various agent and patient roles in these movements and situations, she trades the magnetically sympathetic seniority of Chishu Ryu for a versatility which reflects and enhances the film’s different social gradients.

The generational divide seems politicised. Successful professors and businessmen each, the men’s houses are as grey and uneventful as their clothing, while their friendships have become moulded around corporate interactions. Chief instigator Mamiya (Shin Saburi of Toda Family) suggests Goto as a suitor for Ay with the caveat that “he doesn’t standout” followed immediately by the recommendation “I thought of him immediately.” Ak accedes to the resultant corporatised vetting process by making symbolic gifts of her late husband’s tobacco pipes (later employed amusingly as props in a bar scene), while Taguchi later celebrates Hirayama’s proposed engagement to Ak by notifying him that “you owe us a big meal.” They seem to fit right into a city design which is YO’s most explicitly consumerist, but the urban energy is in fact provided by the outgoing youth. However, the shot of Ay’s friends hiking in sync through the hills seems like something out of a socialist propaganda film, and there’s something iconoclastic about the way Ay explicitly challenges the morals of her father’s generation (again in contrast to that reticence of SH in LS). Contributing to that fuller depiction of generational confrontation.

Full is apt but the word that came to mind while watching was Rich. However, if the remarkably rhythmic, dynamic and comprehensive LA lacks anything its the breathtaking ambient beauty of the harbour in FW, the bay in TS or the Kyoto trip in LS, or the knockout incongruity of LS‘s ending. This is very domestic, very urban, very soapy; tied-up with a bow, sidestepping the curtailed character arcs of Toda but perhaps sacrificing some degree of risk in the process. I credit it in the same way as Fanny and Alexander though, perhaps, as it seems like a summative piece, being one film which somehow nails that Ozu balance between national cross-section and human condition, the balance otherwise grandly struck by considering his films together.

8

Symbol (2009)

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First time with Hitoshi Matsumoto.

After it finishes you have to go digging back a bit for the opening section, which begins with a Fear and Loathing nun travelling to pick up the wrestler father (Escargot Man!) of an anxious young boy in a Mexican wilderness. There’s later a feeling that this is just a disorientating false-start, but there’s also a sense of trusting childish investment in an adult world: the boy places faith in his father’s strength and heart despite a fretting mother and dismissive schoolmates. His faith is mirrored by the prayers of his wrestler father, surrounded by quietly prevalent catholic iconography in his locker room. Barthes says that wrestling is always about “explicit” signification of moral (internal) situations (expression of emotions that signify and complicate status of heroes/villains etc.). “Each moment of the wrestling match is therefore a kind of algebra which instantaneously discloses the relation of a cause with its figured effect.” Its truth is present and immediate (“Each sign in wrestling is thus endowed with an utter clarity since everything must always be understood on the spot.”). “A wrestler may irritate or disgust, he never disappoints, for he always ultimately achieves, by a gradual solidification of signs, what the public expects of him.” Catholic devotion and wrestler-worship are both investments in moralistic/causal systems that appear to function continuously – upon which its devotees are therefore trustfully dependent.

In contrast (constantly contrasted, in the first half of S anyway) we have the surreality of a man awakening in a bare rectangular room. Cherubic figures emerge from the walls and their abstracted penises become levers by which random objects are inserted into his world for him to puzzle over – pots, trees, sticks, comics, sashimi, a floating key, a mysterious runner, a door which is appears and disappears on a timer. Our man is dressed childishly in a bowl-cut wig and spotty pyjamas (infantility enhanced by the first apparition: a pink toothbrush) and exhibits a streak of infantile (scatological) humour amidst his frustration at this confinement – frustration which he announces, in protest, as unanswered pleas for help or explanation. He is clearly an adult trapped in a world of childish (il)logic, failing to get to grips with a system of infantile signification: effect does not explicably follow cause; knowledge has to be pieced together blindly through trial-and-error experience (like an animal in an intelligence test). None of Barthes’ “instantaneous disclosure” in here; in fact, the system often seems to play (childishly) capricious tricks on our man, with soy sauce ejected at the wrong time during a meal, levers awkwardly springing shut at inconvenient points, objects breaking each other at inopportune moments, etc. Our man longs for the certainty of Barthes’ world of wrestling:

In wrestling, nothing exists unless it exists totally, there is no symbol, no allusion, everything is given exhaustively; leaving nothing in shadow, the gesture severs every parasitical meaning and ceremonially presents the public with a pure and full signification, three-dimensional, like Nature. What is enacted by wrestling, then, is an ideal intelligence of things, a euphoria of humanity, raised for a while out of the constitutive ambiguity of everyday situations and installed in a panoramic vision of a univocal Nature, in which signs finally correspond to causes without obstacle, without evasion, and without contradiction.

Our man does eventually escape: after a purgatorial entrapment, he is laboriously led to another similar room, in which the effects of each lever are obscured to him. In fact, in a pulse-raising coordination of S‘s two plotlines, the first lever gives the Mexican wrestler-dad a bizarre means to win his match. Other levers take effect in global scenes with a similar level of systemic signification to wrestling: painted rockstars spout fire at a concert, a tv magician’s trick is interrupted, etc. Meanwhile, increasingly frustrated about his protracted confinement, our man starts climbing levers on the walls towards a seraphic light above – each compression sparks an action or event in a montage of home-video and news footage, including animals falling over, weapons firing, and an Obama speech.

This angelic ascent forms a middle section entitled PRACTICE. The first room was LEARNING; the final stage is FUTURE: our man ascends through the roof into a final room, where instead of cherubs a topographical atlas seeps through the wall. Opposite is one final dick-lever, which our man reaches towards like The Creation of Adam until the credits cut in before we get a chance to see what happens. There’s a clear development from blind operation of levers whose effects capriciously torment the operator, to a blind operation of levers whose effects register capriciously in the real world, to an enlightened operation of a lever whose effect (I imagine) will constitute complete control over the real world.

I don’t 100% know what to make of that. The ending isn’t annoying: it’s like a joke shared with the writer about how clearly none of us can know what it would be like to wield that kind of power, the power to control a system “in which signs finally correspond to causes without obstacle” (the mad futility of wrestling as an approximation is kind of hinted at by the fact that the miracle-lever ends up inducing Escargot Man to headbutt his own celebrating child). It’s certainly satisfying that our frustrated hero ends up with that power, though it is pretty hilarious watching him struggle in the first room, particularly when he devises cartoonish plots for escape. This first section certainly feels less like youtube excreta than the last third-ish, which is less satisfying visually and thematically. There does seem to be a religious ascension, a graduation from patient- to agent-status; perhaps a comment on the incomprehensible causal complexity of today’s world of object-based consumerism and the internet. There’s also a dick-lever which lowers a massive room-sized arse from the ceiling while flashing red lights and a child’s countdown announce a visible fart to which our man responds by kneeling and screaming “That STINKS!!!!”

A colourful, bizarrely lovable oddity whose surreal logic is sufficiently engaging to encourage both uncomprehending enjoyment and pompous retrospective speculation.

7

L’Innocente (1976)

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Third time with Luchino Visconti after La Terra Trema and Sandra.

Not too much to latch onto initially: Tullio is a total cad without being particularly seductive, as he waxes lyrical about his new love interest while his wife Giuliana listens with meek resignation. “You talk as if I never existed” is her response to his exaltations of newfound youth. She grows into relative independence while his mistress Teresa remains satisfyingly aloof. Turns out to be something of a false start as its the process of regeneration in G that makes her suddenly attractive once more to T; there’s a nice setpiece in the grounds of a fading and neglected villa, held in waiting by T’s mother for the couple, where they attempt to renovate their relationship (“Let’s imagine being two people who meet for the first time”). The allure of immoral decadence becomes a central theme, with G’s inability to resist T shadowing LV’s own obsession with the poisoned aristocracy of his background and of his later films (the idea of T being the seducer is intriguing, too, given LV’s own open homosexuality. There is plenty of implied tension in the frequent fencing scenes and one particular peak in a moment between T and his wife’s lover in the showers, but the theme isn’t explicitly developed any further).

The screws are slowly tightened. Desperation mounts as each character plays themselves into smaller corners, with G’s piety and questionable devotion to her now-deceased lover tensed against T’s opportunistic bourgeois atheism and pride. T’s degradation seems inevitable from the outset (“I knew Tullio was mad but not to this extent” says his mother, I think) but Giancarlo Giannini’s taut performance allows for some particularly catastrophic moments: his tears on hearing of G’s pregnancy; the violin spasming as he stokes the fire during her muffled labour (although this is one moment among a few, here, when we feel cheated of more thorough consideration of female perspectives. In the end Teresa challenges his erratically romantic chauvinism and receives a predictably unsatisfying bid for affection as an answer). The penultimate catastrophe is a real climax, with G’s nervous devotion at Christmas carols juxtaposed with the tormented T leering over the cot like Herod.

Not quite as fun as S but more feels more personal (perhaps in part because it was LV’s last film, released posthumously even in Italy). Definitely a grower, too, which is impressive given the lack of formal or stylistic bombast to distract from such a resolutely romantic and aristocratic story.

7