Friday, 23 February 2007

Meres Tou 36 (1972) - Theo Angelopoulos

Theo Angelopoulos is widely regarded as one of Greece's greatest cinematic exports, ever the darling of film critics and the festival circuit he has directed a great many classics of European cinema although this has not made him the most widely-seen of filmmakers. One reason is that he personally feels film is for cinema, that films should be seen on the big screen or not at all so the dvd releases of his best films have been hampered initially by his unwillingness to embrace the medium, then simply the matter of getting hold of good quality prints that can be restored and transfered to disc. So far New Star DVD, a Greek company, have released several of his films including The Travelling Players (a copy of which i own) which is now out of print, and some of his better known films like Landscape In The Mist and Ulysses' Gaze; their most recent release - and it should be mentioned here that Angelopoulos personally oversees all transfers of his films at New Star - is his acclaimed political drama-come-satire: Days Of 36.

In 1973,a year after the film was released, Ulrich Gregor interviewed the director for the International Forum des Junges Films, Berlin - an interview which has since been translated to English by Dan Fainaru. Although the interview deals largely with factual elements of the film such as the characters portrayed ("No doubt about [the audience recognising] Metexas")and their relation to 1970s Greek politics ("a time when the actions of the workers' parties were beginning to become effective"), Angelopoulos is particularly enlightening on the production and release of the film. He reveals the film was funded by a husband of a student of one of Theo's filmschool friends (a tenuous link i know) and that the script, daring as it was, was actually slipped past the Greek censors of the time adding the proviso, "to tell you the truth though, thee is quite a bit of difference between the original script and the film in its final form". Angelopoulos is however, unwilling to go into the post-release censorship issues encountred by the film pointing out, "...since i have the intention of continuing to make films in Greece. The main thing is that Days Of 36 was released". In finishing off the interview, when asked about state funding of the film Angelopoulos replies: "Not a penny, but they didn't forget to collect the taxes".

For me, the film is a bit of an oddity. I'm used to his more recent output, his use of long shots and neverending takes, the lack of editing and the prominence of locally-sourced music (courtesy of his regular composer Eleni Karaindrou), but Days Of 36 - part of his 'Historical Trilogy' along with The Travelling Players and The Hunters - is a very different entity indeed.

The film, losely based on real events, concerns a prisoner and a politician. In the opening scene a trade unionist is shot in some type of industrial yard. The shooter [we presume] is sent to prison where a homosexual politican (from the conservative right) visits him in his cell. The prisoner takes the politican hostage at gunpoint causing a political crisis in Greece - how do the government under the military control of Metaxas [leading a right wing military-lead coalition] end the situation in a way that causes the least embarrasment? As the hostage situation stagnates moves are made in the political arena to end the siege, leading finally to a rather down-hearted conclusion.

I said the film is different because stylistically, this is not what i have come to expect from Angelopoulos. The takes are just as long as in any of his other films (in some cases longer) and the use of elongated corridors to enhance the distinctly Brechtian sense of alienation is just as prevalent. However, from the very outset in the opening shot Angelopoulos employs the high-angled camera far more than in any of his other films i've had the pleasure of watching. Usually the camera is at eye level in his work, but in this film he constantly reverts to a quasi-Hitchockian high-angled shot from the corner of the room in which the action takes place. Added to this is the striking use of recessional depth, the likes of which one might associate more with Fassbinder - Angelopoulos talks of Antonioni and Godard as his major influences, "If you are looking for an affinity then it is more in the direction of Godard you should look... At the early stages there was also a touch of Antonioni", plus of admiration for Dreyer although he had only seen one of his films. Using the corridors stretching away from the camera Angelopoulos rarely employs the flatter, "planimetric" staging of his later work (for which people have described his films as like viewing a series of paintings) preferring instead to place his peoples in 3 dimensions using all levels and depths of the frame at once. For those more accustomed to his recent preference for stylish tracking shots that often draw attention to their technical proficiency as much as their aesthetic charm that aspect of his oevre is on display as much here as anywhere else - panning the camera through 2 or 3 complete revolutions goes almost unnoticed amidst the bleakly cinematography and captivating passiveness of the lead actors.

This stained cinematography, combined with the depth staging, lack of editing and sparse dialogue combine to give the film an at once enchanting appeal, counterbalanced by its remote, dramatic sense of alienation, its characters noticeably dislocated from reality. This dislocation is then counteracted by the recognisable faces of some of the politicians, and of the englishmen in the film, plus the sly satirical elements such as the conservative politician's effeminacy - producing a uinique effect of both pulling the audience into the film, and shying them away with the same gesture thus allowing for a more rigorous intellectual debate of the piece. The actors, restrained in their manerisms to the point of tension do what is required by their director - that is to say they do not give bad performances; many modern audiences will not like the distance invoked through their coldness and the lack of characterisation arising from the dearth of dialogue. Yet this is precisely the director's point.

With Days Of 36 he is evoking an atmosphere of political tension under the weight of a dictatorship as much as he is telling a specific story. The fact that a character is a politican is enough without going inot the depth of the character, as the audience in Thessaloniki in 1972 were bringing many preconceptions about the era to the film with them - they knew these people already without being told or shown more. As Angelopoulos says, "what i was looking for was a certain climate. A reign of terror" thus in creating this climate he poses far more questions than he answers. In depicting the "what" and the "when", in alienating the audience through the Brechtian dramatics, he then reengages his viewers on a more intellectual level through posing the question "why?" and by confronting the public with truths that the greek authorities may not have wanted to be widely known (such as the characters being shot by firing squad in the film, which is set at a time when hanging was the public method).

I cannot say this is Angelopoulos' best film as it lacks a lot of the ambition, the scope and, for lack of vocabulary, the "epic feel" of his masterpiece The Travelling Players. Likewise the story is far less charming than Eternity And A Day and perhaps, the politics are less relevant in contemporary Europe than the migration in The Suspended Step Of The Stork but this should not detract from its own merits. For a film made on the cheap, shot quickly largely with an amateur cast (at best he used semi-professional actors) that has only ever had limited distribution, the film examines and satirises an important period of Greek history that has shaped Greek culture ever since. Not a film for those unfamiliar with Angelopoulos' oevre - at least not the best introduction to this very specific mileu, though once you know what to expect and are prepared to give the film a couple of viewings for it to reveal it's nuances and more subtler artistic touches then one can really appreicate it for the important and influential piece of Greek cinema that it truly is.


Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Idi i smotri (1985) - Elem Klimov

Come And See is without doubt, one of the great anti-war films. Initially i thought it might be similar to Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood but from the opening scene with the two boys digging on the beach for guns as a plane drones overhead, it becomes abundantly clear this is a different beast entirely.

Aleksei Kravchenko is an endearing in the lead role early in the film as his anguish, insanity and total mental shattering is gutwrenching come the conclusion. Just aboy who finds himself fighting alongside his countrymen in a war he probably doesn't fully understand, with no training and never having any objectives spelled out to him you have to wonder what hope he has realistically. The introduction therefore of Glasha (Olga Mironova) is, i think meant to represent some kind of hope as he finally meets someone of a similar age with whom he thinks he can find some sense in the chaos of warfare. Any hope is quickly disbanded when the bombs [and paratroopers] drop into thier forest and the bullets starting pinging off the tree bark around them. From the woodland scene onwards the stead descent of the characters into their own for of hell is as emotional as it is well-measured by the director.

It would be easy for the camera to focus on Florya's dead family, i can see many american directors chosing to exploit the scene of dead children to tug at the audience's heartstrings, but Klimov is clearly better than that - chosing instead to witness, up close the horror that is going on inside Florya's mind. Deaf from shell shock (and inevitably suffering from PTS) the trawl through across the bog to the island, during which Florya clearly starts losing his grip on reality is a masterclass in filming psychological breakdown. Initially we have some hope that he may get to his family - dashed by the shot of the dead bodies - then further compounded by the relentless walk into the bog sinking ever deeper and closer to death. The score at this point (by Oleg Yanchenko) descends into a truly horrifying, disturbing pit of dissonance, chords and keys crashing into each other with evermore ferocity as the girl realises she might die in the bog with the boy (who is quite clearly in the process of a mental breakdown). Out of tragedy, Klimov takes the film into the perversity of war with the strange effigy those on the island have erected of a German officer, a figure against which the bitter can direct their hatred. With the boy being sent back out again, this time in order to get food, the futility of the war and its inescapability really start to be hammered home. As the cow dies, even Florya is clearly wondering what the point of it all is, if everyone around him is being killed or left behind he seems almost resigned to death.

Going into the final section of the film, having witnessed the explosiveness of war, the threat and the psychological damage it can do one's left wondering what the film could have in store for a climax. The scene in the village is oe of the most difficult scenes i've watched in a war film, the whole series of events unfolding with an extremely depressing senses of the inevitable and shot at a slightly dislocated distance by Klimov so although we feel like we're actually there witnessing the horror, the audience also knows there is nothing that can stop it. The offer of letting the adults go without the children is a cruel twist of the blade, as is the apparent pleasure the troops take in pouring ammunitio into the building, relishing every magazine and grenade explosion. Having emotionally, visually, cinematically peaked with the massacre the end can't - or shouldn't be able to top it. In one sense it does, indeed the final shots of history in reverse as a photo of HItler is fired at have been seen by some as the best shots of the film. My own personal take on this sequence is that the boy, out of depression, resentment, anger, a whoel swathe of emotion is trying to reach a catharsis by firing his weapon into an effigy of the figure that he has been told is to blame for the war. All the horrors of the boy's life are linked to the war, so by shooting into the picture he can metaphorically, symoblically release the tension inside him against a figure of pure hatred. The way the sequence also finishes on the child portrait - a time when the boy was still innocent, unjaded by the world around him also seems to pose as some kind of hope for the audience: though not an overtly positive finish this is clearly as close to a happy ending as Klimov is willing to go. The final shot is picturesque, pure, hopeful and nice, in some way counterbalancing the nihilism of what has gone before in the film; at the very least it is the best image of the film that one could remember afterwards (and far more prefereable to some of the film's brutality).

I do have one overriding reservation though. I know that 600+ villages were destroyed by the German army, and i know a lot of Russian civilians were needlessly killed but - the film seems to go out of its way to demonise the german characters. From the sacrilegious SS officer effigy to the col-hearted way the germans relish the slaughter of peasants, there is nothing to say the Russians are any more than victims. No mention of the horrors purpotrated by the advancing Russian army, and in the backwards sequence where we see villages burning - a lot of those villages were probably burned down during the period of Russian retreat when a "scorched earth" policy was operated to prevent the Germans getting use out of the conquered land. Made in 1985 i guess the producers couldn't make a film too critical of the Russian army during WW2 but without this criticism the film struck me as far more anti-german than an anti-conflict/anti-warfare piece. 9/10

Thursday, 8 February 2007

The Last Of England (1988) - Derek Jarman

Not having any idea of what Derek Jarman's films are like before diving headfirst into this particular title is as much of a hindrance as an advantage. With no preconceptions (except those garnered from the reviews on IMDB) i didn't know what to expect, having never really seen a truly abstract film save perhaps Un Chien Andalou, but a total absence of a story is all this film has in common with Bunuel's surreal short.

From the outset it becomes abundantly clear that this is Jarman's personal film, an exposé if you will of his bitterness towards late '80s UK culture and society. As we see him working at his Bankside studio there's something tense in the scene, but it's not clear exactly what or why. But before the audience has time to work out where this film is or who the man at the desk is (and where he is) the didactic assault on the senses - aural, visual, emotional, political begins in earnest. A snapped shot of a person holding a flare, a man injecting heroin, masked men with guns. Shots cut together at a rate you might expect from Michael Winterbottom, but far from the contemporary dirctor's haphazrd scattershot approach to editing Jarman's constrcut seems to have far more in comon with soviet nontage cinema. We see the artist, then we see a boy masturbating over a Caravaggio painting, we see a flare illuminating the darkness - there is not one image that is placed at random into the montage; everything is placed together because that's the best way to get across the message. But this then begs the question - what is his message?

The message, the point or focus of Jarman's cinematic barrage appears to me to be a countercultural political polemic. In the 1970s political syndicalims became rife amongst the working classes of a Labour britain; under Thatcher the mines were shut down (amid violent protests) and the army got tough in Northern Ireland (Human rights cases over internment dragged on for years afterwards). Her government, under the 'Iron Lady' was one of solidity, of national strength, in the case of the Falklands conflict a manipulated patriotism. Jarman seeing all this also sees a loss of traditional morality, a loss of heritage and i think, Britishness. Society, in Jarman's eyes emerged at the end of the 1980s fragmented with the working classes wholly out of touch with the middle class - so his film is just as fragmented. Perversly in this dystopic industrial wasteland a man injecting heroin, a man getting shot on a rooftop by masked gunmen and a tramp scavaging for food in a scrapheap does not seem at al out of place. Indeed it's these social pervsersions that seem to define the environment for Jarman, the scariest thought of all however is that none of these nameless characters who fliter in and out of the film are fictional - in 1988 you could probably go to a scrapheap and find the tramp, or go to a part of Belfast where a ritual execution was taking place and in London heroin was soon to make way for the deluge of ecstasy in the yuppy 90s and later cocaine.

There does however seem to be some hope, some light in the darkness, held aloft by a facless person lighting the path if not to righteousness then at least to a possibility of a better future. It's no accident that the final shot is of a man holding a flare in a boat being rowed away by people dressed like KKK members. What came to mind watching this scene was the famous headline in The Sun which read: "Will the last person to leave please turn off the light". Whetehr this a deliberate reference or whether i'm reading too much into it the repeated motif of this person with a flare that crops up amidst all other sorts of chaos is an interesting one that clearly has purpose, even if that purpose is not easily fathomable. The same can be said of the marriage scene, that Jarman pays an awful lot of attention to with his camera. A man and woman get married in a dirty derelict building, falling apart and covered in crap, surrounded by various unusal aspects of society - a crossdresser and a dwarf are the more memorable. Following the ceremony we then see the woman outside with a large fire burning nearbye. I sort of expected her to go into a political speech like Eve in Godard's Sympathy For The Devil but she doesn't - jarman's far more interested on her body language that resmebles, for me, a kind of mournful despair. This should be the happiest day of her live, but under Jarman's subversion it becomes a fascinating bastardisation of classical traditions, the purity of her white dress somehow remaining untainted by the filth and desolation around her like some sort of innocent virginal survivor of a holocaust.

Photographically, the film is just as planned, precise and made to be controversial. In a world where Hollywood spends millions on big budget 35mm movies Jarman works from a small bankside studio shooting on an 8mm camera splicing in 40 year old home video footage his parents shot. The lighting is as bizarrely striking as it is shoddy. The vibrant colours arent fully exploited because of the amateur equipment, but it's also this amateurness in the cinematography that makes everything so much more powerful. Light and colour merge into the environment changing everything onscreen in a way that would never happen in a the highly controlled environment of a Hollywood studio. Then over this we get a soundtrack with as much avriety as anything else in the film. Pomp And Circumstance becomes a symbol of faux nationalism, an insincere facade of pride that hides an underlying disilusion and apathy - a complete contrast to the usual outpouring of zeal it's accompanied by at The Proms. Simon Fisher-Turner's own unique, highly original score is just as effective in evoking the kind of feeling Jarman intended as Philip Glass' score was for Koyanisquatsi (a film that also shares the fragmented narrative structure although with more coherence than this film). In fact, the best way i can describe what watching the film is like is to say it's Koyanisquatsi meets Tarnation with The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Who Dares Wins thrown in for good measure.

An impossible film to get your head round, with an overt style many will label as arty or pretentious, but one that has unrivalled passion at it's core. A smack in the face for British conservatism and modernity that uses the very tools of modenity to evoke a certian nostalgia for the preceeding traditions, morals, society as a whole. Watching this film, then turning on the news almost had me packing my bags and emigrating.


Le Plaisir (1952) - Max Ophüls

This cinematic triptych, made in France by a German who spent the majority of his career in the USA, displays all the director's narrative and visual style with the minimum of ease and time. Based on the writings of Guy de Maupassant, Pleasure is subdivided into three shrot stories all concerning pleasue - namely Le Masque, La Maison Tellier and Le Modèle. The first taking up approximately 15 minutes of runtime, the second nearly an hour and the third the last 15 minutes or so. In fact, when the film was first devised there was no intention of making Le Modèle but the final story was changed when Édouard Harispuru stepped in as a change of producer. Speaking reasonable French the dialogue surprisingly accurate, though this is because of how Ophüls wrote the script - first he would dictate the dialogue in German to Jean Valère who would write it in her French before Jacques Natanson went through it with a fine-tooth comb to make it as good a screenplay as possible.

Le Masque (pictures above) tells the story of an old man who wears a mask so he can go to lavish balls, so he can approach and court young ladies who otherwise would have turned a blind eye to him. The majority of the story takes place in the decadent palace where the bal is taking place, the camera constantly moving through all three dimensions around the dancing characters, up and down the stairs, creating the space as it moves. The protagonist comes in inebriated and begins drunkenly dancing with a girl before he passes out from exhaustion, it's only when his mask is removed we see him for who he really is - before at his home we are filled in on his story by a doting wife. As striking as the camera movements are it's realy the costume and set design that stand out early on. Within the ball the dancers are constantly framed within windows and/or glass panes that surround the room and when we leave the ball we see a figure framed under the neck of a horse, the camera still [as it usually is in Le Plaisir] at a jaunty offset angle. There's a strange duality in the figure of the mask i feel; we pity him in many ways because his efforts will more often than not prove fruitless whilst we can sympathise slightly with his wife who seems to let this go on endlessly with little complaint. But as a metaphor, perhaps of the audience, putting on a mask to give the appearance of youth so one can fit into decadent surroundings - there seems something profound in this although i'm not sure exactly what.

The bulk of the film is taken up by the story of what happens when a local brothel closes for a day. In La Maison Tellier we only ever see the brothel from the outside, a sly touch of style that allows for an amazing exterior shot that rises up around the outside of the building looking at everything inside through slits, window and door frames (pictured). When the house closes we see that the patrons, the local gentlemen can't get on without it - they try to sit down and have a conversation but the insults soon fly and disorder erupts. It is with a distinct sense of irony that it is the local whorehouse (seen as very respectable by the locals) which keeps the town running smoothly. Meanwhile the girls from the house go into the Normandy (although the original text is set elsewhere in France) countryside to see the first communion of the Madamme's niece. The hilly landscape fitting in perfectly with the director's style of offset camera angles and constant 3-dimensional panning and track. Within the church itself, ornately adorned with cherubs and other iconography (something criticised at the time although the actual church looks exactly like the set does) both the baroque nature of the film and the heavy emotional subtext come to the fore. During the ceremony, without reason, one of the girls - the outspoken Rosa, starts to weep which soon spreads until everyone in the church is crying. It becomes abundantly clear at this point the joy of the brothel, the smiles on the girls' faces as they invite the customers in is just a facade - and hence why we only see the outside of the building (literally only the facade) in the same way the patrons only see a front the girls put on. Following some celebratory drunkness the girls return to the house and everything goes pretty much back to the way it was before in town. There seems to be a moral tale at play here, but the film never judges the girls - they are merely women earning money from something they appear to enjoy; certainly their customers leave satisfied but nevertheless in the moment when they cry you realise that they are sad inside and that their job- to which they return, is stifling their emotional freedom. A tale of pleasures of the flesh and immorality, but not an overtly preachy or pious one, or indeed happy (despite appearances).

In the final tale an artist seeks happiness, joy and fulfilment through his muse - Le Modèle. In the most visually impresive of the three stories the opening shot tells the whole story of the protagonists' relationship without a single cut. Seeing his muse for the fiorst time the artist runs up some stairs after her, they disapear round a corner behind a wall and emerge seconds later hand-in-hand descending stairs opposite towards the camera. When the arguments start the camera follows one chase through the house, tracking through walls, following the character's pursuit before framing them in a window pane or door frame. In the final scene of the film, the most impressive technical shot of the film emerges: at the end of an argument the model turns out of frame, then walks up some stairs to throw herself out of the window. The camera, watching the argument in medium shot turns in time with the model becoming a 1st person P.O.V which then walks up the stairs, with the model's shadow on the wall in front of the camera, before opening the window and jumping out - the camera films the fall from the model's viewpoint the whole way down including crashing through the conservatory ceiling. Then in the final shot, going against every other shot in the film - no extraodinary detail in the set, no complex aperture framing or strange camera angles, no tracking either vertically or laterally - we get a glorioulsy simple, picturesque shot of people on an almost empty beach and thus, a sense of happiness is finally achieved. 8/10

Combustible Celluloid review

Friday, 2 February 2007

L'Avventura (1960) - Michelangelo Antonioni

In this wonderful 60s film from Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, a girl going missing on an island sparks a journey, across Italy in one sense physical, and in a far more meaningful sense - emotional that will leave its protagonists changed forever. Much has been written about the film already - including an excellent critique in Senses Of Cinema and an interesting review on Roger Ebert's site, so really i feel very much like i'm going over old ground here.

The title's ambiguity, translating both as The Adventure and The Fling is symptomatic really of the whole film's approach to narrative. There's barely a single shot in the film that's not executed to convey a variety of meanings and nuances - from the ever diminishing size of the key players in relation to their surroundings, to the use of deep focus photography to physically display the emtional distance between those characters. The lead couple - Claudio and Sandro believe, for a while that they have found love in each other's arms in the absense of the missing Anna (Sandro's girlfriend) but we, the audience never really believe this. Antonioni makes sure that through the way their scenes are staged the couple are rarely on the same level - either depthwsie or emotionally. They have a relationship, but it is one born of lusts of the flesh, a 'sick Eros' to paraphrase the director's own words. Through this central relationship, its emotional turbulence and voids, the facade of love the protagonists create, the director is able to slyly but assuredly pull apart what he saw as false moral fabric in 60s society. The way in which moral standards had not changed in line withs scientific ones by the late 50s seems to have angered Antonioni and, being a filmmaker, he was able to exorcise these false beliefs onscreen.

At every opportunity he sucks any possible emotion out of the screen, often leaving his characters set against a bleak empty background or in environments that makes them relative dwarves - large rooms either totally devoid of decoration or ornately addorned to the point of perversion (making up for in style, what the place lacks in feeling). Claudia and Sandro rarely stand next to each other, instead they are always apart - one close to the camera with the other set some way into the recessive background, trying futilely to reach out to their partner. With this total dearth of emotion in the frame, balanced by its own unique compositional efficiency and aperture artistry one can't really feel sympathy towards the couple; indeed empathy is probably the last thing Antonioni wants from his audience here. It's far more challenging for the film maker and viewer alike for the film to reflect on its audience and, more impoortantly, to challenge that audience's preconceptions.

And challenging preconceptions is what this film is all about. Fellini did it rather stylishly in La Dolce Vita , exposing bourgoise decadence for the hollow sham it really is but here Antonioni takes this a step further. Whereas in La Dolce Vita there are moments from which sollace can be sought along with a degree of hope there is none in L'Avventura. The only emotion that can really be directed towards the protagonists is that of pity; disdain may be too strong but the total lack of self-awareness on the part of the couple is, for the most part, astounding as they chose to cling to what they believe is love when anyone around them can see they're merely engaging in a selfish self-satisfactory carnal ballet. Come the end, in the film's closing shot, after Sandro has shown his contempt for idealistic youth and given into his libido one time too many, all that is left in their final embrace is mutual pity. He knows what he has become, how his social comfort has robbed him of his emotional counterpart and she - she finally sees herself as the pathetic vacume of emotion she has become. Looking desperately for love where there is none to be found, clinging ont even the merest fragment of hope no matter how unrealistic or short-lived that piece may be.

An irrefutably beautiful film, pervaded from the outset by bleak melancholy this film pities the people within it and the society that produced it but it does not scoren them. If Antonioni was to get what he wants we would learn from their mistakes, move on in the world and adjust the moral boundaries to more reliastic contemporary ones and ironically, hopefully, not fall inot the trap of total emotional desolation as the protagonists have done. Every line has meaning, every shot is a painting that could be hung on the wall, on a remote Italian isle Antonioni through an undramatic, emotional void has carved out his very own timeless masterpiece.

Roger Ebert's review
Senses Of Cinema article