Sunday, February 22, 2009

3 American Films About TV: "Network" (1976)

Afterwards, the domestic gods of TV became angry: they wished to sup on the blood of prophets & soothsayers...

No other culture claims as much the sovereignty of television as the United States. This is because no other culture has been so damaged or inundated by television as the United States: americans take their TV quite seriously.

Network is a film in the hollywood fashion of boasting and bragging about its intelligence of highminded clandestine matters that to common people will seem extraordinary and ahead of their time (the kind of 'social truth' films that tend to sweep awards.) In truth, the film's maxims (which now seem so readily evident) demonstrate how notoriously retarded the attention span of the public has been: TV is a religion that vocalizes the repressed desires of the many to unite in congregation with others, on the condition that they remain private individual beings. TV fails as a pseudo-religion because the idolater who inhabits the realm with a million other aggressive pacifists, cannot actually see the Other; and so the television watcher inherits a kind of solitary madness at seeing his own dark face instead: his thoughts are scattered and destroyed along with the ruins of his own shattered, unrecognizable visage. The tube speaks back stupidly, like a rude guest who doesn't listen but keeps yacking away with wild eyes.

TV as a religion is not a new conception, but its disclosure is a latent one: television inhibits the desire to acknowledge what it in action is. The self-importance of Network derives from the fact that it is a film about TV; from its vantage point, Network plays at its privileged understanding of the medium, since as a film it is parallel to, but not contained by, the television realm.

Only cinema may comment on television, because cinema is self-aware. Television by its very nature is incapable of understanding its own force: television only increases, without recourse to reflection. Cinema, on the other hand, has the capacity to pretend at being TV, and yet still be cinema, the anti-TV.

Moreover, no television program in the world, much less in the US, will ever achieve such a dramatic impact on the viewer as to cause him to head to the window and scream out, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore!" Here we glimpse Network's idealism, and more especially its supercilious gesture to television. (Because only cinema is really capable of causing people to scream out their windows.)

TV doesn't inspire activity or passion: it placates even as it degrades; television causes such a slumber of the mind that even if a man were to shoot himself on television, or much worse, even if he were to transform into a 'mad prophet of the airwaves' and actually tell the truth; even then the audience would clap at his fainting spells, the game show theme music would charge in, and the public would watch with nary an agitated eye nor an uneasy stomach. This is because television supersedes the collective sense of reality by replacing it with a patina of unreality. Cinema will either transform reality or embrace it; television intends to substitute it with an intelligence alien to our own: a kind of information-reality that abjures dialogue and distracts our faculties from memorization. Cinema works to be memorable; television works to be discarded for the next instantaneous feed.

The prophet commands the public: "You've got to shout out, 'I'm a human being damnit! My life has value!'" But the prophet doesn't know what the public does know: human life is meaningless if it can't be turned off...

So the prophet pleads with them: "Turn off your sets! Turn off your screens! Take off your masks!" But the public keeps watching him ask them to turn him off; they don't turn off their sets, they keep watching: the public feels as if they cannot turn off the set; they feel as if the television actually held life dear; as if turning off the television would be akin to killing a man...

So it was that the mad prophet of TV, who spoke out against the Lanes who controlled the airwaves, was the first (but probably not the last) incident when a man was actually killed on television... for having low ratings; that is, he was sacrificed for asserting that life was more vital than life on TV; thence, his TV life was traded for his real life: almost as the pagans had done with their gods, his real life was burned like fat & skin concealing bones to the TV deities, while his TV life was preserved as the authentic article of his existence, as the meat which the pagan would eat in the domestic splendour of his home is kept and stored...
NOTE: not all TV is television; there is no question that Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, among the greatest achievements in television history, was wholeheartedly a serial work of cinematic eminence. What counts is the closed form of the image when transmitted, not exactly its source medium or causation; by 'closed' I refer to the signature of impermeable craft that a complete work of art exhibits, which by reason of its wholeness is capable of an unmitigated resonance beyond its borders - like a sounding bell, which must be physically faultless & integral; i.e. Walter Benjamin's aura.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

3 American Films About TV: "Being There" (1979)

Television may be taken to be a completely different order of mind from that of the public forum: it may be an inner state of being, a personal, private existence. Instead of resembling a bustling market square, or a mindless pandemonium, the arena of TV may situate the very heart of mindlessness itself. It may be, as the unlearned dub it, zen. The zen of TV is the zen of Hamlet's unknown country: it is not death as we fear it or pretend to understand it, but the acceptance of a state of mind which has evacuated from the program: we find that we belong to no place in which we are installed: the button is pressed, the channel changes: the dark screen flickers and remains darker than when turned off, turned on. Though TV presents a surface of ceaseless activity and change, the inner cavern of the TV is a vacuum, and the programming an illusory continuity that we are unable to perceive unless the broadcasting switches off; at which we are faced with the crash and violence of black/white static during the witching hour of sleeplessness, or left to endure the unendurable dark glass, on which no amount of light will produce a suitable reflection of our face. When the TV turns off, we see on its glass that we are faceless.

It is not enough to simply watch TV: we must 'be there' in someway, or at least we should hope we are someplace, somewhere, at the moment that we 'watch' an occurrence of images. But perhaps we are not: the struggle with television watching is a struggle to exist: to assume consciousness of the act of watching. Yet the paradox of television watching is that however fixed we become to the lunatic velocity of TV media, we are inordinately 'not there': we are not literally in the screen, yet we are absorbed by it to the brink of nonexistence. When we are absorbed by the TV (when our eyes grow slack and halflidded) our mind hibernates, as it were, out of preservation from the subzero coolness of the TV medium. We become a conduit for the electrode of senseless information. Each channel on the click promises a perpetuity of absurdity: no channel has symmetrical, nor even rational value: one channel displays a row of alluring people exercising on a new fitness machine; another features two people sitting at a broad desk in a studio, calmly discussing the news of the week; yet another erupts into the captured tin roar of a crowd raving at the wild run of a football player across the vast green field toward goal. Since no channel in itself offers substantial obstacle to the reason, the reason shuts off; and each channel in relation to other channels disrupts the already flimsy integrity of the whole through sheer incongruity: the mind becomes terminally unattached, emptied of content and disconnected: a pile of jagged hoarse signs in a junkyard of soundbytes. The imagery are no more than refuse once the remote control button is pressed, banished to a place that has no memory for us. TV does not situate the patently memorable.

In any case, Jerzy Kosinski's & Hal Ashby's Being There is a rather ordinary film that attempts to describe what 'being there' - in the place that has no memory drive, the TV - consists of. The film is subverted by its own meekness: we are led to believe by the affectedly ponderous pacing and little-to-no action that TV really is zen, and that Chance - its protag - is something of a silly sage whose humility accommodates an extraordinary understanding of the world, despite its cruel incongruences. Or perhaps the film's understated sarcasm (an Ashby trait by some accounts) belies the notions that Chance really is a fool, and that the world is duly insane for considering a man who inhabits TV to be just the man to counsel on socio-economic policy and the greater state of the capitalist nation. The joke both ways is that Chance understands the world's ills with greater perspicacity since he happens to watch enough TV: since he is not engaged with the world as a universe apart from television, Chance is able to ascend society's upper ranks as effortlessly as he would click and change the channel: the world is hardly real to him, and so its powerbrokers come to regard him a sage. His simplicity, humility, taciturnity, are the consequence of his brain enfeebled by TV watching, but to the awestruck world they are magnified to denote the resounding characteristics of a wiseman.

Ashby's direction is hardly there, but Kosinski's narrative (of which the screenplay was adapted by him as well) may insinuate more than what is encountered onscreen. The 1st paragraph from the book:

It was Sunday. Chance was in the garden. He moved slowly, dragging the green hose from one path to the next, carefully watching the flow of the water. Very gently he let the stream touch every plant, every flower, every branch of the garden. Plants were like people; they needed care to live, to survive their diseases, and to die peacefully. Yet plants were different from people. No plant is able to think about itself or able to know itself; there is no mirror in which the plant can recognize its face; no plant can do anything intentionally: it cannot help growing, and its growth has no meaning, since a plant cannot reason or dream.

Plantlife is compared/contrasted to human life, but from the little that can be surmised from the film (since I have not read the book) a central feature of Being There seems to be that there is little difference between human life nurtured by the stream of TV information and plantlife sustained by the stream of water: Chance is no worse than a chance weed in a garden, no better than a chance flower in a bush: his nonexistence is best reflected by the dark glass of the television, in which no "plant can recognize its face." Chance has no driving human emotion, and as a gardener he has more in common with the flowers he cultivates than with the people whom he surprises and impresses with his simplicity. Chance doesn't "reason or dream" because he is more or less preoccupied with the supreme neutrality of the television realm: he is constantly submerged in the vapid mentality that a television imposes on the common soul. Even if he "grows" (continues on his adventures) his growth bears no meaning since he is incapable of reflection. All he can do is cultivate his garden, as his predecessor Candide lectures toward the end of Voltaire's work (on which Kosinski doubtlessly modeled his narrative.) That garden may or may not be in the real, physical world, but it certainly takes place, without interruption, in the ebb & flow of TV.

Friday, February 20, 2009

3 American Films About TV: "The King of Comedy" (1982)

TV in the american consciousness evolved into a medium that advanced from and thrived on a cult of celebrity. In the beginning TV was approached as merely a new means of fabricating old forms of narrative: it was no different from its predecessors, radio & cinema, in that it was capable of transmitting closed forms of thought & stimulation; the TV program was initially one to be appreciated, just like a radio show or a cinematic experience, as a work in private contemplation, even amongst a family or crowd. Eventually, once the zeal for capital outweighed the need for a swifter medium of art, the economic function of the TV took over its prior inclinations toward cinematic revelation, and drove it the opposite direction, toward absorption of the radio medium which would terminate ultimately as a substitution: TV was the radio made cinematic. But TV was also more than just the mere telegraphing of marketable, persuasive images: it became an event, and more importantly, a situation in which the individual would confront the world as a graspable object. TV reduced the world to an open-form object in which participation was the crucial element of instigation. Cinema as a result became even more private and closed (for example, newsreels were no longer inserted into the programming; the film itself became the main event, and was to be considered a work of artistic integrity); meanwhile TV was more or less trivialized into a conglomerate of singularly meaningless sensory information in which no one show or presentation predominated: TV was an open forum in which rival interest and spectacle competed for airtime through an endless flurry of imagery. In terms of intensity, cinema demanded more from the viewer as a closed form since it was composed of wellcrafted images akin to hieroglyphs: cinematic images were set, with increasing sophistication & acumen, according to the predetermined order of intelligence which we call art. TV, on the other hand, was compromised by the presence of not only a myriad viewer but also by the scale of investment undertaken by the companies and broadcasting stations who had usurped the technology and assumed control of a medium which like electricity could never end, could never stop, could never at any moment be interrupted. A proper analogy would serve to highlight the essential structural difference between cinema and TV: the cinematic, because it is at its best a closed aesthetic form, resembles the hardness and concrete value of a sculpture (in time), whereas TV is more or less an elemental nonexistence, a current unceasing and yet strangely necessary to our modern collective psychology, as water or electricity is to the erosion & cultivation of the earth.

Paradoxically, TV, despite its ongoing blustre of activity and atemporal time codes, is considered by Marshall McLuhan to be a 'cool' medium (meaning a medium that produces passivity for reason of its low rate of information), while cinema is 'hot' because it transmits highly compacted, intricate images through an advanced pictorial idiom (enriched especially by the already existent photographic language). By reason of its coolness, TV is more adept at controlling and maintaining a low information atmosphere in which viewers can comfortably navigate without having to 'read' the writing on the wall, so to speak; viewers can traverse the inward plane of the television as they would a plaza in a city, and interact at a minimal degree (requiring little to no contemplation) with strangers and celebrities alike. Cinema does not allow such liberty since the viewer is repeatedly enjoined to decipher the textual surface of the film in order to proceed cognitively toward a full disclosure of the filmic secret - rather than comfortably take a stroll through a region of low-wattage plains, the viewer finds himself in a small room placed at the centre of a labyrinth from which he has to find a way of escape. A true film demands the strictest attention, or else its conclusion may be left maddeningly imponderable, the viewer left unsatisfied with his archaeological work on the burial site of the image. TV is no involved and laborious burial site, but an insipid surface, a vast mundane valley, continuously shedding and blossoming only the most superficial, shortlived flora, easily digestible, producing simultaneously recognizable & forgettable features. On such a level topology, there is nothing mysterious, nothing which is mistaken at first sight: those who are seen on TV, being seen, achieve instantaneous sublimation, so that they appear as the extrovert bacchantes in the forest must have appeared in the intensest moments of individuation: mini deities. As such, the TV medium houses the widest array of domestic gods for worship. TV is an arena for instant celebrity: no measure of labor or critical thought can abolish the perfect fact of appearing factually on the television screen: the television image replaces the sensation of the real by announcing, with considerably meagre foresight and very little intentionality, the pure appearance of a thing or a person. We passively engage with the television image because it comes across with a direct sense of familiarity: we may as well pretend to be meeting a close family member when we see someone on TV: we laugh with the celebrity guest on a talk show as she cracks a joke with the host because there is nothing hidden behind the factuality of their presence.

Cinema is a revelation because it veils something on its surface: we do not engage with it (as we would with a stranger or a friend) as much as we experience it as a singular private moment in our consciousness; we seek in it the pattern to its structure, the essential meaning to its order & intimation.

Modern TV culture has since passed into a simulation of celebrity, rather than a retrieval of the genuine article: celebrity as a game in which ordinary citizens mingle with the pagan Lanes by wearing pagan masks. As McLuhan had pointed out in interviews on TV, "TV is not a pictorial medium at all, it is a medium of... tactile resonance." We touch TV as if it were a body (cf. Videodrome) because it has become as continuous and vital as a real living person. We can turn on the TV even more effortlessly than we can visit a relative or a friend, and with greater accessibility, since there is an infinitely reduced chance of tiring the interlocutor out. TV keeps us company as long as we desire, and its conversation is indefatigable. TV has the same levity of thought and communication that a friend from work would have: nothing too serious, nothing too demanding is expected of us. TV induces the comfort of someone intently listening to you: equally it extracts the same comfort from someone who wishes to speak as long as possible.

Scorcese's The King of Comedy is not a film about TV as it is a treatment of a psychology; then again, TV is an exposed and self-effacing psychology. De Niro's characterization of the ridiculously audacious Rupert Pupkin plays up to the secret of the conclusion, in which Pupkin's psychological makeup is 'explained' in a comedy standup routine not unlike a confession of a man's entire history of dementia as a practical joke. Scorcese masterfully reserves the final standup routine as a dual device for motivation: Pupkin's long withheld standup routine divulges the private inner fact of his person using techniques of filmic precision, but its actual core is constituted with the inherent frivolity of the TV medium. We witness Pupkin excoriate his private being in front of a mass audience, with a terrific smile on his face. The film invites us either to doubt or believe the authenticity of Pupkin's lunacy: is he really mad, or is he truly genuine? He is of course both: like TV, he is both a fact and a mask of psychology. TV appears frivolous, yet it produces no other sensation except a conviction of something as real as the 'real': we accept its banquet as complacently as we would accept food offered to us at a table. Television does not factor into mystery but it does play into consumption.

Pupkin is not a martyr of the TV medium (as we will see later on in Network) because he in fact uses it to his advantage: he inverts the procession of TV by channeling its attention to him: he is the viewer triumphant, who at last creates himself anew as a concrete entity (a real living celebrity) within the TV medium. In the supreme effort & fidelity of his worship (& also in the fevered idolatry of its celebrities, i.e. Jerry Lewis' talk show host character) he succeeds in sublimating the TV medium & its particular reality, by compeling TV to sublimate him. Fixating his maniac energy on the figurehead of Jerry Lewis' character (which in this case, following the analogy, would stand for Pupkin's personal household god) Pupkin becomes a genius loci himself - he changes, as the bacchante changes, into the Pan of the TV realm, the impermanent joker.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"I Am Cuba" (1964)

Broadly speaking, the postcolonial condition is one founded on the reinterpretation of a liberated state - by its emancipated & by its spectators - upon its emergence on the 'world scene'; after what had been a prolonged subjugation to an aggressive foreign power. The postcolonial work attempts to chronicle the hearkening/awakening history of a collective spirit freed from a dependency on foreign interpretative modes. The postcolonial subject, removed at great pains from the historical hierarchy of a greater sovereign state, suddenly has to initiate its own history, its own voice in monologue rather than in chorus, has to reactivate the historical mode at year one, using a completely reformed, upgraded set of tools. The acquisition of speech prompts the need for responsibility in self-narrative: the liberated subject has not only to describe the medium by which liberation was gained - which presents formidable problems in that the liberated subject will have to reject on principle the narrative modes it had learned from foreign influence, in preference to its own, yet undeveloped, if not terminally suspended traditional modes - but also the root principle which had caused the need for liberation: namely a nostalgia for the native tradition, and indubitably a geographical reflex irreproducible in other spheres, committed to renewing dialogue with the land-character that had formed the content of its people and kulchur. But the postcolonial condition as such would only be so in an ideal paradigm, in which the sudden fact of self-reliance would smoothly translate to inviolable independence in an improbably malleable world scheme. In truth, the foreign aggressor does not ever fully depart, the scars of enforced labor and siphoned industry remain indelible, the ghosts of a confused history remain scattered throughout the land's topological enclaves. The children of a land are never pure: they are seeds mixed with the bitter and the sweet of the colonizer and the colonized. Intrinsic man is a mestizo; intrinsic woman is a mulata.

Soy Cuba's opening voiceover asks, in allusion to the post-Columbus heritage of free market exploitation and slavery, 'Why is it that sugar can be so bitter at times?' Not a unique inversion, but the film is far more than a talented piece of 'propaganda' (those who insist on this point alone are content to leave puzzles uncollected, and enjoy redundancies as if they were delicacies of a kind to smack fattened lips to.) I am Cuba is utterly, absolutely, evidently a film 'about' Cuba, but it is a Cuba (the Cuba, symbolic & archetypal, if you will) emergent with powers that extend beyond the regional aspect, and attempts a discovery that (very likely unknowingly) overshadows the reductionist historical urgency of its time period (the cuban missile crisis, the cold war, etc.) through force of lyricism & enthusiasm. The enthusiasm is for the mechanism of man on display before the camera: as whore, as capitalist; as farmer, student, mother, and soldier; in short, man as an Idea, and humankind: the grain of the image. Most importantly, the enthusiasm for Cuba is one for its landscape & aura as a persistently cinematic idea, as cinematic performance, as the cinematic medium in translation (from the original text of the cuban idiom). The content assumes the form, and the country resolves the landscape, from which the camera eye extracts the sweet from the canestalk. Cuba calls forth the camera as a prince his bride: her dowry, her sierras, her green valleys and sugarcane fields, green or burning, or laughing in the sun of toil like slaving children set loose on the distant prospect of the city with a few coins in their pouch and a coca-cola in their wornout hands.

The soviets who arrived in Cuba to film were not communists but russians; their effort - Kalatazov's, Yevtushenko's, et al - represents a summation & condensation of the early russian school of cinema, in which the elements that had shaped russian cinema as an integral whole are laid out by Kalatazov (perhaps as a kind of scholastic reflex) in a stream of characteristic references: Eisenstein's exorbitant political lyricism (cf. the elaborate funeral parade scene); Dovzhenko's physicality (cf. the scene involving the sugarcane farmer's rage at his dispossession, in which the camera is used to slash - at the sugar cane, at the sun & sky - as if it were a machete); Vertov's on-location kino pravda (cf. the 'film truth' contained in filming a film about Cuba, in Cuba, using Cuban actors); Pudovkin's character-type tableaux (evident in Soy Cuba's 4 tableaux composed by following the thread of a few archetypal character personalites, i.e. the student, the prostitute, the soldier, etc.).

That Soy Cuba is a film as much about russian film history & technique as it is about Cuba highlights a remarkable facet about its position in world film: it may well be the 1st ever postmodern film to have achieved (latent) success using a strategy of aestheticized globalization: a film about globalization in a way, in which history is gathered through a collaboration of two cultures unknown to each other except through the enlightened objectivity of film: Russia & Cuba are meant to be taken as one entity, one body, one continuous stream of history, not through ideology but through the imperious order of art.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

"The Lovers" (1958)

As a departure from the genre specificity & protocol of Elevator to the Gallows, Louis Malle set out to fashion a film of 'sincerity' and 'personal value', as he had himself stated; the subsequent film would serve moreover to considerably enhance Jeanne Moreau's aura beyond the limitations of the 1st film, which had restricted her screen moments to jazzy, noirish, Miles Davis-soundtracked interludes interspersed at several junctures as a way to suspend the points of suspense in the principal narrative. Jeanne Moreau's walks through the actual night streets of Paris were a way of accomodating her bristling eros as a parallel playing against the hero's counter dilemma of getting the hell out of the elevator situation. Jeanne had few lines, and Malle felt she needed more lines, more space, more walking around - more Jeanne at any rate.

The Lovers works as a love letter to Jeanne Moreau: a woman whose particular femininity would attract any man of sufficient intelligence, through sweep of gesture & the unspoken look. That she is not emphatically beautiful -that she may even be perceived as owning a uniquely dour, nearly hounddog face - only amplifies the grace in her willingness to please a man with the intuition to please herself (that she pleases herself and finds that she pleases men reciprocally.) She is womanly, without having to sacrifice any of her dignity, or ape a contrarian spirit; her dignity she holds forth as composure during emotional flurries; she embattles her intellectual heart through a ponderable melancholia; the melancholia in her eyes flash virtue; she is a woman and has not to speak a word for it. With these qualities in mind, Malle decides to metre out the right length for her to achieve her sublimation. A right vehicle, a correct amount of composure, will have to be chosen and doled out. So he selects an obscure novel by an obscure 18th cent. museum director/aesthete favored by Bonaparte, an amateur archaeologist-cum-art historian named Vivant Denon, who dabbled in pornographic sketches of Egyptian monuments & female bodies and wrote one erotic novel, titled Point de lendemain, from which The Lovers derives.

The reason for the material is not evident during the 1st half of the film: since the material has the equanimity & pacing of an 18th century conte, the explications are kept to a minimum. We witness allusions to Madame Bovary, the typical boredom & conventions of married life in the country, the typical comparison in contrast to the 'excitement' and love affair of Parisian life; we know naturally that Louis Malle, a man of quiet intellect & modesty, is aware of this, and uses the form as narrative formality, the dualisms as launchpoints - he is not attempting to say anything original, that isn't his design - we sense that the film functions as both (a) practice for a young director to convey a mature tale by way of classical composition (the Brahms motifs demonstrate as much), and (b) a legerdemain in which classical literary techniques will be subverted, if not embellished, by subtle increments of cinematic performability. The film's beginning motions are measured and composed according to the french standards of classicism - in the Renoir tradition - that insist on compaction of statement. Malle develops little by little a building sense of tension between the two poles that divide Jeanne Moreau's character: Paris & the country estate; her overly romantic, overly ideal spanish polo-playing lover, & her scholastic, detached, slightly pedantic, publishing editor husband. Malle doesn't press the issues too much, and allows Jeanne Moreau to toggle back and forth with feminine glee & sophistication.

The eventual glory of the film's conclusion emanates from the judicious repression of the 1st half: the more restricted & controlled the film's setup appears, the more 'shocking', grandiose, and luxuriant the film's last quarter becomes. The film's narration, voiced by Louise de Vilmorin (who, as a woman, was chosen by Malle perhaps to legitimize the literary emotions felt by Moreau at crucial moments), augments the inevitability of the film's buildup toward sensual revelation. The consummate effect produced at the end, of cinematic purity enjoyed in the extremities of bliss, are meant to be 'calculated' by the use of the voiceover narration at select pressure points, along with the recurrence of Brahms' "Streichsextett, No. 1". The cinematic euphoria felt by the Lovers toward the end, in which Moreau chooses the 3rd man summoned by fate to lead her out of the potential wreckage of the lover/husband dichotomous conflict, knows no equal in film. It is a spectacle to behold that cannot be summed into words; a prolonged orgasm that so distinctly masters the viewer's inhibition by transforming his faith in film into a real love for its splendours, the viewer is left reeling from the intensities of actual physical emotion made palpable in the final scenes. The film is known for the good amount of controversy it aroused in its day, but even now it seems impossible not to surmise that those who were offended at its poetic frankness of sexuality were unfortunate victims of sensual deprivation. There is nothing in this film which does not hail the immensity of love beyond the moral codes of society, beyond the frictions of convention; its triumph is a love for the woman's personal sensation in her inner being. May that woman always be Jeanne Moreau.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"White Dog" (1982)

Samuel Fuller never made a straightforward horror film, but all evidence of his filmography insists that he should have. A number of his films demonstrate - in their stylistic looseness & devil-may-care alacrity - the lowbudget genius from which the very best horror films have egressed: a film-behavior marked by a willingness to pursue gratuity & lo-subject with an ample dosage of hi-serious-ness and sensational camera technique; in short, what is normatively termed the 'pulp' character, in a medium already transformatively 'pop'. Fuller's technique is one unafraid of making grand statements in ways that in other hands would appear ridiculous or half-witted; the successful horror director must inversely make a stand against the genre convention and produce emotions not so much of terror and grossness but of sustained delirium; fright, being as precious as it is, turns more so in an atmosphere of hysteria - the viewer held hostage and witless as to the way next - so that when the shock of terror strikes, the dam will have been left gaping wide for a torrent of batty irrationalities to stream in a controlled pyrexia - thusly the horrormeister subsumes the narrative content under the overflow of technique, through ballsy risktaking. These are qualities prominent in Fuller's spontaneity.

White Dog may be Fuller's closest flirtation with straightahead horror: the story is crude, the themes heavyhanded, the dialogue ludicrous; the shots of the white dog curling its lips as it activates its preprogrammed insensate rampage against blacks everywhere, are primitive in their species of magnetism. The 'monster' in this horror film may be ignorance, bigotry, hatred, 'racism'; but the deadon manner in which the menacing white dog is captured hearkens back to an a priori conception: the irrational beast that bares its teeth for no other purpose other than to terrify - the beast of the nightwood, the creature that exists to sink its daggerfangs into the softflesh of your foot as your bare leg dangles over the bed: the white dog in itself portends a quite blunt & undeviating menace. That the victims are blackskinned, bears only on the surface material (reason alone as to why Criterion bothered with releasing this film under its prestigious title, packaged as it is with political dimension while retaining a pulp esprit.) Aside from its horror element, White Dog can work as a social metacommentary that provided Fuller a characteristic platform from which to tackle a sensitive subject with his unapologetic brand of (controlled) sensationalism.

The story has a factual source: screenwriter/novelist Romain Gary, many years before he would shoot himself in the head in Paris, wrote a story based on the actual experience his then megastar wife, Jean Seberg, had when she brought home a large masterless dog. To her dismay, she noticed that the dog seemed to turn vicious and attack black people on the spot - yet was as calm as a pacific wave when with herself and other demonstrably whiteskinned folks. After a few more incidents, Seberg added 1 + 1 together, and deduced that the dog had been trained to attack blackskinned people exclusively, viciously, a 'white dog' literally & figuratively. For the obvious reasons, Fuller was attracted to the material and made a go of it that would have failed miserably in any other director's care - Fuller braves the controversy explicit in the content through a mixture of guts & outrageousness: he doesn't hesitate to take selfaware shots of the dog watching violent television (clips from a loud war film) before the mutt's unleashed on a wouldbe robber/rapist - then continues with a shot of the dog crashing down through glass from a 2nd floor window (similar to the action hero's common practice of breaking through glass in slow motion) to extend its mauling of the foiled rapist - after which we are treated to shots of the dog's excessively bloodied maw and snarling teeth, etc. The camera hovers over the white dog as it would over an exotic beast unseen in its wilderness, fascinated with the sudden demonism that unfurls underneath an apparently innocuous skin of white fur.

Fuller does not stop there - he makes risibly hypothetical choices in the manner in which he presents (several times in the film) the unwitting black man who comes across the ferocious white dog: the camera tracks the well attired feet of a man whose late 70s style of dress & whose particular strut alludes to the idea of a black man (supported of course by the already evident direction of the subject matter) - while simultaneously following the loose white dog on its warpath in the opposite direction: when the future victim & oppressor finally cross paths, Fuller's camera scrolls up and reveals for the 1st time what we had anticipated: the man whom we had been following, - whose promenading feet were the sole articles of evidence allotted us to develop our visual prejudice - was indeed a black man; his widening terror-stricken eyes (at the moment that our eyes rest on his face) suddenly recognize the whiteness of the dog (i.e. the whiteness of the Whale that Ahab so feared), to the extent that it dawns on him - as it had dawned on us - that the unregenerately lupine dog presents a terror older than the rearing of racism's ugly head: namely that the whiteness of the dog signifies a deathlike, incomprehensible sheen of unyielding automation. The dog is programmed to 'hate' - and it is on this psychological point of departure that the film centers its main plotline (shared by all horror films that attempt the hopeless examination of the beast's mind, the stalker's hand, the insatiable killer's obsession). The story's hero, the animal trainer Keys - a black man fittingly -, decides to focus his powers of patience on deprogramming the white dog of its racist tendencies. After a hardfought success with the dog (who momentarily turns away from the darkside by gradually learning to accept the constant exposure to Keys' black skin - another one of Fuller's fearlessly risible hypotheses, made especially humorous when Keys practices taking his shirt off for the animal's benefit), the struggle thenceforward works its way to a memorably horror-genre ending, in which the white dog appears & reappears on the verge of attacking everyone in sight, white & black skinned alike, in a series of slowmotion shots and circular pans. The inevitable tragedy that ensues leaves one to ponder the flights of boldness in Fuller's technique, as Ennio Morricone's piano theme accompanies the camera's bird's-eye-view of the trainer's arena in which one more white dog has been permanently deprogrammed... for good. The fable of the story being that the monster is merely a product of a far more monstrous systematization (i.e. the still unerased monster of racism in our society & so forth).

Sunday, February 15, 2009

"Memories of Murder" (2003)

Bong Joon-Ho has already achieved contemporaneous fame with the fiscal triumph of his 3rd film, 괴물 (which translates directly to 'monster', but for obscure marketing reasons was instead distributed in the western hemisphere as The Host - the highest grossing film thus far in Corea's history), but it was his 2nd film which will stand as the chief hallmark of his formidable talents. Director Bong has meticulously studied the hollywood manner - economy in emotion as well as in production value - , and has been able to dilute the overweening aspects of the typical hollywood production with the solvent of his culture's historical and situational character. It is not that there is a pretension to emulate hollywoodisms that signals in the film a rival ambition to include itself among the stock of serial killer genre films already well-known, but that the photography, score/soundtrack, editing, acting, scenario, etc. are assembled so finely that its minute eccentricities leap out. The right measure comes across, especially judicious cuts that keep the rhythm of the film at a tight pace. The film as such does not aim to transcend its self-imposed constraints - it still by the end announces itself as a genre-specific film - but Memories of Murder is as good as such films can be: it strategically & allusively implies historical critique with the use of its background material (a period in Korean history - from the late 1980s to the early 1990s - in which social unrest was still persistent, and national alarms sounded through the villages at the slightest spark of protest - an atmosphere that would provide suitable stimulus to a shockwave of unsolvable, baffling serial rape-murders that the story centers around) - yet it never attempts to dislocate the main story's drive from its trackground (which was one of the weaknesses - though to others one of the strengths - in Director Bong's The Host, which for better or for worse chose at crucial junctures to directly comment on the background historical matter.) The sincerity shown in the characters' motivations (the definition of a character taken here to mean a composite study of his/her thematic motivation), especially the humor that arises quite naturally at very unpredictable episodes - along with the dramatic cohesion of the ensemble acting (in which notably, Corea's best living actor, Song Kang-Ho, dominates the fore) - provide unceasing entertainment in every quarter of the film. The most successful aspect of the film - besides the professional calculation of its photography and editing - is that its range of emotions (in which fear and wrath are effortlessly juggled in an overall comedy of errors) are so variegated as to achieve moments of downright hilarity in spite of the scenario's bleakness - there is perhaps no other genre film of its kind to have mastered these shifts of emotion with so much deftness. The film is brutal - as anything in the demoralizing & fantastically inhuman world of C.S.I. can be - yet it has the ability to suddenly arouse humor and camaraderie in a few cuts. The distinction lies in the sincerity.

The film begins on a premise of unknowability - and ends on the same note: Song Kang-Ho's character, Det. Pak Doo-Man, stares into the vacuum of the same drain pipe at the beginning of the film as at the end, with the one difference that at the initiation a young female body is found stuffed in there; at both scenes children are present (children a chief principle & motif in the corean macrocosm) indicating of course the savage contrast of the murder(s) with the village's blanket of innocence; the crude & familiar emotions of vengeance, justice, and perplexity highlight the two gateways into & out of the film: the 'memories of murder' are the blank memories of fear, of not knowing why such contrasts may exist in so sunlit and rustic an area (the first shot of a vast wheatfield in the stark rays of the sun create this impression with forceful introduction.) In any case the impression is one of craft rather than of any illumination exterior to the film's professional impetus. The lack of overarching reflection or commentary (those that are included are meager enough as to allow the action to move along) is here a virtue rather than a fault. In a comedy of errors the asides are always in the form of slapstick/action-heavy contemplations - a gun pointed at a head, a photograph thrusted in a stranger's face, much rain and much much vexation, arms thrown & fists raised, etc.
Cf. David Fincher's Se7en - an obvious comparison that Director Bong no doubt had in mind, if we are to perceive the emphasis on color photography, and the slight similarities in compositional structure used in both films; fittingly, it has been surmised that Fincher may have seen Memories of Murder, and was sufficiently inspired to revisit the same material in Zodiac, the 6th major film that he began after Memories of Murder had already premiered; there is the extra parallel in the fact that Fincher's 2nd major film was Se7en, just as Memories of Murder was for Director Bong.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

"Europa" (1991)

von Trier's cinematic trajectory, at its incipience, parallels the careers of those early modernist poets who labored to rinse themselves of the fin-de-siecle hyperaestheticism that unduly aroused in them an urge to adorn each expression - already in its verbal powers commensurate to the purpose - with an overly precious & overcooked component; as the poets of taste worked dutifully to remove themselves from the sweltering jungle of embellishment, their exfoliation - much like a mineral growth exposed to the air after years of concentrated suppression underneath - intensified in lyricism & volubility upon contact with the outer elements: the overread scholars, the pasty skinned cinephiles, indulged in the remains of their scalping.

To rid himself of what he considered his worst tendency (to ape the nonpareil motions of his superiors, i.e. Welles, Tarkovsky, etc.) von Trier set out to:

1) Direct a film so eloquent, panegyrical, superfluous, that he would develop nausea for it,


2) Direct a film that would be a thorough antithesis to the former.

That von Trier managed to accomplish both acts with a workman's sincere & unmitigated faith, demonstrates how sacredly he had felt for film, its fragility & potentiality. Terrorized by the infidelity that film's sporadic vanity could inspire in a director's ambition, von Trier prepared himself for a complete reversal; before the whiplash of chastity & abstinence, in his search for cinematic purity he would surrender his will to one last confession of his 'weakness'; an indulgence which would take the form of a prolonged & exuberant idolatry.

To carry out the 1st objective, von Trier chose a locus for the root of film's supposed stagnation & rebirth: Europe. He invented a city named 'Zentropa', which would stand for a realm that could be reached only through hypnosis, through the film act itself. Europe would appear as a spectre of itself, post-1945 - when filmic art grew conscious of itself as a realm existent beyond mere entertainment - renamed 'Europa'. From its war scars, its ruins and ruined nationalist idealism, a newer and more portentous factory kulchur would emerge: a life after death, a metaphysical reawakening to the limitless eye of the camera - founded on the belief that when civilization & its discontents pass away, the camera would be there to capture the deathstroke of a cameraless past, to preserve it in a future made omniscient by the camera's endless tracking shot.

(To carry out the 2nd objective, which would be realised in the Dogme 95 council 4 years later, von Trier would author - supposedly for his & his compatriots' sake alone - 10 vows of chastity to perfect one's sincerity in filmic art.)

Zentropa could be reached only through a hypnosis, as I have stated; but it was a particular hypnosis, quite unlike those of the conventional folklore: this hypnosis would be one begun in meditation on traintracks (the tracks of 'history'; of 'interpretation'; of 'time-out-of-joint'; etc.) in motion, toward an unforeseeable futurism - the movement of which would be the cinematic medium at play, in actuality. This hypnosis would be incomplete, inauthentic, if it were not narrated - with imperturbable deliberation - by Max von Sydow's booming voice:

You will now listen to my voice. My voice will help you and guide you still deeper into Europa. Every time you hear my voice, with every word and every number, you will enter into a still deeper layer, open, relaxed and receptive. I shall now count from one to ten. On the count of ten, you will be in Europa. I say: one. And as your focus and attention are entirely on my voice, you will slowly begin to relax. Two, your hands and your fingers are getting warmer and heavier. Three, the warmth is spreading through your arms, to your shoulders and your neck. Four, your feet and your legs get heavier. Five, the warmth is spreading to the whole of your body. On six, I want you to go deeper. I say: six. And the whole of your relaxed body is slowly beginning to sink. Seven, you go deeper and deeper and deeper. Eight, on every breath you take, you go deeper. Nine, you are floating. On the mental count of ten, you will be in Europa. Be there at ten. I say: ten.

The chant causes you to lose consciousness - you trade it for another awareness, which may approximate to the dreamlife but is more readily compatible with death & its holocausts - or so von Trier will remind us later. The inner subject of Europa may be the transformative power of film, but its surface aspect - its necessity as a counteraction to the viral dispossession of a Europe raped by its own fallacious belief in - & a failed nostalgia for - an enclosed goldenaged Old World (a spectral society built not on the dream of the Other - an entity so effortlessly identifiable through the filmic act, which would take place in the modernist future we presently live in - but on the nightmare of its purity threatened by barbarian invasions - to which fascism, communism, etc. were reactions rather than responses), emerges as well.

Europa would take place as a Europe preserved at its phoenix heart - found in no other place more median, more fit & bold, than the Rhineland - on a background projection. It would be the Europe of Orson Welles, of Renoir, of film noir, the Europe projected onto a white screen and swathed in a ghostly light. In the foreground would take place the characters & circumstances of Zentropa, mirroring the historical veracity of the 2nd World War - as a camera would mirror the objectivity of the landscape in a direct mimesis, its only flamboyance the existence of its selective framing. von Trier similarly imitates not merely the gestures of his superiors, but inhabits their eye with a stark fidelity - a black-and-white stock that aspires to denote film once and for all; a cinematography that imbibes directly from archival footage (footage made to look archival but is in fact produced for the film, with actors from the film); soft focus closeups that hearken to von Sternberg; sudden splashes of color to relate what tender violence a shattered palette brought to the 1st color films; olympian tracking shots that attempt the unthinkable: pay homage to while surpassing the Wellesian standards; these and many more audacities expected of a director as goodhumored & mockingly overtalented as von Trier.

But he is not, as it is supposed, completely - or even halfwittedly - insincere in his endeavors to rubbish the eloquence he was gifted with since youth; Europa's mastery of technique, and specifically its neoromantic maneuvers, & the indubitably lyrical conclusion that so enraptures the theme at the end, point toward an introspection in the director (& in his collaborator Niels Vorsel, who wrote it.) The sheer difficulty & passion at play in the film belie a terrific intoxication with the potential of film to reconcile with its earlier cruder yet no less hypnotic incarnations. The film is unique precisely because it is hardly an antiquarian's approach to dogmatism; Europa weaves a network of allusions (signified by the train's map of intersections) made so natural through precision that its technical devices manage to harmonise with its narrative, as only a skilled & truly involved director would succeed in carrying out.

The ending of Europa is one as lyrical as anything ever put on film - it is von Trier's lasting testament to his erudition, and the brightest glimmer of his much unheralded optimism (for a director too easily pigeonholed in cynicism) - it stands forth as the moonlight of a Nocturne - and declares that when the death-of-the-subject finally arrives, the camera's realm will preserve our astral body, the extension of our consciousness which we call the movie theatre. It is probable that by the end of the film we realise that we had - as the film's protagonist had - given ourselves over to an awareness beyond our immediate comprehension: the camera's supernatural prescience to witness our death despite the termination of our sight, our mind, our vitality; an exterior awareness that conserves our volition & meaningfulness in the ghostwash of the projection screen... If history outlives our corporeal existence, it will be film that will outdo and transcend even history's bitterest victory on our corpse.

Moreover, it does not fail to dawn on von Trier that by 'Europa', it is also meant the moon of Jupiter which Galileo had uncovered - at a great distance in the futurism which only cinema understands - through the use of a telescope lens (i.e. a camera). Hence, the overpowering sight of the moon in the final frame, as a prelude to the Aria.
von Trier's confession comes across as a kind of purgation, but it is also more than just a precocious exercise in aesthetic refinement, or a simple release from the 'anxiety of influence': Europa would free von Trier from his wellknown anxieties by prompting him to excel at what he had for so long adored in others - namely the aspects of control & anticipatory lyricism - while returning him to the seed of his peculiar humour (manifest in Europa to a much greater degree than in The Element of Crime) which would blossom after Europa, in the subsequent works that would establish for good von Trier's essential ironic spirit: The Kingdom series, Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, etc.

For reason alone of its hypnosis - Zentropa will have to be revisited a few more times, preferably by rail transport.
Cf. Spielberg's Schindler's List, which unsurprisingly came to completion 2 years later; its black-and-white look, the use of color to highlight certain emotive sections, up to its very choice of subject, owe everything to the Dane's expansion of a much fatigued thematic. It was Spielberg who offered von Trier a job in the factory, and it was von Trier who had enough sense to obey his longheld fear of traveling outside of Denmark for too long a period.