Monday, 25 March 2013

Films This Week

(Click here to read my general introduction to the 'Films This Week' series of posts.)
Watched Punisher: War Zone. I couldn't put my finger on why, but somehow the tone of it didn't quite work for me. It seems closer to something like Dick Tracy than The Dark Knight, and yet at the same time it seems to be striving for some kind of...grittiness. Maybe it simply doesn't pull off the tough balancing act of comedy and violence. Or maybe I do just like different things on the page than I do on the screen. It's not without effect, though, and it has a few genuinely memorable moments. The Jigsaw makeup and design were particularly well done, I thought.
Watched Winchester '73. The film's narrative POV is a little inconsistent, but it's exciting and enjoyable all the same, with some beautiful photography – though I'm not sure I picked up on much in the way of subtext. I then watched Machete, which manages to get away by with being silly and over the top simply by being postmodern and having its tongue firmly in its cheek. In some ways it's a worrying call for fanatical vigilantism (if the law doesn't work, you have to rise up and kill people), but it feels like a more successful blend of violence and humour than Punisher: War Zone (though I'm not sure if you could call it gritty either – despite all the shocking events that happen it doesn't seem to take them, or itself, seriously enough for that). Although I perhaps didn't enjoy Machete as much as some of Rodriguez's other work, I still think he's a very good director of action films. But I think it might also be that I'm starting to question my enjoyment of watching this type of film a little more than I did when I was younger. Rodriguez very skilfully turns violence into an entertaining aesthetic and pulls genuine laughs from the proceedings, but I think I'm growing a little tired and troubled by this kind of cinema. After that, I watched Whales' The Invisible Man, which holds up very well despite its age – the special effects are still both special and effective! I think I'm yet to see one of the old Universal monster films that I haven't enjoyed.
The Invisible Man

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Quote for the Week

'Just as travellers are beguiled by conversation or reading or some profound meditation, and find they have arrived at their destination before they knew they were approaching it; so it is with this unceasing and extremely fast-moving journey of life, which waking or sleeping we make at the same pace – the preoccupied become aware of it only when it is over' p14, Penguin Great Ideas edition of Seneca's On the Shortness of Life

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Films This Week

(Click here to read my general introduction to the 'Films This Week' series of posts.)
Rachel Weisz as Hypatia of Alexandria in Agora
Watched Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Despite my initial scepticism, I really liked it. Some of the early scenes felt a little pretentious, but a little pretension never really hurt anybody…and as the film progressed it built in some really interesting, borderline transcendental moments (such as when the daughter gives out the drinks). At times it feels a little bleak (it seems to say that people shouldn't have children, because they'll pay for the sins of their fathers, and because the world's such a shit place people shouldn't bring others into it), but more often it plays like an absurdist, minimalist comedy (I hadn't expected it to be so funny). Most of all, though, I admired the gravitas beneath the humour, and the density of ideas it explores (it feels crammed with themes, thoughts on life and death – perhaps even too many). There were odd moments that didn't work for me (like when the son throws the stone), but overall it totally won me over.
This morning I rewatched Agora. I still think it's great: beautifully crafted, brilliantly acted, stunningly shot, entertaining, involving, intelligent, philosophically rich yet very human, very tragic, and (despite its fictional elements) a story of historical importance. It's pretty much everything you'd want from a film. It seems to be criminally overlooked and underappreciated. Hopefully time will rectify that. This evening I went to see Je, Tu, Il, Elle. I was kind of transfixed by the minimalism of the first section, and I liked the pacing and the use of voiceover (and monologue) throughout, but overall it left me a little cold – though perhaps that's all too appropriate for a film about alienation and estrangement (and perhaps the intended reaction). There were also some strong compositional elements in the final section (there's something sculptural about their naked bodies, like a work by Giambologna).
Went to the BFI to see La Captive, which was excellent. Ackerman's minimalism feels more opulent this time round (the camera moves!), and she's built an effective thriller from the mysteries of love, sex, desire and jealousy, and the inscrutability of the opposite sex (or is it the inscrutability of all other people?). 'Thriller' may be pushing it, perhaps, but that's how it felt to me; how involved I was, how tense I was – the flirtation with genre tropes seems much more complete and cohesive here than it does in Jeanne Dielman. The spectre of Bresson was present once more, and I was also reminded of In the City of Sylvia (I wonder if La Captive was an influence?). The work of Haneke came to my mind, too – though perhaps that's because his works share the Bressonean feel. Afterwards I saw Salome which was, fittingly, another film about the mystery of love and desire. Despite the fact that the score went from extremely effective to extremely distracting, and the film looked like it was being projected from a poorly transferred NTSC DVD, it still proved to be a visually and dramatically powerful experience. There's something extremely exciting about films this stylised, and the sets and costumes were a beauty to behold.
The Beardsley inspired Salome (1923)

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Quote for the Week

'I continue to gaze into the valley bottom of the memory. And my fear now is that as soon as a memory forms it immediately takes on the wrong light, mannered, sentimental as war and youth always are, becomes a piece of narrative written in the style of the time, which can't tell us how things really were but only how we thought we saw them, thought we said them. I don't know if I am destroying the past or saving it' - Italo Calvino in Memories of a Battle, found in The Road to San Giovanni (the quote is from page 58 of the Penguin Modern Classics edition).

Sunday, 10 March 2013

(Some of the) Films This Week

(Click here to read my general introduction to the 'Films This Week' series of posts.)
A slightly streamlined version this week as, although I've watched nine films, most of these have been for work purposes (I'm researching a new project), and this means that the notes I've made have been focused around a particular aspect of the films in question – useful for me, probably not very interesting out of context. So, I'm going to hold off from publishing them here. Maybe they'll surface in a future post, maybe in another book – or maybe they'll stay private.
Due to my heavy workload, there have also been films that I've seen and enjoyed (Spellbound and Verity's Summer), which I've simply not written anything about. So, only two this week…
The Legend of the Suram Fortress
Watched The Legend of the Suram Fortress, which was astonishingly beautiful, and quite extraordinary. I really responded to the tableau style and quirkiness…though it feels like a film you need to experience. Writing about it, or trying to intellectualise it, seems pointless. (This is not a criticism, but the highest form of praise).
Went the Barbican to (finally) see A Page of Madness. It was pretty much everything I expected it to be – and everything I wanted it to be. It comes across like a dizzying battering ram to the head. Since watching Sir Arne's Treasure last week I've been wondering if silent cinema somehow had a faster conduit to the inner lives of its characters, and A Page of Madness would seem to support (confirm?) this thesis. There's something about the purity of the medium when it was still silent, its use of a purely visual grammar, which somehow opens up the soul of its characters in a way few modern films seem to achieve. What's so striking about A Page of Madness is the way it's all so simply achieved: double exposures, whip pans, distorted mirrors, tracking shots – it's hardly a fully equipped experimental arsenal… and yet the skill with which these techniques are deployed, and the results achieved, are extraordinary. It's all a bit too much to take in in one viewing (I don't think I could write anything approaching a detailed plot synopsis) and yet the film, as a portrait of madness, seems all the better – all the more effective – for the confusion. I have a feeling that subsequent viewings may well confirm it as one of the supreme achievements of the silent cinema. Truly masterful.
A Page of Madness

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Quote for the Week

Die Bergkatze
'There are a million places to put the camera, but there is really only one' – Ernst Lubitsch

Monday, 4 March 2013

Films This Week

(Click here to read my general introduction to the 'Films This Week' series of posts.)
Jeanne Dielman 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
Went to see Jeanne Dielman at the BFI. At first it seemed a little too much, a little too self-conscious, almost like a parody of a certain strain of post-Bressonian slow cinema, but gradually it drew me into its ballet of contrasts: stasis/motion, light/dark, repetition/variation, sharp focus/soft focus. Never before has a film with such an unflinching, unmoving camera been so balletic (the camera is rigid, solid, drawing attention to what is happening both within and beyond the frame). I became lost in the ebb and flow of its mesmeric rhythm, all sense of personal time and space disintegrating, meshing with that of Jeanne's (the editing – perhaps the film's strongest suit – is masterfully handled, the ellipses in the action at once beguiling, unexpected and perfectly placed). As the screws begin to turn and Jeanne's world begins to crumble, it becomes almost excruciating to watch: what a sigh of relief when a missed button is finally done up! Even the corridors seem to shrink. The dropping of the boot-polish brush, its thud on the floor, is heart breaking (much like the moment when the mother trips and spills the water in The Naked Island). Yet ten minutes later, when Jeanne drops the spoon, it begins to feel like overkill. The film emerges as a pointed precursor to The Turin Horse, a comparison with which at once highlights Jeanne Dielman's strengths, while simultaneously revealing its weaknesses (it contains little of its offspring's visceral power). The final act of violence, meanwhile, may very well (when viewed in the context of the film as a whole) be a comment upon traditional narrative conventions, but it also feels like something of a concession to these same conventions (no such concessions in Tarr). Whatever the case, it feels like a slight undermining of what's gone on before, an added touch of drama, a dramatic conclusion to the most undramatic of films. Perhaps it's a necessary culmination of Jeanne's mental disintegration, but it lost my interest (much like the film's unconvincing and uninteresting dialogue scenes, it may well be designed to add to the film's thematic and structural enquiries, but the film would play better, to me at least, without it). But still, Jeanne Dielman undoubtedly remains a great work. (Its use of time, its repetitions, and its focus on the mundane also struck a chord with me, chiming as they do with some of the intentions behind the making of Life Just Is.)
Back to the BFI to see Side Effects, which I really liked. In managing to explore interesting social and philosophical issues in the guise of an effective thriller, the film serves as a good reminder that it's possible to explore deeper issues within a compelling and commercial narrative form, thereby making them palatable to a wider audience. (A film dealing with issues such as depression, pill-popping, and whether conscious intent is necessary to determine the morality of our actions could very easily have gone down a much less commercial route.) It's very much of a piece stylistically with Soderbergh's recent, post-Che work – perhaps a sign that he is tiring – but no less beautiful for it (I still think Soderbergh may be one of cinema's must underappreciated cinematographers). I was struck by the film's formal simplicity, and how effectively Soderbergh manages to build so much from so little (for instance, the haunting moment when Rooney Mara looks into a mirror and sees her distorted reflection builds so much from… well, from a mirror!). The matching shots at the start and end seem to imply that all life is a prison. The BFI programme notes suggest that Side Effects is a film about storytelling, and point back to Soderbergh's comments about the tyranny of the narrative. Perhaps it's not life which is a prison, but filmmaking – something that I can definitely relate to! But it's a shame that Soderbergh has managed to break out. Still, if Side Effects really is his final film, it feels like a fitting conclusion to one of the most interesting and diverse body of works in modern cinema.
Watched Sir Arne's Treasure. Despite some extremely powerful visuals and some very startling (for the time) camera moves, it's actually a very title heavy film (perhaps a result of its literary heritage?). Still, there was lots to enjoy. It's a rather haunting film in a lot of ways: the use of double exposures is expertly done. It's incredible to think it was made in 1919. I have a feeling it's a film which will stay with me for a long time to come.
The extraordinary moment when Sir Arne's wife has the vision of the
sharpening of the knives in Sir Arne's Treasure.