Monday, October 29, 2007

10/29: Invocation of My Demon Brother; L'amour existe; The Wild Blue Yonder

Revisiting Fantoma's second collection of Kenneth Anger's films, next up was Invocation of My Demon Brother. This is another of Anger's expressions of his ritualistic magic, like the earlier Inaugaration of the Pleasure Dome, but I for one found this film to be much more effective, with a visceral assault of wild imagery. Anger densely layers superimposed images of his ritual performances, creating intense and often frightening collages. He superimposes multiple faces together, forming complex webs of eyes or laughing mouths packed into the frame, and speeds up rapidly edited ritual footage to enhance its immediacy.

The film's bracing visual impact is matched by the brutal score from Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger; if it wasn't for his name in the credits, I would've guessed this was a modern noise composition. The soundtrack is a rough, noisy feedback improvisation in the spirit of Lou Reed's infamous Metal Machine Music, a mechanically rhythmic exploration of harsh electronic tones bleating and squealing behind the images. The periodic bursts of less disciplined textured noise become a component in the overriding rhythm as well as the piece goes along, and the film's editing rhythms often play off of the music. This is one of Anger's most potent outbursts of visual excess.

I was somewhat surprised to discover that Maurice Pialat's 1960 short film debut, L'amour existe, was not the minimal dialogue-based drama I would've expected as a starting point for his career. Indeed, for his first film, Pialat forgoes narrative altogether, crafting a free-associative essay film that has much more in common with the first efforts of Alain Resnais than I ever would've guessed based on their respective later work. The film begins with an elegiac childhood remembrance. A romanticized voiceover narrates a series of key childhood moments — afternoons in the cinema, a map that aroused fantasies of far-off places — while Pialat's camera tracks across the suburbs of Paris. The film is an endless series of such stately tracking shots, the grand romance of the camera's gestures serving as a counterpoint to the general squalor that Pialat is depicting.

His film is essentially a recounting of the full life cycle of a lower-class suburban laborer, commuting into the city and back for hours every day, working hard for little pay, given exceedingly little free time and nothing of substance to fill it with. The film's introduction, in boyhood, is relatively brief, and then, the voiceover says, "the suburbs grow up" and the time of carefree adolescence comes to an end. From there, his camera roams freely across the streets of Paris and its surrounding environs, while the narration presents a poignant depiction of post-war Paris and the plight of its workers. The bulk of the film is taken up by this discussion of the working life, exploring the disconnection of workers from culture and art, the long hours, the decrepit neighborhoods outside Paris, the cramped public transportation. After all this, Pialat suggests, the workers are released into the relative peace of old age, which he depicts as a pale shadow of childhood's carefree spirit.

This is a lovely, understated cinematic poem that combines an evocative tone with a probing social conscience. Its an interesting start for Pialat, but on reflection not quite as odd as I initially though. All of his films display a sharply honed moral sense and an interest in the seeming banalities of existence, even if later on he would turn to narrative features rather than documentary essays.

Werner Herzog's The Wild Blue Yonder is a unique, compelling, but ultimately uneven effort from this master director of the uncharted and unusual. Herzog's work has always ventured in search of the unexplored territories, and his greatest sympathy has always been with those characters — real or imagined — who set off to do the impossible or the foolhardy. Some of his greatest work, especially in the latter part of his career, has been concerned with finding these adventurers in real life and crafting visionary documentaries around their surreal journeys. In a few of these, like Fata Morgana and Lessons of Darkness, documentary and fiction blend almost seamlessly, with Herzog narrating journeys into the unreal using footage wholly taken from the real. These science fiction documentaries, of which Wild Blue Yonder is the latest example, have often ranked among Herzog's most fascinating films, but this one doesn't quite reach the same ecstatic heights.

In the film, an alien (Brad Dourif) lands on Earth as part of an exhibition fleeing his now-inhospitable home in the faraway Andromeda galaxy. He's stunned to find, though, that the people of Earth are in the process of sending out their own astronauts in search of a better place to live, and he can only watch in awe and sadness as those astronauts land on and explore his former home, an icy planet in Andromeda. Herzog depicts this journey using documentary footage shot on a real space shuttle exhibition and on a diving exhibition below the ice floes in Antarctica, as well as periodic archival footage from NASA and the history of aviation. There are also a handful of fictional vignettes with Dourif, as the alien visitor, ranting and spouting his philosophy. Dourif is the film's first big problem. His oddball persona and earnest lunacy is more than a little off-putting, and he often seems like he doesn't know whether to play the alien as threatening, poignant, or silly. The result is mostly just awkward. Fortunately, he's a little better when he's relegated to voiceover, and he especially tones down his melodramatic intonation when he begins to narrate the Earthling astronauts' mission, adopting a more hushed and whispery tone that's better suited to the film's overall mood of melancholy contemplation.

Indeed, once the film gets past a bumpy start that's heavy on Dourif and lots of CIA conspiracy theory nonsense, things become much more promising. Some of the space shuttle footage is still a bit dry, and Herzog mostly lets it stand on its own, possibly banking on a certain awe factor associated with the weightless movement of the astronauts. I can't speak for everyone, but a lifetime of being exposed to this kind of footage has possibly diminished its inherent impressiveness too much. This is not true, however, of the footage from Antarctica, taken by improvisational guitarist and deep sea diver Henry Kaiser. As the astronauts disembark from their shuttle, they descend into a gorgeous underwater netherworld, teeming with strange life and flooded with a gorgeous blue light. Herzog has always been fascinated by the foreignness of our own planet, and both Fata Morgana and Lessons of Darkness were structured as the experience of Earth through the eyes of alien visitors. Here, the concept is taken a step further, as images from Earth stand in for another planet. The Earth is made strange to its own inhabitants, who poke around and explore its recesses as though they were on a true alien world. It's some truly awe-inspiring photography, and here Herzog is probably wise to let it stand mostly on its own. Its eerie beauty speaks for itself.

Also contributing to the film's strange appeal is the haunting, utterly original score, performed by cellist Ernst Reijseger with Senegalese vocalist Mola Sylla and a choir of Sardinian singers. The music is stunning, achieving a strange blend somewhere between African vocal music, European religious music, and modern avant-garde composition. It's a perfect complement to Herzog's gorgeous imagery, evoking an otherworldly aura that helps to disassociate the images from their earthbound origins, aiding the transition to an imaginary icy world in the Andromeda galaxy. The music was so beautiful, so unique, that I had to immediately order the soundtrack CD as soon as the film was over. Reijseger's compositions elevate the film to a whole other level.

Wild Blue Yonder winds up being an interesting but only partially successful venture into Herzog's trademark territory of "ecstatic truth." The film examines man's isolation from his environment, possibly the universal condition if even aliens feel the same disconnection. Beings from one planet flee to another, only to find that the denizens of that planet are also heading off for uncharted waters. In examining this poetic situation, Herzog pulls in NASA science, string theory and astrophysics, and some of the most beautifully shot underwater footage I've ever seen. With such an odd mix of ideas and images blended together, not to mention the collision of Dourif's fictional framing story with documentary realities, it's perhaps not surprising that this film hangs together a bit awkwardly. Still, there's plenty of great material here to make this well worth seeing — as pretty much all of Herzog's films are.

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