Monday, April 29, 2013

The Golem (1920)

The Golem is one of the classics of German expressionist horror. Released the same year as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it's neither as famous nor as great as that genre-defining landmark, but it's still an interesting film with a striking visual style. Directed by Carl Boese and Paul Wegener, and shot by the always fantastic Karl Freund, The Golem has a moody gothic style and some rudimentary but nonetheless creepy special effects. The film's sets aren't as stylized or twisted as the famously angular designs for Caligari, but this tale of a Jewish rabbi creating a monstrous servant made of clay takes place in a Polish ghetto the design of which is balanced neatly between realism and expressionism. The sets seem more solid and historically grounded than in Caligari, but there are still unmotivated, spiky shadows stretched across the walls and angular design flourishes everywhere. In one of the most compelling flourishes, the centerpiece of the rabbi's home is a twisting spiral staircase that looks oddly like the fleshy folds of a human ear.

The story, derived from Jewish mysticism, is familiar: a venerable rabbi (Albert Steinrück) conjures a Golem (Wegener), a man shaped out of clay who comes to life to serve as a stoical servant and protector of the ghetto. Obviously, any pre-World War II German film dealing with Jewish religion and ethnicity is going to be automatically interesting for reasons having little to do with the film, and this one is especially fascinating in its contradictions. It is ostensibly a story that portrays the mistreatment of Jews sympathetically, though the film's message is ultimately more tangled than that. Towards the beginning of the film, the Jews in the ghetto receive a chilling edict from the emperor that orders them to evacuate, that they are being kicked out of their homes, a reflection of the pogroms and abuses endured by the Jewish people in Europe even before the Nazis came to power. This is a reflection of the historical roots of Nazism in deeply engrained anti-Semitism, and yet the film itself doesn't avoid these stereotypes and prejudices, either.

Notably, the emperor's edict lists among the Jews' crimes participating in "the black arts," and indeed the film itself passes that stereotype along rather than denying it. True, the story of the Golem is rooted in Jewish mysticism, but the film presents the Jewish elders as a cross between wizards and mad scientists, participating in the dark arts and summoning demons to do their bidding. In one of the creepiest scenes, the rabbi performs a ritual — later echoed by F.W. Murnau in Faust — to summon a demon, who appears as a disembodied head floating in the darkness, smoke pouring from his gaping maw. The Jewish temple is rendered as a place of mysticism where the worshippers ritually bow and sway while the rabbi, dramatically posed in front of a row of gleaming candles, exhorts them from above. The film's presentation of Judaism is unavoidably tangled in myth, empathizing with the ghettoization and punishment of Jews while also revelling in familiar stereotypes and libels about demon worship and dark magic.

That contradictory subtext aside, the film is mostly compelling but tonally imbalanced. The true creepy horror moments are few, and for most of the film the Golem is less a threatening monster than a curiously practical servant who's used to fetch groceries and fetch wood, scenes that are played for deadpan humor as much as anything. There's also a wan subplot with the rabbi's daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova) being wooed by the non-Jewish knight Florian (Lothar Müthel), a romance that's surprising in its sexual frankness — Florian places his hand on Miriam's breast and at one point wakes up by her bedside, both of them half-dressed — but otherwise serves simply to set up an expected tragic conclusion.

Not surprisingly, the most memorable scenes are those in which the film's expressionist horror gets free rein. Wegener's lumbering Golem was an obvious visual reference point for James Whale's Frankenstein, with his bulky, awkward form and the sentimental emotionality lurking beneath the monster's horrific visage. For a man made of clay, Wegener's Golem is very expressive, even hammy, always glancing around with an ironically arched eyebrow, gritting his teeth and widening his eyes to convey anger, his mouth horribly twisted into a hybrid of a grimace and a grin. He's undone, ultimately, by his sentimentality: like Frankenstein's monster after him, he's capable of love and warm feelings, and when he's moved by the sight of a little girl, she's able to innocently, playfully remove the amulet that gives him life.

The Golem, with its plodding pace and contradictory ideas about its Jewish subject, hasn't dated as well as some of its more famous contemporaries from the German silent era. But it's still a fascinating, visually striking film that, like Caligari, was a major influence on the horror films that would follow it.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Night of the Hunted

Jean Rollin's The Night of the Hunted is a typically moody, abstractly haunting film from the idiosyncratic horror auteur. More even than most of his work, this film dispenses with any actual concrete horror in favor of a vague sense of disquiet that's almost entirely psychological and mental. This is a haunting study of the nature of memory and its linkage to identity and human consciousness, and the fear here arises almost entirely from the loss of memory, from the feeling of one's sense of self slipping away with one's memory. It's about fear of the loss of self, making this an entirely existential horror film.

The film opens in the fashion of Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly: a young woman (Brigitte Lahaie), dressed only in a filmy nightie, runs out of the dark forest one night and into the path of a car driven by Robert (Alain Duclos). She tells him that her name is Elisabeth, and she's running in terror of something, but she doesn't remember what — moments later, she doesn't even remember that her name is Elisabeth. Her memories keep slipping away from her; it's not just amnesia, but the slippage of even short-term memory, so that if Robert were to be out of her sight for just a few minutes she'd forget him too. Naturally, she clings to him desperately, and he takes this confused, frightened girl back to his apartment, where he comforts her and they soon have sex, in a scene of cheesy, gratuitous softcore of the kind that Rollin almost always slotted into his films, and yet here the sex is tinged with desperation and a genuine thirst for connection. Elisabeth lives only in the present moment, she says, and she clings to each moment like a precious raft in a sea of nothingness, because each present moment is all she has to hang onto. She urges him on, demanding that he stay with her, that he not let her forget; her intense desire for a memory to cling to makes what could otherwise have been a rote, porny sex scene surprisingly poignant, both passionate and deeply sad.

Apparently, though, this whole situation doesn't leave enough of an impression on Robert, who, hapless as most male Rollin heroes, soon goes off to work, leaving Elisabeth alone to forget him, and herself, all over again. She's quickly found by the doctors she'd apparently been fleeing at the beginning of the film, and they take her to an apartment building that houses other patients, like her, whose memories are continually erased. Most of Rollin's previous work was set in the majestically ruined countryside, in crumbling ancient castles and disused graveyards, but The Night of the Hunted is an urban film, with a very different aesthetic. Rollin's haunted rural castles and fields had always been both creepy and beautiful, mingling fear and foreboding with the strange allure of death and the supernatural. In this film, though, the sinisterly blank apartment towers and concrete wastelands of the city are merely creepy, the building's surfaces and interiors as blank as the minds of the inhabitants. The building, obviously an abandoned office tower, is nearly undecorated, its walls stark white or black, and the patients, with their missing memories, wander aimlessly through these blank, sterile spaces, the austerity of their surroundings reflecting the emptiness of their lives.

It's a haunting, disturbingly poetic film, especially in its first half, before a series of pointless sex scenes and pseudo-scientific exposition dumps disrupt the poetic vibe. At the apartment, Elisabeth meets two other women who are afflicted as she is: Catherine (Cathy Stewart), whose memory is so bad that she can't even remember how to eat, and Véronique (Dominique Journet), who Elisabeth seems to vaguely remember from her previous life. The scenes between these women are evocative and poignant, as they struggle from moment to moment to remember something, to hold onto some memory, some experience, some person who means something to them. They invent stories and memories for each other. Catherine and Elisabeth pretend that they were childhood friends, though like everything else that game too soon slips away from them. Later, they encounter a woman who's constantly searching for her lost child: she remembers, or thinks she remembers, that she once had a child, but not the child's name or even its gender.

Rollin is delving into the nature of memory and what it means to the construction of one's identity: without memory these people are nothing, no one, barely even alive, their very selves erased along with their pasts. These scenes are deeply emotional, infused with tenderness and sadness, the film's opening already forgotten because these mysteriously afflicted people truly live exclusively in the present tense. In her previous collaborations with Rollin, The Grapes of Death and Fascination, Lehaie, who started her career as a porn actress, projected a fierce carnality, a feral, sexualized violence that made her the ultimate femme fatale. She seems like almost a different actress here, her intensity transmuted into vulnerability, melancholy, a sense of loss that seems to infuse her every gesture, her every fragile, innocent expression.

The film falls apart a bit at around the halfway point, replacing this moody exploration of loss and mental anguish with a number of gratuitous scenes of violence-tinged eroticism, which seem to have come from an entirely different film. Robert also returns towards the end, and the plot is needlessly explained in multiple exposition-laden speeches delivered by the sinister doctor. But the film's final image, which compares the memory-less Elisabeth to the shambling walking dead of a zombie film, provides an effective, eerily romantic finale for a strange, and strangely affecting, film. The Night of the Hunted is ultimately uneven and flawed, only sporadically delivering on its promise and its evocative study of memory and identity. At its best, though, the film achieves the haunting quality of Rollin's other films without any of the supernatural or horror elements that generally characterized his other work.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Comedy of Power

Claude Chabrol's Comedy of Power is somewhat ironically titled, and knowingly so, because there's little that's funny about this deadpan chronicle of an investigation into the abuses of various politically connected businessmen and corrupt politicians. The film opens, disingenuously, with the usual disclaimer about the film's fictional nature, any resemblance to real people being a coincidence, and so on, when of course this film is thoroughly grounded in real world analogues. These corrupt businessmen are extremely recognizable from any number of real scandals, these men (always men, of course) who line their pockets, lavish company funds on their mistresses, funnel money off into foreign bank accounts, dodge taxes and bribe anyone who could potentially stand in their way.

Investigating one of these scandals is Jeanne Charmant-Killman (Isabelle Huppert), a powerful judge who deposes various high-ranking corporate officers and political functionaries in an effort to trace a web of corruption and graft through the chambers of power, as high and as far as it goes. She starts with Humeau (François Berléand), the former chairman of a politically connected organization that operates in foreign countries, and she begins working up from him to more important figures in what seems to be a tremendous network of rich, powerful men. The film is very simple in form, consisting mostly of a series of conversations between Jeanne and her subjects, shot in intimate closeups that capture her brisk efficiency and their nervous, almost self-consciously boyish embarrassment at getting caught. Humeau is a mess, constantly scratching at his nervous skin condition, leaving splotchy red marks on his face as he withers under Jeanne's relentless questioning. Later, the smoother Boldi (Jean-François Balmer) confesses, chuckling shyly, that he's not used to squealing.

All these good old boys, these powerful men with their expensive lifestyles and mistresses and palatial homes, are being brought down and humbled by a petite, unassuming woman. As in many of Chabrol's late films, he's dealing with female archetypes and clichés: the victim (A Girl Cut In Two), the femme fatale (The Bridesmaid) and, here, the frigid career woman. Jeanne is a wiry bundle of nervous energy, seldom sleeping through the night, always getting up to check on some facts or think about her work. Her husband (Robin Renucci) is quietly detached from her, their marriage passionless. During interviews at work, she projects smug professionalism, asking sarcastically loaded questions and flashing quick, strained smiles that convey anything but mirth.

Jeanne is a bit of a stereotype, the cooly ambitious ladder-climbing bitch, but then the men she's opposing are every bit as stereotyped, because Chabrol is deconstructing this familiar male/female power dynamic, examining the ways in which male power is assumed and engrained in the very structure of society, while female power like Jeanne's is more ephemeral, requiring constant hard work to maintain, demanding every moment of her attention, and even then it can be taken away without warning at any time because she's not truly in power. The real power brokers meet in office suites with majestic views, smoking huge cigars, discussing their next move while Chabrol playfully accompanies their chats with outrageously sinister music, telegraphing their status as stereotypical big business movie villains.

Throughout the film, no matter how far Jeanne digs into these conspiracies and scandals, the business goes on as usual, the real powers untouched as the underlings and public figures take the fall and are seamlessly replaced by new, equally malleable figureheads. Towards the end of the film, these fat cats meet to analyze the damage done to their work by Jeanne's investigation and arrests, and they merely conclude, "the system held up well," that the overall structure remains intact no matter how many pawns are taken. Chabrol is powerfully conveying a sense of the fruitlessness of fighting against this kind of power from within: Jeanne dedicates her life to her work, to her sense of justice and her pride in her own competence, sacrificing private and familial happiness in the process, but what she ultimately accomplishes is a flashy show that does nothing to get to the core of the problem.

The real issue is international, and involves Western governments and businesses meddling in the Third World, as hinted at in the scene where several of these men meet with an African leader. Considering the real global stakes and the governmentally sanctioned exploitation of, as Jeanne says, countries where people routinely die of curable diseases, Jeanne's exposé of businessmen with mistresses and personal extravagances charged to corporate credit cards begins to seem petty and beside the point. If this is a "comedy of power," then the joke is on Jeanne, and it's probably being told in a smoke-filled private club by one of these untouchably powerful men.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Unconscious London Strata/The Mammals of Victoria

Unconscious London Strata is one of Stan Brakhage's gloriously abstract studies of light and color, with virtually no grounding in concrete forms. The film consists of a rapidly edited montage of blurred, vague images in which any physical context has been smeared away, leaving behind only layered, overlapping colors and bursts of brilliant light. The effect is beautiful and sensual, and in this case Brakhage's layered forms specifically recall the canvasses of Mark Rothko, with sedimentary layers of colors stacked on top of one another in fuzzy strata. As the title suggests, these images are often striated, colors abutting one another in hazy proximity, those beautifully grainy color fields that convey a spiritual, moving quality remarkably similar to the effect produced by Rothko's paintings.

Only towards the end of the film do these abstract fields start to cohere, at least slightly and sporadically, into recognizable images of a building, possibly (and appropriately) a cathedral. Even here, the images are by no means concrete, and the building's form is still abstracted, split apart into momentary flashes of an angled corner or a spire turned upside down. Occasionally, the flickering, shaking images resolve into a second or two of a silhouetted skyline, blocky buildings lined up along a horizon of golden light, but that image too is illusory, gone in a moment.

For the most part, Brakhage refrains from even that much of a hint of physicality. Like his even more sensuous and beautiful light study The Text of Light, this film treats light and color as absolutes, pure visual phenomena without reference or connection to the tangible sources from which these lights emanate. As with Rothko, the effect is both utterly simple and utterly breathtaking.

In The Mammals of Victoria, Stan Brakhage focuses mainly on images of the sea. This is the second part of a four-part series based on the life of Brakhage's wife Marilyn, but there's very little human — or, indeed, mammalian — presence here. Instead, the film is full of images of water in its many forms: rippling blue waves, a black nighttime ocean with speckles of light shimmering across its surface, little wavelets lapping up against a muddy outcropping in the shallows by the shore. Brakhage returns several times to that image of mud piles sticking up out of the water, at one point showing the mud crumbling as the water licks at it, slowly eroding and erasing it. The film's contemplation of nature, with humanity at most a peripheral presence, emphasizes each individual's brief span of life when compared against the rolling, unceasing rhythms of the waves and the tides, the ancient perpetual motion machines of the natural world.

Towards the end of the film, Brakhage includes a pair of evocative, mysterious shots that appear to have been taken from a moving car. In the first, two other cars speed by, their headlights briefly flaring at the camera before whipping around the curve of the road and out of the corner of the frame. The car that the camera is in then continues along the road, turning into the sun, which cuts through the trees and washes out the image in a haze of white light. In the second, simpler shot, the camera simply gazes out of the car as it approaches a modestly sloping hill in the road, approaching this point on the horizon beyond which the road can no longer be seen. The hazy, sun-dazed shot suggests the slow progress into the unknown, a graceful glide up and over a slope into the unknown world beyond. These two images add a subtle narrative component to the film, a hint of action and agency, just as the shots of people playing in the waves, which also don't appear until late in the film, belatedly introduce characters. Before this, for much of the film there's little indication of human presence at all, only an occasional blurry, blink-and-it's-gone shot of somebody wading through the water.

Brakhage is also exploring different forms of distortion: the wavery quality of an image seen from beneath a film of water, the static and flickering of a TV set, the grainy haze of low-quality film stock. Brakhage seems to be using several different types of film, contrasting the clarity of an image of rocks jutting out of the water against blurry, nearly impenetrable landscape shots. The different film stocks contribute to the film's eclectic visual style, which explores textures both smooth and rough, as well as stitching in a few short painted segments. The painted sequences flicker by quickly, and are mostly pretty routine, not at all the best examples of Brakhage's hand-painting. (An exception is a flurry of cosmic star fields and swirling galaxy-like forms that appears towards the end of the film.) The painting in this film mostly seems like a placeholder, a brief visual palette cleanser connecting photographed images, often segueing seamlessly into an out-of-focus image of lights hovering in a dark field, drawing a connection between Brakhage's photographic abstractions of the world and his painted abstractions.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Dark Habits

Pedro Almodóvar's fourth feature, Dark Habits, was also his first commercially produced film after a few independent works. The film has a campy, absurdist premise — a nightclub singer hides out from the police at a convent with a group of very strange nuns — that it never quite lives up to. Yolanda (Cristina Sánchez Pascuel) flees when her boyfriend dies from heroin that had been laced with strychnine, and she remembers some nuns who run a refuge for prostitutes and drug addicts. She goes to stay with them but finds that the place is a rather unconventional convent, struggling and in danger of closing, with nuns who all have their personal vices and idiosyncrasies. The Mother Superior (Julieta Serrano) is a lesbian who adores Yolanda and shoots up heroin, plying her new charge with drugs as well. Another nun trips on acid (which Almodóvar represents through point-of-view shots with garish colors). Another secretly writes trashy romance novels, and another raises a full-grown tiger in the yard, playing bongo drums for it and feeding it chunks of raw meat.

With all this weirdness, gay desire and drugs in a convent, it's hard to imagine how Almodóvar managed to make a boring movie, but somehow he did. This is a dull and unevenly acted movie in which Almodóvar seems desperate to be wild and crazy, but the whole thing just plays out as flat. Most of the performances are sadly lacking in charisma, especially Pascuel, who seems to simply drift aimlessly through the film. There's not much of a plot to speak of, either: the convent is in danger of closing, and Yolanda has to hide out, but for most of the movie nothing much happens, and these conflicts are only developed sporadically and lazily. It's a weirdly inert and unsatisfying film that's lacking in the spirited, lively humor that always flows through Almodóvar's best work.

There are scattered enjoyable moments, though, especially centering on the relationship between the Mother Superior and Yolanda, which is hardly developed at all, unfortunately. In two separate scenes, Yolanda sings a song directly to the nun, and Almodóvar switches between closeups of them; the nun's beatific smile and tranquil expression is very moving in these scenes, a lovely expression of desire and contentment. Following the second of these scenes, after Yolanda has performed a song at a convent party, singing directly at the Mother Superior the whole time, the nun gushes to her that she was "so obscene." The nun then lingers in the room a moment while Yolanda, her back turned, strips off her dress, turning and revealing a single bare breast, a shocking moment of sexuality for the lovelorn nun. Even funnier is the blasphemous moment when the nun places a towel over the singer's face, taking an imprint of her like the Turin Shroud; when she pulls the towel away, it is coated with a delicate painting of the singer, a ludicrous secular, and sensual, miracle.

Indeed, the film's final act offers up a few sudden resolutions that are fairly satisfying even if the rest of the film doesn't build up to them in any real way. One of the nuns has been nursing an unspoken desire for the parish priest, and at the end of the film they decide to run away together and forsake their vows, adopting the tiger as their "son" to form a happy nuclear family. The nun compares her love for the priest to the tiger, growing unseen and unsuspected, but dangerous, within the supposedly safe walls of the convent. The final scene, in which the Mother Superior finds out that Yolanda has left and screams in anguish, is also affecting, perhaps because Serrano delivers the best performance in the whole cast. In the final shot, Almodóvar pulls away from the Mother Superior being embraced by another nun, the camera floating out the window to observe the scene from a distance, framed through a window.

Also compelling is a scene where Yolanda, going through drug withdrawal, spends a restless few days haunted by religious images, which Almodóvar superimposes over closeups of a haggard-looking Yolanda. At one point, a statue is being lowered into position with a rope around its neck, like a noose, and it twirls in the air, so that whenever it faces towards the camera its face is juxtaposed with Yolanda's, briefly superimposing the blank, at-peace expression of the religious figure with the tortured face of the drug addict.

Such moments hint at the visual imagination and feel for expressive, bold images that Almodóvar would develop much further in his later work. Even just a few years later he'd be making uneven but undeniably potent camp melodramas like Matador and Law of Desire, but here he still seems tentative. The nuns-doing-drugs-and-having-sex material is curiously restrained for a director who usually has no fear of pushing beyond the boundaries of good taste, and it hurts the film, making it seem as though it wants to hint at offensive content without actually doing much to offend anyone.