Sunday, May 31, 2009

My Favorite Books on Cinema

There's a new meme making the rounds, started at The Dancing Image, and I've been tagged by Tony of Cinema Viewfinder. The idea is to name the books about cinema that have inspired and influenced one's own thinking about films. Here are some of mine, all of them writings that have informed my understanding of cinema and the ways I write about it.

Godard On Godard by Jean-Luc Godard

This book, a compendium of some of Godard's crucial critical writings for Cahiers du cinema and other journals, many of them predating his film career, provides valuable insight into a director who has always viewed filmmaking as an extension of criticism, a point of view that reached its apex in the Histoire(s) du cinema. Godard's writing is often willfully obtuse and dense, and it's sometimes difficult to pick through his web of allusions and punning wordplay to figure out just what he's saying — in other words, it's as challenging and complex as Godard's films. And considering that much of Godard's 60s oeuvre was developed from the foundations of his fascination with Hollywood cinema, this book is virtually essential to a complete understanding of the ideas and background that went into those films. It's also enormously entertaining in its own right, with Godard's signature wit and playfulness every bit as much present in his writing as in his films.

For Keeps by Pauline Kael

Kael is an infamous and controversial critic for a reason, and any collection of her writing will doubtless give most cinephiles as much cause for angry argumentation as for agreement. She was a stubborn critic, and her hardline insistence that she would never go see a movie a second time was evidence of her essential view of cinema as an ephemeral pursuit, experienced in the moment rather than contemplated over time. Even so, she passionately advocated for what she liked in the movies, and argued just as fervently against what she didn't like. More than any of her actual opinions or insights, it's this passion that made her such an important critic, and her reviews are always at least fun to read. She's been of most use to me as a kind of mental sparring partner, someone to argue with, to hone my own critical thinking against her fiercely argued reactions.

Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons by Jonathan Rosenbaum

This collection of Rosenbaum's reviews contains some excellent essays, in-depth considerations of films and filmmakers that take into account the political and social contexts of cinema in addition to aesthetic considerations. But his book is of most value to me as a defense of list-making, and a defense of the ways in which critics and cinemagoers can use lists to enhance and expand their understanding of and exposure to various kinds of films. He gets at the ways in which I've always used such lists, certainly: as guides to film watching, as a way of discovering titles and filmmakers who would otherwise not have been on my radar. And the massive list he provides here is perfect for that purpose, an exhaustive year-by-year summary of the best that cinema has to offer according to one of the artform's better critics. I've been checking items off that list for years, and I expect that Rosenbaum's list will continue to provide me with new things to see for many more years to come.

BFI Modern Classics: Crash by Iain Sinclair

One of the most difficult tasks of criticism is to delve into the details and intricacies of a single film, to focus with single-minded intensity and verve on one film and draw out its meaning through a patient exploration of its nuances. This is exactly what Sinclair does in his admirable and eclectic book on David Cronenberg's Crash, and in the process he ranges even further by incorporating a discussion of the J.G. Ballard novel of the same name on which the film is based. Sinclair, best known for his dense, rambling, essayistic books, proves himself an interesting film critic here, tracing the connections between Cronenberg's film, Ballard's novel, the fascination with real-life car crashes, and all sorts of other pop culture phenomena and works of art. It's a quick read, but it inarguably enriches the film under examination by positioning it in a wider cultural and literary context.

Order of the Exile by Jacques Rivette & various

This website is not a book, but it's the closest thing we have to an English-language collection of writings by and about one of the greatest but most consistently overlooked directors of the French New Wave. This excellent site, curated by Daniel Stuyck and Ross Wilbanks, gathers together the first English translations of some of Rivette's seminal criticism (along with Godard, he was a key critic for Cahiers du cinema) along with interviews and critical essays about most of his films. It's a great resource, and among other things it reveals Rivette as much clearer and more precise in his critical prose than his contemporary Godard; his criticism is insightful and sharp. His tracing of the relationship between drama and comedy in Howard Hawks — doubtless an influence on his own improvisational style — is especially great. Also worth noting, among a treasure trove of rare pieces about Rivette, is a 70s essay by David Ehrenstein about the little-seen masterpieces Duelle and Noroït.

Hitchcock by François Truffaut

One of the things I really love about film books is the ability to trace a filmmaker's oeuvre as I'm exposed to it. Following up a screening with some reading about the film can expand one's understanding of the film, the context in which it was created, and its meanings and aesthetics. Truffaut's seminal book on Hitchcock, a film-by-film interview with Hitch himself, provides the perfect accompaniment for a trawl through Hitchcock's oeuvre. Canny as ever, the director often prefers to tell funny making-of stories and hint at his intentions rather than indulging in deeper analysis, but he nevertheless speaks a great deal about the technical aspects of cinema and his thinking about his own work. Few directors have had the opportunity to contribute to such a thorough and sensitive overview of their entire careers.

As usual, if you're reading this, go ahead and chime in — either here in the comments or at your own blog — with the film books that have influenced and inspired you.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Conversations #5: Werner Herzog

My latest conversation with Jason Bellamy is now live at The House Next Door. As usual, we range far and wide, and at great length, this time debating the oeuvre of Werner Herzog. We focus on an eclectic selection of both his fiction features and documentaries, as well as discussing the general arc of his career thus far and the development of his aesthetics and themes in his 40+ years as a filmmaker.

We hope that this conversation will generate some lively discussion, so click below to read the full piece and then add your own thoughts.

Continue reading at The House Next Door

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Films I Love #33: 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1963)

Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 transforms the director's preoccupation with his own creative difficulties and his tangled relationships with women into a wild film where fantasy and reality blend together seamlessly. Fellini's stand-in, the director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), is having problems making his next picture. He's out of ideas even though sets are being constructed and the characters are being cast, and his attempt to relax and focus on his work at a remote spa is sabotaged by the frenzied circus atmosphere that inevitably develops around him wherever he goes. He's surrounded by producers, writers, advisors, actors and actresses, as well as both his wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée) and his lover Carla (Sandra Milo). Guido retreats into dreams, and increasingly hangs all his hopes on impossible fantasies regarding the actress Claudia (Claudia Cardinale), who he hopes will resolve his many problems once she finally arrives; he imagines her as a pure, calm, angelic presence who will be able to quiet his busy life.

In the meantime, Fellini packs the film with Guido's fantasies, dreams and nightmares, many of them loosely based on Fellini's own experiences, and all of it propelled by the jaunty music of Fellini's frequent composer Nino Rota. There's certainly no missing Fellini's own nostalgia in the film's most iconic sequence, the boyhood reminiscence of the grotesque Saraghina (Eddra Gale), a powerful mountain of a wild woman with legs like tree trunks. Outside her beachside hovel, she teases and dances for the young boys of the town. Fellini presents this memory with the force of a defining moment, an experience that contributed to the formation of the impressionable young Guido's sexual identity. Scenes like this — or Guido's surreal dream about his parents or his extended fantasy about a harem of women kept in line with a whip — are charged with Fellini's unique, hyper-real aesthetic, in which dreams and illusions have as much presence and physicality as Guido's reality.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The House Is Black

Forugh Farrokhzad's The House Is Black is a harrowing, horrifying, artfully made documentary, the only film made by the Iranian poet Farrokhzad. Her subject here is leprosy, and she looks directly, unflinchingly, at the devastation caused to the human body by this disease. She does not look away, not from the worst deformations this disease creates. Her purpose was to expose the cruel and unnecessary way that lepers continued to be treated in Iran, herded into isolated leper colonies where their disease went untreated, causing them to slowly and painfully disintegrate. Farrokhzad's film was intended to raise awareness about these conditions, and to stress that this situation need not be. A male narrator dispassionately lists facts about leprosy while Farrokhzad cuts quickly and abruptly between some of the most horrifying images of the disease's effect: limbs that seem to have been worn away, as though by erosion; noses caved in, creating crater-like gaps in the patients' faces; skin that flakes off, scraped away by a doctor's instrument. And yet the narrator says: "leprosy is not an incurable disease." He says it twice, once at the beginning and again at the end of this montage, repeating it to make sure that the meaning of his words is not lost. These people, suffering so greatly, could be cured. The unspoken implication is that their country, their government and their social structures and their medical system, have failed them. They could be cured, if only someone was willing to take the initiative to cure them, rather than herding them into isolation to prevent the spread of the disease and then forgetting about them.

There are two narrators in the film, the first the male narrator mentioned above, who appears sporadically to deliver straight facts in an objective tone. The second narrator is Farrokhzad herself, who delivers a lilting, poetic, religiously tinged voiceover. One of the most subversive undercurrents in the film is its subtle criticism of Islam, and religion in general, for failing to take a more compassionate and helpful interest in these forgotten and suffering people. Farrokhzad continually shows the lepers praying and giving thanks to God, and she purposefully contrasts their faith and devotion against the abjection of their condition. Again, her method is not to state her ideas directly, but to generate tension between a seemingly straightforward voiceover narration and the bracing power of the images she pairs with these texts.

In this way, she calls attention to the irony of the lepers' religious devotion, their continued praise of God even as they needlessly suffer and rot away. One man, leading the prayers, holds up his arms, which have been reduced to twisted and skeletal stumps, and prays to God with words that include "my two hands," hands he no longer has because of his disease. Other lepers unironically thank God for giving them both a father and a mother, even though most of them are here without families. There's a heartbreaking scene in a schoolhouse where a school teacher asks one of his pupils why they should thank God for giving them a father and a mother. "I don't know," the boy responds, "I have neither." There's something about this scene that makes it seem staged — it's too pat, too perfectly suited for the messages Farrokhzad wants to send — but it is a devastating critique of religion anyway. Why, Farrokhzad asks, do these people worship a God who has seemingly abandoned them? Why do they thank God for blessings that he has not bestowed on them? It is as though their religious fervor is abstracted from the actual conditions of their lives, as though they are hardly even thinking about the words they're saying.

Farrokhzad, though, is particularly attuned to the meanings of words. She was a poet, after all, and thus very sensitive to words and the disjunctions between language and reality. As a filmmaker, however, her skills are hardly just verbal. Her visual sensibility is relatively straightforward on the surface, and yet she creates rather complex effects with editing and the relationships between the soundtrack and the images. The House Is Black is entirely the product of her sole sensibility in a way that few films are: she not only wrote and directed the film but, crucially, edited it herself as well. Her editing is crisp and deliberate, and she frequently returns to images that have appeared already, inserting them into rapidly paced montages where their meaning is changed or intensified by the images around them or the content of the voiceover.

Two of the most poignant segments in the film are two sequences where Farrokhzad focuses on the ways in which life in the leper colony mirrors life in the outside world. The first is a montage of women prepping themselves, combing their hair or rubbing kohl around their eyes, making themselves "beautiful." It's a moving sequence, an indication of how these people, shut off from the rest of the world by their disease, attempt to retain some connection to their previous lives — and to the concepts of "beauty" and "ugliness" as defined by society. In another scene, Farrokhzad shows a group of children playing with a ball, all of them laughing and cheering, jockeying for position in the game they're playing, having fun, oblivious to the sores and deformities scarring their bodies. In their smiles and their body language, they look like any other children, cheerful and carefree as kids are supposed to be. But their distorted faces are hard to ignore, and Farrokhzad immediately cuts from this scene to images of older lepers, crippled and badly deformed, as though suggesting that these happy children will grow up into misery if their condition is not treated.

The House Is Black is a powerful, unforgettable film, a documentary whose forthright and unblinking look at life in a leper colony casts light on the suffering of people living in darkness, away from society's attention. Farrokhzad does not allow society to forget the lepers, does not allow her audience to look away or to take pity without also taking action. Her film does not merely wallow in suffering but calls for something to be done about it.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Wrong Move

Wim Wenders' Wrong Move is a film as aimless and blank as its protagonist, the chilly, antisocial Wilhelm (Rüdiger Vogler), a young man who finds himself in the position of wanting to be a writer while fostering a hatred and distrust of his fellow people. This makes his desire to express himself a weird kind of paradox: he wants to connect and communicate with people he doesn't even like. This unlikable, introspective central character nevertheless soon gathers an improbable cast of fellow outcasts around him: the lonely theater actress Therese (Hanna Schygulla), a mute juggler (Nastassja Kinksi), an old street singer (Hans Christian Blech), and a sensitive but rather lousy poet (Peter Kern). These unlikely characters exist as abstracted symbols only. They're people who seem to have no inner lives, nothing happening beneath the surface. They speak in abstractions, too, spitting out lengthy soliloquies about politics, creativity, alienation, history and sexuality. They are mere puppets to be maneuvered by Wenders in an allegorical examination of German culture at a precise moment in time. He's exploring, very self-consciously, the difficulty of creating art that engages with politics without losing sight of human specificity — ironic for a film entirely devoid of such specificity.

Indeed, Wenders seems to be just drifting along with his characters, who come together for no earthly reason and part the same way. In between, they drive or walk around the German countryside, stopping for one night at the home of a suicidal industrialist (Ivan Desny) who regales them with stiff monologues about loneliness and isolation. It's all so artificial, so contrived, and the dialogue is torturously overwritten (by the novelist and director Peter Handke, adapting Goethe). Nobody in the film ever seems to be having a conversation, only waiting for the other person to stop speaking. Maybe that's the point, as the film itself hints in Therese's ruminations about the artificiality of acting, how difficult it is to express herself naturally using someone else's words. But Wenders theatrical stylization never rises above the level of a drama exercise, a theoretical game rather than a fully developed work.

In scene after scene, his characters simply lounge around or walk around, spouting non sequiturs, with Wenders' cutting pointedly ignoring the nonsensical nature of all this chatter: his rhythmic variations of shot and counter-shot flow as though following a perfectly normal, natural conversation. It's exhausting, as is the studied blandness of Vogler as the disaffected writer Wilhelm. His sporadic voiceover, taken from his journals, basically consists of writing about how he has nothing to write about — the ultimate form of solipsism. Today, Wilhelm might be on Twitter all day; in the 70s he becomes a wanderer and scribbles crushingly mundane entries in his notebooks. He's no more interesting or worth spending time with than any other solipsist, and Wenders never gives him, or any of the other actors, any depth to flesh out this one-note characterization.

This means that a wonderful actress like Schygulla is more or less wasted here, left to stare blankly and recite stilted prose, though Kinski and Blech bring a certain low-key charm to their more playful roles. The old man with his mournful harmonica tunes and the young mute girl with her low-hanging bangs and big green eyes are compelling characters, even if they're never able to step outside of the allegorical boxes Wenders places around them. Kinski, at least, is saved from having to deliver any of the pat dialogue, and she says more with her hesitant smile and thin, childish face than most of the other characters are able to get across in pages of dialogue.

That said, there is a subtle absurdity and surrealism in the film's pacing, a mysterious quality that comes through especially in the many meditative, quiet night scenes. The film's cinematography is gorgeous, with an eye for slightly contrasting colors, creating visual disjunctions in the ways the colors clash against one another. The night scenes are coolly sumptuous, infused with pale blues and subdued pink lights, the icy color palette giving these moments an antiseptic quality despite their visual splendor. The lights, the colors, are pristine and clean like a hospital corridor, smoothing over the messiness of urban spaces and natural settings alike. There's a distanced, distracted beauty to Wenders' aesthetics, though his overtly stagey character blocking can be distracting in its precision and formality.

In this way, Wrong Move is a puzzling and rather dry experience, a road movie where the road is far more interesting than any of the people traveling along it. Wenders' aesthetics are consistently off-kilter and strange, though one senses this is intentional; he pulls the viewer in with his self-conscious visuals and theatrical set design, but pushes the audience away with his abstraction and refusal to delve into his characters beyond the thinnest outer layers. Even the soundtrack, alternating uneasy silence with the tense, droney music of Jürgen Knieper, subverts expectations and creates a mood of unmotivated discomfort. The music's harsh dissonances and plinking, isolated piano notes suggest a climactic explosion that never comes. Instead, the film just fizzles away into nothing, its characters not so much resolving anything as simply disappearing, one by one, from the film, often literally walking or running offscreen, never to return. It's an odd and unsatisfying ending to an odd, unsatisfying movie.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Alexander Kluge's Early Shorts, 1961-1964

Alexander Kluge's first film, co-directed with his friend Peter Schamoni, was the short Brutality In Stone. It's a tightly edited essay film, mixing archival footage with images of the remains of Nazi architecture, the lingering tangible evidence of Hitler's reign. The film advances the idea that architecture reflects ideology, an idea that the Nazis themselves were well aware of. They designed grandiose buildings, modeled after Egyptian pyramids and Mayan temples, massive structures that balanced spiritual fervor with bureaucratic anonymity. In these buildings, rows upon rows of tiny windows mirrored the tight arrangements of soldiers in formation. Even buildings, for the Nazis, were warlike, and Kluge and Schamoni explore this idea by filming the remains of the Nazi architecture in ways that enhance and accentuate the violence and austerity of these structures.

Buildings jut up into the sky. Towers loom above, thrusting powerfully against the clouds. Long corridors trail off to the horizon line, seemingly endless, lined with rhythmically repeating structures like guards stationed at intervals along the hallway. Everything is composed of hard, rigid lines, reflecting the horrible precision and the grandiose ambitions of the Nazi war machine. The soundtrack is a collage of elements: audio of Nazi speeches and rallies where it's available, transcripts where it's not; descriptions of Hitler's plans for reconstructing Berlin as a drastically reimagined capital city called Germania; Nazi music and samples of lyrics. Most horribly, there's a lengthy account of the way a concentration camp supervisor methodically organized and controlled the mass executions of prisoners arriving on transport trains. The voice of the speaker is flat and uninflected, and he describes in precise terms the time tables of the trains, which were perfectly paced so as to leave just enough time for the killings and the clearing of the bodies afterward. He describes how they would keep the crowds calm, how they'd quietly shoot any rowdy elements behind the building, how they'd keep a close watch to make sure that the mothers in the crowd weren't trying to hide their babies away before heading into the showers. The bodies were burned at night, so as not to tip off those arriving on the next transport. It is all so perfectly organized; they thought of every detail, every possible impediment to their work. It is swift and methodical, and all the more monstrous for its efficiency and precision.

Kluge and Schamoni pair this terrible efficiency with images of buildings designed by the Nazis, linking the horrors of the regime with the aesthetics of what they built and left behind. The hard lines, the grand size, the flat undecorated surfaces and tiny black window holes: it's an architecture of inhumanity, created on a scale far beyond the individual. It's an architecture of aggregation, reflecting a mindset that makes mass murder not only conceivable but routine. This short visual essay was an auspicious start to Kluge's career, already displaying the abrupt, associative editing and keen, analytical mind that would characterize his first feature Yesterday Girl.

Kluge's second film was the far more straightforward Racing, a documentary about an auto race; one guesses it was a commission rather than a project Kluge initiated himself. Nonetheless, he makes it his own. On its surface, the film is just a document of a race, and its imagery is relatively conventional: cars circling around the track, spectators cheering, lap after lap of the same images repeated. Kluge's presence makes itself known primarily in the wry voiceover commentary, which purports to be objective but actually slyly undercuts the images of the race. This narration toys with ideas like the interaction between human reflexes and intelligence and the increasingly complicated machines we operate. More subversively, Kluge probes the pacifying effect of populist entertainment, which provides a harmless distraction from politics and more important social issues, and he wonders aloud why this kind of entertainment so often flirts with death and violence.

Indeed, the race ends with a fiery car crash, which Kluge cuts to immediately after showing the winner crossing the finish line. In documenting a race and its aftermath, he subtly suggests that such spectacles are an outpouring of hostility and an expression of the public's desire for close (but not too close) confrontations with mortality. At the same time, these events take the focus of public discourse off of political matters, which is convenient for the ruling classes. Even in this brief and unshowy little film, Kluge suggests the outlines of deeper ideas beneath the commercial documentary form.

Transcript of a Revolution is another collaboration for Alexander Kluge. He's credited with writing the film while Günter Lemmer is the nominal director, but such distinctions don't seem to matter that much with this particular film. It's a strange work, essentially a mockumentary about a fake revolution in the fake West Indian island nation of Las Villas. It presents itself as a objective account of the events that led to the overthrowing of the country's brutal dictator, stitched together from radio reports that narrate the film. But the imagery is a patchwork of archival newsreel footage, sequences from old Hollywood films, and clearly staged scenes in which young men in sunglasses try to act like movie tough guys.

It's bizarre and, once its intent becomes clear, kind of hilarious, seamlessly blending together footage in many different styles and from disparate origins. The various kinds of film stock grate against one another from shot to shot, and the varying content of the images creates an internal tension between documentary and fiction. When real military maneuvers coexist on an even plane with the staged antics of amateur actors and clips from mainstream movies, the foundations of this cinematic reality become very shaky indeed. And yet on its surface the film plays it entirely straight, as though it was a true report on a conflict being waged in another country. It's also an absurdist nose-thumbing at dictators everywhere, a warning that revolution is inevitable. The film closes with the people of Las Villas, having won the battle, initially wary of their deposed dictator but, within the period of a few weeks, forgetting about him altogether.

Teacher, co-directed by Alexander and Karen Kluge, is another interesting documentary from the director's earliest years. This film starts as a wickedly funny report on a ceremony for the dedication of a new school building. Kluge condenses and briskly edits together a series of very similar speeches from various school and government officials, all of whom repeat virtually the same clichés, sometimes just parroting the same phrases but shuffling the words around. It's a wickedly funny satire, but Kluge surrounds it with more serious material, slowly building towards a rumination on what purpose teachers should serve, how they can fail their students, and what the ideal of education should be.

It's clear, of course, from the way he deflates the self-congratulatory nonsense of this ceremony that Kluge doesn't have a very high opinion of the current education system he's documenting. He does, however, appreciate the possibilities of education. The film's second half is thus dedicated to three stories of teachers who were prevented, in various ways, from really attaining the educational ideal they all aimed for. The first of these teachers was an idealistic man who, throughout World War II, taught at a rural German school where he fostered independent thought and creativity in his students; needless to say, the Nazis hanged him towards the end of the war. The second teacher also taught during World War II, and had the misfortune of seeing most of his class killed during attacks by the Russians; he finally escaped with only two of his students left alive, and quit teaching thereafter. The third teacher was a woman who continually pushed back her calling to teach, aware that in the less-than-ideal circumstances of World War II or the Communist years in East Germany, she would not be able to teach the way she would want to. The result was that, except for a brief period before the Communists forced her to quit, she never taught at all.

All of these teachers were oppressed and defeated by war, dictatorship and ideology. Kluge presents their stories with a calm voiceover, accompanied by period photographs. As in his first film, Brutality In Stone, Kluge is clearly very interested in the way that Germany's unique and horrible history has shaped and deformed the country's present. In the earlier film, he studied the lingering aesthetic effects of Nazi architecture, while here he traces the influence of World War II and its aftermath on the German educational system. He clearly longs for a system that would reward rather than punish the three dedicated, intelligent, resourceful teachers he cites here, and he regrets that history has conspired to keep such people down, to promote instead empty airbags like the school officials seen at the beginning of the film.

Kluge's final short before his first feature was another deadpan documentary (or, more likely, mockumentary?) called Policeman's Lot. This film presents itself as a chronicle of the life of the former policeman Karl Müller-Seegeberg, a man who had simply rolled with the many changes to beset German culture in the previous few decades. As a policeman, he had willingly served with the Communist-leaning Prussian guards, then had switched allegiances to the Nazis when they came to power, going to Russia to fight for Hitler. After the war, however, he just as willingly became a guard for the military tribunals, and even captured a fleeing Nazi prisoner. This is a man who takes pride in his professionalism, in his strict adherence to his duty — but he has no ideology, seemingly no preference about who's giving him his orders. He is willing simply to adapt to whatever circumstances come his way, to let history flow independently of his own life. He has no moral qualms about anything he's done; Kluge does not include the trite line about "only following orders," but that is the essence of this policeman's character. He is continually trying to "prove himself" anew as social conditions change: to prove himself a good Communist, then a good Nazi, then a good democrat.

He hardly seems to know what these words mean, only that they're new masters to impress with his professional skill. He is perhaps over-zealous in this, but he shows no remorse for the time when he accidentally killed a Nazi during a riot before Hitler's election, nor for the time when the Nazis had him shoot an innocent Russian woman, nor for the time, post-war, when he stumbled across a couple making love in a park and fired his gun into the dark at them. It is, ironically, this last incident that finally gets him dismissed from the police force. This, and not his earlier atrocities, is an inexcusable act because it happened in peacetime, and because he was for once not following orders but acting on his own.

Kluge documents this proud but broken man's life in the same fragmentary style he would soon employ in Yesterday Girl, integrating uncomfortably tight closeups (textural shots where every pore is a crater, every blemish a mountain) into a dense framework of vintage footage and other inserts. But his playful, satirical spirit comes out in Müller-Seegeberg's ironic closing line, expressed in a title card at the end of the film: "I would punch anyone in the face who did not act in a democratic way."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Yesterday Girl

Alexander Kluge's debut feature Yesterday Girl is a kaleidoscopic burst of energy, a frenetic but never haphazard film that gives the impression of an eager young director, unwilling to commit to any one storytelling mode or aesthetic, instead experimenting with anything he can think of. The result is a quickly paced collage, a jittery, jazzy patchwork that augments its sparse central narrative with myriad diversions and non sequiturs. The film owes much to the example of the French New Wave, and especially to the montage and stylistic catholicity of Jean-Luc Godard, but there is undeniably something distinctive about Kluge, something unmistakable. His rhythms are his own, as is his sense of playfulness, his unexpected detours into surrealism and absurdist farce. Kluge's sister Alexandra plays the heroine, Anita G., an obvious stand-in for the New Wave's young archetypes — she even has those big, black-lined Anna Karina eyes.

Anita is a bit of a lost soul, struggling to find her place in a society that seems to care little for her or her ambitions and desires. In the film's crisply edited opening, Anita faces a judge for stealing a sweater, a minor offense that is treated with the severity and earnestness of a murder trial. Kluge chops the scene into abrupt fragments, often filmed from odd angles, like a memorable and sustained shot of the back of the judge's head, demystifying his authority and seriousness by pointing the camera at his spiky crabgrass hair while he lectures at Anita. The trial is a farce, with the judge asking questions that clearly have no bearing on anything, then dismissing Anita's honest answers: he asks her if she's Jewish, and if she had grandparents who were victims in the Holocaust, but when she says yes he dismisses these matters as irrelevant to the trial. At one point, he bends down and reads at length from the laws on "safekeeping" and ownership, a digression that seems to have no effect on the outcome of the trial. This scene establishes Kluge's essential method here very quickly. He breaks the overall scene down into individual moments, isolated and disconnected from one another, severing the chains of cause and effect so each moment, each image, stands on its own. The cumulative effect of the scene is not the narrative details — which could be much more economically summarized as "Anita is tried and convicted for stealing" — but the impression of absurd authority, of social and political systems designed to deal with abstractions rather than living, breathing people.

This is a running theme throughout the film, as after her release from prison Anita struggles to reintegrate into a society that doesn't seem to want her. She drifts aimlessly from job to job and apartment to apartment, unable to keep a job very long, rarely getting paid, perpetually living in debt with no money. She's always just a week away from a pay check that never seems to come, and she's always getting kicked out (or sneaking out) of a succession of apartments and hotels. She drifts from man to man too, though she finally does settle down for an extended amount of time into an affair with a low-level government minister named Pichota (Günter Mack). Even this is transitory, however, since this man is married and can only meet her sporadically in secret; the affair ends without fanfare or fuss and Anita is back to drifting again.

This is a portrait of a young woman completely without recourse. Again and again, societal institutions that are supposed to help her fail to do anything. All she wants, as Kluge keeps reminding the viewer through intertitles that serve as de facto chapter headings, is a "better life," a cliché that could mean just about anything. Anita herself doesn't have any idea what it could mean, but she tries just about anything to get it. Her parole officer seems to think that prayer will help, and otherwise has Anita cycle through a series of questions to which the girl is obviously learning the "right" answers by rote. In any event, they're questions — like "what does it mean to be good?" — that could only have a "right" answer to a totalitarian. Education similarly offers no solace for Anita, as her attempts to go to university are met with smug, oblivious professors who ignore her practical questions to recite strings of abstractions. They have nothing to offer her as far as the concrete realities of day to day living. Pichota is the same; because of his wife, he can't give her any money or any other tangible help, but he does try to teach her about culture, singing through an opera with her and reading Kafka to her. She gets nothing out of it. The message is obvious: culture and education are meaningless in the absence of social and material stability, in the absence of some way to anchor one's life.

Anita never achieves this stability, and ultimately turns to the only social institution that ever provides her with any concrete answers: she gives herself up to the police and goes to prison again, where at least she knows what to expect. Kluge tells Anita's story through an astonishing variety of cinematic language. As in the first sequence, each scene throughout the film is methodically broken down, with blunt editing that serves to fragment Anita's story. Her experience of life is discontinuous, marked by abrupt breaks and disjunctions, and Kluge passes this experience on to his audience. He frequently resorts to extreme closeups, in which talking heads orate from an abstracted, empty gray space. But just as often he avoids showing the characters' faces at all, cutting to their hands or the backs of their heads or to the walls and objects around them. At other points, he inserts entire, seemingly unrelated sequences into the film, cutting away to visual non sequiturs like a shot of a rabbit that appears during a hallucinatory sequence in which Anita shoots, or more likely imagines she shoots, a police officer who's chasing her. Even time itself is malleable in Kluge's hands: the action frequently speeds up, with Anita and her pursuers racing around like Keystone Kops, and time-lapse photography condenses hours of time spent on a city street into a blurred, pulsating few seconds.

The effect of this elaborate montage aesthetic is to position Anita's story as just one element, one brick, in a mad societal structure. This also seems to be the point of the enigmatic final epigram, "we are all to blame for everything, but if everyone knew it, we would have paradise on earth." Kluge's vision of the world, on the other hand, is far from a paradise — if anything it's a dystopia — but his dense, free-associative aesthetic crafts a cogent and darkly funny critique of the systems that preside over this nonsensical world.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Soldier of Orange

Paul Verhoeven's Soldier of Orange was the film that started him on the path to Hollywood, the film that made no less than Steven Spielberg take notice of the Dutch talent. It's not hard to see why: it's an epic, masterfully made film, a brisk, constantly moving wartime adventure about friendship, betrayal and the ways in which people can stumble upon their principles. The film traces the lives of a group of rowdy friends between 1938 and 1945, from their time at a Dutch university to their entanglement in World War II, as their home country is dragged into the conflict by Hitler's invasion. These youths are initially far from interested in the war or Germany or anything else. They expect their country to remain neutral, as usual, and if anything many of them are sympathetic to Germany, nursing some of the same anti-Semitic sentiments as Hitler and his followers. So they play tennis, and go to parties, and compete over women, oblivious to the impending chaos about to engulf Europe. When Britain declares war against Germany, a few off them are troubled, but most don't care: they simply switch off the radio and return to their tennis match and their gaiety. This only changes when Germany actually invades Holland, bombing civilian targets and sending in soldiers.

What Verhoeven's interested in here is defusing the usual war movie clichés: the over-the-top patriotism, the stoic heroes, the girl loyally waiting back home. He signals his subversive intent, subtly, in the opening scenes. After a mock-newsreel introduction of the Dutch Queen returning to her own soil after the war, greeted by an extravagant welcome, the first scene of the film proper is a noisy, chaotic sequence in which a group of shaved-head young men are berated, beaten and mocked by neatly dressed men who order them around like drill sergeants. The film's subject, and its opening (with a credit sequence accompanied by the Dutch flag), prime the viewer to interpret this scene through the filter of World War II history: the shaved heads, the shouted commands, the sniveling men who seem to be prisoners. Actually, it's a particularly brutal fraternity hazing, and its end result is to forge a lasting friendship between new recruit Erik (Rutger Hauer) and the fraternity president Guus (Jeroen Krabbé).

Verhoeven patiently explores the pre-war life of these young men, upper-class boys studying to be lawyers and take their place in society. Their lives are disrupted by Hitler's bombs, and the German invasion forces them to make difficult choices, to choose sides. Guus and Erik will join the underground resistance against the Nazis, along with friends like the Jewish boxing champion Jan (Huib Rooymans), the resourceful organizer Nico (Lex van Delden), and Robby (Eddy Habbema), who runs a transmitter sending messages to England. Erik's friend Alex (Derek de Lint), who has a German mother and thus sees the situation somewhat differently, joins the fascist army and goes to fight in Russia. Others, like Jack (Dolf de Vries), simply lay low and wait out the war at home, secretly completing his degree and preparing for post-war life even while the bombs are falling and his countrymen are dying and fighting back. Verhoeven doesn't want to present a simplistic portrait of patriots fighting for their country: these are real people, with complex relationships and complex reasons for what they do. The film is based on the real story of Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, the aide to Queen Wilhelmina whose book about his experiences provided a starting point for Verhoeven's film.

Indeed, Erik is a hero, but he arrives at it only slowly, even reluctantly. He dabbles in the resistance, but his efforts are wasted, and he sees his friends and allies dying and being captured, seemingly betrayed. The Germans strategically allow him to overhear that they have a spy in London, a man named Van der Zanden (Guus Hermus), then they release him. So when Erik gets the chance to escape to London, he does so, along with his friend Guus, intending to help out in any way he can and especially to expose the traitor who may have been compromising the Dutch resistance. As usual with Verhoeven, such things are more complex than they seem at first. The supposed spy turns out to be a staunch ally of the Queen, and the traitor within the midst of the resistance has his own reasons for doing what he does. Robby turns out to be the weak link in the organization, agreeing to help the Germans when they threaten to take his Jewish fiancée Esther (Belinda Meuldijk) to a concentration camp.

The emotions in this film are complicated and subtle, especially for a war epic with action taking place on a grand, international scale. Verhoeven never forgets about the human dramas, never leaves behind the characters and their smaller stories in favor of the big picture. What's striking, then, is that everything that happens here amounts to so little, does so little to affect the outcome of the war either way. These people and their struggles are peripheral to the main thrust of the war, as the British officers themselves acknowledge: they're using the Dutch fighters mainly as a distraction, throwing Erik and his compatriots at the Germans in order to waste the enemy's time, to draw their attention away from more important matters. Verhoeven's storytelling is taut and his action sequences are suspenseful and perfectly conceived, and yet by the end of the film it's obvious that virtually nothing has been accomplished by all these intrigues and missions: Erik presumably does much more in his mostly unseen bombing runs than he did throughout the entire rest of the film. Verhoeven is interested in history, but he's interested in it largely as it happens on the ground, as it affects individuals and their small, historically minor lives. He is bringing historical footnotes to life, investing their stories with all the grandness and nuance and detail usually reserved for major players in these struggles. Despite the opening, in which Verhoeven skillfully blends faux-period footage of Hauer in with genuine newsreel footage, this is not a Forrest Gump kind of historical movie, in which the characters wander through major historical events. Instead, this film is all about unraveling the tightly knit story of abstracted history into the individual threads that comprise it, each small strand insignificant in itself but each adding to the cumulative experience of a time and place.

This is rich stuff. Verhoeven, so often thought of as a director of big, bold gestures and over-the-top stylization, is actually just as capable of subtlety and restraint. He largely hints at the deep emotional bonds linking Erik to his friend Robby's fiancée Esther. The two have a halting, infrequent affair, succumbing to passion for one another at times of stress, but Verhoeven communicates their longings largely through glances, through silent moments in which a great deal seems to pass between them. There is a wonderful, perfectly staged scene late in the film, when Erik begins to suspect that Robby is a traitor when he sees all the nice things that Esther has at their house, at the peak of wartime in Holland. She tells him that Robby gets all these things for her, things that Erik couldn't even get in England, through his friends in the resistance. But when Erik asks her if she really believes that, she pauses and simply shakes her head, just once, from side to side, her face steeled but her eyes sad. There is so much in that gesture, the resignation and defiance and the knowledge that her man has betrayed his principles, betrayed even his friends in order to keep her safe, and that even though she is torn up by it she has gone along with it, has allowed him to do it and allowed him to think that she doesn't know. This all happens beneath the surface, again in the exchange of looks between Erik and this woman who he loves, but who various circumstances have kept from him.

There is a similarly great dynamic at work in London, where Guus and Erik engage in a friendly rivalry to bed down the pretty English military secretary Susan (Susan Penhaligon). Again, a lot happens between the lines, as Susan flirts with both men, inviting Erik under the covers to join them after she and Guus have had very public sex in a second floor window, with Erik down below hilariously trying to prevent the Queen from getting an eyeful. Verhoeven allows a great deal of ambiguity in the way Susan manages the rivalry of these men for her affection: when she conspires to have Guus and not Erik sent on a dangerous mission, is she trying to maneuver the man she wants closer to her, or trying to make the man she already has a hero? Also implicit in these scenes is the homosocial love of Guus and Erik for one another, a love that transcends their sparring over Susan, even when she lays naked in between them. Later, this kind of love between men will bridge even the opposing sides of the war. One of the film's most memorable sequences is the extended tango that takes place between Erik and the fascist soldier Alex, when Erik stumbles undercover into a party for the Nazis. The two men dance together, their faces just inches apart, their hard profiles seemingly on the verge of a kiss, and discuss the vagaries of history that have made them enemies rather than friends.

Soldier of Orange is a typically dense, potent epic from a director who consistently manages to find the difficult and powerful emotions within blockbuster material. This is a deeply personal and contemplative war epic, even as it moves at a brisk, thrilling pace. It satisfies every expectation of its genre, packing its lengthy running time with battles and betrayals and suspense sequences — like the indescribably tense climax on a Dutch beach guarded by the Germans — and yet it is also subtle and humanistic. It's a film about the tight interplay between choice and fate in determining the flow of a person's life during times of upheaval. And it's also a visceral, rousing action picture. Verhoeven is one of the few directors who is able to have it both ways, while compromising neither.

Films I Love #32: A Walk Through H (Peter Greenaway, 1978)

A Walk Through H: The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist was the culmination of Peter Greenaway's 1970s short-form work. It is a 40-minute abstracted journey film, told almost entirely through the use of a series of 92 "maps," a set of drawings and patterns gathered together in a museum by the mysterious Tulse Luper, a character who has wandered through many of Greenaway's films. The narrator (Colin Cantlie) drolly describes each map in turn, recounting a journey through "H," though the meaning of this journey or what "H" stands for is never explained outright. Instead, as Greenaway's camera pans across the surface of each drawing, following the maze-like paths that lead from one map to the next, the narrator describes how he came to possess each of these maps, and what his journey is like. Greenaway occasionally intercuts images of birds and sunsets, the only figurative images in the film with the exception of the bookend sequences in the museum where all these maps are framed and displayed. Otherwise, the film is "set" entirely in the world of "H," which is represented only by Tulse Luper's maps, an elaborate guide through a mystery region, with a mysterious purpose as the goal.

This film is a culmination of Greenaway's tendency towards lists and repetitions, a motif that would soon be elaborated on even further in the three-hour epic of The Falls. Here, Greenaway's deadpan wit is comparatively concise, and about as mordantly funny as he'd ever be. The narrator is entirely straight-faced, but his bizarre, offhand descriptions of people and places and incidents — all of it tossed off with a tone that suggests he expects his audience to know exactly who and what he's talking about — are often hilarious non sequiturs. Some of these characters and ideas would later show up in Greenaway's feature films, and it's not surprising: A Walk Through H suggests a thriving, fully populated world beyond its narrowly defined borders, with a great deal of intrigue and activity leading up to the gathering of these maps. The entire journey is driven as well by the propulsive, looping score of Michael Nyman, a chiming, hypnotic piece of music that accelerates to a frenzied crescendo for the breathless conclusion, in which an ornithologist is (possibly?) reincarnated at the journey's end. This is a strange and unforgettable film, an imaginative mental odyssey, a map leading into the creative jumble of Greenaway's fertile mind.