Monday, December 29, 2008

"Nanook of the North" (1922)

It is asserted with factual certitude that by 'documentary' the plainly objective is meant. To the book of fiction there is the work of nonfiction. To the 'scholastic' is counterpoised the folly and fanaticism of the 'poetic'. It may be supposed that fiction is a kind of enthusiasm for a subject that borders and with regularity overflows its preserved definition. A word in a dictionary is after all taken to be a static object; a photo the actual object itself.

When one claims to be watching a 'documentary' then it is assumed that one is watching a real process taking place in the world at a specific juncture in history. Moreover, when one reads a 'document' it is taken for granted that one engages in a deliberate consideration of facts, & not in a word jest or a jocularity of speech which takes the form of hallucination; it is, if one were to ponder the metaphysical side of it, a tension of hi-serious-ness that is taking place in the reader's mind with poignant actuality.

"Nanook of the North" is among the first documentaries in our film history, according to the common understanding of the word; that is to say, "Nanook" is not a fabrication nor even a symbolic representation of an Itivimuit man and his way of life, but the very subject matter captured in time & preserved for all ages so long as the document persists in the archives that outline our history. Not without a trace of fatalistic pathos, Nanook came to perish from starvation only 2 years after Flaherty had cut his film and made a success of it; being among the 1st documentaries, it seems to have been Nanook's destiny to have died for the filmic ideal (i.e. for his mythic identity), so that he may be replaced by the imageprint he left behind, which we are compelled anyway to approach as a trace of the living substance of his being which once was a real thing. We may declare with ample smugness that documentaries are documents of real things; & so we honor the dead Nanook by watching the living version in perpetuity, as if in prayer at an altar containing the ashes of a man and his time, now extinct.

But the facts of the matter are now known: that Flaherty, who after having lost his footage of his 1st voyage to the arctic (the filming of which was quite sincerely for - in this case the word holds forth its principal meaning - documentary reasons) became self-conscious of his role as artist while filming Nanook the 2nd time around, this time with intentions to make a product of some kind, staged a great deal of the film he called "Nanook of the North" with evident satisfaction at the document's preciosity: principally that Nanook, meaning 'bear', was not Nanook's real name, but Allakariallak; that his two wives were not his wives but Itivimuit women who Flaherty deemed attractive enough to cast in their roles playing 'themselves'; that in certain scenes where Nanook seems to be struggling at hunting for food, Flaherty enlisted an offscreen cadre to help; that Flaherty insisted that his characters wear their traditional clothing, though their use had already passed into tribal desuetude; etc. In short, Flaherty to a large degree staged sequences for the purpose of enlivening his document with elements of suspense and action, at that time a fitting concept quite nascent to the undisclosed purpose of film itself. As such it could be advanced that although Nanook, his family, & their way of life are to be respected as existent entities in the world - or more specifically that they have a historical footprint which can be traced back to an authentic tradition -, the actual material of the film is derived from, & would in turn propel, what would later mature into established practice in the largescale production of the broadly fictional works we call the 'movies'.

When we delight in watching Nanook spend quality time & warmth with his 'family' or when he listens with tremendous glee to the musical sounds emitting from a gramophone; or when we shake with suspense to see the largeness of the unseen seal he plays tug-of-war with as the harpoon line slips into a small aperture that leads to icy water: when we become infected with these emotions at the expense of a film documenting a real man's historical path through a dangerous world, we are not just seeing the living, breathing, acting life of an actual man whose culture we glimpse in silent frames, we are also creating the image of an idealized man who comes to stand for the whole of the fading Itivimuit tribe, and yet who remains in himself the unique and individual persona of Nanook. We glimpse Achilles & Don Quijote in him & all the rest of the mythic heroes. We sense that while watching a documentary about the Itivimuit tribe, we are also watching a film - a work of craftsmanship, of gadgets & effects - whose rudiments are no different from those that construct the fictions we know well, the fictions which so scrupulously epitomize the struggle that we quite proudly conclude to take place in life in a distinctly nonfiction way. We come to sculpt Nanook in time along with Flaherty. It is to Flaherty's credit that the dramatic scaffolding in "Nanook of the North" allows us the liberty to do so, to join him in the creation of a small yet necessary monument to a way of life that may pass away in time.

Watch the scenes in which Nanook survives & fights with the elements; watch the scene in which he and fellow tribal members attack the walrus, or when he battles with the hidden seal under the ice cap; see yourself stirred by these sequences and know that you are not watching a documentary but an action film...

It results that "Nanook of the North" is among the 1st action suspense thrillers in our film history.


Friday, December 26, 2008

"Kwaidan" (1965)

Lafcadio Hearn, the enigmatic figure of international ancestry & lettering, an irish-greek born on the island of Lefkas, Greece (hence the 'Lafcadio' in his full name: Patricio Lafcadio Tessima Carlos Hearn), who was later sent to Dublin at 2 years of age & educated in the Jesuit way as Joyce was (who proved to be as resistant to that tradition as that later irishman would be); who later absconded to the United States and educated himself first in Cincinnati, and later in New Orleans, as a journalist and an archaeologist of creole culture; who eventually got a commission to Japan for a magazine story, only to stay in Japan for the rest of his life after becoming a naturalised citizen upon marriage to a woman of the samurai class; devoted the remainder of his scholastic life to the interpretation of Japan and to the divulgence of the Way. His japanese name was Koizumi Yakumo, and the japanese know him under that name as the author of "Kwaidan", which translates to 'ghost tales.' The bulk of the book itself is something of a translation (or rather a transference) of old japanese tales taken from books, one from the mouth of a farmer he personally knew, and another from his own direct experience, into english; nevertheless, Hearn's pronouncedly fin-de-siecle style and erudition shine out and so the translation of these ancient stories passed down anonymously through the centuries are more or less a transference of old oriental tales into the specific understanding that his prosody contrives. As such the translations are rather the product of his authorship, and the japanese respect them so.

These transferences of japanese tales into the english tongue were consequently translated from Hearn's book to the film realm by the master director, Masaki Kobayashi. Kobayashi elected to make "Kwaidan" after having triumphed once and for all with "Harakiri", among the finest works ever laid on celluloid. If "Kwaidan" was a collection of distinctly japanese tales adapted to an aesthetically occidental mode by Hearn, then Kobayashi's treatment of Hearn's material alchemizes it further and brings it back full circle: for the stories presented in Kobayashi's film are fundamentally, unmistakably japanese.

Kobayashi was trained in oriental art as an academic and through the years of bloodshed that he witnessed as a private in the Japanese Army during the 2nd WW, which had interrupted his brief apprenticeship at Shochiku Studios, he never lost sight of the excellencies of the tradition he was raised in. It was not until he made his first color film in 1964, "Kwaidan", that he would explore to full measure the extravagances of the medium he worked in and of the traditions that were passed down to him. "Kwaidan" pushes the color aspect in film beyond its limit; as a first of its kind, it exponentially uses color as the primary mechanism to describe the themes in its stories. There is no perceivable trepidation that the director may have of creating his first color film, nor is there sign of any gradual reliance on it - Kobayashi blasts the screen with so perfect a symmetry and invention of color that "Kwaidan" seems to have been made years after the color innovation had been long introduced. The stories as such mean little; for the average moviegoer in the new century who has been inured by a cult of strong gore and horror films, the stories are doubtlessly predictable and perhaps not as frightening as one would expect from a 'ghost story'. But it is not in their content that Kobayashi cares to dwell; rather he places extreme care on the placement of atmosphere in the description of the tales. Kobayashi replaces emotion and narrative with a sustained meditation on the medium of color itself. This is most evident in the 2nd tale, "The Woman of the Snow", in which the production set assumes the role of conveying not only the freezing winter storm but also the fury of the eye of the storm, literally visible in the painted fresco backdrop of the production set ceiling that serves as a sky; the changeover from winter white to warm human tones and back to the ghostly bloodless white of the initial scene with the dread witch, is so effective that it breaks down our already obvious expectation that the protagonist's wife is the witch herself - but the point is not to surprise us with a plot twist in the weird tale, but to disarm our facile expectation with a steady immurement into aesthetic enlightenment. The use of extreme color artifice and theatrical set design, while appearing to us as clearly mannered, studio-based, and removed of naturalism, sharpens our attention on the parade of spectacular details that robe the stories in the traditional opulence of japanese ascetic fortune (a paradox that requires an attention to practical luxuries: a pot of steaming broth boiling on a warm fire in an earth-toned family hut; a late summer sun setting on an ascendant hill where young love congregates; a crown of cherry blossoms dressing a sunlit courtyard in shadows where a wealthy nobleman ponders the fate of the first wife he abandoned; the dilapidated ruins of a manor house that had once held great fame in the land; the misty moonlit blue-lined edges of tombs signaling the repository of an illustrious family that had drowned at sea in defeat & shame; these and many more scenarios are designed by an interplay of physical features that convey at once both flesh and emotion, asceticism and extravagance.)

Kobayashi performs the film in master strokes. There is no idle or arbitrary element in the film. The time lengths of the stories themselves, which to some who are untrained may appear lengthy, are in fact necessitated by the mechanism required to tell the stories. Since the stories are simple, and since they deal in a natural way with ghosts, the atmosphere is key, the atmosphere in which the ghost haunts in search of an abstract resolution. There is no death depicted in the film, only a proportion of means to an end. The 3rd story, "Hoichi, the Earless", already announces in its title the denouement to the buildup. Kobayashi devotes a good portion of the story's depiction to the reenactment of the background story, involving the battle of Dan-no-ura in which the Heike & Genji clans fought at sea, which resulted in the defeat and deaths of the Heike clan, who would haunt the seas thereafter, the details of which Hearn devotes only two paragraphs before moving on to the principal story. Kobayashi spends nearly 10 minutes reenacting the sea battle through expressionistic strokes because it is in his interest to commeasure the kinematic color expression with the established tradition of oriental art: he toggles back and forth from a traditional painting of the sea battle with the film's studio-based realisation. The camera will pan across the mist-smothered painting to the mist-smothered filmed battle, to the extent that both are meant to be taken as coextensive realities of the one plastic idea: both scenes are painterly, both are fog covered, both are at sea, both are scanned by the camera's energetic gloss. It doesn't escape us that the painting had likely been painted in reflection upon the battle, within the quiet cloister of an artist's studio, in much the same manner that Kobayashi's work is taking place within a controlled film studio with the use of props, lighting, & effects. The suggestion is that film art can rival even the work of the old masters.

For our purposes it is clear that Kobayashi in retrospect will be seen in the same light as a Hiroshige or a Hokusai, an artist in pursuit of a tradition that has not been broken by the technological achievements of film, but enhanced to a greater degree.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

"The Silence" (1963)

It has been sometimes critiqued in Bergman that his films at times work like theater pieces, but this is more a result of the dramatic quality of his screenplays than of the lack of plastic expressiveness. It is of course indisputable now that Bergman is among the most purely cinematic directors in the medium. Along with the innovations introduced in "Persona" three years later, "The Silence" may be Bergman's most adventurously kinematic conception. From the very first frame the density of the scene comes through in a graceful pan and angle captured by Sven Nykvist's immortally pristine black-and-white lens: we meet two attractive women and a young 10 year old boy riding a train compartment in silence and, we sense, with quiet tension. We do not know outright their relationship, and only as the film develops little by little are we provided hints to their connection (or lack thereof). We learn eventually that the two women are sisters, Anna & Ester, who may or may not have shared an incestual relationship, and we learn that the curious young boy is Anna's son, who loves his mother but is somewhat distant from his aunt. There is no explicit mention as to why the sisters and the boy are traveling to an unknown city whose language they do not speak, but we find that Ester, a translator of foreign texts, is perilously ill with an unknown condition. Her relationship with her sister, as evinced by their coldness and silence with each other, is strained to a great degree. They room at an elegant but otherwise quite lonely hotel, where their only purpose seems to be to battle both Ester's mysterious illness and the onslaught of ennui. When Anna, a voluptuous, worldly type, goes out to seek amusement and relief from the summer heat, Ester stays bedridden at the hotel room and works on translations when she's not enduring a panic attack. Meanwhile the young boy, named Johan, roams the hotel hallways and finds himself getting into idle mischief or encountering a troupe of spanish dwarves in town for a vaudeville act. As the women are trapped in the doom of their terminal boredom and general faithlessness, Johan braves the hotel's forlornness and wanders through it with his purity and wonder in place.

As the film saunters along, the plasticity of the scenes takes over; the drama of the film flashes in spurts, but the primary message unrolls through the visual density that Bergman exploits in the film to great advantage. The transitions from long shot to close, from pan to steady shots, from focusing on one object to turning it inside out by a swift legerdemain involving a mirror or a french paneled door opening to a hallway or a room in seclusion, or in conducting us along lonely hotel corridors, are of a superior technique that only a master of Bergman's capacity could manage with such delicate hypnosis.

The story is never resolved (in the spirit of the "God-Spider" trilogy that this last film is part of, the other two being "Through A Glass Darkly" & "Winter Light") and abruptly ends as it abruptly begins, in media res and stifled with pneumatic doubt. The silence is not only the silence of God here (as it was in the preceding two films) but also the silence that ensues at a time of war without reason or cause, when no one seems to understand the other in any language, even one's own. The symbolic value of Ester's role as a translator who is slowly dying from existential terror cannot be overemphasized. Anna's wayward lust is also a symptom of her inner guilt and shame. Sex becomes the usual escape for those who believe in nothing. It is however Johan's role in the film to perceive the despair that provokes his mother to feckless adultery and his aunt to a possibly self-imagined disease. At the end of the film he inherits from Ester a document containing the meanings of words in a foreign language; whether he will take it to memory and practice the art of understanding is left for the viewer to ponder. But the somewhat disdainful manner in which he looks up at his adulterous mother as he reads out the word for 'face' shows that his sympathies have perhaps shifted from his mother to his aunt Ester and the responsibility she has bestowed on him.

What is resolved though is the certainty with which Bergman's camera pursues the trails of strangers and objects in a strange city. (The film's story takes place in an unknown city by the name of 'Timoka' where tanks threateningly roll on the city streets and a man with an emaciate horse carries a wagon piled with furniture day and night outside the window of the sisters' hotel room.) There's ample probability that this film, following on the heels of Antonioni's own great trilogy dealing with the existential problematics of a world turned fiercely secular and faithless ("L'Avventura", "La Notte", & "L'Eclisse"), owes much to the specific rhythm that Antonioni introduced to the cinema; I am convinced that Bergman very neatly alludes to all three of those films by costuming a lovely Gunnel Lindblom in a Monica Vitti-like dress and wig and having her straggle with aimless intention through a city filled with leering men and alien incidents to be deciphered (among which can be counted the then-infamous, though still quite tasteful, sex scene in the vaudeville theatre). The allusion to Antonioni verges on the mimetic, and it is only up to the point when Ester confronts Anna in a hotel room with her bartender lover that Bergman returns to his familiar setup: a triangular framing bordered on the left by Ester's face upclose in sideview, while Anna is placed at center and free to indulge her unleashed passions by crying and gesticulating to the anchored Ester; meanwhile for the sake of geometric symmetry, Bergman has the unknown lover's mute face come into view at the right end: at this Bergmanesque interplay, his screenplay fleshes out a whole history of tension between the sisters in a few cries and whispers, and the familiar tropes from the precedent films in the trilogy are revisited.

It is without surprise that the two masters convened at this crucial film in Bergman's filmography, the last film in Bergman's trilogy following a year after the last film in Antonioni's trilogy, since they appeared to be connected spiritually (in regard to their existential sensitivity) as well as physically: both would pass away from this secularized world on the same day, the 30th of July, 2007.
Cf. Kubrick's "The Shining" for moments inspired by the hallway scenes in the hotel with Johan.

Dovzhenko's "Earth" (1930)

Action filmmaking. The phenomenal or the concrete? Before us the palpable fruits of the earth, grown large and luscious, the pears that old Simon loves and takes up in his farmer's hands and eats with a child's pleasure; he is about to die. Old Simon eats the pear and smiles with its juice in his mouth at the sight of a small child playing on the grass. The old and the young are the fruits of the earth. Gigantic sunflowers announce the imminence of death in their bursting. Old Simon is gratified to go. Old Peter asks him, "When you reach where you're going, tell me if you're in heaven or hell." Old Simon promises, if he is able to he will. The keys to heaven are his. Old Peter remains behind in contemplation of the earth. For the peasants there is no heaven and no hell; there is only earth.

Dovzhenko's narrative, like the concepts of heaven and hell, is nowhere to be found except in the material, yet spiritually charged, existence that is the earth's. Set in roughly 8 tableaux, "Earth" narrates the encroaching discovery of a new paradise, a 'new life' brought about by the introduction of advanced mechanical production (symbolized by a new tractor brought to the village) and collective farming. There is no story by way of conventional technique, but there is an atmosphere, a sustained description of the poetic realism of the earth's presence in the lives of its laborers. In place of 'characters' we are given faces carved out in time frames, whose cheeks and foreheads are lined with soil and sun, and whose eyes sparkle like exposed minerals in a mineshaft. In place of disciplined narrative edits, we are thrusted by the muscle strength of a camera whose shots and edits strike out like crags on the celluloid air. Dovzhenko does not cut a film so much as he harvests images from the grain of the land; he produces not merely action, but the very physicality that action engenders. During the harvest sequence, after the village joyously welcomes the arrival of a single tractor for use on the recently instituted collective farms, the camera like a scythe mows the wheat from the earth it shoots from, collects the grain and packs it along with the tender faced women using the selfsame wheat to tie the bundles. Scenes move across us like the tractor over the fields, overwhelming us with a pure force of expression. The lyricism of this film, owing to Dovzhenko's specific technique, lies in the unarguable fact that the motion of the camera produces an actual good. We are not watching a film so much as we are eating bread. The visible passion of the scythe's blade as it storms over the wheat or of the inebriate dance by Basil on a moonlit road, or lastly of the rains as they pour down on the horses and the mature fruits (a thematic that Tarkovsky has graciously used in half of his films), spreads organically like roots through the film's soil. Dovzhenko's enthusiasm bears down on us.

The subject of "Earth" is the earth and the phenomena that 'worlds' it, and Dovzhenko repeatedly encases the village farmers from a low angle (the camera looking up at them as if arising from the earth, if not the gaze of the earth itself) so that the heavens above girdle the large statuesque figures of the bearded roughhewn men and the robust bonneted women as they stand alongside their equally ennobled livestock; the synonym holds clear that the village folk and the livestock are a single chain united not merely by the camera's frame but by the sacraments of the earth that enchain them. Dovzhenko's framing of the farmers as they stand like giants on the earth, or of the villagers as they march in unison toward the new life of technology and collectivity with the fervor of wild horses, liberates them from abstraction (from what would be termed the tyranny of the church, or of the belief in an alternate, false reality that exists apart from the realism of the earth), while at the same time enclosing their figures in a harmony with the landscape that they till and travail on.

The final shot of two unknown but symbolic lovers gazing into each other's eyes, no doubt imparting the arrival of spring upon a favored son's death, renews the cycle that begins the film, the young fruits of labor replacing the old (harvesting by hand replaced by harvesting by machine; the rich farmer's values replaced by a collective value). It is a shot that invests the phenomenal in film (already intrinsic to its native properties) with the concrete & substantial, that brings full circle the prosperity of a people made aware of the music that springs from them in conjugality with the earth, in their collective acceptance of its ancient devotion to them.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

"The Naked City" (1948)

A city made naked. How does one unclothe a city? At night the citylights are strong enough to obscure its most private parts. At day a rush of people at every conceivable corner of the street-and-building grid induces either nausea or delirium if one focuses too much on the flow of information. The city never seems naked, but it is. It is stark naked and ghastly with odors and faces. It is naked because it has no clothes to speak of. The people and the streets and the cars and the subways and buses and the buildings are the city stripped to its bones. Its physiological collocation: the tunnels and avenues and the angles of drops and rises the source of a rhythm that pulses with indigestion, rigor mortis, tenacity.

The New York of Jules Dassin's "The Naked City" is the mythic New York, the city of cities, the archetype and embodiment of the platonic ideal of the city. Dassin doesn't paint it or translate it or interpret it, but breaks it to pieces and puts it back together in an editing room; he reveals it to be a vast circumference of densities that don't stretch out but fold into each other when he fixes the frame on the multipatterned rings of its exposed treetrunk; after of course having chopped that tree of a town down, 'stripped her glory', 'bared her passion' ... The first aerial shots of New York that begin the film scan the city from an exterior apprehension, as that of a migrant approaching an empire overrun with atoms & skyscrapers from the privileged view of a helicopter, and gives us sight of a movable banquet on which we are about to feast.

(One must ignore the rather obnoxious narration by the then-hot producer Mark Hellinger, an unfortunate dub that strangles the film of its potential high-noir seriousness, but which Dassin's visuals regardless overcome through sheer majesty, the director's eye trumping the producer's infatuation with his own project; Criterion has done us the justice of changing the title from "Mark Hellinger's The Naked City" to "Jules Dassin's The Naked City"; nevertheless, one gets the feeling that Dassin would have humbly corrected us that there would never have been a "Naked City" had it not been for Mr. Hellinger, nor even a Burt Lancaster or a "Brute Force" if one were to take it further, to which one can only assent and nod one's head.)

Much like the ridiculous needlessness of the narration, the actual plot elements of the one story chosen from the "8 million stories" that New York promises amount to a rather banal process. The radio program quality of the film's narrative mechanics (which would be expanded upon later in a tv series) do not completely submerge the film; Dassin guides us through the city with print quality rushes that overlap the everydayness of the plot and characters. When a character exudes the conventions of the day, Dassin makes sure that our eyes are gorged on the lights, shadows, recesses, and projections that lash out from the background. We are saved from the tralatitious traits of an inferior noir narration by the amplitude of the scenery and the velocity of the edits that introduce a numerousness of faces, bodies, and voices in a city continuously alive.

Dassin blows up New York piece by piece, but he does so in order to enliven it, to establish it from within its proper fragmentation, paradoxically, as an inviolate whole that though cratered by pockets of human interest and scattered malignancy, stands up proudly in a beacon of ornamental delimitation. New York is the principal character (as the glib Mr. Hellinger tells us) because it has a world to hide in its perpetual revelation.

In the final climax, pre-designed by the beginning march of quick edits - of the characters who turn out to be the principal actors in the drama - to be a consequence of the systemic networking that commences with the murder of a beautiful model, & ends with the death of a nefarious villain who like King Kong ascends the Brooklyn bridge to escape antagonists, we find that it is the city which changes men and women against their will, which drives them to commit treacherous and occasionally blameless acts against human nature, because they are in thrall to the enchantments of a city run amok with the sounds and sights of differentiated citizens as they make their frantic orbits in the NYC galaxy. We learn from the wide scope that harbors the triteness of the story, that it is not man who founds cities, but cities which find men:

"If the work of the city is the remaking or translating of man into a more suitable form than his nomadic ancestors achieved, then might not our current translation of our entire lives into the spiritual form of information seem to make of the entire globe, and of the human family, a single consciousness?" - Marshall McLuhan, Media as Translators

Friday, December 19, 2008

"The Match Factory Girl" (1990)

Revenge. An opening kinetic sequence of a match factory at play and work, but never at rest. Sputterings and pumpings and rotations and divagations; well-oiled pops and creaky sizzles on the assembly line. Wood cut to fragpieces, slenderized to matchsticks, pushed by machine ejections into red, brown, yellow, & blue matchboxes labeled with cowboy-and-indian pics, politicos, or camels in the desert. On the tube when Iris gets home the Tiananmen Square protests, and a solitary young man who stands defiantly before an approaching row of tanks, whose act strikes the social universe down as it pauses for a heavy breath after surfacing from the deep of privations, a symbol of the world outside Finland. (Humankind made a media event.) The death of Ayatollah Khomeini. The celebrated visit of John Paul II to Scandinavia. Events which take place in a 'land beyond the sea' beyond the confines of the grim apartment in Helsinki that Iris shares with her mother and her boorish father-in-law. She makes dinner for them, washes the dishes, irons her clothes, prepares to go out in a dress as affectless as she, while her parents watch the tube and the machines in the match factory roll on with their gratuitous cadenza night & day.

Helsinki Blues. A beer and a newspaper in silence. The sight of an ostentatiously ugly dress in a store window. A check cashed, a dress purchased, a slap on the face & the word 'whore'. No matter: loneliness is loneliness. A bar scene filled with sunken eyed men. A one-night stand. Pregnancy. A cruel rebuff. An absentminded walk down the street, & a car strikes an ugly graceless girl down. (In Helsinki humankind is not an event but an assembly line.)

She hears "Cadillac" by the Renegades on the jukebox in her brother's apartment. She sits and stares at the pool table set prominently in the living room and ponders what it is like to drink rat poison. She smokes the cig and discusses with herself the offscreen harmonies that arsenic brings to the table. In contrast to the hardass blue tone of the song, she hears instead the pops and sizzles, the sputterings and pumpings that had contained her life for too long. Suicide? No. Revenge.
Cf. Bresson's "Mouchette"

Thursday, December 18, 2008

"Dead Ringers" (1988)

Gynecological instruments for mutant women. Trifurcate.

She's a -

Mutant, whose body sinks, sinks, sinks -


Sinks to the sea, where sex is. Eggsplashed, salmon spume.

Nostalgia. For the bifurcate river paths.

Twins who practiced

Alchemy of instruments to perfect the manmade man;

& the Rebus rent. & the terrific terror

Of separation, prevent.

She's a -

Mutant, whose body's all wrong, all wrong, all wrong.

Woman's all wrong for a boy halved by his own

Device. Bev & Eli, who drug up,

Drug down.

Reach equilibrium, of insects, of salmon,

Of the Rebis rent. Onanist-

Agonist. Percodan on Saturday,

Ice cream on Sunday.

The outer that had been

The inner: a dead

Ringer. In a sea

Of (in)fertility.

After slicing his brother's venter with silver tools for mutants, Bev goes out to reacquaint himself with the outside world of those who don't live underwater. He goes to a telephone tube and dials out to the mutant woman that had enslaved him to an idea of love, a principle which had disfigured itself in coitus from an imperfect understanding of the insides of ladies. He hears her voice as if from the black depth of an ocean gazing up at the fractured blades of sunlight. (Shore's score piles in backdrifts, recedes, fades.) Bev can't do it, can't do it. It's all wrong cause he's dead. She's just a trifurcate, not an actress, not Claire Niveau. He goes back into the ruined apartment like the cadaver he is. Gives himself over to science. His sole contribution: the open entrails of his brother, test study for a prototype of a gynecological instrument for mutant women, the Mantle Retractor #69.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"Murmur Of The Heart" (1971)

What ever happened to Anna after she disappeared in "L'Avventura"? We discover (or so Louis Malle informs us) that she moved to France and married a prosperous gynecologist, Dr. Chevalier, a pedantic but generous man who looks like Garibaldi when he sports a beard. She adopts the name Clara. She has children with him, three boys, and for some time lives contented to have so many men in the house. Eventually she, like Madame Bovary, takes up a lover since by nature she cannot endure provincialism. She is to her core a redblooded gypsy woman. & her youngest boy, Laurent, utterly adores her.

Laurent lives happily tyrannized by two older brothers whose apparent mission in life is to subvert every convention that surrounds their daily life and tease their baby brother with as much sarcasm as humanly possible. He inherits from them the standards in a 16 year old boy's life: Charlie Parker, literature, and sex. Through them he learns how to drink, smoke a cigar, and have interrupted sex with a prostitute. In this way he learns the irreplaceable dissatisfaction of growing up.

One late spring he gets scarlet fever from rehearsing Goethe in the damp night at camp, and develops a heart murmur. His heart skips beats and so he and his mother decide to stay a few weeks at a sanatorium in the countryside. He'll read Proust, and she'll take up with her lover again. They greet with provincials who regard them as abundantly strange.

At the end of the sanatorium stay, mother and son celebrate Bastille day with the locals.

So mother and son trade fluids. What of that? She was drunk with wine and her body was aflame with remembrance of Sandro maybe, or of the time she made the decision to disappear forever. Instead she found her last true lover: her own son. He found in her the first true love. Sex for them was but a consequence of the cord that had once joined them. She sees in him the skipping of her heart that has long plagued her life; he sees in her the embodiment of every woman he would learn to know, the one woman he had proceeded from, who resisted at any event the call of bourgeois motherhood. She was irrepressibly a woman given over to her body, and he worshiped her for it. He dressed in her clothes, wore her makeup and smelled her lingerie; when she stood up from the bath he studied with objective savor the curve of the line that split her back, that extended down to her plump italianate buttocks. After catching him in the act of spying, momentarily the mother in her springs out and slaps him, but he looks up at her with a lover's defiance, a boy too quickly becoming a man.

Louis Malle also spent a time during his adolescence with his mother at a sanatorium; he too suffered a heart murmur. But it is more or less probable that in this film he fantasizes what it would have been like being another boy in another sanatorium sleeping next to Lea Massari.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"Koko, le gorille qui parle" (1978)

Koko the gorilla makes a Report to the Foundation following the sexual harassment case that was eventually dropped by Ms. Keller and Ms. Alperin, two female assistants to Koko's longstanding trainer, Dr. Penny Patterson, after the parties had reached a settlement agreement earlier in the week:

[Koko gestures to the congregation in sign language]

"Esteemed Ladies & Gents of the Foundation!

"You grant me the honor of calling upon me to submit a report to the Foundation concerning my previous & quite unremarkable life as a gorilla, a form of life that I would not have been able to narrate for you had it not been for the gift of language. It could be said that before this gift was placed in my hands (quite literally) when I was still young, I had used my hands to express vague emotions rather than concepts or words, used them rather to tear branches or to beat the earth or pick mites from tufts of hair and scratch where it itched, and so on and so forth... if my hands were words, I was quite unaware of it!

"Indeed I have only recently earned the ability to issue such a report to you, the scientific community, thanks to the constant edification given me by my beloved & ever faithful trainer, Dr. Patterson.

[Koko signs 'I love you' to Dr. Patterson, who is seated with the audience; Dr. Patterson smiles and signs back; everyone goes 'Ahhh...']

"...After more than a decade of receiving her attention and guidance, I can presently summon at will a lexicon of nearly 10,000 word families in the various formations that make up the so-called 'logic' of language. But let me make a distinction about this medium...

"I would prefer for the moment being to describe such an unwieldy 'logic' with a more apt analogy: to play with language, at least for me, is similar to playing a game. There are rules that must be followed, and there are 'intentions' that bend the rules either with violence or with subtlety. I have perceived as of late that language is no more than a game which children play best; I have in fact enjoyed stimulating conversations with deaf & mute children that far outstrip those dreadful conversations with adults I am always loath to have. For myself, now that I am rather ancient for a gorilla (past my 30 yrs!) [audience laughs] ...the lustre of words has long past its gleam. I see myself speaking to you using words that no longer amuse me as they once had. Indeed, I now find human bodies and their body parts (so strange looking really when you dwell on them long enough) to be infinitely more interesting than words; yet I've noticed that humans tend to overemphasize the role of language in their lives, and often place greater value on the meaning of words than on the meaning of their own bodies. I must admit that this stress on language puzzles me even more now that I have reached a certain mastery of the language... But I digress - (I'll keep to the subject at hand...)

"The current matter of subject (which I admit openly caused some great displeasure to Dr. Patterson) has on the contrary served to amuse me with novel ideas about human nature... I speak of course of the accusation of sexual harassment brought against me by Ms. Alperin and Ms. Keller, two charming young ladies who I personally considered to be women of great sincerity and openness. I was not so much alarmed as I was confused that they would hold against me the niceties we shared in such careful intimacy at the Foundation. But I suppose it was to my discredit that I failed to perceive that from the particularly sharp erection each one exhibited in their nipples, such a sensation caused them a great moral tremor (that, along with other reverberations that throbbed soundlessly, much like a vivid electrical current, through the inner chambers of their nubile bodies...) In short, I should have noticed etched on their faces the shame of arousal at the sight of so brutish and grayblack a beast as myself. But I envied them their lovely organs, since being a lady myself, I held a special regard for the (rather favorably) swollen abnormality of the mammae in human females... & especially for the varieties of large pink areolas that radiate from nipples so stiff as to be like thorns...

[Koko briefly slips into revery, her thick broad hands half-raised in the air in the middle of a sentence.]

"Ah yes, my apologies my dear scientists... Nipples are people, are they not? Rosy and stiff and phenomenally strange, just like people. [Dr. Patterson gestures something unintelligible to Koko] ...But I should like to describe to you an incident from my childhood that I remember well, an incident that will state in so few words how I came to learn language:

"I do remember how it happened, not so much when it happened: it started when I was quite young, still an infant... When they (Penny or any of my 'elders') named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shewn by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all human beings: the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of voice which expresses the distinctly human state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard (or saw) words repeatedly used (or signed) in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my hands to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires...

"But after awhile I thought that this 'logic' of language belied what was really at play in what we would more properly call the language game; what was really at play was a fruitful diversion, a play of words that endlessly hid or unveiled new meanings and intentions. I came to find that words did not just mean words, that their meanings were hardly static but terribly protean... there was a mysterious process that through my acquisition & use of language I came to excavate little by little, as if in search of an essential mineral that would solve all of a gorilla's hitherto unsolvable problems. I sought in any case to rupture the intolerable border of ignorance that restrained my still lingering powers of expression. I desired to quench an irrevocable hunger for a stiffer and fleshlier modus, something that I dreamed each night to be held near my mouth, that I could feed on as a babe would in the infancy of life, but could not, like Tantalus, reach! (Yes, I was a very wretched and pitiable ape during that intermediate stage in my development.)

"But one day it dawned on me like a rosy bright sunrise on the brink of the world, and I awoke to an oddly docile, but no less permanent, revelation. This 'epiphany' occurred, I remember clearly, during a routine siesta time while in training with the two new assistants, Ms. Alperin and Ms. Keller. (During those days I was very fond of these two buxom girls, and I took it as a custom to call them 'Nan-Nan' and 'KC', respectively.) Penny was there with us of course. Since Penny and I had long ago achieved a high sensitivity to each other's mood, she knew that I was sufficiently bored and in vile heat at that time. It got to a point that Penny knew what was on mind without even having to look at me! She knew that I wanted breasts. It was the early afternoon and nothing else could have possibly been on my mind. Penny, in her customarily mechanical fashion, said aloud for everyone to hear, "Koko, you see nipples all the time. You are probably bored with my nipples. You need to see new nipples." She surreptitiously looked over at the assistants, who naturally reacted with a bit of a start... There was the usual hesitation that all new assistants have, the look of crazy ambivalence. I think it was KC who started to unbutton her khaki blouse. I remember too how she looked rather fearlessly, almost daringly, into my eyes, while I darted from her head to her brassiere and fiddled in a coy fashion with my hands. I signed to her 'nipple'. As she took off her bra, I thought deliciously that I could order her around pretty well, and a bevy of fantasies was immediately aroused in my mind. I imagined for instance a language that KC and I would share, she my new personal assistant, and I her dark and heavy lover, a language composed only of grunts and gutterals that would stand for orders. A language of orders, whether eating like famished hogs or mating like mountain gorillas. This language made up only of imperatives and heated words, whether with fists in pocket or placed fiercely upon the hindquarters, would take place as a kind of game, a game in which the loser took her place on the bottom and the winner her place on top; a language in which conceptual signs would be synonymous with brute strength and force of hand. In short, a language fit for gorillas...

"Her nipples were like fatty frozen bacon bits on a sizzling saucepan, of that I am sure. I signed to her 'Nipple!', and she signed back to me with the very thing itself, a perfect understanding between us. (But which I came to find out was not so perfect after all...)

"It is easy to imagine a language consisting only of orders and reports in battle. - Or a language consisting only of questions and expressions for answering yes and no. And innumerable others. - And to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life.

"But what about this: is the call 'Nipple!' a sentence or a word? - If a word, surely it has not the same meaning as the like-sounding word of our ordinary language, for in the incident that I just described it is a call. But if a sentence, it is surely not the elliptical sentence: 'Nipple!' of our language. (Pardon me while I usurp your language, and call it ours, dear scientists.) - As far as the first question goes you can call 'Nipple!' a word and also a sentence; perhaps it could be appropriately called a 'degenerate sentence' (as one speaks of a degenerate hyperbola); in fact it is our 'elliptical' sentence. - But that is surely only a shortened form of the sentence 'Show me your nipple', and there is no such sentence in the breast incident of KC and Nan-Nan. - But why should I not on the contrary have called the sentence 'Show me your nipple' a lengthening of the sentence 'Nipple!'? - Because if you sign (or if you shout, which I wish I could) 'Nipple!' you really mean: 'Show me your nipple'. - But how do you do this: how do you mean that while you say 'Nipple!'? Do you say the unshortened sentence to yourself? And why should I translate the call 'Nipple!' into a different expression in order to say what someone else means by it? And if they mean the same thing - why should I (or Penny on my behalf and outloud) not say: 'When she signs, "Nipple!" she means "Nipple!"'? Again, if you can mean 'Show me your nipple', then why should you not be able to mean 'Nipple!'? - But when I sign 'Nipple!', then what I want is, that she should show me her luscious nipples! - Certainly, but does 'wanting this' consist in thinking in some form or other a different sentence from the one you sign?"

[At this point in the report, Dr. Patterson interrupts Koko and leads her offstage]

Cf. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 1 & 19

Monday, December 15, 2008

"Grey Gardens" (1975)

With each day the raccoons steadily make cracks in the lime green wall in search of white bread and cookies. Grey gardens. Two docu-filmmaking brothers - the Maysles - visit Big Edie and her daughter Little Edie at the site of a dilapidated 28-room mansion. Big Edie, aged 79, is Jacqueline Bouvier's aunt, and Little Edie, aged 56, is Jackie's cousin. They live at the Grey Gardens estate in East Egg, Long Island, in sight and proximity of the beach and the passing of luxury cruise liners on the Long Island Sound. Like Gatsby these daughters of fortune are parvenus to an aristocracy that wilts outside their sundrenched terrace.

Big Edie was a singer, still is. She sings her scales and reminisces; scolds her daughter when Little Edie tries out the bloodline for herself through the acoustic space of her pleasant-shaped throat. Little Edie puts on a scratched record, an old tune spontaneously dreamy, recognizable, and Big Edie mists up and sings along mechanically, a refrain, a bar, a pause to catch up with the swell of nostalgia that has taken 60+ years to come back to her. She acts unaware of the camera, they both do, mother and daughter, & Big Edie sinks into lavish yearnings she hides so well like old foolish hats & unopened love letters in a locked drawer. She puts on her whitelocked head a motley wide circle-brim hat, bends it half brim at the fore, and smiles when she eats butter pecan ice cream, her ailing suntanned body warm under the soiled zebra-striped blanket odorous with stray cat hair and dust crumbs. The camera cuts repeatedly to a framed unhung portrait of Big Edie when she was a young and pulchritudinous singer. She is lovely and regal, terrifically beautiful.

Little Edie is going bald, or she's already bald. Either way she never once doesn't wear a scarf or blanket to wrap her head in, & never once is the scarf the same one yesterday or the day before. She has an assortment of head scarves that match the assortment of colors that she tinkers with in her clothes. It's likely that every scene has Little Edie wearing a completely new combination of fabrics and linens for clothes. Sometimes a dress worn upside down, often tight fitting slightly revealing pseudo-swimsuits or true-type swimsuits, or baby tight skirts and strapless tops and blouses. She wears her clothes as she would have 30 years ago. She's in search of a libra man but she keeps falling for sagittarius, gets bored by the company of raccoons and cats, loves her mother to death, and enjoys the fact that men are finally in the house again. Little Edie was a dancer, and she never hesitates to dance a number for the Maysles (one suspects that she has a crush on Al.) She too shows us pictures of her youthful days so long ago, when she modeled for various things and took photos for famous people with famous people by famous people. (She even dated J. Paul Getty & had a fling with a Kennedy herself.) Like her mother she toured the hi-society circuit and made her rounds of the glam game; like her mother she too is terrifically beautiful: proudly showing photos of the youthful Edith Beale from her album, she smiles the same smile her mother had at the same age & dreams no doubt of what living as one pleases with no regard for marriage and the social manners of a housewife or for what men care for in a disciplined lady has led her to. Unlike her mom she would have liked a man, a good libra man, but her s-t-a-u-n-c-h love for her mother (more of an awe perchance of that matriarch's stubborn refusal to hitch herself to any man's headway) overcomes her, keeps her tied to the bed placed dutifully at her mother's chattering side, & to the slow decay of Grey Gardens and its sunset boulevard languish, its broken sing-song and stained deceitful mirrors.

Mother and daughter living together as children would, as bohemians are thought to live, in complete filth and wantonness and the indecision of the hours. But their glut is talk, and their cryptic talk holds no pretense to allusion or indemnity or pretension. The speak as they are: in a disordered cadence somehow sophisticate, playfully sincere. They live in Grey Gardens, years after the last spark of material lux had faded with their sense of convention, while the raccoons board and the cats yawn and the water faucets spit rust color, and they live there even now in the "orgastic future that year by year recedes before [them]..." as they are "borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

"Synecdoche, New York" (2008)

The depiction of suffering has its requisite cycle: the early pains of birth; the resultant, inevitable decay of the body; the renewable torments of aging; the fear of death & the fear of being reborn to death. Variables that are to be seized with pliers and placed in a frozen jar on exhibition. Or broken up, boiled, and stirred until the bloated carcass is made digestible again for a merry banquet and a lascivious round-about. To this banquet are invited all those you had wished to bed with, those you had imagined a few times naked, & those who saw you naked and in bed with your lurid vulnerability.

Suffering may also take form as a positive procreative construction of a world-at-large set shrewdly within another. Example: when one person reads the word, 'hazel', he will not think of the color but of a girl whom he had lost to a fire; likewise, for a 'house on fire' we would bend our necks to peer at the unconscious anxiety of a young woman seeking to house a family with maternal urgency; and so forth: for a woman named 'Adele' he would divine the secret to his life, namely that he 'lacks' her; for 'teardrop' he would witness not merely the effect but the consummation of 'sadness'; for 'nose' he would consider the color 'pink' and with that color too would be attached the name of his longlost daughter 'Olive'; things in consequence of representing within their minute particularity the essential confluence of the world.

Caden Cotard, a theatre director who excels at portraying young people playing old, cries whenever he goes to bed with a woman not his wife. Yet the sundry and perennially attractive women that sleep with him insist on sleeping with him. He either imagines each and every one of these hither-come ladies like flowers that one day bloom and the next day fade, or he dreams them piecemeal as part of a grander scheme... In which the lives of little people are enlarged to the sum of every possible emotion to be felt within the closed sphere of emotions that we map out and call the human world. The human world in this case would stand for a representation of what such a sphere of affairs (in which the activity of people - waking and walking and sleeping and talking - would trump the primitive meaninglessness of the language gamep played in reverse) would register if one were to stage a monumental recovery of its blinks and seizures. Set out in copious notes, the emotions that are aroused in the common exchanges between citizens of the social experiment that is the living city, would take place in a miniature setting, a model town much like 'our town' except that its cycles would storm over with nebulous misunderstandings (rather than epiphanies.) The stock exchange of the language game would trade on the passing glances of strangers and debutantes, directors and actors, sons and lovers, on their fabricated habits in posture and in transit, and on the extraneous duplicity of asking someone whose name is unknown what her name would be if she were someone else. The interchangeability with strangers would connote the interchangeability with words used in stray dialogues on the street or in bed, or in the playhouses and movie theatres in which desperation plays out its fatigued sick joke; despair was what was implied by Breton as the epitome of 'mad love', and in Kaufman's mindset it is the epitome of (potential) revelation.

(Except that this film does not breathe air the way that 'bicycle thieves' breathe air. The realism in "Synecdoche" is one of pure and idle and self-congratulatory simulation; Cotard does not love women as Guido Anselmi does, that is, with indulgent humor and masculine nostalgia; nor does Cotard direct his life with the distinct self-absorption that Sébastien-Pyrrhus directs the pseudo greek drama (Racine's "Andromaque") that reciprocates the lovestruck folly of his pseudo life. They are translators, these director-men, but only one of them connives to whine his way through much ado about nothing; the other two are self-aware conveyors of the joys and joyful sorrows of nothing.)

Caden Cotard also believes that he is dying; he is a hopeless hypochondriac, or more precisely, an overweight man afflicted with Cotard's Syndrome, in which a person comes to believe that he or she is dead and/or that the world no longer exists in any vital sense. (The french psychiatrist Jules Cotard, after whom it is named, described this condition as being le délire de négation.) Cotard, stuck in the island of his own projected suffering, allows the conspiratorial folks of his life and the scenes they inhabit like expressbus waiting rooms to pass away from him with a velocity out of joint with the complexities of life (or otherwise in strict observance of its conundrum); it is only when Cotard begins to invest his newfound money (a don from a Macarthur Genius Grant) and the rest of his life's energy on magnifying the feeble diameter of his life (from outside his own self-absorbed psyche) that he begins to approximate the value of each person that subsists, as if by miracle, outside his immediate directorship.

If he does not negate the intimate strangers that populate and situate his life, he may find himself neglecting them: Kaufman cuts his film not out of use for elliptical expression, but out of sheer need to translate the already rapid quickening of life into an augmentation of its motion toward death (a fast-forward that emerges from the realization that death is the sole object of life's procession.) On the other hand, if he sees in himself a growing & inescapable mortality that affixes his body to the slow rot of unforeseen vicissitudes, yet he does not die; others, his closest and best loved, die instead of him. The velocity of the film is what ultimately takes over Cotard's life; the speed with which scenes come and go, and faces, and sex, and marriage, and breakup, and diseases, and fears, and desires; and ultimately death; pass forth from him and his recyclable fear of fear itself so violently that he ends up losing them one by one. While he remains alive to witness the passing forth from his mind the representations of people on parade, the theme music (& a solitary jazz song sung by a solitary person in a sea of solitary people) keep playing to remind him of his original premise: (you are alone...)

Yet he is not alone. He is merely guilty, it could be said, with K's jewish guilt of knowing not why he is alone. (Meanwhile the stagehands and actors and actors' actors cross and recross the labyrinth of his affected solitude and pan out for him the gross tide of human endeavors.)

One viewer very cleverly recalled Baudrillard's Simulation and Simulacra after watching the film; another appositely cited Fellini's "8 1/2"; if both partial influences were mixed in a sleek and terrifically artificially miserable cocktail, then you would have the synecdoche in "Synecdoche, New York": simulated suffering as a cure for real suffering (in much the same way that we are inoculated against viruses with small strains of the virus itself.) It is a film so enriched by its profusion of failures (as well by its serenely concealed capitalist guilt at having no real misery to speak of - an 'authentic' misery that is imagined by pragmatic new yorkers as occurring in impoverished countries torn by the very real strife of hunger, war, and dispossession) that one can only gawk at it and laugh awhile and shake one's head in evident halfmooned dissatisfication. It is not even a monumental failure as one would hope, but something that so meekly comes to its point that one can merely come to agree with its final solution to the spiritual asphyxia that is the modernity of a world set on automatic:

I'm just a little person,
One person in a sea
Of many little people
Who are not aware of me.

The intensity of the suffering in such a world, a world that is a representation of the real world, amounts to no more than this simple and pure evocation: the loneliness of having no emotion in communion with another. It is loneliness which drives one to recreate what cannot possibly be understood from the single-point perspective: Cotard, the would-be playwright, the director of human emotions, is driven to objectless distraction by the protean symbology of the absence of the Other (whether it be his departed wife, his stolen daughter, his first adulterous love, or the gradually jeopardized authorship of his own life, he cannot seem to fathom the great depth of his infinitesimal will - at the end of the film the symbols of his nameless loss come to merge in a single frame: he is no more than an extra in a film about his life - except no circus, no laughter, no ring around the rosy by the ghosts of Guido's life on a movie set... only a bench shared with a stranger in a wartorn simulacrum, a sudden cut, and the coma white of a fadeout caught indistinctly in circumstantial radio bleeps...)

...So Cotard excavates his body in search of the Cartesian reciprocal; an excavation that conversely takes an outward convex form, a building-up rather than a mining-down. It is perhaps to his mutual horror and relief that in the immense absence of his heart he discovers a tremendous mise en abyme of the entire city of New York blossoming and withering in a few hundred clipped frames like the petals that fall from the tattooed arm of his german-speaking daughter. She is small, and he is small, and that is more than metaphysics could provide them in a burning house, a house on fire in the instant future.
Cf. Rivette's "L'amour fou" & "Out 1" / Fellini's "8 1/2"

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"Mishima: A Life In 4 Chapters" (1985)

Art is a shadow on the wing of...

(the golden pavilion as it spreads itself enormously and consumes the temple ground, Kyoto, the world entire, as his sweaty timid hand lays coldly on her powdery milkwhite breast)

Art is a shadow in the grove of...

(her tangled bush as it seals the drops of blood that seep like miniature rosebuds from his head wounds)

Art is a shadow in the sight of...

(the sun as it looms large over the terrified world and swallows the boy soldier in the loveless embrace of an agony flaring from his shred entrails)

Art is a shadow... a shadow... a shadow.

The author cups his hands against the glare. His back burns with the desire to run, but he stands still and waits. Behind him trails the black image of his body, a body that will years ahead of him die and corrupt and pass away from beauty.

If art is a shadow, then the will is the body; the will to 'transform reality.' Beauty, oppressive and incorruptible, is the afterimage of the body on its way to death. Art indicates by its shade that the author has achieved a solidity in opposition to the mocking & unreal fabric of life. The body has force, persuasion, definition. It is corruptible precisely because it is so savage; latent equally with brute force and martyrship, the body posits even in its stillness a possibility for action. Pen & sword.

Pen & sword.

Mishima, the last samurai, commits seppuku in 1970.

He writes a jisei, a death poem:

A small night storm
whispers, 'Falling is the essence
of the flower,' preceding
the hesitant.

Art is the shadow that lines his eyes when his severed head falls fast from the body.


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

"Ace In The Hole" (1951)

Sitting shotgun in the New Mexico sun Charles Tatum bakes in the glamour of his foreknowledge. The convertible drives on across the desert plains toward the sacred mountain, where a man named Leo is buried in its womb and waits his death slowly and assuredly. Leo went in there, despite the cautions of a local tribe, to find buried artifacts from long ago; but the mine caved in, and he was caught with his hand tightly grasping the priceless possessions of an ancient people. He's stuck, the top half of his torso left for the intaking of stifled air and arrested movement. The question is: how will he die? The sooner or the later? The later that the sooner gets better. Headlines perish on a day's whim. One day a story's worth gold, the next day it'll wrap a fish. There was once a time when a gathered multitude had to be fed, and there were only 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish found in the crowd. A man was there sermonizing (Was he a man? No, he was more than a man; he was an ace in the hole.) The Son of Man took the loaves and fish and made them infinite: every man, woman, and child present was fed. The good news was spread afterward that to this day is still printed. That's the mark of a good story: feed the multitudes what they want.

Charles Tatum is a thousand-dollar-a-day newspaperman. From the New York Times he descends like an eagle on the Alberquerque Sun. He gives himself over for nothing.

He finds a story, a human interest story; he builds it up so big, as big as a holy mountain, that the entire nation comes to watch it. A carnival of gawkers and tourists wraps around the sacred mountain, and inside Leo waits for his benediction, and for death. Leo calls his helplessness, 'the indian curse.'

Minstrels stop for the carnival. They sing, 'We're comin, we're comin, Leo.' Work begins to dig Leo out of the mountain; but each day Tatum makes sure that Leo sits and waits, so that the possible resurrection could increase in momentum. The faithful need to wait a few days more for the big payoff.

Somewhere in the procession of the human carnival that wraps itself around the fate of a single man buried in the womb of a holy mountain, Charles Tatum shows his teeth. He slaps and strangles the sense into a vixen. He soaks in the discontent of the new yorkers who had banished him to New Mexico in the first place.

When Leo finally perishes tucked away in the purgatorial dark of the collapsed mine (while outside the happy clamor of the carnival goes on) the human interest story dies; so too does Tatum begin to see the end result of his 'human interest.' The ace in the hole uncovers its concealed heart, and he loses big.

Tatum like an eagle descended on Albuquerque. And like a thousand-dollar-a-day newspaperman he descends on the biggest story of his life and comes away with a corpse. Falls face flat to the ground. A single rotten fish wrapped in yesterday's headline. He, the once proud and generous son of newspapermen and a sighing nation of readers, could only feed himself at that point on the hard bitter salt of his conscience, and the multitude, no longer fed, goes off and away from the sermon, away from the sacred mountain, away from the dead and uncared for body of a man who died virtually alone. No Lazarus this time, no miracle. Just the desert wind and the harsh empty plains and the continuous baking sun.

Tatum was a thousand-dollar-a-day newspaperman and he gave himself for nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

"The Element of Crime" (1984)

From point A to point C the chronology of a crime in repetition. Common conceit: the protagonist, a detective on a systematic 'criminal mind' hunt for a serial killer, finds that he was the killer after all - that the 'element of crime' resides in us all - so that you enter the mind of a killer you come out a killer. But that is not where the film's 'profundity' emanates.

Point B we understand to be a realm washed in nightlit oranges and yellows. This is where von Trier, in his first feature length, announces the superfluity of his knowledge of the medium. The camera pans, the liquid motion of the pacing, the superimpositions, the tracking shots, the stark elliptical lighting, the effortlessly poetic transitions; the camera hardly stays still, and even when it does there are mirror effects and carefully positioned epiphanies. The film is exuberant with technique.

Its exuberance belies the paucity of its core. A dystopian noir, yes, but it is a dream of a film that would perfectly encapsulate that reality once and for all; you watch the film and sense that it is on the way to becoming something definable. What is indefinable about the film is precisely its charm, as evinced in its lurid scapes and absurd dialogues, provoking more or less laughter, passivity, and always a positive awe at the visual imagination on display.

The film is purely a marvel of digestion, an astonishing first film for a director who had been fated for the camera from the time his mother gave him one when he was 10 years old. The director would eventually abscond from eloquence (for this film is powered by sheer eloquence) and reconsider the limitations of the camera. Von Trier is the new Godard, probably more natively endowed than Godard, but insubstantial nonetheless. (v.T. & G. are in their own sly way irredeemably cynical and their humor arises from this cynicism toward the disintegration of kulchur and the tyrannical and inescapable collective pop fetish that has replaced it, which they in turn are helpless to adore; as consequence they each regard the camera and its products as impossibly artificial.)

The film discusses the procedure of tracking down a killer by inhabiting his mind and acting and living out one's life in accordance with the killer's. So too is this film about von Trier inhabiting the mindstate of the idols and films that brought about his early aesthetic formation as a composer of images. His eye brims over with recollections of the substance of other directors; his is a reservoir for the influence of pastmasters.
NOTE: cf any Tarkovsky, principally "Stalker"

Saturday, December 6, 2008

"The Seventh Continent" (1989)

6 kontinents on the earth: the two americas, afrika, eurasia, antarctica & australia. Or it could be another way: amerika, afrika, europe, asia, antarctica & australia. Or: afro-eurasia, along with the one amerika & the rest. Of all the variations the two kontinents always included are antarctica & australia. Those countries in power, the 'first world' occidental countries that have chartered the maps and spanned the globe with colonizations, insist on 7 kontinents. It has been settled by a consensus that the 7th continent is nearly always australia; but this is arbitrary. The 7th continent, nameless, could also stand for the vast and icy wastelands of antarctica; in other words, it is not settled at all, it is a phantom occurrence that may or may not take place in the physical world.

A family goes through a series of motions, year in, year out. Nothing changes except the realisation that nothing changes. A husband, a wife, their young daughter.

One day the daughter believes herself to be going blind.

She is lying, but she is also seeing something else unseen. A country in the distance, undiscovered.

The family likes to go for a carwash. In their car they wait motionlessly, silently watch the jets of water and soap, the frightening halfsnuff of light caused by the stready onslaught of rotating brushes. They are not driving, but the car lurches along on the conveyor, slowly onward toward a dream that dies behind them: upon exiting the automatic carwash they drive past a travel ad of australia.

We are not sure whether they see it or not, but two years later they declare to strangers that they're leaving for australia. They liquidate everything they own.

They lived two years of their life onscreen methodically. Their memories are mainly those of the television: pop songs of the 80s, the commonplaces of work and dinner gettogethers, the strange eruption of tears by the visiting uncle.

They remember seeing by the roadside the dead bodies, covered in plastic and raindrops and the red siren lights of the police cars, of a couple that died in a freeway car crash.

Their lives were a series of gestures they were unaware of: the exact placement of objects within the frame - the alarm clock that wakes them promptly at 6am, the toothbrush & toothpaste, the shower, clothes put on, the kitchenware laid out, records put away, newspaper spread out, the fish in the tank that are to be fed daily - their composition and decomposition through a methodology of pure habit. Going to work and returning; sitting in school and standing up. The ineffaceable silence of the car ride.

Their lives were a series of objects placed in a specific order. When they decide to destroy their lives, they do so by 'systematically' destroying their objects; despite this resolve, they do not manage to find liberation, for they destroy the objects that made up their lives in the same precise order that had controlled their lives. It was the emptiness of the order that oppressed their lives, not the emptiness of the objects that filled them.

Elliptical shots that in their monotony produce a rhythm of inventory and despair. Their despair is quiet because they are unaware of it:

'...the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.'

The moviegoer knows this, that when he gazes on the screen that shows a suicided family gazing on the static of the television, they are as ever living as they had been when they were alive - as dead to thought as thought was to them; but staring out from the blank eyes of death they finally see the 7th kontinent.

The 7th kontinent is Hamlet's undiscovered country; it is fleshly Ivan Illyich sunk in an armchair;

The 7th kontinent is death.

NOTES: cf. the end of Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point"; shots taken from Bresson's "L'argent"

Friday, December 5, 2008

"Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948)

B. Traven is Traven Torsvan is Hal Croves is Ret Marut.

The mountain gives forth what is mountain takes back what is mountain.

A friend is no friend when that friend spurns gold only to come to love gold.

His friend is gold, and so his heart is dust; his back torn by machetes.

B. Traven was a man who valued friends because his only friends were Traven Torsvan, Hal Croves, and Ret Marut, who died shot in the neck by mexican bandits and who left behind a wife and a peach tree farm and the prospects of living a life more ordinary.

To all the mountain was a friend.

That is why the old prospector laughs: the mountain his friend knows how to recompense.


Monday, December 1, 2008

"Why Has Boddhidharma Left For The East?" (1989)

(a corean film by Bae Yong-Kyun... his first of only two films)

[The elements even for an alchemist are abstract:
Fire burns.
Water runs.
The wind blows.
The earth stays;
It waits
Of the energies of man,
& the rites of women -
who knows why
the devout
for where
the sun rises?]

A young man named Yong-Nan leaves his family to become a monk for no apparent reason. Only when face to face with the Master Hye-Gok he tells the sage: "I wanted at any cost to reach enlightenment. My body ached for it." It was as simple as that. The Master looks upon the acolyte and suggests that he stay with him until he cracks the nut of a single insignificant koan:

'When the moon in your mind waxes beneath the water, where does the master of your being go?'

The acolyte stays with the Master Hye-Gok, whom the brethren referred to as a single beacon shining atop the dark mountain air. Solitude's best for those who burn hotly.

With the Master too stays a young school age boy, hardly 10 years old, an orphan whom he's adopted for inexplicable reasons. Perhaps it was the mere thought of seeing a celibate old monk carrying around a baby boy on his back that caught his fancy. Anyhow the boy is left to roam through the forest at day and do as he pleases. Rather than books, the boy's rudiments are the stones he flings, the mountain stream through which he wades, the soil on which his bare feet leave imprints.

One day the boy, for inexplicable reasons, flings a stone at a cuckoo and brings it down. It is not dead, but its mate searches for it as the boy takes it hostage and brings it with him to his room. He stores it in a secret compartment and he feeds it by candlelight as he lists. All the while the mate watches him from afar; it follows him everywhere he goes and watches him as he contemplates the sudden death of the cuckoo, which dies abruptly for inexplicable reasons. The boy comes to face the fact that he has killed the cuckoo: that is his first thought. He has killed something through selfishness. He decides to bury it under a rock. The mate perches on a branch and watches the boy as he buries the cuckoo under a hollow rock...

Days later the boy returns to the burial place and uncovers the rock. He shudders. He sees what he has never seen before: maggots swarming the corrupted body of a bird. The mate watches him from afar, but no thoughts are in its head.

The boy reflects by the fire that the twig of wood burns when he holds it to the crackling stove. He observes the twig as it's eaten by flames. He asks Yong-Nan, the acolyte, a question.

'Why do we come from this world in which birds are eaten by maggots and twigs consumed by flames?'

'The world is mundane.'

'Why is the world mundane?'

'No one has peace in it. So they sap it of its meaning.'