Friday, June 26, 2009

"High and Low" (1963)

In heaven the white airconditioned rooms
hide kingly men behind whitedrape curtains.
In hell the remote unsung telescope
peeps the house on the hill, & conjectures
why, if heat rises, does it stay so low?

Because hell is hot and heaven is high,
heroin sweat stays bought and cicadas
cry their plaintive cry: the man on the hill
doesn't listen, he makes ladies' designer
shoes, & teaches his son the cowboy's way,
that one must wait patiently in ambush
to make those who hold no febrile addiction
sweat for once, & pay dear a king's ransom.

If hell overtakes heaven, and the heat
rises to swarm the cool, telescopes crack
no matter, and the flat earth stays deadflat.
The demon who spied the man on the hill
confronts him, behind steel bars as behind
white curtains, now upclose, but more obscure,
inscrutable, his airconditioned face
stoic & satisfied by new success.

Because hell is hot and heaven is high,
heroin sweat stays bought and cicadas
cry their plaintive cry: the man from the hill
doesn't hear, his face dissembles its thought,
and the demon, maddened by the sanguine
faceless face, writhes & clasps the steelwire bars,
learning that heaven's height reflects hell's low.

Monday, June 15, 2009

"Madame de..." (1953)

The french: famed for a certain affinity for materialism, who invoke from it a spiritual propensity. We are, after all, flesh ornaments for the spirit. The affinity of Madame de..., for earrings. Ostentatious objects made dull & odious by the husband acquire radiance in the hands of a forbidden lover. Vittorio de Sica plays the lover. Charles Boyer plays the husband. Danielle Darrieux plays the nameless comtesse: as lovely & inscrutable as Empson's 3rd type of ambiguity. Two lovers fundamentally opposed - the husband is a french general, and the lover an italian diplomat - who in the mind of a torn-in-half Comtesse achieve consilience in a single metaphor: the glimmering coveted earrings of Madame de...
A woman without a name, a charming woman. An unsolvable mystery that - but a lady nonetheless. A lady of the french literary mold, she understands the value of jewelry, of effeminacies, of furs, gowns, & knicknacks: they become her, dissemble the core of her, which is in actuality a mirror, a polished gleaming surface. As her husband - a master of disguises himself - confesses to her, "We are only superficially superficial." The maturity of a french mind evinces itself in the depth perceivable, at last, in a once murky surface: the proustian surface of depth, in which ornamentation transforms our self-awareness.
Vittorio de Sica, who has acted in more movies than he has made himself, looks like a handsomer, taller, more charismatic Scorcese. If Scorcese was handsomer & taller, he'd probably be more charismatic: he'd probably be de Sica.
de Sica, under the influence of Max Ophuls - the director's director - makes Terminal Station, in which a married woman 'commits an indiscretion' with a lover, initiated & consummated at a station in Rome. Incidentally, Vittorio de Sica's character in Madame de... meets Madame de... at a customs station, in which one may say their lives cross, destined to terminate in that peculiar fatalism of adult high romance. Terminal Station was wrapped & released in 1953, the same year de Sica acted in Madame de... (and already after his reputation as a film director had been sealed with those films he is honored for).
Can an object soak up a soul, as they do in witchcraft? Certainly, if love were the narcotic. Madame de... bears no name, needs none, because she is possessed by her earrings. She is no more, no less than the sumptuousness of her body gestures, her level-eyed glances of simultaneous fatigue & amorousness, & her secret superficially-superficial prayers to the Virgin, who looks down upon her with an indecipherable visage.
Another of Napoleon's maxims: "The only victory in love is to flee." Hence, the fatalism of those who seek love, who indeed long for its death and the candle that faintly burns at the altar of the sacred Virgin, unrequited.
Who is Max Ophuls? After this film, still unknown: the hand that erases its own trace; only the camera's self-awareness left behind like a watch in a beach, designed by the unknown watchman: like a machine that speaks but cannot tell the secret of its consciousness, only that it exists, that it perceives, something like Emerson's gallivanting all-eye let loose on the world of boudoirs & galas & salons & boutiques. We know a few facts: Ophuls was of german stock, naturalised & educated as a frenchman; a supreme & compassionate director of women; the supreme architect of the tracking shot. We know, or we can try to explain, what he can do; but to analyse the personality of the watchmaker, or the emotions of the mirrorsetter? We may as well surmise Madame de...'s real name: we may as well stare into her partly lidded eyes and chance upon the oddly comforting look of bereavement dawning at their tender corner.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

"Simon of the Desert" (1965)

Bunuel's last mexican film (the 22nd of that period in total) is hardly a feature-length: 45 mins long, its production was inexplicably cut short after just 18 days of photography. The film's plot is based on the 5th c. syrian ascetic Saint Simeon Stylites the Elder, and Bunuel naturally focuses (just as Flaubert had with his Saint Anthony of the Desert) on the salacious and more titillating features of the lives of ascetics: the provocations made by the Devil. Bunuel's famed 'atheism' (or rather his aggressive agnosticism, considering the fervor of his obsession with christian values), finds fertile ground in this stylization of the phallic tendency in Saint Simeon, perched on his pillar, who finds himself confronted by a devil fleshed out in Silvia Pinal's body. Bunuel, in life and work, was an unregenerate prankster, and the material of having a saint as the buttend of the auteur's merciless jokes provides him the occasion for innumerable caprices independent of any larger themes. One can only imagine where else the blonde buxom Devil would have taken the Stylite, but the film ends before we see how Simeon conquers his fame, abruptly. Though the film ends at 3 quarters of an hour, the resolution comes across as ingenious in spite of its (apparently premature) termination: if the old-fashioned temptations of sexuality & gluttony don't disrupt the perseverance of the ascetic, then the lure of modernity will.

(Coincidentally, one of the arch, but implicit, investigations Flaubert undertook in Temptation of St. Anthony was to experiment with what ruinous effects epistemological chaos would have on an old-school unlettered mind; or more succinctly, what would total access to the internet - the heart of relativism - whence a plethora of 'truths' compete with equal vigor & aesthetic seduction, cause in the mind of a saint whose steadfast volition, given over heart & soul to God, abides by a nearly nihilistic refusal of all information that does not traffic in the direct will?)

While Bunuel is hardly a 'cerebral' director, his stock of sensual intuition is enough to warrant assaults on the philosophic aspects of his themes: he is a great author because he allows his image pranks to speak for themselves, suggesting all sorts of intellectual infidelities. The final scenes linger with a fascination of modern pop culture, quite aware of how strange the gesticulations of youthful bodies dancing to jazz rock must seem to an ascetic from the 4th century: the mere sensation of watching fresh-faced young people wildly dance & bop away to grooves, brings to mind how little we understand the 20th century context, even as we (Bunuel's contemporaries at least) were in it. The bored uninterested face of the Stylite as he ponders what the world in the future has come to demonstrates that the last temptation of man is ennui (even in the midst of pandemonium). But for Bunuel none of these extrapolations matter: it is the prank in the end that matters: just seeing the expression on the face of a venerable person as he endures an exposure to licentiousness, or seeing how a priest reacts when you throw a cake in his face, is worth the minor sacrilege.
Simon of the Desert was also Silvia Pinal's 3rd and last film working with Bunuel, a project which at one time was designed to be a feature in an aborted omnibus that would have boasted the contributions of Fellini and Jules Dassin (this goes to explain why Simon turned out so short). The story goes that Pinal, at the peak of her beauty and confidence, cooked up the idea of her starring in an omnibus to be directed by the best directors living; in Pinal's mind, all of the features would star her, of course, and would be produced by her doting producer/husband, Gustavo Alatriste (who produced the previous 2 Bunuel films starring his wife.) Bunuel first suggested that the pair contact Fellini about the omnibus project. But Fellini, who liked the idea of directing a feature alongside Bunuel, insisted that he use his wife, Guilietta Masina, instead of Pinal. (Fellini's next film would indeed be an omnibus, this time focused on 3 stories by Edgar Allan Poe, and featuring contributions by Roger Vadim & Louis Malle.) Pinal, no doubt ruffled, took her project elsewhere, to Jules Dassin, another Bunuel contact. Dassin at the time was also infatuated with his greek actress/wife, Melina Mercouri, and declared he would only join in if he directed Mercouri as the lead. To each artist his own wife it seemed, and Gustavo Alatriste and Pinal stuck to their own matrimonial symbiosis, and went back to Bunuel in Mexico. Bunuel ultimately suggested that Alatriste direct part of the omnibus, with help & support from the master, but Pinal, at this point already fed up with her rejection by the other name directors, would not permit that her husband direct her. Shortly after wrapping up Simon, Bunuel left to France to direct Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour, which formally initiated his french period (le maƮtre had already returned to France in 1964 to direct Diary of a Chambermaid, with Jeanne Moreau, in between the productions of The Exterminating Angel and Simon of the Desert, indicating that he had probably re-established his contacts & formulated a working platform in France, as a kind of escape route from the soon-to-be-extinct mexican film industry: its golden age would end as a result of a strengthened american monopoly of film that took hold by the end of the 50s.) And with that, the film was cut short, probably instigated by Alatriste's distaste for his own wife, who no longer appeared to value his artistry: and the film omnibus of Fellini, Dassin, and Bunuel never came to actuality. What we do have, at least, is the hilarious Simon of the Desert, which among its fruits of temptation, proffers us the delectable glimpse of Silvia Pinal's quite perfectly rounded breasts.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

"Red Beard" (1965)

A film that one has to watch alone, at one's leisure in the afternoon, with a cup of white tea and the day's obstreperous vulgarities cast out by windowblinds. Can a film read like a book? It can, and this film is one of those, exemplary for its dynamic shifts and variety of tones: its struggle with the woes & simple purposes of life are novelistic. Red Beard is something more mature than Ikiru, but made with the vitality of Seven Samurai, a 3-hour film that engrosses thoroughly, without the slightest misstep or interruption. A film that continually surprises you with its subtle shifts of humor and pathos, and its remarkable, effortless story-within-a-story metaframing. In short, the work of a master who has perfected all that hollywood vies to offer - namely the sap and sentimentality of human dramas - while retaining his own personal stamp, his aged sanity, his will toward complete honesty with the cruelties and misfortunes that constitute our tiny perilous life.
Toshiro Mifune's last film with Kurosawa. Maybe Kurosawa sensed the rift during production (which lasted nearly 2 years), and had Mifune play the sensei, alluding to Kurosawa himself, as a benevolent but hardedged director of a clinic, nicknamed Redbeard, while casting a young handsome co-lead as Redbeard's understudy/apprentice, who takes up the kind of role a younger Mifune would have had opposite Takashi Shimura. Except by the end of this film's story, the rift that separated the tough but charitable Redbeard from his once intractable apprentice had already been bridged and crossed: in life, Mifune and Kurosawa had already outgrown each other, and would go their separate ways.
Separation of body and spirit: death. The death-agony is not one of peace but of the unendurable tension of the body giving penultimate birth to the spirit. The pain of the spirit tearing the flesh off one last time, to be born again. A doctor, like a priest, is here seen as a confessor, a humane observer who bestows dignity in death and sickness to the dying and the sickly. Physical suffering is interpreted as spiritual ailment, often a sickness unto death, which the doctor can only help alleviate with his bond of humanity, of compassion, to his fellow human beings.

Kurosawa's irreligious cynicism is brooked by his abundant humanist faith in the commonalities of the heart. There is no cure for death or for sickness, but there is always a last chance for redemption, for setting aright one's torment by the past, and palliating the inescapable pain of existence.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

"The Night of the Hunter" (1955)

An english actor of considerable size & talent, Charles Laughton, directs an anomalous film, his only film, fastening on the theme of southern gothic horror as an englishman would imagine it, saturated with a primeval romance of evil that a genuine and rightfully grim fairy tale would have (and which will be attributed to the literary fineness of James Agee's screenplay). Robert Mitchum plays the wolfman, interprets him as a preacher (an interpretation which Stephen King would take up in Silver Bullet, where the preacher is a priest, and the priest really is a werewolf stalking a boy who knows his secret). When Mitchum is shot at, or when the door slams on his fingers, or when the apple of his demented eye rows away in a boat into the depth of the night, he howls as no human would. An unearthly ravenous howl, of inhuman hunger and strange appetites. Women are anathema to him: when the lust rises in his flesh, his knife goes erect. L-O-V-E on his masculine right hand, H-A-T-E on his effeminate left. Yet hate consumes him more, hence his queerness. At night he hunts for children, slits their throats, throws corpses into the river. "Her hair streaming like meadowgrass in a floodstream, the slit in her neck large enough to be an extra mouth." The South is lawless, brigands roam freely on stolen horses like barnowls in the dark, at liberty to pick off stray litter and slake their biblical bloodlust. A place of wretched dreams, in which lawabiding christians either murder baptists or lynch murderers of baptists. Where children are routinely victimized and psychologically tormented, but "they abide, they endure." So Lillian Gish tells us, shotgun snug in the crook of her right arm, maternal. The southern gentleman can be both christian and vengeful, yet old women & young damsels alike swoon to his profane prayers, don't mind his night vices so much as dream of his strong tattooed hands gripping their gooseflesh arms. He croons, "Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms / Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms." When the women touch him, he switches his knife, his back straightens, his eyes go black. The shadows crop up behind him, and the second you lose watch, he's gone, gone into the thick blooddark pie of the night. Children with dirty faces go hungry, orphans lost in the moonlit wilderness, and 10,000 dollars stuffed in a doll, of which they understand nothing but the insanity that brings iniquitous men to seek it, fly out into the wild suffocating air, into the oppressive heat, and on the dead faces of the swaying hanging fathers of fatherless children.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

"Ariel" (1988)

Behind a good artist, or a very talented artist, presides the unmistakable stamp of a great artist's influence. Just as behind Gus van Sant stands the formidable figure of Bela Tarr, so does Aki Kaurismaki loom over Jim Jarmusch. Jarmusch has spent his career attempting to reproduce exactly the sort of compact pristine emotions, the sort of stoic coolness and outlandish serenity that the finnish director so effortlessly encapsulates in films that never go past 90 minutes (all of Kaurismaki's films, according to a vow he made early in his career, are under an hour and a half). A sometime disciple of Godard's ethics of pop condensation, Kaurismaki quite rightly believes in limiting expression to its bones of purpose; yet, unlike Godard, whose intellectual arrogance comes across in even his least structured films, Kaurismaki never once takes himself too seriously.

The difference between a master and an apprentice is that the master has transcended that point of resistance so integral to the understudied artist who still grapples with his native deficiencies; while the apprentice struggles to carve out his character from the rough material of his nascent foibles, the master seeks to re-ignite the ardency of his earliest prejudices: hence the master recreates new oppositions. The master has gone so beyond his own erudition that he has imposed on himself new and novel constraints, if only to create such difficulties and problems that require incredible, pithy solutions.

Kaurismaki is such a director, who in the space of 80 minutes, describes the entire arc of cinematic expression with a few camera strokes, and shots so well-placed that they require no movement at all in a space no longer than a few seconds. Ariel is a key example of the Kaurismaki technique: some shots are so brief that they last hardly beyond 5 seconds. Yet they speak volumes, once in conjunct with a stream of similarly well-placed shots in which little to no dialogue occurs. When dialogue does occur, it is so precise in its emotional ambiguity as to arouse numerous responses; the very spare dialogue Kaurismaki does write is precious in its allusive quality, meticulous in its pathos. We witness real people who, even if the gigantic need to express themselves strangles their throats, find the means of expression in their behavior, their slight gestures, their minute but resolute acts. Kaurismaki, like Roy Andersson, finds the truth of life in cinema: real life is very much like cinema, muted by suffering and the endless struggle to survive, but enriched by the vigor of actions and by the lunatic velocity of our days, which we edit, often against our will, with the tools of our memory. And just like Roy Andersson, Kaurismaki is all the more a master of the form because he is at the root of him a congenial thinker, an artist whose good humor defies, and goes so far as to define, the wretched & the low instigations of life.

There are no living directors in the same category as Kaurismaki (or Andersson for that matter), who are as self-effacing, as ceremoniously unconcerned with high seriousness, as blithely merciless, as stridently full of deadpan good humor as he.

According to the man himself, Kaurismaki does not consider himself a 'master': "Maybe my films are not masterpieces, but they are documents of their time. That's enough for me. Masterpieces I can't do - even though I try." In a new period of film in which the average attention span of the filmgoer has considerably shortened, and the means of expression been so exhausted as to warrant technological contraptions and a pandemonium of computer graphics, Kaurismaki is a master. And Ariel is a masterpiece. The kind of film that a film school teacher should require a class to watch, only to dare them, at the end, to attempt to make the same film all over again. Perfection of economy, perfection of expression, are hard to come by. It would be useless to describe the plot of the film, or to explain its themes, or even the execution of the scenes: the film is such that its components cannot be cut up, nor its parts dismantled and displayed for testing: its editing is such that no other syntax except from what occurs from the 1st frame to the last can spell out the integral grammar of its form. Ariel remains a testament not just to Kaurismaki's wondrously thrifty technique (to which he likely owes more to Bresson than to Godard), but to the firm belief of an artist whose sheer faith in cinema, in life attaining meaning "somewhere over the rainbow" where cinema lies, overwhelms the easy nihilism, and rampant cynicism, that modern life has bred in everyone from its peons to its vaunted artists. A master is one who learns how to smile, through the grim & the pleasant, at the very close of the curtain.