The Dance of Reality (2013)

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The start is pointedly emulative of I Clowns, one of Fellini’s most underrated films (I see Fellini elsewhere in the hallucinatory beach scenes like Juliet of the Spirits, and maybe Pasolini’s Teorema in the desert wanderers). Here the young AJ’s father is whipped into an adrenal frenzy by theatrical characters apparently from his past, resembling fruits and vegetables. The boy’s dramatic reaction is crushed by his father, who proceeds to wrestle with his own dictator complexes both politically and when dealing with his family, the boy and an operatic, spiritualistic mother. Bit of a Tree of Life tug of war between them, but the manichaean tussling does have a climactic resolution but the cosmic ballet – the “web of suffering and pleasure” as he puts it in his narration – goes on. It’s all show, like I Clowns, though this is just as political as Holy Mountain.

AJ is reaching through his own work, too: the cards burning at the secret communist meeting recalls the immolated cash in HM, the hundred sanded chairs retreat uncannily, while the father’s get-up as the dictator’s stable groom has a lot of the El Topo silhouette in it. Sense that he’s reeling these memories in – he often interjects, appearing physically, to remind us of the journey the young boy is on; he pulls him back from a ledge to exhort survival, “something is dreaming us”. You feel he has the liberty to (re)create his own backstory – whether imaginative simply in the way all self-narration is or by capturing subjective impression or by embellishing at a visual or narrative level – because he is self-made, a total curiosity.

Most of it is a parade of shocking scenery draped around the father’s story of transformative redemption (our sympathies are managed amazingly as this guy bends from tyrant to penitent). The attack on the donkeys at the watering is mesmeric and horrifying (flinching from all the animals especially because time can no longer claim to be on his side with this stuff), while the topless dancing with the horse is hilarious. There’s fighting amputees – of course – and accusatory humiliation of painted arms under a slum scaffold, nazis dying with baby voices and a woman pissing all over her husband’s face to rid him of plague. It’s all show. It’s great stuff, highly personal but still fascinating, a little saggy in the middle but well worth its two hours. I don’t have much more but I’m keen as ever for Endless Poetry.

8

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The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (2017)

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Went over to Islington with M on 15 October to watch a live screening of The Cabinet as part of this event series celebrating and reconstituting the church organ. Adam Wiltzie performing a live score with half an orchestra. The space is octagonal, with pews curved round like a lecture theatre; the musicians were not sunken but lit and raised onstage, with a huge projector screen above showing the film.

What immediately became apparent – perhaps unsurprisingly – is that the score would follow not the rhythms and tempos of the individual actions onscreen. Overall it wasn’t far from Stars/Winged Victory territory with the pacing and the interweaving of live and synthetic instruments across swooping peaks and troughs. What AW nailed was tracking the emotional progression of a scene or a section, which sounds like an unremarkably desirable analytical exercise, but it’s actually quite rare in my experience of silent film scores (Nosferatu was a particularly frustrating lowpoint). In this it was productively alternative to the almost Mr Bungle-style generic and instrumental handbrake turns of the colourised youtube version of The Cabinet that M and I watched originally.

The other overriding impression was that the score was in some way not illustrative of the film itself but of our reaction to the film. This is obviously connected to the notion that it tracked our emotions as we received the film rather than the film’s movements as it was broadcast to us. I think it’s also connected to the almost equivalent staging given to the orchestra and the film (the poster above suggests that the film was almost anonymously subordinate to the music, or the composer). Like watching the film with the musicians – I could see the conductor had a tiny screen in front of him that showed the film in sync with the projection, so that he could keep time without craning upwards.

With this effect, points of disjunction between the macro-arced music and the micro-moving visuals frequently became quite suggestive. I remember well the first appearance of Caligari, painted in both a Shakespearean artificial-dramatic sense and a very literal wardrobe one, glowering cross-eyed and painful. The music was near an ecstatic peak; it seemed to be marvelling at the capacity of humans for wordless expression, expressivity which seems simultaneously campy and sincerely sinister today after 97 years. The feeling that the film was reaching out to us across that century was enhanced by a sound that could only be standing alongside us, looking backwards.

The film is great and always has been, but I found myself concentrating more on the score (M and I left babbling at cross-purposes about the two aspects of the performance; she picked out moments of discontinuity from our previous viewing [convincing ourselves that Cesare really did strike down decisively at Jane in her bead {what a scene this is though, with the receding dress like ectoplasm}; noticing new resonances like the chalked X across Cesare’s sweater vs the crossed arms of Francis’ straightjacket]) Still, it was an amazing setting and an unforeseeably satisfying artistic combination.

M made me this framed Caligari printout for my birthday. It’s an original German poster. The figures look more like Gorey waifs than chiaroscuro clowns. The rippling typography gives it a kind of futurist feel, too, above the angularity of the big top and the leaning top-hats. I really like it but she was having none of it.

My Twentieth Century (1989)

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Early piece from Ildikó Enyedi, watched as a film night with M.

Hard not to love at the start. Second Run released this recently, which makes connections between Edison’s lightbulb parade and the cover of Pictures of the Old World inevitable. The beauty of the cinematography is very different here, though: every shot could be paused and made into a participant’s documentary snap; we’re made to feel like part of the story in every vignette. This despite some overtly cinematic stylings, as in the early montage of technology and exploration, as well as the dog-eared situations like a train encounter, a boat rendezvous, shopping for necklaces. The conceit of the twin girls split on a Christmas night is lovably Dickensian, while the typographical labelling gives this a weirdly 21st-century ironic edge.

Casting Dorota Segda in both roles eventually feels unnecessarily confusing. Discussion with M revealed how many mistakes I had made, which is a problem when the theme of split-but-connected women’s experience revolves around cases of mistaken identity (usually at the expense of Oleg Yankovskiy’s reticently bewitched suitor. Again with the timelessness: couldn’t work out how the guy from Nostalghia had aged so well).

Then cracks and bumps begin to appear. Early references to the place of Hungary at the turn of the century are swerved around by an intriguing contrast of clandestine and aristocratic peripateticisms (an anarchist ghosting across Europe meets a listlessly aristocratic traveller). A Clockwork Orange montage sequence with an unwilling dog is amusing but forgotten. What was the Trouble In Paradise-style necklace switcheroo about? Most egregiously, and ultimately most disappointingly, the flaunted themes of women’s experience, technological change and providence are revealed to be cardboard set decoration, flat and decorative rather than investigated. M objected to the apparently hesitant imbalance between the misogynistic lecturer’s breathless characterisation of women as entirely sexual beings (a funny setpiece, nevertheless) and Dora’s repetitive seductions.

But because of its glittering, almost chocolate-box beauty, and its cosy silliness, it slips by and down with a warm charm. I did enjoy it the whole way through; it was only after it finished that it became increasingly hard to love.

6

The Childhood Of A Leader (2016)

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Was pretty disappointed with this for about 45 minutes. Patient to the point of being stolid, with a lot of boring diplomatic conversations and the obstacle that is Liam Cunningham’s wobbling false-moustache American accent. It establishes a pretty emulative Haneke atmosphere with a sprinkling of The Others or The Turn of The Screw and The Shining, as far as the young boy is presented.

The focus begins to shift towards Berenice Bejo’s mother (very Kidman at points), and takes a psychosexual turn that begins to cut through the historical furniture-arranging. The young boy’s magnetic quality becomes more sinister (like a Teorema‘s Terrence Stamp in the making) as his will becomes more erratic and uncontrollable. The Vermeer interiors (a couple of shades of Velazquez’s Las Meninas, too) are matched by impressionistic exteriors, which coldly light a rural world of almost ritualistic tradition and anachronistic poverty; perversion of this house in this setting.

Then the adrenaline really kicks in and it suddenly becomes taut, ice-cold. Fanny and Alexander, which is set up so clearly in the draped passages between baroque rooms, is inverted in a moment – which crystallises one of the three central “tantrums” – where the boy appears defiantly coquettish and undressed before his father at the ominous negotiations. His capricious rebellion is exercised through amplifying the gender misconceptions which torture him; he inflicts his pain on others as he appears like the ghost of Alexander’s father across rooms. Something about his wordless apparition, his stance and departure is momentarily terrifying. The film becomes full of moments like this, minor peaks which are somehow extremely threatening – another standout is the moment depicted above, where the boy wordlessly tries out an injured arm, silhouetted before a mirror. His pivoting, slow-motion blows somehow germinate the image of Hitler flailing at a podium; it’s not always clear with these moments exactly how they produce their effects, which marks them out as the work of a bizarrely accomplished debutant director. Everything gets tighter, particularly the mother’s relationship to the boy: there’s a beautiful moment where she practically begs him to be her friend, unhappily reaping what she sowed (this is the break which reflects back onto an earlier moment in which the boy races away from his mother’s discipline but inexplicably turns and runs back to her for comfort [this in turn reflects upon a sinister dream the boy has had in which the halls that he will someday fill appear blank and haunted without his mother’s presence]. I kept thinking about fort-da, for some reason).

A lot has been said about Scott Walker’s score – which is integral, and fits perfectly at all times. I would contribute that a lot of the early refrains, especially, sound like demented nursery sing-song melodies, repeating like a broken singing doll. In sum it’s is like a blend of Hermann and Greenwood; there’s a lot of consonance with There Will Be Blood, especially in the final section which threatens to turn into a parallel sequel to the film from the “bastard’s” point of view. The patience of the takes has become totally dread-inducing by this point; the forestalling of the inevitable final appearance is almost unbearable. The finale itself is initially somewhat baffling, a potential bum note, but it finds a home within a boldly framed impression of the chaos still to come.

Ends up sidestepping all assumptions. There are clues and illustrations left satisfyingly tangential (the possible exception being the dangling passing threat from the ejected maid Mona), which reflects positively back on the earlier examples which landed a little more flatly (the recurring black horse, Ada’s breast beneath the cloth).

Needs a second viewing; never seen such a turnaround (like In The Bedroom x a thousand).

7

4th December

Did give this a second viewing recently with R, who loved it. Much more consistent the whole way through, mostly to its advantage. The ending is a less cryptic choice but still powerful. Deserving it an 8 now as one of the more distinctively unsettling American films from recent years.

Everywhere at the End of Time – Stage 3 (2017)

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: A First Reaction (I am not minded to spend my evenings typing as well, ok?)

With a drastic left turn, this is the first time the album artwork in this series has created a properly constructive link with the music. The form behind the shapes and mess has become almost indecipherable; your mind is drawn away from the base towards the gorgon coils and the daubed darkness. It’s teasing at the fringes of appreciation: the first track is a good example of this idea, with its briskly spinning but still tuneful strings swaying behind the sped-up blurting horns. The experience of believing that your reaction and enjoyment is as usual, struggling against too-tangible reminders of depreciation. Agree with the slightly snotty Norman review’s point about LK riffing on the almost cheeky continuity or similarity of Caretaker projects here – like a desperate clawing at the most solid memories (standards from An Empty Bliss bustle against riffs on previous EATEOT cuts until they become confusedly inseparable; titles like “Libet Delay” and “Aching cavern without lucidity”). There’s even some sickly self-similarity over onto the second side, including the final track, which goes down like a sinking titanic.

The A-side, at least, departs from the more lucid explorations of departure on Stage 2 (the excursions into nocturnal trepidation in particular). This is more cerebral, locked-in. There is a greater emphasis on noise and fuzz, particularly the illbient gramophone echoes towards the end of the first half: self-interrupting blass bluster like Ahnnu tones slipping out of their groove. Penultimate track on this side is a willy wonka hallucination of dangling bells, like B1 which shivers with unease beneath a dusty surface. Illbient is a particularly interesting and novel comparison here which brings up the sensation of the Caretaker as a sort of residually parallel hip-hop instrumental project (pulling chopped samples from the darker ages of jazz). Does create the sensation of intoxication rather than memory degradation at points.

Tracks like the last one on the first side and even B1 and B2 are quite straight-laced, departing from the narrative (but for B1’s hypnopompic abortive conclusion). Feel like I’m being outflanked, looking for consonance with the past where there perhaps isn’t any. B2 does revive the haunted ballroom with its piped, miasmic piano jaunts. The percussive skipping at the end was a real shock that segues perfectly into the wailing Gorey absences of B3 (a silent tap on the shoulder; the still-terrifying dream in Amour).

B6 is “An empty bliss beyond this World” which projects that project’s lullaby melodies through that thick, haunted-ballroom fog. Quietly ties in the cautionary luminescence from the beginning of the B-side, too; with some tumbling tones that sound like they’re from a xylophone or the mall at the end of Eyes Wide Shut after everyone’s left. The night-feverish “Libet Delay” constitutes the first real hit of poignance at the impending demise of the Caretaker project (making me realise that this had been lacking in the series’ actual music until now). This one’s emblematic, at least of the album that I expected.

Lacks the arc and structural conspicuousness of which made that instalment one of my highlights of this year. Despite a clear constructive strategy, it’s harder to see this as a standalone piece because of its context within the series (and the fact that it follows what I think are two more satisfyingly distinctive projects), but this is probably his most overtly personal release, and it features some of the standout textural explorations of this series in its forced intermixture of source and slippage. Typing is helping in my abandoned house on a Friday night.

Etched information in the central space after the grooves is almost illegibly small this time, like he’s goading us to play the B side first (an experiment for another day). You just have to remember that the later side is the one whose label’s grey shades can only be distinguished while they spin.

Probably the My Struggle: Book 4 of EATEOT.

7

La Léon (2007)

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Santiago ‘you should see the’ Otheguy. Made 3 notes for this one; it sort of slips by quietly and mysteriously, with a cold but intense sensuality. I kept thinking of the (now quite referential) flashback sequences in A Single Man, chiefly because of the way the black and white combine with the widescreen framing – as here – to create a kind of sun-baked heat, itchy mid-afternoon tension. Figures are often framed here with swathes of forest or river or reeds on either side, embedded in their environment as they work or walk or play football. It’s a different route to realism; certainly not naturalistic, but with plenty of the weight of Lav Diaz (though the pacing is more Antonioni, or Antonioni-via-Ceylan). Embrace of the Serpent comes to mind, too, because of the setting’s glittering forms and the stability of the perspective.

All very alluring. The story is suitably languid: a reedcutter on a North Argentinian island settles into reclusion to avoid attracting attention to his bookish interests and homosexuality, but is unable to shake off the conflicted attentions of a bullying ferryman who channels his frustrations into nativist agitation against quietly invading “misioneros,” to perilous effect. The story slips along like the silent river cutting across the island, edited evenly with only a few alerts: the cut to the first sex scene is judged perfectly; there’s a fantastically tense foreshadowing of revenge on the ferry; the final confrontation tightens to a breathless high pitch. A smart 80-odd minutes, in total.

Cumulative, not explosive. A great little story entwined around an engrossing social relief, beautifully shot.

8

Stockholm My Love (2016)

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Mark Cousins’ feature debut, I believe.

To reduce it to what I know: an awful lot of stuff in here about exile and witnessing. NC’s initial attitude is almost one childishness – she is “bunking off school” by neglecting to give a lecture on architecture, a confession she addresses to her father in these early scenes. She hides in the mist (and, childishly, behind her hair in some of the closeups) but I think the film attempts to convey not avoidance but self-scrutiny. The beginning of her story has its roots in her father’s experience as an immigrant and her own history growing up in a borrowed environment: “it’s as if I’m not allowed to be here.” The central trauma itself – the death of an old Swedish man on the bumper of her car exactly one year ago – is a living wound, “more here than here” – a paradox which simultaneously evokes preoccupation and relegates actual, contemporary lived experience, which elsewhere seems “distant” in all directions. Later, at the passage that perhaps forms the crux point about which her journey of self-absolution/acceptance pivots – a trip to an occluded woodland church – she relates the Bible’s story of real-life cities built to house accidental killers, residual like “refugees” in muted worlds.

Some interesting play with perspective. A full range from grainy, Inland Empire handycam to crystal slow-mos. I thought I’d nailed it when my general early impression of skateboard videos appeared to be validated by a visit to a park, but in retrospect this range puts me more in mind of upmarket vlogs, particularly Casey Neistadt’s. This makes sense given the blend of diaristic (essayistic) confessional and aleatoric hymn to the city, and it’s an approach that puts MC and his film right in the present, which keeps the experimentation feeling fresh. What is less fresh is the interplay between the narration and NC’s onscreen presence; her acting is extremely impassive (to some extent called for by her character’s emotional state) which makes it hard to connect her even to such an impassive script. There are a few moments where she briefly breaks into actual speech, which feel incongruous to a telling extent.

I did enjoy spending time with the city (which is listed as cast in the opening credits). There’s a good breadth between ambience (sometimes timelapse, at points interestingly [as above] aleatoric, where observed extras appear to be unwitting) and textural particularity. And a soothing, if not exactly unforeseeable, jog through the city’s history and the national character which is expressed in its persistent lines and regularity, its quiet social optimism and atmosphere of responsible freedom. It made me want to live there.

Distinctive but wobbly.

6