Friday, 23 April 2010

Le Proces de Jeanne D'Arc

"A mass in and white colours"

Words from Jean-Luc Godard's trailer for Robert Bresson's Mouchette

Jeanne is in prison charged with many crimes. The most grave of these is blasphemy. 

Jeanne and the men who judge her are never in the same composition. There is a rupture, an un-breachable wall. The rhythm of question and response is rapid. It is a harassment. She withstands, as if parrying their strikes. They ask, and she glances down as if consulting an inner voice. She responds, eyes lifted, in defiance. Her resolution is humbling. The strength of her fidelity to God and the courage in her disobedience towards the Church.

Persecution surrounds her - at first probed from the right and then later from the left. In French there is a word that sounds and feels such as the dynamic of this trial : impitoyable, meaning merciless and implacable.

Le Proces de Jeanne D'Arc doesn't incite pathos or gather tears. It lets simple words and a person's presence open up a more intense understanding. There is a nobility and purity in the style and the blank performance that feels as if it is an extension of Jeanne's self. It gave me freedom, untouched by ploys to tease my sympathies or stir my humours. So much passion, and even a little humour, can come from observing this 'model' (Florence Delay), and seeing within. Performance can be a veneer. It hides the person who acts.

There is no music, save the drums that beat at the beginning and at the end.

Le Proces de Jeanne D'Arc does not use adjectives. Only verbs and nouns. It renounces the ugliness of spectacle. It renounces the fustiness of historical reconstruction. Its history is not safe behind a pane of glass.

There is an immaculate profundity in the seemingly bare images: feet and hands, shackled and unshackled; the silhouettes of birds, voyeuristic and violating eyes looking into Jeanne's cell.

There is so much weight to the sound, to the shouts that snipe from offscreen demanding that the "witch"
be burnt. The roar of the fire is unbearable and not only because of what it means. Bresson once said that "a locomotive's whistle imprints in us a whole railroad station". With Jeanne, with the words she says and the sounds she hears, he brings to mind a whole world.

Finally, Jeanne is tied to the stake. A dog passes between the onlookers. It looks up. Of course, it doesn't understand what is happening. It is looking. To this dog Jeanne is not a witch and she is not a saint. She is. It cannot know why this murder is happening. The dog takes us out of the human experience and thus the shot refutes hate, fear and hypocrisy. It makes empty. It makes things be seen again.

It is hard to judge Le Proces de Jeanne D'Arc, if in fact we must judge it. It did not make me feel anything in particular. It made me know. It made me reflect. Although we do not know precisely what Jeanne was like, I thought "this is Jeanne". She was strong. She believed. She was killed.

"Last Summer when I filmed Jeanne, I was not concerned merely to make her sublime words resound. I hoped to make this marvellous young girl present for audiences today"

Robert Bresson

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Pixar: Just A Toy

Originally published at The House Next Door. It has been edited and expanded.

In 1995, with the release of the first fully computer-generated feature film, Pixar took the first steps into the virgin territory of a new medium. However, they have not made the most of these advances.

Pixar's films, regardless of writer or director, have always had a big idea: a chef who's a rat, a flying house, toys that are alive — but they rarely go beyond that one idea. While Studio Ghibli*, their Japanese hand-drawn friends, show the magical in the everyday and mine joy from the details of life, Pixar routinely make less from more and reduce their grand fantastical concepts to the mundane.

When the balloons rose majestically to free Carl's house from its foundations in Up, I couldn't wait to see what bewitching sights from our world I would be treated to. I expected an exciting and profound journey both outward and inward. Instead, I got a big bird and talking
dogs. This, in my mind, is bankruptcy of imagination.

Do we see anything in Pixar that makes us see the world afresh and marvel at its beauty? In a Ghibli film something as simple as a lamp being turned on, transforming a space with color and shadow, can be breathtaking. In addition, Pixar's stories go nowhere. The characters, often needy or damaged, don't progress. They are not challenged to become stronger or better people as in the greatest children's novels but instead discover, via banal life lessons, that they were fine all along. And so it is as if we are returned to a dramatic zero point, two hours before, standing in the queue looking forward to the latest candy-colored sensation.

If things do alter in some small way these arcs take the path of least dramatic resistance, conforming to what the viewer is most likely to anticipate.

Pixar's characters are pawns not people. In Up, how contrived does the pain of Russell's broken background seem, stuck on like an elastoplast? How artificial and insincere is the tragic veneer applied to the opening montage of a life led in near-perfect happiness? This is transparently manipulative storytelling and for that reason it is hard to relate to.

Pixar's weak depiction of people is well illuminated by their anthropomorphism of objects. It is telling what traits they inject into these things in order to make them 'human' - in other words the soul they give the inanimate. See how the cars in Cars are obnoxious and goofy and fart out of their exhaust.

Pixar's writers paint with a limited emotional palette. Things are HAPPY or they are SAD, Furthermore, there is a reliance on marquee 'emotional moments' that seem to want to teach us how to feel. Think of Jesse in Toy Story 2 staring out of the window as she remembers her former owner. The moment briefly echoes with meaning —the mutable relationships between children and parents, growing up, the pain of rejection. Yet the message must be hammered home. And so, over this delicate concoction is poured a sickly syrup - a pop song and a maudlin flashback.

Like so much of modern day cinema, emotion is perceived to be something that need be added rather than ever-present. Instead of sentiment there is sentimentality. It is like the difference between feeling scared and being startled. In Kiki's Delivery Service, Whisper of the Heart and especially Spirited Away, the growth of young people into independence, maturity and love are given the respect and the subtlety they deserve, far beyond the formulaic binary of their American counterparts. Isn't this the same growth that most film-makers and storytellers want to encourage in their young viewers?

Maybe a deeper lying factor is the limits of computer-generated animation. Pixar can animate the thousands of hairs on Sully's back in Monster's Inc., but they cannot animate a person's soul on hard, plasticized faces. They miss the literal human touch of the artist's pen. An artist may unconsciously add nuances that we can only pick up on unconsciously. Once the hand is divorced from the page by a mouse or a keyboard**...

This raises the question of what the purpose of animation is, or what Pixar believe it to be. There is much talk from critics of the realism in their designs, and yet, nothing feels real. If you want something to look completely real, why should one animate it. Animation is at its best when it is impressionistic and expressionistic; as I said about Lotte Reiniger's Cinderella: '
touching more sensitively upon emotional realities than physical ones'.

Furthermore, there is a mean-spirited and simple-minded good/evil dichotomy at work in Pixar's films. Given that these types of film appeal most to children, this bothers me. One must ask: Why does Muntz fall from the zeppelin to his death in Up? Is it what he deserves? Or is it, in some convoluted morality, proof of his badness? Why are the housing developers so faceless and robotic? Why are the humans in Wall-E such fat, babyish oafs? The satire and the stereotypes are not well-intentioned or intelligently articulated, they are snarky.

Compare this to the big-hearted treatment of the Witch of the Waste in Howl's Moving Castle, who, having lost her powers, is not punished or humiliated but welcomed into the castle as a member of the 'good' characters' family. Even if humans are reproached for their bad acts towards the natural world in Princess Mononoke, it is in the light of their capacity for even greater good.

In the end, Pixar's output comes close to fulfilling the view of Hollywood cinema still held in much of the world: predictable, disposable and dumb.

*Given animation is a medium and not a genre one could say that comparing Pixar to Ghibli may be comparing apples to oranges. Nevertheless the comparison is unavoidable: they are the two studios who play to and hold the attention of children the most, two studios who themselves use the other as something of a yardstick.

**How can the style of animation not have a bearing on how the script is written and (seeing as the writer knows that they are writing for that style of animation with its particular characteristics) and then communicated? All these elements are interlinked. Film is not a triptych of a theatre play, a painting and an orchestral work, prepared and received as discrete entities. They inform one another.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Terminator Salvation

In Jean-Luc Godard's 1996 film Forever Mozart a group of youngsters are queuing for the premiere of Bolero Fatale. Slowly it dawns on them that it may well be a pretentious black and white 'art' film. "I hope it's not poetry" one of them says. Eventually, convinced that this is no crowd-pleaser, and despite the desperation of the makers of the apparently hifalutin and elitist Bolero Fatale - "Come back! We'll change the movie" - they go off to watch Terminator 4 instead.

Well, this is the film they saw...

"This is not the future my mother told me about"

Terminator Salvation is not the future we saw in the first two Terminators. It is not the same ashen post-apocalyptic wasteland haunted by steel ghosts. Terminator Salvation, for many, was a disappointment. For quite a few it was something even more unacceptable: it didn't feel like a Terminator film. Nay, it wasn't a Terminator film.

I wonder what the reaction to the Terminator films would have been like if Terminator Salvation had come first. Would the criticisms of it not capturing the mood and style of its predecessors, not fitting their prescribed template, be reversed?

Terminator Salvation
is clearly trying to make its own way but is there an audience fully willing or able to accept it on its own terms?

The older Terminator films were once removed from apocalypse. The plight of humanity was shrunken down to the horror of an individual predator and his quarry. Visions of nuclear holocaust (giggling children on swings) and short glimpses of war bore the burden of making the distant possible future seem urgent and now. Regardless of the thrill of the chase, until the bombs fell at the end of Rise of the Machines, the end of everything was a maybe. The end had a question mark. For better or worse, Terminator Salvation is a new sentence after a sobering full stop.

What's interesting about Terminator Salvation is that there is no more room for extras, for people on the edges who are blissfully unaware, who cannot understand why the music is so forbidding and why everything is a little bluer than it was before. Now everybody is busy with the work of survival and of saving or being saved.

At the centre of it all is John Connor. Before, he had to be convinced that he would be the saviour of mankind. Now he is the one who has to do the convincing. Many people have said how Connor (and perhaps, therefore, Christian Bale) lacks the charisma theoretically required to marshal a makeshift army. For me it is clear that his leadership is not based on a scar or a warm messianic gaze. Rather it is based on his determination, his experience and his inside knowledge - he interprets the word of his mother and puts into action. He is a comforting figure.

We feel the desperation of the bedraggled people he commands, the ones he tries to reach on the radio. This is the same desperation that looks for a man who is certain or appears certain. Some may say that there is little character development (why would somebody's character 'develop' so quickly anyway - surely we want character revelation) in Connor but there has been - in between films, in those dark years where steel is forged from fire.

All we need to know of him is one shot. We track backwards under his chin as he arrives back at base for the first time, head bowed in grief. Despite the men that flank the corridor, it is a private moment that shows the weight of the world that he carries without regret and without resentment.

The strong, determined John Connor is part persona. The opposite of Marcus, his human face is beneath the robotics. Connor makes so much more sense as a man struggling to remain sure and calm, who gruffly and frustratedly shouts his demands. He cannot be a serene hero. He has seen so much suffering and has endured such terrible responsibilities from a young age.

Is the film too humourless? Is it too downbeat? Too humourless and too downbeat for what? I ask: must a film silence harsh reality with a gag?

The little girl Star has been the centre of some discontent too. I believe she is misunderstood. She is a symbol of this harsh reality.

She is not a cute sidekick or the surrogate daughter of a delightfully alternative family unit. She is the product of this new world. She is the only one (that we know of) who was born after 'Judgement Day' and she knows no other life. She is a constant reminder of death and loss by the very fact that she is with Kyle Reese and not her parents. She cannot speak, struck dumb by fear. This is a fear that she is particularly attuned to. She is able to sense the machines as if they crawl upon her nerves. She is a character of deep sadness and she is integral to this surprisingly sombre film.

If one doesn't think clearly and seriously about why Connor is as he is or why Star is in the film at all then one will fall upon superficial judgements distorted by prejudice and cynicism. One can dismiss and mock out of hand as Forever Mozart may mean to. If we assume something to be stupid we will first go in search of the hallmarks of stupidity.

* * *

Though it does not amount to a rule, it tends to be that the longer a franchise continues the more it looks inward and not outward. The less it draws on a panoply of influences across genres and arts and the more it references itself. A film may become a patchwork quilt of its forebears. This is particularly perilous when the narrative itself is like the serpent swallowing its own tail - son saving his father so that he can still be born. Of course, Terminator Salvation is a film in the process of rewriting itself.

Even if it is not the intention the impression given is that the nostalgia of the original films must be kept alive at all costs, new babies born to provide organs for their older siblings.

I do not believe that the appearance of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator helps the film. It is an intrusion, stuck on to heal the imagined weakness of Terminator Salvation being too divorced from its roots. This sequence is filmed as if transported from those films. That is to say it does not grow organically from this one.

On two occasions I felt that the film lacked confidence in its own vision.

The other was the way the bond was established between Marcus and Blair, the woman pilot. As night falls, a gang of men approach her and start to get physical. It is obvious that they mean to assault her or rape her. Marcus steps in to dispatch them. Thus they grow closer through a lazy cliched shorthand not powerful or fresh enough to even qualify as a sly homage to 1980s action film norms. Yes, it shows us Marcus' surprising strength and reflexes but there are many ways in which a Screenwriter or Director could have shown this.

To the Mother/Whore dichotomy many believe is still being perpetuated in areas of the cinematic world I propose an addendum: the Rapist/Hero dichotomy. This presupposes that male characters get the girl by aggressive and horrifyingly abusive means or by channelling said aggression on the woman's behalf. The kiss they share, through its timing, diminishes them both. It seems to say no less than: "You're not a rapist, you have earned my trust. Let's kiss". As 'strong' or emancipated a woman as Blair may be, the damsel is never far away...

Nevertheless, there is a lot to enjoy and admire in Terminator Salvation. The keystone chase scene is exhausting and exhilarating, precipitously, precariously dangerous. It's always coherent and streamlined. Every crunch of hardcore hardware, every precision laser fire, has a purpose. It is an awesome five minute spectacle.

The action sequences are very good. Connor's first meeting with a mutilated, dysfunctional Terminator is thrilling because the relentlessness shown by the legless machine is an unnerving parallel (as unnerving as the Terminator who mimics Kyle's voice - voices are important in TS: tapes, radio, mimicry) to humanity's own desperate battle to maintain its existence. We absolutely will not stop...

Terminator Salvation doesn't pose the question of the dehumanising nature of this war overtly. It doesn't make a point of man's potential descent towards unfeeling. The disinterring of such frankly crass themes would destabilise the film. Such thoughts may enrich our experience as an underground seam that an audience may tap into voluntarily - not a gushing mile-high geyser of sophomoric philosophical conundra (as in Ghost in the Shell, for example).

Is Marcus a microcosm of the struggle between man and machine? Yes and no. It is up to us. It is not a thought imposed by the film. This subtlety is evident
once Marcus enters Skynet. When the voice of Skynet asks him "What could you be if not machine" he responds "A man". The inflection of his voice reveals that the response is more probing than an answer but not quite a question. He doesn't know. We don't know, and to an extent it doesn't matter because the thought-provoking subtleties and complexities are not in the opposition of black and white but in the unresolved greys.

Sam Worthington is a good enough actor to embody these nuances, straddling again two natures as he does in Avatar.

Another strong element of the film is Kyle Reese, played by Anton Yelchin, who has cheek and winning charisma. The idea of meeting one's own father or mother (see Back to the Future) when they were younger is always exciting. Reese is a father more than cool enough to like and more than strong enough to admire.

The same goes for Terminator Salvation, which is powerful and fun from start to finish.
It is a good film and that is more than good enough.