Saturday, 22 December 2007

the sacrifice (d. tarkovsky)

I first saw The Sacrifice when I was at university in York, presumably upon its release in 1986 or 87. I used to go to the film club in the large comfortable auditorium, frequently in N's company. The auditorium was built on what was claimed to be the largest artificial lake in Europe, though that now seems doubtful, and word had it that it was sinking, as the direct result of a Boomtown Rats concert the year before I arrived. I vaguely realised that the film I was watching was supposed to be the work of a seminal director, but my memories of that viewing remain vague, and dominated by the spectacular closing scene.

One's reaction to a work of art is always conditioned by the conditions under which one sees it. These conditions might include one's state of mind, the person in whose company one sees or experiences the work, one's age, or countless other factors. It seems pertinent to allude to this earlier watching as the film itself is so self-consciously addressing the issue of ageing. It is the last film Tarkovsky made; it is dedicated to his son; the final scene is of Alexander's young son addressing a question to his father who is being removed in the manner of a modern day Lear. One cannot help but feel that, perhaps like Lear, which it so consciously echoes, this is a film best seen from a reflective perspective, located not so far from the threshold of death; even if that death were merely the starting point for the next round of eternal recurrence (or 'return' in the script's translation) as the mysterious postman, Otto, suggests.

Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche are all name-checked in the opening twenty minutes. The parameters are laid down. But the influence of two other northern artists seems stronger. It's impossible not to feel the shadow of Bergman looming over Alexander's struggles. Alexander is played by Erland Josephon, a long term collaborator of Bergman's. His depiction of an isolated soul, seeking not merely to create but actually to become a work of art, references the filmmaker, as does his character's name, an echo of Bergman's childish incarnation in Fanny and Alexander. The other key influence seems to be Chekhov. In some ways The Sacrifice feels like a dystopian reading of Chekhov (through Beckett). Although two of the characters arrive in a nifty BMW, the women wear dresses that look more like something out of turn of the century Russia than an Abba influenced Sweden.

All these influences are brought to bear and, as one of the key moments of the film shows, they all count. The reason the characters are gathered is to celebrate Alexander's birthday. Otto, the postman who seems more like the boatman at the Styx, brings Alexander a large 16th century map of Europe as a present - a present which is a sacrifice, as all presents, he says, should be. They talk about how Europe has altered, and what those early inhabitants might have made of it. All this precedes the film's central tenet: the occurrence of the fabled nuclear strike. Unless Alexander is prepared to sacrifice himself to redeem time and the world, nuclear winter is upon us. In the lead-up to the moment when the world ends, the film explores what it is that will be lost, and what it might be that has brought us to that point.

At the time the film was made, Europe was still the front line of a potential nuclear war. Now, twenty years later, the terms of the chess match have changed. The fear of a third world war, which clearly haunted Tarkovsky, has receded, to be replaced by other millennial fears. The slow, sepia shots of crowds rushing through a devastated street, which punctuate the movie, seem just as pertinent in this era of ever-more-dramatic Hollywood apocalypse movies; or McCarthy's The Road. Alexander's sacrifice may have staved off one damnation, but it hasn't kept the others at bay.

In a film so steeped in Western culture, (this review hasn't mentioned the influence of Leonardo, Pierro della Francesca or Russian icon painters), the latter stages suggest that Tarkovsky perceived another direction for the world to turn. Alexander listens to Japanese music, and wears an oriental cloak, decorated with the Yin and Yang, as he summons up the courage to take the step of destroying his home in order to save the world. His son tends to the tree he has 'created' in a Japanese manner. He carries water to nurture it. This echoes an idea Alexander expresses at the film's opening, as he 'plants' the tree, that if we were to find one ritual to perform every day, at a set time, even were that just to pour a glass from the tap and then throw that water away, it might create a foundation of meaning in our lives.

This notion, redolent of Zen Buddhism, allied to the restoration of faith (those who fail to believe in God are those who have never been desperate enough to need to, Alexander claims as he prays) offer, so the filmmaker seems to suggest, an escape route from the terminal end that centuries of Western culture have created. In burning his home, Alexander destroys his possessions, books, maps and all. There is a way out, but it requires sacrifice.

Tarkovsky's film is no easier to watch twenty years on. It is still a long haul of a movie, demanding the viewer's exhaustive attention. The underlying themes the film explores seem no less pertinent today than they did twenty years ago. The notion of sacrifice, personal, societal and cultural, in the quest for nothing more than survival, seems even more relevant. The conditions under which the film is watched have altered less than time might have lead one to expect.

The lake still may or may not be the largest artificial lake in Europe, (this remains debatable), but the auditorium would still appear to be sinking.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

silent light (dir. reygadas)

In Santa Cruz, Bolivia, after a night on the Tren del Muerte, there were Mennonites wandering the streets, looking like something out of an Edward Hopper painting, with their dungarees and wispy beards. They seemed exotic within the context of their exotic locale, and oblivious to this exoticism, as they presumably were.

Silent Light deals with a husband in a Mennonite community who's conducting an affair, and grappling with the consequences of this. It's a film set in Mexico, even though almost all of the dialogue is in the curious German spoken by the community. There's a remarkable moment when Johan, the adulterous husband (a dead ringer for the art critic Robert Hughes), hears a song being played in Spanish on the radio, and starts singing along. At another point his wife brings tacos to the workers in the field. When his wife collapses at the road side a couple of Mexican truckers stop to help. But by and large the film is set in a world of its own, beneath the great rolling sky and the starry night.

This sense of an isolated world within the world must have appealed to Reygadas. The film opens and closes with time lapse sequences of dawn and dusk. It wells up out of the darkness of night, before retreating back there at the close. This gives the film a biblical, elemental quality, which frames the devout Mennonite community Johan belongs to. He has been lead astray, but he is also genuinely in love with Marianne (played with remarkable placidity by Maria Pankratz). He doesn't know if this development in his life has been brought about by God or the devil. Reygadas presents him as a good man in the thrall of greater powers. His father, a preacher, tells him that he would not be in his shoes for anything in the world, and yet he is also envious of him. Later, when the consequences of his actions become clear, Johan's father tells him he cannot hold himself responsible - this has all been ordained.

Underpinning the film's narrative is a latent humanism. None of the characters are unsympathetic, neither the adulterer, his mistress, nor the wife. The film resolutely avoids melodramatic plot developments. (At one point Johan and Marianne sleep together. Johan has left his children with a man in a van. As he approaches the van, looking for them, we fear the worst. But they are fine, laughing in the van, listening to Jacques Brel.) In the end, the plot finds its resolution in an other-worldly twist, which could be seen as evangelical, or magic realism, or both. People are likely to find themselves in situations which are beyond their expectation or rational understanding. And there's not much one can do in that case but trust in God, or fate.

The film's relentlessly slow pace re-affirms this message. Reygadas is never afraid to let the camera linger. He will film an open doorway, with the interior nothing but blackness, and slowly pan in until an image is revealed beyond the darkness. There are things there to be seen, but we need to learn to have the patience to observe them. Our expectations of rapid solutions to vast problems (such as the reason for an affair, or the cause of death, or the existence of God) is presented as naive. Reygadas appears to be encouraging us how to learn how to see oncemore, with new eyes. We stare at a screen and see only darkness. Slowly glimmers of light appear. These give way to the subtle forms of the world, revealed with the rising of the sun. Finally we, the audience, know what we're looking at, and everything is clear.

Cinema, the exercise of training our eyes on a screen lit by silent light, gives us the opportunity to do this. To learn how to look at the world as though it has been made anew.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

the assassination of jesse james by the coward robert ford (d. andrew dominik)

There's an odd moment well over half way through the film when Robert Ford meets a senior politician. Played by a bald-headed man who's recognisable but hard to pin a name on. It turns out to be James Carville, the former Clinton campaign manager. Someone who knows the workings of power inside out. Former figures from the world of politics playing at acting usually look foolish and make the film they've been placed in look foolish too, but Carville doesn't and neither does Dominik's movie. Somehow, in the breadth and weight of it's study of power, fame and destiny, his presence seems appropriate.

The Assassination... comes in at 16o minutes. It's not a jaunty ride. A lot of the most interesting material takes place in the final 15, after Jesse James' death. In the subsequent fate of his killer, Robert Ford, there's a whole other movie lurking. There might be legitimate questions about the conservatism of the script's reluctance to play around with time frames, using a voiceover which feels like the film's weakest link instead. Ford's destiny is inextricably linked to that of the gunslinger he grew up admiring. This instigates a wonderful circularity to the narrative, which could have been explored in a less teleological fashion.

That's about the only criticism that can be levelled at Dominik's epic. Like many non-native directors filming in North America (most of the film was shot in Canada) - Dominik seems to have fallen in love with a vast attritional landscape. The space that's given to the landscape by the cinematography is redolent of Malick, snowy wastes deputising for rippling corn fields. The voiceover is also, perhaps, a nod in the old master's direction. The other spirit hovering over the slow-burning narrative is that of Leone. The creation of atmosphere requires time; language needs to be allowed its richness; tension mounts the longer the note is held.

At it's heart, as the title implies, this is a film about a relationship between two men. Accordingly the film sinks or swims on the strength of the twin lead performances. Pitt's job is the harder. He has to play not merely a posthumous myth, but a living one. Jesse James, as depicted in the film, was a convoluted idol. Ruthless killer and loving family man. It's not easy to pull off these masculine contradictions, but Pitt manages it. And he conveys something more (with its own echoes of Eastwood in Leone's films) - which is that the gunslinger does not excel through speed or courage, but through a knowledge of his fellow man, an ability to read what his enemy is thinking behind the eyes. Jesse James, in Pitt's portrayal, doesn't look like he's ever read a book; but he knows the workings of a man's mind.

However, the film requires more than just a fine performance from Pitt. Casey Affleck as Ford needs to match him. From the moment he first appears, to be scolded by Sam Shepherd, Affleck captures the wistful blend of dreamer and wannabe that Ford may well have been. The performance builds through the film, with the parentless Affleck conveying in the sullen twitch of an eye everything you need to know about the adolescent's reaction to the thing he's grown up loving. The final 15 minutes, after the deed has been done, gives a glimpse of how he could have mastered the more subtle psychological genesis of the child becoming a man damned by his youthful hubris.

Dominik's film rides its ambitions. In a way it shows that what a filmmaker needs to do is attend to the details. Nick Cave's score is suitably powerful, Roger Deakins' cinematography acquires the epic touch that the tale requires. The dialogue is artful, yet convincing. The words smell of damp nights camped out in the woods; or the slip of the tongue that can prove a death sentence. The performances across the board stand up to the presence of the two leads. Once all these and the thousand and one other details are in place, the narrative of how power attracts and corrupts can unfold. In the manner of a 19th century Russian novel, Dominik allows the intranigence of fate to play itself out in the twinned destinies of the idol and the worshipper who becomes a Judas.

Monday, 3 December 2007

the darjeeling limited (dir Wes Anderson)

The camerawork in Anderson's mordant railway road trip ranges from the frenetic to the measured. Robert Yeoman, the DOP, is not scared to use his zoom, and the camera frequently chases a scene around, veering from one point of interest to the next. On the other hand, the film sets up stately set pieces, such as the sequence where the 'mythical' Darjeeling Express, carrying all the movie's characters, trundles past the camera; or within the opening short, where the camera glides around Jason Schwartzman's suite in the Hotel Chevalier in an uninterrupted take; or finally when the three brothers leave a hut in slow motion during the funeral and make their way to a rickshaw.

These variations in style can be interpreted in two closely connected ways. On the one hand as evidence of a playful willingness to experiment. On the other as 'kid in the sweet shop' syndrome.

Anderson's film is dealing with the notion of adults still trying to grow up. The three brothers at the heart of his film live in the shadow of their late father, whose funeral is alluded to in a flashback. Their quest is to find their mother, which they do. She is living in the tiger-infested foothills of the Himalayas, and tells her children that the people there need her more than they do. The children come to some kind of acceptance of this, and end their trip having gained some kind of collective understanding of each other's peculiarities.

The script includes a moment where Owen Wilson's brother responds to an Indian man's question: What are you doing here? With the line - We came on a spiritual journey but it hasn't quite worked out. Anderson and Co are conscious of the issues that their movie generates: the wealthy westerners frolicking in search of their karma in the impoverished backwoods. It's possible that the juxtaposition with the opening short's opulent Paris hotel room is a kind of nose-thumbing to the whole notion of political correctness. In the quest for the self, all rules, including those of cinematography, are there to be broken. The boys get thrown off the train for breaking the rules, but the journey keeps going and in the end they find themselves catching...another train. There will always be more trains.

It is tempting to say that there's something Fitzgeraldian about Anderson. The creation of idealised, flawed icons of americana, with their jazzy clothes, outrageous manners and idiosyncratic wit. But in the end, The Darjeeling Limited feels more like a Waugh novel without the narrative tautness. The self-indulgent emissaries of the latest great power using the exoticism of an alien background to explore their foibles.

In the film's final sequence, the brothers run to catch another train. In their rush to make it, they fling their baggage away in wonderful slow motion. This literal metaphor suggests that they will proceed on their journey lighter in soul and possessions. The scene is a mirror image to the opening sequence of the film, where Bill Murray's hapless businessman runs for the train and is overtaken by the more athletic Adrien Brody, who leaves him standing. In that opening sequence, which uses the slow motion trick for the first time, I felt exhilarated. It felt as though we were about to be taken on a remarkable, revelatory journey. By the time of the closing sequence, my engagement had dwindled. That baggage should have been ditched weeks ago. The slow-motion running still looks pretty, but like a kid in a sweet shop, I'd had one too many liquorice allsorts and the sweetness was starting to pale.