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

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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

Il Divo (2008)

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Second time with Paolo Sorrentino after Youth.

Films that begin with glossaries are not making excuses for being complicated. Absolutely submerges you in the world of top-tier Italian politics 60s–80s. From recent memory would compare with The Clanexcept this is much more exciting, ambitious and breathlessly comprehensive. Throughout there’s a sort of bizarro inexplicability to actions, motives, affiliations; everything is just beyond our reach, whether through overwhelming connectivity or hilarious freakishness. Lock Stock introductions with police-file titles and monikers (personal favourite: the cardinal, “His Healthiness”) rattling around are all held in balance around the gliding, hunched performance of Giuliano Andreotti by Tony Servillo, an amazingly distinctive and outlandish turn.

It’s a bit of a whirlwind rush (although surprisingly traceable thanks to some carefully edited flashbacks); dogged by the feeling that you’re missing out on more than you’re getting, which is quite uncomfortable. As with Y, though, there are some stunning set pieces and brilliant highlights. The celebration at the 7th premiership, with the cacophony of African drums, feels decadent and unhinged, introducing Carlo Buccirosso’s performance as Milton Friedman-lookalike Chancellor of the Exchequer Paolo Pomicino – his ridiculous naked exuberance reinforced the visual similarity with Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder. Often complicated poignancy in GA’s humanity: earlier suggests importance of involuntary reactions like vomiting for evincing inner functionality; generosity with constituents is unexpectedly tender; flicking through tv channels with his wife, skipping news reports spitting his name, settling on a cheesy 70s pop concert, holding her hand mechanically in tribute.

Would reward another look, I’m sure. Would put it with Petri (especially Investigations) for scathing diagnosis. Stylistically maybe Danny Boyle in the incendiary variety.

7

Inland Empire (2006)

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Intrusion
Are you looking to go in
Evil born from innocent boy going out
Butler celebrates
Glittering prizes irons speech
Hollywood whmacy Where stars make dreams and dreams make stars
JI traumatised by tea
Said to be cursed
Actions and consequences
Cheesy love chat Christmas music
Stories which grew out of imagination
AXXon. N
Lovers apparition
Silk skin projection mirror
Vs lost highway horror of familiar
Fucker been sowing some kinda heavy shit
Do the locomotion
Where is the paper towels
LA dern lap shot
Hypnotism pointers
Dern on tracks
Light bulb mouth
Street screwdriver approach truly unhinged
Look at me and tell me if you’ve known me before
I don’t know what happened first and it’s kind of lain a mindfuck on me
Mockumentary stars
Good with animals. Blonde wig
Jodorowsky meta film
Exorcism kiss

David Lynch’s most consistently terrifying film since Eraserhead (Blue Velvet really lifts the rock but it can only dare take disconnectedly transfixed glimpses). Pick a line taking in the (more successful) first half of Lost Highway – in which “nothing is safe, like in actual nightmares, where the link between threat and warning is broken” – through the warm cinematic familiarity but increasing narrative abandon of Mulholland Drive, to Inland Empire, which represents DL’s most explicit departure from uncanny familiarity since, again, Eraserhead. We are firmly in the realm of the alien – the interiors are plastic, radioactive; the extras (crazy) clownish; the dialogue sinisterly clipped and inaccessible. Thematically I’d situate this closer to Berberian Sound Studio, while arthouse and experimental do not feel like only partially applicable stylistic labels this final time round (the “Do the locomotion” interlude instantly brought “Think Pink” in The Garden back to me). I don’t think it’s too much to say that he has not only met the unapproachable challenge of following MD but even surpassed it by finding a new filmic approach altogether, yet successfully and recognisably bending it to his own tune.

What’s most obvious is the shift to digital, handheld. DL takes the opportunity to reconstruct his usually trademark visual style: closeups are nauseatingly close (see sweat, pores, fisheye perspective deconstructing any aestheticised presentation like noir’s acceptance of shadow) midrange movement is frenetic and unpredictable (sense perhaps not of improvisation but still of spontaneity, playing off of the trend through home-video compilation TV, handheld horror like Cloverfield, and mockumentaries like Exit Through The Gift Shop). The overwhelming sensation throughout IE is of intrusion – we are made to feel unwelcome in its environment, and when its characters invade other timelines or spaces we fully empathise with their unsettled insecurity.

Of all MD‘s Hollywood framing perhaps the most pertinent is the scene of Betty’s first audition: Jeremy Irons’ foppish Brit director provides much of the comedic introduction (see “JI traumatised by tea” above) but there’s also that mimetic blurring of life and stage, which helps us sink in. The late bleary-eyed emergence from the tinseltown nightlife spin-dryer onto a sidewalk alongside the homeless savants seems a rare surfacing for air (the thick but empirically wired feeling of a comedown is enhanced by the constant narcotised references to amnesia, as in the First Visitor’s acceptance of forgetfulness and the confessional LD’s admission that “I don’t know what happened first and it’s kind of lain a mindfuck on me”). This is like the unattended underbelly, the hangers-on after the dead decadence of LD’s palace (coupled with the new waste-noughties aesthetic I couldn’t help thinking of Elysia Crampton etc.). That this is just another stage is like a Twilight Zone / Black Mirror denial of the oxygen of satisfaction.

Pointers peek through the mist – like the cut from the random attacker on the street to the same woman, in flashback, confessing to a hypnotised compulsion to assault someone with a screwdriver. These feel like DL picking a route through his own fantasy (populated, as it is, by references to his earlier films and TV as well as lifted footage from his web-series Rabbits) which adds to the sense of spontaneity. Elsewhere it feels like he’s collapsed into a seat on our row in front of the irreducible weirdness (which is equal parts visual and dialogic [“where is the paper towels”]). The meta near-conclusion cemented a growing sense that Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain is my holistically closest touchstone.

Above all this is simply the best approximation of the illogic of nightmares that I can remember in any film. It’s something often talked about with DL but perhaps this is a definitive shadow to the Dreams of MulhollandThis is in no small part down to the handheld approach, but it also evinces the constructive maturity after graduation from the barmy clowntime of LH. Lynch’s final world is a Hollywood “where stars make dreams and dreams make stars”. He claims to have moved on from film now; IE proves that he found new possibilities in the medium right up until that decision. I want to call it the Kid A to MD‘s OKC. 

I watched MD twice in two days and I would happily do the same here.

10

The White Ribbon (2009)

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First time with Haneke.

The film begins with the doctor tripping off his horse because a wire has been inexplicably tied between two trees. His departure to hospital is followed by the accidental death of a woman at a mill. These are importantly distinct in severity, mysteriousness, consequence, culpability: these gaps create imbalances that cause mistrust, accusations and unrest. The effects begin to precipitate down like a fanning domino chain, the two first causes like the fibonacci 1 1 that are spontaneous, apparently alike but contributive to exponential differences. TWR‘s first hour introduces this cascade, and I expected the whole film to be a sort of tumbling, Drane-like mathematical shower of uncanny and unknown malice.

But the village isn’t a house of cards: it is propped up by its own imbalances of authority, numbers, wealth and – most importantly – age. The doctor’s boy fears that his father’s disappearance is final; his older sister reassures him, saying that it is only temporary, like a winter flu. As the dark events begin to scar the villagers permanently this dichotomy is disrupted, but it’s suggested here that the village’s kids feel the gravity of these situations more acutely and perceptively. The adult world is rhythmic, governed by harvest work for the poor, holidays for the rich, and religious observances for all. The swing of the seasons brings respite through tradition until the deceased woman’s older son bitterly digs up the past, a mad reaper in a cabbage field.

The effects of the traumas have become subterranean; they sprout here and there with different consequences, while more unexplained horrors keep a building, macabre rhythm and slide the village towards a reckoning. The cast of characters is huge, and the film’s overriding theme – the perversion of innocence through punitive authority – takes on varied hues according to circumstances, creating scenes that themselves produce consequences that spill beyond their particular situations. Been listening to those Deleuze podcasts recently and definitely thinking of the town in terms of rhizomatic connectivity, the events as haecceities, nexuses of complex interactions. This woven interconnectedness constantly suggests TWR to be a text (also the teacher’s grave retrospective narration).

H also interweaves tonal shifts that are threaded together by this underlying fear of authority. It’s touching, funny, chilling, shocking, haunting, everything. Made a few notes about particular scenes and images (the doctor’s boy creeping around the house at night is terrifying; his disgusting father’s rejection of the housemaid’s affections suggest Winter Light, in connection with the pastor’s passing resemblance to Gunnar Björnstrand; the bitter farmer’s quiet suicide; the pastor’s perfect son bringing him a new bird after his daughter had murdered the old one) and contrasts (the way the doctor is introduced as a neutral victim and rapidly becomes truly vile vs the obviously disgusting pastor’s strange partial retribution with the vindication of his kids). But I mostly stopped writing after halfway. The suppression of the traumas’ consequences under the assertive system of the town did kill the pace for a while, which threw me off kilter, but it’s amazing to look back on and piece together. This really is perfect storytelling. It’s recognisably modern in style but distinctive in its confidence with the tonal shifts and unexplained mysteries. It’s as personal as a Sebald narrative but universal beyond the WWI context.

8

Waltz With Bashir (2008)

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Second time with Ari Folman after The Congress with Stan.

Firstly, the animation. Made me think of the interludes in Mirror’s Edge because of the slightly puppet-like, non-fluid movement. However much more expressionist and printed. Able to slide between highly fantastical (John Woo slo-mo; overlapping imagery of destruction and adolescent army hedonism) and highly mimetic (distance images like the family lined up against the wall).

Ultimately the animation gets drawn into the movie’s questions about representation and witnessing, which are brought to a head at the very end when (like Come And See) the artifice falls away. AF today is a collaborative creator of the memory narratives related both by his interviewees and his own past self. At the centre of the film is his attempt to trace the provenance of a memory for which he can find no objective historical evidence. One professor of trauma studies tells him that a former interviewee managed to cope with the witnessed horrors by convincing himself that everything was playing out on a screen. (The rupture of this fantasy comes from seeing horses suffering around a bombed-out hippodrome; interesting points about the ethical status of animals) (The animation thus foregrounds and makes a talking point out of the setback that it sometimes [throughout] seems insufficient to convey the difficulty of the original experiences. Why is this any worse or better than live action staging?)

Returning trauma. Begins with an old friend questioning the new presence, in his dreams of 26 dogs, he shot on an expedition, 20 years after the fact. (“memory is a wilful dog”) AF goes on to question the mechanics of repression and representation (advised by therapists and psychologists). WwB touches on the (re)integration of aspects of the conflict into popular culture (clubs, punk music – most interestingly the abrupt interjection of ‘Enola Gay’ during a recollection about transport on a military ship, piercing Max Richter’s quite dynamic score.) The staggering victims of the central massacre are forced to reenter their bombed town and directly confront their losses. Ultimately his therapist theorises AF’s interest in the massacre as an anticipatory reaction inherited from his parents’ experience of Auschwitz. AF seems to interpellate societal memory of the massacre as his own personal hallucinations, seeing them from the perspective of the documentary footage that closes the film – a return which is most ethically urgent.

The contours of the 1982 Lebanese War context itself are traced informatively but adroitly – we aren’t bombarded with new information because that’s not the point, though this is fundamentally documentary in intention, and successful. Perhaps in Levi style, WwB is less accusatory than illustrative.

The central narrative is handled briskly and with appreciable development, but WwB brings in these peripheral topics and questions to an extent that is suggestive without being cursory. Leads to a very thought-provoking psychological and historical portrait of (a) war and memory.

8

Japón (2002)

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First time with Carlos Reygadas.

Artificial Eye said inspired by Tarkovsky and it is somewhat of a roll-call. Solaris traffic at the beginning; Sacrifice tree with the boy, as well as the central “proposal”; Nostalghia pessimistic isolation; Stalker view from the wagon and concluding train tracks. W/ the first and penultimate of these I’m not convinced the score isn’t lifted directly from the sources. However, CR manages to make something for himself.

(A pretty unlikeable deadbeat man from Mexico City makes a pilgrimage to a remote village in what looks variously like a valley or a canyon. His intention is to end his own life. He lodges with an elderly indigenous widow, whose purity and generosity compel him to reevaluate his mission as he gets drawn into a local dispute that threatens the widow’s stability)

First section reminded me of Ceylan’s Climates in that we are really shackled to this guy. For whatever reason [All Reasons] his humanity has been eroded away to the extent that he has become a stubbly, impolite and self-absorbed leech who treats the locals dismissively (they in turn treat him with a mixture of generosity and caution). He resembles a contemporary Al Pacino character, with all of the world-weariness but none of the passion. It is quite taxing plodding around with him. J is shot in a striking letterbox aspect ratio, adding weight to the sunbaked Mexican slopes,  but he remains resolutely central and in focus. The effect compounds the intentionally low-fi resolution which often gives the landscapes a flat and toneless quality as we try frustratedly to pick out detail. The plotting carries this first section, as the reticent script (succinct: “the devil loads guns and idiots fire them”) helps create an enticingly mysterious tone, like Gidean silently unfolding tragedy.

evolves quietly and engagingly, though. There are some memorable tableaux: the widow at her lavish altar kissing a picture of Christ; a filing rank of rubbernecking schoolchildren which puts our man in the position of either an icon or a casualty; juxtaposition of scenes of washing and horses mating, introducing a theme of rebirth and regeneration that tees up the hopeful but futile “proposal”. The widow’s house is the focus of a stark and sometimes bleak general view of rural Mexican life that was quite eye-opening when behaviouristic. Our man takes on a sort of inverse High Plains Drifter role in his slow awakening. The drunkard screeching the wedding ring song after helping the act of familial vandalism is quite a disquieting sight.

But I had other reservations, besides the unsympathetic first stretch. The amount of animal cruelty here is unacceptable (of course a matter of controversy that Tarkovsky himself stoked). The point seems to be that men are bad and our man himself is emerging out of that smoggy world, but the gasping severed pigeon’s head and the stomach-churning screams of the slaughtered pig (offscreen) are especially egregious, a jarring opening theme if nothing else. Always strange to find demerits with a film that consist in aspects that actually contribute to the power of the artistic statement.

is also unable to outrun the slight scent of pretension that tracks it from the moment the mystery begins to settle in. On reflection the final shot – while elegantly choreographed and initially disturbing – does seem an only superficially satisfying conclusion. CR is going up against one of the greats, though.

Interesting, despite these setbacks. Certainly distinctive, which is of elevated significance when the influences are foregrounded so regularly and obviously.

6