Saturday, January 31, 2009

"Pale Flower" (1964)

(Music by the inimitable Toru Takemitsu. Direction by the deft Masahiro Shinoda.)
She, the pale flower of his withered heart,
asks him,
"What time is it?"
The night obsidian-edged, & the zinc stars
of Tokyo, merge
in dispersive velocity.
Speed past. The dire
need for meaning at a dire time. Faces
in the crowd, beasts
in hiding. He has a nightmare - they
drive in her convertible,
borrowed from the noir films of holly-
wood, but she drives
onward to alphaville, in search of love
or dope. A new wave.
She doesn't betray him, much worse:
steals his composure,
he a yakuza, miraculously
in love with the death
she sets off in him like a fever.

He answers, "2:30."
Laughing, her paperthin arms
& hands
sinewed on the wheel,
the wind raising her voice like
a dashed petal,
she tells him, "I've no use
for the dawn;
I'd rather these lunatic nights

In a cold war of coward
against coward,
the yakuza smokes cigarettes
& gambles his time
away. She, the pale flower
of his withered
heart, speeds him to a
a resolve to kill the killer.
Even lame
vendettas hold forth
pathos. He
shares with her an incongruous
love for gambling;
the nihilist & his sweet
heart, she
nameless as a nightmare -
her small face
sharpened by the lust
that carves
his guts with savage marks.
He will kill
again. No better high
than imagining
what a man must feel
with the blade
steep in the tenderest,
part, the withered heart
of his pale
flesh, as he staggers
down the stairs
& starched in crimson
the white
linen of his newlybought

He tells her,
I will kill a man, a man
I know nothing
of, but a man I must kill.
No other emotion
not even
gambling, rivals that sensation
of -
she interrupts:
"How... meaningless."

When he wakes up from his fever,
he is in prison.
An inmate, an old
finds him in the courtyard.
Informs him
that the girl, the pale flower
of his withered
is dead.
Only then does he yearn for her,
with all
his body & soul, the branches
of his desiccate
heart reaching out across
the threshold
of a night caged in memory -
wild geese
flying out in an early morning
sky he can't
remember seeing ever

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"Le Plaisir" (1952)

At its most self-referential, film will contrive itself as a spectacle in the way of innovation, or a spectacle in the way of tradition; either mode, film's role as spectacle may go so far as to improve society by engulfing it in the pleasure of passive consumption (the improvement in the passivity of nations). The cinematic spectacle has a dream's power to hold its captive hostage for the length of its unwinding - it exerts a tyranny on the mind's sense of reality. After the initial shock - the 1st wave of realism -, when the photographic reached its ultimate effect of acquiring movement in the motion picture (think here of the early Edison films that induced panic & rioting & a good dose of fainting in those lucky early spectators), the viewer became so accustomed to the intrinsic artificiality in film that an increased demand for hyperbole was expected in a preconditionally necessitated mode of realism in motion pictures. Film sets became increasingly sophisticated and complex in their simulation of distant and contemporary locations in time (Nathanael West highlights this during several scenes of The Locust, as when the screenwriter-protagonist finds himself watching through the window of his studio lot office, as if through a theater screen, at a roman army marching to its film set in Los Angeles.) The film set, whether placed in the interior or exterior element, in its effort to simulate the reality of those sets in life we call living spaces or landscapes, had to aggregate to its presentation such a numerousness & distinction of objects & furniture, of figurines & mobs, that the film set came to absorb the realism of the real to such an extent as to achieve greater authenticity than the abusively termed 'reality' of life. A film set will nearly always have a heightened sense of order & detail in its composition than what is normally found in any of the living spaces we inhabit in our life - because the skillful filmmaker will train us, often forcing us, to pay acute attention to how densely a set is populated and how meticulously it is framed. This is in the way of depiction in art, of the classical rules that every trained artist had to learn to bring perspective unto depth & fineness - the illusion of reality.

Yet, one is reminded that the imitation of nature - in art and in life - seeks not to transcend the realism of nature's design but to escape the death of objects, the end of perception - death itself. Realism in art was a kind of thievery of the essence we call life - that picture so perpetually in motion that we strive to participate in lucidly, but which, through our own vapid preoccupation with absent ideals, we tend to lose our awareness of in even our best moments.

Max Ophuls' Le Plaisir similarly seeks not to convey happiness but to perpetuate joy. As Maupassant declares (through the personage of the parisian journalist who narrates the last story in the film): "But my friend, there's no joy in happiness." Happiness for the narrator (& for Ophuls) is not one coupled with joy, but distinctly separate: happiness is a kind of impenetrable reality that no quarter of realism could steal away; hence the inherent unfilmability of happiness, its unflappable obscurity. We know that whatever makes the artist+model couple so intriguing in the third story happens prior to marriage; after marriage, they turn insipid, ordinary, and boring: they void the spectacle in their lives, the same spectacle that had brought them together in the first place, but which they discard once the heavy pressure of a life wrought with debt, fidelity, handicaps, and joyless monotony bears down on them. We see the once young & ambitious artist, now greybearded, whom we are told is engaged to an ordinary job that pays well, pushing the wheelchair of his once fiery redhaired model girlfriend, now turned a complacent and pitiful paralytic, and undoubtedly a most dutiful wife, along the boardwalk of an overcast grey beach. The scene, when first introduced, and consummated in the final shot of the film, surrenders up an emotion of conflicted stratagem: the adversary in this case remains the spectre of marriage, of conformance - of joylessness. Anything outside of pure joy - the pure joy of cinema unspooling - takes place outside of the scenario & the frame - a sightless junction whence life marches on in its unimpeachable banality.

The elements of joy are a myriad: during the 'Maison Tellier' segment, toward the end, we witness Jean Gabin (an actor of organic subtlety) walking out in the warm country sun to wash himself at the pump and wake up from his ethanol reverie, muttering to himself that he must, with great reluctance, prepare the wagon to take back the ladies of the hour to their 3.15 train. Ophuls' pacing is majestic, so in tune with the specific rhythm of country life, with the specific rhythm of Gabin's emotion and austerity, that the simplest of acts takes our breath away: as Gabin rushes along with the train (tracking shot) - the name of 'Madame Rosa' on his lips - he watches the train roll along to its port city suburb out of sight and out of his enchanted hour, and the camera stays with him in the newfound silence of the herb field, while the rising emotion of dejection and interrupted joy arise in him - the emotion that overwhelms one once the joy has gone and past, and the old monotony of life creeps back with vengeful regression -, we cannot help but feel the stunning swell of film overlapping life in its simulation, on its way to a definite realism beyond the pale of the real: Gabin's tender agony is eclipsed by the camera's compassion for him - his emotion becomes beatific. Ophuls' art is to stride past life's misbegotten attempts at meaningfulness (or lack thereof) - he enriches life's hidden cadence with the camera's magisterial gaze into the surface ornamentation that brings our eyes into accordance with the spiritual life in things, in faces, in the melodies & rhythms of eleusinian ceremonies.

(Witness for instance the utter joy that takes place in the Catholic ceremony during the 1st communion mass sequence. Joy here is a religious sentiment so Christian in its dimension - that is, an irredeemably aesthetic experience - that even Madame Rosa, the disaffected prostitute, breaks down in tears at the mere presence of a sacrament coming to life in the church - which in turn is enlivened further by the camera's orchestral arrangement and pan of the scene's visual jewelry. The soundtrack music goes nearly unheard in the scene as a result of the camera synthesizing with the visual chorus at play, in a seamless span shot - the music nearly turns corporeal in the manner that the camera, swooning with religious intoxication, pivots on its span shot.)

"Le Plaisir" is a film made by a director's director; coincidentally, among Kubrick's favorite films, by reason of the emphatically virtuosic skill with which Ophuls glides across walls & scenes overcrowded with props & models, with an indecipherable effortlessness. Ophuls' kinetic methods to this day are disputed, and the scenes in the film, from the beginning to end, are to be endlessly pondered at and reworked by even the most stalwart technologists at work currently. Ophuls is to camera art & cinematic prosody, as Flaubert was to his respective realm - disciples of an aesthetic emancipation through a precision of means synergized with measureless equipoise.

The film's opening is demonstrative of the medium of the spectacle as the primum mobile of joy's fractures & containments: the camera fades in from darkness (after listening to Maupassant divulge to us that he sits next to us in the darkness of the theater), pans from a marquee lighting up a dancehall's moniker, and tracks down to a motley assortment of regal characters and buxom femmes on their way to the dancehall with wild glee and bustle - we scoot into the arena of pleasure, cutting back and forth from frame to frame - we see on one side of a glass frame a variety of leisurely hommes studying the figures of timid & pompous women hurrying in to gain a spot to take in the sights of others themselves - another glass frame on one side with prim ladies bending over a balcony to take a closer look at the cavaliers who've just entered on the prowl for their likes - & finally, the camera, in one stupendously composed and effervescent tracking shot, follows a strange masked man who hurries in and begins to dance the measure with wild abandon, as he circles around the hall and pairs up with a damsel - the entirety of the action assembled in a single circular shot that somehow manages to navigate through the crowd as if magically through a feigned distance. As with any dance that one has found oneself to have discovered the rhythm to through a steady mimesis & improvisation, the camera simulates joy - eventually to overtake its mysteriousness - in a motion forward, and around, and behind, and through, the mechanics of sheer spectacle. As we watch the bizarre & giddy masked man throw himself in a fit, into the nostalgia for the wild & dissipated days of youth, he is engorged by the spectacle, and disappears. As the truth arises (that he is in fact an old man feigning the younger through the use of the mask) the spectacle overtakes him, replaces him - Ophuls does not allow the spectacle to end (in fact, a nameless character, likely the club owner, rushes to order the band to keep playing, after they had stopped to wonder at the commotion caused by the collapse in exhaustion of the old-masked-man on the dancefloor) - the music renews again, the club goers continue their pleasure & dance, and the camera resumes its fascination with the physical act of the motion picture.
Cf. Todd Haynes' instructive introduction to the film on the Criterion DVD; his excellent condensation of the film's tropes is terrific, particularly his breakdown of the value of the scene in which the artist + his girlfriend have their spat that ends in the breaking of mirrors. (Another moment of self-referencing: the scene begins with a nearly contemporary-style hand-held camera zoom on wild hands desperately opening drawers of utensils in frantic search of a key, then zooms out to take in the interior of the couple's glassy home; then the camera follows the artist as he rushes from one room to the next in a tracking shot that seems to go through walls - indicating of course that the set is a film set constructed for the film's scenario - and then showing the couple fight each other for control of scattered objects as the artist struggles to find something to break down the door with - to at last ending with a pan to a mirrored wall that the couple join in violent concert to shatter, using blunt objects; this last pan to the mirror wall works to bewilder our assumption that the film set is but a film set, when in fact the film set - by sheer virtue of framing, pacing, and conglomerate prop design - translates to a place in time more real than the real, as if daring us to believe that behind the camera are also more walls that house an entire structure in which real people live; indeed, the breaking of mirrors metaphorizes for the breaking of the illusion of reality, inserting in place of mere artifice the fourth wall that we had thought was absent.)

Also, Dario Argento's Tenebre, & other of his masterworks, in which the first-person perspective is employed behind the camera's activated self-referencing; it becomes clear that Argento owes a great deal of his praxis - & a great deal of the tropes that have formulated the spirit of his oeuvre - to the magnificent one-shot/no-cut sequence involving the introduction of the Maison Tellier, as the camera scopes the facade of the house (from the outside) and follows the Madame (walking inside) as she goes through the preliminaries of opening her place of business for the night;

& finally, the stellar action-shot of the 1st person perspective at the end of the last story (when the model commits her rash act of suicide by jumping out the window) is among the essential and greatest action sequences ever shot on film. Pure dynamism. A victory over material, made plenary through technique.

Monday, January 19, 2009

"Osaka Elegy" (1936)

the bridge heaves its frigid under-
ground breath
on the icy osaka street. she
her lady's hat her fag smoke
her heliotrope lipstick
a woman of quiet seduction
unwilling, yet disowned
by her father
the embezzler
for whose sake she's sold off
the piece of her
that youth quickly discards
in marriage
or feckless promise.
a mistress has no
kin but an overseer -
holds her captive in a closed
corruption, an apart-
ment in osaka where no
one certain knows her name,
a kept woman kept
from her marriage & 'decency.'
on the bridge the corpulent
doctor spots her
asking, 'are you ill?'
she replies, 'ill with discontent.
an illness of delinquency.'
the doctor surmises, 'even i
have no clue how to cure
what is scaled by shame.'
the osaka standard:
a bridge at night, when the lights
wane dim & frosty, the
men on their way drunken
to their wives, the
wives warm with pleasantries:
but she the mistress
whose laugh shields her
from the averted eyes of
her family, of her wouldbe
husband, walks down
an icy bridge with no place
to go & comes toward us
toward the camera her eyes
steady & shrewd, a
delinquent, a whore -
'the law hates the crime,
not the individual.' - at
any rate the officer
arrests her & maligns
her decency, her woman-
hood. is this a moral tale?
no, it is an elegy.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

"Che" (2008)

(Some thoughts upon watching the 1st & 2nd parts of the film on its traveling 'roadshow')
There appears to be the implicit understanding that after the effort and achievement of The Motorcycle Diaries, the myth-character of Ernesto Guevara would be expanded upon in the next Che project; part of the charm of The Motorcycle Diaries is that it presents a prelude to the eventual mythos that would environ its principal character in an epic scheme that went well beyond his nationality - The Motorcycle Diaries was thus at liberty to engage with its character in an intimate manner that alluded to presentiments of great ideas and actions, without having to orchestrate - cinematically speaking - the massive mobilizations that a leonine figure like Guevara would in his maturity coordinate. The Motorcycle Diaries is the prequel to the epic life, its resignation to depict the quiet achievements of a humane contemplative nature (for instance Guevara and his friend's willingness to assist at a leper colony, its meek magnanimity in great contrast to the larger-scale & much louder guerrilla warfare that would later compel the world's attention) highlights the essential humility that drove Guevara to sacrifice his promising life's ambitions for an ancient dream: Bolivar's dream, the dream of washing away the stain of nationalism and the imperialist arbitration of borders that had been left behind by centuries of colonialism - the dream of an indivisible union of the Americas in a mutual independence & solidarity - in Rubén Darío's words: "la Unión latina."

The presumption about the next Che film was that it would uncover, beyond the scope of The Motorcycle Diaries, the more astringent nature in Guevara's rationale for revolution by any means necessary. The Motorcycle Diaries restricted itself to those episodes that Guevara, a man aware of his literary dimension, narrated in the diaries of the same name. According to its filmmakers Che would also derive from the spirit and substance of the two works that Guevara wrote later in his life: Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War and the Bolivian diaries he wrote during his last fateful campaign. Taking these two into account as the two sides that reveal Guevara's victory and failure, the film took the form of a diptych which increased in length (one would imagine) the more studiously the filmmakers adapted the literature to cinematics. Guevara's meticulous attention to the details & practice of the revolutionary medium insisted on an accuracy of cinematic capture in proportion with its hero's primarily dogmatic nature and intense assiduity. His 'character' came to represent a practiced singlemindedness, a piety which only a visionary would have, that would efface any trace of the foibles and common weaknesses that a man of less backbone would carry. Where critics and moviegoers were expecting to find the inner (emotional) core of an intriguing but thoroughly mysterious historical personage, they were instead provided with the painstaking and often exhausting delineation of a life lived in complete devotion to an ideal and universal justice.

The common complaint about Che is precisely that it seems to reveal nothing about its hero; there is a kind of outrage that after 4 and a half hours of toil through the jungles and plains with our psychological quarry, we (seemingly) learn hardly anything about what drives him, what motivates him, what stirs the inner chords of his being. But this 'outrage' (more of a boredom) exists for those alone who seek to tear down the statue from its pedestal, for those who wish to understand a human being by exposing all his vulnerabilites. If Guevara had any vulnerabilities (aside from his chronic asthma), his most conspicuous was his nearly blind belief in social revolution as the primary means of justice; that is to say, his vulnerability as a staunch believer in the desire of others to seek justice. If none were as remarkable as him in his fierce will toward a truly egalitarian society, it was his inability to perceive this pervasive doubt & fear in others that caused his death at the hands of those he tried to help.

The 2 films as such are formidable successes in the one idea: to depict Guevara as he only allowed himself to be seen - as a man who lives as if he had already perished, whose cause is the cause of the voiceless and the victimized unseen, whose body is scattered across the Americas and whose name, Che, signals everyman he came across. Guevara comes across as the iconic photo that has forevermore etched its singularity into the historical collective consciousness: he is no more a man than a symbol is: he is an idea lived out to its full potential, a will so in tune with its spiritual engine that it can only utter two words, as in the form of an epitaph on the regal headstone of his head, as its testament: "Patria, o muerte."

It has already been established that the two films work as mirrors of each other: the first, titled The Argentine (or, Che Part One), is the more spirited and dynamic of the two. Soderbergh takes to his old stock of performing quick reversals, flashbacks, and interchanges between periods of Guevara's early life as a revolutionary. We witness Che giving interviews, attending parties, and delivering a speech at a UN summit - this is Che as the humble but determined celebrity on the world scene. We also briefly catch the young Ernesto Guevara in Mexico City fatefully meeting with the Castro brothers, and persuaded to join them in carrying out a coup d'etat in Cuba; also scenes of asthmatic Guevara unused to carrying out orders as el Comandante, but who gradually, at the instigation of Fidel Castro, becomes more assured of himself and his knowledge as a revolutionary leader, despite his reluctance to command natives while perceiving himself as a foreigner, "the Argentine." Finally we see him come into full command of skills as a leader of troops with equipoise & foresight, and the final victory at Santa Clara that sealed Fidel Castro's takeover of Cuba. The mechanics and editing of this first film have great semblance to the mechanics at work in Soderbergh's Traffic: the interplay and vivacity of the scenes as they comment on one other (the three time narratives intercutting to great effect) drive the first part toward a gracious and ultimately satisfying end result for the characters. The final battle of Santa Clara is among Soderbergh's best achievements: the drawnout intensity of the battle in the city has a realism quite unlike the more exaggerated forms of warfare found in other films. The victory is earned through patience & perseverance, Che's two constant virtues, and Guevara looms large by the end of the film, having come a long way from a beardless young man in Mexico to a bearded and brave general in Cuba. Notably, there are extensive quotations from Guevara's Reminscences used in the film to highlight certain aspects of revolutionary warfare and also the specific plight of the cuban campaign.

The second film, titled Guerilla, or Che Part Two, is nearly the same length as the first and also ends with an intense battle sequence, along with coda. In keeping with the diptych model, the second film presents the same material in a perfectly opposite characterization. Where the first film presents the Cuban Revolutionary War (with Reminiscences as the source material - a revolutionary handbook for success) as a model for victory that was emphatically brought into fruition by the effort and solidarity of the campesinos, the second film presents the day-to-day struggle of the same campaign on different soil, sourced from the hindsight-less diary entries Guevara wrote in Bolivia, as a model of unforeseen failure, this time brought about by the same perpetrators of success in the Cuban revolution: the campesinos again. Whereas the first film is multidimensional and dynamic, the second goes along at a strictly linear pace & chronology: the days that number Guevara's life are bleakly enumerated with each scene in the campaign, and the heavy lifesapping monotony of the revolutionary cause begins to wear down the audience along with the soldiers who gradually become disillusioned with the Comandante's dream. The final battle scene is equally intense, but since it ends with Guevara's capture and death, its deathnote rings out sharply in forlornness. Even the cinematography and color schemes are different for both films: in the first, a warm palette of vibrant greens and yellows are used, but in the second, the color palette is much more muted and grainy, with a colder wash of dim greens and blues used to provoke a sense of foreboding (much of this acknowledged by Soderbergh.)

What does not change in both films is the man himself, Ernesto Guevara, whose mission of liberation in both films remains exactly the same - to free the ignorant & downtrodden by educating them to free themselves - and whose unflagging devotion and steadiness to the cause never diminshes. His dream of a unified latinamerica, one without need for the imposed idealogical nationalism of borders or for the vapid differentiation of Argentines from Cubans or Cubans from Bolivians, survives the great length of the film, and one comes away much like those who knew him come away, in thorough awe at the persistence of vocation in so self-effacing a personality. Soderbergh's determination to film Che with as much technical, nearly documentarian detachment as the Comandante himself used to lead demonstrates the fervor with which it takes to be humane under inhuman circumstances. The film begins and ends as a lasting monument to this necessary detachment from self that brought Che to enact change in a world so tyrannically unjust.

To comment on Benicio del Toro's performance is nearly redundant. As has been correctly told me, del Toro so embodies Che with the right amount of patience, kindness, sternness, regality, and deliberation that a man of that character would have had, that it is useless to claim that del Toro 'performed' well or 'acted' grandly; rather, del Toro is Che, and this project, which had been his special mission to realise for so many years, will reserve forevermore the entirety of his powers as an actor who does not act out its subject but becomes its substance.

(Also, any of the epic films that have attempted to describe cinematically the life of Jesus; though it is never [thankfully] alluded to, like Christ on his return to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Che is celebrated through the streets of Santa Clara after the battle & victory; and like Christ in his final preparation for the Passion, Che is 'crucified' at the hands of disbelievers and Judases who through their skepticism allow for his capture and execution.)

Friday, January 16, 2009

"The Wrestler" (2008)

The wrestler's business is his body. We follow him through the spectacle of his trade, the tribulations and the unrelinquished rites of pain that foment his spiritual muscle with the roar of fevered crowds, the arena rock of surrounding speakers - the ageless exaltation of martyrdom against the crush of harsh stagelights and trafficking enemies - and the glazed maniac faces in the steel dark hippodrome weighing in on the magnified abuse of his body: a commerce in spectacle that nonexistent as concept remits its formulation through a clause of brute character, the muscle of his personality compact & imminent, the volatility of his patience through a rough trade remarkable in its stages of increased subjugation and increasing pain. The wrestler's glory is the martyr's glory: the destruction of his body for a cause that goes beyond his fame. Though the wrestler's body wears down - worn down til it breaks down permanently - his spiritual muscle delaminates and exposes its core, the hulk of a will toward one last jump through the charged air, his descent a climb to the fore once more, elbows outstretched in signature apparatus. Like a fountain the Ram ascends the tetherline - a spring sprouting up from the underground circuit - and as he signals the 'Ram Jam', the bleached horns of his head curve out and loop into the ancient hero's glyph: the upward-downward symbol of a fountain spring as it rises in spirit and falls back into a realm of pure matter and the pain of incarnation. His mind may be numb with weak remembrances and feeble responsibilities, but at the electric hour, when the devoted clamor to witness him overcome his tremendous fatigue, regain his composure, and wipe his bloody brow, the wrestler's art announces itself in the transcendence of his excoriated body.
Mickey Rourke's heralded performance is one of native resilience - in 'real life' Rourke was a gifted actor who quite inexplicably turned to a late career in boxing, only to have his once handsome face transform into a "broken down piece of meat," so that now he has triumphantly returned to acting after surviving years of being the burnt end of bad wash-up jokes. Rourke was an athlete who went the round of underground boxing competitions, and his father was a bodybuilder of some prestige - so it came as a fortunate consequence that Aronofsky selected him, despite the producers' skepticism about Rourke's abilities, to lead in a film essentially about a washed-up star whose only constant is the pain he feels at having been passed on by time and faded memories. When Rourke does anything onscreen, whether he mumbles romantically to a heart-of-gold stripper in a noisy hiphop nightclub or endures the humiliation of the elderly in a hospital or at a fan signing, or suffers the sharp regret of a cold jog in his brutalized chest, we feel his pain: when he breathes, it hurts you to watch him breathe; when he looks at his daughter with the small dim eyes of an aged and battered bear, we sense that his pain is quite unlike any we have known - that his pain is worse for the strength it takes him to bear it up.

Despite the fact that Aronofsky was rather gifted with Rourke's charismatic 'method' performance (the director confessed that much of the time he merely allowed Rourke the time and space to soak up his energies and perform as he listed; whereas when it came to the predictable impulses by Evan Rachel Wood to act extremely offended at her father's lack of responsibility, the director seemed to allow her an unnecessary indulgence - though this was probably more a result of an underwritten character than either Wood's inability to subtilize herself or Aronofsky's lack of guidance); The Wrestler comes across nonetheless as a surprising victory in technical restraint and authentic sincerity in dramatic art. After the fatuous technical gratuities of The Fountain, which sapped that film of all its presumed metaphysical seriousness, The Wrestler comes across as not only a 'straight-forward' film for a technically overtalented director, but also an enterprise of skilled editorial work - that is, a work of mature compulsion. The story is simple enough and the characters obvious enough, but the film manages to zoom along its forceful path of realism without the least affectation or overemphasis on dialogue. The film is a return to form, but hardly an innovation in Aronofsky's brand of stripped storytelling: the dramatic simplicity and reductive force of Pi and the penetrating and nearly obsessive focus on the gradual breakdown of the body in Requiem for a Dream are both compacted in the muscular vehicle of The Wrestler. (In contrast, The Fountain was an overly ambitious attempt at cinematic grandiosity and narrative innovation that proved to be a colossal failure for a director of so minimal an aesthetic as Aronofsky: his brilliance lies in a minimum of effects made puissant by their repetitive use, his manner of thought dependent on strictly visceral kinematics rather than on the de rigeur subtlety that a more precise metaphysics would require.) Aronofsky is hardly a director who takes risks - he has chosen here a wellworn vehicle whose model insists on a conventional story arc - but he has proven to the establishment that where convention predominates, a liberty of cinematic interpretation can take place. Aronofsky's stellar use of the digital medium, his seamless capture of wrestling mechanics, and his vigilance over the character's persona & environment (following Rourke from behind his back in a tracking shot motif, as if in pursuit of a docile but no less fearsome bull as it scatters or converges with those that lie in its path) are indicative of a director who grows less reliant on pyrotechnics & exaggerated 'realism', and more comprehending of the terrible pathos in a life turned minor and diminished but whose pain becomes resultingly more direct and fatal.
Cf. Scorcese's Raging Bull - it has interested me to see The Wrestler's stripped down mechanics in light of Scorcese's risk-taking and lyrical asides - there are many scenes in Raging Bull that would not have worked in The Wrestler, not because they are different stories (on the surface, but they are essentially the same model), but because Scorcese is exactly the kind of director who is so defined by his ideals and erudition that he can turn equally lyrical and brutal in a single transition - whereas Aronofsky (who I'm unfairly comparing to a pastmaster) is exactly that kind of director who calculates his effects in a measurable force, allowing little space for risk-taking lyricism since his plastic imagination is confined to the solitary strengths of the camera's novelty (and not to the literary quality that cinema is also capable of, and which makes Scorcese a more complete director.)

According to Aronofsky, the difference between a Raging Bull and his Wrestler results from a disproportion in time and money and from a contemporaneous demand for efficiency, marketability, and budgeting:

"There was no money to do [The Wrestler] any other way. We just had to move, move, move. It was the only way to do it. I look at these films like—well, I’m not worthy to be compared to Raging Bull, though comparisons have been made—but, if you look at that film, it’s just an incredible movie. I don’t know if there’s a way to make films like that anymore. Every now and then something like There Will Be Blood gets made, a director’s given enough time and resources to get through it, but it’s really hard when you only have 35 days to make anything as classic as Raging Bull. The Wrestler became about seizing the grunge and our limitations and turning them into our strength. It would be great to have the time and the resources to make a movie the way they used to. Things have gotten so expensive. Something like Raging Bull in today’s world would be $60-70,000,000 and to sell it would be another $30,000,000. Raging Bull would be a $100,000,000 movie in today’s world."


One has to contend that from the amount of time and money invested in The Fountain, Aronofsky would have achieved something similar in value to Raging Bull or even There Will Be Blood; but where time and resources are seen to be the determining factor in accomplishing a vision, then that vision is already compromised and eventuates to no more than a two-hour long music video, which that worst of Aronofsky's films sums up to be; The Wrestler, on the other hand, is a film whose vision coincides with its methodology - its thematic is one of reduction and absorption, hence its minimal budget allows for its vision to take place in the fact of its brevity. A work of art derives from an absolute minimum of resources, in spite of their lack - it is a work of art precisely because it surpasses its means.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

"Kiss Me Deadly" (1955)

Objects relate to people in that they mimic their desperation at moments of studious indecision. The objective to be denounces the object, ridicules it of its being, denudes it effectively - of this being that it was - because the object already is, is somewhere, being something. The real objective is to have none - to look rather into the angles that describe us & our contagions in a plurality effected by an intercourse with strangers and molls. Every intercourse plots a site that leads to other constellations of rhythm and silence, an unopened box of golden light and death by gun or radiation.

A film noir relays its narrative through a continuity of fixed scenes and menacing objects in correlation to the characters hemmed in by the prisonhouse of angles that is in effect created by the scene's chiaroscuro texture and the either half-hid or exaggeratedly large objects that punctuate it with malevolent insight. The manner in which the hero (or the victim, or the villain) negotiates the navigation through this prisonhouse of angles (in many cases a madhouse of angles) determines the character's ascent to grace & knowledge, or the descent to death. As a result of this black-and-white reasoning, a good number of noir anti-heroes are by definition hardcracked & pragmatic, and capable of breaking down walls in the prison of camera angles by virtue of their craftiness and capacity for hard-edged disillusionment. The hero's confined motion through a plot made murky by the shadows that carve out the minimal light left to view the killer's path, and by the meanness & disinclination of leery strangers to talk, to reveal, to expose the finer circumferences of murder and deceit, suspends the narrative's dramatic arc over a chasm that at every instance threatens to swallow up the whole nasty affair, along with the delicate mystery-seed that lies at the heart of the matter, in the heavy impenetrable blackness of the big sleep. Glimmering dimly, like a small yet precious gold coin in the shallow deep of a stormy river, is the hope of not merely learning the secret that had instigated the entire movement forward of the noir's framing - a movement that straitens the already narrow crooked path with every passage - but also the knowledge that hope can exist at all in a world circumscribed & pulled tight by embittered indifference and youth-shattering worldliness. The poetic substance of a film noir manifests in the implosion of the prisonhouse of angles as the hero skirts the unavoidability of unknowing (the knowledge of what lies after death remains occult) only to reach instead a self-knowledge: that he is alive and that he can do no better than a long hard goodbye in the dark that recedes little by little like an inebriate dream. When the prisonhouse crashes in on its periphrasis of angles, in much the same as a complex house of mirrors eventually collapses into an unreality of space, the hero & his prize escape with only their lives to value, rather than with a possession of the coveted secret that sinks back down to the abyss. Since the final & most essential secret in every noir plot is the mystery of death itself, the hero cannot return to the surface with it, and he cannot even look back to see his Eurydice behind him following. All is lost in a glance; he has no choice but to move forward, and leave that hades & its mystery seed to rot in the depths...

Mike Hammer, a private dick, knows very well who he is, and what he does, and that he carries a stink around. The stink's good for him cause it gives him no cause for reflection. A man whose stolidity and fists reserve his salvation, enjoys 'the mysteriousness that reigns everywhere.' He walks into shabby unknown apartments & luxuriant mansions with his fists pumped, using his stature as a skeleton key and his cynicism like a loaded weapon. He doesn't love any woman, not even the most faithful or sexually alluring, but he'll take any kiss when it's given him without asking. He doesn't ask, he just takes; he slaps the sense into hesitant informers since to Mike Hammer sense lies in a hard stare and a pair of large knuckled hands.

Mike Hammer doesn't read poetry, hardly reads at all in fact, so when he's abruptly halted by a barefoot Christina Rossetti on a night highway, barely swerving away in his sleek roadster to avoid hitting her, he knows for the first time in his life what confusion means: "Remember me," she says. As quickly as he gets to know her, she's gone, leaving only a greater stench than he's used to: a tortured dead body and the solitary remembrance of the shoes and voices of villainous men. His only lead is a poem:

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day.
You tell me of our future that you plann'd:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

The 'vestige of the thoughts' that once she had never occurs to Hammer as he rides down the night highway with a strange half-naked girl in his convertible speedster; the credit titles flow in reverse with the breathless sobs of CGR, and the film unwinds this way, not backwards by necessity, but in a negative fluctuation like a speedcar on a night trip to an unknown destination. The beginning of the film does not prepare us for the weirdness of the end, nor can anything preceding the recovery and opening of the mysterious box for which Christina died hint at the enormity of its atomic revelation: a vestige of corrupt nameless thoughts pervades the mission that Hammer takes up without an inkling of the leviathan beneath the glass, or a hint of the mystical gold radiance that scalds his wrist upon opening the pandora's box that, besides upsetting the hero's range of knowledge by subverting his usual sense of corruption - a corruption well beyond his understanding -, seems to transform the film's conventions of noir texture by hybridizing elements of sci-fi along with those of supernatural horror. For this reason, paired along with its unique lateness in the noir chronology, "Kiss Me Deadly" introduces the last great invention of the genre by directly referring to its very principle of mysteriousness.

The box (or as Hammer's secretary Velda calls it, the 'whatsit') represents more than the sense of doom that filmgoers felt in the mid-1950s faced with the prospect of instant annihilation; the box symbolizes within the noir genre itself the city-wrought subconscious from which sprouts the tremors and forebodings that shape the noir's aesthetic impact on the viewer. The box as an object does not exist except as a terror, a mental phenomenon that externalizes the hero's inner sense of dread, from either not 'remembering' Christina's meaning, or from forgetting the value of the only woman (Velda) who loves him. Faced with an objectless object, Hammer loses his objective, discovers nothing; he is left rather emasculated at the end, with only the secretary whom he ignored for too long to save. Faced with the inexplicable, Mike Hammer is out of his element, and he is humbled back to treasuring the dame as his real object, not of love, but of a form of lasting knowledge available to him.
Cf. Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction"; which references the film in its use of the mysterious glowing suitcase that Travolta and Jackson find in the car trunk.

Monday, January 12, 2009

"The Saragossa Manuscript" (1965)

A manuscript found in Saragossa. In Saragossa a film found in a manuscript. In a film a manuscript found in Saragossa. = The premise's plain as a moonlit skull's lucid. = 'Film as literature.' = Or: 'Literature as film' (?) = A relapse of loci woven into the cyclical. (A turn of events, like a trick. = turn of a card. = a turn of phrase; a turn in converse, or the camera pan.) Alphonse van Worden, Walloon Guard, en route to Madrid, never reaches Madrid. La Venta Quemada, again. A group of inquisitors wait for van Worden, their black hoods woven into the fabric of the Sierra Morena & its dry heat & shadowspeak. Instead capture a geometer, Don Pedro Velasquez. Who knows the cabbalist, Don Pedro Uzeda, & his loveliest sister Dona Rebecca. Listen to the gypsy king - Don Avadoro, - as he knits your brows with parables. In the parables are high windows that byway of a ladder lead to either a scandalous lady's bedroom or Don Toledo's amorous villa; but Toledo hears a ghost spell forth the rites of penance, and to penance he goes; the disreputable lady catches sight of her murdered lover whose bloody tete and broad toothy grin pull her sighs and heaving breasts toward the windowpane to which he clings; & love she makes. For spaniards penance enlaces the act of sex - the sex proceeds from a hearty spumy penance, in which interlaced are foretold temptations & curses that cry out from desolate spumedry valleys. Two bandit brothers were hung by where the Guadalquivir graces the parched plain, and at night, when it's cool as wine & rain, are controlled by flesheating ghosts. ('Las gitanas de la Sierra Morena quieren carne de hombres.') Alphonse van Worden, Walloon Guard, en route to Madrid, never reaches Madrid... (Krzysztof Penderecki's score underlines a rendition of a fantastic XVIII cent. polishspeaking Spain set to postmodern rhythms.) ...La Venta Quemada, again. van Worden's father, pitiful duelist & man of easy slights, sells his soul to a moordevil of a woman; after which he miraculously becomes a master duelist. His son Alphonse, engendered by a demonseed, comes to biblically know his cousins at the darkest hour, the princesses Emina & Zibelda, following on the promise of Sheik Gomelez' genealogy. Pacheco the demoniac falls in love with his father's wife's sister; his mother-in-law falls in love with him. Pacheco and van Worden have more in common than demons have with corpse love & skull chalices: neither could refuse a succubus, much less two. The road from Andujar to Madrid is long; the range that parts Andalusia and La Mancha even greater. In one story is another that leads to yet another: the gitano Avadoro builds a mansion of stories in which dwell three other characters who build rooms within rooms of stories. = van Worden's story is only an account of other stories, other locations, other characters. = In himself he is nothing, as a writer cannot help to be when swallowed up by an abandoned book whose pages magnetise two warring enemies to pause and pore over an interrupted destiny, in the midst of the napoleonic wars. = A relapse of loci woven into the cyclical. = Like a card turned over, the king's oneeyed, the queen a harpy; their faces in the mirror: faces in the fatamorgana of a death foretold by flesheaters. (If) Alphonse van Worden, Walloon guard, en route to Madrid, never reaches Madrid (then the kabbalist's the author of a mystical book outlining the decline of an illustrious nobleman's life in 66 days that the cursed Walloon Guard remembers reading in the kabbalist's library, and of which the contents he dictates to Conde Jan Potocki, who in turn writes it out - in that courtly eloquence of his - to amuse his ailing wife, but whose manuscript is not published in his lifetime, only to be found buried in the black-and-white sandgrains of the film Wojciech Has realised over 150 years later - with as much virtual success as Pierre Menard accomplished when he wrote the authentic Quixote.) In this case neither the film nor the manuscript stand as better or worse, neither success nor failure. = Coextensions of the same reproduction whose original author is lost in the pure mechanics of the medium. = Literature as film; film as a manifestation of the literary... La Venta Quemada, again.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

"Videodrome" (1983)

TV: the new flesh: long live the new -
(programmer pittsburghbound pits his head)
- flesh / blondie goes brownie, her lips
staticky red / fleshy cathode ray on its way
downward (into the orifice of the screen &)
til dawn breaks the glass with light, convex
goes concave the new flesh of her latenite flash:
droning head roam: from satellite lesion
& cancer gun (enters a pittsburgh confer-)
implodes the convex man who sells eye-
wear as alibi (hence when convex man implodes)
for B. O'Blivion, his life parceled out
(once he tastes that smoking c-gun) in video-
tape that parses the system its anatomies
(straight from the programmer's clitgut)
of its physiology the electric bodysong, image-
love- cum -contortion of channel fluids flexed
to ravish her in chains & snuff the retina
of the flashing screen (like the parted lips of
blondie Nicki Brand, turned brownie & all-telly)
that touches him, absorbs him, tumors him with
the new flesh: (turn off): long live the: TV after-
life (hallucinated cathode ray horizon) peaking
in pittsburgh the screensex of her telemouth:
his new addiction: saturated media lips -
(might as well shootup & suicide to the drone
of videodrome / might as well / suicide /
to the drone / of / vi / de / o / drome) -

Sunday, January 4, 2009

"Pickup on South Street" (1953)

Enter: a subway train roaring down a tunnel in darkness. The train makes a stop, and we see the city people hustle out and bustle in. No one distinctly breaks out of the mold of silence that seems to increase with the noise of currents that tie the train to its tracks... no one, until we catch sight of a brunette in a white dress, her absent brownhaired thoughts adrift on the breeze that her eyes waft across a scene packed with faces and sweat and the leering eyes of two hat-wearing men who appear to understand what we understand as we steal glimpses at her. (We do not know at this point that she is Jean Peters, future wife of Howard Hughes.) But they are not merely enjoying the sight of her; they are waiting... Suddenly Richard Widmark, carrying a newspaper under his arm, bumps his way into the scene out of the fabric of tightly woven people that form the small den in which Jean Peters and the mysterious hat-wearing men inhabit, and he finds himself face to face with her white dress & the white promise of her purse as it slides close to him. He opens his newspaper as if to read, but dexterously lets his hand slip under its cover to open the white part of her that sheathes her most intimate and desired article... a small strip of film (whose actual contents we never ascertain the details of.) But whose contents bring together the pickpocket (a 'dirty no-good cannon') & the lady in white nevertheless. As he grifts the goods of her purse, she, unaware of his sly hands, looks up at him and into his eyes; he takes more than he expects: the first pickup.

Samuel Fuller, the director of muscular intimacy & violence like tenderness, uses his camera like a freight train when he's filming the descent of feathers, like a soft light when he screens the harsh clatter of shoes on pavement; to closeups of naked kisses he devotes a hard look; to violent altercations in which the dialogue of fists and bruises presides, Fuller distances the camera and allows us to gaze over a furious scene with terrific equanimity: he has Widmark rumble with the Commie heavy in a subway tunnel, their figures made momentarily small by the placement of the action within the greater darklit cave of the subway. He arches over to Jean Peters upon her exit from the shack on South Street and frames her in a seething moment of hot-cold flushes. There may be no sense nor sensibility in the inexplicable love Candy has for scoundrels like Joey or Skip McCoy, but she's a girl who gives in to brutality with a regenerative appetite. She probably admires opportunism for all its wholesome rejection of values & flagwaving, since to her, Skip's treatment falls like a hot rain on a frosty back - he hides his desperation in a noble cynicism and singlemindedness that only a girl of Candy's down-and-out culture could appreciate. He steals kisses, he doesn't beg for them; he slaps her so that he could caress the bruise he makes. That's not the sign of a pickpocket, but the mark of a craftsman. (A man with swift hands, who values his business above all else, is an artist who'll know how finely to sweep a girl.)

Witness the Renoir-like death scene for Moe Williams, the tragic stoolie who serves as the film's crucial pivot - the noir's sacrificial lamb - as she listens to a french record and declaims her poignant resignation to give up a fancy funeral for the sake of keeping her capitalist honor: Fuller gives his characteristic lurch toward her, zooms in on her face with the ease of a moth circling a candle on its way out, permits her a cutless haiku farewell, and pans out to the record player as we hear the distinct crack of a gunshot. Fade out.

Fuller's art is brevity; as he declares on a priceless commentary on what is perhaps his best film, "I write with the camera." The camera is a machine, just like a typewriter, and it constructs narratives; the director's eye is sleek & manicured just like a thief's hand, just as physical as its five fingers as they rove for textures. The pursuit of composition by the camera's framing will have to occur with a spontaneity in proportion to the viewer's own sense of instantaneous discovery: "This is called instinct."
Cf. Bresson's "Pickpocket"; filmed in 1959, was likely inspired by this film in the mechanics at play of the swindler's art.