29.8.13

Through A Glass Darkly

The DVD includes a little excerpt from Bergman's autobiography where he writes about this film. It's a difficult account to get your head around, perhaps because it's a translation, perhaps because Bergman thinks REALLY deeply and seriously about his work (far more than I have done, goes w/o saying). Leaving aside the rather dull debate about whether this constitutes the first part of a trilogy or not (haven't seen the other two, so what do I care?) What was interesting about Bergman's take is that he regretted including the father-son scene at the end. I find this odd because that coda does tie-up a thread left hanging from the conversation between the father and the husband half-way through the film, where the former says he'll reveal what that hope was that saved him from suicide. That scene was so dense I had to watch it twice, and from it the father does emerge as the most interesting character in the piece, much more than Harriet Andersson or Max von Sydow, who Bergman believes delivered the best performances (and sidebar, just how harsh was he about Lars Passgård!)

Gunnar Björnstrand (the father) had recently converted to Catholicism, and Bergman suggests that this made him deliver his lines in bad faith, as if he wasn't truly invested. Which sounds really strange to me because that's (quite explicity!) what the character is all about! The father's bestselling novels flirt with faith and doubt, but the 'truth' is that these themes are tricks and evasions disguising the 'void' of detached unfeeling that is the core of his being. For the purposes of the film's narrative, this manifests as the temptation to mine his daughter's real-life breakdown for themes to supercharge his fiction and achieve that poetic immortality that has so far eluded him. But in that suicide attempt, something did emerge from the void. A love for his son and daughter, of the kind the husband has. The husband cannot imagine leaving his ill wife, his love traps him, he has no freedom. During the trip to Switzerland, similar feelings have been activated for the father as well.

In that final scene, the father rather soppily puts forward the idea that God cannot be found anywhere but in the human capacity to love. Love, hope and God are bound up together. The hope being that the daughter can recover. The method, love. The malady, the lack of love. The side-effect, the God delusion. What is suggested here is that Karin's schizophrenia is caused by her need for an father-figure. Her real father is unreachable, so she imagines another one. In the climactic scene in the attic, she is waiting for God to step into the room. Her father is framed by the doorway, but paralised with shock and unable to come in.

Bergman's notes on Karin's illness are scattershot, suggesting to me that he developed her character very organically, so I'm not sure how much there is to read into the voices she hears or her seduction of her brother. The siblings both demonstrate greater powers of imagination than their father. The husband is perhaps the least spiritually sensitive of the lot, describing himself as a simple man able to face up to life and the real world. He is a doctor and a scientist, and finds it impossible to pray with his wife in her madness. Karin is frigid with him, but flirtatious with her talanted brother, and her yearning for God (the father) is partly sexual. Her husband is a good soul, but he's also patronising (all those diminuitive pet names, my "little child"), and I want to read her illness as a result of her being trapped, creatively and sexually, in an unfulfilling marriage (just as the husband feels trapped, in fact). This territory is definitely covered in Persona, but I'm not sure if it's anything more than background here.

Bergman dedicated this film to his wife (at the time). He describes the way they fell in love through writing letters to each other, opening each other up that way, and then slowly drifting apart as they lost a common language to communicate in. The only way this feeling makes it into the film is the father's desperate attempt to cover up his detachment from his family. And the film, unlike the marriage, ends on a hopeful note, with a relationship being established between the father and son. It IS a soppy ending, it DOES disperse some of the tension of the previous scenes, but its content is crucial to making sense of what came before. Dramatic heft is sacrificed for thematic clarity, and it's clear (from Persona) that Bergman increasingly preferred not to make that trade-off.

26.8.13

She's Gotta Have It

Nola’s “body and soul” are hers, and she refuses to permanently transfer ownership to anyone, preferring to lend it temporarily to three (or more) men. So there is a problem with presenting her three suitors as facets of the “ideal” man. As suggested here, the film presents “a post-Freudian play on the id/ego/superego concept (roughly transposed to gratification/self-worth/conscience), each of her suitors adds up to the one, complete man”. If that’s true, then when the right guy comes along Nola should drop all her pretentions to self-possession and submit herself to the marriage contract, which is not actually how the film ends. Instead, Jamie is very blatantly set up as Mr. Right (to the point where colour invades the screen for his birthday present to Nola). Nola says she loves him… for now. But she remains determined to avoid monogamy and matrimony, and it is heavily implied at the end that she leaves him.

As Mr. Right is also the guy who rapes her to prove a point (Who’s pussy is this? It’s not yours!) I’m right behind Nola when she walks away, and super disappointed when she caves in. Nola still lives in a society that expects women to belong to men, and we could all do with being more open-minded about the way people chose to structure their romantic relationships. My question is why in the hell would anyone want to spend their valuable time with Nola? I mean, she is beautiful and wealthy, so maybe if you’re shallow (Greer) or broke (Mars). But she is also JUST as boring as Jamie, if not more so. I’m mystified as to why he tries so hard! The problem with the film is that Tracy Camilla Johns fails to embody the liberated woman she is supposed to represent.

This is about acting, and there’s not a lot of it about here. The absolute worst is Nola’s father, who plays the piano very well but then delivers his lines atrociously to the camera, almost as if he’s reading the script aloud for the first time and is unsure exactly what the words mean. Lee himself is only passingly convincing as the smart-talking (though not actually that smart-mouthed) Mars. The film was made on a shoe-string, it’s a debut, and it shows. It may be historically significant and admirable in its ambition, but it’s still a failure, since for long stretches you simply don’t care whether Nola ends up with Jamie or not.

Punch-Drunk Love

Why does Emily Watson even bother? It’s a good question. I do have a fondness for these sorts of films: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, Garden State, Adventureland – possibly the apotheosis was reached with Buffalo 66, where the female saviour’s patience is positively angelic rather than anything recognisably human. So why does it bug me now, when Paul Thomas Anderson does the same thing? Maybe I expect more from him. Or maybe I’ve become less patient.

Watson is an only child and a divorcee, while Sandler is running away from seven sisters and (by the looks of it) has never had a girlfriend. She may just be after a quick fix – both characters are so frustrated their sexual drives have become disturbingly violent (I want to crush your eyeballs with my teeth etc.) No doubt loneliness can make you pretty desperate. Once you interrogate the fairytale you wonder how long Watson will stick around. But that’s beside the point. The film isn’t really about Watson. It’s about the male protagonist, of course.

P.T. Anderson wanted to make an Adam Sandler movie that was also an “art film”. I guess that explains the looong drag-my-steady-cam-until-I-drop tracking shots, the gooey fluorescent lights and the random piano (sorry, harmonium). Beyond the stylistic bric-a-brac, Anderson also offers an investigation into what exactly the problem with Sandler might be. One clue is found in the brilliant and hilarious showdown with Phillip Seymour Hoffman at the end. Two ridiculous figures summoning up all their male pride to yell “FUCK YOU!” at each other, trying to get the last word in before walking away. Hoffman is the baddie because he’s a pimp who (literally) controls when his women speak. Sandler on the other hand ends up defending Watson from his stupidities and submitting to her beneficent care. He admits his lies in moments of tenderness. Under Watson’s tutelage, he might even be able to learn to live with himself. If she sticks around. But that question again: why should she?

24.8.13

La Dolce Vita

This film defined a certain era of cool even though its overt purpose is to undermine it. Not a surprise, since Fellini, like Marcello, hovers on the edge between gorging himself on the decadence around him and remaining true to a purer conception of the sweet life. It's an ironic title: the free-wheeling hedonism on display is overlaid with Catholic symbols: the moral certainty of a previous age gone haywire. The film opens with a statue of Jesus being flown to the Vatican, with Marcello and his film crew trailing behind distracted by sunbathing women. The flirting is disrupted by distance, noise and the work at hand. At the end of the film, Marcello is on a beach surrounded by revellers marvelling at a grotesue sea-creature. He has joined the orgy, it's a holiday all the time now. From across the estury, the "angelic" waitress calls to him, but he cannot hear her over the sound of the waves. He succumbs completely to the spiral that (as a fellow lost soul predicts) will result in complete depravity in a few years time. The inner voice of conscience, the divine spark, is drowned out by the chaos of the modern world.

Sylvia is a different kind of divinity - inhumanly tireless, infectiously sensual: a sprite escaped from the lands of Fairie (or is it America?). She's a sort of preternaturally glowing elemental being, a nymph from an earlier pagan culture and mythology. And in that role she annoints Marcello in the Fontana di Trevi. But then the night ends, she is slapped around by her husband, and goes into another day answering inane questions from insect-like reporters, trying to hold the act together. There is a kind of magic that is being fed to the celebrity press machine, but it turns out to be a fabrication, one that ensnares and cages the fabricators.

Religion is hardly put forward as the solution to the corruption of the 1950s. The orgy in the castle ends with morning mass, the sins of the night before washed away. Then there is the miracle of the Madonna sighting gathering huge crowds and television cameras, whipping up the kind of religious hysteria that leads to death. The church, as part of the establishment, is just as implicated in the sensationalisation and meaninglessness of modern life. There is no sweetness to be found here.

Marcello's turbulent (due to his constant philandering) relationship with his partner is contrasted with the serenity of Steiner's family life. It comes as a shock when it is revealed that Steiner kills his two children and himself because there isn't enough love in the universe. Fellini undercuts any notion of the nobility of the act by focusing on the wife, who apparently isn't worth saving from the world's evils. She learns about the destruction of her family surrounded by a pack of reporters crawling around her. Steiner's decision doesn't make any kind of sense, but by this point we are like Marcello: numb to all events around us.

A bit like Persona, can't escape the suspicion that the film is acclaimed partly because it evades a too precise thematic through-line, so you can read what you like into the succession of stories presented to you. The episodes in La Dolce Vita are not united by a singular narrative, neither do they contain within them concrete explanations for the decisions the characters make, or the world in which they live in. We are spectators partly enjoying and partly disapproving of the show, without really understanding what we are seeing. Perhaps that is the point. After all, the film is wrapped up in the concept of not hearing each other, not making that genuine connection to our real selves, that pure inner spirit.

In that light, the film could be compared to the kind of existential listlessness all those French authors fell into when they were confronted with the lack of divine purpose in the world. The religious structure to the universe taken away, what's to stop us from falling into the mire of mindless sensation? The mature response isn't suicide (Steiner) or nihilism (Marcello), but the acceptance of firmer explanations for the structure of our reality, relationships and society.

18.8.13

Solanin

Slice of life stuff about what happens after university and before you settle into the rest of your life. In the afterword, Inio Asano talks about her belief that "the most important messages in our lives don't come from musicians on stage or stars on television. They come from the average people all around you". Doesn't include comic book writers in that list, I notice. But then, she (or maybe a he now) wants to draw manga that is "true" to herself. Is art just about representing the lived-in experiences of the circle around you? Is the best art reducible to autobiography? To be fair, some of my favourite comics (Maus, Blankets, Fun Home) certainly fit that description...

Reading through Sandman at the moment for an upcoming thing I'm involved in – originally a kind of hate-reading since I didn't much like the series, but now I'm getting into it – and Neil Gaiman believes something very different. He is a fantasy / horror writer after all, so it's expected that he would want to go on about the "truths" buried in the myths and stories that structure our lives. So far I don't think he's all that successful at it (blood-sworn allegiance to Pratchett, Whedon, Wolfe, rep to the death etc.) But the point stands.

Did Asano go through the bereavement her protagonist Meiko goes through in the book? I don't know, but if not, then that injection of fiction (of myth-making) is an untruth that serves to reveal truths about the characters. A device maybe, a narrative trick (and not a hugely innovative one – imagine Sandman will do something similar at the end). But Naruo is the carrier of a set of attitudes that spreads enlightenment across the rest of the dramatis personae. A fictional tragic hero as much as (if not more than) a real person.

I quite liked the fact that this ideal boyfriend is stuffed in the refrigerator in order to provide the girlfriend with motivation for her subsequent music-making activities. The problem is that the dude is by no means the wise and noble truth-speaker the book sets him up to be. I shouldn't need to point this out, but disappearing for five days without telling the girlfriend you live with (and who pays your rent!) is a textbook example of a dickish move. Also, there's very little trace of irony in the scene where Meiko's mother basically hands responsibility for the care of her daughter to her boyfriend (patriarchal assumptions and contracts alive and well, I see!)

Sounds like I'm hating on this quite a bit. I actually found it quite affecting, particularly as I am in exactly the same age and situation as the characters, and it IS true to life, it DOES have an important message. I liked the way the book was set out, with friendships drifting across and apart, as if everyone was in their own boat trying to float the same way. I even liked the earnest crappy poetry of the conversations and monologues, which aims at some deep and meaningful self-awareness but often comes across confused and ridiculous. Because there IS a truth to that as well. Those emotions and sensations are very effectively evoked. I've spent a bit of time in Tokyo, and I recognise the places and people in Asano's pages.

A note on the craft: I've read quite a lot of anglophone comics, but I'm not a veteran manga reader, so it was interesting for me to see the differences in the way the page was used. For example, the fact that each chapter was only ~12 pages long (rather than 22) and had an average of 4 panels a page (rather than 6). But it's almost all in B&W, which I guess makes it easier to churn out on a weekly basis. It's also really common for scenes to end in the middle of the page: probably designed to keep you reading, but also a great way to loosen up the transitions and have text run over to the next scene (very awkward when comics do that over the page). In several chapters in Solanin, a dramatic episode unfolds alongside a comic one, before being united at the end – a very satisfying balancing act. Finally, the book often enlarges captions to panel size, white on black. Still rare in comics (although apparently Si Spurrier is fond of doing this as well). Momentary blinks, pauses for thought, or a way to highlight thoughts of particular significance. In one scene, these black panels alternate with panels of the protagonist lying in bed trying to explain how she feels to her friend. Speech bubbles run into the captions, and it's like she can say only a fraction of the things going through her mind. It's a brilliant way to use the language of comics, and it's true as well.

16.8.13

Persona

What to make of this? David Thomson: “Persona is about an actress who has a breakdown. She dries up on the stage and becomes speechless in life. Alone on an island with a talkative nurse, she listens and gradually absorbs the nurse – part actress taking up a new role, part emotional vampire”. In one of the final scenes the nurse opens a vein and forces the actress to suck her blood, so if it’s vampirism the victim is entirely willing, although she hates her tormentor (and herself) for it. A film about celebrity and fandom, then?

Or the most widely held view, according to Wikipedia: “Bergman and Elisabet share the same dilemma: they cannot respond authentically to catastrophes (such as the Holocaust or the Vietnam War). The actress Elisabet responds by no longer speaking: by contrast the filmmaker Bergman emphasizes the necessary illusions enabling us to live.” Elisabet shuts up before being confronted with newsreel from Vietnam or the photograph depicting the persecution of Jews in Poland, but nevertheless her dissatisfaction with the theatre may have something to do with its petty and inadequate nature when compared with genuine human tragedy. Why waste your time with art when you could be looking at something real? Something to that reading as well...

Or what about the two long confessional monologues, the first about the repressed sexual desires of a recently married twenty-something, the last about the fear and hatred of children and the wish to escape the bonds and responsibilities of motherhood. A film about women trapped in patriarchal family systems, having to perform as wives and mothers and defer sexual or existential satisfaction. A feminist reading works too, it seems...

Or what about the prelude that frames the narrative (such as it is). A light coming on, a line of film wheeling past, images flashing: sex, laughter, death – constituent parts of a million stories. A boy wakes up amongst corpses (the individual always ultimately separated from his fellows and alone) reading a book and becoming mesmerised by the actress on the cinema screen (art providing that sense of connection). Is the boy Bergman? At one of the dramatic peaks of the narrative, the film warps and burns up. At the end, the camera swings from the scene to show the film crew. A post-modern film, then – drawing attention to its artificial nature — becoming a film about our need for films.

I could go on, and many appear to have done so. Is it just me, or is there something slightly underwhelming about the sheer range of options being offered? Persona presents a whole tangled mass of signification, and it’s impossible to straighten it out into a single unified whole of a film. Different people latch onto different moments and meanings, and by the great variety of readings available somehow it becomes a consensus pick for great moment in movie history.

Apparently it was originally called A Bit of Cinematography, to emphasise its artificiality perhaps. The name would prepare you for the narrative being put in the service of photographic effects. What you get is bits not quite fitting together, explorations of a heap of themes composed of the same elements (cast, crew, set). I was left hungering for some sort of clarity – a sense of purpose. Perhaps the film is ultimately about how this doesn’t exist. Personas aren’t singular wholes, but unique collections of fragments gathered together by our engagement with the world, and with each other.

Looper

Why they don’t zap them into the middle of the ocean is not really explained, but as Bruce Willis tells JGL (an acronym now, my friends tell me) in the diner scene (heavy on Heat overtones) – we’ll be here all day if we start going into the mechanics of how it all works. There will be diagrams! he threatens. Let’s just leave it alone and attend to violent matters at hand, why don’t we?

And the advice is well worth taking, because this is a science-fiction film for only as long as it takes to set up the central metaphor of “looping” – the past impacting on the present and future. For a lot of the time, Rian Johnson is back in noir territory, and he has a curious and problematic way of defining this space.

The future is your typical crumbling metropolitan dystopia. If you overlap it with the one portrayed in Children of Men, it would be difficult to spot the seams. As Emily Blunt suggests, we have arrived here because we are in a motherless world. The men in the city all look lost because they haven’t had Emily Blunt equivalents to stroke their hair when they were growing up. Tellingly, the film has only three significant female characters: a cynical whore in the city, a loving wife in the country, and Ms Blunt, whose character arc spans both environments.

All this is noir to the very bone. Men need women to love and civilize them, otherwise they become rapacious beasts. Noir heroes worship a feminine deity which fixes their moral compass – the goddess is everywhere in chains, and must be protected as a knight protects his lady (parallels, sometimes explicit, with courtly love abound.)* It’s all up to the acetic outsider fighting the swelling tides of corruption and being swallowed up. And he can be fooled: the femme fatale escapes victimhood by exploiting her sexual allure to recruit champions that will defend her interests.

Looper’s femme fatale isn’t patronised or vilified, she is proud and independent enough NOT to take Joe Junior’s money and run. Even the silent loving wife has some spunk, giving Joe Senior the finger the first time she sees him. But they both fall into their prescribed roles pretty quickly, and Blunt’s character simply moves between the two options available. Joe Junior recognises that the traditional, family-orientated female role is proper and necessary if the world is to be saved, and the film is right behind him on this. The whore that sells her hair-stroking services is offering a balm that doesn’t cure the wound. She’s not interested in family, having alternative projects in mind, and so the city continues to rot.

It's all noir’s fault. This is what you get when you adhere to the conventions of the genre. But conventions are there to be played with, no? And we’re running out of excuses when it comes to lending a bit of edge to fundamentally unchanging gender roles. Why not make some more radical changes that widen the avenues women can take in noir? Why are none of the Loopers women? Why shouldn’t the superhero/villain be a girl? Will it really undermine the central (and politically innocuous) message that criminality is partly a product of your upbringing?

*What I love about Sin City is that it makes all these assumptions in noir so flipping obvious (cf. the wry references to Lancelot and Galahad). The arch tone of the books and film goes some way towards undermining the creepy sexual politics the stories revolve around.