Wednesday, 30 March 2011


"What has been passed on?"

David Banner, an ambitious and hubristic geneticist, conducts dangerous experiments upon himself. When he and his wife have a son, Bruce, a mutation is inherited.

Young Bruce inherits memories too, memories of his mother's death at his father's hands (a clouded and upturned image of her anguished face).

The parallel : whatever parents do, however they act towards their child or to each other, whether purposely or not, is an emotional experiment.

We witness Bruce hearing his father and mother arguing behind a closed door. He hides under the table as he would if there were an explosion at the research facility nearby. He turns away and re-enacts the scene with two soft toys, mashing them against each other. As he does he growls. He is manic and distressed. What has been passed on? Pain that is buried deep and forgotten and the seed for that pain (and the subconscious) to become flesh.

Bruce is now working in genetics, in the manipulation of the immune system to promote regeneration. Like his father. We see him conduct an experiment on a frog, attempting to improve the healing powers of its cells through the use of nanomeds, microscopic living beings. The frog explodes. Family life, like the nanomeds, is meant to heal and repair. Instead it makes him explode.

Laying out a detailed emotional and genetic foundation for the Hulk*, and making exposure to gamma radiation the trigger rather than the root cause, establishes the Hulk as a regression. It was conceived as a child and, when it appears in its full and monstrous form, a child it remains.

Its facial expressions recall those of a child - wide-eyed, confused, curious and sometimes, surrounded by carnage in front of Betty, ashamed. Like King Kong before him, Hulk is a child becalmed, cradling and protecting its adopted mother in its palm. 

Bruce describes becoming the Hulk as "like being born, coming up for air". Having fought off mutant dogs, Hulk shrinks and Bruce staggers to Betty naked, clinging to a motherly warmth. It is in this light that Betty's decisions to hand him over to the military, that could be seen as the betrayals of a partner, are understood as a parent's mature realisation that her son needs intervention.

Bruce's father, who reappears from the dead, calls him "my physical son and the child of my mind". He is another Doctor Frankenstein taken to extremes by an obsession with control and wisdom. He wants to intrude and trample on nature in order to "partake with the essences". He wants to be a God, knowledgeable and almighty, "a hero of the kind that walked the Earth long before the pale religions of civilisation infected humanity's soul". He wants to "improve on" his nature.

Science is nature, nature is nurture. The tiny are the building blocks for the large. A cell compared to a planet, a drop of water birthing a galaxy. Lichen and lizards and jellyfish, Hulk sees in these something of himself. We are all connected to everything (Betty and Bruce's family histories, too, are intimately intertwined) and affected by everything, our atoms once part of something else.

What are we born with? What are we given? Hulk is a product of his human environment. What is tragic is how he attacks it or shrinks from it, afraid. Upon first seeing Betty Hulk seeks to meld into the tranquil, ostensibly amoral environment of nature, hidden by the knotted roots and branches of an old tree.

*       *       *

Bruce lost his mother and Betty is by no means close to her father. She has memories of being left alone as a young girl, weeping. She has dreams of the same scene in which Bruce is now the father figure, at first smiling and then menacing. Once Bruce has met his father again, who he thought dead, he has visions and nightmares of the future. 

Encrypted traumas stymy the present and project or anticipate a tragic future. Roles are confused between lover, friend, father and mother. Time has no meaning : the past is here.

When Bruce first turns into the Hulk (the idea of competing alter egos is touched upon - Hulk first disdainful of Bruce ("puny human!") and then  rescuing him from a water chamber) it is his watch** that is first discarded by his growing body. The corridor at the University facility recalls that in which his father waited for him to be born. The door behind which his parents had fought reappears in his laboratory as he struggles to contain his anger - it opens to reveal the Hulk standing in the shadows, in the void where his mother and father struggled unseen. 

Later, the camera will move out of a scene and take in a wall of panels, each a different moment from the film, and then zoom back in on a new image. Everything co-exists, the past, the present and the future living together.

There is a tyranny of time. In a couple of instances, General Ross leaning in to interrogate Bruce and Hulk smashing out of the military compound, an action is reprised from a different angle, extending it into something insistent and entrapping. On another occasion, helicopters surround him like the laser guns that surround the subjects of his and his father's experiments.

Bruce has absorbed a lifetime of suffering. When Hulk first appears he directs his rage at the machine that irradiated him, tearing the globe from its tethers and awkwardly carrying its great weight on his back as Atlas did the celestial orbs. He bounds across the deserts of America. He cannot escape because his enemy is within.

Escape from this burden is only in confrontation with his father, now 'The Absorbing Man'. They meet one last time on a stage stripped bare -  a theatre where the spotlights shine oppressively, voices echo, and where the natural world or visual load no longer offer a hiding place. The focus is on the internal. The black space is there for it to be externalised with unprecedented clarity and force.

His father teases the Hulk out into a battle of elemental forces. His father carries Hulk through the clouds along a bolt of lightning. He takes the shape of a lake, attempting to drown his son within him, within his bitterness, his twisted and selfish lust for his son's incredibly destructive and healing power.

What has been passed on can be let go of. In a cathartic roar Hulk screams "Take it All!" just as Betty's father, General Ross, orders a nuclear strike on the site with the word...


*The explanation makes the Hulk something of an inevitability, rather than a magical apparition.

**The second is his wallet, his identity card showing.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

The Ten Greatest Films I've Seen

The trouble with writing about art is that you can betray or fail to do justice (or just plain get it wrong) to one's imprecise, complex and fundamentally ineffable experience by trying to put it into words. Worse, you can begin to wall it in and overwrite what you felt with the verbal label you have now stuck on it. 

What I have written here only describes or explains a fraction of what I felt or thought. I have tried not to trample on the magic. 

What I can do without problem or qualification is wholeheartedly recommend these films.

 10. Le Pont du Nord
1981 FRA Jacques Rivette 

The feeling you get from a Jacques Rivette film is of lightness and of space, of a story sprouting from the cracks between the pavements of our world rather than a world built for, and filled to suffocation by, a story.

Le Pont du Nord is delightful. Two homeless women stumble upon (or invent) a conspiracy taking place on the streets of Paris. The joy of it, really, is in the freedom Baptiste (left), Marie and we enjoy to walk the streets, to practise martial arts, to philosophise, to shop at markets and to get embroiled in dark plots nobody understands. The naturalness between the two (Pascale Ogier and her mother Bulle) is beautiful to watch.

Le Pont du Nord's wonder makes you smile, simultaneously utterly fantastical (Baptiste is literally caught in a web created by an unknown assailant) and the everyday with a merry twist (a woman whose car they broke into to sleep in awakes them not to shout or call the police but to warn them she'll have to leave in a couple of minutes). Life can be a game if you want it to.

There's no better compliment I can pay than to say that when Marie asks Baptiste if she wants some fruit, part of me thought "None for me thanks, is there a sandwich shop near here?".

9. Love Exposure
2008 JAPAN Sion Sono 

The pivotal moment of Sion Sono's story comes as a teenage boy, having lost a bet with his friends, carries out a forfeit of strutting downtown in drag. Long before the end of Love Exposure's four hours, filled with bawdiness, misunderstandings, sabotage, cross-dressing and grand excitement, it has begun to resemble something Shakespeare might write if he were egged on by the Earl of Rochester and François Rabelais.

However, all this, though never superfluous or less than enriching, is rococo decoration for the central love story, which is as beautiful as any on film.

Love Exposure is exciting both emotionally and intellectually. It is irreverent towards the corruptible and corrupting margins of religion yet reverent to its tenets of love. At first glance it may appear sensationalist and provocative in its depiction of familial abuse or teenage 'perversion' yet it is always serious and believable (and original) in how upheavals affect them at this vulnerable age. These aren't just the symptoms of angst, but its core causes: What am I for? Why should I care? Do I have a stake and a place?

Love Exposure's heart is enormous; towards the charming circle of friends fashioned out of shop-lifters and up-skirt photographers; towards Yoko and Yu, who battle to remain on an even keel; even towards the girl Koike whose 'Zero Church' (in many ways the film has the protagonists return to zero, a spiritual source)  attempts to brainwash them.

In the end Yoko, who longed for a man like Jesus, realises that perfection can be found in the imperfect. Yu, who searched for his own Virgin Mary, finds that lust and perversion can be happy bedfellows with true love. Through hatred, disaffection, cult programming and deprogramming and an unreasonable amount of fun, its course flows - sometimes at a trickle or a snaking drop, but never running dry.

 How often do we feel unadulterated joy in a cinema?

8. The New World
2005 USA Terrence Malick 

[Edited from previous review

Terence Malick takes us back to the beginning of America as if back to the beginning of time itself.

Ephemeral and eternal, the title The New World refers to the first steps on American soil, the first shivers of love, the first glimpse of heaven. It feels like we are slipping in and out of consciousness, sometimes within, sometimes without, sometimes just lost - internal monologues, wordless sequences, moments that seem like meadow-bound dreams and ones that are live and filthy and crawling. 1st, 2nd, 3rd person narratives pass across each other.

What impresses is that there is no hard and fast dichotomy made between pure-of-heart 'naturals' and English 'invaders'. We see that, through fear and mistrust, both sides jealously guard what is theirs and both sides may turn to violence in defence of it. 

The New World is immersive. It does not want you to pass by on the waters as the English ships, but dive beneath as the natives. It is able to lift images of grasses and moons, the first symbols and signs, up from banality and into rapture. 

 7. Labyrinth
1986 USA Jim Henson 

The 1980s was the motherlode of the films of wonder and fantasy. From Raiders of the Lost Ark to E.T. to The Goonies, Gremlins and Honey I Shrunk the Kids, movies were made with craft and love, with each effect and decision and challenge made to mean something. Substance and timelessness.

Labyrinth is the best of all these films. It is so spellbinding that its events, its colours, its designs, its music, like Sarah's toys, take shape and live in the rooms of our mind. They are there far beyond childhood - there should we need them for comfort or to reawaken an anxiety that makes us tingle.

Fifteen year old Sarah journeys through the maze to rescue her brother Toby from the Goblin King. As she does she grows to understand that she can control her dreams and fantasies of Princes and castles rather than have them control her (we could say that the whole adventure is conjured by her mind given how what is in her bedroom populates Jareth's world). It's clever and heart-warming because she doesn't finally reject childish things. She has moved on but can always look back.

Nostalgia isn't indiscriminate. It doesn't bow down to anything we saw when we were young. Labyrinth above all others sealed within me its songs (David Bowie's music fits snugly), its riddles, its costumes, its sense of wholeness and wholesomeness. Even now there are bits that are perfect or just right.

Would that those days of the intelligent artist, the sorcerers of storytelling, would come again.

 6. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
2000 CHINA Ang Lee 

A mark of a viscerally rousing film is that it sends you out onto the streets mimicking its action, the film still speaking through your movements. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, exhilarating beyond compare, makes you want to, and feel like you can, fly.

The sine qua non of superb action is not choreography but emotional significance. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has both in harmony. The parries of swords are an extension of real and profound anger and frustration. The breathtaking floating flight the logical and natural result of a multi-faceted wish to be free. One could draw a comparison with musicals, where, at their best, a burst into song is the inexorable result of an out and overpouring of emotion.

In this way Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a quiet and meditative film of thwarted love and ambition whose emotional peaks are represented by the force and elegance of dancing conflict.

 5. Mirror
1975 USSR Andrei Tarkovsky 

Light touches objects and the wind moves them as in no other film, as if bringing them to life. Our gaze moves like a ghost, sliding slowly so as to not disturb the dream. 

Judged purely on aesthetic merit, Andrei Tarkovsky's Mirror is supreme.

Tarkovsky can summon a spell, an ambience, like no other - in Solaris a car journey is so mesmeric as to be nigh on upsetting.

The sounds, birds, creaks, children calling, are dropped into a bottomless well of silence giving each thing and instant a sort of spiritual power and existence of their own (for example the vase that we wait to fall or the vanishing condensation left by a coffee cup), The music darkly dredges up the past, shrill, eerie, euphoric.

I was awestruck. After it no film seems worthy of the form, banal and amateurish by comparison. 

However, Mirror is incorporeal and fractured. That is, evidently, integral to its charm but the people and what they lived, told piecemeal and with no chance of full comprehension, didn't move me as they might. The sometimes cryptic and hallucinatory recollections of one man as he lies dying lack that soupçon of humanity that would have made Mirror even more remarkable.
 4. Three Times
2005 TAIWAN Hou Hsiao Hsien

It is 1966. Chen and May play pool. They have known each other only a day. They are awkward and tentative. They are nervous for new love is sensitive to the touch. They look at each other and then away. They are comfortably uncomfortable. Later the quickening pulse of the heart will surface as hiccups of laughter. This electricity keeps them wary yet every collision of ball on ball, known as a "kiss", works as a nearing, as a way of saying "I want to be with you".

This first part of Three Times is an immaculate depiction of that immaculate emotion.

Our palate is cleansed by the second part, an even more sedate story of a courtesan in 1911 who longs without fulfilment for a client. The plucking of instruments, the tweaking of costumes, the wiping away of a single tear. Everything is minute and unspoken. Its lyrical stillness gives us time to breathe.

The third part, set in the modern day, is noisier and more complicated with the relationship between the two (each pair is played by Shu Qi and Chang Chen) involving other people. It is a sad section. Here they are together physically but not altogether in spirit. They are broken people who hope, perhaps in vain, that the other they cling to can fix them. They only understand one thing about themselves: they don't want to be alone.

Three Times is excellent from start to finish. Those first forty minutes, though, are perhaps film's finest hour.

 3. Star Wars Episodes I - VI
1977-2005 USA George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, Richard Marquand

Star Wars is the epitome of myth - a family saga whose fate determines that of the entire galaxy.

It is excitement and camaraderie. There are monk-like priests who fight and there are bug-eyed patsies. There are kings and there are fools. Star Wars is slapstick and it is planet-shattering tragedy. It is the teeming detail of alien life and the sweeping scale of light years. It is the temptation of adventure and of power. It is a terrible fall into dictatorship, war and evil and a rise into democracy, peace and redemption.

It is kinetic spectacle without equal. It is timeless, the ancient past set within the schemata of science fiction futures. It is transporting, carrying us into the stars on its title crawl. It is deep too in allusion and allegory. It is a universe designed in 360 degrees. It is invention and giddy fun. It is colourful and it is grey and forbidding.

It is a cultural monolith that remains agile and surprising. Star Wars is the greatest story ever told on film.
My essay on Star Wars (via Revenge of the Sith)

2. Twin Peaks : Fire Walk With Me
1992 USA  David Lynch

[Adapted from previous review]

The tragedy of Cinema is that we are looking through a one-way mirror at a world that is unreachable, that is blind and alone. I have never seen a film where the screen has felt so thin, the story so immediate and raw as it does in Fire Walk With Me. The screen, though, is still too thick to smash, too thick to allow us to intervene.

Since the beginning of film, there have been depictions of abused and exploited women such as Kenji Mizoguchi's Oharu or Robert Bresson's Mouchette. I find those depictions to be somewhat withdrawn. The character is little more than a doll in a cardboard house beaten by an outsized hand. Their sorrow is cathartic and our emotions are easily washed away with tears. There is a tasteful distance, a slow pan, and eyes ultimately turned away.

In Fire Walk With Me there is awful horror and staggering beauty but neither is fetishized. And Lynch never turns away. He shows us what others imply, and shows it unsparingly. He shows what we want to see, not out of titillation or the promise of retribution, but out of sympathy. The world abandons Laura but we do not. We must not.

Suffering, Laura has turned to prostitution. She has become a drug addict. She has become selfish and cruel. She is manipulative, childlike and devilish. What's more, she is always aware of what she has become:

"Your Laura's just me now"

She fears that she cannot be saved. The angel in the painting on her wall disappears. She fears that she cannot be loved and is beyond redemption. When her end finally comes her angel is waiting for her. Disbelieving joy convulses out of her. It is the first time she has been happy for years.

The film ends on a freeze frame of her smiling face, just as every episode of Twin Peaks concluded on her beaming high-school portrait. Only this time the image that was once a cliched symbol of a corrupted innocent, a good gir
l gone bad, a suburban town with dirty secrets, has been brought to life and reconstructed. Laura is no longer a mere object around which the TV show's weird and farcical storylines revolved. The closing image is no longer a lie. The pain and the happiness is real.

The only qualm is the nature of Bob which is unnecessarily muddled and muddied. It worries me that he might be Evil possessing Leland as opposed to a representation and projection of Leland's evil. I am thankful that the film doesn't confirm either point of view as the possibility of Leland being exonerated in some way could make the film distasteful.

n Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is true horror - in other words, hurt and the fear of hurt. It has a love for the character that is noble, beguiling and bewitching. It is an absolutely wonderful film.

1. Dekalog 
1988/9 POL Krzysztof Kieslowski

Dekalog appears plain or even artless. It was made as a television series and it looks like one.  

Dekalog is humble and a masterpiece. It is made of ten stories each rooted in one of the Ten Commandments. Eschewing pontification and didacticism, we are shown that life is hard to live by law and diktat, and that some commandments may indeed overlap or even contradict each other.

In a manner of speaking each film is in fact a parable on Jesus'  11th Commandment - one that was not carved in stone - "love one another as I have loved you". The Dekalog is Old Testament law and ideals seen through the prism of New Testament compassion.

Every episode is perfectly scripted and acted, always credible and never artificially adding drama. Where there are symbols they are seamless and illuminating. Following the steps these people take as they wrestle with the burdens and moral conundra of life is all the drama we need. We are distant but consoling simply by being there.

No moralising, no sensationalism, just the cold faces and hands of men and women.

Each film ends with a fade to black as if inviting us into contemplation and prayer. I was speechless.

[A few essays and a previous review of Dekalog]

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

20-11 The Greatest Films I've Seen

20. The Exorcist
1973 USA William Friedkin 

The Exorcist is an adult film. No, not adult in its profanity or blasphemy or chilling horror,  but adult through its seriousness and serious-mindedness.

Its characters are mature, intellectually curious and principled enough to be bedevilled by doubts about their roles. These people are dignified and they are noble.

The Devil enters the chasms that have been left in their lives - by an absent and uncaring father, by a lapsed faith. He preys on them. He attempts to consume them. Only, by his very presence, he elicits a strengthening of resolve. His challenge, his baseness, requires an elevation of the heart.

A young girl's life is at stake. They fight, they pray. We stand by her bedside. She disappears and then returns.

The Exorcist builds on the worst nightmares of any parent, the simple things that can disturb an onlooker. It doesn't startle you or make you cower. It frightens you beyond shivers or jumps. It leaves you shaken and concerned.

[The Exorcist and 'the horror before the horror']

19. Korol Lir (King Lear)
1971 USSR Grigori Kozintsev

King Lear has inspired three striking cinematic adaptations. Jean-Luc Godard's King Lear, Akira Kurosawa's Ran and the greatest of all Shakespeares on film - Grigori Kozintsev's Korol Lir.

William Shakespeare's verse. Dmitri Shostakovich's cutting, clashing and tumultuous score. Cold, rocky, windswept landscapes. Kozintsev's sharp, intense monochrome. 

One of Kozintsev's great achievements (as he did to a lesser extent with Hamlet) is that, after so many dreadful versions of his plays, he reminds you of what a great talent Shakespeare could be. 

He makes King Lear earth-shattering. He gives it authority. Crucially he has actors who suck the dramatic pulp from the text and leave aside the tough skin of theatricality. Their performances mock the conventional wisdom that Shakespeare's work is somehow harder to perform than anyone else's (as if he invented emotions) or speaking his language were really like juggling oranges with your tongue. 

Korol Lir is masterful.

18. Film Socialisme
2010 SWI/FRA Jean-Luc Godard
Film Socialisme is funny, profound, farcical, beautiful (especially his close ups), clever, philosophically adroit, pretentious, purposefully silly, detached and tenderly warm.

Film Socialisme is an essay, a documentary, and, at the same time, the most blatant of fictions. It enchants the eye, the heart and the mind.

Godard's single best film may only rank at 18 but, uniquely, all his films have the best of Cinema in them. Taken as a whole, including the outstanding television project Histoire(s) du Cinema, his career's work outstrips any film-maker's. He consistently offers something to inspire, excite and challenge.

Film Socialisme is incomparable and only comparable to Godard's other incomparables.

A full review here.

17. My Neighbour Totoro
1988 JAPAN Hayao Miyazaki 

Japanese directors Mamoru Oshii, Satoshi Kon, Mamoru Hosoda, Hideaki Anno and many others (on TV as well as the big screen) have led animation into its golden age.

The greatest of all of these storytellers is Hayao Miyazaki. 

One could point to self-improvement, to down-to-earth fantasy, to environmental concern, to respect for one's cultural heritage as the foundation of Miyazaki's films. While these are indeed constants of his work, what truly defines them is their meticulous and kindly attention to character, to the minutiae of mannerism and mood, to the volatile relationships between young people and the world around them.

My Neighbour Totoro is cute and upliftng beyond words. It gives you a spring in your step and a song in your heart. 

It doesn't use emotional whitewash on its tale of the girls' ill mother - nor proposes the spirits as crude escapism or mere subconscious projection - and never lets the delights of the forest run treacly. It is sentiment made gloriously unsentimental. 

 16. Jeanne La Pucelle
1994 FRA Jacques Rivette

Jeanne La Pucelle is a work of abundant light and luxurious space. Like all of Jacques Rivette's films it is airy, cool and elegant. The places and the people are so alive, present and unvarnished that the film enthrals from start to finish.

It is rare for so many characters to become so familiar to us and so dear (diaristic entries to camera very cleverly break up the film, bring us closer to the people and elide the more mundane milestones). In Jeanne La Pucelle they are so distinct and interesting that Jeanne's farewells feel like ours too.

As for Jeanne, she has a smile in her eyes that reflects both the tranquility of the divine and the unfettered amusement of a normal girl. She gives herself no airs and demands respect only for God and the Saints who guide her.

Once she has achieved what they wanted from her - the crowning of the Dauphin in Reims (marvellous, rich pageantry) - the voices stop and she finds herself caught and tried for blasphemy. The end is near.

All great tales shock us with the memory of their beginning, appearing so hazily on the horizon behind us that we cannot believe we were ever there. It isn't the length of the film, or the miles we cover on foot and on horseback but the people we travel with that make it into a journey.

Full review here.

15. Rosetta
1999 BEL Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne

Keeping the camera unsteady, and invading the characters' space with close ups has become a shorthand for 'gritty' realism (for the 'real' can never be happy of course), for describing an isolated figure in turmoil.

In Rosetta we are tied to her in close up. To her face, to her back, as focused on her and her troubles as she is. She feels that there is no-one to reach out to and that she will never get out of "the rut". She is cut off. Off-screen is the world. Rosetta's world is the trap of her existence. The Dardennes aren't playing at the game of miserabilist martyrdom, of cosmetic instability. It isn't 'true' or 'raw', but a fiction we can believe in (in its situation, its characters, its purpose for existence).

Rosetta wants a steady job. She almost lets a colleague drown so that she can take his place. He, in return, resents her and torments her, pursuing her like a demon on his bike, its roar tearing at her peace. 

She prepares to kill herself, carrying a gas canister back to her trailer. The man circles her on his bike, taunting her. She falls three times and begins to cry. Then, a miracle. An arm comes from off-screen. The world has stepped into her frame and intervened to save her. In the face of her suffering (passion) her tormentor's hate and jealousy has been burnt away to reveal the basis of all humanity - compassion - the same compassion that compelled Rosetta (despite her selfish impulses) to save him from the river. 

Her tears subside and ours swell.

14. Au Hasard Balthazar
1966 FRA Robert Bresson 

We don't know why they do what they do. Evil is committed. It is allowed to hold power and sway. Inevitability presses down on people.

Bresson's film too, with its cast of elegant and complaisant sufferers, flirts with sanctifying suffering.

Bresson strips away everything but the barest gestures of emotion - an outstretched hand, a sole tear, a head turned away. The core, the soul is afforded a gravity and a burden unique to his films.

Taking away the details of motivations and sensations, actions and consequences are clearer. The purely human, hiding behind the layers of expression and signs.

Au Hasard Balthazar, mighty in an austerity that presents objects as though with a neutral fondness, does not sanctify people merely because they accept their cross. Instead it illuminates how the vice of life's suffocating grip strains and buckles against the holy and the irreducible in all of us.

13. The Apu Trilogy
1955-59 INDIA Satyajit Ray 

While revered Indian Directors Ritwik Ghatak and Guru Dutt tipped their style into the quaint, the picturesquely "just so", the films of Satyajit Ray succeed in their balancing act. They are sensitive, optimistic and fair without being over-embroidered, precious or too arranged.

The Apu Trilogy, regardless of its series of tragedies, is relaxed, unbuttoned and fine. The relationships between people are gentle and grown gently in soft light. The reeds sway, the train chugs by, the lovely little crises and mischiefs of family sparkle like trickling water in the sun.

There are always struggles to make ends meet and they are met with hope and good faith. There are deaths that tenderise the heart and open the eyes to look for new love.

The trilogy lives its moments of clumsiness - actions that are not natural but self-regarding symbolic gestures - but these are rare.

12. Fanny and Alexander
1982 SWE Ingmar Bergman 

The faces, the colours, the movement, the light (musty, harsh, painterly), Fanny and Alexander is dressed with the vibrancy and vivacity of a fairytale, the fragrant, ineffable fleshiness of dream, of nightmare, of shadows of childhood, of wild memories thrown onto the wall.

To Fanny and Alexander, like for all children, the world they are growing into is crazy - full of ghosts and monsters, ecstasy and fun, cold fear and blank desolation. Family is riotous, uproarious, an amorous embrace.

It is as an abundant novel, a saga, a story whose tinted pages have the aroma of age and wisdom. The moustaches bristle, the whip cracks, the wax drips. The men are more than men - they are lascivious, they are curmudgeonly, they are magicians and sorcerers. They are pompous, earthy, heroic. The women are more than women. They are angels. They are nymph-like creatures moulded by Rubens, put upon and putting upon. A mother is comfort and peace. A father is strength and certainty.

Fanny and Alexander is a sitcom, a farce, a myth. At its best it is unmatched.

11. Chungking Express
1994  Hong Kong Wong Kar Wai 

Chungking Express is here purely on the strength of its second story of a cop (Tony Leung) and a waitress at a snack bar (Faye Wong).

The first story is fine but doesn't show or evoke anything special. The second, an infectious blossoming love, is Cinema of the very highest order. The chemistry between the two actors/characters, the grinning of the eyes, that catchy excitement, is so wonderful that it is difficult to describe. 

Faye takes to breaking into his apartment and rearranging his furniture, bringing in goldfish, swapping his soft toys, ironing his shirts. As the Cop is wont to anthropomorphise his home and his belongings as an extension and representation of his own feelings, she is effectively signing her name on his heart.

It is very hard to divine what goes into making a great love story. We know what should come out : we need to feel a certainty that the two belong together and a desperate, nervous yearning for it to happen. Chungking Express is that.

[Read my essay on Identities and Labels in Chungking Express]

Friday, 11 March 2011

30-21 The Greatest Films I've Seen

30. Playtime
1967 FRA Jacques Tati 

Jacques Tati's Playtime is whimsy, dozens of amusing observations and occurrences intricately choreographed.

As well as conventional gags quickly set up and delivered (the woman who seems to float by, the window cleaner who tilts the window and those reflected, the neon halo above the priest) Tati orchestrates protracted set pieces through which a dozen funny ideas happily run along. In an airport, a roundabout, an office block and, most notably, a restaurant, Tati lays down a picnic blanket and brings delicacy after delicacy out of his hamper.

Then there is the comedy on a still larger scale - the bewildering bureaucratic utopia/dystopia, the homogenisation of cities, or the breaking up of social orders.

Like no other film, Playtime demands and rewards your attention. There's nothing uproarious or crude about it. Droll and clever, it shows that if we keep our eyes peeled everything can tickle us, or even pleasantly pass the time infuriating us. 
 29. Rebecca
1940 USA Alfred Hitchcock 

The success of Alfred Hitchcock's best film, Rebecca, is that it takes Daphne Du Maurier's wonderful story and avoids messing it up.

There's nothing particularly striking about the way Rebecca is shot. The key is in following the dramatic throughline with style but not with a panache that overwhelms and makes tawdry its, admittedly high-concept, pleasures.

The film does change the nature of Maxim's past actions but the story was never focussed on Maxim's character. It's focus is his new wife (the book's narrator) and her battle with the ghost of Rebecca, his late first wife. The sensations of discomfort and anxiety (tormented by close friend of Rebecca's Mrs Danvers) are very well portrayed by Joan Fontaine. She is only just learning to be a woman and now she must learn to be a wife, a second wife, and a lady of a grand house. Sometimes it's like a dream, other times a nightmare.

The shocking twists that shake her certainty and self-confidence are perhaps the best in all of film.

28. Hail Mary 
1985 FRA Jean-Luc Godard

Understandably causing controversy upon release - changing but one word of a sacred text will lead to dismay and offence - Hail Mary may be at times abiblical but it is never anti-biblical.

Perhaps only by exploring the story afresh and extrapolating upon its psychologies (there is not that much on what Mary and Joseph felt in the New Testament) can we shake ourselves out of our complacency with its mysteries and earth-shattering significances.

It is a film that allies innocent/cheeky mischief (the Angel Gabriel's grumpy dutifulness, Joseph's suspicions of Mary) with a glowing depiction of nature (an coalescence of God, the beginning of time and a new wind of change in the sunsets, the moons and the grasses) and Mary. We see a woman's body, fully nude, as if never before - not sexualised or objectified.

There are exquisite flashes throughout : Mary plays basketball and the squeaking sounds of the court are interpolated with the strains of Bach, God's calling; life breathed into Mary's belly as she lies on her bed; Joseph learning that love is self-sacrifice, not touching Mary's body but holding his hand by her belly.

In the end Godard has done something that seems impossible. Hail Mary is fresh and bold without courting controversy and honorific without ever being obsequious towards the material.

27. Hotel Monterey
1972 BEL Chantal Akerman 

There is a burgeoning movement in art which shows less to create the illusion of more. There is a climate where those who have little craft or ideas hope the credulous viewer, desperate to prove themselves a discerning connoisseur, will fill the void themselves.

In Cinema there are Directors who think the "simple" can only be a veil for the deep, for their depth. Chantal Akerman's Hotel Monterey strips the minimalist altar bare and, through showing what it can really do, rudely exposes those who exploit it.

Of course I am sure plenty would accuse Hotel Monterey of the same pretentiousness. Only there is not one moment where an image is doing more than being itself or asking for more than to be looked at for its concreteness, its lines, its colours. Chantal Akerman has a great eye for a seductive composition. Still shots last for a couple of minutes and instead of losing interest in them we are entranced, our eyes relaxing and focusing and then relaxing again. 

The film is entirely silent and what is around you (birds, the whir of a fan, distant roadworks or nothing at all) is your soundtrack. It is all-enveloping. Bit by bit we work our way up the foyers and corridors of the hotel until we emerge on the roof. Only a very talented artist can treat the simple simply. It is an awfully difficult thing to do.

26. The Trial of Joan of Arc 
1962 FRA Robert Bresson

[Edited down from previous review]
Jeanne and the men who judge her are never in the same composition. There is a rupture. The rhythm of question and response is a harassment. She withstands, parrying their strikes. They ask, and she glances down. She responds, eyes lifted. There is a word that sounds and feels such as the dynamic of this trial : impitoyable, merciless and implacable.

Le Proces de Jeanne D'Arc does not incite pathos or gather tears. So much can come from observing this 'model' (Florence Delay). 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 spectacle. There is an immaculate profundity : feet and hands, shackled and unshackled. The sound is heavy. Shouts snipe from offscreen demanding that the "witch"
be burnt. The roar of the fire is unbearable and not only because of what it means. 

Jeanne is tied to the stake. A dog passes between the onlookers. It looks up. It doesn't understand. 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. 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.  

25. Flight of the Red Balloon
2007 FRA / TAIWAN Hou Hsiao Hsien

The dilemmas of a single mother (Suzanne) struggling with her son (Simon), her absent daughter and a nuisance tenant reach no resolution and no conclusion.

We float in and out of their story watching while she attempts to anchor her life. The titular balloon is rarely seen but we know that at any time it may be there, a calming and un-judging observer, a counterpoint.
The balloon is like the notes the piano tuner sounds over and over while Suzanne's anger and sadness is 'tuned' into a simple gesture of love between mother and son. 

Little things go out of their control. The balloon appears to have a mind of its own but it is only being carried on the wind. Suzanne and Simon are too lacking in full control. Only they are not peaceful about it. 

Here is the power of film and memory and the way someone's voice or someone's camera can give new life to old. The balloon kissing its own image painted on the wall is the now honouring the past.

The film doesn't play with grand decisions and solid finalities. The story is each moment.

Full review here.

24. Die Hard 
1988 USA John McTiernan 

A smirk, a grimace, a disbelieving chuckle. The fly in the ointment, the monkey in the wrench, the pain in the ass.

The big kid. The anti-authority authority. The outlaw with a badge.

Die Hard is hyper-tense, and super-thrilling, two dozen storeys of blue steel, grey concrete, pipes, glass and smoke : a dangerous city built upright. You feel every knock, every inch of punctured skin, every bit of sweat, every cheeky triumph. It is the apogee of all action films, the non pareil, and McClane is the perfect hero to pop Hans' balloon. Then there's Al, Agents Johnson and Ellis, Holly, brilliantly strong characters all.

What better way to prove you're a man to your wife than by killing a load of bad guys?

23. Poltergeist
1982 USA Tobe Hooper 

What makes Poltergeist such a spectacle of wonderment and worry is the giant heart of a tangible family love.

From the children's bedroom (a technicolour shrine to Americana) where a tree smashes through the window, and the kitchen where the chairs arrange themselves, to the garden where poor Tweety is (temporarily) buried, this home and its objects come alive in more ways than one.

We care when the light show turns hysterical. We care when Diane holds a whispered night-time vigil with Dr. Lesh. Everything is vivid. Poltergeist is sweet (the mouthed "I love you" between husband and wife), funny ("Can I have a goldfish?"; the duelling remote controls) and clever (after everything that's happened Steve still finds the idea of a medium ridiculous; Diane turns the channel over to a violent film because Carol Anne is staring at static).

It is exciting (Diane dragged along the ceiling), terrifying (the dog-like beast), sad (Carol Anne saying "no more" as the closet door opens again to take her inside) breathtaking (Carol Anne's spirit is felt by her mother : "It's her. It's my baby. She went through my soul") and truly moving (mother and child are reborn from the other side together in the bathtub).

Poltergeist is a film of many wonders.

22. Gion Bayashi
1953 JAPAN Kenji Mizoguchi

The softness of the black and white, the poses of the geisha, the smartness of frames and faces speak of delicacy, order and despondency.

Gion Bayashi sits and settles. It meditates upon those women whose profession is at the crossroads between a noble craft and a sordid exploitation. As in Street of Shame (Akasen Chitai) it is through the eyes of the newest and youngest geisha (Ayako Wakao) that we see the perils and restraints of this life, the sacrifices made to learn music, dance, deportment and those made too to one's dreams and dignity.

Mizoguchi steers clear of sensationalism. He shows the fine line between something good and something wrong, what should be carried forward and what should be discarded. He shows too that, whichever way society as a whole faces, it is the individual men who decide what becomes of these women.

 21. A.I. Artificial Intelligence
2001 USA Steven Spielberg

A.I. is emotionally draining. It is overflowing with sadness. Yearning and rejection walk hand in hand, and love, always incomplete, always malfunctioning.

Is love ever selfless? Do we love because we are loved? Do we love what people do for us? Is an emotion real if that which inspires it is an illusion?

There are critics who have decried A.I.'s ending as sentimental or in some way upbeat. There is nothing upbeat in A.I. except the splendour of a magnificently realised story. The end is the end of a cycle - Monica created David to love her and now David brings back Monica to love him.

A.I. is not another future where robots may take over or turn against us or keep us apart. A.I.'s future is more believable and more troubling: if we could create things that seemed so much like us but were disposable, how would we begin to see ourselves?

Here's my essay on A.I. entitled Love, Self-Love and Self-Hate.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

40-31 The Greatest Films I've Seen

 40. Aliens
1986 USA James Cameron 

James Cameron has always played with the opposition of feminine and masculine archetypes (stereotypes?) and the line where they may meet. As with the once flighty Sarah Connor in Terminator 2, Aliens features a vivid icon of the mother / warrior dichotomy: Ripley carrying both Newt and a flamethrower. In both films it is the role of motherhood that triggers a new courage and a new aggression.

Although it's best not to fit films into genre boxes, introducing elements considered as belonging to different genres (with their unwritten rules) necessitates satisfying the audience's hunger for an appropriate pay-off. Putting a child into an environment of extravagant machismo could have been hokey and awkward.  The visceral and sustained explosion of action could easily have suffered when counterweighted with the rhythms of outright horror, which is more vulnerable to an unrelenting pace. Finally, Aliens' science fiction DNA might have been quickly diluted.

Aliens is a one-of-a-kind film that succeeds in getting the best out of these ingredients, building a ferociously terrifying whole. This is a chunky film made of real hardware, far distant from the mirages of computer software.

There is the sight of Newt dwarfed by an Alien slowly emerging from the waters. There is the nauseating flesh of a face-hugger's legs squeaking along metal floors, the beep of oncoming danger, the hiss of acid spat. There is too the fraught gallows humour of a trigger-happy troop made to fearfully tiptoe moist forbidding corridors:

“We can't have any firing in here...”

“What the hell are we supposed to use man? Harsh language?!”

Witness the climactic adulation of one of Cinema's great heroines. Ripley explodes the myth that courage and strength are masculine qualities worn like a marine uniform. They can be feminine qualities too :

“Get away from her you bitch!”

On the feminine/masculine of Aliens and Avatar. 

39. The Skywalk is Gone
2002 Taiwan Tsai Ming-Liang 

In What Time is it There? Shiang-chyi bought a watch from Hsiao-kang from his pitch on a train station's Skywalk that traverses a bustling street. Soon after she left for Paris.

In The Skywalk is Gone she has returned to Taipei, perhaps looking for Hsiao-Kang. Only the skywalk (in real life as well as in the film) has been torn down. She can't search. Nostalgia cannot be refuelled with fresh feeling nor disappointed. She walks. She stops. She asks questions. There is a gap. She stares at a giant screen advertising inanities (Cinema brought low) and, from a cafe, overlooks the area where progress has erased history and memory.

We see Hsiao-kang too. Indeed they pass each other on a staircase. He turns around but darkness and time dull recognition. 

The Skywalk is Gone (which functions as a skywalk between What Time is it There? and The Wayward Cloud) is an elegant depiction of things lost but, regardless of the story, it is a pleasure to look at, to enter into its appealingly crisp and relaxing compositions. Tsai Ming-Liang is one of the few Directors who can make you sad rather than relieved that a long take has ended. In only 22 minutes it refreshes the eyes.

38. Mulholland Drive
2001 USA David Lynch 

The thin gauze of a dream through which seeps the gangrenous wound of reality.

Whether a fantasy or a dream, Diane/Betty's alternate world buries her pain and guilt deep. So momentous are her actions and her suffering, however, that they cannot be contained.

By making Mulholland Drive such a wilfully obscure puzzle-box narrative some of this pain, this human core, is lost on a first viewing. The characters are confused. The viewer is confused. However, the menacing ambience (that Badalamenti hum) and the phenomenal central performance by Naomi Watts leave an indelible mark (or should that be scar?).

You come back to the film not to find answers to questions but to get lost again. You learn that the final tragedy and its true explanation (from which we are kept at arm's length) is less important than the frightening disorientation of Diane/Betty that we are never less than overwhelmed by.

37. Once Upon A Time in America
1984 ITA/USA Sergio Leone 

Of 'period pieces' or adaptations of well-known classics the question is asked: 'How do we bring it into the now? How do we modernise it?' For something set in the past to be 'relevant' (as if people aren't people whenever they were born) and 'alive' there is often the assumption that it must be filtered through the perspectives and realities of the 21st Century. This is nonsense. 

Once Upon A Time in America demonstrates that the past is made relevant and fresh in the same way that all (human) stories are: making every detail of time and place so vivid that it feels like it is right in front of us. In other words, by paying greater attention to the world of the original. We are the 21st Century filter.

Watching, I felt like I'd seen it before - the suitcase of money, the cream cakes, the girl who dances like a music-box ballerina. It was deja vu. So rich was it in its aromas, its pungent smoke and its noises, as if Gheorghe Zamfir's pan pipes were charming something out from far inside and far back.

The first hour is sensational. The childhood of these friends, interspersed with moments of great tension from Noodles' adulthood, thrums with life. It is elegiac. It is moving. Then slowly that sharpness dwindles as the details (bad makeup, implausible motivations) and our sympathies (we see the best in the children but find it hard to feel sorry for a rapist cast as a pitiable loner) falter.

There are still moments - the operatic baby-kidnapping especially - but it's not the same. Noodles' life ends up feeling like that of any gangster. Once Upon A Time in America ends up feeling like any other film. But the memories...

36. The Postman Always Rings Twice
1946 USA Tay Garnett 

He wanted her! She wanted him! Lana Turner has never been so ravishing! John Garfield burns up the screen as the drifter caught in Cora's headlights! 

They loved! They killed! Destiny brought them together, and fate tore them apart!

That blonde hair! That lipstick! Those legs! That scream! James M Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice as you've never seen it before! Lana Turner as you've seen her a couple of times before! THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE!

In all good DVD stores now.

 35. Oxhide 
2005 CHINA Liu Jiayin 

Why would you want to watch a young woman and her parents eating dinner, measuring how tall she'd grown and arguing over discounts for leather bags? Why would you want to watch a family doing what a family normally does?

Oxhide (written and directed by Liu Jiayin; starring herself and her parents in their apartment) is a humanist and life-affirming film insofar as it shows daily interactions, that we may take for granted as banal and non-dramatic, as they are: nourishing, amusing, and comforting.  It turns the camera on us. 

It makes you smile. It's good to be invited to stay for a couple of days.

Oxhide is painstakingly scripted and rehearsed but, because the 'actors' are so obviously comfortable with each other, it has the glow of real life and of an affection and ease that cannot be faked. Maybe only by creating an artificial framework are they relaxed enough to be themselves on camera.

Jiayin's camera never moves. It is often placed at waist height and more often gives you less than the whole. Whereas Hou Hsiao Hsien's films allow you to turn your head as you sit in the corner of the room and Ozu's allow you an unobstructed view of your hosts, Jiayin's shots are somewhat more intimate (the placement of the camera adds humour too). It feels like a privilege. We are sneaking a peek at the cat hiding or of food being prepared and spiced.

It is a touching family portrait.

34. Sunrise : A Song of Two Humans
1927 USA F W Murnau 

Sunrise is so very beautiful. You bask in its rays.

Their love is so powerful. In fact it is rapturously affirmed in spite of the husband's mercurial desire to kill his wife (she sulks about it for a couple of minutes), This barely believable forgiveness, offered by a stereotypical angelic woman to the stereotypical dopey man, makes of this love a quasi-parodic ideal.

In Antichrist the hellish destruction by “man” and “woman” of their love grows from small seeds. Here, it is the opposite for the similarly nameless pair. Faced with the giant obstacle of her husband's affair and his (albeit short-lived) willingness to bump her off, she takes him back without qualms.

Sunrise is at times too soppy. Perhaps the dropping, in much of the literature on and distribution of Sunrise, of the mawkish “A Song of Two Humans” shows that we are wary of such brazen sentiment.

Nevertheless, most of it is luminous. It is said of some films that they look like great paintings. Sunrise is a painting. With light. 

33. Southland Tales
2006 USA Richard Kelly 

Southland Tales has been popularly dismissed as a garbled mess, a cornucopia of "undigested" influences, a "self-indulgent" folly. 
Southland Tales is gorgeous.  It is inventive and transporting in a way precious few films are. If worth can be judged by how hard it would be to replace something if it were lost, Southland Tales, in a cinematic world of few risks and little true insight, is priceless. It is sui generis, visually stunning, funny, moving, and only rarely less than startling. It is a carnival mirror to the fractured and melancholic mind-set of a United States reeling from terrorist attacks.

I believe Richard Kelly, in showing characters searching for truth and meaning in a troubled world, is doing as much as Andrei Tarkovsky did, in Sacrifice, Stalker  or Nostalghia, for the cinema of spiritual quest. 

Denying it a place in the top ten are flashes of quirkiness for its own sake, sketch-like fragments that don't quite work. Nevertheless, I doubt I'll see a film like Southland Tales again.

Read my essay on Southland Tales and Bad Lieutenant entitled A Wounded America

32. Sátántangó
1994 HUN Bela Tarr 

It is very hard to describe the films of Béla Tarr, for me at least. Then again, the greater a work of art the more it surpasses the unremarkable, to which we are practised in giving words.

Snail-like camera, thudding sounds, chiaroscuro eclatant and a thousand textures of grey. From Damnation to Tarr's latest, A Man from London (almost as good as Sátántangó), there is a monolithic weightiness to his work. 

The style gives the people of his films - downtrodden by circumstances humdrum (the inescapable in music repeated) and mystical - a kind of gravitas and presence tied to the land, to the houses, to the limitations of their minds and bodies. It would be remiss to suggest that the plot of Sátántangó is of little consequence but, truth be known, the sedentary and torpid grace of its images and movements overshadow the comings and goings of the village.

The girl and her cat, the owl in the darkness, the doctor hunched over his desk, the prostitutes huddling round a barn fire, the haunted eyes of helpless souls and the protracted tango that leads to rare gaiety in well-earned exhaustion. If only it were ten hours long instead of seven.

31. The Village
2004 USA M Night Shyamalan 

Grief is a retreat inwards. So, often, is fear. 

The elders of The Village want to escape all evil and protect innocence. They think that 'Us' and 'Them' can be separated. Only 'us' is 'them' and innocence will always be sullied and corrupted by wrongdoing or by suffering.

The Village is a proper story - a fabulous concept, beautifully executed. 

'Us' and 'Them' can be the US and "Them", as many have proposed. The monsters and the people in "the towns" could represent anything : terrorists, foreigners, members of other races, cultures or ways of life considered damaging. Fear creates fear. The Village, powerfully simple and splendidly constructed, is fertile ground for allegory.

A situation will always stand for and bring to mind similar situations. We needn't focus directly on those echoes, nor should we, lest we lose our intimacy with the story at hand. The Village is by turns sweet, nerve-wracking and heart-rending. These people have lost faith in others and, therefore, in themselves. They have endured the death of loved ones and they can no longer bring themselves to live.