The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (2017)


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.


Toni Erdmann (2017)


A pretty uncomplicated story: Planes Trains, here cast as a melancholy clown-type dad impersonating a life-coach in an attempt to reform / upstage / keep an eye on his daughter who is working in Bucharest on a boring consultancy project. There’s a Eurozone context which is undeveloped, except to feed into the critique of the emptiness of modern frequent-flier lifestyles. Pretentions to something bigger, as well as some interrogation of the merits of its own arguments, but still a kind of constant magnetised reversion to this simplistic binary.

Winfried, or Toni (when incognito) has a bit of Falstaff, a bit of Wallander, a bit of Boris Johnson, and a bit of Partridge in him. He’s the focus of the early scenes, where his jesting lands him in some warm water, and he suffers a few poignant setbacks like the distancing and deterioration of his mother and the death of his old dog. He decides to reconnect with his daughter Ines, who is presented initially as cold and uptight. However, the picture of her corporate world is a very grim one – with rampant casual sexism piled on top of the grey bureaucratic malaise – and her status as an antagonistic figure is complicated by real victimhood (“happiness is a strong word,” she says). Nevertheless she remains utterly unlikeable for almost the entire film, often enthusiastically fronting the kind of aggressive mentalities of which she is a victim, while her father remains amusing in a childish way but ultimately pathetic and inane, with his personal travails suffused into a patronising and soft humanitarian ease.

A lot of this is very uncomfortable, and not just in a Partridge / Gervais way. There is a particular discussion at a bar which is excruciating, with Ines’ efforts to ingratiate herself into a hierarchy rebuffed by snide male colleagues and superiors in favour of jocular engagement with the uninterested W. At one point during a desolate day at a mall, W asks her “are you even human”; later, a colleague backhandedly shuts down her rebellious business presentation and warily tells her “you’re an animal”. It doesn’t feel like she’s being given much of a choice.

Maren Ade has questioned attempts to label TE a comedy; the first half isn’t at all funny, once the interruption of false teeth into discussion about consultancy has become established as a repeated scene-structure. Once the jig is up, Toni has a few, more interesting naturalistic encounters with local Romanians, where his improvisations begin to appeal to Ines, but which still tend towards a very simplistic ‘don’t worry be happy’ moral (there is one pretty cheap laugh with a silly song, and one burst of insanity with a naked party) In the end this is painted as insufficient, with W a resolutely pathetic figure and Ines unconvinced (despite his message having induced her to quit her job). 160 minutes later we’re back to where we started.

A depressing trudge, with one flash of surreal beauty and a general faint dusting of improvised unease. Very happy The Salesman took the Academy Award over this one.


The White Ribbon (2009)


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.


Narkopop (2017)


17 years! Probably about 5 for me, but still.

1 and 2 create disharmony and disorientation. Less the previous sense of delving deeper into the forest or emerging into clearings or borders, more being directionlessly lost. Prominent strings by turns sour and sweet on 2 loom and fade above characteristic marshal bass thud. A shifting suite (easily the digital album’s second-longest at 11 minutes) which trades the inexorable allure of Pop for discomforting and ungraspable mystery. (why the title? seems like more a summative label than a reflective adaptation on Pop)

3 high shimmering, pipes, insect field recordings interwoven. A shaft of light. Benoît Pioulard. But the canopy shifts shut and darkness returns. Badalamenti all over N.

4 slightly abrupt start. Stuttering string loops like Tim Hecker, inhaled and exhaled. Second 4-minute track in a row and it does start to feel a little sketchy, ideas for a whole project exhibited but not explored. Again then going into 5: dizzy drums unusually prominent and clear for GAS. Slow mournful horns work very well: sense of a march towards oblivion, a valediction; relative cessation of ‘club’ atmosphere contributes to feeling that N is a self-referential GAS project, drawing on its own worlds rather than recognisable external environments. Novelty keeps it from feeling simply like a victory lap, though.

Then 6 opens with my favourite addition: wandering chimes, amid ominous Eno drone. These are chucked out at around 1.10 though and replaced by more typical arrangement. Strangely abrupt changes in volume, mixing: very restless for GAS.

7 butts in, steady pulse and return to tidal, immersive drones. Soundbathing. No spatial images. Fades out and you begin to miss it.

8 seems a return to the model of 2 (if more subdued), with the strings almost working against the bass pulse. Sense of loss, and of danger, and also slightly of going in circles.

9 picks up the field recordings (aurally distinguishing vinyl hiss from forest rain is always a GAS treat), taking us into 10, the final suite. (I’d love to know what the 71-minute closer 11 sounds like but I won’t be paying 60 quid to find out) Immediately you sense this is a return to a club atmosphere: the bass pulse returns with a skulking melody, backed by threatening, buzzing two-tone strings and needle sweep. GAS’ closers are often revelatory (see esp. the epiphany of Pop 7) and this feels like a final bow, an encore. No longer alienation or isolation: envelopment, communality on a packed floor. Staccato strings and synth drones. But by 11.30 we have wandered again; abstraction, clarity and peace. “One must return to beauty.”

Back in Autumn I went to see a Boiler Room-affiliated interview of Wolfgang in Dalston, at Brilliant Corners. They had a huge soundsystem set up (made us all aware of the price) and interspersed the discussion with tracks from the big three albums. Interesting how much of a normal guy he turned out to be: admitted to not actually listening to Wagner etc. as a kid, just mining them for the cultural connotations and general prevalence; choosing minimalist design for its own sake; not naming the tracks for continuity with that choice – nothing behind the veil. I asked him, given how personal GAS obviously is, whether there was any difficulty asserting his own vision over that of another artist’s when he credited a few remixes to the GAS project. He pretty much just replied that he saw this clash as an interesting challenge, as a fun exercise. Could tell throughout that he was excited to kickstart the project again.

This feels like a minor GAS album, but one hearteningly (finally) conscious of how important GAS is to so many. New sounds, but hard to pick out a story.


Fox and His Friends (1975)


At the beginning, real life invades the world of poor artists. But Fox is transplanted out of his “real self” into a world of showy pretence.

Fey, petulant, pining for his mother, sulking in his coattails at tea.

At the bank withdrawing cash cash cash cash; “if you say a word so many times, it loses its meaning” – jamais-vu; loss of referentiality and signification. F is constantly tied up in language he doesn’t understand; legalese, etiquette, French. Fox is a feature-length riff on my favourite moment in Ali: E stumped at the restaurant, the waiter wielding decorum like a net.

F the great observer of behaviour; movement and posture as well as speech: the sugar chucked past the bowl is a great touch, as is the Dad smiling sinisterly at the dinner while F breaks bread into his lobster soup. “We’ll make a human being out of you yet!” Too easy for me to lose track of the value in this social portrait; the sexual politics, economics of relationships, poverty and queerness. F’s aspiration is to a liberal sphere (the film’s obvious moment of explicit, more mainstream homophobia – F’s and E’s eviction from their rented apartment – is instantly ironed out with the lottery money) that chews him up and spits him out,  no less permanently resident than the Arab is in the European hotel in Marrakech. Dynamics of acceptance are perhaps more layered and revealing here than in Ali, which exposes techniques for manipulation along a more linear spectrum of tolerance.

Palette more beautiful even than Merchant of the Four Seasons – the florist’s, the first apartment, the clothes shop. Looks great in square aspect ratio too; F’s framing is elegantly revealing: wandering around above in the empty apartment, filmed from below in the spiral stairwell with the bannisters blocking like cell bars. After the party, F and Eugen parallel gazing down at his sister, his friends.

Flashes, too, of the madcap shock I loved in Merchant – the Grave Of The Fireflies ending especially, also the weird tension of the beginning released in the poignant goodbye onstage – but, like Ali, somewhat formulaic and predictable.

Glücklich – was ist das?


Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (1974)


Second time with Fassbinder (after Merchant of Four Seasons – which is better)

“People always say ‘but’…”: hard to shake the feeling of contrarianism, even recklessness at the beginning (past marriage). ‘Why not?’ and ‘Who cares?’ when answers are legion. Ali is most touching when this bravery caves into the vulnerability in the poster above. (later Ali dismissive “kif-kif” [I don’t care] lashes out at Emmi’s conciliation)

‘Not a good man…’ – ‘Neither good nor bad, like anyone else.’ Ingrained ‘normality’, thus Ali and Emmi are “unnatürlich“: a threat both to order and ‘good taste’, which have become fused; see in particular the waiter’s scornful invocation of decorum, Emmi “on the rack”.

Thus Emmi’s reintegration is expedient, decorous, political. “In business you have to hide your aversions” says the shopkeeper, reclaiming a customer from both the nearby supermarket and the peril of racial mixing; it is the man to whom Emmi is perhaps most defiant who begins to reel her back in (away).

If their vulnerability is when A is most real, then E’s reintegration is, to us, ironically and perversely ‘unnatural’. Foucault’s “technologies of the self”, taking it upon oneself to do what’s expected, to become a Citizen. (interesting that Authorities [landlord’s son, policemen] are most understanding, forgiving; no imposed doctrine)

Imagine the first half of this film: its that. Not to take away from its importance in 1974 but.

If MOFS won Best Fake Punching then this is a contender for Best Fake Crying. 

F himself, fag-addled cursing and flailing in an easy chair. Perverse pleasure in playing the Villain, in thus being a voyeur? (‘Look at his muscles!’ says natürlich Emmi) But as static waiters stare, panning camera among the yellow chairs prevents us from joining them. Less pessimistic than I’d been led to believe; that vulnerability also in Ali arms akimbo ‘I love you this much!!’