Tuesday 28 December 2010

The Animation Countdown Ends

A few days ago the countdown of my top 100 animated works (film or television) came to an end at Wonders in the Dark. I wrote reviews for the top 50. Here is the final list :

1 My Neighbour Totoro
2 The Simpsons
3 Cinderella (1922 - Lotte Reiniger)
4 Paranoia Agent
5 Whisper of the Heart
6 Spirited Away
7 Yokohama Shopping Log
8 The Hand
9 The Mascot
10 Patlabor 2 The Movie
11 Inspirace
12 Feeling from Mountain and Water
13 The Plague Dogs
14 Hedgehog in the Fog
15 Perfect Blue
16 The Adventures of Mark Twain
17 Le Nez
18 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
19 Early Abstractions
20 The Snow Queen
21 Porco Rosso
22 Triangle
23 The Battle of Kerzhenets
24 Pleasures of War
25 Allegro Non Troppo
26 Story of a Street Corner
27 La Joie de Vivre
28 Only Yesterday
29 Firing Range
30 Space Ghost Coast to Coast
31 The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia
32 Batman Mask of the Phantasm
33 Sinking of the Lusitania
34 The Many Adventures of Winnie The Pooh
35 Crac
36 Serial Experiments Lain
37 Destino
38 Le Roi et L’Oiseau
39 Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
40 Stoppit and Tidyup
41 The Metamorphosis of Mr Samsa
42 Street of Crocodiles
43 Swinging the Lambeth Walk
44 House of Flame
45 The Old Lady and the Pigeons
46 Valhalla
47 Sky Blue
48 Sleeping Beauty
49 A Picture
50 Yellow Submarine
51 Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
52 Balance
53 Kamichu!
54 Monsters Inc.
55 Princess Mononoke
56 I Love to Singa
57 Ren and Stimpy
58 Millennium Actress
59 Adventures of Prince Achmed
60 Wolf and Calf
61 Laputa : Castle in the Sky
62 1895
63 Jumping
64 Ai
65 Anne of Green Gables
66 Punch and Judy
67 Cat Concerto
68 Angel's Egg
69 Muto
70 Nightangel
71 The Humpbacked Horse
72 Dumbo
73 Little Nemo
74 Belleville Rendez-Vous
75 Le Roman de Renard
76 Ulysses 31
77 Urusei Yatsura
78 The Comb
79 The Hasher's Delirium
80 Ponyo
81 Haibane Renmei
82 Pinocchio
83 Dangermouse
84 Watership Down
85 Who Framed Roger Rabbit
86 Mindscape
87 A Short History
88 Kirikou et La Sorciere
89 Epilogue
90 A Charlie Brown Christmas
91 Monster
92 Tyger
93 Avatar : The Last Airbender
94 The Tale of How
95 Animal Farm
96 Dougal and the Blue Cat
97 Creature Comforts
98 My Neighbours the Yamadas
99 Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters
100 Harpya

Monday 29 November 2010

Do Films Need Music?

The more 'minimalist' films you experience - by the Dardennes Brothers, say, or Lisandro Alonso and Chantal Akerman - or films with little or no musical soundtrack (The Birds, for example), the more music is exposed as the least important of all Cinematic tools.

"Do films need music" might be a disingenuous question. "Would this film be better without music?" is a better, more pertinent one. In Let the Right One In it felt like an unwelcome visitor. In L'Intrus, an imposter. Music in the former reiterated what we were seeing. In the latter it attempted to mask narrative emptiness with faux mysteriousness. In my mind music had slowly become superfluous, retreating to where it is the story, as in some silent films, or, of course, Musicals.

Or should the question be posed from another angle: "Have you seen a film that you thought would benefit from more music?" I don't think I have.

What is music used for? To aid comprehension (as a guide); to add meaning or excitement by amplifying or counteracting the predominant text; to anticipate an attack (in a horror film) unforeseen by the character; to speak the unspoken; to help you remember the film (an aide memoire). Most of all it is there to be entertaining in and of itself, regardless of its relationship to the rest of the film. For me, saying "but it's a great tune" is not enough.

Considering the root reasons for needing music in these cases we can conclude that music improves. However, though it improves, it puts a cap on the potential of the story to be told in the most effective way possible. In other words music is a band-aid on a broken leg.

Music is too often used to validate a flimsy moment, to paper over cracks, to suspend or distract disbelief. Therefore the problem with extra-diegetic (deriving from outside the fictional world of the film) music is partly fundamental, partly in how it is conventionally utilised.

I believe, even when it is making up for something missing or getting our toes tapping, that music generally closes space, suffocates a film by limiting its emotional palette. Clearly music does not come from the fictional world. It is a screen that stands in the way of a more direct engagement. It's good to be in a character's head for a while, where there's no music.It is, undeniably, an especially artificial part of film. Can music be as exploratory, curious and deep as the human mind or heart? Does it expand our horizons or simply take our hand to point at specific sights, 'manipulating' us?

Is it an exaggeration to say that music turns us from witnesses of people and place (even if that is also a controlled, sealed environment) to consumers of those same objects packaged as a product? Yes, music inevitably changes what we see, but what films use music to spice a situation or to undermine, balance, critique, deepen rather than mirror? It seems that a Director, going to a composer, will ask that composer to 'match' what is on screen rhythmically and tonally.

As it is most soundtracks endorse their existence by the following logic: the music is cool, tense etc. and so one thinks the film would be boring without it. The film though is geared towards the inclusion of music and so that is, in fact, true. Why do we say it would be boring without it? What is it hiding?

Is the ubiquitousness of music about control? When there is no music or even no sound, we start to think. We think all kinds of things that take us away from what the film-maker intended or wants us to think or feel. Understandably, artists can be scared of that silence. Their vision needs to be clear and clearly communicated. The music shepherds us back onto the beaten track.

By its nature and by its use music is damaging many films. Of course there are exceptions. Sofia Coppola uses music with ease and style to comment, critique and enrich (and to get us humming along). She demonstrates that the creation of a soundtrack does not have to be an afterthought.

Action and Science Fiction films imbibe music into their fabric most effectively. Nevertheless, imagine Star Wars with its incredible sounds as the music. What would it be like?

Perhaps there are moments, because film will always be a distant world through a looking-glass, that require a soundtrack. Maybe music is needed when we would otherwise have to physically be there to fully comprehend events.

Below is a link to the iconic 'shower scene' from Psycho - once with music in place, once without music:

Psycho Shower Scene

The first, with music, is a tour de force. It is an entertainment. The second is bare and nude and exposed. As Grace Zabriskie says in Inland Empire, it is now a "brutal f***ing murder". The choice is yours.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Different and Memorable Cinematic Kisses

A kiss is a kiss. A viewer can become blase about an inevitable touching of lips. This is when a Director can accentuate the intimacy and the spiritual elevation of an embrace to reinvigorate the image with a tinge of the visceral.

In the 1957 film An Affair To Remember Leo McCarey has his romantic partners kiss off-screen (below), the posing of their lower bodies speaking of submission to the ecstasy of the moment. The sacred intimacy of this first kiss is preserved by being away from prying eyes and the sensuality thus only heightened. Our imaginations run riot, an audience's anticipation left fulfilled and in limbo. In this one scene, therefore, the Director encapsulates the whole film - they have each other off-stage but will they hold on to each other on-stage?

Submission is one way in Ivan's Childhood. A man makes to help a girl across a trench only to capture her in a clinch while she is helpless. He has complete power as she dangles over the hole. Both romantic (swept off her feet) and predatory. The old symbol of love as a battle, love to be won, to be taken before it is given.

A kiss is used as part of a religious rapture and deliverance in another film by Andrei Tarkovsky: Offret or The Sacrifice. This encounter will help avert a Third World War. The couple levitate and spin above a bed.

Another example of a kiss giving life and freedom is in David Lynch's Inland Empire. 'Polish Girl' is released from her torment through the travails of Nikki/Susan.

One of the most well-known (and most parodied) kisses of recent times happens in Spider-Man. Spider-Man dangles upside down for Mary Jane. Its novelty and the heroic but vulnerable pose of Spider-Man lends an extra spice. It's unexpected and all the sweeter for it.

There is another novel kiss in Aeon Flux short Gravity. Here the man and the woman lean out of train windows as they rush past.

Now here are four examples of kisses with no physical contact. In Bright Star Fanny kisses John's letter, a surrogate for the man himself. In Pulp Fiction Vincent blows an innocent kiss like a blessing. In Twin Peaks : Fire Walk With Me Bobby kisses the display cabinet that shuts Laura's portrait away. Finally, in Let the Right One In, Oskar and Eli (lying in a box to avoid the sunlight) beat the word 'Kiss' in Morse Code.

And finally, a 'conventional' and perhaps kitsch kiss made triumphant and celebratory by expectation, by music and by the use of fast and slow motion.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Animation Countdown at Wonders in the Dark - November the 2nd

From November the 2nd I will be hosting at Wonders in the Dark a countdown of the 50 best animated films that I have seen.

I've tried as best I can to sample what the world of animation can offer and hope to offer up a smorgasbord of those films, long and short, that have left the greatest impression. It's been very enjoyable watching and reading about the kind of art that is too often or too quickly neglected.

 I am following in the footsteps of the fascinating Horror Countdown which is still to conclude, appropriately, on the 31st of October. I hope there will be as lively a discussion of Animation as there has been for Horror. As with Horror, each day a new piece on an animated film will be posted, each day taking us closer to the final revelation of the number one in December.

There is a banner on the side that you can click on / will be able to click on to take you to Wonders in the Dark. I hope people will enjoy it as much as I have.

Friday 15 October 2010

A Wounded America : Bad Lieutenant and Southland Tales

In the decade now passed The United States of America experienced two catastrophic events. On September the 11th 2001, passenger planes piloted by terrorists were flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Weakened by fire the two towers of the World Trade Center toppled. The initial impact itself and the subsequent collapse claimed thousands of lives. In 2005 a hurricane struck the coast of Louisiana. The worst of the damage was wreaked in New Orleans. Up to 2,000 people perished as the city was flooded.

The country is still living these events. The pain goes on, not only for those directly affected, who mourn or are left with nothing, but for the whole nation. The Government, largely in response to the terrorist attack, would go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The public saw the suffering of the poor and helpless of New Orleans and shared in their misery.

Films that dealt directly with these subjects did not appear for the first few years. In 2006 Spike Lee's documentary on Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke : A Requiem in Four Acts, and two films highlighting heroism and hope on September the 11th, World Trade Center (Oliver Stone) and United 93 (Paul Greengrass), were released.

Works that seemed to capture a mindset, or the ambience of a moment in time, were made soon after the tragedies. 25th Hour, also directed by Spike Lee, and released in 2002, was the first film to include footage of 'Ground Zero'. Its tale of a man re-evaluating his life on the eve of a prison sentence did not take the terrorist attacks of September the 11th overtly as its subject but its protagonist's yearning to regain something that had been lost seemed to echo the travails of the tragedy.

Richard Kelly's Southland Tales, released in 2006, makes no mention of September the 11th and yet its world is parallel and near to that reality. Terrorist attacks in Texas may replace those in New York but the Presidency of George Bush Jr, and the war in Iraq, are part of its narrative. The war in Iraq is part of a new World War (abbreviated throughout as WW3). Southland Tales is therefore an amalgam of the two approaches mentioned above, close enough to make raw and pressing comment on current affairs, distanced enough to enable artistic and moral freedom. It is sufficiently removed for metaphor and allegory to take seed. Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant, released in 2009, takes place in New Orleans. Its story begins in the immediate aftermath of the storm. It uses the hurricane as a starting point, as a screen on which to cast its plot, the titular lieutenant's investigation into the massacre of a family.

Southland Tales
is keener than Bad Lieutenant to depict a chain of cause and effect born of a real-life inspiration. What distinguishes and typifies both films, however, is their atmosphere. Although what connects the people and these (ongoing) real life instants of horror is not always explicit or direct, it is as though the elemental forces of specific cataclysms have been siphoned off into a reservoir of melancholy and sadness in which all individuals in the fiction are steeped.

Their psyche is wounded. There is a diminished sense of self, of security, of confidence, and of moral courage. Rightly or wrongly it appears that many (perhaps a majority of) American people in the real world felt misrepresented by and estranged from their government when those certainties of safety, righteousness and peace of mind were shaken. Bad Lieutenant and Southland Tales burn with a nervousness and a rootlessness that come from those fears.

How are these films about America? In what way are they about everybody American? There are many indications in the two films that these are not just tales set in America but rather tales of America.

In the opening scene of Southland Tales, the detonation of a nuclear bomb (tellingly, one of two terrorist attacks) is seen from the perspective of a birthday celebrated in a suburban garden. The gathering turns to watch the mushroom cloud sprouting on the horizon. People, everyday people not invested with great authority, are the focus and fulcrum of the narrative. During that same scene there is a Close Up of a couple of figures of Uncle Sam standing on a living-room table. Throughout both films, the symbols and icons of Americana proliferate. The predominant of these is the American flag.

A Tale of America : The American Flag
Southland Tales (top) and Bad Lieutenant 
Pinned to office cubicles, tied to car aerials, hanging in a pharmacy or down the sides of buildings, the flag is ubiquitous. The flag takes on particular significance and symbolic power during the denouement of Southland Tales. It is there, dirty and apparently bloodied, as Boxer Santaros (one of the “two witnesses who appear in Jerusalem to speak out against the sins of mankind”) kisses his wife Madeline and assures her of the importance and ultimate success of his mission. It is there when he fires a gun to signal the coming apocalypse. These films are a portrait of America. They are a portrait of an America placed under a microscope, larger-than-life and sharply clear.

The lyrics of a song sung in a drug-induced dream in Southland Tales talk of the nature of the wounds being universal. Pilot Abilene, a soldier scarred by friendly fire in Fallujah, sings / mimes the following line, from All These Things I've Done by The Killers :

“Everyone is lost”.

Before injecting himself with the drug, he had asked a customer, Martin Kefauver : “Do you bleed?” Given that all men and women bleed, the drug-taking slang veils a hidden and rhetorical question : 'Are you human?'. The implication is that if you are human, then you must be suffering. If you are suffering you must need a crutch, and the drug is that crutch. Later Roland Taverner stops Martin, who has just been conscripted, from committing suicide. Taverner asks him : “So why do you want to kill yourself?”. The emphasis on 'you' is a sign that despair is endemic in their communities.

 Despair - Southland Tales

Everyone is affected. When Mr Smallhouse asks, again in Southland Tales, “You ever lost someone close to you, a loved one, in a terrorist attack?” his companion (Codename Deep Throat) responds “This may come as a surprise to you Mr.Smallhouse but I lost two people in Abilene”. The fact that this information is volunteered under not insignificant duress makes one consider that each person in the background, walking past along the beach, may harbour their own secret anguish.

In Bad Lieutenant, the eponymous Lieutenant McDonagh, frustrated with the reluctance of witnesses to the crime to come forward, is altogether more upfront about the state of the nation: “You're the f***ing reason this country's going down the drain!” His Step-Mother says that she and he are “birds of a feather...we both like our poison”. In point of fact, as has been demonstrated, that flock is a large one.

One of the main characters in Southland Tales is Krysta Now. She had helped her boyfriend, Boxer Santaros, write a film script ('The Power') which “foretells the tale of our destruction”, predicting the destabilisation of the Earth's axis and, consequently, of its inhabitants. She is a Pornstar TV presenter looking to grow her brand into new areas. 'Now' is a moniker. Her topical discussion show deals with the issues of Southland Tales' Now - “Abortion, terrorism, crime, poverty, social reform, quantum teleportation, teen horniness and war”. Yet it is her own predicament that is a microcosm of Now. Before filming a pornographic scene, and because she is filming a pornographic scene, she goes to a friend for help : “Can I score some drugs?”. Although she puts on the mask of an uninhibited and blithely dishonourable woman, she cannot deal with the present. The promise of a better future is intangible and her political thoughts and allegiances are naive and superficial. She has lost herself.

 Krysta Now (nee Kapowski)

The majority of people (the ones we truly get to know) in Bad Lieutenant are battling with an addiction. Addictions and obsessions hold them under. The Lieutenant is hooked on gambling. Whatever money he has goes to fuel a cocaine and heroin habit : “Whatever I take's prescription...except for the heroin”. He started to use drugs, we are led to believe, after he injured his back saving a prisoner from a flooded cell. His girlfriend Frankie is addicted to cocaine too and, like Krysta, prostitutes herself. His father is an alcoholic. His Step-Mother is an alcoholic.

Their self-worth is very low. Scouring the water-side at night for an absconding witness Lieutenant McDonagh and Frankie cast their spotlight on a line of prostitutes enveloped by the dark, bleakly and pitifully soliciting business. At USIdent, the controversial Government surveillance organisation in Southland Tales (“All information sanitised”), dissidents are shot when individuals, lacking in self-esteem and dignity, are personally insulted:

           Kenny: “Nana Mae Frost [the head of one of USIdent's offices] can eat a f***ing dick”
           Nana Mae Frost: “Take him down!”

Zora, a Neo-Marxist revolutionary, is summarily shot upon yelling "Fascist pigs" at two gunmen on the beachfront. The institutions of state are infected by fragile egos, the nationwide police force bearing the aggressive and hyper-sensitive name of “UPU” (and its branches UPU2 and UPU3)

Both directors cameras will linger on the faces of these people to look into their glazed and sad eyes, to watch them look at themselves within the masks and prisons of their own skin and bone. Abused by a client, Frankie studies herself in the mirror, feeling the bruise, warily caressing her face and gingerly reapplying a beauty spot. At the end of Pilot Abilene's dream / hallucination, the drugs wear off and he stops dancing, staring at us with eyes full of boundless emptiness. Abilene, named after the place where one of the nuclear bombs fell, is a poster boy, the scarred face of the new nation. There are external and there are internal bruises. It is apt, therefore, that he is our narrator, Virgil to our Dante.

 Wounded Externally and Internally
Bad Lieutenant (top) and Southland Tales

Due to their low self-worth, the people lose their moral centre, or gravitate towards an amorality key, in their unstable worlds, to self-preservation. Lieutenant McDonagh's right hand man Stevie is willing to push the boundaries of justice to acquire information on the murders - “That means Guantanamo Bay rules”, he proudly proclaims, one of the few unambiguous references to our concrete political realities. If Stevie is the bad side of bad, then Terence McDonagh (though he is dismayed that a cop will not aid him in minor corruption: “Guardian of the flame, right? You f***in' ass!”) is the good side of bad. Terence pilfers police property, fabricates evidence, and variously abuses his position, yet he retains a core of goodness.

He is so determined to keep himself and this murder case moving forward that he takes the straightest course - a bent one. Terence is visibly and unmistakeably disturbed when a bereaved woman begs him for help at the victims' funeral. In his own way Terence is part of the solution. He knows what is wrong with society. Though he may wrestle with himself he ultimately pulls people out of the water and out of the mire. We see that the gangsters literally throw them in, wrapped in bin bags. In Southland Tales Roland and Martin tear a whole cash machine from the wall of a bank to facilitate an escape to Mexico. Needs must and the framework of right and wrong is shifted. The idea of it is twisted to the point of irrelevance.

The characters are separate from each other. They are withdrawn and detached. A criminal named Dave, in Bad Lieutenant, says of a proposed “sexual encounter” with Frankie : “...we engage with another human being, we remind ourselves we're not alone...”. The information streams played out on a wall of television screens at USIdent are a mosaic of interfaces, pieces of a fractured world that never coalesce into one image or a coherent voice of a populace. Political movements, Marxist, Neo-Marxists, Republicans, Democrats fight for something they have no true handle on, often in contravention of the tenets of the self-same movements they are part of.

The people of Southland Tales and Bad Lieutenant are like flotsam, floating free of each other, whether in Los Angeles, dizzying and chaotic, or a half-deserted, garbage-piled New Orleans. The reptiles that crawl on the streets of New Orleans are a reminder of where they came from, the swamp, and where they are in danger of returning to.

 Reptiles - Bad Lieutenant

The characters are separated from themselves too. They are separated from their old selves. They are literally split, cleaved in two. By the time Southland Tales' story has begun, the two catalysts for change (Roland Taverner and Boxer Santaros) have travelled, unbeknownst to them, through a rift in space/time half a kilometre wide. The rift in the 4th dimension sent them travelling sixty-nine minutes back in time. This means that there are two of the same person walking the earth, in this same “dominion of chaos”. There is now a Roland Taverner and a Ronald Taverner. Looking at himself in the mirror, one of the 'twins'' reflections is delayed. Boxer too is finally presented, towards the end of his journey, with his own charred remains. He recoils at the sight.

Reconciling the past with the present and future is the thematic crux of both films. That is to say, coming to terms with what has happened and coming to terms with what is going to happen. Simon Thiery in Southland Tales explains to Boxer that these two parts of the same person (the past and the future selves) would create a disturbance, or a dramatic event, if they came into close physical contact. He demonstrates this by bringing the fingers of his two hands close together and shaking them, mimicking Boxer's nervous twitch. Thus the imbalance and lack of certainty and peace felt by people in the film is obliquely explained as the separation of past from future.

The number sixty-nine appears again as part of Proposition 69, a vote on whether USIdent's powers of control should be rolled back. Purely as a symbol, 69 has a harmonious asymmetry. Their complementary shapes form a yin / yang (the competing forces of "Shadow" and "Light" are also invoked on more than one occasion). There needs to be reconciliation for there to be a new beginning. This is why these two men are viewed as Messiahs. They are symbolic of the split in all the people, and represent the opportunity for and hope of reunion.

Not reconciled, the void between the past and the future is filled by Melancholy. Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard talked of the 'Zone of Melancholy' which is described by Harvie Ferguson as a “meeting ground between the finite and the infinite, a collapsing in...”. French thinker Michel de Montaigne defined Melancholy as taking us “beyond ourselves”, as Taverner and Santaros are. He says Melancholy places us both in a void and enclosing a void. It is the overriding mood and humour of the pair of films in question.

Are the people aware that they are stuck? Do they want to be free? Is there a way out? The people of Southland Tales are as aware of their entrapment as they are in Bad Lieutenant. They feel, however, that the large scale of political life must be revolutionised in order to change the personal and the small scale. Pilot Abilene may have been offering a drug (Fluid Karma, the same substance used to remotely control vehicles) that pushes people further into the void, but he offers it with a semblance of a sign of the cross. They know that they require benediction but they do not know where it can be received.

Lieutenant Terence McDonagh confides “sometimes I have bad days” and Dave bemoans the fact that he has not made enough money from a criminal life to retire. He is “stuck doing this shit”. Terence's father and girlfriend book themselves into rehab while his father's wife takes, at least, the step of admitting that she has an addiction. They want out and they are trying to escape. They have a very long way to go, however. Terence imagines (“ain't no iguana”) iguana on his “coffee table” (it's not a coffee table, and it's not his) to the tune of “Please release me”. They need releasing and, even in Bad Lieutenant, a force majeure or deus ex machina may be needed.

The image of excrement is a recurring one in Southland Tales. One man is tied to a toilet. Another is shot on a toilet. There are places throughout the city where incriminating material can be delivered to Neo-Marxist underground cels; “Feed the Hole” they say. One of these holes is located in the toilet of a bar called 'Poopdeck'. One of our potential saviours, Roland/Ronald Taverner has not had a “bowel movement” for weeks. In summation, the energies have stalled, and the traumas of the past and the present go undigested and unexpelled.

“For how long am I gonna be in pain,” Terence asks a Doctor after treatment for his back, “for the rest of my life?” The physical and mental state of our bad lieutenant is an allegory for the state of the post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans he inhabits. Can the wound ever be salved?

Heidi, a police officer Terence flirts with to get drugs, has a mantelpiece covered in statues of the Pope, of angels, of the Virgin Mary. Either she has found a way to salvation or she may be trying as best she can to find it.

Boxer Santaros in Southland Tales tells his wife that there is in fact a “way to end all suffering”.

In spite of the enveloping despair (Southland Tales' chapter headings are shrouded by cloud) hope is never extinguished. Even fate can be negotiated with. It needn't be fought against, circumvented or ignored. The name of the man behind the massacre the lieutenant is trying to solve is Big Fate. That is, powerful, all-encompassing fate. In a final confrontation, where Big Fate is caught unarmed, Stevie is willing to engineer Big Fate's death. But Terence wants to embrace and control fate, not destroy it. 

Bad Lieutenant's opening scene depicts a prisoner up to his neck in water. By the end the prisoner, Chavez, is one year clean of drugs. If you have not drowned, you can still be rescued. When Dave dies in a shootout, Terence orders him to be shot again because his “soul is still dancing”. Hallucination or not, the human spirit as illustrated in the two films is not easy to kill.

Suddenly things become better. Having caught Big Fate, Terence gains another promotion, his girlfriend falls pregnant, and the case is resolved. At long last he finds the pirate treasure of an old silver spoon that was lost in his shed (given to him by his mother). The goodness in them has been excavated. He hands the spoon (his heart) onto his girlfriend: “That's so sweet,” she says.

                                          Goodness Excavated - Bad Lieutenant

There is deliverance of a sort. It is, in fact, a deliverance that could have been foreseen. Southland Tales is divided into biblically-based chapters that culminate, inevitably, in “Resurrection” and “Revelations”. In the same way a brighter future was bound to dawn in Bad Lieutenant. Its full title as it appears in the film (the title is abbreviated in most promotional material and for the DVD release) is The Bad Lieutenant : Port of Call New Orleans. The excision of “The” is not a trivial departure. Whereas Bad Lieutenant implies a finite, unchangeable character, The Bad Lieutenant, like Oscar Wilde's The Selfish Giant, implies a journey. “The” makes it a fable. It makes one wonder why the tale is being recounted and makes one expect, subconsciously, that he will not be 'bad' throughout.

Both films end with a transfiguration of their first images. Southland Tales began with a nuclear explosion, the fission of a nucleus. It ends with the two Taverners shaking hands, heralding the end of the old world and the beginning of a new one, through a “nice apocalypse” (“God wiped the tears from their eyes so the new Messiah could see out to Jerusalem”, says Pilot Abilene). The handshake is a fusion, the fusion of a nucleus. Incarnations of the same person reconcile the past with the future. The reunion delivers all the people who are wounded, all those who struggle to find sense and meaning. They rise up in wholeness; the ice cream van in which they are sat floats up into the night sky.

Pilot was wounded by Taverner in Afghanistan. His was the friendly fire. The two Taverners converse, forgiving themselves for what they have done: “Friendly fire” “I forgive you” “Friendly fire” “I forgive you” until the light of new life, akin to the flash of a nuclear blast, becomes blinding. To the echoes of The Star Spangled Banner America has forgiven and come to terms with itself.

Transfigured Images : 
Bad Lieutenant (above) and Southland Tales (below)

Bad Lieutenant opens with a snake skating over the floodwaters that surround the prisoner. It ends with Terrence McDonagh and the man he saved sitting, with tranquility, in front of a large aquarium. Water has been reclaimed as a positive symbol, as innocent and cleansing. Water is no longer drowning or sweeping the country "down the drain". Innocence is not fully regained but it is within reach. Shortly before Terrence had toasted to his new family after his second promotion, both undeserved and richly deserved:

"To new life".

Thursday 7 October 2010

LOVE - A Video Montage

 The films featured, in order of appearance:

Eloge de L'Amour
Lady with the Little Dog
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Asphalt Jungle
Woman of the Dunes
Wings of Desire
Chungking Express
Miami Vice
Once Upon A Time in America
(Eloge de l'Amour)
Only Yesterday
In The Mood For Love - deleted scene
(Only Yesterday)
Fallen Angels
Three Times
(Only Yesterday)
(Woman of the Dunes)
Eyes Wide Shut
Il Gattopardo
(Eyes Wide Shut)
Everyone Says I Love You
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
(Only Yesterday)
(Everyone Says I Love You)
(Three Times)
Vivre Sa Vie
Star Wars Episode V : The Empire Strikes Back
(The Empire Strikes Back)
(Vivre Sa Vie)
Hana Bi
The Hole

MUSIC - Waltz of the Flowers - The Nutcracker - Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Saturday 2 October 2010

Film Socialisme - Jean-Luc Godard

In the films of Jean-Luc Godard, the visual and the verbal are rarely married. By that I mean that people are more mouthpieces and personae (from the Latin for mouthpiece) than characters. In a film about money, power, grand civilisations on the slide, ownership, the individual and society, it is as if old cultures are speaking through these men and women. They are conduits and curators ("I do not have my heart in my mouth" "Exactly 400 years ago her heart is not in her mouth") for past movements and revolutions and standard-bearers of a hope groping for a future. Film Socialisme is not, primarily, about their narrative but about a narrative, the narrative. It is about ideas and expressions embodied and posed.

The scenes get interrupted before anyone turns into characters. Instead they are statues Statues that speak. If one speaks of statues, it's said that 'it comes from another time' and if one says 'another time' then one takes off on a voyage; one sets off upon the Mediterranean. That's where the cruise comes in
                                                  Jean-Luc Godard
It is two separate films. It is a tender silent film about a cruise and about a family on top of which is laid a complex, abstract and obtuse politico-philosophical essay. Watch it without sound and you lose nothing of the people, their relationships, their dreams, their fears, their thousand insignificant thoughts. Godard prevents them from becoming characters but, much as Robert Bresson and his 'models', he doesn't, and cannot, stop them from being human. In fact their actors are more human than anyone else's. Godard is indeed capable of a probing intimacy as demonstrated in his interviews with a young girl in France Tour Retour Deux Enfants.
Godard has an eye for an image unparalleled in Cinema. In luminous close ups and tableaux a deux he does not merely capture a face but the soul that lies behind. Every composition is striking in colour and line.

One of the great joys of a Godard film is that there is always something to admire, to reflect on or simply to be wowed by.

Critics are wrong when they say his films have become intellectual exercises. They inspire contemplation, yes, but they remain visceral experiences through and through. Here, one aspect doesn't go without the other. If, as some do, you treat the film as a puzzle to decipher, a lecture to understand, then you will dismiss it, like those critics, when it goes over your head. There is no reason why you can't think the visceral and feel the intellectual. When something goes over your head, it should make you want to stand taller.

Far from being hectoring prescriptions, Godard's aphorisms and allusions are rather inciting and insightful opening gambits meant to be digested half-baked - to allow other thoughts to appear after the fact. They are suggestive suggestions if you will. Lines like "In Russian steps are feminine" are only the beginning. It is not a puzzle. No, Film Socialisme is different from other films in that it is not a place but a map for the place. You come back to it and explore a little more each time.

Godard has freed himself (although Film Socialisme is an accretion of a style which he began in the Seventies). When he wants to show a painting to make a point he shows it. He doesn't need a character to walk into a museum. This freedom, taken to an extreme, can mean that the pieces of this mosaic (a cruise, a portrait of a family involved in an election campaign and a montage about war, suffering and life) become detached and ill-fitting. But do they need to be neatly arranged?

There is no doubt that Godard's musings can be irritating, empty and insufferable -  especially in Meetin' WA, On S'est Tous Defile or Soigne Ta Droite. There is always pretentiousness in his films yet he has the intellect and the wit to justify it.

One never knows whether he really believes in what he is saying. He tests the waters and provokes reactions. The aloofness of hifalutin' bons mots is tempered by humour and farce: the boy miming to a saxophone with his drinking straw, a woman blown against a window, the exaggerated shouting, the honking of a llama. Ach Deutschland, it's fun.

 He is always mocking himself (his films are self-aware rather than self-indulgent: remember how he hired a blind editor in JLG / JLG). We overhear a character, bewildered, say of the cruise "Alexandria, Haifa, Odessa...to get from Algiers to Barcelona?!". Godard unapologetically takes a detour to squeeze his pet thoughts (especially on Israel and Palestine) and betes noires into the pot. Film Socialisme is not dry. A man lectures on Geometry to an empty auditorium and Godard is able to criticise the banality of the people gyrating on the dance floors (filmed as an "agitation of pixels" as Maurice Darmon says) and the arrogant pomposity of the Professor all in the same shot.

In narrow corridors and bulb-bedaubed halls  people eat quietly, serve drinks, exercise, and even go to Mass as the roulette wheel spins. It could make a wonderful documentary and indeed it does. Godard observes the ordinary people as well as he does his actors. Few of them are seen without cameras, taking photos and recording video.

With incomplete 'Navajo' English subtitles, a mixture of languages and distorted sound, there is a failure of communication. Those who are recording are not interacting closely with each other. If the ship is a microcosm of the world and all its peoples, the question is : is it Babel or is it Noah's Ark? Arriving at a particular destination, the camera angle gives the illusion of a collision about to happen at any moment.

 There is friction between stasis and restlessness. Many scenes in Film Socialisme involve one person sitting down and the other walking around them. This lends the film a nervous edge and fits in with its themes and concerns; thinking clashing with doing, tradition battling with change. Again car doors are opened and slammed and we don't if they're coming or going.

Godard is restless too. You can never predict when a scene will be cut short or its silence interrupted with a loud bang or the call of a gull.

 The middle section at a garage owned by La Famille Martin is full of discussion about the understanding of one's own being. The mother recounts that her mother was "never, not for a single moment, separated from her role". The father ponders how we can't be we until we are comfortable with I. In the meantime, brushing her teeth for bed, their daughter proclaims her hypothetical political manifesto: "To be 20 years old....to be right". This ties in with a later comment in voiceover on the crucial differences between the verbs "to be" and "to have" and the way the sound of words influences their meaning (and vice versa).

 The final part of Film Socialisme is a montage much as the one that begins Notre Musique. Its rhythms, though, are more freeform and more satisfying. Sound, voice-over, stills, intertitles and moving images cover the stopping points of the cruise and give a bewitching overview of Europe's past whilst wondering openly about its future ('Quo Vadis Europa?').

It seems to address the crises of now (showing them to be created by history and repeating history) - monetary crashes ('Hell as' for Greece), crumbling nations, greed (Gold (a girl wears a necklace of gold coins) and stolen heritage), fights for independence (Catalunya) and individual freedom (the struggles of women). Again the film mentions Israel and Palestine (Hebrew written in red over Arabic in White) but this hard line is mollified by an outstandingly beautiful image of hope and peace - of trapeze artists throwing and catching each other across the waters.

 Film Socialisme enchants the mind and the heart. The moment it compares worshippers facing Mecca with cinema-goers facing the screen, as a glittering spume of water slides out from under the ship's deck, is magic. Marvel at the fish that swim like coffee leaves. Or a ghostly hand pressed against the glass. Film Socialisme is full of the things that make cinema great, full of art and thought that go far beyond the walls of the theatre, full of gazes and smiles and vistas that hold the essences of life and beauty.

Sometimes Jean-Luc Godard doesn't half go on, and his puckish style can grate, but without artists like him Cinema would be simple stories and simple allegories that cultivate simple-mindedness. Godard is not a popular revolutionary any more. He is an underground revolutionary. It is a shame that there aren't enough people receptive to experimentation and to putting as much effort into experiencing film as is put into making them. Beauty doesn't need subtitles. It doesn't need to appear at press conferences.

Film Socialisme leaves in its wake an ever-churning sea of  questions.

Tuesday 28 September 2010

Deer in Film

Deer have long been symbolic of power, purity and gentleness. It is no different in the Cinema...

Forest God - Princess Mononoke


 Plague Dogs

 "Doe, a deer..." The Sound of Music

Nature is unpredictable, deer appearing suddenly on darkened roads. Nature is sacred (and haughty too), deer silently protecting their land from trespassers. They come to represent life itself in The Deer Hunter.

When deer are harmed or their character twisted, then the world is suddenly off-kilter, wild and disintegrating...

Evil Dead 2

 A Stillborn Fawn - Antichrist

"Animals are coming" - A deer about to be hit - A Prophet

Tuesday 21 September 2010

In Praise of Godard - A Short Film

 Jean-Luc Godard said that the best form of film criticism was making films. Here I have made a (very) short tribute in expectation of a review of Film Socialisme to be presented in the second best form of film criticism.

0:03 - Music - Fly-By-Night by Anna Meredith. Reprised at 0:29, 1:46
0:06 - Image from Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895) by Auguste and Louis Lumiere
0:13 - Image of Gloria Grahame from In a Lonely Place (1950) by Nicholas Ray
0:14 - Image of Bulle Ogier from L'Amour Fou (1969) by Jacques Rivette
0:15 to 0:25 - Audio clip from Le Petit Soldat (1963) by Jean-Luc Godard
0:17 - Image from Je Vous Salue Sarajevo (1993) by Jean-Luc Godard
0:19 - Image from Je Vous Salue Marie (1985) by Jean-Luc Godard
0:21 to 0:27 - Images of Laetitia Carcano from Le Diable, Probablement (1977) by Robert Bresson
0:29 - Haywain by Hieronymus Bosch - 1485 to 1490
0:31 - Image of Brigitte Bardot from Le Mepris (Contempt) (1963) by Jean-Luc Godard. Returns at 1:06 
0:48 - Sound of cheque being ripped from Tout Va Bien (1972) by Jean-Luc Godard 
0:48 - Image of Nathalie Baye from Detective (1985) by Jean-Luc Godard 
0:49 to 1:06 - Audio clip from JLG/JLG (1994) by Jean-Luc Godard. The voice of Jean-Luc Godard
0:59 - Image of Aude Amiot from Helas Pour Moi (1993) by Jean-Luc Godard
1:07 - Audio clip from King Lear (1987) by Jean-Luc Godard. Possibly the voice of Molly Ringwald. 
1:08 to 1:56 - Music - Theme de Camille by Georges Delerue from Le Mepris 
1:09 - Floor Mosaic of man from Greek comic theatre from Ancient Israelite seaport site of Dor. Made between 400 and 100 BC.
1:20 to 1:32 - Audio clip of honking traffic from Sunrise (1927) by F.W.Murnau
1:28 - Images from Detective 
1:35 - Image from Helas Pour Moi 
1:36 - Nude Girl (1893) by Henri de Toulouse Lautrec. The image has been unfortunately squeezed. Here it is as it should be : http://artmodel.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/toulouse_lautrec82.jpg
1:40 - Image of Laurence Masliah from Helas Pour Moi 
1:48 - Image of Jean Seberg from A Bout de Souffle (1960) by Jean-Luc Godard
1:57 - Images of Godard at a press conference at the Cannes film festival in 1988. 
2:00 - Image of cheque from Tout Va Bien
2:02 - Image from Passion (1982) by Jean-Luc Godard
2:05 - Image from Bande A Part (1964) by Jean-Luc Godard
2:08 - Image of Jean-Paul Belmondo from Pierrot Le Fou (1965) by Jean-Luc Godard
2:12 - Music - Amsterdam (1964), written and performed by Jacques Brel
2:14 - Image of Brigitte Helm as Maria in Metropolis (1927) by Fritz Lang
2:16 and later - Images of screen from Dans le Noir du Temps (2002) by Jean-Luc Godard
2:20 - Gunfire audio clip from Film Socialisme (2010) by Jean-Luc Godard 
2:21 - Image of Anna Karina from Pierrot Le Fou 
2:29 onwards - Video from 2 ou 3 Choses Que Je Sais d'Elle (1967) by Jean-Luc Godard

Tuesday 14 September 2010

G.I. Joe The Rise of Cobra : Paris Chase


An ordinary enough looking tree, but the race to avoid a terrible fate began here.

Here we are now on The Champs Elysees where the chase reached a fantastic speed. There was honking and screeching and cars flying everywhere. Quite a kerfuffle. It's not nearly as noisy now, of course.

This is one of the trains that runs through Paris. Actually, our heroes ran through it too...the train I mean...

They came through the lobby of this office block, pursuing the villain. The carnage that took place, what with the glass, y-you can't imagine...well maybe it's best you can't. They've cleaned it up nicely, anyway.

The Eiffel Tower. This was a very important landmark. Many people converged here during that terrible business...it's not a nice...I mean...the sound of twisted metal and the st-st-strangled screams of the pedestrians well...oh...it's too horrible to think about. Of course it's all been restored now. Quite a feat really if you think about it...

Setting the Scene

The bad guys (part of the organisation Cobra) are in a car en route to the Eiffel Tower, ready to fire a metal-eating missile at it. The good guys, the Joes, give chase in their own van. As the scene progresses two follow on foot in powersuits, one on a souped-up motorbike and one clinging by his fingertips to the roof of the bad guys' car.

The Scene Itself

                                                Two Flirtations

Usually the development of secondary narrative strands is put on hold while a fight or a chase takes place. These scenes can put an end to a particular story thread, achieve nothing in altering the fate of the characters, or complicate matters in a way requiring resolution in another fight or chase scene further down the track. Generally these action scenes streamline the narrative, shaving off subtext and depth for a focused rush of adrenaline.

This scene, however, moves the relationships between two couples forward. Before the chase Ripcord and Scarlett are slowly building a relationship whilst the relationship between Duke (of the Joes, played by Channing Tatum) and his estranged ex-fiancee Ana (leading the enemy, played by Sienna Miller) seems doomed and done. What we have, slyly slipped into the thunderous action, is two flirtations of two distinct kinds.

Ripcord's (Marlon Wayans) clumsy courting of Scarlett (Rachel Nichols), on the arrogant and sleazy side, is beginning to mellow and mature before they take to the streets of Paris. It reaches some sort of fruition though in a moment in which Ripcord can bring his two sides - self-proclaimed Superman and old romantic - together. Scarlett is thrown off her bike by an explosion and flies through the air. Ripcord leaps to catch her. After he calms her down with his gaze and his embrace, he knocks his helmet against hers:

It is a tender moment.

The relationship between Duke and Ana, conversely, is going nowhere, tinged with bitterness, guilt and resentment. Before this scene we learn that Duke 'allowed' her brother to be killed when they were soldiers and failed to comfort her as she mourned. We are also aware that she is under a sort of mind control that suppresses or mutates some of her memories. 

The flirtation that takes place is one of mockery (which is not far from teasing) studded with little barbed comments and sarcastic waves. The high intensity scene gives them an opportunity to interact closely and provides an opportunity / excuse of sorts for Duke to chase after her in an ostensibly non-romantic way.

The chase ends with Duke leaping into a craft as it is about to fly away with Ana on board. He catches her and is able to disable the bomb (it is made of organic/synthetic beings called Nanobites that can be deactivated remotely). He reaches out and presses the button strapped to her waist.

The physical contact is cruder, closer  and more abrupt 
than in it is for Ripcord and Scarlett. It is sexually charged. Ana's gasp, visually at least, can be read in more than one way. Unfortunately, the Eiffel Tower had already been hit and the huge phallic symbol droops and falls. The relationship is moving in the right direction but it still, clearly, needs time:


Nevertheless, one image remains in our minds, a Close Up that speaks volumes about the outcome of both chases. The bomb, and Ana, have been:

                                            Caring about Characters

What makes a chase is less the kinetic thrill of fast-moving objects, explosions and near misses (and this chase is full of them) than caring about the characters involved and what they are chasing for. Character must never get lost in the chaotic melee, but rise.

It is very important that we know enough about Cobra to care for them too. Knowing about someone, even if it is knowledge of evil deeds, will always bring a greater attachment and emotional investment. We are aware of Storm Shadow's (Byung Hun Lee of A Bittersweet Life) background and the reasons behind the rivalry with his de facto brother, the Joe Snake Eyes : he killed their ninja master out of jealousy when they were young). For us Ana is little short of an honorary Joe who we hope can be turned back to the side of good. The fact that there is danger in eliminating the target, with Snake Eyes battling on the roof too, creates an extra dimension of tension and excitement. Emotional confusion, friendly fire.

By giving us investment in the chased as well as the chasers the scene can unfold from two dynamic perspectives - looking ahead at the people who wish to use the missile and looking back at the Joes. The fact that the bad guys aren't just one-dimensional opponents pays dividends in freeing up the camera. If all the characters on screen have an attracting presence then a Director will be able, while retaining our interest, to put his camera wherever he wants along the 180 degree line of chaser and chased and spin between the ends to make 360 degrees. One dimension to two.

                                 Style, Slow Motion and Perfect Angles

The camera retreats from chaser to chased. It follows a crossbow from chaser to chased, then spins through the car to follow a blast back from chased to chaser. We even, innovatively, track above the chased car right and then left around two corners (the cafe on the corner (image 4) cuts across the line of the chase, making the dash somehow more forceful). This uninhibited filming style goes hand in glove with the cartoonish, hyperreal energy of the action it is depicting.

From beginning to end we are given the best views, the best chance to see what is happening, who is causing it and who is being affected by it. The editing is fast and always geared to showing rather than hiding. A stunt or a computer generated insert aren't shrouded out of  embarrassment or a lack of faith in the verisimilitude and effectiveness of the material. They stand proud. The editing isn't meant to give us a mere sense of the action or to jump-start us with a shallow jolt. It wants to catch every detail.

The angles and perspectives, too, are brilliantly chosen. The still compositions are as dramatic and impressive as the moving ones. Take these four shots that chart the journey of the fired missile towards its target:


The enclosed spaces of the first (narrowed all the more by the two black lines of the window pane's frame) and third image create a tension and an anxious expectation. Image two is a quiet shot of detached awe neatly sandwiched between the two. It is a vacuum for the tension to rush into. The canted angle of the fourth image feels uneasy, as if the world itself has been set off-kilter.

Equally impressive in the chase is the application of slow-motion. It is only used twice. The first time is to make the missiles, and the acrobatics of the Joes to avoid them, visible. The second time it is used to, just for a short moment, give a rolling car extra weight and gravitas. Two good reasons: to make the invisible visible (enhancing our eyes) and to add life and sentiment to something lifeless (triggering a deeper perception). In other words, the slow motion is present neither as a crutch nor as a display.

                                                 Cartoon Action

There should be no negative connotation when stating that the scene is ludicrously inflated. Within the rules of engagement set out by the film, it is a cartoonishness that is perfectly acceptable. 

An action scene functions on all cylinders when these two factors are aligned - over-the-top and harmoniously integrated. The sight of two grown men bouncing about Paris like rubber balls, half Robocop half Tigger, is hilarious. It is a game. A dangerous and life-altering game, but a game. There is no holding back. Characters leap through train windows, spin off airborne vehicles, send sonic missiles clattering through cobbled alleyways. 

Speed is of the essence in a chase. Car chases in films can be blighted, even in those most interested in the chase such as The French Connection or Death Proof; It takes one look at the side of the road to calculate the true speed as far below that which we are asked to believe in. In film pursuits there is an invisible elastic cord linking both parties, tightening and snapping back when they are too far apart and slackening when they are close. This chase is fast, not least because computer generated imagery can take up the baton when the stunt drivers and Director themselves are unable to go any further. The elastic never snaps and is never cut.

A wacky race, that is what this is, with traps, hazards and sniggers along the way. Look at the manic grimace on Storm Shadow's face as he rushes to fire his missile. He is a baddie, no mistake. Look too at how bright and green it is, the thing they are all interested in, the most eye-popping and the most visible. We watch the film like an over-stimulated child. With a forever young gaiety:

One could say that the film goes too far. Moments before the chase proper begins, Ripcord is struck by a car which is going at full speed and honking. However, there is no plausible reason why it would be going at that speed and why it would be unable to stop when there is a wall not twenty metres behind it! Maybe that adds to its charm. It breaks just that once through the barrier of credulity into the nonsensical as if the film cannot contain so much harebrained energy.


Chases are, by and large, dry affairs. The flirtations mentioned above add the nuance and humanity, the rhythmic rise and fall normally left to quips meant to stand for meaningful reaction. There aren't quips during the chase as such, but instances in keeping with character rather than removed from all context. There are funny asides that are derived from centre stage:

                                            "There was training?!"


                                               "There's no door"

                                                    "Make one!"

There is a great mix of characters at play here: one is quieter, one more intense, one bubbly, one nervous, one single-minded. At the same time they are of one mind, segments of one body. They understand each other and at various points the others' personalities spur them and rub off on them.

There is speed and a terrific sense of geography. Any part of Paris (the greatest most seductive stage of all) can be smashed up and torn down. We care for chasers and chased alike and feel that anxious haste that separates mind from body. It is hilariously exaggerated and contrived yet altogether believable, a textbook example of controlled disorder. It is innovative and conventional, overturning and fulfilling expectations. It ends with a giant smile on our faces, and an exhausted sigh. Best of all, it ends with neither a clear victory nor a defeat. It ends on a chord that we can neither describe as major nor minor.

The scene isn't a break on the development of the story but an outrageous boon. It makes the film.