Monday, March 30, 2009

"The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser" (1975)

The world of Werner Herzog (for it can be nothing less than an actual world) is one that does not distinguish between the cinematic and the actual. Herzog has more than 50 films in his filmography, and more than half of those are documentaries; but Herzog does not differentiate between his 'fiction' films and his 'nonfiction': he is capable of retrieving from the substance of life material for the fantastic, the surreal, and the extraordinary. His documentaries are such that they are often stranger than his fiction films. When he does commit acts of fiction, Herzog litters their wake with vassals of optimal authenticity. If a film concerns itself with the psychology of subjected minorities run amok, he uses dwarfs; if with the paralysis of an enclosed culture brought to inertia, he literally hypnotizes the entire cast; if in the investigation of a madman's desire to lift an operahouse unto a hill in the depths of a jungle, he doesn't bother to stage it using special effects: Herzog has it done, dispatches natives to perform the gruntwork, and seduces Klaus Kinski with the very real conveyance of imperialistic power, to the extent that Kinski does go insane with egomania. Herzog is a man of so concrete a word that he has eaten his own shoe in a wager (and was filmed doing it). For Herzog there is no separation of the actual world from the cinematic: he sees in empirical phenomena the burden of dreams. His love for the cinematic is an innate love for the natural world, its terrors, anomalies, & eccentric joys. Unlike the documentarian, Herzog films true life with an eye for its psychological grandiosity, bordering on the fictional & the inherently improbable; unlike the ordinary author of fictions, he distills the conventional plotline and the genre-specific vehicle until it has condensed to the elemental, the supra-natural, the vividly real. The stamp of bizarrerie that so distinguishes Herzog from any director living originates in his appreciation for the permeable borders of the patently authentic and the corrosively fictive. He gleefully films the plainly false as if it were true, and portrays the true as if it were a gross lie.

Herzog above all is a poet of the synthetic order. The elements of the natural world are conjoined with severe psychological truths very often outrageous or violently subtle. Herzog's unique power is in avoiding all manner of heavyhanded symbolism, obstructive metaphor, and selfcongratulatory symmetry. His aesthetic system is formed along a line of ellipses, and his chief technique employs an equal measure of levity and rhythm removed from a tyranny of fixed ideas. His caprices are tools for the psychologically precise.

Kaspar Hauser is the film that demonstrates Herzog's powers as poet. It begins with opera, and ends operatically. We see wild grass in the wind, we hear a voice. "Don't you hear that screaming round you, that screaming men call silence?" Juxtaposition of the natural world to the cinematic. (Interestingly, Herzog's Hauser opens with a shot similar to Tarkovsky's windy grass shots in Mirror, which was released the same year.) Silence here is a music unheard except through our chief and more indulged sense, the sight. The silence of wild grass waving in the wind is a music manifest through the cinematic faculty - our eyes become ears attentive to the rhythmic motion of grass swayed by wind, which itself is evinced by the visible persuasion it bears on the untamed meadow.

We must take into account that the actual german title of the film is not The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser - which summarily circumvents any difficulty in the understanding of the film's elliptical themes - but rather the more enigmatic Every Man for Himself and God Against All. This is a very german, very Herzogian attitude toward life: the rite of knowledge is one gained through extreme individuation, at the expense of one's safety. Kaspar Hauser is the classic Herzog hero, an eccentric (played in part by a real eccentric) whose solitary misshapen bark is able to navigate the lash and thrash of tremendous, multiple counterforces, and reach its final port of call. The title is a caprice of Herzog's, meant to dispel any serious intention to realise an authoritative biopic of a strange historical figure, since Herzog's concern is not with the 'enigma' of Kaspar Hauser, but with the comparative lessons to be learned from the advent of such a creature in a world that actively contradicts his plausibility.

Herzog finds in Hauser the prototype for the angelic somnambulist. Hauser is the fulcrum on which the logic of man and the illogic of the natural world are balanced and conjugated in the dream of life we now call the cinematic realm. When Hauser recounts moments of his life, or when he begins to tell a story of which he knows only the beginning, Herzog switches to old stock footage of a faraway city, as if it were taken from a vintage reel, implying that Hauser's memories are memories of films he saw in a past so distant as to be near at hand. Even as he progresses through life and earns celebrity through the weirdness of his discovery & persona, Hauser rues that he was taken out of the dark cellar in which he was, as it were, conceived. In that dark room that housed his dreams and played their motion picture reels like endless films at a private theater, young Hauser played at being a soldier, a 'gallant rider' like his father was. With every advance through the contrived world of human society, the unreal world of his cinematic thoughts & dreams achieves greater authenticity, more uncanny realism. Hauser finds the world of human culture insufferably devoid of truth, filled instead with the malignancies of manmade logic, and rather unconsciously (or consciously, we may never know) superimposes the fabrications of cinema over it, the factual fictions of dreams. He reckons the room in the tower larger than the tower, since everything in the room is near at hand and huge, near to touch and susceptible to immediate validation. A child dreaming in a dark room will give credence to phantasms before he should list the fact of the light switch. The room in the tower is the movie house, the cellar darkroom that birthed Hauser, a world that from its core worlds the tower as an atom worlds a tadpole, or a thought worlds a man; in the garret that nests at the height of a tower lies a miniature tower (and a toy soldier astride a horse who rides toward the dark tower) which from its miniature and irreducible particularity blossoms the greater tower outward into existence. The garret in the tower is inhabited by spectral bodies and archetypal figurines, explored by the still & silent somnambulist, situated at the heart of existence & nothingness: the garret in the tower cannot be evacuated or dissolved as a material thing is dissolved by rivers & tides because it is outer/inner space, permeable & indissoluble, whereas the tower, as soon as Kasper Hauser turns away from it to face the farreaching landscape, vanishes into aire & time.

Dyad of the manmade world of logic, and the ennatured ennaturing cinematic void. Cinema is the dreamlife taken from sleep into life, and the society of the civilized a madness of white noise: cinema, like the natural world, solicits a silence of imagery, in stillness or in motion, which the civilized label 'screaming' and high pitch, and which to the purveyors of stuff and nonsense is unendurable silence. To ordinary men, Hauser is crude, unlearned, mad. But Herzog presents him as sane to the point of seeming insane, clairvoyant. Hauser bears witness to the intelligence of a silent imagistic world (the projection room of his own thoughts) which surpasses the designs of human society. He senses that inert things speak in their peculiar darkness, that animals sense language as a supreme failure of man's, and that apples listen to the sermons made by the wind. Hauser's caretakers attempt repeatedly to convince him that the world is merely man's playground, subsumed under his greater will and lesser whims. One of his benefactors picks an apple from a branch and predicts where it will land: "See, I will throw this apple and have it land at that exact spot." He throws it and the apple bounds past the designated spot a few feet into the grass. Hauser exclaims, "The apple hid in the grass!" The wouldbe empiricist, undaunted by the accidents of fate, takes up the apple again, and instructs a house guest to stop the apple with his foot at the spot he wishes to throw it. Tossing the apple, it bounds over the other man's foot to hide in the grass again. Hauser concludes: "Clever apple! It jumped over his foot and ran away." He tells the men to "let the apples lie down, they are tired."

A similar dialogue occurs when a philosophe visits Hauser with the desire to test his wits. He offers Hauser a riddle to solve: 'You meet a man at a crossroads in which 2 roads converge, one leading to the village of truth and the other leading to the village of untruth. You desire to reach the village of truth, and the man points the way. You have only one question to ask the man. What question will you ask to decide if the man comes from the village of truth or the village of untruth, if the road he points to is the true one or the false?' Hauser ponders it a short while, and the philosophe, impatient with Hauser's slow wits, provides a complex answer deduced by the strictures of logic. To which Hauser disagrees and offers a simpler question to determine if the man is a truthteller or a liar: "I would ask him if he was a treefrog. If he says yes, then he is a liar. If he says no, then I have no reason to doubt him." The philosophe, incensed with the childish response, vigorously refutes Hauser's question-answer as fundamentally absurd and having no place in logic; and he is right, in that a treefrog has no place in logic, since there is no branch of logic a treefrog can cling to as it can cling to the branch of a tree. In this case, the positive and affirmative nature of the Absurd trumps the double negative of Logic - in Kaspar Hauser's pure universe, description always defeats deduction. The deductions of logic work to finalize, secure, and conclude; description works to evade the inevitable, to prolong the motion that all logic predicts will end - so has Scheherazade avoided her own death with perpetual spins, so does Hauser revert to the origins of his conscious life. He is reprimanded for knowing only the beginnings of tales, without a word for how they end, but this habit of his reveals the emotional life in him that seeks the return to the womb of the cellar existence he had. One of Hauser's last memories, another vintage-looking movie reel of a caravan trekking across a vast desert, involves a blind berber who tastes the sand and discovers that the caravan, for many hours in belief that it has lost its course, is still on the right trail northward, and that "the mountains that seem unsurpassable in the distance, are only your imagination." The parable is that the blind berber tribesman, similar to a blind boy who, entranced, imagines the films he watches in a dark theater, can foresee the afterlife in a darkness unsoiled by the factual grandeur of civilization. In Hauser's (and Herzog's) world, it is every man for himself, to each his own darkness given.
I have been gifted by my friend, E. G. Garcia, some observations on the dyad to be noticed in the semblances shared by Truffaut's The Wild Child and Herzog's Kaspar Hauser. These shall be explored in a later post...

Sunday, March 22, 2009

"Dial M for Murder" (1954)

To stage a perfect murder is no different from staging a perfect film, and Hitchcock's films signal this tendency toward preemptive regulation. Hitch's Dial M for Murder however is not a perfect film, for reason that it is a film that respects quite seriously the strictures of the play it is based on; a film in short based on a play, and careful not to jazz it up; and the source material is not by any stretch of the imagination a work of consummate craft either. Both are representations of what the film would be if it were a play, and what the play would be if it were a film. Dial M for Murder describes the elements for a perfect murder, which go awry anyway, and so the film suffers the fate of its principal villain: it fails at the completion of the task, at 'perfection'. That said, Dial M for Murder is a film more about the possibility of a perfect film than of its execution; the possibility of which in Hitchcock's mind is analogous to the execution of a murder that leaves no fingerprint. It is a sign of Hitchcock's grand wisdom that he leaves his fingerprints on every piece of evidence littering the crime scene: his signature camera placements, the familiar pans and zooms, the excessive orderliness of the set and the behavioral manner of the characters. In a high empirical style, Hitchcock applies the strictest newtonian rigor on the direction of the set. He has his characters inhabit each room and describe each prop with exquisite detail: in one scene, the villain played by Ray Milland informs the inspecting officer, as he opens the kitchen door for him, "In the kitchen there are bars in the window," and without wishing to rely on the dialogue for this impertinent detail, Hitch has the camera catch for a few seconds the silhouette of bars stained on the wall for cinematic effect. Such attention to a trifle already explained by the dialogue demonstrates not only complete mastery of the set, but a concern for the seamless tailoring of theatrical material with cinematic solutions. When the murder is replayed by the conspirator-blackguards avant la lettre, the camera stations itself from above (as in so many other Hitchcock films during moments of madvillainy and grand conspiracy) and observes them as they perform the murder in their heads, while their bodies walk through the motions and their mouths speak machinations. Hitch does not only want us to know beforehand how the murder is supposed to occur but also how the play is supposed to be performed: we gaze through the camera at an artificial theatre set, a construction which Hitchcock bought complete and unadulterated, and which he is careful not to modify. He is not interested in opposing cinema to theatre, but in bringing theatre convention to fuse with cinematic exploration. We first encounter the film set as a playhouse for iniquitous acts; when the murder finally comes to take place, the suspense builds up, and the playhouse is ruptured by extreme cinematic technique: the infernal light of the fireplace casts malevolent technicolors on the awaiting murderer as he looks out from behind the curtain at the approaching nightgowned Grace Kelly. The struggle that ensues, and the accidents that germinate and multiply, are a direct commentary on the false separation of art from the folly of life: art is beautified by folly when folly anticipates predestination. The theatre artifice is brought to fruition by the film artifice: a perfect murder can take place, precisely because it never does. In art, all manner of skillful consummation is the mere spectre of possibility.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

"Nuit et brouillard" (1955)

Resnais excavates the ruins of a deathhouse no different from how an archaeologist unearths a sacred/unholy burial site from time immemorial (yet in actuality from history so recent as to startle us from our 'dogmatic slumber'). Temporal dichotomies (typical of Resnais' brand of thought) surface: the pain & misery of the past vs the feeble obliviousness of the present / the winter of discontent vs the spring of blind optimism / black & white 'truth' vs color 'exposition' / photographic evidence of torture, starvation, dehumanized bodies and death vs cinematic footage of serene fields replenished with fresh green grass and the mouldy empty hulks of unobstrusive nondescript buildings that were once chambers described by corpses and galleries stinking of dysentery / nonfiction (documentary) v fiction (cinema) / history (World War II) vs memory (the Holocaust, the concentration camp)...

In Resnais' analysis, the concentration camp emerges as an enclosed, selfsustained yet barbarous polity ordered absurdly by laws and customs of its own; the 'final solution' results from a rabid mechanization patterned by logical concerns for efficiency, industry, and architecture: the monstrosity at play turns out to be a consequence of diachronic monomania, the extreme suffering of a nameless multitude set to the utilitarian rhythmless rhythm of a pendulum, put in motion by a demonic bodiless rationality. Where no one person was in charge, logic's evil curse administered the mandates of labor, of lifeless life and of vivid mechanical death. Night descends on the fog of memory...
et brouillard.
Night &
Margarete or
Shulamith (gold-ore-coal)
to shine
away the veined
of earthly summers
past, a poppy
in my
beloved's hair.

Blue eye & black
tongue lapping stolen milk

at daybreak, in the fog
that makes of day
a nighttide.

Howl of the hollowedout
bowl, hunger
of the severed
heads in scent

& sucked thru the curve
of a pale crescent
skull, counted
among the bitter thoughts
that even starving
men can't

Sarcophagus in the aire of time
raising ashflakes the wind
raining Shulamith's coal hair
& comely, black lonely
mounds of hair
hills of hair
mountains of hair.

& memory.'

It is time that they knew
it was time, it is

Shulamith's hair
strewn on Margarete's
fog encroaching
on dawn's

a fugue of time rushing back-
to a winedark
shell, time rushing back-
a fugitive un-
from a sleep of milkfilled bowls
the black &
of my beloved's wrist
holding up a bowl
to drink
her breath
the poppy breath
her eyes
the fog that rushes back-
toward goldendays stolen
by night.

(I do
our sarcophagus
so bitterly
in aire.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

"Amator" (1979)

Parable of the corrupting persuasion of cinema: a simpleton purchases a camera with purpose of shooting his newborn child a new father he embarks on a new life camera-in-hand he captures everything he sees: at first, buildings, street repair, his newborn's antics, his wife's mild look of disapproval; then strangers, pigeons, factorymen, coworkers, sunlight on the windowpane, pigeons again; his reputation spreads as 'the man with the movie camera' - his the only in town - whose enthusiasm for 'it' his innate awkward urgency to film anything that moves and even those things incapable of moving: (still life, household objects, doorways to abandoned buildings, angles & perspectives that he conjures with the pseudoframe he makes w/ his hands): moves everyone, including his employers: they employ him as the head of the newlyformed film division: he shall direct commercial films on company history, factory commerce, worker morale: to great success his name uplifts the company but also his own regard knowing nothing of film yet knowing enough to pursue it, to decipher its foliate process - he travels the circuit, exudes his simplicity and praised for it he exudes sophistication, keenness: the simpleton father becomes an auteur, a figurehead, a name to watch for, whose films one waits for: he soon forgets his wife, his child, and his wife like a woman who's given birth to new flesh takes notice: she chooses to argue, to nag him, to stifle sobs and glare at his new mistress, the camera: but a mother is no longer an obsession - she is a fact, & the camera an abstraction of his life which lures him to film himself at last, in full comprehension that he had been filming his life all along, the camera inward turned, his face confronted by the lens authenticity, to which he submits his 1st confession: "I had a child, I had a wife..."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"Monsieur Verdoux" (1947)

Charlie Chaplin credits Orson Welles for the idea for Monsieur Verdoux. The conversation very likely took place one late spring evening on Welles' rented yacht (to be used for The Lady from Shanghai), over roast lamb and a few bottles of Chateau Verdignan. Chaplin delicately asks the big man whether it would be constructive for the two to work together on a project. Welles responds that only if Charlie changed his act, he would oblige. Charlie blankly asks how on earth he could do that. Welles roars at him that he needs to learn how to be bad, in order to be good; Chaplin deserves a 'touch of evil' on his return to cinema. They make a bet: Welles wagers that Charlie can't play a strict heavy and endear him to the audience; Charlie bets he can. Welles comes up with the premise that if Charlie can make a bluebeard 'lovable', then he'll hand over his yacht to the comic. Chaplin rejoinders that the yacht doesn't belong to Welles since it's rented, and besides, Welles will need the yacht to get Rita in a bathing suit or lose a few filmgoers in the process... Rita walks in chirping and asks Orson and Charlie what they think of her new coiffure (Rita the redhead is a blonde.) Orson smiles roguishly at Charlie, and there the conversation ended.
Monsieur Verdoux is evidence that Chaplin won the bet: not only does he succeed in playing a vile character with outrageous charm and glee, but he manages to endow his tale, and ornament his character's principles, with judicious nobility. His triumph is all the more great for reason that M. Verdoux was made after a long 7 year drought for the maestro. All the Chaplinesque elements are installed, but they are used rather as scaffolding for his greater political & economic concerns. The philosophical asides that were suggested in his earliest films through kinetic poetry & effortless humor are in this film verbalized and accented by sound dialogue. Chaplin's Verdoux is a ridiculous man, whose ultra french caricature belies an englishman's wit, and whose absurdity reveals an occult wisdom gradually uncovered as the film proceeds to its gracious effect. In Chaplin's older age, a sagacity comes across through the strange peace that his later comic films demonstrate; perhaps Verdoux is the greatest of his late films for reason of its philosophic serenity (all the more remarkable for the vigorous intrigue and action at play in the film; i.e. the constant rushing to and fro of Verdoux, the running train motif to signify his manic travels, etc.) The film may have been born from a Wellesian idea: the abstruse, tragic villain, whose quixotic need for evildoing & deception exonerates him from any conventional moral imperatives - but whereas Welles works largely, with monolithic, frightfully giant steps as his tools, in Chaplin's hands, the villain's asides, which appear frivolous in the early passages, turn out to be instruments of destiny so meticulously leveled as to raise wonder at their unexpected perspicacity. Chaplin comes across as a Goethe, a classical virtuoso whose integrity is so resolved and worldly as to achieve the monumental in the miniature, & whose sense of humor outweighs his already prescient sense of human nature. Only a Goethe could make from a circumstantial plot a work of incidental mastery; only a Chaplin could siphon the juice of humor & sapience from a few scenes of extraordinary levity.
It is worthwhile to return to Walter Benjamin for a fitting summation of Chaplin's aesthetic meaning (as an artist reaching final maturity). After watching The Circus, which he demarcates as the 1st to signal Chaplin's late period, Benjamin reports:

The Circus is the first product of the art of film that is also the product of old age. Charlie has grown older since his last film. But he also acts old. And the most moving thing about this new film is the feeling that Chaplin now has a clear overview of his possibilities and is resolved to work exclusively within these limits to attain his goal. At every point the variations on his greatest themes are displayed in their full glory. The chase is set in a maze; his unexpected appearance would astonish a magician; the mask of noninvolvement turns him into a fairground marionette...

One can also repeat with Benjamin, after watching Monsieur Verdoux, that ol' Charlie has indeed gone gray, that his actions are elderly and his humor aged to sweetness. Yet these limits he has placed upon himself are exactly the type of laborious possibilities that the pastmaster seeks to make lithe the earnest act: the 'chase in the maze', the 'unexpected appearance', and the masterly 'mask of noninvolvement' that marks in Chaplin his stoic eminence. M. Verdoux is ultimately a film about Chaplin discovering the grace & natural redemption that old age brings upon the painfully absurd man, even if it should bring him unto death.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

"Watchmen" (2009)

To begin to speak of Watchmen the film would equate to making a critique of the graphic novel itself, for reason that the film hardly strays from the original material in any major interpretative sense. There are a few touches of novelty, namely the opening credits sequence, in which the historical data leading up to the principal narrative is played out (to the music of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'") in a series of slow-motion stylized tableaux; the pleasant effect made by the tableaux is one attributable to the director's (Zack Snyder) penchant for liturgical compaction, of which his previous film, 300, embodies the ideal. Though Watchmen clocks in at nearly 3 hours, its ability to condense the essentials of the graphic original into a suitable film project is admirable, though by no means innovative; Snyder and his crew basically reprint the original graphic narrative & tableaux on 4515 metres of 35mm & 70mm celluloid, a task of which the difficulty was more assiduously involved in mimetic replication than in tangential conception. The film Watchmen thusly is not a film, but an inventory of parts which had been transplanted from a cohesive graphic work into a medium equally graphic: the differences between the original & the copy are hardly perceivable, and if they are, hardly mentionable (though the slightly tweaked ending in the film seems to improve on the original's by formalizing the ethos inherent in one of the characters, Doc Manhattan.) The aesthetic value of the original is neither lessened nor augmented by the appearance of its filmic other; Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons' work does not elude nor is it preempted by Zack Snyder's reproduction; they share a sameness (in tone, meaning, & expressiveness) that contributes solely to the propagation of the work as an Idea in the outer spheres of the popular consciousness, the marketplace of 'capitalist reproduction'. The present discussion hearkens to Walter Benjamin's understanding of "the work of art in the age of technological reproducibility":

In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art - its unique existence in a particular place. It is this unique existence - and nothing else - that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject. This history includes changes to the physical structure of the work over time, together with any changes in ownership. Traces of the former can be detected only by chemical or physical analyses (which cannot be performed on a reproduction), while changes of ownership are part of a tradition which can be traced only from the standpoint of the original in its present location.

Monday, March 9, 2009

"Walker" (1987)

Ballad of William Walker

Bill Walker was a filibuster, and damned fool.
A mute woman he married who served him his gruel.
He marched 50 men to lower Californie,
& marched 40 less back up to Tia Juanie.

Wily Walker was a southerner, Nashville bred,
Brought slave politick to Saint Francis' bed,
In a free state he filibustered on court stage
For the freedom of fools to fetter the least sage.

Willie Walker was a doctor, but still a fool,
Insulted thrice, and he thrice won the duel,
Was the same man he cured, the same he fell,
Scripted him for service, Manifest charter's knell.

Bill sailed to his Destiny, 69 strong,
On Vanderbilt's ships arrived at San Juan,
He walked down to Nicaragua and shot his gun,
Got hold of his fate, America's pirate son.

Named himself President of the Free Republic
Of Slaveowning Slaves, declaring transit
His own power & neither the public's
Nor Vander-built, so the legend has it:

Walker walked out of his contract with Vanderbilt,
And the Commodore couldn't stand it: while
Walker his vicarious kingdom built,
Old Corny crafted some toothy guile:

Took the trains & boats away, & disowned
The Nicaraguan nation, & Walker
Lost his country, the men & laws repo'd
By capital gain, chief filibuster.

Bill died a death ignoble in 1860
By Honduran firing squad, swearing oaths,
One year afore the mad war of civility
& the year Abram the Republican took both.

Lord, bless Billy Walker, whose way sure had Will,
But no way in hell did ever he get his fill.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

"Gomorrah" (2009)

Realism has its merits, but it has also its pitfalls.

The italian neorealist tradition's alive and well: it has taken a turn toward the Bourne steadicam intensity, the City of God crossnarrative, the Amores Perros metacommentary on the postmodern condition; yet in Gomorrah, the elements which had made those films excellent are condensed to a tasteless soup. What had made those films exceptional, in Gomorrah are made aesthetically trivial. It may be for reason that the film has no aesthetic preoccupations whatsoever which has caused some to acclaim it; but the intentional design of its dramatic unremarkability is stretched beyond its capacity to make a lasting description. Following on the heels of the established american interpretation of mob violence (glorified and exaggerated), Gomorrah makes no pretension to imitate the already patently unrealistic; its asset is to display violence as it really is: spontaneous and banal. We may be so desensitized to violence on screen that Gomorrah comes across as a rather tame film. Its final scene in which two young adolescents are killed is not ruthless nor is it atrocious; it is played out very clinically, and there is no taste left in the mouth, hardly an emotional impact made, since the irony had long played itself out: the boys at the beginning of film pretend to be mini Tony Montanas ruling the world of crime: by the end they are the result of their fascination with violence, the sacrificed. The filmmakers find it sufficiently clever that the adolescents (who are italian and the rightful 'heirs' of mob prestige) mimic american films that themselves mimicked a good deal of italian mafia subculture (granted, Scarface is a cuban narquero fighting colombians for control of the coke game); the italian boys are fed back what the americans had packaged out of a longstanding attraction to the glamorized violence of mobsters. So it appears that Gommorah's filmmakers' obligation to their own culture was not only to expose a serious issue at the heart of italian socioeconomics, but also to steal back what had been grossly misinterpreted as a romance with the way of the gun (in much the same as the samurai are romanticized, in the way of their sword.) To do this the filmmakers displaced the effective dramatic import of the violence by diffusing the points of impact: the Camorra family is vast, and its victims numberless, hence the narrative undertakes a broad and indirect communication with its diverse but nearly nameless characters: despite their linkages, they are unknown to each other, and one character never ends up meeting another. Their dramatic vitality is restricted by the film's overcompensation for the anecdotal; the overall message is sucked dry by the tedium of realism sans cinema, and the violence (which in film is nearly always an unreal proposition) is tendered with nary a signature nor reason.

It followed from this sucking dry of the dramatic value that violence would unveil itself as a chance intersection of wilful blindness, unfocused hatred, and utter accident; rather than as the life force for which the eagle is moved to prey on the meek rabbit, violence shows itself to be a shadow to the volition that designs memorable acts: violence becomes merely an insipid habit, a deformity, a brutal stutter...

Monday, March 2, 2009

"The Wild Child" (1970)

Truffaut revisits the 400 Blows with the true story of Victor, the wild child found and captured by hunters in a forest of Aveyron, subsequently disciplined and educated by the celebrated Dr. Jean Itard. The film is concerned with the remainder of purity left to a child past instruction, the artful artlessness of a child whose savage life had replaced the common inculcation of civilized children with the instinctual guile of beasts. With Truffaut's usual adept comprehension of children, the figure of Victor is stenciled out in a few strokes, using the velocity and compaction of a fugue to highlight the struggle for Victor's sensibility.

Vivaldi's concerto motif fits the theme: an inquisitive, melancholic strain that glides over the wild reeds of a childhood recaptured by force at first, but which ultimately awakens to a new discovery: a childhood recaptured by what it had initially escaped: education. For Truffaut, in his life and his work, childhood was a sentimental education, the constant evasion of cerebral duty and destructive emotion. The 400 Blows details the efforts by Antoine Doinel to flee the domestic scenes of mediocrity and quiet scandal that hemmed him in; rather than give in to his burgeoning emotions, Doinel chooses to runaway, to depart through the exit wound of his still tender heart, in search of the kind of intoxicant peace that only cinema provides. The film's cinematic majesty comes through in the silent film manner with which Doinel drifts through the frosty streets of Paris, in mute conversation with the world that had abandoned him to his devices, seeking an uncertain goal, a nameless destination (which we discover in the film's final immortal scene, when Doinel runs toward the ocean, at last arriving at the one element that could both restrict and free him from his inward struggle.) Doinel does not yet know that he was born to love cinema, that his life breathes its capricious aire, but it is our privilege to watch him as he is brought to realisation of his vita nuova.

Victor is the negative image of Antoine Doinel in that the former retains the esprit of the latter except through an inversion: if Victor had grown up in the parisian circumstance as Doinel did, they would have found themselves dear brothers. Doinel wants to escape into the wilderness of his soul, to flee from the sombre atmosphere of Paris to the oceanside; Victor desires nothing less than to keep to his wilderness, to preserve that wild sacred part of his life intact, as he is catechized into the modest conformity of the civilized.

It is noteworthy that Truffaut (who has intermittently acted in his own and in others' films before) takes the role of Dr. Itard. It may be suppositioned that this decision to play the other main role himself helped Truffaut's budgeting purpose, but one cannot help but sense that the director valued this film as enough a part of his own intimate existence as to confront it personally and directly; it were as if Truffaut were reexamining the essential ethos of his childhood through the investigative eye of himself as the adult figure, the spiritual father to the child. It is already well recorded that Truffaut had a difficult childhood, and that cinema was to him a reflection of the turbulence that he endured as a child; cinema was his escape from the crisis of his earliest situation, because in its mobility cinematic action perfectly mimicked his flight from it. Truffaut as Dr. Itard speaks quickly, almost madly in a kind of effort to explicate the reasoning in Victor's actions and customs; his conduct with Victor is both professional and humane, but by the end we realise that Dr. Itard is more a father to him than the detached and logical doctor: when Victor arrives home after running away for a few days, Dr. Itard belies his profession and affectionately welcomes Victor back to the domicile that has adopted him for good. We see that it has indeed pained him that his prodigal son had left home. Dr. Itard is the father that Truffaut never in his life knew (unless we count in Andre Bazin, who schooled Truffaut in the only real education he ever needed: cinema.)

When Dr. Itard looks out the window one night and finds Victor outside on all fours, scampering in the rain, his clothes muddied and his face beaming with worshipful pleasure, Dr. Itard does not question why Victor would do so, nor does it displease him as it would a normal father; rather, Dr. Itard speechlessly, wondrously, accepts that Victor will never be rid of the secret of his childhood that had sustained him all those years in the wilderness; the doctor intuits that in every child, whether savage or civilized, there lies an inner wealth of ecstasy which no quantity of instruction can diminish. The child's secret life cannot be penetrated by the civilized order of society - it must be allowed to grow on its own terms.