Thursday, 28 February 2013

Quote for the Week

'Film form film form film form! can be a hang-up. Wasn't the lens open, letting light in – and all those living people? They made it through and onto film, onto videotape, onto a memory card. (Memory card is a sweet name.)' – Ken Jacobs, in his tribute to Jonas Mekas in Sight & Sound, January 2013.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Films This Week

The station set in Liliom

(Click here to read my general introduction to the 'Films This Week' series of posts.)
Watched Lucky Star. It would seem third time's the charm for Borzage and me. It's perhaps it's a little languid, but it felt much more emotionally involving (believable?) than the others, and it won me over. The images and the performances are beautiful: a nice little story about perception and prejudice.  
Started the day with The Iron Horse, which I enjoyed, if without any sense of awe (it's a good solid film, but nothing exceptional). It felt novelisitc in its scope – at once epic and intimate. Consummate filmmaking. Later, I sat down for a Borzage double bill: The River (or what's left of it) and Liliom. It would seem that my enjoyment of Lucky Star wasn't a one off. Borzage was a great pictorialist – that's clear even from the films I wasn't taken with – and in The River the charm from the first half of 7th Heaven is back. Sure, it may be a little slight, but it's a genuinely lovely film. Liliom, meanwhile, is even better. Farrell (the source of much of Borzage's charm) is good in the silents, but even better here. Borzage, meanwhile, directs with the same visual prowess, but manages to draw a much greater complexity to his characters. The tone is also different: there's less schmaltz. It's effective dramatic storytelling of the first order. The design and shadows of the train station set in which Liliom awaits his victim are superb, conspiring as they do to heighten the scene's dramatic impact. There's even something almost Dreyeresque about Liliom's death scene: its sparsity, the use of double exposure. (Actually, the imagery here might not be the only link between Borzage and Dreyer – the idea of love as transcendent of death, illness and disability which recurs in Borzage can surely be seen as a precursor to the resurrection in Ordet. Interestingly, by drawing a comparison with Ordet, it becomes clear that what some viewers, myself included, have interpreted as pious religiosity in Borzage can just as easily be seen as carnal love – 'Yes, but I loved her body too'. Whatever the truth of these two interpretations, here the religious elements are used in a much more interesting way, and reflect much more meaningfully on life and death). In fact, the only thing that undermines this beautifully realised piece is what appears to be an advocation of the dangerous sentiment that it's okay to beat up your wife and kid if you do it as an expression of your love. In his commentary on Lucky Star, Tom Gunning comments that violence is often necessary for the forming of relationships in Borzage… I think there's something quite disturbing about this trend in his work.
Went to see Mama. I thought it was an interesting take on the Wild Child / Kasper Hauser story, and very effective as a chiller, but the scares felt a little cheap (clichéd?) at times and, unless I missed something, it didn't seem to quite all add up. I thought the design of Mama herself was pretty haunting, if undermined slightly by too much CGI in the realisation (I can also see something of del Toro's love for monsters in her character – there was something (almost) sympathetic in her plight). Ultimately, though, the film lacked any real weight. I think added ambiguity as to Mama's existence would have made for a more interesting film. Enjoyable as it was, I suspect it will prove to be quite forgettable.
A wider shot of the station set in Liliom

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Quote for the Week

Following on nicely from my last post, this:
'"If you know I am an unbeliever," [Pasolini] told a journalist in 1966, "then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief"'
Quoted in Divine Reality by Hannah McGill, Sight & Sound, March 2013.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Film as Faith

Pasolini's The Gospel According to St Matthew

In her excellent piece on Pasolini's The Gospel According to St Matthew in this month's Sight & Sound magazine, Hannah McGill writes the following:

Christ's miracles are rendered not with smart special effects or coy evasions, but with crude cuts; somehow the refusal to attempt to fool us emphasises rather than reduces the sense of magic. The sheer scale of what the Gospels ask a true believer to accept is rendered unavoidable.

This eloquent passage got me thinking about how, in a sense, filmmakers ask their audience – their true believers – to accept as true what's on the screen before them. If miracles, by definition, ask us to believe in the impossible, is then cinema itself a miracle? Or, to put it another way, is cinema an art (an act) of faith? Is it, in a sense, inherently a 'religious' medium?

Just as all these thoughts were flying through my mind, a friend posted this on Facebook:

'It is as though movies answered an ancient quest for the common unconscious. They fulfil a spiritual need that people have to share a common memory' – Martin Scorsese

The idea that films fulfil a spiritual need seemed to chime exactly with the point I was trying to grasp. I Googled the quote and found it to be from A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. Pulling the book off my shelf, I located the quote, and found this preceding it:

I don't really see a conflict between the church and the movies, the sacred and the profane. Obviously, there are major differences, but I can also see great similarities between a church and a movie house. Both are places for people to come together and share a common experience. I believe there is a spirituality in films, even if it's not one that can supplant faith. (page 166).

Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ

With this in mind, I wonder how much of a leap it is to see a love of cinema as a faith. If we can acknowledge that holy leaders and filmmakers alike ask us to believe in the impossible, that both film and religion fulfil a spiritual need, and that they are both practised in houses of worship, am I really going too far to posit cinephilia as a form of faith? Of religion?

Throughout all of this, there is but one image burnt into my mind: the resurrection in Ordet. Where else has the act of the dead returning to life been rendered with such heart-wrenching believability? With such straight-laced conviction that the figures on the screen seem more real than reality itself? We don't just believe in the miracle, we believe in miracles, the miracle of life – the life of those on screen, our life, life on earth. Cinema made flesh, flesh made spirit. Transcendence.
Dreyer's Ordet

Back in 2007, I wrote the following in my Director's Journal for Life Just Is:

Reading Kazantzakis, I think I've realised why I'm interested in religion: it's because religious people have blind faith. They believe unconditionally. To believe in anything that wholeheartedly must be comforting.

Six years later, I realise I do believe in something that wholeheartedly. I believe in cinema.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Films This Week

(Click here to read my general introduction to the 'Films This Week' series of posts.)

Street Angel

Went to see Argo, which I really liked. Right from the off, it oozed with tension. But there was also something else at play: an old Warner Brothers logo, scratches, aspect ratio changes, storyboards…all things, one can't help but feel, that were designed to call attention to the film's construction. It may be a film about hostages, but it's also a film about filmmaking (despite playing out against a political backdrop, I'm not sure it can be said to be a film about politics – although perhaps it is a film about political films, about political representation in films… But really it plays as a cross between a thriller and a Hollywood satire). It feels almost like a bold statement against the crassness of much contemporary mainstream cinema: look, it's saying, how good mainstream films were in the 1970s – let's go back to making films like that. As much as the tension of the moment sucks you in, it never quite feels like it wants you to forget that you're watching a movie. And, while it's true that things get a little overcooked at times, this may be part of its reflexive schema, and there's no denying the pure, thrilling entertainment of it all (the pacing is superb). Furthermore, while the political backdrop may not ultimately seem to be what the film is about, it's far from broadly stroked: the Americans don't come out of it looking like the good guys (they interfered in another country's politics – and not for the last time). It's produced by Heslov and Clooney, and feels like something Clooney would direct (in the best possible sense).
Watched 7th Heaven. The first part of the film has a lot of charm, despite its air of schmaltz. There's a rich vein of humour, and plenty of striking visuals (the vertical move up to the apartment is breath-taking). It's a shame, then, that it builds to such a disappointing second half. Simply put, I lost interest when the war came. Perhaps I was put off by the sentimental religiosity, or perhaps it was simply the lack of emotional engagement I ultimately felt. The couple endures hell, but it has no weight.
Watched Street Angel. The design and photography were excellent (especially in the first ten minutes), and Janet Gaynor gives a very fine performance, but with the exception of one or two brief moments there was very little that interested me in the narrative. It probably doesn't help that the story cleaved so closely to that of 7th Heaven (with the roles reversed – here it is the woman who is the reluctant lover who relents, only to have to leave her partner directly after agreeing to marry them. There's even an interloper who tried to break up the relationship by saying that the absent partner is no better than they are… Is Street Angel supposed to be a remake of 7th Heaven?). The influence of Murnau well may be felt at times, but Borzage's films ultimately don't have the same impact. When all is said and done, Street Angel is nonsensical rubbish…beautiful though the images may be.
Went to see Chameleon Street at the BFI. I didn't think it was the clearest or (with one exception) the most dramatic storytelling, but the film's experimental edge felt incredibly fresh, even after all these years. It hasn't aged a day, and still feels incredibly bold and powerful. Truly original filmmaking.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Quote for the Week

'What is being held against you - cultivate it, it is your essence' – Jean Cocteau, as quoted in Nick Pinkerton's review of To the Wonder, Sight & Sound March 2013.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Films This Week – A New Venture

As anyone who has read the journal from the making of Life Just Is will know, in the last few years I have become something of an obsessive diarist. In amongst the scribbles pertaining to my filmmaking, I have also taken to writing down my thoughts on every film I see. These reviews (for want of a better word) are written for my own benefit, and up until now I've never seen any reason for them not to stay that way. However, as we move firmly into the New Year, I've decided it's time for a change – and, from now on, I'm going to aim to publish these scribblings right here, on this very blog, on a weekly basis (normally, I suspect, on a Sunday or Monday).
Why the change? It's hard to say for sure. Perhaps it's partly because I keep telling a friend of mine that she should publish the extensive notes she has a habit of making every time she watches a film. Perhaps it's the influence (inspiration) of Harriet Warman, who has been consistently publishing her thoughts on her weekly viewing over on her blog. I may not watch as many films as Harriet, or write about them as eloquently, but seeing as I'm taking the time to note down my thoughts, I felt like I might as well begin sharing them. How long this sharing will last remains to be seen, but it's an idea…for now at least.
The life of this weekly feature will partly depend upon what effect it has on my writing – the reviews I write in my journal have a different tone to the reviews I write for publication, precisely because (until now) they've been written for my own benefit. They are often pithy, unadorned, unpolished. They are quick scribbles – and it is these quick scribbles that I will now be reproducing here, verbatim, with no further work done on them.
So, it's an experiment, of sorts. But hopefully one you'll enjoy (feel free to let me know in the comments section). Anyway, without any further ado, here we go – week one!
Ben and I went to see Life of Pi. I thought it had some interesting ideas about religion, but I wasn't sure that it really went anywhere with them – it was kind of just a little… dull. The narrative structure (framing device) sucked all the drama out of the film, because we knew Pi was going to survive his ordeal unharmed. I also found the switch in narrator – from old Pi to young Pi – a little problematic. Still, it had some good visuals, and the VFX were excellent. I also thought it made good use of 3D – although I'm still not a convert. There's something distracting about it (sometimes there's a kind of flicker in the image), which pulls me out of the film. So much for it making for a more immersive experience. I'm still intrigued by the possibilities it offers to the human face though – there were some effective moments in Pi in which Lee frames faces against plain backgrounds (the sky, a hospital curtain), and thus, ironically, reduces the depth of the 3D frame. Somehow, it's almost these moments that work best…
In the evening I watched Tabu, which has some excellent compositions and contains a beautiful play of light…Murnau's idea of 'architectural cinematography' – based on dance and German paintings – excites me. Unfortunately I can't quite say the same about the story of Tabu, which didn't really grip me, even with its tragic (and moving) ending. It does have some interesting narrative and structural parallels with Murnau's other work though – contrary to Tony Rayn's assertion that Murnau was not an auteur, there seems to be much that recurs throughout his oeuvre. There's a letter from Murnau reproduced in the booklet which implies a deep seated loneliness and rootlessness, a feeling of not fitting in. Taken in this light, his films can, in some respects, be seen as stories about the search for a home, for acceptance, and for love (the search often being represented by a literal journey).
Elina came around to show me The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. I enjoyed the colours and the stylisation (the artificiality) of the world it constructed, as well as the melodrama of the story. But the music was awful.
Watched Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, which was far too overdone for my taste – stylised to the point of silliness (and, what's worse, ugliness – there's no fun to be had here). Even the jokes fall so flat they barely register as the film stumbles over them. Truly terrible.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Quote for the Week

'Real art is simple, but simplicity requires the greatest art' – F.W. Murnau, 'The Ideal Picture Needs No Titles', Theatre Magazine, January 2918.