Sunday, November 11, 2007

11/11: Crimes and Misdemeanors; Pittsburgh Trilogy; The Text of Light

With Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen finally made the serious, sustained look at death and morality that he had clearly had in him for quite some time. This is Woody's most refined presentation of his darkest, most cynical and pessimistic views on the nature of the universe and humanity's place in it. It's a film in which murder goes unpunished, a deeply religious rabbi goes blind, a seemingly wise and upbeat philosopher kills himself for inexplicable reasons, and an intelligent and artistic documentary filmmaker has his career and life ruined while his shallow, phony brother-in-law prospers as a TV comedy producer. In short, this is Woody's exposé on the unfairness of life, a questioning of the place of morality and spirituality in a world seemingly so lacking in fairness, order, or justice.

In some ways, this film also revisits some of the ground explored in The Purple Rose of Cairo, specifically the contrast between the tidy, ordered fantasies of Hollywood movies and the harsher realities of the real world. Woody's character, the struggling filmmaker Cliff, is a compulsive moviegoer, both with his adored young niece and with the new object of his affection, the TV producer Halley (Mia Farrow). Cliff goes to the movies — mostly Hollywood classics like Singin' in the Rain or Hitchcock's lightly comic Mr. and Mrs. Smith — as an escape, a pick-me-up, a relief from the outside world. This escapist facet of films is something Crimes and Misdemeanors steadfastly refuses to provide, although Woody's love for the films quoted here appears to be genuine.

But the film's moral inquiry is carried out most thoroughly through the character of Judah (Martin Landau), a highly successful opthamologist whose comfortable life is in danger of falling apart when his former mistress Dolores (Anjelica Huston) threatens to tell his wife about their affair. His internal struggle to figure out what to do in order to maintain the status quo of his happy, successful life eventually leads him down the path of murder, and he hires his mob-connected brother to do the job for him. Judah is initially conflicted, and the murder awakens memory of his deeply religious childhood and his father's admonitions that God is always watching, but ultimately Judah gets away with his crime, and he settles back into his life with very little compunctions about the terrible act he's committed. At the very end of the film, when his story finally intersects, very briefly, with Cliff's, and the two of them sit down for a chat, he tells Cliff the story as though it's a movie plot. Cliff responds, essentially, by saying that it doesn't work as drama because he doesn't believe any man would be able to live with that act as easily as Judah describes it. Cliff still lives in the world of movies, and Judah knows the truth — that in fact we tend to rationalize and excuse our own decisions, and that if we don't punish ourselves for own crimes, often no one else will. This is reality, and it is the film's philosophical point to present this reality and then ask what the consequences are for our concepts of morality, love, God, and justice.

Nowhere else in his oeuvre has Woody so thoroughly examined the nature of these broad existential themes with such sharp insight and depth, and with such an open-ended perspective as well. The film raises a great number of questions about morality and spirituality, but provides few answers. The film is concerned with the way things are rather than the way they should be, and as such its stark presentation of the reality of human morality cannot end in any conclusive lessons. Even the film's most powerful philosophical voice, the professor (Martin Bergmann) who is a subject for one of Cliff's documentaries, contradicts his own lifelong message of love and human morality by suddenly and without explanation committing suicide. As a distraught and uncomprehending Cliff says when he hears of it, this was a man who saw the worst of life and still said "yes" at every point, and then suddenly he just said "no" to life.

This is the film's central paradox, and its central question: in the absence of God as a defining force in our lives, what do we have to take his place? Of all the film's characters, only the rabbi Ben (Sam Waterston) is truly content in his life, even if he is losing his sight. He has his family, his belief in God, and his belief in the basic goodness of humankind to bring him through life. Even if these beliefs are false — as Woody certainly believes them to be — Ben is much happier for holding them, even if by doing so he misses out on the real truths about life and the world. Ben is a quiet and powerful presence in the film, a beacon of spiritual contentment in a vast sea of malcontents and morally confused people. It's because of this that Woody ends the film on a shot of Ben, dancing, happily blind, with his daughter at her wedding.

Although the first film in Stan Brakhage's Pittsburgh Trilogy, created while on ride-alongs with the Pittsburgh police, is called Eyes, Brakhage focuses much more on hands, keeping the eyes perversely hidden. This is a film of actions — hands on steering wheels, hands poised on the butt of a gun, hands lighting a cigarette, hands writing. In following around several police officers on their daily rounds, Brakhage mostly avoids showing (or never encountered) the kinds of intense showdowns and action that usually characterize police films. Brakhage instead atomizes the police officer's day into fragmentary small actions, repeated routines, and momentary bursts of activity. The film rhythmically returns to the same kinds of images over and over again: officers' belts, cigarettes being lit, driving, the officers' backs during seemingly routine conversations with civilians.

The cops are often filmed from behind, in fact, hiding their eyes and even their faces for the most part, except for brief intervals. The film's seeming reluctance to focus on faces and eyes puts a premium on the few striking moments when Brakhage does choose a tight close-up on a cop's eyes, or when he reveals one of them looking back through the car's rearview mirror. These insertions are like brief moments of human connection in a film otherwise dedicated to process, procedure, and routine actions. Brakhage's fragmentary editing and purposeful avoidance of drama result in a surprisingly objective, even neutral, image of the police. Anyone expecting Brakhage's stab at social commentary will doubtless be disappointed. The film's slant, as with all three entries in the Pittsburgh Trilogy, is more philosophical and metaphysical. There are shots in the film that could doubtless be used in a radical anti-police tirade, and likewise other shots that might be used in an uncritical tribute. But Brakhage's film is neither, and he uses this material with a blind eye to socio-political considerations, instead generalizing these images and incidents to a generic police force. These three films are all concerned to some extent with mortality, and especially the ways in which our society attempts to deal with and confront mortality, violence, and suffering. In this case, the theme is largely implied, since the film is a semi-abstract but carefully modulated look at possibly the most prominent societal device for maintaining order and security against the chaos of nature.

Deus Ex makes the theme of mortality and societal order in the Pittsburgh Trilogy even more obvious. Filmed in a hospital while Brakhage was staying there as a patient, this film naturally deals much more directly with human mortality and the ways in which our society tries to prevent, delay, and alter it. This film is largely even more abstract than its predecessor, though, largely eliminating the human element and reducing, more than ever, the people that Brakhage encounters to hands, feet, and torsos. Only rarely does he show a face, most notably the tortured expression on a patient who's squirming in agony on a gurney. But for large portions of the film Brakhage is filming curtains around beds, doors and their hinges, the patterns on the hospital floor. The film's title derives from the Latin "deus ex machina," meaning "god from the machine," and the subtext here is the way in which human technology intersects with the work of god and nature.

Once again, the film deals with humans imposing order on the chaos of existence. The hospital, as filmed by Brakhage, is a place of coldness and constricted geometric lines, bathed in clinical greens and yellows. This is a building designed to trap sickness and death, as though in a box, square it off in a small area and not allow it to escape. But this human-imposed order is belied in the film's final segment, which finally allows both the beauty and the horror of nature to intrude upon the hospital's neatness and antiseptic clean. Beauty enters in the form of the budding flowers glimpsed outside the window of Brakhage's room, a single bright red bud pressed up against the glass pane. Brakhage intercuts this image with a particularly graphic and gory surgery scene — one inevitably wonders if the great avant-garde filmmaker had seen Altman's M*A*S*H the year before. Both the flower and the blood of surgery represent the victory of nature over all man's attempts to conquer it. The link is solidified in a stunning shot in which Brakhage uses a focus pull to make it appear as though the red of the flower is bleeding across the screen, spreading in a dark red blot like spilled blood.

If Deus Ex takes a few steps towards a more direct encounter with human mortality, The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes goes all the way with that idea, and then some. As the title implies, whereas the other two films in this trilogy deal with mortality through the filter of society's ways of dealing with it, this film removes the filters and looks at death head-on. Comprised entirely of autopsy footage and filmed with the same relentless attention to details that characterized the other two films, this is most definitely not easy viewing. Today was the second time I've seen it, since this is the only installment of the trilogy that was already available on DVD from Criterion, and it wasn't any easier seeing it a second time.

This is a brutal, uncompromising document, with Brakhage insisting that the viewer should confront the realities of death with eyes wide open — although at this screening, quite a few people walked out during this film, and I can't say I blame them. The autopsies Brakhage observed are shown in their every detail, and like the routines of the police and the hospital, are atomized down to their constituent parts, with the focus on small aspects of the whole at various moments. The technique is largely the same, but the material here is gruesome and hard to take for even the strongest stomach. At the same time, it's absolutely necessary. Brakhage is committed to opening up new ways of seeing, and in this trilogy especially he's interested in presenting new visions of some foundational institutions and ideas, specifically the idea of death. And there has never been a vision of death so pure, so uncompromised by human feeling, so utterly cold and objective and scientific. This point is underscored by the film's ending, in which Brakhage gives the last image to one of the doctors, who when the autopsy is over, recounts the outcome of the procedure into a blood-smeared tape recorder. In the end, a human life has been literally hollowed out — all the organs removed and placed in a plastic bag, the blood drained, the brain removed and weighed — and its essence reduced to a recitation of cold facts and figures into a microphone.

There is a kind of harsh beauty here, which Brakhage finds and explores in the reflection of light off the peeled-back flesh and pools of blood, but this is mostly a look at the ugliness of nature and mortality. The human body, stripped of its life and vitality, is pulled apart and catalogued, as much by Brakhage's camera as by the doctors doing the autopsies. This is Brakhage's way of both confronting his own mortality, and forcing his viewers to do the same for themselves. It is impossible, in the face of this monstrous and terrifying work, not to think about one's own ultimate demise and the fate that biology has in store for us all. The other two films in this series are comparatively comforting, dealing as they do with the procedures and institutions that society has put in place to confront these things for us so we don't have to on a daily basis. But Brakhage has recognized this avoidance and created a film that purposefully short-circuits any possibility of avoiding the reality of death.

Brakhage's The Text of Light is one of his most radical and fully realized attempts at creating a new way of seeing. The film is made almost entirely with the refracted light from a glass ashtray, although the source of these gorgeous, puzzling images is almost never made apparent for those who don't know ahead of time. In a few shots, it's obvious that some kind of glass object is involved somehow, but more often the film is completely abstracted from any physical realities altogether, totally divorced from the physical world except in the form of light. Brakhage creates an entire new universe of light, which is of course highly appropriate since actually everything we see in the real physical universe as we know it is derived from light anyway. We would know of nothing if not for light, which allows us to see and to see in colors. Brakhage has taken this axiom of vision to its logical conclusion by constructing his images entirely out of light and the prismatic colors that result from its refraction in warped glass.

Many of the images here resemble tiny solar systems and galaxies, or particularly vibrant sunsets, or horizons of land and sea and sky in stratified layers. It is a new universe of light, a radical re-imagining of a world in which light not only allows us to see, but is the physical essence of things as well. The light in this film has a real physical presence, bending and changing with the fluctuations of camera movement or shifts in the unseen room outside the ashtray. These are some of the most stunning, visceral, and beautiful images in Brakhage's large oeuvre. The film is absolutely mesmerizing in the graceful rhythms of its editing and seismic shifts in areas of light and color that flow smoothly across the frame.

It's also a film of contemplation, as evidenced by the somewhat calmer tempo of the editing as compared to some of Brakhage's other abstract works. There are occasional bursts of the kind of rapid-fire montage that characterizes most of Brakhage's painted works, or even many of his photographic works like Cat's Cradle. But for the most part the film has a much more even, tranquil pace, with Brakhage allowing time for each image to develop and linger in the viewer's consciousness. In this sense, the shifting patterns of tendril-like light are most reminiscent, not of any outer world, but of an inner one. The speed of light becomes the speed of thought, the electrical connections of neurons and the flow of information. From the observation of light stripped down to its elemental form, Brakhage's film moves ever inward, in search of some primal form of light that might be pure thought.

1 comment:

jpb said...

I was thinking of doing "The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes" for the upcoming Short Film Blog-a-Thon, and I may yet.