Blindspot: “Nanook of the North: A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic”

April 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

If anyone has ever wondered how on earth one constructs an igloo, they should be directed to Robert J. Flaherty’s 1927 proto-documentary, a film which will rectify this knowledge gap while magnifying the sense of wonder that this level of craftsmanship deserves. Watching the titular Nanook, the patriarch of a small Inuit family living in the Ungava peninsula of Quebec, Canada, gracefully slicing bricks of snow until they fall into place to create a marvellous snow dome (which he crowns with an ice window, almost showing off by this point) feels surprisingly revelatory; especially considering this film is an 80-year old bona fide landmark of silent cinema whose impact should surely diminish with age, surely. “Nanook of the North” is – to recycle the word once again – wondrous on various levels, not least for the industriousness displayed by Nanook, his family and the few others who have honed (perhaps without choice) the kind of skill and resilience required to survive year-round sub-zero temperatures, single-handedly slay polar bears and finding a version of ‘home’ in the midst of unforgiving desolation. In fact, Flaherty’s picture may be enough to convince some short-sighted fool that living in the arctic isn’t so bad (or, at least, not so hard) and this is partly because of how warm-hearted, sincere and genuinely happy Nanook, Aye his wife (or one of two, it sometimes seems) and their fellow Itivimuits appear to be as they go about their business of hunting, trading pelts and being generally nomadic. In fact, the film’s main conflict (apart from that which exists between man and his natural surroundings) occurs when two dogs in Nanook’s sled pack become quite snappy with each other.  As for Flaherty as a filmmaker, the practicalities of shooting this picture with early (which is to say, not particularly compact) film technology in a relatively uncontrolled environment (apart from the handful of scenes shot within the igloo which look suspiciously more spacious than one would expect i.e. shot in some sort of studio) is technically impressive, and would be in any instance let alone a feature debut.

The term ‘verite’ is often bandied about when “Nanook of the North” is mentioned in the context of the documentary lineage and this film’s place within it. While “Nanook” very deftly eliminates – whether inadvertently or with intent – the confected veneer of commercial studio films from the period, it’s not a Frederick Wiseman film void of narration or extra-diegetic interferences other than editing. Flaherty himself is present in the film in the form of title cards, as an omnipresent observer and guide, and he constructs something of a loose, schematic narrative within which to frame the lives of Nanook and his clan. In addition, the simplistic beauty of Flaherty’s photography, while being staged and artful in a mythical, John Ford kind of way, only serves to highlight the subject of the image and not just the poetry of the image itself. But even more impressive, perhaps, is the light touch with which Flaherty handles ethnography: the relative absence of western condescension or exoticism for the sake of commercial draw. For a film made in a period during which casual racism was somewhat more openly institutionalised than it is now, Flaherty displays a seemingly unprecedented degree of respect for the Inuit way of life and there is little evidence of him making a case for the ‘otherness’ of Nanook and his kin, despite the (now)outdated use of the term ‘eskimo’ and the instance in which Nanook – and by association, his fellow Inuit – is characterised as ‘happy-go-lucky’ and ‘simple.’ Despite these regrettable inclusions, “Nanook of the North” remains impressible progressive in its sociocultural outlook. Besides, after witnessing Nanook and Co at work and at play, making a case for their inferiority would take a little more effort than the word ‘simple’.

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The horror…: “Torso” aka “I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale” or “Bodies bear traces of carnal violence”

April 14, 2015 § Leave a comment

If there exists a club wherein sexually frustrated straight men curl up in the corners of rooms and angrily decry all those ‘bitches’ who won’t put out, “Torso” would be the initiation film shown to each new recruit. This is not to say that the male makers of this 1973 giallo film, director Sergio Martino being chief amongst them, would themselves be members of this club, but that woefully misguided male-centric sexual frustration is nonetheless the fuel on which this movie and its central killer run; that and the leering gaze which would go hand-in-hand with the rage of the entitled male who can’t get laid nearly as easily as he believes he should. Now, it would be a gross oversight to think that this sense of frustration makes “Torso” unique. The great majority of slasher films post-“Psycho” are similarly sexually-charged and many of the best and worst entries in the subgenre involve a man emptying his vast reserves of wrath on the female gender, whether consciously or not, only, in “Torso” the killer explicitly verbalises this sense of frustration and the kind of illogical misogyny that goes with it; the kind that finds a guy calling a girl a slut because she’s not interested in sleeping with him. This pre-climactic moment of reiterating one’s motivation – as though to fend off the creeping sense that zero logic therein resides –  is deeply ridiculous from a simple narrative perspective and deeply cheap from a psychological standpoint, but it at the same time highlights the senselessness of his crimes by showing the disparity that exists between the nature of the childhood ‘trauma’ that haunts him into becoming a murderer and the nature of the butchering by which he is presumably attempting to restore some sort of cosmic gender justice. The fact that his campaign of terror is terminated by the reckless valour of another leering male – albeit a non-malicious leerer – crowns the picture with a very paternalistic cherry. This being said, the film seems to demonise the very sexualising, womanising gaze that it itself assumes by portraying most of its male characters as horny and lewd and with sex on the brain. The camera almost seems to say, ‘mmm, yeah, look at that sexy ass, see how it moves…I’m sure you creeps out there would love to tear those shorts right off.’ How hypocritical. Within the first ten minutes, several men, by way of their apparent desire to absolutely devour the women around them, are posited as potential suspects. The only men who don’t come across as a little dirty in the mind are the police and the professor whose lecture opens the film proper.

It’s Perugia in the early seventies; summer is in swing and the university is buzzing with students, which means that sex and drugs abound. Someone has begun killing people, mainly students, and the focus of the violence seems to be on the female victims, on their breasts and their eyes both of which tend to be mutilated. Initially it seems that the film will follow an Argento-esque procedural/investigative narrative mode, but “Torso” is far more lurid than that, quickly losing interest in law enforcement and instead becoming enamoured of a group of sexed-up young students and their adventures while dropping in on the gloved killer whenever a kill is around the corner, always forewarned by a slow (and genuinely creepy) keyboard motif. The opening two and a half minutes waste no time whatsoever in positioning the film firmly within the realm of tits and ass exploitation, only a little classier that its grungy American counterparts. To be honest, these luridly staged images of threesomes that may or may not be depictions of a porno shoot or a decadent sex party or both – while recalled in the film’s final sequence – have no real narrative place. Yes, some of the eventual victims are seen in this opening credits sequence, but the where the killer actually fits into all this is fairly unclear. Admittedly, this is not the kind of film that is interested in having its plausibility challenged or proved. One can simply assume – after the fact – that it takes place from the killer’s point of view and let it rest there. In any case this brand of giddy expressionistic abandon confirms, at the very least, that this film “Torso” will provide the visual swagger, the directorial peacocking by which Italian giallos and their direct predecessors stand apart from other forms of slasher flick.

Eli Roth, director of “Hostel” and other mid-2000s horror pictures and a name partner in what could be called the ‘Tarantino-Rodriguez-Roth grindhouse geek-out club’, considers “Torso” to be a masterpiece, not that his word means particularly much, though it means enough that someone should heed his recommendation, see the film and write about it. In favour of Roth’s ‘masterpiece’ assertion, towards the end of the film, is a fifteen/twenty minute stretch of near-peerless filmmaking that is bound to excite any filmgoer who appreciates assuredly visual storytelling. The sequence in which Jane, disabled by a sprained ankle, wakes from her sleep to find herself locked in a large country villa and surrounded by three dead friends is probably worthy of praise similar to the kind heaped upon the opening ten minutes of “There Will Be Blood” or the celebrated heist in “Rififi.” Admittedly, these two examples are far more powerful than anything Martino manages to achieve in “Torso”, but within the film itself, the sequence is a standout block of cinema, partly because of its technical execution but also because this type of movie often seems more invested in providing scares and blood splatter than it is in sustaining tension. On this note, the film’s first murder already hints at the fact that suspense is as important to this director as payoff. The patience, the timing and the way in which Martino’s framing in this sequence seems to withhold and conceal visual information, Suzy Kendall’s refreshing, breath-holding portrayal of the rare character in a horror film who actually has intelligent instincts, and the relative absence of the relatively bombastic score, all these add up to produce what is arguably the scariest sequence in a film that doesn’t ever feel quite as sordid or gruesome let alone as frightening as either title would suggest.

Blindspot: “そして父になる” aka “Soshite Chichi ni Naru” or “Like Father, Like Son”

April 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

As the camera gently drifts outwards and upwards until the sunset sky begins to impart a pinky orange hue on the cluttered skyline of a low-rise city district as though revealing the soul of urban Japan, it become startlingly clear how perfectly this closing shot somehow manages to almost summarise/encapsulate the preceding two hours that were spent in the rightfully hallowed directorial hands of contemporary maestro Hirokazu Koreeda. Not only does this moment highlight the fact that Koreeda’s cinema lives and dies on framing and pacing more than perhaps any other techniques available to him, it also echoes the way in which the stately modesty and surface simplicity of “Like Father, Like Son” gives birth to a narrative far more psycho-emotionally complex than a film this tender has any right to be. By this I mean to say that the film quietly, gently burrowed its way deep into the heart of its themes so much so that I found myself blindsided by a ton of profundity and emotional resonance three-quarters into the movie. Even the title which sounds like a pun, film unseen, reveals itself to be far richer, being ironic in one instance while a painful affirmation of poor paternal legacies in another. Premiering at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and wowing jury president Steven Spielberg so much so that it nabbed that year’s Jury Prize and Spielberg himself purchased the rights to a US remake (for those unable to read subtitles), “Like Father, Like Son” – without any indulgent foreshadowing or attention-seeking histrionics – sets up the story of two families burdened with the news that a grave error was made in a certain hospital nursery and that for the last six years they have been raising another couple’s son as their own. A more conventional film would most likely have featured not one but two pairs of discordant father-son pairings so as to ‘balance’ the centre of emotional gravity. It may also have overplayed the socioeconomic disparity factor, which I suspect the US version might very well do, post-Occupy and all. But this original iteration of the picture has its eye on deeper familial and social dynamics, and while Keita Nonomiya, played by the most adorable little boy this side of anywhere, may be too much of a meek, underachieving six-year old in the demanding eyes of Ryota, his workaholic architect father, their counterparts in Yukari and Ryusei Saiki display no evidence of discord; at least nothing worth centring a narrative around. Now this may very well have everything to do with the fact that the Nonomiya trio – mother Midori, father and son – is Koreeda’s main focus as a writer. But this lop-sidedness feeds into some of the movie’s prime concerns i.e. (a) the importance of the hereditary ‘blood’ link in determining the depth and tenacity of a relationship, (b) how socioeconomics impact one’s fitness for fatherhood (and parenthood in general), (c) how one’s own upbringing influences their parental philosophy, and (d) the curious timeworn phenomenon of the mother-son connection. I find that I cannot quite wait for my next encounter with Koreeda.

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