Thursday, 29 May 2008

Distant Voices, Still Lives (Davies, 1988)

Terence Davies's intimate investigation into the persistence of memory announces its intents with its opening sequence. A BBC shipping forecast is heard off-screen as his camera statically observes the exterior of a somewhat dreary house. In the middle of a storm, a woman (known simply as "Mother") opens the front door and collects the bottles of milk that have been deposited outside. She quickly returns to the safety of her home, and Davies follows her by cutting to a shot inside the house. The camera remains static as we now observe the unsurprisingly drab interiors of this humble abode. Mother shouts up a staircase to awaken the other members of this household. After a second reminder, we hear the rest of the family coming downstairs - but curiously we do not see them, although off-screen dialogue identifies them as Mother's children. As "I Get the Blues When It's Raining" plays on the soundtrack, the camera slowly glides forward towards the staircase before completing a 180-degree pan and resting upon a shot of the same front door that we had previously viewed externally. The shot dissolves and a temporal ellipsis occurs - the formerly closed door is now wide open, revealing a hearse pulling up outside (the storm has since disappeared). Another dissolve leads to a tableaux of Mother and her three children (Eileen, Tony and Maisie) staring directly at the camera, as if from a photograph album. The soundtrack has since moved on to an operatic rendition of "There's A Man Going 'Round Taking Names". The camera once again glides forward, this time towards a genuine photograph hanging on the wall. As the family walk off-screen, the image of a man and his horse comes to dominate the frame. In its lucidity, we correctly presume that the man is the (now deceased) "Father" of this household.

In under four minutes then, Davies manages to fully establish the context in which Distant Voices, Still Lives will unfold. The shipping forecast and the decor situate the film historically in the post-war era of late 1940s/early 1950s Britain, and the latter also helps define the distinctly working-class milieu that the director will survey. Familial bonds are already placed at the fore, and the early allusions to weddings (during the words that Mother and Eileen exchange off-screen) and funerals emphasizes the communal rituals around which the film's loose structure is constructed. The long-takes, gentle pans, tableaux vivants, frequent dissolves and stately pacing that characterize the film's visual style create a stream of consciousness sensation that intensifies and complements its narrative of remembrance. Meanwhile, Davies's veritable soundscapes marry the everyday rhythms of blue collar life to a catalogue of incredibly emotive songs, whilst further muddying the waters of time: the traditional relationship of aural to visual is modified to accommodate the temporal ellipses that pervade the film. In the director's complex memorializations, the manes of the past engage in an neverending process of imprinting themselves upon the present. The close-up that concludes the opening sequence identifies Father as this film's ghost that refuses to disappear.

Distant Voices, Still Lives is actually a diptych of two short films that comprise a single 80-minute feature. Although structured as a serene entanglement of memories, the differentiation is not inappropriate as the first part (Distant Voices) clearly focuses on life with Father whilst the second (Still Lives) is concerned with life after him. The coercion generated by the presence of this antagonistic patriarch renders the Distant Voices segment the more emotionally volatile of the two, with its tones oscillating wildly between the harmony of recollection and the trauma of unhealed wounds. Numerous juxtapositions enunciate these cinematic mood swings: one such instance finds Eileen longing for her father's presence, but the scene that immediately follows finds said Father savagely beating his daughter with a broom; in the midst of her piercing screams, Davies cuts back to a shot of Eileen summoning a brave smile and repeating her initial refrain - "I wish me dad was 'ere". Tragic irony is used to expose Eileen's blind reverence as a symptomatic consequence of domestic violence, and the device will feature frequently in both halves of the film.

Despite its tendency to appeal to our sympathies, one shouldn't fall into the trap of making character judgments as a result of a single (albeit fairly typical) sequence. A later juxtaposition finds Father placing stockings on his children's bed at Christmas, and in this rare moment of clarity the paternal affection that radiates from his unassuming face is endearingly visible. Naturally, the very next scene sees him exploding in untriggered fury at the dinner table, before ordering Mother to clean up the damage caused by his wrath. The contrast here is especially vital, for not only does the film's prevalent streak of character ambiguities finally manifest itself in the most unexpected of locations, but the completely unprovoked nature of the outburst implicates external factors beyond their control for both Father's authoritarianism and his family's capitulation to it. One senses that these troubles are not entirely divorced from their socio-historical context - the archetypes of the British working-class ingrain themselves into these characters, and a reluctant tolerance of domestic strife is the result.

Still Lives builds on this premise by quietly shifting the film's focus from the private to the public sphere, thus comprehensively articulating the social dimensions that tantalized in Distant Voices. It expands upon the collective practices of the family and views life itself through the prism of multiple social gatherings, thereby reinforcing their status as one of the core components of this class experience. The prominence of baptisms, weddings, funerals, Christmases, and even (or especially) meetups at the local pub highlights the reassuring unity that can be offered through these shared encounters, and it's a comfort that confers the women in particular with the strength to assert their once "distant" voices. These female and communal proclamations take the form of songs that are contemporaneous with the era, and which subsequently uncover the most intriguing peculiarity of Davies's work: its relation to the movie musical.

The use of songs as an extension of the characters' mindsets is a recurrent feature in Distant Voices, which fluctuates between the use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound. However, Still Lives finds a more emphatic movement towards the former option, and in doing so it transposes the essence of the musical into the unlikeliest of contexts. Its expertise in conveying the transformative power of personal expression is contrasted against the bleak actualities of impecunious Liverpool, thus exposing a painful dichotomy that denies its characters the multicoloured transcendence available to their Hollywood predecessors. When Eileen defiantly belts out a heartfelt rendition of "I Wanna Be Around" in solidarity with her best friend, the entire world momentarily seems to pause as a lifetime of suppressed sentiments comes to the fore. For less than a minute the cathartic bliss of movie-euphoria overwhelms both film and audience - but never are we divorced from reality. The grimy, indifferent pub setting and the presence of its misogynistic males drives the song towards its ecstatic highs, but it's these same factors that simultaneously provoke the sombre resignation on Eileen's face after her impassioned stand is completed. The long-term viability of this brand of escapism is something that Davies and his characters are all too acutely aware of.

"I Wanna Be Around" is exemplary of the softened restrictions facing modes of expression in Still Lives. Father's absence here alludes to an elapse of time that provides it with a greater scope than its sister segment. Time inevitably causes change with progression as a potential byproduct, but the content of Still Lives is a fundamental actualization of its title. In spite of slight but discernable differences such as the increased presence of radios and the more affirmative female voices, this later section maintains the introspection of Distant Voices both stylistically and emotionally. One of Davies's deftest touches in this regard is the motif that he creates with doors - throughout both parts characters are framed against doorways, quietly magnifying their need for escape. Tellingly however, the doors are used as entrances as opposed to exits - and in the few instances when people do exit, it's simply to collect an item before returning back into the comfort of their home. The need for escape is a projection of the audience's desires onto characters who resist with the insularity that dominated their life with Father, thus accentuating the discrepancy between our freedom and their entrapment. In this way, Distant Voices feeds directly into Still Lives: the transitional scene between the two is punctuated by an off-screen male's angry screams at Eileen. Had it not been for the man's utterance of "I'm your husband!", we would have sufficient grounding to presume that this was another flashback with Father. And yet in some senses it is, for the cyclical nature of abuse has fully manifested itself within this family's lives, and the spirit of their patriarch continues to infringe upon the action from beyond the grave. The past's inextricable link with the present ensures that the ruins of the former will permanently handicap the latter.

This is not to say that Davies's film is a bleak one, however. There are glimpses of deliciously off-the-wall humour (think Uncle Ted), and its resonance derives from the autobiographical warmth of tender familial bonds that even Father can't destroy. Perhaps the most memorable sequence in the film occurs towards the end: a crane shot rises from a floor of umbrellas amidst pouring rain, towards the roof of a movie theatre as the swelling strings of "Love Is a Many Splendored-Thing" inundate the soundtrack; as we pass a poster for said film, the take dissolves into a delicate pan over the faces of the audience, before resting on Eileen and Maisie - weeping like little children. These two simple shots serve as a beautiful homage to the unparalleled power of cinema, and it's a description that's perfectly applicable to the rest of Distant Voices... Davies's working-class ballad is a staggering achievement that refuses the despondency that many of his compatriots succumb to when dealing with the underprivileged: under this director's microscope, their troubles are harrowing, but they themselves retain their dignity. Moreover, the fragmented narrative functions as a breathtakingly unique exposition of the internal, imbuing each of Davies's exquisite compositions with an emotional panorama that remains unmatched within British filmmaking. Through this series of disjointed memories, the director crafts a remarkably cohesive and full-bodied portrait of life itself, and whilst doing so pays tribute to: the cinema; the working-classes; the past; the present; and, most stirringly, the future. For any astute film enthusiast (and particularly those that are British), Distant Voices, Still Lives gives cause for pure elation.

Vagabond (Varda, 1985)

Agnès Varda's deceptively simple observations about a girl who willfully drifts on the peripheries of society are packed with resonance. Her decision to intersperse the action with "interview" footage from those that "knew" the girl (Mona) is inspired, providing the audience with a variety of perspectives that contribute to the unique prism through which we view Mona's life. These testimonies don't entirely correlate with Mona's on-screen actions, but they're fascinating examples of the ways in which human beings view one another, and they simultaneously highlight the concept of the unreliable narrator. Take Yolande for example, who romanticizes Mona and her brief fling with a fellow drifter as a portrait of idyllic love after their first 'meeting' (in reality, it's simply somewhere for Mona to sleep and smoke a joint or few), before villifying her after their second encounter when she threatens to encroach upon the sanctity of both Yolande's job and her relationship. On both occasions, Yolande's own concerns take precedent over any attempt to understand Mona's situation, thus begging the question: just how much do we really know and understand about brief acquaintances such as this? By having the viewer witness Mona's final days as she herself pieces them together, Varda manages to illuminate the film with some lofty themes: the transience of life; and perhaps more importantly, the difficulty of truly comprehending it.

Varda's unassuming direction allows the viewer to remain neglectful of the fact that Mona/Varda's journey is one that traverses the breadth of (then-)contemporary French society until late into the film - by which point the director's critique re: the inability of Mona's former companions to prevent her fate has considerably sharpened. The final act, rife with a series of coincidences and a downright bizarre paint fight of sorts, alludes to a society in chaos (although the strength of such allegory is debatable). "Society" is a potent presence throughout this piece: Mona's predicament (presumably) occurs through her continual defiance of that which is socially acceptable. Mona even disregards an opportunity provided by reformed hippies who sympathize with her plight and offer her a chance to succeed on the peripheries of the "system"; and one of the most humorous yet telling encounters finds a prostitute asking her to leave her turf because she's "bad for business". Varda deftly reveals how materialism is a fundamental part of life, and by relinquishing the former Mona effectively sabotages the latter.

No one is willing to help Mona on her own terms, but Mona isn't necessarily looking for help. Varda's matter-of-fact presentation never explicitly asks any questions of either viewer or character. This stark but sincere depiction of life outside accepted norms lacks the venom to function as a diatribe against French society as a whole. Furthermore, Mona's rebellion is one that Varda refrains from romanticizing or moralizing (as some of the film's ancedotes do). The director's refusal to provide any real background for this character combines with her documentarian approach to reinforce the integrity of what's on-screen. Mona exists, Mona expires, and there's little more to it. Vagabond's ability to so directly expose this tenuous hold on one's existence is the source of its genius.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Limelight (Chaplin, 1952)

A portrait of the artist as an old man, then. And what a melancholy mess of a portrait this is! A self-reflexive, shamelessly narcissistic meditation on the increasing irrelevance of the fading star, this might well be the most complex and intelligent film of Chaplin's career. (As a sidenote, the fact that I watched this straight after The Gold Rush meant that I inadvertently found myself with a fascinating double-bill on my hand, esp. when one considers that it's the simplicity of the earlier film and the "Tramp" that I admire so much.) Watching arguably the greatest movie star that ever lived pour so much of himself into this project makes for a viewing experience that's as uncomfortable as it is compelling. Limelight marks the filmmaker's poignant attempt to exorcise his personal demons once and for all - and for a figure as gargantuan as Chaplin to willingly deface the mythology of his cherished past is an act of bravery that commands nothing but awe from this viewer.

The film unfolds in the tradition of grand, if somewhat bizarre, melodrama - perhaps the genre best able to accommodate the insecurities of a star such as this. Moreover, Chaplin's refusal to leave the ghost of the past behind contributes to a sense of unease regarding the film. The spectre of the Tramp manifests itself throughout: in Calvero's costumes; in his description as a "tramp" comedian; in a dream sequence where Calvero pours salt on a rose and proceeds to eat it (harking back to a similar scene in The Gold Rush); and in every one of his Charlot-esque mannerisms that only heighten the sense of awkwardness which characterizes the film. At one point, Calvero goes so far as to declare that: "There's something about working the streets that I like. It's the tramp in me, I suppose." Chaplin's nonchalant delivery belies the significance of a statement that so tellingly alludes to both the performer's vaudeville past as well as his most famous creation. And this is merely one of many instances where the text mines the depths of its author's career to deepen its own perspective - the entire film is transfused with an acute awareness of history and the artist's place within it. To this end, one finds Calvero frequently framed against self-portraits in the interior spaces of his home. Although the framing alternates between subtle and unavoidable, each composition carefully augments the inescapable hold of stardom within Chaplin's intricate narrative.

Notably for a Chaplin film, Limelight is almost shockingly devoid of humour. Whereas the director's previous features had attempted to negotiate an equilibrium between comedy and pathos, Limelight extinguishes the bright flame of the former altogether and thus allows the latter to overwhelm the film's thematics. Calvero's jokes and wisecracks simply aren't worthy of our laughter, and his comedy routines make for painful viewing. Compare, for example, the "flea sequence" with anything made prior to 1940 and the discrepancy becomes grossly apparent. It's when in his supposed element that Calvero becomes most devastatingly exposed as an outdated relic. As he attempts to bury his shame under: first, a false name; and then, one last showcase; one senses Chaplin simultaneously attempting to bury his own past in the character of Calvero, with Limelight's canvas itself functioning as the platform for the final triumph.

With this in mind, perhaps the most moving facet of the film is to be found in its examination of the relationship between star and audience. The blatant artificiality of the film's sets and the prominence given to the stage/audience delineation during the film's final third contribute to this fundamental dilemma regarding the construction of stars. However, its within the core Calvero/Terry relationship where these questions find their most pertinent voice. The aforementioned "Tramp-isms" that Chaplin brings to this role are coupled with a taste for excess when it comes to line delivery during their scenes together, thus elevating him to the level of "performer" with the bed-ridden Terry as the effective replacement for his lost "audience". At one stage, after an impassioned monologue about the beauty of life, Calvero concludes by exclaiming "Goodnight!", as if to further emphasise this mutually beneficial role-playing. It's in the comfort of the theatrical world where one receives glimpses of the real Calvero: after the revelation of an empty theatre during a dream sequence, the camera cuts to a close-up of Chaplin's devastated face. Few stars managed to film so successfully and consistently in close-up as Chaplin, and the indelible image of the heartbroken yet resilient Tramp that's recalled by this shot is difficult to dispel.

Limelight is the most structurally incoherent of Chaplin's major features (that I've seen, at least), and I imagine that the occasionally-clunky editing and bizarre tonal shifts do little to help its cause in the eyes of the general public. (And that's saying nothing of Claire Bloom's marmite work!) But this is a film that appears on-screen as a confessional outpouring of the soul. Surely then, it's cluttered narrative and confusing emotional landscapes are somewhat appropriate? It's easy to accuse Chaplin of self-indulgence here, and the decidedly underwhelming showdown with fellow silent-era giant Buster Keaton provides fuel for the fire. Nevertheless, this seems to bypass the purpose of their much-anticipated sequence together, which is designed first as a self-critique of Calvero/Chaplin's own egotism and second as a touching reminder of all that's been lost due to the cruelty of time. As Calvero himself poignantly defers: "Time is the great author. It always writes the perfect ending." Limelight is one of the saddest demonstrations of this ideal that I can imagine. But Calvero does indeed find peace at film's end, and Limelight itself benefits from that phenomenal conclusion. One can only hope that Chaplin too, managed to get rid of his own demons once and for all. Lord knows he deserves it for providing us with a Hollywood swansong as beautiful as this.

The Gold Rush (Chaplin, 1925)

Objectively speaking, 1925's The Gold Rush is - in spite of all the acclaim - a surprisingly flawed effort from Chaplin, imo. In terms of its plot, it seems considerably less refined than his later comedic efforts. Much of that fault lies with the issue of character development - what's the real purpose of Black Larsen, for example? Or why waste precious momentum by focusing on the Georgia/Jack relationship? The dynamics of that union, complete with the former's carefree persona significantly detracts from the already distractingly-contrived [Spoiler]happy ending. Is this ho-that-appears-from-nowhere really meant to be worthy of our beloved Tramp?[/Spoiler]

And yet, to focus on these elements strikes me as somewhat reductive, for all the plot gripes in the world pale into insignificance when one is dealing with what could well be the funniest of all Chaplin comedies. And that's as lofty as praise gets. For a film that's defined by its boundless energy, it seems thoroughly appropriate for the director to play fast and loose with staple narrative tools. This decision works a treat, because his alternative is to create a series of increasingly outrageous setpieces that launch a full-scale tickling assault upon the funnybone. The film brims with these bravura sequences that underline its star's gift for slapstick: the first appearance of the bear (this was the point where I fell in love with Chaplin all over again); the boiled shoe; the fights against the storm; the dog at the dance; the initial brawl between Big Jim and Black Larsen; the cabin on the cliffside; and my personal favourite, Charlie in a chicken suit. Whilst the art of film comedy probably reached its peak with the sophisticated screwballs of the 1930s/1940s, the simplistic splendour of Chaplin's own endeavours serves as a pervading reminder that complexity doesn't necessarily equate to superiority.

Personally, I find that the resonance of Chaplin's art consistently derives from his ability to locate light in the bleakest of situations. Although the potential for social commentary in this particular film is mostly disregarded, it nonetheless boasts moments that lay to bare the director's modest (but powerful) emotional canvas. Key to all this is the creation of the Tramp himself, whom Chaplin always embodies with such irresistible charm - to the point where I often find myself taken aback by those that don't fall for him like I do (fortunately, these people seem to exist only on the Internet, which means that they need not fear my real-life wrath). He may well be my favourite character in film history, and although his position in the social hierarchy bestows him with an underdog status that ensures sympathy to a certain degree, I really believe that the Tramp genuinely the audience's affections in his on-screen adventures. Rarely has this been better expressed than during The Gold Rush's dream sequence, where Chaplin's extraordinary talent for blending comedy and pathos reaches its zenith with the famed "Oceana Roll" - typically amusing, but concurrently gut-wrenching as a result of its distance from the Tramp's present reality. Chaplin follows this with one of the most heartbreaking close-ups this side of his own conclusion to City Lights - and once again, his crestfallen face expresses more in a mere few seconds about love, dreams, social status and loneliness, than 180 minutes of spoken dialogue ever could.

I guess I see this film as a reflection of the Tramp himself. What he and it lack in intelligence, they more than make up for with their heart. Chaplin's enduring appeal throughout the years has surely been in large part due to his ability to express painfully honest emotions with a uniquely humorous filter. It's a combination that I'm a sucker for, to be honest. So to return to an earlier point, who really gives a damn about plot?! [Spoiler]If the Tramp wants the girl, then I want him to have her too![/Spoiler] In a world where life is always hanging precariously in the balance, the Tramp's resilience and his ceaseless optimism is both admirable and infectious.

There's a brief scene in this film where the Tramp finds a self-release from all his inhibitions, and bounces off his cabin walls as if all the happiness of the world has been momentarily imbued into his meagre little frame. I feel no shame in confessing that both Chaplin and The Gold Rush have the same effect upon me. For consistently reminding me of the beauty of innocence and sentimentality where so many other directors have miserably failed, I'm indebted to him. And I would never dare let my objectivity get in the way of my subjective love for this here film.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Paradjanov, 1964)

I will not dispute the status of Pomegranates as Paradjanov's most heralded film, but I will say that Shadows - as far as I'm concerned - is an even more vibrant and exciting work that dispenses with conventional film language in a manner that I find twice as scintillating as the later masterpiece. Of course, this is arguably the less complex and challenging work of art, but what does that matter when the work in question is as extraordinary as this?

Although I've only seen two of them to date, I've nonetheless arrived at the conclusion that Paradjanov's films are consistently draped in a cultural fabric that's miled removed from our own. In Pomegranates, the director overwhelms his work with symbolism that's daunts as much as it stimulates due to its privileged position in the foreground - the subtext is inextricably bound to the text itself. Shadows utilizes the same complex metaphors that characterize the later film, but here they co-exist with the narrative and enrich (as opposed to define) it. Moreover, Paradjanov grounds the film in an empathetic reality: at its core, Shadows is really a cinematic ballad about one man and his attempts to make peace with a love snatched away by the hands of fate. Armed with the dual forces of both intellectual and emotional wizardry then, Paradjanov crafts a film that's significantly more palatable than the monumental Pomegranates.

That's not to argue that Shadows is less sophisticated in its construction, however. As previously stated, Paradjanov works in a context whereby he can powerfully affirm the localized cultures of the Caucasus. Naturally then, Westernized narratives have no place in this director's filmic worlds. Shadows has an identifiable (but relatively passive) protagonist (Ivan), and reveals traces of traditional plot development, but it stops right there in terms of Western cinematic conventions. The remainder of the film exists partly in the realm of mythical folk tales, and partly as an observational ode to the customs of the Hutsuls. The film is loosely structured as a series of chapters that are inconsistent in length, and one of the most dazzling sequences finds an entire one of these chronicled through the everyday gossip of people who are completely unrelated to the dominant plot strand. This is what I mean when I claim that Paradjanov cares not for our conceptions of narrative exposition! And during the course of some 90-odd minutes, he still manages to find time to interpolate proceedings with a Biblical thread (Pieta; shepherds + sacrificial lambs; the church at the community's centre), whilst implying that the [Spoiler]film's entire first act might've taken place in Ivan's memory,[/Spoiler] thus underlining the density of the film's emotional texture. At its most polar oppositions, Shadows is a work of both irresistible romanticism and harrowing despair. It's to Paradjanov's credit that he so successfully manages to traverse the vast gulf that exists inbetween.

This world of sentimental warfare and spiritual conflicts would make for an engaging film in its own right. When one throws in this director's potent ability to express himself visually however, hyperbolic praise becomes extraordinarily difficult to resist. If The Colour of Pomegranates was a revolutionary declaration of the static camera's potential in cinema; then Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is a revelatory extravaganza of delirious kineticism that's perhaps even more breathtaking. Mere words fail to capture the ecstatic rhythms of the director's pulsating camerawork here, the experience is akin to a primal romp played out at a hyperspeed - Paradjanov's camera bounces off walls, waltzes around entire communities and scrutinizes its picturesque surroundings with alarming intensity. From its very outset, it proves itself as quite a literal force of nature: one of the film's very first shots assumes the viewpoint of a falling tree! Later in the film, there's a supernatural occurrence when a similar tree suddenly bursts into flames, as if the fiery depths of Hell have suddenly been unleashed upon Earth. Shadows negotiates a reconciliation of these divergent natural and supernatural impulses, and Paradjanov articulates it most astoundingly following [Spoiler]the death of Ivan's father, whose "soul" is briefly glimpsed through the image of horses in red silhouettes, gracefully departing the body.[/Spoiler] Paradjanov's visual style is an intoxicating concoction of delicious colour schemes, bizarre angles and rapturous movement that could perhaps be described as some sort of super-expressionistic brand of modernism. Except that really, the director's work stubbornly defies the reductive labelling that we're accustomed to in the West. The phrase "seeing is believing" has never been more appropriate than it is here.

In the meantime, it seems necessary for me to return to the aformentioned "emotional texture" of the film, because Shadows particularly resonates on this front. Typically, Paradjanov outlines the foundations of his prevailing concerns from the get-go. [Spoiler]The film opens with the death of Ivan's brother Alekso, who meets his end whilst saving our hero. In effect, the fate that was meant for Ivan has been transferred onto Alekso - but Ivan's destiny continues to haunt him throughout the film (even during that initial death scene, part of Ivan's trauma derives from his inability to escape from the clasp of his brother's dead hand).[/Spoiler] One of the characters describes the world of Shadows as "a land forgotten by God", and it's an apt description because savagery and death seems to be a part of everyday existence here. Ivan's forbidden romance with Marichka then, functions as a tantalizing glimpse of optimism in a pessimistic world. Their scenes together are characerized by an innocence and a joviality that evaporates following [Spoiler]Marichka's death[/Spoiler]; Paradjanov's camera excitedly encircles them as if an extension of their romantic longing, but concurrently embodies the pervading mystical gloom that serves only to entrap them within their fates. Nonetheless, it's Ivan's inability to extinguish that longing that the film venerates. If Pomegranates is about the redemptive power of art, then Shadows is about the transcendent power of love. And really, who can resist such an idea when it's as compellingly rendered as it is here? The final song shared by Ivan and Marichka might well be one of the most gorgeous moments I've ever come across in cinema. Paradjanov's peculiar brand of humanism resonates so strongly with this image of two lovers-that-never-were, lost in the impeccable beauty of their own memories (lest we forget that there's also a celebration of Hutsul culture here thanks to the music involved). Although the film's final shot, [Spoiler]with a manic camera dancing alongside the drunken guests at Ivan's funeral[/Spoiler], draws us back into the circularity of the director's vision [Spoiler](death is inevitable; the world remains indifferent)[/Spoiler], it's the strength of this romance that leaves the most indelible impression here. Paradjanov instils in his audience a sense of yearning for the love itself - and he does it with such panache that one can't help but yearn for a myth like Shadows to accompany it.

The Colour of Pomegranates (Paradjanov, 1968)

The opportunity to investigate the singular filmography of Sergei Paradjanov is not one that I'd ever turn down. Paradjanov's cinema has forever piqued my interest, and the self-generated hype that overwhelmed me with regards to his most acclaimed work - The Colour of Pomegranates - motivated my decision to blind-purchase an American box set of his feature films.

However, my initial reaction here was a little confusing for me: I admired this and could clearly see that it was brilliant, but I didn't feel like I'd engaged with the text at all. Paradjanov's tableaux are so vivid and exciting, and they possess such rich symbolism that's so heavily steeped in Armenian history + culture that it makes the film something of an imprenetable behemoth of breathtaking imagery - but for the ordinary Westernized viewer like myself, it's difficult to gain much more it. Or at least, that's how I felt after that first viewing.

Following the inevitable (and necessary) second viewing I saw things differently. I think my natural instinct as a film enthusiast is to decipher all these images that are put before me, as I get a kick out of participating in the whole cinematic experience, and I also like to get the most out of the films that I love. Pomegranates, saturated as it is by a culture that's quite alien to me, denies me the gratifications that I've become accustomed to as an audience member. But I feel that Paradjanov is first and foremost concerned in evoking a response on a purely visceral level here. I imagine that even a professor in 18thC Armenian symbolism would struggle, in one sitting, to fully digest the wealth of imagery with which the director confronts the viewer. And after all, Pomegranates is effectively "poetry in motion" - designed to externalize the internal life of the poet, according to the aims that are defined in the film's prologue.

Bearing that in mind, I found the film to be quite a profound experience the second time around. With Pomegranates, Paradjanov attempts to penetrate the soul of the tormented artist, and the 'character' of Sayat Nova here is really little more than an abstract concept that allows the director to channel his own insecurities and tribulations through the poet's textual presence. Thus, I think the film is permeated by a stark emotional clarity that manifests itself most notably in the numerous intertitles, all of which seem to reveal the artist's increasing despair. A typical refrain such as "In this healthy and beautiful life, my share has been nothing but suffering" suddenly becomes infused with much greater depth of meaning when one realizes this. Pomegranates is essentially a filmic embodiment of that very quote, no? The poetry that accompanies the artist's on-screen journey via the expository intertitles articulates the latter, more despondent part of the line. But Paradjanov achieves a remarkable balance between the despair which punctuates the film, and the visual content which enlivens the first half of the sentence. The director is very much attuned to the joys of life, and Pomegranate's vibrant imagery emphatically celebrates the beauty of this decidedly Armenian existence.

It's the co-existence of these two basic strands - happiness and sadness - that make the artist's suffering (and consequently, Paradjanov's achievement) all the more poignant. The former exposes the extent of the latter as I see it, and the fact that the artist's desperation prevails despite the creation of this sumptuous filmic environment strikes me as a pretty affirmative statement on the director's part. The reconciliation of Armenian culture and history with the soul of the artist is denied (until he achieves a debatable transcendence at film's end, at least), and I sense the presence of external forces in this refusal? There's a potential critique of the Soviet regime, but I'm unsure as to whether I could come up with any particular examples off the top of my head... perhaps the return to the image of the 'bleeding' pomegranates, that are apparently symbolic of fertility in Armenia? (Thank you, Wikipedia!) Although, as we've established, the content of the film is an act of defiance in itself. Moreover, I think Paradjanov astutely notes the transience of the cultural mores that he so relishes. By working with the past, he highlights the discrepancy with the present. The distinct religious/biblical imagery and the parallels that the director creates between Sayat Nova and Christ mark a concerted attempt to elevate these traditions into the realm of the timeless through the medium of film.

And that brings me onto the last issue that I wanted to discuss, which is basically the specific role of art in Paradjanov's world. I think I've already implied that Pomegranates is markedly different from anything else that I've ever seen... but how so! The director's unnervingly static camera is compensated by the visual opulence within the frame. And the 'characters' that inhabit it are almost confrontational in the way that they frequently stare directly at the audience (which distorts the privilege of our cinematic gaze somewhat). Furthermore, there's his use of sound which threatens to render the diegetic as non-diegetic?! Either way, the film strips away the cinematic language that we draw comfort from, and remoulds the essence of the medium (the visual image) into something that's at once both archaic (the use of tableaux + Christian tapestry) and thoroughly modern (had this been done before, in this style?).

There's a glorious moment in the film where a number of saz seem to be floating in mid-air, as if they've surpassed the limitations of reality and have attained the status of metaphysical objects. The saz of course, is the instrument of the kerib, and in Pomegranates this equates to the artist. The transcendence of these guitars then, is a beautiful encapsulation of the redeeming qualities of art. And that is probably the message that most resonates with me here. Sayat Nova the man may no longer be with us, but Sayat Nova the artist is immortal. The Colour of Pomegranates, imo, proves that the same is true of Sergei Paradjanov.

Lola (Fassbinder, 1981)

Lola (1981) maintains Fassbinder's tendency to play with our notions of genre, but this time the director underscores his work with a platform provided by the 1950s melodrama. Fassbinder's exaggeration Sirkian colour schemes borders on the grotesque, creating another image of over-perfection that paradoxically induces nothing but disgust from the viewer. And of course, the implications of Fassbinder's visual designs convey themselves within the text. Sirk is noted for probing a distinctly American psyche, and through the importation of this brand of Americana into a German environment, Fassbinder arguably makes a broader comment regarding his skepticism towards the influence of the US economy during this period (consider: the grossly fetishized results of his decision).

Lola is perhaps more directly concerned with the cost and effects of materialism than the others in the trilogy. The presence of commodities such as TVs and radios permeate the film, and the construction of a new building (later noted by Fassbinder as symbolic of the future, both due to its existence and the forces that created it) is central to the plot. Lola herself is one of these very "commodities" (has any other woman in Fassbinder's oeuvre been so willfully objectified?), and one that's desperate to become socially-acceptable - to the point where she denigrates the institution of marriage to mere deal-breaking. And yet, in a departure from Maria Braun, this film is more focused on the trajectory of a male character: von Bohm. Both he and Schukert represent the strongest male characters in the BRD trilogy, and together with Esslin they enact a compelling battle between morality and greed. No prizes for guessing which one prevails.

I initially spent quite a bit of time debating whether to watch Veronika Voss or Lola first. Watching this would've made chronological sense in terms of what the audiences of the 1980s experienced, but Veronika Voss is apparently "BRD 2" whilst this is "BRD 3"... I eventually decided to conform to the Criterion order, and I'm now thankful that I did. The titular character is the only one of the BRD's female heroines that [Spoiler]actually survives at film's end. So, whilst both the other films heavily implied the continuity of their amorality in spite of the lead's absence, Lola offers the most pertinent scenario of them all. The moral integrity of Von Bohm and Esslin has been eroded by the small-town ruling class, leaving the characters nothing else to do but resign themselves to the imagined reality of the '50s melodrama. Von Bohm and Lola are married at the end, but Schukert ultimately retains both his power and Lola herself. Von Bohm's love has become a corrupting force in its own right, as if to suggest that there's no room for it in a society so characterized by its thirst to consolidate the economic miracle. Everyone is malleable in Fassbinder's final worldview, and the final shot which establishes a graphic match between Lola's child and an earlier scene featuring Lola herself implies more brilliantly than ever that nothing will change.[/Spoiler] C'est magnifique!

This is not to say that I consider Lola to be a flawless film, by any means - it's the weakest of the trilogy, imo. I find it's final third extremely rushed in comparison to the rest of the film, and that affects our comprehension of these moral conflicts that are being waged by its characters - they come across as trite, underdeveloped (although this is also possibly appropriate, no?) Nevertheless, the film boasts some astonishing photography and some magnificent individual scenes (Lola's cabaret act; the country church). Plus, Barbara Sukowa is truly gorgeous in the title role (one of the sexiest performances in cinema?) . Anyway, the performances from Sukowa, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Mario Adorf are uniformly great (and appropriately 'melodramatic'), and Fassbinder's attack is more scathing than ever. And that makes this delectable, pour moi. So... yay?!

In conclusion: the BRD trilogy is essential viewing.

Veronika Voss (Fassbinder, 1982)

Finally continuing with Fassbinder's acclaimed BRD trilogy. Thoughts on the first part, The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), can be found here. Comments on Lola (1981) - the final chapter of the trilogy, but second part chronologically - will follow this post.

Veronika Voss is an incredibly self-conscious film that takes pains to expose its artificial nature to the audience. With every cut, Fassbinder literally seems to be underlining the relationship of Veronika to cinema itself - has any other director ever deployed such a wide variety of ways in which to edit his film? Filmed entirely in black-and-white as if to further toy with our conceptions of the 1950s noir-esque drama, Fassbinder is clearly paying homage to Wilder's Sunset Blvd. (1950) here: forgotten diva of yesterday's pictures + 'innocent' man caught up in the saga = exposé of stardom's deformed underbelly (amongst many other things). Veronika steals that basic formula and considerably widens the scope, resulting in a film that stimulates the intellect whilst slyly awakening the audience's own sense of self with its constant references to artifice and film history.

Fassbinder draws upon the pessimism of the typical noir feature here, and also takes full advantage of its potential as social critique. The role of Veronika the "star" then, plays into the BRD trilogy's trademark attacks upon the post-war German lifestyle. Under particular scorn here are the supporting characters' reactions to what she represents - namely, the 'glory' of a bygone era. Unlike the other leading women of this trilogy, this film's 'heroine' is deprived of her sexuality - she's a tragic and unwanted antique, rendered hopelessly vulnerable in a regenerative society driven simultaneously by capitalistic greed and a need to repress the historical past of which she's so emblematic. This is not to argue that Fassbinder is completley uncritical of the character - the flashback scenes, dubious wartime ethics and contemporary egotism ensure a balanced insight - but Veronika is a perfect testament to the director's ability to humanize even the most grotesque of his creations.

Nevertheless, it's Veronika's undesirable personality traits that provide the narrative with much of its gravity, because it renders her supposed 'romance' with Robert completely unbelievable and consequently poses all sorts of complications for the viewer: why would he fall for that so quickly? (Especially when he has a beautiful girlfriend at home?) And why would his girlfriend both accept his unfaithfulness and then actively participate in the mystery? These are curious propositions for the audience, but their troublesome nature evaporates when one realizes that Veronika is working less on the grounds of emotional identifiability and more on the level of self-aware cinematic constructs. Fassbinder's characters do not react as everyday people would in such situations, but the film maintains no pretenses of resembling reality either (although it certainly has illusions, but more of that in a sec) - they exist in an alternate filmic universe where their fates seem pre-ordained by all-governing cinematic gods. [Spoiler]For example, the girlfriend's fate was kinda inevitable, no? And if Veronika is some sort of bizarre re-imagining of the femme fatale (not implausible) then she too, meets an entirely necessary end. Although the final conclusion, moulded by the overarching intents of the trilogy itself, is a brilliant defiance of the status quo so the screenplay shouldn't necessarily be taken at face value here.[/Spoiler]

Anyway, as fascinating as the film is when viewed through a socio-political filter, it's really this compelling engagement with narrative's relation to spectacle that provides the film with its most provocative fibre. In my (very) limited experience with the director, I've discovered that he enjoys filming his characters in long-shot, presumably to preserve the audience's capacity for objectivity. In Veronika Voss, the titular character is frequently seen from such distances, emphasizing her own isolation alongside this impartiality. Moreover, Fassbinder's visualization complements the aforementioned reference to a "repressed historical past" through his use of stark b&w photography - the surface shimmer of the film is ridiculously pristine, provoking a glaring discord between visual design and narrative content. This accordingly seems to reflect cinema's own "repressed past" (inc. the memory of stars such as Sybille Schmitz - the film's inspiration), whose spirits Fassbinder reconceptualizes as a relucent external catharsis that overcompensates for the failure of the internal drama to provide a morally-desirable ending. Appropriately, Veronika's flashback sequences scale the heights of this unbearable perfection: the earliest ones are saturated by light that literally imprints a wealth of manufactured stars onto the frame, deliciously revealing the extent of her alienation from life itself. At one point, Veronika makes a similarly tantalizing meta-reference to cinema's need for "light and shadow". This exploration of the cinematic and its very definition, combined with numerous intertextual references, helps to make the film an exhilarating experience for any cultured film enthusiast.

In conclusion: isn't Fassbinder wonderful?

Oh, and I must also give a shout-out to Veronika's rendition of "Memories Are Made Of This", which - after watching it on repeat about five times - might well be one of my favourite sequences in film. Ever. Fassbinder is in such complete control of his craft here (as he is throughout the film actually... it might be the most technically accomplished feature I've seen of his) and his precision is on such perfect display in this brief, but perfect scene:

Now, go and watch the film if you haven't already, so you can understand why the subtext here makes me so unbearably sad.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Naruse, 1960)

When a Woman... marks my sixth (and, for the moment, final) Naruse - and after traversing my way through the intimate small-town dramas that seem to dominate his 1950s work, this one came as a huge (but pleasant) surprise. From its very beginning, we're told that this will be something quite different: its credits are projected onto a black widescreen vista, accompanied by stark images and punctuated by Toshiro Mayuzumi's vibrant jazz score - thereby marking a notable contrast to the traditional grey introduction (complete with more classical imagery and melodramatic music) that normally opens Naruse's works. The director signifies that this will be a more modernist effort, and he spends the remainder of the film delivering on that promise. Its mish-mash of unrequited love and burning lust gives rise to a cluttered emotional panorama that seemingly marks Naruse's concerted attempt to engage with the afflictions of urban life. That life is rendered magnificently through his impeccable sets, which tend to centre on cosmopolitan bars or lead character Keiko's relatively sophisticated apartment, thereby reinforcing this break from the more homely interiors that Naruse admirers must've been accustomed to at this stage. And then there's the CinemaScope format, which Naruse milks for every inch of its worth. Some of the framing here brought to mind Michelangelo Antonioni, whose seminal L'Avventura was released this same year. Funky coincidence, huh? I actually think that comparison with Antonioni is useful because it's quite revealing... although Naruse's stylizations have effortlessly adapted to reflect his more modern surroundings (therefore allowing for such comparisons to be made), his thematics effectively remain the same and thus, in that distinctly Narusean way that I've come to adore, the director emphasizes the continuity of his standard preoccupations (thus refuting my Michelangelo comparison in the process).

With When a Woman..., Naruse once again shines his cinematic light on the rigidity of the social order and the difficulties that arise when attempting to 'break the mould', so to speak. The issue of female independence is typically at the forefront of his inquiries, and the plight of Keiko functions as a mirror on which to dramatize the conflicts that the thirst for autonomy creates. Although this perhaps makes the film sound more contrived than it deserves? Naruse is always (and I mean always) dedicated to observing his characters in all their naturalistic beauty, in order to genuinely recreate the wealth of human experience. So whilst a number of When a Woman...'s characters behave in ways that surprise us, the director ensures that the machinations of his screenplay remain concealed thanks to his unique ability to preserve that organic 'flow' which defines his best efforts.

And talking of 'flows', there's a similarity between this film and the earlier Flowing re: the way in which both deal with the subject of women as commodities. Obviously, this is more overt in the geisha house of the earlier film, but When a Woman... is shrouded by the issue of money and debt as well, and the glamorous images projected by the bar hostesses are stressed by Keiko as nothing more than mere 'performances' (a point that the film poignantly expands upon with both Keiko and supporting characters such as Yuri) conceived to maximise their monetary gain. The cost of Keiko's desired independence further augments the prevalence of transactions within the film, and the role of money (to purchase her own bar) and its relationship to the patriarchy (she needs patronage) is a central theme here. The film's opening segment establishes Keiko's dilemma: as an 'aging' (she's only 30!) woman in a disreputable profession, she is left with only two options - to open her own bar, or to enter into a doomed marriage (for no "decent" man would apparently desire a woman like her). In both cases, she's dependent upon the patriarchy, and although she tries to manipulate it to her own benefits by gaining capital from numerous patrons in an attempt to resist becoming possessed by a single one, the aforementioned 'organic flow' of Narusean life painfully catches up with her and underlines the difficulty of achieving one's dreams. As a woman, that is.

Keiko is in many ways too outdated for the bustling Ginza district in which she works. She's perhaps too virtuous and moralistic to ever run a truly thriving bar like her rival, Yuri (although, conversely, this adds to her 'appeal' for her clientele). We sense that, had she been born a few years earlier, she would've assumed the role of the antiquated geisha whom she offends during the film's final act, and whose purpose she is uncomfortably replicating in 1960s Japan. Still, the attribute that compels her to continue with her fight is that of perseverance and it's really this sense of endurance (in spite of the suffering) that the film ultimately leaves us with. Visually, the motif of "ascending the stairs" is an extension of this idea. One recalls her own distaste for her profession', yet still she climbs - as if by doing so she'll figuratively rise above jaded reality and towards spiritual harmony. The fact that each of these ascents leads only to the same objectification and 'performance' speaks volumes. It's a continuous cycle, and a ritual that culminates in one of the most poignant finales of a director's career that's seemingly full of them.

Flowing (Naruse, 1956)

Flowing marks the second of Naruse's "geisha" films that I've been privileged enough to watch, alongside the earlier Late Chrysanthemums (1954). The scope of the later film is narrower than Late Chrysanthemums, and its structure much tighter, thus making it the superior dramatization (in this writer's opinion). Moreover, the film boasts an extraordinary ensemble of Japanese actresses: Kinuyo Tanaka, Isuzu Yamada (both arguably icons of these geisha dramas thanks to their collaborations with Mizoguchi?), Hideko Takamine and Haruko Sugimura -- all in the same film! Needless to say, the opportunity to witness so much of Japan's crème de la crème in the same film is not one that should be passed up.

This film is such an intimate examination of the precariousness of geisha life in the 1950s. And it proves to me that Naruse is truly a great woman's director, as he seems so acclimatized to the psychologies of his female characters. He entirely assumes the female perspective here by using Tanaka's character to enter into, and retain an external commentary on, the declining geisha house that serves as the film's main setting. Thus, the audience too is compelled to appreciate the feminine viewpoint. And, typically for Naruse, it's a very poignant one that's on offer: these women are observed both in strength and in weakness, although their increasingly outmoded occupation ensures that it's the latter point that is most pertinent. How Narusean!

It's the director's ability to (once again) so brilliantly capture the richness of everyday existence that resonates above all else, imo. The film's title is befitting, as it opens with a shot of a flowing river that streams into the next shot of an urban street (a very familiar scene, for anyone acquainted with the director) and closes with the mirror image: a street that segues into the river. Naruse is situating his female crises in the daily 'flow' of modern life, whilst hinting at the continuity of their experiences - after all, the film doesn't really "resolve" any of its plotlines, so to speak.

Nevertheless, Naruse's observations are as acute and rigorous as ever. From the enfeebled-but-determined Madame of the house (movingly played by Yamada) and her vociferous employees, to the conniving 'superiors' who plot behind her back, right down to the two 'external' characters (the daughter, Takamine, and Tanaka's maid) that offer us an alternative outlook in this geisha-dominated environment - Naruse's devotion to, and sympathy towards, his characters is never in doubt. Therefore, one feels the need to give him something of a free pass for the film's one minor flaw (a tendency to become a little too overt with the internalized conflicts), because he and his actresses seem to have earned their right to express their grievances. The film's finale, which contrasts a discouraging affirmation of the geisha lifestyle with equally pessimistic shots of Takamine's forlorn attempts to carve her own future, underlines a world where both traditionality and modernity continue to fail the Japanese women that reside within. Bearing in mind the circularity of this scenario that's enforced by the film's visual bookends, who can really blame these women for letting loose every once in a while? Certainly not Naruse, that's for sure.