As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000)

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Second time with Jonas Mekas after Lost, Lost, Lost. I have learned, by comparison of the two, that there is a limit to the watchability of only loosely thematised tranche-de-vie home movie footage, and also that it is possible for me to review a film after only 60% of its runtime in good conscience.

Again organised into chapters, though Mekas confesses at the beginning that he tried and abandoned a project to order the streams of amateur recordings chronologically, opting eventually for a random distribution, ‘as he found them on the shelf’. Mekas’ explanatory narration actually pops up at the beginning of each chapter, constructing a kind of periodic apologia for the piece. ‘This is a political film’ and ‘Nothing happens in this film’, we are told by recurrent intertitles, while Mekas reinforces this defensive stance with commentary on the film’s lack of content, his compulsion to film any and everything, his status as a ‘filmer’ rather than a legitimate filmmaker, his general and total lack of knowledge about life and his place in it.

Except it’s either disingenuous or tactical to describe the content of the film as ‘nothing’. Mekas’ subjects over the decades here (largely between the 60s and 80s, largely in New York City) show a considerable degree of consistency. He balances the urban (architecture, pedestrians, weather) with the natural, favouring flowers, trees, birds, cats, moving water, and wild landscapes in particular locations. Family is a central and predominant presence, broad enough to include close friends but focusing especially on children (playing, reciting, rehearsing, eating) and babies (usually just looking at the camera). Most notably, I think, there are plenty of moments of actually considerable significance: holidays, reunions, births, baptisms, weddings, anniversaries.

The dominant theme is leisure. Mekas is a true amateur and his filming is hobbyistic: a regular enough part of his life not to disrupt his subjects, but leaving space for him to live around it and actually participate in the scenes he captures. But labour is conspicuously absent, save in idle peoplewatching. Anger, distress, and even ennui are also suppressed. The subject of the film is therefore – perhaps unsurprisingly – moments of beauty, unthinking and unencumbered living around life’s obligations (other plans), where the only reflective awareness usually comes through Mekas’ camera. It’s a fine topic for a film but it isn’t ‘nothing’, and it’s therefore freighted with sentimentalism (Mekas admits he is a romantic living within his own imagined world, as each of us live in our own).

In one of his verbal prologues (delivered haltingly, returning to resonant phrases for emphasis) Mekas advertises the film’s lack of tension. I’m sad to say I think calling attention to this isn’t sufficient to deflect the problem (I watched Von Trier’s The Idiots yesterday). What we see is a beautiful parade of scenes which cover times and places but still exhibit fundamental similarity. Again, that’s fine, but it invites questions about the runtime of almost five hours (which incidentally would have made it the fourth* longest film I’ve seen to date).

Hence my lack of qualms about calling it a day after three. Mekas’ projects are interesting** and exude a devotion to film, people and good living which is humbling. But the pitch of this one is too consistent and perhaps too sentimental to keep me hooked (I found it a lot easier to sink my teeth into Lost, Lost, Lost until the tedious experimental coda). I would have preferred to watch it loud and projected; perhaps that would have helped me immerse myself in it.

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*At number three is Homeland, another honestly observational documentary about family environments, but one which locks you into emotional grooves rather than washing past you like a weightless stream of light. Other stuff As I Was Moving reminded me of were Varda’s Daguerrotypes and Gavin Bryars’ ‘The Sinking Of The Titanic’.

**To what extent are these snippets accurate depictions of memory (leaving aside whether or not that’s what they’re intended to be, for a second)? I like the way he plays with the speed of the footage, lingering on details and accelerating interstitial action (reminds me of Barthes’ codes). The use of visual overlays is also affective as well as endearingly analogue. But I think the development of these episodes is too linear (chronological, non-repetitive, self-contained) to accurately emulate recollection.

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Red Road (2006)

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The film that slotted Arnold between Wheatley and Barnard in my trinity of today’s daring British filmmakers.

Interesting to go backwards to this after American Honey. The latter has pressure points of peril where Star inches through scenes of nauseating tension under the eyes or hands of quietly terrifying men. Red Road starts out as a drama of voyeurism, with the CCTV control room appearing both space-age and prefigurative of Black Mirror and NSA/GCHQ news.

Jackie’s journey out into the world at her fingertips is a sinking-in as if into quicksand; reminded me both of Scarlett Johansson’s excursions in Under the Skin and Jeanne Moreau’s slow spiral through Rome in La Notte, with the danger of the former crossing the psychogeographical dimensionality of the latter, the Red Road high rises looming Bradburyesque above bruised and battered Glasgow.

Interesting to watch after In The House: the filmmaker’s compulsion to ‘recreate’, re-stage influential traumas? (Jackie sees the human stories behind her screens) A desire to reach back into the past and correct course. That peril in American Honey is the quicksand that pulls Jackie in. The film becomes a lot braver, more physical, the kitchen sink a lot dirtier (Katie Dickie’s performance gains great depth here, too). There’s a sickening sense of parenthood in Jackie’s relationship to her situation, like she’s trying to undo some perverse birth. The denouement shows us the wan and cold world of the present day, the truths that have always been there.

Fund the arts.

8

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

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.

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